Friday, July 13, 2012

Speech Transcript- Eradicating Urban Poverty ; Doing Our Part

Edited transcript of speech delivered on June 2010 in *Scape to an audience of approximately 500 during the finals of Singapore Can Speak, a national public speaking competition aimed at raising awareness of social problems.

For years, I knew poverty existed. For months, I read about poverty. For week, I spoke about poverty. But it was last Sunday, that in my seventeen years of existence, I truly learnt what it was.

Last Saturday, straight after the Semi-finals, the organizers informed all of us contestants that the next day was going to be Social Involvement Day , where we would head down to Redhill Close to help the poor families living in the one room flats. It was time to put to action, what we had been talking for so long.

The moment I heard about Social Involvement day, I was excited. But in the recesses of my minds, questions regarding my significance also surfaced.  How mature am I to advice them ? How much impact am I going to create in the brief period, I will be spending there ? And, is it really my responsibility to help them ?

All these doubts I had at that particular Sunday were put to rest as I met the residents of Redhill Close.

As I walked along the corridor, I could sense lives shrouded in darkness. The corridors were tight and there was an unbearable rotten stench. Moving about the day, I met the most destitute people in Singapore. One of whom was Mdm. Chuna.

Madam Chua, was a 55 year old widow. Her husband had committed suicide due to excessive loan shark debts, 2 year ago. Mdm. Chan had 2 children- both secondary school going boys aged 14 and 16. Her state was pitiful. She could only speak Hokkien and was unaware of the various Public Assistance Schemes available.

Everyday was a bitter day filled with darkness and misery. The many adversities which fell upon Mdm. Chan fractured her sprit, but after some interaction with her, I realized she actually wanted to do business using her sewing skills to boost her income. But without funding, the idea withered.

The children had their school fees paid for but there were lagging behind many of their peers because they did not have access to resources like tuition which the rest of the class had access to.

Everyday was a long, agonizing and painful day for them in their cramped one room flat.

As I continued visiting those, living in poverty, I met more people like Mdm. Chan. But all of them had completely different stories to share, completely different set of circumstances, completely different set of problems.

There were the middle aged people who were led astray in their youth, mingled with the wrong company, neglected their education and involved themselves in gang activities. Some of them realized that, they had to change their ways. They wanted to start anew but were confused on how to live well. They needed mentors to guide them through.

I also saw families, where the sole breadwinner earned a fairly decent wage but their families were indigent nonetheless. Why ? Huge chunks of cash were frittered away in frivolous pleasures of alcohol and tobacco leading to great tension within the family.They urgently needed help to weed them out of their costly addictions.

There were also families, where young children were afflicted with medical disorders like leukaemia, requiring a lot from the household’s pocket despite the state’s subsidies.They needed an extra financial support to tide them over the occasional tough months.

That evening as I returned back home, one thing dawned on me : if we ever believe that urban poverty can generalized and lumped into one problem then we are dead wrong.

The poor might live in the same estate, same floor, have the similar incomes but they all have totally different stories to tell. They come from different backgrounds. They have different mindsets. They have unique needs and what we require is customized action to get them out of the poverty cycle.

Often we believe, that we are limited and that only big institutions such as the governments and social organizations can solve such a complex and seeming intractable problem like poverty. The great track record of our institutions perhaps propagated this view. But friends, this is a deeply flawed view.

No institution can ever understand intricacies of this perplexing issue. No government would be able to effectively distinguish the problems that Mdm. Chan is facing from her neighbors and design appropriate solutions.

Poverty is one issue where a one size fits all policy is not going to work. Everyone is different and it is we the people, yes you and me , who can truly understand and empower people like Mdm.Chan.

Empowering the poor is neither a highfalutin concept nor an arduous task. More than 30 years back, in Bangladesh, Mr. Yunos, a humble professor lent 42 US dollars to 27 poor villagers. This simple act of the professor didn't merely just assuage the daily concerns of the indigent by offering some symptomatic relief. It went beyond that. It gave them hope by giving them the means to realize their dreams of economic freedom.
Some villagers invested in higher quality seeds, improving their output considerably. Other used the money to procure capital to set small scale in-house catering. Overall, the simple act of Mr. Yunos, transformed the lives of the individuals for the better; it put many of them firmly on the path towards prosperity and greater progress.

Empowerment goes beyond just offering monetary support to the poor. It can take so many different forms and ladies and gentleman, all of us, just like Mr. Yunos can stand up and empower too. To all the youths here, I say lets stand up to tutor poor students. To all the medical professionals here, I say lets stand up and empower the poor by making them more aware of the health choices and their implications. To all the lawyers here, I say lets stand up and ensure those afflicted by poverty don't have their misery compounded by any legal issues or an ignorance of help available. Ordinary man, like you and me can stand up and empower the thousands in darkness from poverty, in our own ways. Everyone counts !

