On Political Correctness and Privilege

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Written by NUS student Sarah-Kei Lauw, who attended a dialogue session with Minister Tan Chuan-Jin last month. This article was first published on Treehouse by Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.


Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this says that Mr. Tan Chuan-Jin is too politically correct, and I don’t think they mean it in a good way. My response has and always will be, “Do you really expect anything else?”

Why do we invite ministers to speak to us? What exactly do we expect? They’re going to say the right things. They’re going to toe the party line. They might throw in some personal opinions (Mr. Tan said he’d personally support a move towards shared maternity/paternity leave instead of distinguishing the two, though he doesn’t know if/when we’ll see that happen). But by and large they are not going to say anything politically incorrect.

I figure that at such dialogues we should expect much political correctness, and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We can learn about or confirm what we already know about our government and their take on certain issues. We can allow ourselves to be persuaded to agree with them. Or we can ask questions to press them on certain issues, reflect on them, and perhaps be inspired to explore further outside of the dialogue. Ministers may respond with “standard” answers, saying what they’re supposed to as members and representatives of the Singapore government. But at least this whole process helps them stay in touch with us students (and the public), to get a sense of what we care about.

At the dialogue with Mr. Tan two weeks ago, he was definitely politically correct. But I felt that he was sensitive, reasonable, and he answered most of our questions pretty directly. His casual and friendly demeanour didn’t hurt either.

How Bad Is Singapore Really?

I’d be hard pressed to name one Singaporean friend who, if asked their opinions on Singapore, would first respond with a positive comment (it’s usually the foreigners who sing praises of our country and migrate here). There is so much information whether in school, online or in the newspapers, about problems in our society. Indeed, articles like this very one are more likely to criticise some policy or advocate for a marginalised community that the government appears to be neglecting. So from the start, I’m letting you know – I’m not going to do that.

Instead I’d prefer to balance the negativity that I feel surrounds us quite pervasively (especially in Singapore) in the form of a natural human tendency to complain. It’s more efficient to focus on the negatives in the hopes of resolving them, as opposed to expending our energy thinking about Good Things that have already been realised. Somehow it’s more satisfying to gossip about the terrible things others do instead of praising them. Painful events tend to leave deeper imprints on our hearts and minds. In whatever way, shape or form, it’s human nature to take Good Things for granted.

Mr. Tan and I seem to agree on this. He mentioned that many Singaporeans don’t realise how “Not Normal” Singapore is, in that we are a safe country, we are economically stable, we have made a name for ourselves in the world despite our geographical insignificance. We all have “pet topics”, as Mr. Tan called them. Foreign workers, unemployment, CPF, LGBT rights, racial discrimination, single mothers… The list goes on. Each of us may be especially concerned about particular issues close to our hearts, and there is nothing wrong with this. But Mr. Tan appealed to us to also look at the bigger picture instead of just a part of it, and to appreciate the successes of our little island home. For example, in response to a question about exploited foreign workers, Mr. Tan pointed out that those who don’t receive help from the Ministry of Manpower are precisely the ones who go to NGOs, and whom we hear about. Bad news is often amplified, whether through the media or as a natural consequence of how news travels. An awareness of this helps us form better-informed opinions.

One of the very first things Mr. Tan said at the dialogue was that as a minister, he has a very practical focus. He’s not about doctrinal beliefs or terms, he cares about what’s pragmatic in the real world –– and here we are triggered by the word “pragmatic”, because we’ve heard it a million times in Social Studies and Econs, right? But I think this very pragmatism has gotten us to where we are today, to this state of stability.

A question was asked about whether Singapore had forsaken “well-being” for economic development. This very effectively highlights the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. Mr. Tan’s response was that healthy economic development ensures our well-being. In the past, we had a “very small pie” to work with, and at different stages of our development we have different priorities. In the beginning it was our economy, and now we are a developed country, the richest in the region. Perhaps we don’t have much “heritage” — kampongs are a mere memory and precious few colonial buildings remain. Our schools are still too exam-focused, in that old spirit of educating our citizens as efficiently as possible. Our people are still “kiasu”, wary of strangers, pushing forward even when no one is going to cut their queue. We have problems, however big or small, but our leaders did what they had to to build Singapore to where she is today. Whatever decisions are made at any point in time, we will have issues as every country does. It’s how our world works — we’re always making trade-offs, as any decision that benefits one group of people may unintentionally disadvantage another.

