This article by Gerard Ee, first appeared in the latest volume of Commentary, a journal from the National University of Singapore Society.
In the 1980s when I was a youth worker, young people who did not have the benefit of succeeding in school got on in life by taking up a trade. If they were willing, it would not have been difficult, by word of mouth, to find plumbers, carpenters, electricians or other craftsmen to take them on as apprentices. Most of the youth who came to my programmes started off as painters and along the way picked up other skills that served them well in blue-collar work. Regardless of their personal or family challenges, they were optimistic that they would find a way to make a living and to build a life.
These youth were more than aware of their low-income background, their lack of formal education and their challenges with the English language, our lingua franca, but they believed that with the support of family and friends they would make progress. This was a belief rooted in the strength of social capital.
SERVICES REPLACE NATURAL NETWORKS
Today, the structure of our economy and the demographics of our country are very different, and these realities exacerbate the disadvantages faced by our fellow citizens who lack formal education, those who are in the lower social economic strata, let alone those with ill health or disabilities.
Caring for our fellow citizens on the margins is a perennial challenge, but the challenge I would like to highlight is the way we have been dealing with it in recent years.
According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development website, there are currently more than 10,200 people employed in the social and community service sector and “it is a growing one with ample employment opportunities”. The proliferation of services competes with natural support networks, replaces the notion of a caring community and its self-directed problem-solving, and does nothing to weave the social fabric that binds us as a cohesive society. Nor does it comfort those on the margins that they actually have a relationship or a bond with the mainstream, as service consumption is often experienced as being problematised, fenced out and contained in isolation.
The current social service ecosystem is designed on the basis of helping people to cope with their environment. There is a focus on psychology and it operates on the belief that problems require treatment or intervention provided by professionals or programmes.
There is little focus on the context, circumstances or structural issues that sustain these problems. There is also no acknowledgement that Singapore’s need for immigration to compensate for low birth rates and a shrinking workforce, on the other hand, contributes to a plural society that further stresses those on the margins and reinforces their sense of displacement within their own country.
RALLY SOCIETY AROUND SOCIAL ISSUES
If social services are to serve as an important pillar for nation-building, then social inclusion and integration must be understood as efforts in creating an environment where no one feels displaced instead of simply trying to get the displaced to fit in.
We must regard social issues not simply as problems to be fixed, but also as opportunities to rally society towards a common good as well as a shared future that is mutually satisfying and meaningful. It is an opportunity to weave and strengthen the social fabric among people from different backgrounds and reduce the threats and ill effects that a plural society presents.
To achieve this, we must re-imagine the role of the social sector as one that increases the social capital within our country, rather than one that simply services those on the margins.
It works at creating context and conditions that enable people from different segments and social strata to develop mutual trust and co-create solutions where they have an active role in their success.
When people come together to own and act on their shared concerns, they will experience a sense of connectedness and contentment which closes the social divide among them. For those on the margins, these relationships would be important in bridging the social capital that provides them with opportunities and resources to raise their sense of well-being.
Why should we do that? We live in an imperfect and unequal world, but resentment and resignation among people set in when people, especially those on the margins, do not believe that their lives can change for the better.
Social services, when positioned to help those who have fallen behind, are inherently communicating that their users have failed to fit in or to contribute to the larger scheme of things.
This is reinforced when the process of accessing resources requires service users to accentuate their needs. This makes the people involved feel like they or their situations are problems. They constantly surface “needs”, which are the raw materials for the proliferation of service provision.
COMBINE STRENGTHS TO BUILD VALUE
A different paradigm in creating social services is to think of it as holding a space where a diverse group of people come together to make a difference to themselves and the group in a way they cannot when they act merely as individuals. It is inviting people to pool their strengths, gifts and talents in a manner that they find satisfying and meaningful.
In this vein, problem-solving efforts then become organised around the belief that all people, despite their challenges and often because of their challenges, have the potential to lead positive change.
Regardless, all of us have something of value to contribute and together we can build the community and country we want to belong to and live in.
In the public rental neighbourhoods my organisation works within, residents young and old are encouraged to gain an awareness of their shared concerns, deepen their understanding of the issues at hand, assume ownership of the situation and take action. With the support of volunteers and resources from the larger community, parents and youth come together to address issues such as poor school attendance, care and supervision of children, and substance use. As a result, parents coordinate learning and social programmes as well as organise themselves to support neighbours experiencing difficulties.
People demonstrate leadership in surprisingly large measures, and neighbourhoods start to have a climate of kindness, generosity, cooperation and forgiveness. People have a sense that together with neighbours and others in the Singapore community, they are making life better for all.
COLLECTIVE EFFORTS FOR CHANGE
Let me illustrate this paradigm with a tangible example: The Community Tabung is a savings programme that encourages low-income families to top up their children’s Child Development Account (CDA). Once a month on Tabung Counting Day, the children pour their savings into a common pool in the presence of their parents and volunteers.
The total amount is then divided equally among all who participated. Each child’s amount is trebled by a donor and when deposited into the child’s CDA, the initial shared savings would have multiplied six times at the end of the process, as contributions to the account are matched by the Government.
This programme has been designed to encourage personal and collective responsibility and, while savings are important, there is much value in the conversations people have about it and the relationships formed among all involved. Participants safeguard the practice of sharing the pooled savings equally as they appreciate the ebb and flow of life. Thus, being a part of a community where there is much “give and take” is comforting and satisfying. On counting days, parents, donors and volunteers cooperate to get things going and the experience of organising a successful event is mutually rewarding. Also, as parents get to know one another, they begin looking out for one another’s children.