For far too long, we have been playing the blame game.  We have been taking comfort by saying that we are too small to change the world , hence we excused our self from action. We looked at everyone else as a solution, government, social organisations and so on, except ourselves to alleviate the misery that our fellow brothers and sisters are going through. But let it dawn on us, that these institutions can never truly solve this problem alone. Let us realise that it is we who have to play the most integral part in winning this was against poverty.

Ultimately, it is we who have the duty to be the light which relives their plight, the hope which rescues them from despair and the force which shatters their suffering.

Ladies and Gentleman, let us recognize our responsibility to help people like Mdm. Chan and others limited by poverty. Let us stand up and do whatever is within our means to help them out.

As you stand up,  day by day, month by month, year by year, others will follow suit, the numbers will swell while stories like Mdm. Chan shrink. Trust me, soon the day will come when we can proudly proclaim that as a nation we have marched onward together and showed the entire world, that when we- ordinary citizens - are inspired and do our part, the entire nation can be galvanised and poverty can indeed be wiped out. Thank you !

PS: Having come from a middle-class family, it was the Social Involvment day ,described here, which put me face to face for the first time with the underprivelaged in our nation. It has been almost two years since social involvement day but the people I met there and stories I heard left an indelible mark.

Victor Hugo once wrote that there was more poverty among the poor than there is humanity among the rich. He was right and his statement still holds true unfortunately. This just can not do. I don't want to live in Singapore where we have any segment of population in profound hardship. We are all one family, and no one must be left behind.

One of the best ways, to get reduce urban poverty, is to create new platforms which allow for customized solutions to be generated and implemented.

Imagine an online platform, where folks on the grassroots go on the ground and proactively look into what specific assistance these underprivileged families require and note it down in the giant database. The assistance they require might vary considerably but that’s fine.  It might range from finding a tutor for the primary school student or securing a job for a family member proficient in pastry making. Whatever it is, they just key it into the system.

On the other side, we have volunteers who register what skills they have to contribute. Then volunteers both sides, try to find a match.

My intuition, is that when people realise there are real individuals in need and learn of their stories they would be more emotionally compelled to serve than when there is a large organisation requesting for assistance. The human connection would be a lot stronger with this platform.

I am sketching the detailed plan out right now. I will share it in time to come. Would love to get your inputs as well. Together lets realise the dream of a prosperous Singapore for all. Thanks. God Speed. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

45 Years of National Service : Why Do We Serve ?

The tedium set in. It was getting unbearable. I lost count of how many times I repeated the same motion of lifting my ET stick and striking the soil to create my “improvised bed”. Though we worked so hard for the past three hours; progress was slow leading to great frustration. “Why do we need to do this? “ my section-mate moaned in angst. 

Finally the whistle was blown, much to our joy. It was lunch time. We rushed towards the embrace of the tree shade for lunch. Our Sergeants were waiting there.  Just as we got into our neat files and were eagerly looking forward to consume our lunch, Sgt. Y started his “lecture” on how much our families loved us and how we didn’t reciprocate the love.

 When we heard the topic we were initially shocked. We knew the Sgt. Y was inclined to give his discourse on discipline and teamwork, but never expected him to lecture on families & love.  Our hunger pangs were getting harder to silence. But as we heard him, these mundane concerns about food dissolved; replaced with ennobling, sublime reflections on duty and love, family and nation.

Sgt. Y spoke from his heart on the importance of showing love to our family and how the duty of caring for our loved ones fits into the larger picture of serving the nation. When he spoke, his sense of responsibility and commitment was palpable and infectious.  As he wrapped up, other Sergeants handed out letters from our parents. The entire atmosphere turned reflective. Even the most garrulous turned pensive. Everyone looked down at letters sent by their parents and kept silent.

Personally, as I read the letter, the innumerable sacrifices that my parents had made for my wellbeing ran through my mind.  Realization of the appalling gap between what they did for me and what I had done for them sank in. What Sgt. Y said a few moments resurfaced as well –“Your parents are doing so much for you.  Put effort into your trainings so you can defend them when the time comes. Do them proud! ”. It was hard not to feel the surging impulse of positivity and duty coming from the depths of the soul.

I am not entirely sure, what went through my friends’ minds. But I find it hard to believe that their experience was any different. As we stooped down, penning  replies, it dawned on me that our loved ones matter so much for us and that ultimately our will to defend our nation is determined by the collective awareness that each of these relationships, not just with our own loved owns, is precious.

Yes, I will defend my nation for because I love my family. I don’t want to let them down. But I also know that my responsibility doesn’t end there. As a citizen, part of a bigger family “Singapore”, I understand how much my fellow Singaporeans cherish their loved ones and that too strengthens my determination to protect our beloved nation. Soon, we passed our reply letters to our Sergeants, had our lunch and returned back to the field with renewed vigor.

 I slung my rifle to the back of my shoulder and lifted the ET stick once again.

Defending our nation, certainly feels like a burden at times. But it is a burden I rather have, because I know I at least have a nation worth defending.  A nation, where all our loved ones live in peace and prosperity assured of their security

*This article was published on Today on 13th April 2013