Monday, 28 March 2016

A Service Life of Service

My Journey With A Life of Service.
Inspired by Easter:
Empowering others to live their lives abundantly.

I remember Yanis’ (name unknown) little eyes – they were sunken, all white and punctuated with a tiny black dot where his pupil and iris should be. Barely a month old, he seemed malnourished and dehydrated from severe diarrhea resulting probably from consuming “unclean” milk from his mother’s poor personal hygiene.  The doctors in my Medical Team checked him and their prognosis was that he would not survive the evening. There was nothing that we could do. Yanis was not responsive to the doctors’ probing as he lays sprawling in his mother’s arms. And they had walked nearly 5 hours to our medical station. That was the summer of 2006, when I led a humanitarian medical mission into the midst of Timor Leste’s civil war. I was to return to Timor Leste with 6 other humanitarian missions before its return to peaceful social order.

The poignant picture of Yanis serves a constant grim reminder of the need for more volunteers to serve and uplift their less fortunate fellow human beings. 

Many times have I addressed leadership cohorts and youth groups interested in philanthropy and service voluntarism and reminded them that one does not volunteer to serve only if time permits; rather, one volunteers upon realizing there are urgent and compelling needs of lots of people out there - the young, sick, old and vulnerable – to whom anyone of us can make a difference just by trying.

To many of us, it is understandable to feel that we are just one rather insignificant person in the world.  Yet to Yanis’ mother, and so many others like her, you (and your fellow volunteers) are the world to them. 

I did not choose the life of service.  I guess it must have grown gradually into me.  At 14, I joined my School’s Interact Club to meet new friends and have the opportunities to participate in fun, meaningful service projects while developing leadership skills.  We committed to a regime of regular weekly Friday visits to the School of the Blind to tutor Mathematics to visually-impaired peers.  The initial feelings of pity and sympathy were soon replaced by friendship bonds and growing appreciation of our natural interdependence and differential physical conditions. 

As a Red Cross Youth cadet, becoming eventually a commissioned student Assistant Cadet Officer in 4 years, more opportunities abounded to learn vital life-saving skills as well as visiting various social charitable organizations and gained important insights and invaluable up-close and personal experiences with the handicapped, spastic, paraplegic, aged and sick, which would otherwise have been a real impediment to a more complete understanding of society.  

One day, I responded to the advertisement of an organization called “Samaritans of Singapore” for volunteers. I was a “stay-out” National Serviceman serving 2½ years of compulsory military service.  After a series of “sensitivity-sessions” that eliminated more than 80% of eager prospectives, I began eventually to occupy a regular Saturday overnight duty spot, responding to callers wanting to talk anonymously to someone who would listen to personal issues, which may drive some to commit suicide. And when one whom I (and others) have been communicating with regularly actually committed suicide, I realized the awesome responsibility on our shoulders to be a “listening friend” to someone standing on the edge between hope and hopelessness, and between pain and relief.  I recalled and remembered this incident vividly even as I too walked unto life’s narrow edge many years laterThe eternal lesson of life’s precious gift is now deeply ingrained in my soul.  Each life matters; and all life matter above all.           

A year earlier before Timor Leste, in the Spring of 2005, I had join 150 volunteers on a large-scale humanitarian mission to Nias Island which was hit a massive earthquake just 3 months after the Tsunami of North Sumatra that devastated the Indonesian Province of Aceh and large parts of Thailand, among other countries.  Following the mission, the Singapore Red Cross provided some funds for the construction of a Orphanage that was damaged by the earthquake.  I was part of the team responsible for its successful development over the subsequent 3 years and the follow-up operations. The Tomorrow’s Hope Orphanage now has more than 40 children ages 6-18 years old.     

In 2009, I led a team from my Hall of Residence 9 @ the Nanyang Technological University to Nias as part of their Overseas Community involvement Project (OCIP) for enhanced residential learning.  Teams from Hall 9 and former Hall 9 regularly organize other teams to visit Tomorrow’s Hope Orphanage annually beyond 2009 making it the most sustainable OCIP in NTU, confirming effective service learning in the participants.

