The Different Faces of Singapore
Richard Hartung (far left), with animal-rights activist Jane Goodall (centre) and other volunteers of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore).
Freelance writer and consultant RICHARD HARTUNG shares how he came to know Singapore better through his editorial and volunteer work with various organisations.
hen I tell people I’ve lived in Singapore for more than two decades, the immediate response usually is that I must know Singapore really well and that I’m practically local. To a degree, that observation may be partially true.
Having started out as a diplomat living in Singapore in the early 1980s, I’ve witnessed the tremendous development in the city’s infrastructure. Later, my work in multinationals and local banks, with both Singaporean and expatriate colleagues, offered great insights into the business landscape of the country.
It helped me to understand, for example, the passion for working hard that has propelled businesses forward and the difficulties of encouraging creativity in Singapore’s education system.
Stopping for roti prata at the hawker centre on the way to church every Sunday; attending events, ranging from weddings to funeral wakes; and taking my children around for their activities; have made my family and me feel even more a part of Singapore.
But it was really my work as a freelance writer and my volunteering that gave me greater glimpses into the many facets of Singapore society.
After working in the banking sector for more than a dozen years, I was offered a chance to write for a local newspaper in 2006. That was the catalyst for me becoming a freelance writer, a part-time vocation that now occupies much of my time.
A chance discussion in 2011 with the head of the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership, which promotes leadership development for the non-profit sector, then turned into an opportunity to become a volunteer author for two books and to edit a third.
He had lamented over dinner about how too few people were moving from the corporate to the non-profit sector fulltime. I offered to talk to those who had successfully made the move and write their stories so that more people know how such actions can be positive and make their lives more meaningful.
This writing project led to others that offered closer looks into the inner workings of Singapore, including one to edit a book for the Singapore International Foundation called Singapore: Insights from the Inside – Volume II. It contains 50 stories from the international community about their experiences from having visited, worked or studied here.
In 2006, I also started volunteering with the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), a non-profit organisation focused on conservation and the environment, which involves reaching out to schools to get students involved in protecting the environment.
I gained further insights as teachers shared with me their struggles with the stress of working in the sector, their efforts to improve practices within the educational system and their joy at seeing their students mature into leadership roles, such as by leading nature walks.
While Singapore has made great strides in planting the greenery that makes living here so enjoyable, much remains to be done in areas such as preserving parks and natural greenery, protecting wildlife and increasing recycling efforts.
I also helped deliver unsold bread from bakeries to social welfare homes for local charity Food from the Heart, which distributes food to the needy.
This took me to older one-room HDB flats and care homes for the elderly, where the benefits of public housing, the challenges of housing affordability for lower-income families and the difficulties of caring for senior citizens were readily apparent.
What I’ve discovered from these experiences is that there is far more to Singapore than meets the eye. It was only by getting involved with organisations and interacting with people from all walks of life that I could begin to understand the country better.
Even though it is not perfect, Singapore offers a welcoming environment for someone born elsewhere.
The friends I’ve made along the way, the wonderful experiences I’ve had and the opportunities for meaningful work have made me stay in Singapore for more than two decades. It is now the place I call home.
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