One of my most embarrassing moments in my life happened a few years ago when I kept a 90+ year old wheel-chair bound lady out of the public toilet. But I’m sure you’ll forgive my Ugly-Singaporean moment if you read on for the rest of my story:
In 2004 I was at one of the Universities in Michigan, USA, for a conference. On that Saturday afternoon, the conference had just ended for the day and I, the shopaholic Singaporean, was totally bored stiff. The tourist activities recommended for that university town was ‘hunting & fishing in the forests & lakes’.
The campus was TOTALLY deserted, as I walked through it looking for some campus museum or library to visit. I stepped into one of the campus toilets to freshen up my make-up. I chose the handicapped cubicle at the end of Ladies Washroom, because 1) it was the most spacious 2)I’ve never seen a handicapped person using the handicapped cubicle in my whole life.
I was really taking my own sweet time in that cubicle — after all, I had nothing to do, there was no one else around, and even if anyone needed the toilet, there were at least another 5 cubicles free.
After about 20min in there, I heard someone knock on my handicapped-cubicle door. ‘Is everything all right in there??’ an old lady’s voice rang out with great concern. Now, in Singapore, the only old ladies who ever bang on your cubicle door are the toilet cleaners who insist on sticking to their toilet-cleaning schedule in the middle of your diarrhoea episode. Of course I assumed the same of Michigan. ‘Oh yes, thanks’ I replied, and took another 5 min to finish up.
Then I opened my cubicle door. To my great horror, a 90+ frail old lady was sitting there in her wheelchair , all alone, starring at me. So yah, that was the day I totally ruined the reputation of all Asians.
The nice thing is that this embarrassing moment would probably never happen to anyone in Singapore. Why? Because I think it is impossible for any wheelchair-bound person, let alone a 90-yr old, travel all by themselves all over Singapore. Except those miracle workers selling tissue paper & Singapore Sweep tickets.
A family member underwent a knee surgery just last week for a torn ligament. Despite multiple protests from her — because she was young, a gym regular, and liked looking tough — I insisted on accompanying her at the hospital and taking her home. Even tho’ that meant 2 days from my very precious Annual Leave (because she was neither my young child nor elderly parent). It was a good thing I did, because she was feeling nauseas and dizzy from the painkillers even tho’ she was eligible for discharge (staying at the hospital one extra day for nausea and dizziness is too expensive). However, to be discharged she needed to change elevators twice and navigate the hospital maze to get to the cashiers. I had to do the payments and discharge admins for her. We wondered about those poor souls who had no family or friends to accompany them. We realised why we always saw vomit puddles at the lift lobby areas and corridors.
I put her in a wheelchair I had just bought. Now to get her to even consider letting me get the wheelchair, I had to tell her I was buying the wheelchair for my feeble grandmothers, and she could use it just temporarily. To my grandmothers of course, I had to tell them since we already have a wheelchair, they should just use it to get out more often or else the wheelchair would go to waste. You see, my grandmothers are no immobile, but they are not strong enough to walk for substantial durations. They’ve been home-bound for very long because they refuse to let me get a wheelchair. Isn’t it amazing how in Michigan a 90+yr old can wheel herself to a deserted university toilet and in Singapore, grandmothers would rather remain home-bound than let anyone buy them a wheelchair?
Anyway, in the wheelchair we had to clear a huge obstacle course just to get to the next building. Seriously, I don’t think our Outward Bound Schools or NS training grounds need build obstacle courses at all. We should have all the participants in wheelchairs navigating around Orchard Rd. Or anywhere else. Even hospital grounds like that one we were in. I wheeled her down the wheelchair ramp, and saw another ramp on the opposite side of the road. However, there was the raised concrete road-divider smack in the middle. 20 meters away, there was a zebra-crossing. There was a ramp leading down to the zebra-crossing, but on the other side, there was the raised concrete curb with no ramp. We thought long and hard, choosing between getting over the divider & avoiding the never-ending stream of traffic, versus using the zebra-crossing and having to get on to the curb on the other side. Eventually we chose the zebra-crossing & she had to get off her wheelchair so that I could carry it up the curb. I wonder how our tissue-paper sellers manage such miraculous feats.
Once we got into the other building, we were faced with a long flight of stairs. There was a wheel-chair lift, and all one had to do, was call on the intercom for the Security Guard to help you. After a 10min wait, the Security Guard came along and spent the next 10min trying to figure out how to use the wheelchair lift. Then he announced it was spoilt. To his credit, the Security Guard was very nice and kind and carried all her belongings AND her wheelchair up the flight of stairs while she slowly hobbled up on her broken knee and crutches.
