Thursday 26 December 2013

Try a little kindness

Though a report ranks Singapore second last in helping strangers, many here are doing their part
By Lisabel Ting And Cheryl Wee, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2013

Christmas is the season of giving, and this year, Singaporeans have stepped up to the plate in their own special way.

From the Chope Food For The Needy campaign in April, which encouraged people to buy hawker meals for the underprivileged, to the SG Haze Rescue group, which gave out free N95 masks during the haze crisis here in June, many have extended a helping hand to those around them.

But while such initiatives are gaining a foothold here, Singaporeans still have a reputation for being as frosty as the North Pole.

This image has not been helped by the results of the World Giving Index 2013, a survey of 135 countries by the Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation. In the report released earlier this month, Singapore came in second last in the category which rated helping out strangers, after Cambodia. Only 24 per cent of Singaporeans surveyed said that they had helped a stranger in the past month, compared to top-ranked America, where more than three-quarters of those surveyed responded positively.

Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, attributes the poor showing to Singaporeans' way of expressing themselves.

"I personally believe that Singaporeans are a helpful lot but because of cultural differences, we may not express help in the same way people do elsewhere," he says. "Some of us may be a little shy or hesitant, and this impedes our pro-activeness, but that's not to say we lack the desire to help."

He notes that more social initiatives have sprung up here over the past few years. Examples include Project V Movement, which encourages volunteerism through projects such as the Mobility Aid Movement, which aims to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by the less mobile, and Project I A.M, which appreciates groups that are often overlooked, such as cleaners, by giving them cards and small gifts such as packet drinks.

Dr Wan says: "Singaporeans, youth in particular, are becoming increasingly aware of the community around them, and are getting inspired to contribute and make a difference.

"Many of these social initiatives were also in response to some of the gaps that typically get overlooked, such as in encouraging volunteerism, simple acts of kindness or help for the less privileged."

Singaporeans are becoming more giving in other ways too.

The National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre's Individual Giving Survey, which tracks giving over 12 months, found an increase in volunteerism in its last survey. Last year, 32 per cent of respondents said they had volunteered, compared to 23 per cent in 2010.

The centre's chief executive officer Laurence Lien says the increased numbers are due to greater awareness: "We know more are aware of the needs around them and helping, especially with the advent of social media and digital devices."

Dr Wan says: "I do think we are getting kinder, but it's important to remember that kindness is a journey, not a destination.

"There should never be a point where we believe ourselves kind enough such that we can afford to be a little less compassionate, considerate or helpful."

Life! looks at four individuals who have embodied the Christmas spirit of giving.

Lunch delivery to the needy
By Cheryl Faith Wee, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2013

Between noon and 1pm daily, Mr Tan Choon Kiang, 62, rides his bicycle around Chai Chee, delivering food to 11 needy residents.

It all started in December 2011, when the vice-chairman of the Lengkong Tiga Residents' Committee found out from the Kembangan Chai Chee Citizens' Consultative Committee that it needed someone to take lunch to residents who have difficulty walking. The delivery is part of a food programme run by soup kitchen Willing Hearts. Mr Tan volunteered and has been doing this for the past two years.

The higher engineering officer at the Land Transport Authority says: "As a grassroots leader, we are encouraged to reach out to the needy, especially senior citizens and the less fortunate. These people really needed help. I knew it would be a daily commitment but I was prepared to do it."

The 11 needy residents, who are in their 60s and 70s, have difficulty walking far or are immobile.

Mr Tan usually drops off the food - a packet of rice or noodles and two dishes - at their doorstep. All of them live in one-room flats in Chai Chee.

One of them is Madam Lau Mei Lian, 71, a retired cleaner who suffered a stroke five years ago and has trouble moving around. She is divorced and has no children.

She said in Hokkien: "If not for Mr Tan, I would just eat instant noodles at home. No one visits me except for him and social workers once in a blue moon."

Mr Tan is married to a 58-year-old housewife. He has a 35-year-old son and 32-year-old daughter, and lives with his son and wife in Kembangan.

The dedicated volunteer does shift work and often misses out on lunch and sleep to make sure that Madam Lau and the other needy people get their lunch. When he is on the day shift, he uses his one-hour lunch break to carry out the deliveries.

He takes a 15-minute train ride from his office in Little India to Kembangan, hops on his bicycle and heads to the activity centre to collect the food. To make up for skipping lunch, he has a heavy breakfast and a tea break later.

After working the night shift, he takes a nap at home before heading out on his daily rounds and returning home to rest.

In rainy weather, he wraps the packets of food tightly in plastic bags and rides his bicycle while carrying an umbrella in one hand. Weekends and even public holidays such as Chinese New Year are no exception.

He says: "People have to eat every day. It takes just one hour of my time. I send them the food and then I go home to carry on with Chinese New Year celebrations. My family waits for me to get back. My wife does not have a problem with this."

On the rare occasion he is out of the country or is stuck in a meeting that has cut into his lunch break, he rings up a friend, a 58-year-old Chai Chee resident, to help him with the deliveries. This happens about twice a year.

