By Chloe Nacario

When the circuit breaker happened last year, non-profit organisations and volunteers were quick to find ways to help their beneficiaries — such as setting up online activities, sewing and distributing masks or reaching out to isolated and vulnerable individuals.

Ivan Tan, who owns a video production house, decided that since he had spare time and a car, that he would help Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) distribute food to about 70 workers in dorms.

Even after the circuit breaker ended, Ivan wanted to continue building on the relationships that he made during his volunteer work.

Guests, not migrants

When he talks to The Pride, Ivan refers to migrant workers as guest workers. This is an important distinction for him as he believes that by using this term, it changes the mindset that many Singaporeans have of them.

“They are guests whom we have invited to work here. It behooves as hosts of our country to treat them well and to treat them with kindness,” he explains.

He feels this way because his father received such kindness when he first came to Singapore. Ivan’s father was an immigrant from China and was welcomed and accepted by his peers in Singapore — Ivan wanted to do the same for the next generation of such workers.

Helping out with the food deliveries was an opportunity for him to do something for them, he explains. But as the months passed and relationships grew stronger, Ivan realised that it was actually he who became the guest in their community.

He says: “When I first started, I had this idea that I’m welcoming them into my home, so I’m there to help them, to provide food for them… then we started to build a relationship, they welcomed me into their homes and I became the ‘guest’.”

, Portraits of Kindness: Volunteering with migrant workers teaches him about the true spirit of giving
Image source: Singapore Kindness Movement

Aside from delivering food and participating in activities such as setting up Christmas decorations with other volunteers, Ivan would sometimes call some of the dormitory ICs to chat, listening to them share stories about their lives.

It was during such chats that he realised that there are differences between cultures.

Ivan says: “One particular incident was telling for me. We were sending them breakfast but somehow the bread that we gave them wasn’t well received.”

He asked why and they explained that in India, bread was usually given mostly to people who were ill. Nevertheless, the workers still graciously accepted the food without any complaints.

Ivan continues with a smile : “It got me thinking. If we are going to provide something, we would want them to enjoy it… the next time we switched things around and got them thosai!”

He also became fast friends with one of the guest workers, Sami Muni, 40. It was their mothers who gave them the common bond. Both Ivan and Muni’s mothers were sick at the same time and so Muni would share stories about his mum to encourage Ivan, he says.

“We are both people just trying to do the best for our families, regardless of our backgrounds.”

The heart to be kind

Ivan advises people interested in volunteering to team up with a friend to do it: It makes the act of spreading kindness fun and enjoyable.

More importantly, he says, it is about doing it with the right motives.

“Do unto others what you want done unto yourself,” he says.

Kindness is a two-way street. It is our job as hosts to first show our guests the acknowledgement and respect that we want for ourselves. Showing kindness to others isn’t about giving them what we think they want.

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Ivan says that treating people as guests involves making the effort to find out about them and what they like, rather than just insisting on helping them in our own way.

He continues: “As hosts, why can’t we welcome them into our community, into our country and into our homes?

“As guest workers, they are people as well… Let’s honour them as people and say, ‘okay, this is what you like, let me provide you with what you like’. Instead of saying ‘this is what I have, take it, and be grateful’.”

“I think that is really the wrong attitude. If you treat people as guests, you would bother to find out about them and what they like, rather than just to impose your help (on them).”

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