NTU Hall of Residence 9 had already in 2007 won a Special Commendation for Humanitarian Work by our NTU Youth Mission to Timor Leste in Sep-Oct 2006.  

As Associate Professor in Human Resource Management (HRM), I am acutely mindful that I cannot expect my students to learn by telling them what to know.  My job was to facilitate and empower their learning by challenging thinking and re-configure mindsets so as to break through the glass ceilings and firewalls that retard their learning, unlearning and relearning processes.  And this demands that I bring them into the world like the OCIPs, or bring the world into the classroom through a proprietary reality learning pedagogy.  

Many years later, one of my students, now one of the youngest ever senior manager of a large global IT company, attributed to me his “best career advice”: To “always do something new”.  He said in an interview that the advice had:

“equipped him a mindset to continually sustain a learning environment throughout my professional life.  It has also helped me maintain an entrepreneurial spirit in order to rise to new challenges.  Moreover, ‘doing something new’ and getting out of my comfort zone regularly has ensured that I am seldom bored or I am not stagnated with my work”.

The importance of early youth involvement in a life of service cannot be emphasized enough.  Early involvement can inculcate in teens and youths the essential value of service in their development of a balanced and wholesome life-style.  The important life lesson is that the abundant life is developed through sharing, not accumulation or hoarding; and that true happiness, like true love, is found only through contributing to the enhancement of happiness and love in other people.

Education is that powerful weapon to change the world decisively and make it a better place for all.  

I continue to be actively involved in education and learning, as Advisor to a large education social enterprise and largest provider of private learning centres; and have served as President of Nanyang Primary School Parents-Teachers Association as well as a Mentor with the Gifted Education Program of the Ministry of Education.

Community service began in me by chance as I was waiting to be released from the Singapore Armed Forces upon completion of compulsory national service in the military. I responded to a questionnaire by the People’s Association (PA) seeking feedback as to how to improve community facilities and amenities, as well as policies and rules to enhance neighbourliness and community bonding.  I responded with numerous ideas and detailed suggestions as I have grown up in the community for the past 20+ years.  I did not realize then that my youthful exuberance and imagination would launch me onto an awesome journey of joyful community service that spans nearly 35 years to-date.   

At a subsequent town-hall meeting, I was surprised to be called out by my then Member of Parliament to chair the “Residents Committee” (RC) created specifically to mobilize residents to participate in the well-being and uplifting of the environment around my immediate neighbourhood.  I remembered his words clearly as I queried him his choice. He replied: ”You have many ideas. Now, as RC Chairman, you can do something about them and make them happen.” I took his words as a challenge and accepted the appointment without any hesitation, mindful that to reject it would have simply made me part of the problems that I did identify instead of part of the solutions that they demanded.  

I became in 1980 the youngest RC Chairman of the nascent PA community development initiative that would soon revolutionalise and modernise the way Singapore organises and manages its public housing precincts with increasing inclusiveness and popular participation in the following decades.  For over 30 years, I served variously, and often concurrently, on the Central Singapore District Community Development Council, was the Chairman of Thomson Community Club Management Committee, Vice-Chairman of the Thomson Citizens Consultative Committee as well as other PA community-based committees.  In 2002, I was recognised on the National Day 2002 Honours List and awarded the Public Service Medal (PBM) for community service by the President of Singapore.  Beyond the nice gesture, the work of service continues unabated.