Now, I’m not relating these 2 incidents just to complain. I’m just wondering how much more Singapore as a society would benefit if our environment was a little more friendly towards 90+yr old wheelchair-bound frail ladies. In fact, it’s not just with the wheelchair-bound 90+yr olds. I know many friends who have to take leave whenever their perfectly mobile parents need to visit the hospital, simply because many of the signs are in English, and their parents read Chinese/Malay/Tamil/Others. Plus hospitals can be frustratingly difficult to navigate — even for someone like me who works on the hospital compounds. I also know a few elderly relatives who don’t visit their doctor as often as advised, because it is simply too troublesome for them or their children. As a result, the management of their chronic conditions gets compromised & their condition worsens.
The economic implications are huge. With an ageing population, more people would need regular check-ups at the hospital to detect and treat conditions early or to manage their conditions well. There’s a huge economic cost when a corresponding number of working adults have to take leave just to make sure their parents can get to the doctors. When elderly folks don’t comply with their doctors’ appointments, the cost of the compromise comes in the form of heftier medical bills when their health condition worsens. On a large scale, this burdens our entire society.
There’s also a huge social cost to this. The mental stress and physical strain just getting around stresses relationships and bonds within families. Simply enforcing legislation to get children to care for their parents adds to the stress, if such environmental support is not improved.
So I do hope that there are building designers & design regulators out there who are taking note & doing something. Perhaps NGOs could be set up to campaign for greater mobility ease, very similar to our Restroom Association (http://www.toilet.org.sg/aboutus2.html) which I think has been fairly successful in getting toilets to be cleaner? And if we don’t know where to start from, perhaps we could hire the 90+yr old from Michigan as a consultant. The next time she knocks on my cubicle door and goes ‘Is everything all right in there?’, I’ll reply ‘Erm, not really, and ma’am we could sure use your help!’
One of the reasons why power asymmetry exists in Singapore was very pronounced at a recent Health Technology Assessment conference I attended.
Power asymmetries arise when there is asymmetrical distribution of information and resources. It does not matter if you have the best democratic election mechanism in place, as long as information and resources is primarily in the hands of the State only. This also happens within large private organizations and the masses, which is why monopolies can be potentially abusive/exploitative.
One would think that power asymmetries existed in places like India and China because a large part of its population is uneducated and poor. In resource rich countries that exists in much of Western Europe, Australia, Canada, the USA power between the electorate and elected is more balanced. Why hasn’t that happened to the same extent in Singapore, despite us ranking way up there in terms of GFP per capita ?
I’m sure there are many reasons, and one of those came up strongly during this International conference.
In many countries with relatively higher State-people power balance, there are very strong NGOs, filled with experts and professional who were willing to contribute their time and expertise to generating and distributing information. Many of these organizations were privately funded too.
In Singapore, we have many charitable organizations. Most of our very few NGOs are also strongly focused on direct services to the disadvantaged group. That is not a bad thing – that is very commendable in fact. What is very lacking however, is this information generation through research, and information distribution through public education.
We really need 2 things. We need experts and professionals to come forward to volunteer. We need these people to stop doing so much overtime in the office, and start contributing. When I was volunteering at AWARE, I noticed that a disproportionate number of active volunteers are not even Singaporean. In the biomedical research industry, many were foreigners who came to Singapore for the money, and few of those who are Singaporean see the need to be involved in advocacy work.
The second thing we need is government-independent funding. Many NGOs and VWOs in Singapore take government funds to some extent. Once you have government funding, your messages are essentially taken hostage. Government funding is great when you’re trying to feed the poor, but not when you’re coming up with well-research evidence why poor people are being systematically produced.
Private funding has been thought to be a major issue in Singapore for a couple of reasons. Firstly, foreign private funding has always been used as “evidence” for foreign manipulation into Singapore’s politics and internal affairs. There are restrictions on the types and extent of foreign funds for certain activities. Secondly, many rich commercial firms in Singapore depend on themselves being in the good books of the government. Foreign firms who wish to remain in Singapore do not want to offend the government and none of our local firms are either big enough or government-independent enough to disregard the government’s agenda.
However, there is a source of private funding in Singapore that is capable of taking on this role — the religious organizations. Singaporeans are very religious, and see a lot of value investing financially into their afterlives. Many religious organizations already fund much of charity work. We need to start going beyond charity work, and start funding advocacy and research work. We need to convince the decision-makers that advocacy and research work is NOT being anti-government, that is very much pro-people, and that sometimes they really have to be brave. We need to convince decision-makers that researching into what processes in our system create the structurally unemployable is as important as feeding the children of these structurally unemployed. We need to be upfront and say, ‘Yes that sort of research may not go down well with certain powerful groups, but your religious texts that call for you to sacrifice for the greater good, were really talking about such situations, not terrorist activities or militant crusades.’
