The thing that characterized my young life was "hand me downs".
Clothes -- hand me downs.
Mum had cardboard boxes full of beautiful clothes that belonged to my cousins. Even after I graduated university I accepted hand-me-downs from friends and family.
Books -- hand me downs.
Mum kept textbooks that my siblings had finished using. She also collected these from neighbours and any one willing to part with them.
Furniture -- hand me downs.
For a long time we only had mum and dad's "wedding bed". Over the years we were given a second double bed, a bunk-bed, a wardrobe and a sofa set. I was the last one to be allotted a bed and slept on the floor (first bamboo mat, then mattress).
Electrical appliances -- hand me downs.
We had no fridge until Second Auntie gave us her old one. A cousin gave us his old black-and-white TV when I was sixteen, our first TV.
My childhood was also characterized by watching my parents help those who are more in need.
One day the neighbourhood was abuzz with talk about an elderly couple two floors down from us who had no money for food or water. Neighbours found them with a mouldy bit of bread and nothing else to eat. Their water, gas and electricity had been disconnected.
Neighbours gave them cooked food. Mum was sent out to buy a long length of garden (water) hose. It was trailed from our bathroom tap down to this couple's flat in the evenings. It ran for as long as they had receptacles to collect water for drinking, cleaning and flushing the toilet.
We stopped when social services stepped in.
Our flat had an open-door policy, it appeared. People came from all the different households to ask to use the phone, for example. (It was a necessity, not a luxury, as my dad needed the phone to run his market stall.)
People came to my mum if they needed help with reading letters. When a neighbour was being beaten up by her husband, Mum was the person she shouted for.
We didn't have money to throw around but we were able to help in practical ways.
Take my eldest sister.
She always managed to find a neighbour here, a friend's child there, or someone else who needed help with school work. She gives free tuition to kids who needed that extra coaching.
So it has been ingrained in me that we must as neighbours, as fellow human beings, help those who are immediately around us. In practical ways.
Fighting for better national provision for the sick and elderly is important. Agitating for a fairer and more inclusive education where those who are not academically gifted are given space to develop is critical. Seeking pathways for our nationals to be happy and comfortable in being "Singaporean" -- that is urgent.
But it appears to me that most of us are also probably in the position to do something practical. If my late father, a market butcher, and my late mother, housewife, could make a difference in the lives of those in their neighbourhood, surely anyone reading this could do something, too. No?
The exchange of material goods is not only helpful but environmentally sound. These days we live in such a "disposable world" we forget that there is a long shelf-life to most of the things we own.
Just think, there was life before disposable nappies, when in fact people had more babies. The same cloth nappies could be used over and over again, and then either passed on to other parents or cut up to make other items (hankies in my case).
No, I doubt if my parents would have had six children if they had to depend on disposable nappies.
In Britain we have "Freecycle". We join Freecycle groups in our local area to recycle what might seem useless to you, but which would be of value to someone else.
Eg we had a robot lawn mower. (Husband bought this when he was too ill to mow the lawn.) When it stopped functioning we offered it on Freecycle and it was picked up by people who either like mucking about with robots or enjoyed repairing broken things.
Mum (who never threw anything away) found someone disposing of a huge "softboard" (which you could stick pins into). It was about six foot by three foot. We did not know what it was used for. Mum, being Mum, felt that it could be useful one day.
That "one day" came when a neighbour came to use the telephone, saw the board propped up between the bed and the wall and asked if she could have it. "Auntie Tailor" could use that to transfer her paper patterns onto fabric.
Rubbish to everyone else, but treasure for "Auntie Tailor".
So what can we do to supply those most in need amongst us with practical tools, appliances, bedding, clothes, books, furniture, etc?
We have the charity shops in the UK. (I used to volunteer in one.) My sister-in-law takes a lot of stuff to the Salvation Army in Singapore. (Unfortunately one day she took my 30plus-year-old Brownie uniform with all the badges intact.)