Another initiative where success is a collective community effort would be our seasonal festive baking projects. To help low-income families earn some income, we secure orders of cookies from corporations as gifts during the festive periods. To handle the large orders, we cooperate with Caritas Singapore, the social and charitable arm of the Catholic Church, to offer the use of its baking facility at Agape Village for free. Then, we welcome representatives from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore to perform Sertu, a cleansing ritual which assures Muslims that the cookies prepared will be appropriate for their consumption.
Also, as suppliers grant substantial discounts and volunteers offer labour and expertise, the low-income families have come to see that while hard work is necessary for success, it is not enough.
There is also social capital or friendships where even religious differences and vested interests are put aside to facilitate success.
In the current mainstream social service ecosystem, the goal is for those facing difficulties to behave differently and the significant relationship for them is the one they have with the professional assigned to assist them.
Help is the domain of this expert and, even if the difficulties are resolved, the approach does not build social capital that enhances the beneficiaries’ resilience or an improved perception of their circumstances.
However, when the goal is for the community and society to behave differently and when relationships between neighbours and fellow citizens have a significant impact on one’s well-being, our social fabric is strengthened.
NETWORK OF COMMUNITY RESOURCES
Does this social capital-driven paradigm work? There is further evidence. In 2016, we embarked on a study to understand the value of our efforts in bridging low-income neighbourhoods with resources and relationships. After a year, there was positive impact on residents’ personal empowerment, their network of support and social connection, and their perception of neighbourhood characteristics. Respondents felt there was a sense of community where they lived and mutual trust among neighbours.
Our work covers some 60 public rental housing blocks and our relationship with government grassroots leaders is a hygiene factor for our continued presence. Where this relationship was not well established, our efforts made little headway. Otherwise, our work has been facilitated with the access to rooms, event halls and spaces for community engagement that those grassroots leaders help us with.
So, with these points in mind, let me make four recommendations to Singapore’s fourth-generation, or 4G, leaders to consider as they think about addressing the needs of those on the margins of society.
RETAINING COMMUNITY SPACES FOR COMMUNITY MEMBERS
The first recommendation is for the 4G leaders to safeguard community resources and infrastructure for the benefit of efforts that bring those on the margins towards the centre of the community.
I find it disturbing to see community centres being leased out to fast-food operators and other businesses. Surely, residents can go to the mall in the town centre should they desire such products, and surely the community centre management can utilise its facilities to reach out to residents who may find it difficult or not gratifying to visit the mall as a routine. In any case, community development and resident engagement can certainly be more than making it convenient for people to get fast food.
The optimising of community resources for rental revenue gives the impression that the Government is subsidising business at the expense of meaningful community engagement and development, as it is not transparent how the revenue is ploughed back into the community, apart from maintaining infrastructure. It also signals the depreciation of the community as its space is being encroached upon or even colonised by commercial interests. If this is not the correct impression or intent, the leaders should reassess some of their positions or decisions in these areas.
HARNESS COMMUNITY COMPETENCE TO CO-CREATE SOLUTIONS
Next, our 4G leaders must safeguard the notion of community as one that has the competence to resolve its challenges – a place where people can give and receive support and build a satisfying and meaningful life as described above.
Hence, the coordination of social services should put the power and decision-making of the people at the front and centre of all efforts. Neighbours, families, friends and constituents, in spite of their own problems, can be equipped to act as front-line responders for those experiencing difficulties.
Leadership, in this light, is about convening gatherings where people from different socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicity can understand one another better and co-create solutions. The different gifts and relationships among constituents should be mapped and inventories should be set up and updated regularly; these gifts and relationships should be celebrated, activated and treasured as assets that a community can draw upon to solve its own problems or enrich its life.
RETURN PROBLEMS TO THE PEOPLE
To activate a community’s assets, the 4G leaders must also safeguard the transparency of concerns.
What does this mean? Unless concerns are clearly defined and acknowledged, people cannot or will not see the need to cooperate and resolve them. Usually when concerns are raised, our leaders cite a programme or scheme that is already dealing with it. This says that the status quo is good enough and no improvements are necessary.
I would suggest that the social service sector be an advocate that draws people’s attention to the challenges facing citizens living on the margins. Then, instead of recommending expert industry solutions, enable people to respond in a way where they can utilise their own competencies and social capital.
This transparency of concerns would mean returning the problems to the people so that they can appreciate the implications and strengthen their sense of agency or ability to act on them.
Leadership is about listening to the aspirations and factors that people find motivating and then connecting them to resources and relationships as a way of fuelling their work.
Lastly, our 4G leaders must safeguard a narrative of “finishing well together”. Our leaders often use football and other sporting analogies to explain their roles and responsibilities. In sport, we must play to win and while winners are adored, so are the values of fair play, sportsmanship, mutual respect, friendship and solidarity among sportsmen, all of which define the context for excellence.
To draw on the philosophy of the Olympic movement, we must “create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”.
Our collective goal must be for everyone to reach the “finish line” of being recognised as a valuable citizen with much to contribute. The social service sector must stand together with those who have crossed the finish line to applaud those still running towards it as they make the effort to do the same.
I have presented four areas requiring guardianship and if they are indeed well safeguarded, the social service sector would have woven a social fabric that can be a safety net or trampoline for those on the margins. At the same time, there would be heightened awareness and understanding of our social challenges across society. Also, people will not shy away from reclaiming these challenges as their own and, as a result, will start organising themselves to act on them.
One visible indicator that we are succeeding will be the nature of the annual Social Service Summit. Instead of it being attended only by social service professionals and leaders of social service organisations, it will feature those who have come together as a community to address their shared concerns. Leaders in the social service sector will be able to quantify how these efforts have contributed to nation-building and fortify the bedrock of compassion, social justice and community that social work is built upon.
• Gerard Ee, a social work veteran, is Executive Director of Beyond Social Services.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2019, with the headline ‘Stop seeing people as problems. They’re assets who build social capital’