Pakistan 2010 introduced to me yet another dimension into the international matrix of human co-operation for an more effective universal response to human sufferings and natural disasters.  Man-made poverty from relentless corporate exploitation to privatise profits whilst socializing costs complicates national development effort and handicap effective response to alleviate the toll of human suffering and lives. Unprecedented floods devastated Pakistani and North Indian mountainous villages within a matter of hours.  Raging swollen rivers and muddy glacial currents swept away more than 300,000 men, women and children without warning. The final toll was more than 11 millions.  And when I arrived 6 weeks later as part of a Christian humanitarian relief team to follow-up and support the work of our Welfare Organisation partners on site, I discovered that the situation was much worse than were covered by the world press and media.  Later analysis would confirm that it was no “act of God”, but that the erratic weather was the cumulative effect of climate change from excessive carbon emissions, massive deforestation, and corrupt governmental neglect of responsible infrastructure. It strengthens my commitment to be a loud advocate for sustainable corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development.

These are now the sustainable goals of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development aimed at ending poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.   

After the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, I was invited as a Sustainability Advisor and joined over three hundred Chinese as well as international experts and decision-makers from government, business, civil society, and academia over 8-13th May 2012 for the launch of the Inaugural Hanwang Forum at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing and in Deyang, Sichuan Province.  More than just a forum, the event marked the formation of a permanent platform for collaborative action, following two years of preparation in China and abroad. Unprecedented for its mission and scale, it was founded on a trusted international community of partners and drew upon a significant depth of experience with the aim of carrying out transformative projects both within China and abroad.

Emphasising compassion, sharing, teamwork and co-operation, the Hanwang approach builds on this spirit of responsibility and resilience in the face of momentous challenges. It promotes a society-wide approach to sustainable development, focusing on generating initiatives that positively impact the economy, the environment and society as a whole.  It is such a privilege to meet and join so many like-minded people mobilized to realise the Hanwang vision of a sustainable, ethical and resilient society.

The most humbling service experience took place in Vietnam where in 2002, I was engaged by the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) as its International HRM Consultant to the Government of Vietnam to facilitate their desire for harmonious industrial relations through a conducive tripartite infrastructure for social dialogue and collective bargaining. The work so enthralled the Vietnamese government and key industry participants that they implored the World Bank to incorporate the subsequent ILO Industrial Relations (IR) Project action plans into their US$500m Comprehensive Poverty Reduction Strategy (CPRS) aimed at its overall national development.

The ILO Vietnamese IR Project is now a classic case study of how capacity building and capability development in modern industrial relations mechanisms eg. trade unions, collective bargaining, conflict resolutions, and tripartite social dialogue are relevant and value-adding even for emergent socialist market economies.  It was certainly professionally most challenging and daunting as I teamed with an highly ILO professional as my co-consultant in this ground-breaking breakthrough.  My services continued to be engaged by the ILO on various IR and social dialogue projects in Vietnam as well as China, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka for nearly 8 more years.

It should be noted that issues of poverty and the decent work agenda are inter-twined and related, making them major global corporate social responsibility (CSR) concerns of business excellence.  

To me, being a sustainability advocate and CSR consultant is a natural extension in the journey along the life of service, and they exist concurrently with my professional expert domains in HRM and talent development.  On World CSR Day 2012, I was conferred the CSR Leadership Award in recognition of contributions which has made a difference to people and the community.  This was followed by the Global CSR Leadership Award at the Global CSR Summit 2012. A year later at the Philip Kotler’s World Marketing Summit 2013, I also received a CSR Leadership Excellence Award.     

This Easter, and mindful of the Christian belief in one man’s sacrifice to save all of mankind from eternal damnation and was resurrected so that those who believe in him would have hope in a better and  more abundant life, I am inspired to exhort one and all, Christians and non-Christians alike, of the urgency to make our existence meaningful to others, especially to those unrelated to us.  It is easy to give from your abundance, as many of you do.  Yet, one has to learn to over-come the reluctance to give as much as we can to help relieve the financial pain-points faced by others.  Having navigated the ups and downs of life’s erratic fortune, I now give as generously as possible because I know personally what it feels like to have nothing.

My parting thought to you: Are you just occupying space and wasting oxygen?  Do you believe that your power to love and share should be invested to overcome the love for power, which is at the root of social corruption, slavery, violence and greed? 

Surely, you can do better.  You have been blessed to be a blessing.  
Starts now, today. 


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