So we actually do have the expertise within our people, and we do have the funds too. What we need to do next, is to convince people to start using these for the public good.
Yesterday, I was at the Speakers corner, with around 50 other people of whom at least 20 are activists. When Tan Kin Lian (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2008/12/toc-celebrates-its-2nd-year-anniversary/) ( http://www.sgpolitics.net/?p=1482) spoke, it started to drizzle and rain. People started taking out their umbrellas , but the speaker was still speaking in the rain. You could tell many people thought someone should go shelter him, me included. But everyone was looking around at others, and asking the people they were with if they should go up, me included. And then, people started to run to one another discussing about whether to shelter the speaker. After a good 5 minutes at least, someone finally went up to shelter him, after having a commitee meeting.
I was thinking, gosh! in Singapore, people need to have a committee meeting and conference before they can stand up to offer someon in need an umbrella!?!?!? How sad is that??!? And I was totally guilty myself. I had not dared to go up, too afraid to walk out of crowd onto the stage to shelter him with my umbrella
At that point, I made a commitment to myself, to never do that again. Never to standby doing nothing while watching someone in need.
And so today, I went for this talk where there were a panel of speakers, one of whom was blind. And everyone had water. The moderator put the bottle of water in his hands because he couldn’t see it. Then as she was speaking, he was struggling to open it cos he couldn’t see the seal break. He struggled until he gave up and put the bottle down. And everyone, most of whom are activists, were just watching and waiting.
I took another bottle, opened it, walked up and gave it to him.
I know this is an incredibly small thing. An almost nothing. Something anyone could easily do.
But i’m actually really proud of myself, in a way that i haven’t been for a long long long time. I don’t think i ever felt like this after scoring any amounts of As in the exam
And I really really hope that everybody would make that same commitment.
The commitment to stop waiting for other’s approval or even support, the commitment to just stand up immediately to do what is right. The commitment to never standby when someone is in need.
Because a nation which cannot even offer someone in the rain an umbrella without a committee meeting is a nation which can never help itself or others.
I wake up this morning, to some sort of new dawn.
And I know, that in Singapore, more than 3000 people, multiplied by how ever many family and friends they have, are waking up to a new dawn.
HIV drugs for HIV patients are going to be subsidized!
I’m not suggesting that this is a panacea for people living with HIV – we can never understate the horror – but at the very least, these people have some hope and justice accorded to them.
Hope, because with the drugs, they can live healthy, productive, meaningful lives for DECADES on, the way a diabetic or hypertensive patient does. Hope, because their lives need not be centered around the desperation and fear of getting their next dose, or their child’s next meal. Hope, because they can use whatever financial resources they have on their child’s education, on food, on building their lives and relationships, instead of spending every penny, and more, on drugs.
And justice, because nobody, NOBODY , should die from being unable to afford medicines in a country so affluent as Singapore. Not HIV patients, not the low-income, not the old, not the imprisoned, not the smoker, not the ignorant – NO ONE.
For me, there were a second layer to this new dawn.
A reminder that the government is not an impersonal, dehumanized object.
A reminder that that the government is filled with people – people who have feelings, who can sympathize, empathize and rationalize. People who have great power and great responsibility to accord life and death with their deeds and thoughts. People who actually listen to the voices of their fellowman.
There have been so many people who advocate tirelessly and courageously for year after year, banging wall after wall, burying patient after patient, friend after friend.
Today we see that their efforts are not in vain. That for thousands in Singapore, change has come, hope has been given. Because people on the ground have chose to speak up, because 87% of the electorate has voted ‘YES, spend my taxes on subsidies!’, because policy makers have listened.
I have a renewed hope to continue standing up for justice and mercy. To continue screaming out for those without voices. To be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
I have a renewed reason to practice my faith, which says to all
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Let no one ever say again, ‘Don’t bother lah , no use one lah’ – because today our bothering has made a change
Let no one ever say again, ‘Government never listen one lah’ – because today the people who make up our government have heard.
Let no one ever say again, ‘Don’t talk to loudly, wait ….” – because today chants of the brave have given many a chance at life.
I started with a simple question.
What can I do contribute positively to humanity? How can I be of help?
I was thinking Africa, thinking East Timor, thinking India, China. Thinking, gosh, am I prepared to live a life without hot water and air-con, without internet and instant food? To live without electricity or sanitation. To live with creepy crawlies. Could I do that?
