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Volunteering in Singapore: why it’s on the rise, and the groups looking to add a sixth C – caring – to five Cs in materialist city state

It’s often said Singaporeans have five priorities – cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership – but perhaps it’s time to add one more: caring. There’s been a surge in volunteering for good causes recently

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 January, 2018, 8:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 10:23am

With the pressures of entering an elite university, working for a prestigious company and staying competitive in a fast-paced economy, volunteering hasn’t always been on top of the agenda for young Singaporeans.

Yet many organisations in the city state aim to encourage citizens to become more involved in acts of kindness, not for the sake of it looking good on a résumé, but as a way of life and thinking.

As a result there has been more volunteering in recent years, benefiting a range of causes, from care of the elderly, people with mental illness, and children and adults with special needs, to help for lower- income families.

The number of volunteers almost doubled between 2014 and 2016, with the proportion of people saying they had done voluntary work rising from 18 to 35 per cent, according to research conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre.

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Zeng Wanyi, co-founder of Effective Altruism Singapore, an organisation that supports and encourages acts of kindness, says it’s difficult to point to any single factor or organisation to explain the increased activity.

She says it may be a long-term effect of the Community Involvement Programme, which was launched in 1997 to formalise and mandate volunteerism in schools. “It might be that there’s a generational effect from people exposed to this ‘way of life’ and continuing the engagement in their adult life,” she explains.

Zeng also cites work by organisations such as the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, which runs marketing and outreach campaigns, and Singaporeans Against Poverty.

Structured support from such dedicated organisations targeting young Singaporeans has been a boon to volunteering activity, she says. Youth Corps Singapore, for example, has run a series of initiatives since 2014, such as its Red Box programmes, which promote social awareness among youngsters. Then there’s the Youth Expedition Project, which uses interactive projects to engage with communities in Southeast Asia, India and China.

Actress Eunice Olsen, executive producer of WomenTalkTV, has been an avid volunteer with many organisations over the years. She believes that volunteering and showing acts of kindness have become more celebrated in recent times.

They may even have become a “national priority” since the government launched the Singapore Cares movement early last year. Apart from encouraging volunteering, the initiative also aims to help organisations make a greater impact.

“Even ad hoc volunteering or a one-off event can be a meaningful one – to the volunteer as well as the beneficiary. It’s often the case that people don’t know where and how to start volunteering. The other challenge, I feel, is encouraging sustainable and purposeful volunteering, and being effective for the organisation that you help with, instead of a hindrance,” says Olsen, who is involved with Beyond Social Services, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, and the Red Cross.

It’s not just about having the right agencies in place, but making the most of people that are available from all walks of life.

“For example, for people with special needs, every disability is different and we shouldn’t underestimate the contribution that people with special needs can bring to our society,” says Olsen.

Even ad hoc volunteering or a one-off event can be a meaningful one – to the volunteer as well as the beneficiary
Actress Eunice Olsen

She adds that employment is a big issue when it comes to these groups, and cites SG Enable as an agency that is helping to connect people with special needs to potential employers. However, employers need to take the initiative to adopt an inclusive hiring policy as well, she says.

Amanda Blum, a brand storytelling coach, believes there is a need to create a culture in which people are committed and able to volunteer throughout their lives.

“We need to showcase worthy causes, and how volunteerism makes a difference to those causes. It is also important to educate individuals [about] how volunteerism transforms a person and is its own reward. It’s proven that when we contribute and add value, our self-worth and confidence skyrockets,” Blum says.

“It builds character and creates a sense of purpose, adventure and direction. Finally, we need to create a sense of empathy and connection, illustrating how social contribution and advocacy affects all of us.

“In the most fundamental sense, when we do good for others we do good for ourselves. We’re making the world a better place for everyone to live in, and that is an empowering messaging that should be included not only in schools but for everyone.”

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Some observers feel that merely encouraging volunteering is not enough. They say creating lessons on social history and inequality are also useful ways of instilling awareness.

“To develop a sincere sense of compassion for others’ suffering, I think we need a very grounded approach to sharing ideas of how to maintain the progress that we have made … and get young people to work on projects or coursework relating to these effective actions,” Zeng says.

Olsen has another point: there is still a notion among some people that volunteering is a huge sacrifice, and that you can only do it after you retire, which is not true. When it comes to forging a more tightly knit society, creating a stronger affinity between young and old Singaporeans could be the best way forward. A bond between different generations could be forged by sharing opportunities for the elderly.

Jeffrey Tan, director of knowledge and advocacy at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, says: “Intergenerational volunteering can occur between young and old who are not family. Today, alongside the government promoting active ageing, there is an emergence of an elderly population that is more empowered, with skills and talents to give.”

Creative avenues such as storytelling, films and multimedia could be another route to bridging the gap between young and old.

For example, Blum details how she and Project Unsung Heroes are working on a documentary that illustrates the values of traditional village life on the Singaporean island of Pulau Ubin. These values include taking care of the community, connecting with neighbours, and respecting the environment.

The documentary tells the story of a man who gave up city life after going through bankruptcy and relationship issues to live in an old village – called a kampong. The project tries to show how a person can come to value what was once the norm for older generations.

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“Young people watching the documentary can begin to understand and connect to the message behind the story; in this case, the values of the older generation,” Blum says.

Entrepreneurs have pitched in to try to make a difference too. They have been able to illustrate how experiencing social issues first-hand has empowered them and given them the opportunity to make a difference. For instance, Eighteen Chefs, a Singaporean restaurant chain, gives former offenders and troubled teens a second chance by helping them to train as chefs or waiters.

Meanwhile independent health care professionals were brought together through Homage, an online platform that provides on-demand caregiving services. Trained nursing and home-care experts can exchange insights and experience through the platform.

Five ways of saying you care

Altruism has its unique cultural interpretations in different parts of the world. Here are some examples.


“Hygge”: Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of Book of Hygge, defines it as having a mindful approach to life, where the mundane can become joyful and dignified. Many school courses and public spaces are designed around this philosophy.


“Omoiyari”: As early as kindergarten, Japanese children are taught omoiyari (to notice and think of others). Students also have to demonstrate their ability to work in a group, know their role and respect the elderly, in addition to passing exams.

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“Bamahsan chin”: This belief values respecting the elderly, protecting the helpless and valuing the quiet and subtle.


“Ubuntu”: Defined as putting the community above the individual, this practice of nurturing humanity is often introduced and related to in all school lessons.


“Lai er bu wang fei li ye”: Translated as “it is impolite not to return what one receives”, this Confucian proverb emphasises the importance of courtesy and altruism in living a good life.