Mr. Tan also spoke about Singapore’s approach to welfare. Loosely transcribed, he said, “We want to create inter-locking, tightly woven nets so that people don’t fall through the gaps. If weaved too tightly however, it could become a solid plate which can be damaging. At the same time we want to create some bounce so people can bounce back from that net. But ultimately we don’t want anyone to fall through.” It’s easy to pick at the gaps through which some fall and to admonish the government for them. But supporting needy citizens without encouraging over-dependence is a difficult balance to strike. We certainly haven’t achieved it perfectly (if a perfect balance is possible at all) but I don’t think we’re too far off. At the very least, this seems to me to be a logical model to aspire towards.

Checking My Privilege

I mentioned earlier that I’d like to balance the complaining spirit of many Singaporeans, and I strive to do this in everyday life. I try to encourage my friends to be thankful, even when it’s hard to be. For example, my friends complained extensively when we had to pay adult fares for public transport after JC. In response, I pointed out that public transport in London or New York is even more expensive.

But that makes no difference to the Singaporean who simply can’t afford to pay for public transport.

I started out wanting to get my friends to “see the bright side”, but I realised that in doing so, I can come off as dismissive of very real issues and problems that Singaporeans face (however few or many they may be). I realised I needed to strike a better balance — to be positive and counter negativity without sounding too uncaring and dismissive. It should’ve been obvious, but I see that it’s very easy for me to advocate balance and positivity because I am privileged in almost every possible way.

It hit me when Mr. Tan spoke about employment — our 3.1% unemployment rate is “virtually full employment” in his words. But to the unemployed father of three, that’s 100% unemployment. I have a stable family and two working parents who have never been unemployed unless by choice. I couldn’t possibly understand. Yes, unemployment rates are very low in Singapore, but more can be done as with every other issue. While we are happy for the 96.9% who are employed and appreciate what the government may have done to create their jobs, we do not dismiss the 3.1% who struggle.

Polity Head Tan Yang Long opened the session by saying that he hoped Polity would encourage Tembusians to reflect on their privilege. It seems they have succeeded, at least for me.

The Power of Your Privilege

Now my personal encouragement to you is this. Whatever your pet topic(s) are, care deeply, champion those causes, be passionate. But see how those issues fit into the broader fabric of Singaporean society. Be cognizant of our overall state, of the many other citizens who are doing well, whom the government is helping and supporting. Find your own balance. In doing so, reflect on your own privilege, how that may influence you and how you can work around it.

In addition, we must all do our own parts — and not just through official programmes and organised charity work. Mr. Tan mentioned speaking to residents about people they’d seen lying on the street or walking around aimlessly, only to discover that they hadn’t even spoken to them. There are plenty more who may see problems without reporting anything at all. We can’t expect the government to be omnipresent, to identify and help every single struggling citizen. We talk a lot and complain a lot, yet we have more agency than we realise, so much power to help even in small ways. Let’s use it.

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Supporting those at their most vulnerable

Nancy is currently the Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF’s Office of the Director of Social Welfare. In her time at MSF, Nancy has covered areas of work from policy development to programme implementation for youth-at-risk and youth offenders.

This year, Nancy was awarded the Outstanding Social Worker Award 2016. The Outstanding Social Worker Award is the highest award in the social work profession, presented annually by the President of the Republic of Singapore to recognise the outstanding contributions by dedicated social workers to the social service sector in Singapore.


Reboot, redesign and reform.

For Nancy, these are some key words that come to mind when describing her work. This has led Nancy to advocate for a greater use of technology and innovation to improve areas of work in MSF.

During her time as Chief Probation Officer, Nancy introduced a voice biometric system for time restriction checks of probationers. This system made a marked reduction of physical time restriction checks by the Volunteer Probation Officers.

Supporting those at their most vulnerable

In all her years of service, one incident has clearly stood out in Nancy’s mind. She was then a social work student at the National University of Singapore.

During her field placement, Nancy was faced with a situation where a man was about to jump off the window of his flat.

However, when his 8 year old son was brought into the room by the police officers, the man stepped off from the ledge of the window.

After the scare, Nancy recalled comforting the boy – who was shaking very badly. This episode left such an impact on Nancy that she continues to remember it till this day. 

“Social workers witness the most intimate moments of people’s lives, and I regard that as a privilege,” said Nancy.

Guiding the next generation of social workers

Today, Nancy serves as a senior lecturer to social work students at UniSIM. The degree course at UniSIM is one of two full-time social work programmes in Singapore.

