Transforming Hearts and Changing Minds

Text by Jonas Lim
Photo by Josefa Holland-Merten

In normative theories of politics, there is a long-standing debate between communitarians and cosmopolitans regarding the duty to help, that is, who to help, what kind of assistance and the extent to which help should be given. Do locals have a duty to assist non-locals? While there are some who may never stop turning a blind eye towards non-locals, HealthServe, a Singapore-based non-profit community development organisation hopes that it may be able to instill a sense of compassion in Singapore for needy individuals, “regardless of (the) ethnicity, gender, language or religion (of the person in need)”. That is what makes the organisation a societal leader. In this article, I argue that in addition to the scope of providing heavily subsidised healthcare, legal advice, as well as counselling services for the marginalised in Singapore, the organisation’s impact and influence have  started transforming prevailing prejudices, discriminations and indifference against the marginalised in Singapore today.

Strategically located at the heart of Geylang, one road across Singapore’s red-light district, its co-founder, Dr Goh Wei-leong would expect that the proximity of HealthServe’s operations to the vulnerable and marginalised communities would engender a natural symbiotic relationship between the organisation and its beneficiaries. This premise assumes the presence of a basic characteristic of all functional relationships; a space of trust that allows vulnerability. Though HealthServe was physically located at the center of the marginalised, they were, in fact, mentally miles away from the connection required for the organisation to offer absolute, dedicated and passionate service to the marginalized. To realise this, HealthServe concentrated its outreach efforts at the outskirts of Geylang where the marginalised can be found. In his interactions with the marginalised, Dr Goh realised that more likely than not, there is a story of shame, loneliness and/or helplessness behind every drug abuser, prostitute and foreign worker, and at times they are victims of circumstances that are beyond their control. This is something that all human beings would be able to resonate with and the resonance is what makes them no less human than us.

The outreach efforts by HealthServe proved successful as the marginalised for which they were set up to assist, started to be more forthcoming with their problems. A vivid quote by Dr Goh that left a huge impression on me was that: “At HealthServe, we train our doctors to not only treat our patients physically, but we also want to help them mentally”. It touches my heart greatly to see that there is an organisation like HealthServe that is willing to view the marginalised in a non-judgmental manner and give them a sense of dignity and hope. It is thus not surprising that when a migrant worker was asked to share about his experience with HealthServe, an immense amount of gratitude was expressed. The migrant worker had lost his job and ability to earn a living due to a work-site related injury. HealthServe provided him with medical and legal assistance and helped him tide through his toughest days. He said (in Chinese), “HealthServe is like a family to me.” Indeed, HealthServe’s impact and influence have touched the lives of many in the marginalised community through its “business” model of authenticity driven by the heart.

Dr Goh candidly admits that, “as givers, we always end up receiving more than what we gave.” With our population demographic changing increasingly to accommodate more foreigners, our nationalistic tendencies in cases as seen in the saga with The Philippine Independence Day Council, Little India Riots and day-to-day expression of dissatisfaction with foreigners have seen tags such as “xenophobic” and “racist” being labeled upon us. Perhaps, HealthServe’s exuberance in empathy and acceptance of the fringe and marginalised communities can teach us as a nation a thing or two about generosity and acceptance, instead of mere tolerance, which also seems increasingly intolerable. To quote Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee’s 2012 National Day Rally Speech themed: Hope, Heart, and Home: “Don’t slam shortcomings by foreigners but overlook our own transgressions, we can be from a small island, but we cannot be small-minded”.

Since its inception, HealthServe’s commitment to be “a launchpad in supporting volunteers towards social responsibility and service” has grown to include recruiting volunteers for community, projects, clinic duties, teaching of computer and English classes, and experiential learning to encourage helping the marginalised, as well as, to challenge and reduce societal stigmas. With an array of programmes that tap into the help of many privileged people in society, HealthServe’s influence on people in being more empathetic and less self-centered cannot be understated. One can only think that with more HealthServe(s) around, we would be able to build a more inclusive and generous society.

Societal Leadership is defined by the Institute of Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University as “the practice of creating sustainable value and impact for the betterment of society within one’s sphere of influence”. Perhaps the work of HealthServe will inspire others towards a more generous spirit towards others who are in less privileged positions.

Jonas Lim studies at the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University.

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