Such shops in the UK are great in re-cycling old but clean and useful clothes/other items. However they do also face a lot of flak from rival shops because they are seen to be unfair competition, in not having to pay employees but can depend on volunteers instead.
What about those who are unemployed? Disabled? Alcohol-dependent? The gambling addict?
There was a couple who lived in the next block who are both blind. But the husband was trained in sports massage and earned his own living. On occasions when I got to help him to cross the roads, etc. we had very interesting conversations.
How do we support our disabled so that they could lead an independent life?
There used to be "sheltered" factories where disabled people could make items with their hands or provide a service and earn their own living. Yes, these ventures might need to be subsidized. These people are never ever going to be able to compete against all the dagongmei from China if manufacturing is their mainstay.
But are there contracts that they could get for, let's say, filling goodie bags for National Day Parades or other corporate events? (I know it is cheaper to get our NSmen and prisoners to do these jobs.)
Such jobs mean workers are DOING something, creating and deriving a positive feeling about their own being. Even if taxpayers have to subsidize these ventures it is still cheaper, much cheaper, than handing out welfare benefits in the long run.
(As I pointed out in previous post, handing out welfare benefits willy-nilly only leave recipients free to loiter, listless, purposeless, and prone to being stopped and searched by police. Money does not remove the poverty in one's soul.)
By the same token, some unemployed can be absorbed into the charity shops either as volunteers or sometimes as volunteers who get expenses paid (transport will be expensive when you do not earn anything).
There are already people who collect perishable foods to distribute to those who need them. Such organizations need volunteers. Could you offer help, too?
My point is there are big overarching missions we can work towards: a change in policy, a turn towards passion, a step towards graciousness.
But there are little practical things we could all do to help. Let us walk our talk.
We are the ones who would know which neighbour is in need. What have we done in the last week to check up his/her needs? When we cannot finish the food that we buy on a "buy one get one free" deal, do we give the second lot away?
Do we make it known to those in a position to help that someone might benefit from free food? Or a care package (soap, toothbrush, shaving razers, etc) once in a while?
Or could it be that we could make a world of difference by volunteering to distribute food just once a week, a fortnight?
When we see our neighours' children struggling with school work and not being able to afford private tuition, are we able to offer help? Or point them to places where volunteers offer free tuition? Give them some old textbooks, or other books?
What about offering a lift in our car so someone could get to work? Or offering to childmind just a few hours a day so a parent could get to work?
Of course, of course, I also recognize that sometimes our offers of help are not appreciated. We risk rejection.
It has never occurred to me, once, that accepting hand-me-downs was a negative thing. It has not given me a low self-esteem. I have never once thought, "Yee, people must think we are so poor because they keep giving me their old clothes."
However when I consider that there are relatively good jobs that Singaporeans do not wish to take up, then possibly they would not accept offers of help.
(Times have changed. Jobs that my classmates would have aspired to are shunned by the younger generation. Is this a result of our own making?)
I remember two Cantonese phrases learned in my childhood: ma sei lok dei harng. When your horse dies on you, you jolly well get off and walk.
The other phrase is yum soey see yuen. When you drink water, think of its source.
When we help those in need, as I had been helped when my family and/or I was in need, people remember. When we then get to a position where we are able to help others, we must all see yuen and do the same.
And perhaps this is why people from humble backgrounds who have received scholarships and other types of help want to put themselves in positions where they are able to influence policy. When one is born with a silver spoon in one's mouth (can't understand this idiom, think of the poor mum!), one is less able to understand what it is like to have so little, and yet be given so much.
If some of our leaders (or civil servants or their offspring) appear to be heartless is it because they do not have the "privileged" disposition to yum soey see yuen as an impoverished young person, because everything had always been handed to them on a silver platter?
(Maybe some have chosen conveniently to blot out memory of their humble beginnings?)
Still, if each of us could do one additional thing for our neighbour in need, today, we will make this world a better place. Not just for this generation, but also for the next (should they remember to see yuen).
No need to wait for the politicians to debate until the cows come home.
How to help the poorest (2)
How to help the poorest (1)