Tag Archives: Event

2017 Member/Volunteer Action Programme Kicks Off

2017 Member/Volunteer Action Programme Kicks Off

Teams of volunteers converge on a void deck nestled between Bedok North residences on a sunny Saturday morning in March. They form a long queue to collect and pack fresh vegetables and other groceries, being distributed by another dozen volunteers. After completing one round – paying attention to bundle halal food for Muslims and pork dishes for Chinese families – each volunteer gets back in line to repeat the process. Afterwards, they divide into teams, steered by local community members, to deliver the food bundles to 130 low-income families living in the neighbourhood.

The project, made possible by a corporate donation and organised on 25 March in collaboration with a local community partner, kicks off the 2017 ONE (SINGAPORE) Member/Volunteer Action Programme.

Some twenty-five ONE (SINGAPORE) volunteers spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon in service to the community, assisting families that one way or another have trouble making ends meet at the end of the month.

"I'm volunteering with ONE (SINGAPORE) because I want to make an  impact in the Singapore community and connect with like-minded people who want to do the same," explains volunteer Omar Rachid.


“I want to thank you all very much,” a recipient, who had been hospitalised for some time and unable to work, tells us.  He shares his family’s story and explains how he instils a sense of gratitude and humility in each of his children.

Many of the families that we visit recount how they face problems paying for groceries, water, and electricity at the end of each month. Singapore does not have an official poverty line, however researchers estimate that some 387,000 Singaporeans do not have the resources to fulfil their basic needs, including food, shelter, clothing and other essential expenditures. That means that more than 1 in 10 Singaporeans is living in poverty.

Another resident in a nearby block impassionately shares how grateful she is for the fresh produce, as she heads out to work. She is the sole income earner for her children and parents. Stories like these repeat themselves as our volunteers knock on doors in different blocks throughout the afternoon.

Even though quite a number of the recipients in the Bedok North neighbourhood are employed, they simply do not earn enough to make ends meet. Their stories are unfortunately not unique. Low-income workers are estimated to account for approximately 60% of all Singaporeans living in poverty. The unemployed, underemployed and the elderly, particularly older women, also face higher rates of poverty.


While volunteers bundled and distributed groceries for the March kick-off of the 2017 ONE (SINGAPORE) Member/Volunteer Action Programme, future events in the series will have a variety of activities in line with ONE (SINGAPORE)’s focus areas.  If you or your organisation would like to sponsor an Action Programme event, please contact us today!  You can also take action by filling up our volunteer form, which provides specific information on volunteer opportunities, here or joining ONE (SINGAPORE) as a member.

If you would like to know when the next Member/Volunteer Action Programme outing will be happening, please follow us on social media where you will get the most up-to-date information on ONE (SINGAPORE) events.

To view more photos, check out this album on Facebook.

This article was written by Katie Powell Rachid.

Adrian Pang to Host The ONE Ball

Actor Adrian Pang will host “The ONE Ball . . .  Making a Difference” on Saturday 8 September at The Fullerton Hotel.

Along with his wife Tracie, Adrian Pang is the Artistic Co-Director at PANGDEMONiUM! Productions, “Singapore’s most kick-ass theatre company”.

Adrian is widely acclaimed for his work in television and theatre, including Best Actor awards for roles in the comedy Ah Girl, the drama series Red Thread and the stage productions of The Dresser and Much Ado About Nothing.

His favourite role by far though is “Daddy”.  He and Tracie have two sons, Zack and Xander, which helps explain perhaps why he is enthused to step outside the theatre to help ONE (SINGAPORE).

“I’ve always had an overwhelming feeling of needing to do something outside of my little ‘fake’ world to reach out in some tangible and meaningful way to the ‘real’ world,” says Adrian.  “ONE (Singapore) is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

The ONE Ball is not the first time Adrian has lent his voice to help build a better world.  Pangdemonium!’s production of Spring Awakening addressed issues of adolescence, like teen pregnancy and suicide, in a creative but provocative manner.  Adrian and Pangdemonium Productions have also previously supported AWARE, the Children’s Cancer Foundation and the Singapore Children’s Society.

Adrian is taking time out from an intense rehearsal schedule to host The ONE Ball.  Barely a week later, you can catch him on stage, along with Janice Koh and George Young, in Pangdemonium’s production of the dark comic showbiz satire, Swimming with Sharks at the Drama Centre from 20 September to 7 October 2012.

The ONE Ball is expected to become an annual event, both to finance ONE (SINGAPORE)’s campaign as well as to remind the organisation’s supporters of the ways in which each and every one of us can contribute to the community and make a difference in people’s lives.

Tickets for the The ONE Ball 2012 are on sale for S$250 per person or S$2500 per table. Sponsorship opportunities are also available.

