Confessions of a Meet-the-People Volunteer

He still doesn’t know why he decided to volunteer all those years ago.

It wasn’t about “giving back to (his) community, or doing good for the people around (him)”.  As a sixteen-year-old teenager, his attention was directed at more age appropriate distractions — like girls. 

Wong describes why many of his friends volunteered at Meet-The-People sessions (MPS):

I knew people from Raffles and Hwa Chong who spent 3-4 hours weekly at MPS, for years, just to strengthen their university applications. That was crazy to me. Investing so much time in something you don’t believe in, just seems like a huge waste of time. Also, unlike the Raffles and Hwa Chong kids, my chances of getting into an Ivy League weren’t that great anyways. So like, why even try that hard? 

Curiosity played a large role in his decision to volunteer. Back then, he spent most of his time at school, or at home. Wong wanted to know how the people around him lived, and about the problems they faced. Not because he could in anyway solve them, but because there was “a need to break the echo-chamber that [his] privileged upbringing” had afforded him. “I’m a bit kepoh. So listening to neighbourhood gossip from aunties and uncles seemed like a very interesting job to me,” he joked.

Anyone and everyone

Grocery goody bags are sometimes given out to struggling residents. Source.

A man in a pure white chongsan (long shirt) waited outside the kindergarten cum makeshift Meet-the-People Session (MPS) interview hall. It was a rainy evening and there were almost 70 people waiting in the sheltered void deck. This was usually the case in the final weeks of the month — when residents were nearing payday but were quickly running out of money. 

This man, however, seemed unfazed by the long wait ahead of him. Like many who turned up for these sessions, he was old, and donned a distinctly barren but wrinkled head. Even though there were seats laid out, he stood defiantly, tightly gripping a black suitcase in one of his hands. “That was such an odd sight to me. I was wondering what his intentions were. Maybe he was hoping to get our attention? Or to be served quicker?” Wong tells us. 

Either way, the man’s turn to be interviewed soon arrives. 

My name Master Tan and I am Singapore number one spiritual guidance instructor. I’m here because Lee Hsien Loong is in great trouble. There is bad energy surrounding him. His father told me to take care of him. 

His Father?

Yeah, I used to be Kuan Yew’s closest friend. A lot of Singapore’s success was because of my advice.

Wong was suspicious, but he soldiered on anyways:

So, what can we do for you today?

You see, before Kuan Yew died, he told his son to contact me for lessons. But Hsien Loong has been a bad son. He hasn’t called me even though he has my number. So I want the MP to pass Loong my name card and tell him to call me. The future of Singapore depends on this.

Oddly enough, a senior volunteer waited till the end of the session to pass the master’s name card to the MP. Wong isn’t too sure what happened after this, but the story serves to prove a greater point.

During his two years of volunteering, Wong met wives of imprisoned drug dealers, teenage mothers, and in general, disenfranchised individuals stuck in a cycle of poverty. But the converse is as true. Doctors, lawyers, teachers and the wealthy had come down to try to get their problems solved. “There is this common perception; that MPS is meant for residents who are struggling. I think this generalisation doesn’t align with the experiences that I’ve personally had. Anyone and everyone comes through the door,” he tells us. 

Agitated residents 

Minister K Shanmugam at a Meet-the-People session. Source.

Abuse seems to be a sad reality of Meet-the-People sessions. According to Wong, volunteers get confronted – verbally, and even physically – on a weekly basis.

We are sometimes punching bags for the residents. They come in angry – government policies and actions have failed them, and we are the most visible representation of the ‘system’ in their eyes. All of us – students, lawyers, school principals, retired civil servants – come down after our respective day jobs, to be at the receiving end of someone else’s anger. The worst part of it all is that we have no say on these policies in the first place. 

Wong isn’t the only one though – many MPs have shared their horror stories at these sessions. Dr. Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) told The New Paper that a resident was planning to splash urine at her, and stab her while she was distracted. “We called the police and while he denied it at first, he eventually described what he was going to do, saying there were voices in his head telling him to hurt me,” she said. 

While Dr. Lily narrowly escaped, Mr. Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) was less lucky. In April 2017, while speaking to residents, Mr. Tan was grabbed in a chokehold and slammed against a wall and yanked to his knees.”One moment I was speaking to that resident and the next thing I knew, someone was hitting me and I found myself on the floor,” he said. In October 2018, the attacker, a 32-year-old with a history of drug abuse, was sentenced to three months in jail.

Reluctantly, Wong concedes that there is nothing much that can be done about this type of abuse.

It’s not a nice feeling for sure, but it’s understandable. Trust is something that has to be earned of course, but I do hope that residents will slowly learn to trust that many of us volunteers genuinely do want to help and have no hidden agenda — most of us aren’t, and have no interest in becoming, politicians.

Featured image from Facebook.

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