Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Debate on the President’s Address 2018
Sir, our President shared the importance of fostering a compassionate and caring society and a giving society where everyone lends a helping hand.
Beyond the dollars and cents, renewing our economy, strengthening our fiscal position, which are important to our survival, the heartware of this nation is equally important.
How we care for one another, how we make sure no one is left behind, how we speak up for a better Singapore and how we have a culture of giving are crucial in the next chapters of the Singapore story.
My late father taught me to always give and in his eulogy, I said “Daddy always gave more than he received and that ultimately was his strongest philosophy in life. A philosophy I hold dear to my heart and one I will impart to my daughter as well.”
It was with this philosophy that I entered politics and the quote I used in my candidate video was “There is beauty in giving more than receiving”.
This Spirit of Giving is very much alive in Singapore and I see it in my work as a civil society activist for the past 17 years and as an MP for the past 3 years.
The Spirit of Giving and Speaking Up
I see it every week when I meet my Legislative Assistants. Perhaps the most common question I’m asked now is how on earth do I speak up so much in Parliament. How do I find the time to research and draft so many speeches and questions.
For this I have to thank “Melissa”. Melissa has a full-time job, is actively involved in humanitarian work and is also my Chief Legislative Assistant. If there is just one word to describe her, it is that she is amazing.
But she doesn’t do this alone. She and my 6 other Legislative Assistants, Charmaine, Karen, Su, Roy, Jing Ling and Rachel embody the spirit of speaking up and this Spirit of Giving.
And like Melissa, they too are amazing. Despite having full-time commitments, they give their time and energy towards the Singapore cause. They care deeply about our future and most importantly want to play a role in shaping it.
My right-hand, left-hand, right-leg, left-leg man
This Spirit of Giving is also very much alive in Nee Soon East. Tan Meng, my CCC Chairman and also my left-hand, left-leg, right-leg, right-hand man exemplifies this.
He leads a team of dedicated volunteers and has been a grassroots leader for the 26 years now.
He serves with his heart and handles every feedback and case so passionately, so meticulously and with compassion. And he does this every single day as a volunteer.
26 years ago, he was curious and wanted to see how he can help improve the community and so he joined the CCC.
26 years later, he stills looks young as ever. Perhaps the secret in looking young is to volunteer more. And I know he will volunteer more and continue to serve till his last breath.
Giving beyond our shores
Siti Durriah is equally committed and I first met her when I was visiting a refugee camp in Aceh.
I met this young lady who was so passionate about helping people that she used her precious time off from work, and her salary, to volunteer to help others.
A physiotherapist by training, she was in Aceh to conduct developmental assessments for refugee children and teach them English.
Sir, it really has been a privilege working with Melissa, Tan Meng and Siti, Singaporeans who embody the Spirit of Giving, who volunteer to give their time to help others.
And there are others who are so devoted they have even chosen to make a career out of it.
Ending family violence
I recently met Dr. Sudha Nair when I joined President Halimah to open Safe Spaces, a Child Protection Specialist Centre run by PAVE.
The stories they shared with us that day were heart wrenching. The children made cards for President Halimah and in one card, the child wrote about how she watched her father strangle her mother.
It takes a very strong heart to be able to handle all these abuse cases every day but Sudha spoke with so much passion and so much determination.
I thought that this Executive Director must be quite new to this as she was so fresh, not jaded at all and was bursting with positivity.
But she has actually been a social worker for more than 30 years now. We are fortunate to have someone like her, devoting her time towards ending family violence.
Ending animal cruelty
We are also fortunate to have Kalai who devotes his time to end animal cruelty. He has worked at ACRES for the past 7 years now.
He was previously a volunteer with ACRES before I conned him. I mean convinced him to join ACRES full-time.
He took a pay cut to pursue his passion. He took on a job where the office hours are 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
A lot of animals are indebted to him, from otters to owls, from pythons to pigeons and most recently, a dolphin.
The recent dolphin rescue near Bedok jetty was perhaps the best example of his level of commitment. He spent hours searching for that wild dolphin who needed our help.
His hard work paid off and he managed to find and free the dolphin from the fish nets the dolphin was entangled in. He gave that dolphin a second chance at life.
How do we get more Melissa, Tan Meng, Siti, Sudha and Kalai?
Sir, there are many many more stories to share. So many more civil society activists I have met who work steadfastly to feed one mouth, educate one mind and comfort one soul.
The question is how do we have more Melissa, Tan Meng, Siti, Sudha and Kalai? How do we support their efforts more and strengthen this Spirit of Giving?
Volunteerism is increasing steadily. The National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) found that one in three Singaporeans volunteered in 2016, up from one in ten in 2000.
And we have SG Cares, a brilliant initiative to increase acts of kindness and volunteerism.
Reviewing our school-based volunteer programmes
To further increase volunteerism and sustain it, perhaps we first need to take a step back and study the effectiveness of our school-based volunteer programmes? It is important as that lays the foundation in our youths for volunteerism.