Besides sending food to their homes, he also carries out additional tasks for the elderly. For instance, Madam Tan Yok Koy, 67, who has weak legs and is unable to walk, sometimes needs help closing the windows in her flat when it rains.

The retired machine operator says in Mandarin: "He makes it a point to ask if I need anything. Sometimes he pours me a glass of water."

She lives in a one-room flat with her two children.

Mr Tan often gets anxious when he is waiting for the food from Willing Hearts to arrive at the centre. He worries that the 11 people who depend on him will get hungry waiting for him.

He says: "It has been two years since I started doing this and I will continue to do so until I cannot take it physically. It does not take a lot of effort, I look at it as a hobby."

Gifts of time and money
By Lisabel Ting, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2013

The moment singer Elson Soh steps into a one-room flat in the Lavender Street area, he is immediately surrounded by four boys, aged two to 10, whose faces light up when they see him.

They clamber over the 25-year-old and tug at his shirt. When he sits down cross-legged on the floor, they climb onto his lap, or lean against him and play games on his gadgets.

Despite the affection, they are not his children. They belong to Miss Shakinah Jamaludin, a 28-year-old single mother of seven children, each by a different father. Her eighth child, a girl, is due next month, and she plans to get a ligation after the birth.

Miss Shakinah, who is unemployed, says: "When I was younger, I was quite 'havoc', and had quite a lot of boyfriends. But there are a lot of reasons why I never married them. Some, my father didn't like, they were too 'gangster'; even some better ones, he wouldn't accept."

When Life! visited the family last week with Soh, Miss Shakinah's fourth and fifth children, both boys, were staying with her sister in Malaysia for the holidays. Her eldest son, a 15-year-old boy, has been adopted by her uncle and no longer lives with her.

Soh first met her and her family in May this year as part of Project Awareness, a social initiative to help the needy that he founded in February. The group, which is run on donations, distributes food packages to poor families across Singapore.

He says that although the project has helped over 3,000 families so far, Miss Shakinah's situation stood out for him. "When I saw her and her children, I felt very xin suan (Mandarin for heartache)," he says. "I was also quite shocked. It's quite rare to see this kind of situation in Singapore. I really feel for her, it's not easy to bring up so many kids alone."

He visits the family about twice a month and brings them groceries such as canned food, rice and vegetables. At first, he spent about $200 a month out of his own pocket on the family, money which came from his endorsement and appearance fees. Now, other volunteers from Project Awareness have chipped in to share the load.

Soh also bought the family some of the simple furniture in the one-room flat: a table, a cupboard and two mattress. He says he spent about $600 in total on those items.

Miss Shakinah, who has Primary 6 education, shares the flat with her sister, a housewife; her sister's husband, who works at a car wash; and their four children. Rental is $75 a month and she plans to go back to work after the birth of her daughter, though she does not know what job she will do.

What Soh gives to the family is not just monetary assistance but also his time and companionship. He takes the children for ice cream, on grocery shopping trips and to the games arcade at City Square Mall. "I want them to enjoy their childhood like any other children," he says.

Miss Shakinah chips in: "They were quite excited because they had never been in an arcade before. Some of the boys even thought that the guns at the shooting game were real."

Soh also helped out when six-year-old Irfan was sick with vomiting and a runny nose. As Miss Shakinah was busy taking care of the other children, he took the boy to a nearby doctor and paid for the consultation and medication.

Miss Shakinah says she is grateful to Soh and Project Awareness not just for the monetary assitance but also for the time they spend with her and her children. She says: "Financial assistance I can get from a lot of places, but it's the outings like going to eat Popeyes chicken or going to the arcade that my kids really like."

Gave marrow to stranger
By Cheryl Faith Wee, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2013

In 2010, Ms Stella Chua went through about a month of check-ups and other medical procedures to donate bone marrow to a complete stranger.

The year before, the 24-year-old nursing student had registered to be a donor at a blood drive, which had a booth set up by the Bone Marrow Donor Programme, a non-profit organisation which runs a register of donors.

Ms Chua was there with her mother, Madam Ong Soh Kim, a 53-year-old housewife, to donate blood. Her mother wanted to register but was turned down because of her age. She encouraged her daughter to sign up instead.

Madam Ong says in Mandarin: "Many years ago, I read in the newspapers about a girl who was saved by such a donation. It is a kind act that can save a life."

Ms Chua adds: "I didn't know much about giving bone marrow, but I agreed that it could help someone.

"So I filled up a form, and in less than five minutes, a staff member pricked my finger to take a blood sample. After that, I carried on with my life."

Half a year later, she was told that her bone marrow was a match to a cancer patient's. Over the next month, she went for check-ups, X-rays and blood tests to ensure that she was fit to donate bone marrow.

Before it was harvested, she had to have injections which made her body ache, but which she described as being "not really painful".

The harvesting was a three-day outpatient procedure. Ms Chua spent about seven hours a day hooked up to a machine in a hospital. She was put under local anaesthesia.

She says: "I wasn't bothered by any of this. I am not afraid of needles and I even fell asleep during the harvesting."

