by Brenda Tan
RECENTLY, a group of children from seven to 16 years old were driven around the Marina Bay area in luxury cars. This wouldn’t have caused much comment, except that these were underprivileged children whose parents were or are in prison.
While no one doubted the good intentions of the organisers of the event, the Industrial and Services Co-operative Society (ISCOS), which helps ex-offenders and their families, in collaboration with the Singapore Motor Sports Association and Valencia Club de Futbol, or the good intentions of the car drivers, many netizens had misgivings about how the event might be received by the children and their family members who were unlikely to ever own such vehicles.
Some felt that the unintended message of flashy cars as success symbols sent a wrong message about what success meant and looked like, while others felt that there were probably better ways to give the children a fun experience in the Marina Bay area without resorting to them being ferried about by such atas status symbols for a joyride. At their age, a Hippo bus ride or even a Duck tour would have been just as exciting, if not more enriching.
Other netizens felt that those who questioned the use of luxury cars to ferry the children were indulging in sour grapes – that just because these commenters don’t have the chance of being driven in luxury cars, they were depriving others from having an experience being driven in one. Besides, it was just a fun outing for these underprivileged children, so why make such a fuss of it?
Personally, I find that it is not wrong to be concerned about how the show of wealth might send a wrong message to the children. In fact, I wonder how much thought we privileged ones put into our acts of charity to those who are less well-off, beyond our good intentions.
Of course it is not wrong for us to be motivated by the intention to do good! In fact, it is highly commendable! Singapore Kindness Movement’s “A Nation of Kindness starts with One” reminds us that being kind to others begins with the individual. We are the start point in considering the needs of the people around us, and in being kind to others we all gain a gracious society.
Yet, I feel that just having good intentions is not enough; it is merely the tip of the iceberg. We also need to be mindful of the other person’s needs and situation, and how our “good intentions” may actually complicate things or cause more pain for them later.
The Yellow Ribbon Fund-ISCOS (Industrial and Services Co-operative Society) Fairy Godparent Programme’s aim of breaking the cycle of inter-generational offending is certainly a worthy and meaningful cause. The programme for the children of ex-offenders focuses on education and family support through tuition bursaries and mentoring programmes, which will help these children to break through the poverty cycle via education, and having positive role models to guide them.
However, I wonder if the organisers considered whether a glitzy car ride would fit into its programme and purpose? Perhaps in the excitement of organising a big event that even has press coverage, the organisers may have overlooked the aftermath of the “good deed” for the children and their families.
Certainly, if the programme’s aim is to break the cycle of inter-generational offending that has to do with poverty, how would driving the children around in luxury cars inspire them to break out of that? It has certainly inspired a 12-year-old to want to own his own car when he is older, whether he needs it or not.
Furthermore, while we may say that it’s only a well-intentioned joyride for children that would otherwise never have the means to be driven in such luxury, have the organisers thought about how the parents would feel when their seven-year-olds compare how good their driver is because of his ‘haves’ with their parents’ ‘have-nots’? Or when after the ride their 16-year-old decides that she could get used to the luxury of being driven in fast cars, and may be tempted by easier ways to attain the high life?
The intention may be good, but was there mindfulness regarding the recipients of the ‘kindness’? Was it kind to show what a “good life” looks like, when in truth, it’s actually a different life? And in fact, is living a “good life” defined by material comfort, which is quite different from living an upright life.
In the late 2000s, my husband designed and ran a five-year overseas service learning project where he and his team brought students to a remote fishing village south of Batam to dig ditches and wells and to paint and build up walls for their village school. The students were from classes which often had discipline issues in school, and the project aimed to enable them to learn to work better with their classmates. It was made clear at the onset that what the students would do in the village is not an act of charity, but an act of service. That the poor village, where a family lives on about US$6 a day, is a place of dignity and pride, where the menfolk work hard for their families in fishing, and where there is community spirit in the way they work together to get infrastructure up for the village. The boys were there to help provide manpower, as their presence meant that the menfolk had to take a day off fishing to supervise the work of digging and building. The boys, in ‘service learning’, were there to learn from the village as much as they were there to serve.
I remember an incident my husband related to me. A well-off boy had given his sunglasses to one of the village boys and he was roundly told off by my husband. Wasn’t it an act of charity and kindness for him to give his sunglasses to someone who had none? He did it out of good intentions, didn’t he? My husband had to help him understand a key principle of community development – that any ‘helping’ group by their very presence in the village has already brought a disruption to the community’s patterns, and therefore, it was vital to ensure that it was a positive disruption.
Thus, the act of giving that pair of sunglasses may have unintended consequences such as dividing friendships the recipient might have when he shows the gift to his mates or that helping groups in such a way inevitably creates unhealthy expectations in the recipients of the next ‘helping’ group that comes along.
The road to hell, as the proverb goes, is paved with good intentions.
My husband was very strict about the ‘gifts’ his team brought for the village. Second-hand clothes were collected from staff and students, but these were sorted out long before they got on the coach to Harbourfront. Spaghetti-strapped blouses and t-shirts with inappropriate pictures and words were set aside, as were winter wear. Clothes too ‘holely’ or too faded were destined for the bins, because the recipients never asked for these gifts. But if we brought gifts – even pre-loved ones, they ought to be gifts that strengthen the recipients’ dignity and self-respect, and that uphold the community’s norms.
Stationery and coloured pencils for the children in the village school were bought, so that all the children would have the same items, with a view of aligning utility and unity. The lesson to the Singaporean kids was that it is not just the act of giving but being intentional about the giving. Giving what people really need is essential. It’s not what we think they need, or worse – that our giving is framed by our own definitions of needs and wants. My husband showed me pictures of their subsequent trips. The children had used their precious gifts to draw pictures of the ‘abangs’ who distributed the items to them, and would run to show our Singaporean students proudly that they still had them.
But more than giving appropriate gifts, it was important to receive the hospitality of the villagers who cooked a village lunch for the boys after the communal work of rebuilding drains and wells. This was also a very powerful lesson about hospitality and communal living, where it is not the gift per se but the act of receiving it graciously. The boys were made aware that the ayam goreng they were treated to were special fare for the village, and not the common fare they would have taken for granted to eat at home; that sharing the meal with the villagers put them on a shared level.
And most importantly, that our lives are different – not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and ought to be lived purposefully and meaningfully in the service of others.
But back to the children and the fast cars.
Another question that may not have occurred to the organisers is about escalation and expectation: Having been taken for a joyride in a Maserati, would the organisers now plan the next event for the children to ride a helicopter? Or would this luxury joyride be an annual event, something that the children can expect? Having been inspired to buy his own car one day, Shakir might want to be driven in different models every year until he turns 16.
Organisers working with the underprivileged do need to align their events with their mission and values, and manage expectations in those they work with – especially children. After all, even if it is “just a joyride” that we need not get worked up about, it may be something the children would look forward to with some regularity, if only to show that continual care and friendship by the drivers of luxury cars.
“Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same — with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead.” – Mother Theresa
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