Mr. Kwan Jin Yao raised several points about this including “To what extent does involvement in the Values in Action (VIA), Community Involvement Programme (CIP) and service-learning projects affect whether students continue volunteering after graduation? Are students who chalked up a high number of VIA or CIP hours more likely to volunteer for a social cause after leaving school?”
Ms. Tan Rong Ying’s view was that “It is important to reconsider the rewards and mandatory aspect of volunteerism in schools so as to increase and make clearer students’ intrinsic motivations.
This could encourage them to willingly volunteer more often during their school days and after graduation, thereby promoting a culture of active volunteerism.”
There are good VIA programmes, like the one at Hougang Secondary. Rather than introducing volunteer work through ad hoc projects, at Hougang Secondary, it’s a way of school life, a life of volunteerism that is inculcated from the very beginning. And they even get the parents involved. There are lots of lessons to learn from them.
But at the end of the day, I do hope that MOE reviews our school-based volunteer programmes and see if there is still a need to make it compulsory and provide rewards.
Giving people time to volunteer
I also hope that we can consider giving people more time to volunteer. Time is perhaps the most valuable commodity in today’s world and lack of time is the most common reason given for not volunteering.
NVPC has found that volunteerism rates drop once people enter the workforce.
To ensure that the flame for volunteerism is not extinguished by the demands of work, employers are a key partner in building a nation of volunteers.
We need to follow the positive example set by Salesforce Singapore, which offers 7 days of volunteer leave annually.
They have a particularly successful volunteer scheme with all of their employees making use of their volunteer leave in 2016 and clocking in more than 11,000 hours.
I hope the Public Service, as the largest employer, can take the lead on this by extending the one-day volunteer leave currently given to public servants and consider allowing them to use their leave in blocks of hours instead of full days.
Strengthening civil society
Sir, we can also strengthen the Spirit of Giving by strengthening our engagement and collaboration with civil society.
As John Mackey nicely put it “A healthy society rests on three pillars: business, government and civil society, or non-profits. Each has a distinct and important role to play, and all three need to work together synergistically to create the most value for society.”
Given the insights that civil society can bring to the table with their ground experience, I hope they can be better represented on the Boards of our Statutory Boards.
As Prof Tommy Koh stated, “When we appoint people to boards, we can also appoint challengers who are subversive and who have alternative points of view. That’s the kind of cultural change we want to see. It makes Singapore stronger, not weaker.”
I don’t believe that we hold the key to the best ideas. Rather, the best ideas are out there.
I hope that we can build more regular channels for dialogue between the government and civil society.
Already, there have been many instances of fruitful dialogues.
One example is the roundtable discussion that MEWR conducted to engage green groups to galvanize efforts for the Year of Climate Action.
Participants shared with me that they came out of the session with greater optimism and a better understanding of the government’s efforts to tackle climate change.
Another recent instance was IMDA’s consultations with filmmakers on amendments to the Films Act.
IMDA had extended the consultation period upon request and had taken on board the suggestions made by filmmakers in the final wording of the Bill.
Jasmine Ng, one of the filmmakers I worked with, commented in a Facebook post that she “really does appreciate that this engagement with IMDA and with you and the other MPs has been authentic.”
I was particularly struck by her comment that “we felt that we were heard and understood, even though we may variously disagree on some points.”
Indeed, even where there is disagreement over the outcome, there is greater acceptance of the end result when civil society understands the reasons for the government’s actions and policies.
As such, I hope that the Ministries consider making consultations with civil society organisations a regular part of the policy and law-making process.
Sir, recently, I was at an informal dialogue session between public servants and civil society activists.
It was a beautiful session to say the least. Both sides gained a better understanding of each other’s concerns, challenges and constraints. Most of all, both sides realise that we are all on the same side, on the same boat.
Sir, a stronger civil society will mean a stronger Singapore and a stronger Spirit of Giving.
Ultimately, we can fire up and mobilise the spirit and energy of Singaporeans if we engage more, consider more alternative points of views, empower more, inspire more and ensure people have time to give back when they are mobilised.
Sir, there truly is beauty in giving more than receiving and this strong culture of giving is very much needed.
Let me end with a quote as always. Nelson Mandela said “There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.”
I was going to end with that quote but then I realise that actually, while we don’t expect anything in return, sometimes we do stumble upon something valuable. Sometimes, we find true love.
And this was the case for Joseph and Jing Yu. Jing Yu was volunteering at ACRES in 2012 when she met Joseph who was working there.
They both gave their heart and soul towards helping animals and they also gave their hearts to each other. They got married two Saturdays ago.
And so for all the singles out there, start volunteering and you might find your true love. Better still, ACRES has quite a good track record, so volunteer with ACRES and you will find your true love while helping to strengthen this spirit of giving.
Sir, I support the Motion of thanks to the President.