Why are you here taking jobs from my people?
I froze. It was Youth Day 2011, and we were walking along the Green Corridor when my friend, a fellow educator from another school, asked me that momentous question.
On the country’s 25th year of independence, I came to Singapore as a 9-year-old. My parents were seeking a better life for our family and a better education for me. In August that year, I drew a birthday cake for this new country I lived in and won my school’s National Day drawing competition. This young country became the land of possibility to me, one that accepted me, and so began our love affair. In two decades, I had never before felt unwelcome until that fateful day walking along the Green Corridor. Perhaps it is a testimony to how accepting Singapore had always been, that I had never experienced this earlier. After all, we/this/Singapore are/is a nation of immigrants.
Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung.
(“You should hold up the sky of the land where you live.”)
Zubir Said (1907-1987) cited this Malay proverb to sum up his philosophy when he was composing Majulah Singapura (the Singapore national anthem). I learnt about this from two of my students. Arts students are a unique lot, but these two took it to a new level. Endlessly curious and deeply appreciative of their country’s history and culture, these young creative talents had stumbled upon this interesting account of one of Singapore’s arts pioneers. They took their own initiative to share it with their school community at assembly, on what would have been Pak Zubir’s 107th birthday. As the school sang that morning, the national anthem seemed to take on a deeper significance. I thought the proverb, in the national language no less, was inspiring and posted the story on social media.
A Singaporean friend, an arts programmer who had always been supportive of my work to nurture the gotong royong spirit amongst the next generation of creative talents in Singapore, responded simply that this was “just what [I had] been doing all these years”. As I read those words, big fat tears rolled down my cheeks. I couldn’t help it— it felt a lifetime away from Youth Day at the Green Corridor.
Learning to Serve
I choose to serve through education, here in Singapore, because I am largely a product of this system and can identify with some of the struggles youth here continue to face. I went to school in an era when Kishore Mahbubani was asking Can Asians Think? and school rankings were the driving force in education. In my elite secondary school, the high stakes, exam-oriented culture resulted in the routine educational practice of: if it’s not in the syllabus, don’t ask questions—concentrate on acing your exams. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was miserable and craved escape, finding solace in my extra-curricular activities in the band. Fortunately, my less than stellar grades landed me in a lower ranking junior college, headed by a most enlightened and supportive principal who was a strong supporter of out-of-classroom learning. There I became actively involved in community service, albeit ad-hoc without sustained relationship building with any community. But it was here that the seeds were sown for a sense of purpose greater than myself. I participated in my college’s overseas community involvement programmes, deeply impactful experiences that would later lead me to join Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Youth Expedition Project (YEP)—then a brand-new initiative supported by the forward-thinking political and social leaders of the day. The pedagogy behind the YEP is service-learning–there is a greater purpose to learning—it is to use our learning to serve others. On the other hand, the purpose for serving was to learn from those we serve. Service-learning is a form of experiential learning—when we reflect on what we experience, this learning becomes our constructed knowledge which informs our future actions, helping us to serve better and so the cycle continues. Service-learning goes far beyond charity—it calls for us to respect the community as our teachers, to keep questioning why things are the way they are, to be mindful that we do no harm out of good intentions that don’t actually meet real community needs, to ensure our service upholds human dignity; empowering those whom we serve to become better able to serve themselves and others, to respect and create space for the community to have a voice, and for the student/learner/server to also have a say in what is to be learnt. This mode of learning was new to me—there couldn’t have been a more polar opposite from what I had experienced earlier in my educational journey. This approach to learning resonated with my budding sense of purpose and has been one I have adapted to every community I have worked with.
The Journey is the Destination
In my decade of designing, coordinating and facilitating service-learning projects and programmes with youth and communities, we have journeyed from senior activity centres to hospitals, from schools for people with disabilities to social enterprises, from Venus Loop at MacRitchie to the jungles of Sumatra, from shelters for children of offenders to originating villages of people who have been trafficked.
Through partnering communities in service-learning, students explore and act on issues of significance to humanity, engaging in real, responsible and challenging actions for the common good. As an educator, I appreciate that service-learning transforms my role. In a class of 20, the power dynamics shift from the “teacher” as the all-powerful sole repository of knowledge and arbiter of right and wrong to that of “facilitator” of the exchange of ideas and opinions between 21 minds, each a voice valid and respected in their own right. Because there is only so much one can learn about leadership in a freezing lecture theatre. At some point of time, we need to be comfortable enabling youth to take risks, developing relationships with real individuals in our communities to provide opportunities for students and community members alike to road test theories through the school of hard knocks; making decisions that have real consequences, learning to take personal responsibility for the consequence of these choices, embracing the good, the bad and the ugly of the learning process, to develop the wisdom and resilience to be able to learn, celebrate and recover from both the mistakes and the successes, in the process developing the informed judgment, imagination and skills that our better world depends on.
Passing on a Legacy
It is Teachers’ Day as I write this, and preparations for SG50 are underway. As Singapore’s 50th year of independence approaches, I reflect with immense gratitude on the many pioneering educators of this country who have nurtured generations of learners, including myself. Their lessons took our classrooms from the indoors to the outdoors, from within this island nation to the shores beyond it, and have nurtured my own desire and confidence to hold up the sky of the land where I live. I have learnt to make peace with my dual identities as both insider and outsider, turning this schizophrenia into an advantage when bridging communities and cultures both within and beyond Singapore. That I am who I am and do the work I do as a service-learning practitioner, is the legacy of the many educators, both formal and non-formal, Singaporean and otherwise, whom I have had the fortune of crossing paths with and who have dedicated their lives to provide my peers and I with experiences from which to make sense of the world, to grow and to discover our own individual place and purpose. In gratitude, we endeavour to pass this spirit on to the next generation.
Written with gratitude to this island, as published in Singapore: Insights from the Inside—Volume II by the Singapore International Foundation