I thought, maybe I’ll go for a soft launch into saving the world. Let me first start by looking at Singapore, at how can I help in this place that I’ve spent only all my life in. This should be a lot more bearable; I’ll have my sterility and safety, my convenience and comfort.
But seriously, Singapore, the air-conditioned nation with the efficient government who does it all and thinks it all and provides it all for you, with record efficiency and security. What could be lacking here, right?
I thought, well perhaps I could help out with those “First World” type of issues. Given my background in biomedical research, I thought I’ll go into issues with some biology basis. Homosexuality, HIV, sexuality issues. I thought the other issues that should be tackled (but by someone else) in Singapore would be stuff like having Freedom of speech and expression, Political Freedom , social stratification, educational pressures, etc . Stuff like that.
And then, as I began asking, meeting people, attending events by the U60, Calcutta began unfolding in front of my eyes , right here in Singapore. It’s as if, I was spring cleaning a really clean house, thinking there was nothing much, and then lifting the carpet and seeing in underneath infested with maggots, and half me wants to just cover it back again and pretend I didn’t see a thing, and another half makes me sick and I can no longer see my house the same way ever again.
Yesterday evening, I learnt, through films, of how Singapore is responsible for fueling the sex trade in our neighboring countries, where it is COMMON for 13 , 14 year old girls to be sold, forced, cheated into being prostitutes for peanuts, for Singaporean men. For peanuts that they wouldn’t even get.
In the Philippines (and I suspect in other neighbors as well), there are generations of families that grow up IN the rubbish dump. It’s their everyday reality and norm to pick up food scraps, re-cook it and eat it and even savor. It was horrible to watch.
Yesterday I thought that we had major “3rd world” problems with the “3rd world” around us, and though we had a role to play, it wasn’t HERE.
Tonight I was talking to a social worker. She works at a social service center in Bedok. She says, very matter of factly, that there are 5 social workers, each with a caseload of 40, handling just cases involving domestic violence, in the East side area they were in charge of. These are cases of physical domestic violence that were referred to them by the Courts. Meaning that these were the reported cases, 200 in the east side of Singapore, at this present moment. She says that abuse happens across all the family incomes and educational groups, there was no real specific profile or link to poverty. In fact she says, the richer the family, the more likely they would keep quiet and the victim would not leave because there was so much more to lose. Abuse does not start when the marriage has gone stale, often it starts early in the marriage or even before, and it escalates with the first pregnancy when the victims are “forced” to stay for their children. And victims often stay silent. And when they do speak up, women and children find themselves homeless, because they are afraid to stay in their flat with their abuser, but the flat belongs to the abuser, so the abuser gets to stay, and the victims are forced to become charity cases, staying at shelters for years. Yesterday , at the film, a lady related her experience of calling the police to intervene when she heard a violent episode happening in her neighbors flat, only to have the police tell her not to be a busybody.
She says that poverty is common in Singapore. Poverty, where you receive / earn just enough to live from hand-to-mouth, with nothing else. Poverty, where you receive just enough help to give your baby milk and diapers, where you receive just enough to keep you alive , and nothing more. There is a show on Channel 8, Monday nights, called Life Transformers. I think it is the BEST show EVER EVER made in Singapore, for all time. EVER. It shows exactly what it means to live without hope in Singapore.
I think these people tend to be invisible and isolated because of the way our society has been stratified. The scholars, had the best schools, best tuition, the educated parents (LKY is actually right to say that there is a correlation between parental education and child education now, but is it really genetic, or about the starting advantage that the child of grad parents has? ). The scholars who are roped into the government to plan policies have absolutely no idea how it feels to be at the bottom, hopeless. The mid-level people, the teachers, doctors, lawyers, media people – the people who tend to form the bulk of the social activists here – they see issues, but they don’t see or feel the depth of the issue. I must confess, I am somewhere here. The average and below, they are too focused on personal improvement.
The people that really need help. They are invisible on the internet, invisible to the vocal alternative view-generators on the Net. Because they can’t even read, don’t own a computer, may not even have electricity, let alone internet connection. They are invisible to the journalists who write the papers, because the journalists , the people who were in the correct social strata to have the chance of becoming a journalist , never had the opportunities to interact with them. These are people who can’t speak English, probably not even proper mother tongue, they can’t even get noticed by journalists. They are also invisible to each other, because in their helplessness , they can’t reach out for support , they have no voice to call out at all.
There are people dying because they can’t afford medicines. People living on one meal a day because a factory worker supports a family of 6. People in their 70s who scavenge the rubbish bins at 4am. People being raped and abused by their family. People dying because they have no idea of any other way out.
All this is happening, in some home, within a 10minute radius (half an hour if I took the public bus) from where I am this very moment. In my Singapore, my Calcutta.