I am, in every sense of the word, privileged.
My family is wealthy, and we live comfortably in a spacious home, never having to worry about our next meal. I am gainfully employed, and am physically and mentally healthy. My parents are happily retired, and I have a strong social circle whom I love and can rely on.
Yet in Crazy Rich Singapore, not all of its residents live such a privileged life.
There exists food-insecure children, “cardboard aunties and uncles” who have to toil laboriously in their 70s, students who enter less desirable streams and are looked down upon, foreign workers who are routinely abused, and more.
These are some of those who fall through the cracks of society.
Speaking at The Straits Times’ panel discussion about privilege, Lien Foundation chairman Laurence Lien alluded that such people, and their daily struggles, tend to be ignored by many Singaporeans, because we choose to live in a “cocoon” of oblivion.
As such, while many less well-to-do Singaporeans do receive help, it may not be enough. And for those who aren’t as visibly underprivileged, or those who find the process of seeking help too onerous, they may not even get any at all.
Rethinking privilege, and helping those less well-off
Today, a person who is privileged doesn’t just refer to someone with financial means.
There are many other privileges we enjoy in our everyday life – our ability to have the freedom of choice, and the privilege of having time, for example. And for many of us reading this article on their web browsers – the privilege of language and digital literacy.
In that sense, a broader definition of privilege includes our time, connections, and ability.
Speaking to The Straits Times, Beyond Social Services’ deputy executive director T. Ranganayaki said: “Privilege need not mean money… just being there for your neighbour helps. Pause and ask yourself: Am I better off than others, in any way? Then give to them in that way,” she said.
So, who are “the privileged” in Singapore? And should they give back to society?
These, and more, are the questions Ranganayaki, Lien, and other esteemed panellists tackled during a panel discussion on Jul 2.
Organised by The Straits Times in partnership with Singapore Kindness Movement, the panel comprised a medical doctor, a social worker, a sociology professor and the head of a philanthropic foundation. It aims to develop actionable ideas to encourage giving.
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Why, and how, should the privileged give back to society?
In my opinion, as someone born into privilege, it’s my duty to help others, and to give back to society.
I hold this belief for various reasons. Firstly, I was raised by a religious mother who strongly believes in tithing. As I grew older, I also realised that I should treat others the way I want to be treated.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I studied at one of the lowest-ranking neighbourhood schools in Singapore. There, I met friends who came from troubled backgrounds. I saw how those who grew up in circumstances totally out of their control – such as poverty, physically abusive parents, or high levels of stress – were systematically held back. I grew to realise how unfair that was.
I haven’t been able to help as many people as I want to, but I’ve made it a point to further the causes I care about, by donating monthly to organisations that help endangered animals and orphaned children.
But is there more that I could do?
And for those who are unable to spare a few extra dollars a month for charity, is there more that they can do, too?
The answer, the panellists asserted, is yes.
Donations can, and should, come in forms other than just money
For a start, more can be done beyond just donating money.
Panellist Dr Goh Wei Leong, co-founder of Healthserve, a non-profit which provides migrant workers with affordable healthcare, legal aid, social assistance and skills training, shared that one has to be on the ground to know what real issues people are facing.
“Since its inception, Healthserve has become a safe space for people – from migrant workers to professionals to philanthropists – to come together, to share meals. It’s a space for head and heart to connect, where real relationships form,” said the former Singaporean of the Year 2017.
He added: “I like to call it philanthropy with a presence.”
Additionally, you can donate your time, or your expertise.
As a cash-strapped university student, I used to volunteer my time at animal shelters.
If you’re a whizz in the kitchen, you can offer to work with soup kitchens.
Or if you’re tech-savvy, try your hand at teaching foreign domestic workers computer skills and digital literacy. This will help them take on the digital age head-on.
Finally, if all you have to offer is your youth and strength, you can spend a few hours at homes for the aged sick, assembling wheelchairs for the mobility impaired.
Indeed, there are many avenues we can explore to do good.
During the panel, Singapore Management University (SMU) Professor of Sociology (Practice) Paulin Straughan expressed how impressed she was by one of SMU’s graduation requirements: All undergraduates must complete a minimum of 80 hours of community service before graduation.
“They learn how to ‘plug gaps’ in society, beyond just signing a cheque,” she noted. “They see for themselves that their work can transform the lives of those they touch.”
Everyone is in a position to Be Greater
Today, Singapore is ranked seventh in the world in terms of giving, with overall donations going up over the past decade. That may seem like great news. But in reality, while the total amount donated has increased, the number of people actually donating has decreased.
In that sense, there is still so much room for us to grow.
Ranganayaki suggested fostering a culture of giving, “where everybody gives a little bit.” She also shared that many of the less traditionally “privileged” are those with the biggest hearts who give the most.
That’s because they are able to help not in spite of, but because of, the challenges they’ve faced.
For example, the single mother who, after seeing the happiness on her toddler’s face during her second birthday bash, made it a personal mission to throw parties for underprivileged children who otherwise could never afford it.
Or the stay-at-home caterer who regularly gives away packets of food because she knows exactly what it’s like to be poor and hungry.
The optimistic Ranganayaki said: “My strong belief is, a social issue is not a problem. It is actually an opportunity for the community to come together.”
So, it shows that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. What matters is that we work towards the future we care about.
And you don’t have to be wealthy, or able-bodied, or a celebrity – you can be anybody, to do just that. Be Greater.