Last August, she met the patient she saved, Madam Stacey Lim, a 40-year-old housewife, for the first time at a get-together event for cancer survivors and hospital staff. It was held at a multi-purpose hall in the Singapore General Hospital.

Their meeting was a coincidence. Ms Chua was a volunteer at the event and Madam Lim was there as a guest.

At the event, Madam Lim was told by a hospital staff that there was a chance she could meet her donor.

While waiting for the staff to seek Ms Chua's consent, Madam Lim rushed to a nearby bakery and bought a box of mini mooncakes. She darted into a convenience store to buy a card and scribbled a thank-you note.

The pair eventually had a tearful meeting on stage. They hugged and were overwhelmed by tears.

Madam Lim says: "I was already crying before we met. I wanted her to know how grateful I was. It was either get a bone marrow transplant or die."

Ms Chua says: "I had received an update that the recipient of my stem cells was stable but I did not know how she was doing. I was very happy to see that she was strong and able to function normally."

In October 2009, Madam Lim was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a type of cancer that affects the bone marrow. She had been given three to six months to live. The odds of a match were one to 20,000.

The mother of two was prepared for the worst. Her son and daughter are now 12 and 14 years old. She is married to Mr Eric Low, 40, who is self-employed.

After that first tearful meeting, Ms Chua and Madam Lim met again at a charity event organised by the Bone Marrow Donor Programme. They spent about two hours chatting. Now, they keep in touch through text messages.

Madam Lim returned to her daily routines about a year ago but still goes for check-ups at the hospital several times a year. She plans to take Ms Chua and her family out for dinner soon.

She says: "I was not hopeful when the doctors told me the odds and I was mentally prepared that I would not survive. Stella has given me a new lease of life."

Dance to stay off the streets
By Lisabel Ting, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2013

To say that Ms Milah had a complicated childhood would be an understatement.

She ran away from home when she was 13 and joined a secret society two years later.

"Back then, I was very, very violent. Anyone in the secret societies would know me. It was rare to see an Indian girl," says Ms Milah, now 33 and a carpark attendant. She goes by just one name, as she was raised by her grandparents and does not know who her father is.

Aside from her day job, she also runs Plus Point, an informal hip-hop dance group she started two years ago to keep teens off the street by giving them a sense of belonging and family, as well as a healthy way to spend their time.

The group now has close to 30 members aged 16 to 23. Most of the them find out about her group through Facebook or by word of mouth.

They practise every weekday evening from 6.30pm until about 10 or 11pm at a badminton court near Milah's one-room flat in Ang Mo Kio or in a multi-purpose hall nearby.

Plus Point now performs for events such as birthday parties and Deepavali celebrations, and in September, the group came in fourth in TV channel Vasantham's Dhool dance contest.

Ms Milah - or Mel, as she is known to her dancers - started the group because of her love of dance, and also because she felt that she was in a unique position to help youngsters stay on the straight and narrow, and off the streets.

She says: "Sometimes, only a gangster can talk to a gangster. I tell them to study hard, I tell them what kind of a woman I was. I don't want them to be the same."

She has six daughters and a son with her ex-boyfriend, with whom she no longer has any contact. Her children are aged nine to 17. She left their father when she was 24, after enduring years of physical abuse.

Drug-related offences landed her in prison for the first time in 2004 for 10 months, and for a second time in 2008 for 18 months. While she was in jail, her children were either taken charge of by the Ministry of Social and Family Development or cared for by a friend. It was during her second jail term that she made the decision to change for the better.

She had been placed in isolation after she assaulted a fellow inmate.

She recalls: "One day, my son, who was 12, visited me in prison. He looked at me and said, 'Ma, promise me you won't do this anymore.'"

Her son's plea struck such a chord with her that after serving her sentence, she began to turn her life around. She worked odd jobs as a cashier and a cleaner to support her family.

Watching her interact with the dancers, it is clear that while she is a disciplinarian, they all adore her.

They call her "akka", which means "elder sister" in Tamil, and Ms Tiara Nithiya, 23, a carpark attendant who has been dancing with the group for over a year, says: "Everyone here is very close, it's really like a family."

While the group's star has been on the rise, it has not always been easy keeping the group together. During the interview, Milah points out a dancer in the group.

"His mother called me up last week after seeing my photo on Facebook," she says. She sports short cropped hair and a variety of piercings and tattoos, which she plans to remove by laser next year.

"I told her, 'Sister, I used to be like that but I'm not anymore.' Then I shared with her my story and after I talked to her for a while, she was okay with him coming."

Plus Point has also changed the life of dancers such as Mr Prem Kumar, 22, an odd job worker who is known among the group as Ahboi. "I used to be a very hot tempered fellow and got angry fast," he says.

His temper landed him in police lock-up eight to nine times a month, and even a stint in jail last year. But since joining the group, he has stayed out of trouble.

He says: "Mel will keep track of me. If she's bored, she calls me, asks what I am doing and where I am. If I'm feeling bad, she consoles me, talks to me.

"My life has really changed because of her. She has added colour to my life."

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