I am a cynical and judgmental person. It feels natural for me to criticise and I usually resist giving affirmation, even when social niceties call for it. For example, I see people fundraise by swimming or running long distances and wonder why these people can’t just use all that energy to directly volunteer or help. Maybe it is being too hard on those already trying to do good but my natural instinct operates on this logic: criticism helps improve, but affirmation does nothing except to feed ego.
All I’m trying to say is that if I give accolades, I usually mean it. And if any organisation deserves any affirmation, it is Beyond Social Services, especially at their 50th Anniversary and book launch. (Order the book here)
True to their style, they are hosting it on their premises kampong-style and not charity gala dinner in a fancy hotel. There were in fact many dignitaries present because Beyond has powerful friends, but they were there in solidarity, not to lend prestige to the event. Their book is subtitled ‘Safeguarding the Community’ and one little known thing about them is that Beyond even safeguards the community against Beyond’s own organisational interests. Sob stories by ‘beneficiaries’ are effective for soliciting donations, but highly disempowering, so Beyond doesn’t do that kind of fundraising. It feels right that the celebrations are done in the neighbourhood itself—set up a tent, food cooked by the neighbours, and just gather friends and volunteers. I laughed when Ranga said, “I just hope it doesn’t look like a funeral.”
To me, it is amazing that Beyond Social Services even exists in Singapore. Some other organisation would have gone a different route or just called it quits. How does Beyond stick to its vision of working with the community, when all the funding and incentives point to service delivery instead? I was told this: It is really easy to make compromises, go with the flow, tweak your programmes to what funders want. You can even rationalise and justify these decisions as necessary compromises, even strategic and intelligent moves for organisational survival. But at what point do you start believing your rationalisation? At what point do you start believing the myths you tell yourself? This was the stark and lasting lesson I learned, not from the seasoned veterans, but from a young and thoughtful community worker there. This is the calibre of people who work at Beyond.
As part of an organisational case study on Beyond, I asked them what they thought their social impact was. I was used to aspirational statements VWOs use to impress their funders. I wondered what they will come up with—whether it will be youth fulfilling their potential, upward social mobility, or even ending poverty itself. This was their answer:
“All we are doing is giving children from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to refuse a life of delinquency and welfare dependency.”
It is this humility that distinguishes them, and in my mind, elevates them. They understand and respect that people make their own decisions, and are not clay that social workers can simply mould to their image of what is good. This is rare and refreshing in the sector, because it is so much easier to provide grandiose impact statements to impress funders who may like quick fixes and easy answers. In fact, Beyond constantly checks themselves and reflect whether they have inadvertently imposed their own agenda on the community. Gerard, even after 30 years of doing this, reflected in his weekly post before the 50th Anniversary:
“Much has changed with me but one thing that has not after all these years, is a discomforting feeling that the availability of my job is dependent on the continued misery of those I profess to support. Will these people just wilt away when I am not present in their lives? Or am I always finding a way to establish a presence in their lives; keeping them dependent on my services so that I can make a living?”
Gerard makes space for vulnerability and uncertainty, because it is all too easy for those trying to do good to trample on the already downtrodden. He doesn’t just ask piercing questions, but is has surprising insights if you know how to listen to them. This is not because he tries to be clever or slick, but because he lives and embodies this way of being. He has chosen to be authentic despite pressures from our culture to be Machiavellian.
We seem to know how to be bureaucrats and professionals—our schools and economy demands this from us and we have internalised administrative logic and market logic. But what of ‘community logic’? Do we know how to be a member of a community? Do we know how to be good neighbours? Quite likely, our instincts are to administer our communities much like we operate organisations. Like other thoughtful community workers, Gerard is merely reflecting on practice, but what he says often makes you stop to think. He is like a combination of things that hardly ever go together—a humble, streetwise, philosopher(?!). To me, Gerard is not just the Wise Old Village Elder, but also the real Godfather of Community Development in Singapore. (Bee Leng is the Godmother).
A community worker from Beautiful People jokes that she makes an annual ‘pilgrimage’ to see Gerard to seek his counsel on community work *reverent clasping of hands and bowing*. An example of his sharing with her: “Don’t steal people’s problems.”
I asked, is this like a retreat somewhere every year? She said, “No lah, it’s just lunch.”
There are many distinguished people in the social and community sector. There are many with status and power and influence, and they all try to do some good. Many of them rightfully have the respect of the people.
But I think Gerard and Beyond have something much more—they have the love of their community.