The Spirit of Singapore

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My husband, daughter and I arrived in Singapore in 2008.

We’d been visiting this little city-state for years before that, marveling at its tourism driven economy, it’s efficiency, it’s attention to detail.

But all our trips as mere visitors, did not reveal to us a side of Singapore that we see now.

A nation that is far more than the malls and casinos. A nation that cares. A place I’m proud to call home.

Here are Shesh’s thoughts.

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Last week, as part of Jaya Holdings’ corporate social responsibility initiative, nine colleagues and I volunteered our time at Willing Hearts, a local NGO.

Willing Hearts is an organisation with a simple objective – that no Singaporean should go hungry. To this end, every day, they cook, pack and distribute about 2700 food packets to those sections of society that needs this food to survive.

I had heard of Willing Hearts before. I had a preconceived notion of how it would be – an organisation run like an army kitchen, rigorous and disciplined, putting together this huge number of meals in an assembly line manner. The ten of us were going to help packing, cutting, cleaning.

On our arrival at 7 AM in their cosy and spotlessly clean premises, I was expecting to be greeted by a drill sergeant look-alike, and be allocated to a team or a task. After all this was Singapore, and Singapore is known for its efficiency and discipline. And efficiency and discipline are better enforced than expected, that is the conventional wisdom, is it not?

What actually happened is very different. We stepped into a hum of activity (the food packets had to leave by 11 AM), but no structure. There were many volunteers but no visible managers. One of my colleagues had reached earlier and was busy at one of the stoves. I went to her and asked her what I should do. “Anything”, she said, “you can help me fry eggs, or go there and pack rice, or cut vegetables.” Is there anyone I should report to, I asked? “No,” she answered, “they know we have promised to be here; all we need to do is to get to work.” This was a strange state of affairs, I thought. How does such a loose approach deliver 2700 food packets every day?

I did not permit my thoughts to get in the way of work; figuratively rolling up my sleeves, I joined my colleague, Vera, at the egg-station and started cracking and frying eggs. 2700 is a large number, you know. The station was teeming with eggs, shells, oil that spattered on my innocent and wincing arms, and strange implements that I had never seen before but evidently made life easier for us. As we fell into a rhythm, I started taking in what was going on around me. There were about 70 volunteers. They were of all ages. I saw teen students and young professionals and housewives and mature gentlemen. They were of all races. Chinese worked alongside Indians, who worked alongside Malays, who worked alongside Caucasians. They seemed to come from a wide range of socio-economic classes. While all of us wore work clothes that could be spattered with oil without causing intense regret, I could see daily workers peeling vegetables that society matrons sliced and diced.

What really took my breath away, other than the egg-laden oil fumes, was that all these disparate volunteers, most of whom had never met before, were working in harmony and with a rhythm that defied conventional management theory. Not a single moment was wasted. Of course, there must have been subtle direction from the more experienced volunteers, but the entire process flowed smoothly without a visible structure or work-process or instructions. People cleaned, peeled and cut vegetables. People opened steaming rice vats and shared it out into food cartons. People distributed sausages. People fried eggs. People packed boxes. People stacked boxes. People sharpened knives. People wiped, cleaned, washed, swept, all in glorious harmony, smiling, chatting, laughing, sharing.

The work was arduous. At least for me. We fried and cracked eggs. We then cut turnips, bottle gourd and spinach. We washed vessels and knives and ladles. Completely unused to such work, my back started protesting early on, which protests then spread to my arms, legs and other body parts till they were all united in their condemnation of my misuse, being more used to lounging on a couch or sitting comfortably in an ergonomic office chair. It must have been as hard for all the volunteers, but not one of them showed discomfort or slowed down in their tasks.

As the morning went by, through snippets of discussion, I learnt more. I learnt that almost all the ingredients are donated by various people or groups – the vegetables and meat from wet markets, the rice by traders and associations, the provisions by stores and malls. But what was really amazing was seeing taxi drivers and van drivers taking time off from their workday to stop by, and for no reward, pick up a pile of food packets and deliver them to their destination. I learnt that there was a loose network of such kind-hearted people who would do this, knowing that the hour or more that is spent in this activity would reduce their earnings for the day.

Gradually, the food packets piled high and then diminished as they were collected for delivery. The busy hum of activity was slowly replaced by the clatter of dishes being washed and dried. Floors were swept, garbage bags filled and dumped into bins.

When I left that afternoon, I reflected that in Willing Hearts, I had witnessed the true spirit of Singapore – a place where discipline, efficiency and harmony come together seamlessly, without needing to be imposed or reiterated; a haven of sharing and camaraderie; an environment which encourages without dictating; a work ethic that is rigorous yet relaxed. I saw a confluence of races, religions, mind-sets and philosophies, all becoming intrinsic to the whole, without losing the individuality and uniqueness of the parts. I was humbled by the dedication and commitment of so many working so hard to benefit people they did not know and for no tangible or intangible extrinsic reward.

This reflection exalted me. My aching back straightened, my head lifted in pride, and a renewed sense of appreciation flooded through my weary being.

Venkatraman Sheshashayee

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Willing Hearts is located at 50 Genting Lane,
#04-06 Cideco Building, Singapore 349558.
It has a Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/willinghearts

And they would love to have willing volunteers!

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. It sounds like it shouldn’t work but it does – amazing. The volunteers really are doing a great job.

    1. radhika25 says:

      What’s remarkable is that there are probably many many such places running parallelly. With no fanfare– just quietly going about their business.

  2. nRamanathan says:

    I too have taken a liking to Singapore for its high sense of discipline and efficiency.The wonderful thing I admired of the Singaporeans is their helpful mentality and camaraderie. It is indeed a stupendous task to provide 2700 food packets everyday to needy people. Singaporeans should really be proud of organisations like Willing Hearts.

  3. A great article. When I went to Singapore 20 years ago (for business) the country was still building. when I was there 2 years ago, other than the charming historical area, the country has further developed and modernized several thousand times. And, people of all backgrounds living harmoniously.
    Every country needs a politician like Lee Kuan Yew.

    1. radhika25 says:

      Absolutely! Benevolent but tough.

  4. Fig & Quince says:

    Excellent journalism! I’m glad I finally got a chance to delve into this post and read it.

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