In her current role as Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF, she aims to improve the sector to become efficient and effective, as well as to help the sector be ready for the future.

“Social workers need to go beyond practice to navigate between policy, skills and knowledge to be all-rounders,” added Nancy.

 

 

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A look behind the scenes

By Lisa @ MSF

Lisa is a final-year student from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University. She recently completed a seven-month professional internship at the Ministry’s Communications and International Relations Division, and spent a fruitful time as part of the close-knit media engagement team. Lisa was involved in curating many of the stories featured on the MSF Conversations blog.


Sometimes the biggest lessons are learnt in the smallest moments. These are the lessons that hit you when you least expect them, but they are often the ones that leave the most lasting impressions.

Working on this series of behind-the-scenes stories of our MSF colleagues at work was one of the projects I took on as an intern at the Communications and International Relations Division (CIRD). I did not realise it then, but it would come to be one of the assignments that taught me the most.

I remember the very first interview we did, at the start of the year.

We headed down to the Child Protective Service to meet with one of our Child Protection Officers. She shared with me about the struggles she faced in protecting children and the hostility she encountered in the course of her work.

Yet when I asked how she coped with the emotional challenges, she only responded quietly of the rewarding moments where she is able to make a difference. This was her fuel and motivation to help her through the difficult times.

As the weeks went by and I spoke to many people working in this Ministry, I began to realise that they all had one thing in common – this innate strength and ability to see the best in others, despite having to bear the brunt of their clients’ frustrations at times.

Beyond that, there seemed to be a lesson to learn each time.

“I tell myself that nothing (the families) say or do is personal, that they are simply frustrated with their circumstances,” said a senior social worker.

“I tried for a long time to get them to open up to me. And each time, I always made sure to be honest and sincere – and act more like a confidante rather than a position of ‘authority’,” said a child protection officer, who recalled the moment when a family he was working with began placing their trust in him.

And from a particularly thought-provoking conversation with a forensic psychologist on choosing to work with rehabilitating ex-offenders:

“If we do not help them, who will?”

Their words rang in my head.

For a period of time since then, I started thinking about these “moments” that they spoke of. Just how strongly and closely must they have resonated with each person working in this Ministry? For them to choose this line of work.

I began to ask myself these questions too.

At MSF, I was assigned a mentor who guided me through my internship the past 7 months. He taught me about different aspects of communications work. But more importantly, he became a friend.

I remember this one time when I told him some part of me still felt lost about what I wanted to do in the future.

And he told me this: “No one quite knows where the future will take them, but the important thing is to keep an open mind while doing the things that you believe in.”

Almost a year ago, I asked myself what I wanted most out of an internship. Then, I had decided that I wanted to be somewhere that could provide me with exposure to communications, while being able to give back to the community.

Now, I find myself asking what I want most out of a job.

During my time at MSF, I wrote, I researched, I filmed, I photographed, I designed. I was involved in a range of projects, including a chance at conceptualising and driving social media campaigns of my own. I prepared for and facilitated public events. I met with people ranging from CEOs, celebrities, volunteers – and at the very heart of it all, the people of MSF.

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Including Minister Tan!

I learnt a lot about what it takes to be in the field of communications, had the opportunity to understand the range and depth of social issues, as well as how government measures are set in place to address them.

But I think the most important lessons learnt went far deeper than that.

While any good internship could teach you practical skills, I think it takes a very different one to teach you values that can guide you in life in the long run.

That, I learned in MSF.

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“If we can help, we will”

14125204_xxlBy Li Li@MSF

As an officer in the Office of the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents (CMP), Li Li conducts conciliation during which she tries to persuade the children to maintain their parents. She also assists the elderly and their family, by referring them to other social or voluntary agencies for support and/or assistance.


 Li Li has lost count of the number of times she has been scolded by the adult children of the elderly she is tasked to help.

As she attempts to persuade these children to support their parents, the common response she gets is: “You’re just an outsider. If you’re the welfare ministry, provide the money then.”

The elderly, who approach her at her Lengkok Bahru office or who are referred to her by MPs, Family Service Centres and Social Service Offices (SSOs), are often those who are unable to support themselves. Hence, they have to struggle to get maintenance from their children.

After interviewing them, Li Li contacts the children to hear their side of the story and possibly, persuade them to support their parents. This step though is often the hardest part of the process – and her job.

