By: Joshua Foong
bantu spent an afternoon with Ms Bee Leng and Ms Chi Hoon from SCC, where we enjoyed a candid conversation about poverty, volunteers, and the community.
It was a void deck unlike any I have seen before. A void deck that was at once a community classroom, a goodwill store, a public kitchen, and an office space. “Where on earth am I??” I thought.
The answer was South Central Community Family Service Centre, or SCC for short. Set in a humble location, the void deck felt like a cheerful island brimming with so much activity.
Mothers, children, youths, elderly were gathered around tables at the entrance area. An older youth provided learning support to a child near the front. A student group was speaking to a staff member in a chatroom. An auntie in the kitchen, cleaning up after (what I imagined to be) her latest lunch mission.
The executive director in charge of this unique community space is Ms Ng Bee Leng, a social work veteran who was also a founding member of SCC. Together with her is Ms Chee Chi Hoon, assistant director of community engagement.
I scheduled an interview with the pair on a Wednesday afternoon to find out what they thought about volunteerism in Singapore. It was a delightful conversation — one that spoke deeply about what they hoped to achieve through their work at SCC.
Ending the Reproduction of Poverty
The interview began with a bold statement from Ms Bee Leng, “we want to stop the systematic reproduction of poverty here. There are many children who are trapped in this inter-generational cycle, where being poor is passed down from one generation to the next.”
To do so is no easy feat, and the Centre acknowledges that it cannot do this alone. Eradicating systematic poverty would require the buy-in of a much larger group of people: the community.
“We are beginning with a paradigm shift where we move from being a service provider, to what you could call a community enabler. While SCC can provide a service to a family and alleviate immediate issues, we have to engage the community to create an enabling environment where the poor can be lifted out of their situation for good.”
Volunteers at SCC therefore play an important role that goes beyond providing help. They are there as neighbours and friends, as equals to the beneficiaries who they interact with. At the Centre, volunteers hail from all sorts of backgrounds: retired folks, undergrads, lawyers, other professional occupations, even expats. For Ms Chi Hoon, she believes that these volunteers are motivated not so much by an opportunity to offer help. Rather, they genuinely want to be a part of the community at SCC.
This element of community is what guides Ms Chi Hoon in her concurrent role as volunteer manager. For her, it is important to build a lasting relationship with volunteers, especially the ones who return week after week. Engaging this pool of volunteers then become an organic process. “Sometimes, I visit my volunteers where they live to find out how they are doing. That’s how you keep the relationship going.”
Learning, not Developing
When asked how SCC then develops the competencies of its volunteers, the pair had an unusual answer: they don’t.
“Allow us to clarify. We believe in volunteer development and are definitely not against it. We just don’t believe in calling it by that term development.”
It was an intriguing sentiment. For Ms Bee Leng, competency development was a concept better associated with the corporate world, where workers acquire skills for the purpose of increasing productivity. It is an industrial and utility concept that seemed to undermine the value of serving and contributing when applied to volunteers. They offered a different name instead — learning.
“Every volunteer has a different journey, and are motivated by different things. Which is why we do not just want to develop the volunteers for our purpose. If we do, the ones who ultimately benefit are only us: we outsource work to volunteers. The more we outsource, the more we can accomplish. But will this actually create an experience of community for each beneficiary and each volunteer? Will this create co-ownership?”
“…competency development was a concept better associated with the corporate world… It is an industrial and utility concept that seemed to undermine the value of serving and contributing when applied to volunteers.”
It will not. In a situation where volunteers become skilled providers who serve the Centre, they are no different from being a mere resource: simply as means to an end. Ms Bee Leng added, “For that same reason, I don’t want to see social work as just an occupation, because once it becomes a job, it stops focusing on creating real impact, and focus instead shifts to KPIs and scaling the career ladders.”
Conversely, SCC wants to allow each volunteer to learn in a capacity that fits his or her individual motivation. They want volunteers to develop their own passions, which they can then share with others.
Volunteers at SCC are therefore given ample freedom to co-organise and execute various activities & events. Learning sessions are designed by volunteers, and it is common for ad-hoc cooking sessions to materialise organically.
Between eradicating poverty and creating self-motivated volunteers, SCC sure has got its work cut out for itself. I wondered: what would success look like for Ms Bee Leng?
“I think what we hope to see is a network of volunteers and contributors within the local community. I say local because that’s how you can create that lasting relationship between different people. It’s a network of volunteers working with each other strengths, producing something special for the community each time they come together.”
In the end, everyone has a role to play in the local community. The government’s role is to create and encourage a broader environment for communities to thrive. It is SCC’s role to enable community ownership and co-creation of solutions by the community for the community, especially those trapped in poverty.
As for members within the community, volunteer or otherwise, they too have a role in building and fostering strong local relationships. Not that of helper and the helped — but as neighbours who are equally responsible for one another’s well being.
As I was leaving, an Indian boy and his sister came right up to Ms Bee Leng, 2 scooters and a toddler’s bike in tow. “Hello, I want to donate this. We not using them anymore.”
Perhaps it was just another day at the Centre, where people and objects moved in and out on a nonchalant Wednesday afternoon. But it was a remarkably poignant moment for me, almost like a farewell remark to the interview that had concluded.
For a moment, that the scooter was more than just a toy: it was kindness itself being passed on from one neighbour to the next.
Wow, I thought, this truly is a void deck unlike any I have seen before.
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