For the past 35 years, he’s kept at-risk youths off the streets and helped vulnerable individuals find new purpose in their lives.
Given the many lives 56-year-old Gerard Ee has touched as a veteran social worker, it may come as a surprise that the executive director of Beyond Social Services began his journey quite cynical of the vocation.
Back in the 1980s, when he first started with the organisation, it was still known as the Bukit Ho Swee Community Service Project, a charity set up to help those affected by the Bukit Ho Swee fires in the 60s.
Run by a nun and two other staff, Ee had interviewed there after a short stint at the YMCA running programmes for children and youths.
The encounter got off to a bumpy start, as he recalled: “It was so messy, and not quite the place I wanted to work at. At the interview, they told me about the objectives of the job, trying to inculcate good values and things like that. For me, it sounded like an almost impossible thing to do.”
He declined the job, but had a change of heart a month later. Thus began his journey as a youth worker in 1982, where he quickly learnt that it wasn’t just his own cynicisms that needed to be overcome.
Bukit Ho Swee was then a predominantly Chinese community with distinct characteristics. Ee told The Pride: “There were many young people who were into triad culture, heroin culture. A lot of interest in mediums and superstitions that ruled the lives of people.”
In their eyes, Ee was “a bit of a wack”, as he told The Pride: “I couldn’t speak Hokkien. They lived in HDB housing, and while I wasn’t wealthy, that wasn’t really my background.”
He pounded the streets, doing his best to keep the youths occupied by getting them into sports or taking them to camps.
On one such camping trip to Malaysia, the gulf in values and beliefs was apparent. Ee recounted: “It started raining heavily, and one of them told me that the gods were moving furniture upstairs and that the heavens were angry. I thought he was just joking but after awhile, I realised that he was being serious. That shows how far I was from their reality and experiences.”
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But his otherness was also helpful, as an unlikely friendship blossomed. With a smile, he said: “It was nice that they always looked out for me, and would warn me of all sorts of calamities they thought would befall me. The difference turned out to be an advantage because the kids were curious about me. Some of them thought I was Japanese and would try to speak Japanese to me.”
Encounters like these kept him in the job. Ee treasured how he could learn about a different reality, and had the privilege of getting into people’s lives as a social worker.
Today, Beyond is a team of 55 with Ee at its helm. Towering developments and luxurious condominiums have sprouted in Bukit Ho Swee, but the voluntary welfare association still keeps an office at Jalan Klinik, catering to the pockets of rental public housing in the area.
The registered charity has also moved into Whampoa and Bukit Merah. But on a given day, you’re more likely to find its staff at the RCs and CCs closest to their beneficiaries’ homes. Ee explained: “It’s about making people feel welcome and protected, and engaging them where they feel safe.”
Landscapes and demographics have shifted, and so has the complexion of social work, as seen through Ee’s eyes.
“When I first came in, we were known as the Bukit Ho Swee Community Service Project. Thirty to 40 years ago, people looked at our work as serving the community. It was seen as a service and not quite a job.”
Now, organisations like Beyond are regulated by policy, frameworks, and KPIs. While acknowledging that these systems exist so that nothing is amiss and nobody gets cheated, Ee worries that these rules can make social work “instrumental”.
“When you get funding for certain outcomes and results, after a while, the people doing this work also become very instrumental. Social change is expected to be delivered through some kind of visible end product.”
In contrast, the needs of human beings are not so easily measured or quantified, as he mused: “Society will never be perfect. There will always be some need or other, there will always be people who are marginalised.”
By Ee’s own admission, he wouldn’t land a job as a social worker today. Funding requirements mean that charities like Beyond have criteria to meet, including staff qualifications. He said candidly: “My professional training is in family therapy. I don’t have a social work degree, so I wouldn’t qualify as a social worker today.”
It is with a hint of regret that he observes: “Going to school is one thing, but if you’re passionate about something, you’ll learn about it and make sure you develop. You don’t necessarily need to go to school for it.”
While Beyond is often seen working with disadvantaged youths and children, Ee says their real focus is on helping lower-income individuals better integrate into society, keeping them away from crime and stopping them from getting more isolated.
“We say it takes a village to raise a child. So how do we build that village, how do we nurture the conditions for such a village to emerge and be experienced by the child?”
Building up the beneficiaries’ own support systems is key, first looking towards their family, friends, and neighbours. Ee explained: “We look very closely at getting volunteers from their neighbourhoods itself, getting neighbours to care for neighbours.”
For the families, a culture of learning and employment is nurtured. Parents are encouraged to learn how to supplement their income, and kids are nudged to find something they enjoy learning, whether it’s photography, dance or football.
Ee said: “These children are discouraged, they’re not doing well in school. It’s not as simple as asking them to come for tuition. They’ll run away because it’s just like school for them. Building a culture of learning is to give them confidence to say, we can progress, we can learn.
“All of us need opportunities to work, to learn, to get by in life. But if you live in a low-income neighbourhood, and have no friends out there, how likely are you to meet someone beyond the world that you know?”
This is where volunteers, whether individuals or corporate organisations, can help. One such tie-up with volunteers from Bloomberg saw a child visiting their office for tuition. He returned shocked and impressed, telling Beyond staff that the office pantry was just like a 7-eleven.
Ee said: “That really opened his eyes and shocked him into thinking what this world is about. Seeing their office challenged him to think whether he wanted to have that kind of ambition.
“Our volunteers can show them another part of Singapore they’ve never seen, and this goes both ways, as volunteers also learn about people here who have very little. The friendships narrow the inequalities and bring people together.”
However, during a recent learning journey he planned for a group of teachers, Ee was surprised when they came back discomforted at being invited into the beneficiaries’ homes, many of which were rental flats occupied by needy families.
Noting that their reaction showed how in subtle ways, our society remains segregated, he told The Pride: “I said to them – I’m happy for the families who hosted you, because even though they live in a one-room flat, they’re not ashamed, and they’re proud to welcome people into their homes.”
He said firmly: “They don’t need to live in the Istana to welcome you.”
Despite his perplexity towards their reactions, Ee has made a mental note to highlight this portion of the programme to future participants.
After all, bridging the gap that keeps the disadvantaged from integrating into larger society is an exercise in understanding from both sides of the fence.
He mused: “We live in a pretty untidy world. The only thing that can buffer this untidiness is probably when people are more compassionate, and they feel more solidarity with each other.”
To volunteer with or learn more about Beyond Social Services, please visit their website.