In the course of trying to even speak with the children, she has had them bang the table, threaten her, and slam the door in her face when she tried to visit them at home.

“Before joining, I thought it was nice to offer help to people,” Li Li says. “But here, it’s a bit different. You try to intervene, you get scolded kaypoh[1].”

And even when she gains access into these families’ lives, she often finds herself thrown in the middle of a mind-boggling moral dilemma.

She recalls the time when a woman approached her for help after her husband became paralysed and could not work.  The case turned out to be more complicated, however, when she found that the woman was the second wife of the man. The children from his first marriage were unwilling to maintain him because they were angry with him for remarrying.

To add to that, his stepchildren – the woman’s children from her previous marriage – saw no obligation in supporting a stepfather who had not raised them up. Who then, was to be made to support their father?

Then there are the thorny cases she has seen more than once – children who refuse to support their parents because they had been abused by them when they were young. Should she still make the children pay?

Topping it all off are the misconceptions people have of her job and her role.

The elderly think she can help them get their children to support them beyond their basic needs – such as a parent who came to her wanting his child to give him money for airfare – while the children think she sides with the elderly and that she is just here to force them to pay.

Yet, despite the rough times and misconceptions, Li Li continues to strive on, contented with the compelling sense of achievement that she is able to break ground.

As an officer constantly on the ground, Li Li occasionally takes on other responsibilities, such as referring parents and children with their consent to other social or voluntary agencies for other support and/or assistance.

“If we can help, we try to help,” she says.

More than that, it is the satisfaction she gets from watching families reconcile and reconnect, as well as helping the elderly get their maintenance, that keep her on the job.

She recalls the case of an absent father who was remorseful of his past and volunteered at a senior activity centre to make amends. Believing their father was sincere in his efforts to change, his children eventually agreed to maintain him. And to Li Li, witnessing such grace and forgiveness, can sometimes be all that she needs.

[1] Kaypoh: A Singlish term, that can be used to describe a person/an action as nosy or a busybody.

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Making the world a better place with coffee

For many of us, our day doesn’t start until we have had a cup of coffee.

As such, it is no surprise that a long queue formed when a new coffee cart opened at the MSF building lobby on Tuesday (4 Oct) morning. But do not be distracted by the typical caffeinated concoctions Bettr Barista offers—it is no ordinary coffee establishment.

In 2011, Ms Pamela Chng left her job at the web consultancy firm she’d set up, and co-founded Bettr Barista to train marginalised women and youths-at-risk for the specialty coffee industry. Today, her efforts have resulted in a full-fledged social enterprise that uses coffee as a vehicle to change lives.

“We want our beneficiaries to be work-ready, to get jobs in the F&B sector, to get themselves out of the challenging situations that they are in and become financially independent,” Ms Chng said.

To date, 50 students have graduated from their barista program and she hopes to reach out to more potential students by collaborating with social service organisations.

Besides training the students to be career-ready, Ms Chng and her team seeks to empower them emotionally as well. The trainees, who range from their teens to women in their 50s, come from disadvantaged backgrounds and face many personal obstacles, from having low self-esteem to financial difficulties. As such, the training program is designed to be multi-dimensional, and includes physical training, as well as life and emotional management, on top of the students’ barista training.

Since its inception, Bettr Barista has received many accolades. It was certified by international non-profit organisation B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Bettr Barista is also the first recipient of the Arthur Guinness fund in Singapore, which supports social enterprises that are dedicated to discovering innovative solutions to address social problems.

Also, part of Bettr Barista’s revenue goes to Income Orange Aid, a program that helps ITE and polytechnic students from low-income families to fund their tertiary education. Buying coffee can make a difference in the lives of needy individuals, so why stop at only one cup?

Bettr Barista is located at level 1 of the MSF building and is open from 8.30am-6pm on weekdays, except Thursdays.

 

 

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Doing Her Best with Each Request

By Julie @ ECDA, MSF

Julie is an Early Childhood Subsidy Officer at the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). For the past 16 years, she has been working closely with child care centres to process subsidy applications for families, which includes processing back-payment cases. She also manages public queries from the centres and parents, and follows up on relevant MP cases.


Sometimes, Julie does more than just ensuring the affordability of pre-school education, as she recalls handling the case of a mother whose action breached the Court Order.

The mother had taken her children away from a child care centre they were enrolled in, and placed them in another centre without the knowledge of the father or the grandmother, even though the mother did not have the care and control of the children.

