Text by Serene Ashley Chen
Photo by HealthServe
Some nine years ago, two friends had a chat over coffee and kaya toast. They reflected about life and talked about the issues facing Singapore. The year was 2006. It was around that time that Mr Tan Shin Yong and Dr Goh Wei-Leong noticed an influx of migrant workers in Singapore.
Following further discussions into the topic, they realised that the growing number of migrant workers presented a host of issues that did not fall neatly into anyone’s area of responsibility. These issues ranged from unsafe work environments leading to work injuries that often go untreated, unfair employment conditions, and lack of access to legal and medical services to larger community integration issues on a societal level.
As a medical professional Dr Goh together with others thought that the most intuitive and meaningful way to extend support to migrant workers is by setting up a clinic that provided medical services at a nominal fee, and in an area that was easily accessible. This idea led to the inception of HealthServe and the opening of the NGO’s very first clinic in Geylang in 2007.
“As global citizens, we have a duty to serve humanity. We desire to be the voice of the voiceless and to also learn to quieten down so as to hear from those who need to be heard. To me, Geylang is a crucible where world issues of poverty, injustice, poor health, labour trafficking and the effects of modern society and capitalism are experienced in real life,” reflected Dr Goh.
With a lean management team working in an old classroom that is fitted out with donated furniture and fixtures, HealthServe works with a group of 200 active volunteers including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and lawyers to provide medical care, counselling, legal advice, and social support services to as many migrant workers as they can accommodate. On an annual basis, HealthServe treats about 3,500 acute cases (migrant workers with common cold and cough) and 350 chronic cases (migrant workers with long-term injury and who may be seeking legal recourse from employers).
Based on figures released by the Ministry of Manpower, there are approximately 1.6 million foreigners in Singapore of which there are about 736,000 low-wage workers and 208,000 domestic workers. Yet, there are only four dedicated NGOs in Singapore serving the needs and issues of these low wage migrant workers. While recent government support and legislative changes are improving the lot of the migrant worker, the sheer number of those who fall through the cracks is significant given the large numbers. As such, the work of HealthServe continues to grow.
In light of these numbers, to say that the work is overwhelming seems like an understatement. Yet, Dr Goh is able to keep the tension in check and keep stress at bay. He sees life in a seamless and integrated fashion that is open and organic, and this philosophy translates to the way HealthServe is run.
“Singaporeans are obsessed with economics. Even social work is sometimes spoken in the language of the economy. My dream is that we will be able to adopt a more relational framework of life and language. In so doing, we begin to see that life is a rich matrix and not so simplistic, convenient or linear,” Dr Goh continued.
One leaves the clinic with a feeling that perhaps at the end of the day, we are all connected to one another by something deeper and in this space, conventional boundaries and separators that are upheld by society soften to something that is more transcendent in nature.
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