When we were first told that we were headed to the Willing Hearts (WH) soup kitchen, where close to 100 volunteers expected were already there before 7am preparing food for the needy, I could not help but feel a little skeptical. Why would so many Singaporeans, known for their pragmatism and borderline coldness, be willing to sacrifice precious hours of sleep for no pay or any other forms of reimbursement?
However, when we stepped into the food pantry, I was astounded by large groups of people inside, scrambling in assembly lines and all playing their part in ensuring that food would get to the needy by lunchtime. These volunteers, numbering an estimated 120 that day, more than usual, were predominantly either from OCBC & CJC or middle-aged volunteers overseeing the large-scale operations. The students were charged with cooking rice, peeling and slicing ingredients, while the OCBC Community Group members were scooping, portioning and packaging the food. Raw and cooked food stations were well-separated for hygiene purposes, while the ingredients consisted mostly of discarded or unsellable produce from nearby wholesale centres.
While arguably, the students (in large groups, accompanied by supervising teachers) and the OCBC members (proudly donning official polo shirts) were probably there to clock CIP hours and chalk up corporate responsibility points respectively, what struck me was their drive and commitment to the tasks at hand. Arriving early and without complaint, they were willing to get their hands dirty if it meant meals for the needy that day.
More admirable were the efforts of the middle-aged volunteers, who were there of their own volition and despite not receiving recognition or commendation, still soldiered on to coordinate the organization. These were the true people who contributed without vested interest or agenda, but instead witnessed the needs of those who fell through the cracks of Singapore’s marginal welfare measures and rose up to address them.
As we relieved the van of its food load at the various distribution points, I realized that Willing Hearts had a remarkably altruistic policy towards their scheme’s recipients. People requiring food had no need to prove their plight, flash Welfare cards or produce income statements to justify their requests. WH volunteers instead understand their plight, satiate their needs and not draw attention to an already sensitive and stigmatized situation. They do not distribute food to lend sympathy or support for their cause; WH is a secular organization by nature. The volunteers just freely give.
Most of the needy’s woes stem from navigating the rigmarole of litigation and policy criteria to receive pittance assistance from the Singaporean government, notorious in steering clear of being a welfare-state in order to promote meritocracy and allocative efficiency in resources. As such, many poor and elderly people fall through the policies’ cracks, possessing incomes just exceeding the minimum wage ceiling. They may lack food security but harbour notions of self-dignity and self-reliance, refusing to seek help from government agencies and hence struggle to even live from hand to mouth. WH looks past all that by ensuring that the deliveries are swift, silent and most of all, helpful to the needy.
While interacting with Daniel in his interview at NUS, I began to understand that the biggest obstacle for WH is not the sheer amount of funds required to keep the massive operation running, nor the fact that they seem underhanded in the concerted dash to beat the clock. No, it was that the needy may not even be aware of such food distribution campaigns and not approach organizations like Willing Hearts for help, in turn suffering in silence. Daniel mentioned that prior to being told by a CDC volunteer, he had not even heard of WH, nor of their campaign.
If one neither can afford the time for assisting in food preparations nor the funds to aid food distributions, one should at least participate in the communication campaign to raise awareness amongst the needy; ignorance should not deny the needy of food security. Sharing on Facebook about WH leads to the wider community being aware, who will then encounter underprivileged people in their lives and can better advise them on these welfare measures. Disseminating flyers to homes in “poverty hotspots” takes only a fraction of the time needed for food preparation and distribution, and targets the underprivileged, who may not be fortunate enough to even access a computer. Lastly, building community awareness places greater pressure on the government to support the truly-needy people, whose needs are all too invisible and silent.
There are many ways to help the needy, with or without finances. If Singaporeans are too fatigued by scenes of abject poverty, food insecurity and poor housing conditions to even lift a finger, perhaps the greater issue is not society’s underprivileged, but society’s apathy and absence of compassion.