As such, the grandmother called in – weeping and desperately seeking help to get her two grandchildren back.

But as much as Julie would like to lend a helping hand, her hands were tied.

“In this kind of scenario, we have to let them know that it is not within our authority to intervene in custody issues. With no control over such disputes, it’s best that both parties come to an agreement and settle the issue among themselves, or refer the issue to the Courts or Police, ” said Julie.

Going beyond her obligation – Julie still wrote to the mother to highlight to her about the impact of her actions and the proper manner to handle the issues instead of taking unilateral actions that will inadvertently put the children at a disadvantage.

She says that when dealing with frustrated customers like this, “We have to listen to them, understand the story behind and then do our best to render assistance.”

Even when nasty remarks were thrown at her by applicants who insist on claiming subsidies they are not eligible for, Julie does not let these remarks affect her.

Experience has taught her to handle complaints graciously – but it is Julie’s bubbly and cheerful personality that has enabled her to keep things impersonal and remain professional in her work.

Her judicious thinking is especially useful in managing certain heart-wrenching cases.

For instance, some children from low-income families may miss out on pre-school because their parents can no longer afford the child care fees. Often, these parents will require financial assistance for the children to continue with their pre-school education.

One important part of Julie’s role is to liaise directly with social workers who conduct house visits and carry out the necessary background checks on selected households. With evidence proving a need for financial aid, she will then render the appropriate assistance to the families.

Julie also shares about her encounters with cases involving disputes between parents and child care centre personnel, such as the centre delaying the application of subsidy for the parents even though the latter have submitted the forms on time.

In such situations, she says, “We do our best to help the parents because the centre’s inaction had deprived the parents of the subsidies that they would have been eligible for.” Hence, Julie also helps the centres to perform audit checks and back-pay the affected families.

Doing her best and making a difference in someone’s life – Julie explains “It’s the sense of achievement and satisfaction I get when I manage to help a family with their problem” that keeps her motivated in life.

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Determined to help them back on track

By Rouisanna @ MSF

Rouisanna is a Senior Probation Officer at MSF. She assesses the offenders’ suitability to undergo rehabilitation in the community and works with offenders placed on probation by the Court.


You might not guess that she is Probation Officer (PO) – let alone it being her first job – when you first meet her.

Her slight frame belies the determination she has to help the youth offenders under her care. Since Rouisanna first started work 4 years back, many have asked her, “Why did you choose to work with offenders?”

“Having been brought up in a rather sheltered environment, it was daunting at first to work with offenders. But I’ve always wanted to help support offenders – something about helping them called out to me,” said Rouisanna.

POs like Rouisanna work with offenders whom the Courts have deemed to be suitable for probation. They then work to best support and increase the likelihood of the probationers being reintegrated into society, while lowering the chance of them reoffending. Rouisanna, in particular, works with youth offenders residing at the Singapore Boys’ Hostel (SBHL).

Youth offenders (those below the age of 19) – who are ordered by the Courts to reside in hostels – are those assessed to be at higher risk of reoffending.

Rouisanna remembers a case where 15 year-old Luke (not his real name) was put on probation for having under-aged sex with his 12 year-old girlfriend. The case was particularly difficult as besides charges including sex with a minor and child protection concerns; the young girl was pregnant. In addition, there were a throng of issues to sort out, such as financial support and care for the baby.

Any other person might be fazed by such a high-needs and high-risk case – but not Rouisanna.

Putting herself in their shoes, Rouisanna understands the need to take things a step at a time – that includes helping the probationers overcome each complication in their lives as they come.

“Many of the probationers are from dysfunctional families themselves, and lacked proper support and guidance while growing up,” said Rouisanna.

Citing Luke’s story as an example, Rouisanna elaborates on how his father had committed suicide a few years back. His mother – the sole breadwinner of the family – suffers from chronic depression and is unable to work at times. Besides the mounting financial difficulties faced by the family, Luke has to take on a “parent role” in looking after his mother, while juggling school work and figuring out life as he grew up.

Determined to help her charges, Rouisanna shares how she tries to see the best in each youth while offering a strong and comforting presence, a listening ear and a shoulder of support for all.

“I see the probationers not as ‘cases’ but as people,” said Rouisanna. “I want to establish a relationship of trust, so that they would turn to me for support.”

These then work together to help her build a stronger relationship with the probationers – that not only helps her in her line of work – but also bolsters her personal and professional development, as she grows alongside her youths.