Committed to the Cause

Volunteers who are engaged in a wide range of projects to uplift communities around the region are critical contributors to the work and mission of the Singapore International Foundation. We find out what inspires them.

BY TERESE TAY

M

ore than three in 10 Singaporeans volunteer on a weekly or monthly basis, according to a report published in The Straits Times in 2018.

Since its founding in 1991, the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) has sent over 4,000 volunteers abroad to work with international communities to help uplift lives and build greater international understanding.

To celebrate the spirit of volunteerism, SIF ran a thank you campaign, #HeroesofSG, in conjunction with International Volunteer Day. Volunteers came together to share stories and engage the public during the Giving Week Festival by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre.

What drives these individuals, many of whom hold full-time jobs, to invest their time in helping others? We speak to three volunteers who share on what inspires them to give.

CALL TO ACTION
For SIF infield volunteer Deborah Low, who recently extended a six-month stint teaching English in Vientiane, Laos, her previous short-term volunteering experiences gave her the desire to work on longer-term projects.

SIF honoured its tireless and dedicated volunteers as part of its volunteer appreciation campaign.

“Time is inevitably a factor in language teaching, so having an extended period to work with students can be more effective,” explains the associate lecturer at the Singapore Institute of Management.

Low also values the fact that SIF targets its placement of volunteers and help rendered to meet real needs. And that was how she came to teach English to government officials at the Institute of Foreign Affairs in Laos.

“Seeing the officials pick up skills, such as using referencing techniques to understand the flow and meaning of what is being read, is a wonderful moment for any teacher,” she says. “But you only realise the time and effort put in was worth it when such supposedly commonplace skills become a valuable tool in the officials’ professional and personal repertoire.”

Mr Seluasundram s/o Nagalingam, a volunteer with SIF since 2013, derives a similar sense of satisfaction from empowering others.

The Singapore Armed Forces Master Warrant Officer says: “Just like the proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’ I’m happy that I can be a catalyst for communities to gain clean water for themselves.”

A Direct Service Team Leader for the Water for Life (WFL) project, Sundram has led 18 trips to Cambodia and Indonesia, where teams help to install bio-sand and membrane water filters in villages and schools. Together with a basic hygiene education programme, the teams are teaching rural farmers and schoolteachers to gain and maintain access to clean water, he says.

SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1991, SIF HAS SENT OVER 4,000 VOLUNTEERS ABROAD.

Through WFL, more than 144,000 villagers, teachers and schoolchildren in the relevant communities have gained access to clean water and experienced a reduction in the incidence of water-borne diseases.

A LEARNING JOURNEY
The volunteers face many challenges along the way. Hailing from a foreign country with different cultural norms, they have to keep an open mind and heart.

Volunteer English teacher Deborah Low (right) found herself personally challenged by the Laotian view on plagiarism.

 

For Low, dealing with the different interpretations of plagiarism in Laos was challenging. She explains: “Plagiarism, as we know it, is strictly frowned upon in educational institutions in Singapore and most parts of the developed world. I was surprised by how differently it is perceived in Laos.”

Explaining that the Lao culture is one where the community takes precedence over the individual, she learnt that Laotians view the offering of one’s answers in a test, for instance, as a way of sharing and caring for one’s fellow man.

“This was personally challenging for me, but I do realise that the Laotian view is entrenched in cultural norms that I’m unfamiliar with. Criticising attempts to ‘help’ is considered unfair,” she explains.

To overcome this difference in perception, Low emphasises during class that taking an assessment without help from others is an effective way for students to assess their own language learning progress. While it is “still very much a work in progress”, her students now understand her intentions better, and there are less incidents of plagiarisation.

“This conundrum has certainly taught me a lesson in cultural sensitivity, and to not make blatant assumptions on issues that are taken for granted as universally true,” she shares.

The Water for Life project has benefitted more than 144,000 villagers, teachers and school children in Asia.

SIF volunteer and former teacher Roland Ang was among those who helped build a core group of Master Trainers made up of teachers from 10 high schools in Bandung, Indonesia.

The role of the Singapore team was to mentor and equip the Bandung Master Trainers with the skills and knowledge to better engage their students in the classroom. In turn, the Master Trainers would go on to share their knowledge with their peers to sustain the impact of the project.

For Ang, the differences in technical capabilities formed a slight challenge. “In Singapore, we are so used to fast Internet speed that’s easily available almost everywhere,” says the SIF volunteer of three years. But it’s not the case in developing countries.

Former teacher Roland Ang has learnt as much as he has taught in his capacity as a volunteer educator.

 

“If I want the teachers to go on the Internet to try out an app, or use it in their teaching, I need to consider if the school would be able to support this,” he points out.

Ang was challenged to think out of the box. “I thought of other interesting, non-Internet-dependent teaching methodologies that I could impart.”

While the project has ended its run, this has paid off. The effects have been far-reaching, with a discernible improvement in the teaching standards of the trainees.

GIVE AND TAKE
Despite their challenges, the volunteers have benefitted from their humanitarian trips.

“Volunteering is as much for others as it is for yourself. I have experienced great warmth and generosity from the Laotians. As a teacher and in a personal capacity, I’ve learnt a lot from teaching the officers,” shares Low.

Sundram has a more philosophical approach. Life, he feels, can be quantified in time and energy best spent ensuring the well-being of others.

Ang agrees, adding that sincerity is the most important factor in volunteering. “When you volunteer, it’s not just about sharing knowledge and expertise – it’s also about forging good relationships. When you are passionate about your craft and genuine about sharing what you know, others can feel it too,” he says.




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