Related Articles

Suspending Judgement

18 Apr 2012 - 2

Braema Mathi

“How are we talking about the issue of human trafficking?
When a woman shares a story of being duped by a promise
of quick money in Singapore, only to be forced into the sex trade,
do we ask ‘how could she have been so blind?”
As individuals we need to suspend judgement of the victims.”

~ Braema Mathi

By ShuQi Liu

Prostitution is legal in Singapore. Sex Trafficking is a crime.  Prosecutions against sex traffickers are rare.  Victims of sex trafficking can be fined or jailed for immigration violations. Singapore’s new National Plan of Action promises a more compassionate approach.

In the face of so many conflicting and changing realities, what does it mean for an individual to suspend judgement?

This is the question I posed to Braema Mathi, a civil society activist and former Nominated Member of Parliament who spoke at ONE (SINGAPORE)’s panel discussion about human trafficking.

We need to start by looking more closely at ourselves and our history, Braema says.

For as long as Asian men have sought to flaunt their success by acquiring concubines and mistresses and frequenting houses of prostitution, human trafficking for sexual purposes has been part of our culture.  In some chauvinistic Asian societies, a man’s coming of age is still expressed in terms of sexuality.   A father encourages his young son to take the virginity of a female child as a symbol of manhood.  The status of women, who are viewed as sexual objects and subject to the whims and fancies of men, is secondary.

Singapore’s rich economy meanwhile has attracted large numbers of foreign women, particularly from rural areas where income opportunities are scarce, to come here with the hope of making quick money.  Men need only travel from one street to another in Geylang to hire women from China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, among other places. This diversity of nationalities creates an even larger tendency among Singaporeans to judge.

How were these sex workers recruited to come to Singapore?

Did a woman choose ‘the world’s oldest profession’ willingly or was she duped or forced into the business? It can be difficult to know the truth. Traumatised victims often fall into silence, unable to speak of their ordeal, which then makes detection and prosecution even harder.

The definition of trafficking, like the victims themselves, is entwined by the complexities of the trade.

A first step to suspending judgement is to recognise the victimisation of many women in the sex industry.

Sex trafficking as a whole can only be tackled if society engages men to reevaluate our value systems and transform thought into legislation and suitable processes to fight this modern form of slavery.

Related Articles and Links

The Economics of Living: Discussing Poverty in Singapore

By Dilpreet Kaur and Michael Switow

The seminar room was full house when the moderator, Kirpal Singh, Director of Singapore Management University’s Wee Kim Wee Centre, opened the talk-show style discussion by noting that the topic of poverty in Singapore is an issue that has not set easy with the government here, but that a mandate of the Wee Kim Wee Centre is to address issues that others might be shy or anxious to discuss.

Four panelists – civil society activist Braema Mathi, community reporter Radha Basu, grassroots social worker Nadia Bamasri and Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien – and audience participants from a range of organisations including Beyond Social Services, Mendaki, NCSS, ONE (SINGAPORE) and the catholic church explored the nature of local poverty, government schemes to address and cultural attitudes that help and hinder the provision of essential social services.

Dilpreet Kaur, of the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), provides a detailed account of the discussion. (Note: this is not a complete word-for-word transcript.)

“What is poverty in Singapore?”

12 Apr 2012 (1)

“Do we have the right to judge
and say ‘sorry we can not help you’?”

Braema Mathi: I’m glad we can use the word “poverty”. I want to broaden it rather than deal with the word ‘poverty’ per say. I am wearing a hat as regional president of the ICSW, a 76 year old organisation, primarily looking at communities in need.  There is a disconnect between social policy and communities in need. Why?  Poverty is a result of income disparities and consequently limited access to basic necessities for day-to-day living.

From our politicians, we hear “cheaper, better, faster”. What does this mean? This rhetoric of “cheaper” can be very problematic if we just keep switching vendors to increase profit margins without a thought for workers’ livelihoods, particularly if there is little governance, few regulatory tools or even a lack of proper laws.

To come back to the question, what do we mean by a person in need? In the 1960s, the person in Singapore in need was different. He didn’t have access to clean water and sanitation. Today, food seems to be in abundance, yet in our midst we see people at hawker centres who pick on the leftovers from your tray and plate.

Homelessness has also been vividly described in the online media – people who are caught out without shelter and by their own silly mistakes. What has gone on from the 1960s to 2012?

What do we do then if someone got on the bandwagon of upgrading then got caught? The waiting out period is thirty months, which then forces them onto the streets or to bunk in with relatives or to fork out for rentals in the private sector. There is a disconnect here. These thirty months are a definite period, so what do we do during this time? The social policies are limited. What then is the role of society here as well? Do we let them be or do we start to look for ways to help? Do we have the right to judge and say ‘sorry, we can not help you”?

“So then Braema, is there then a remedy, a quick solution or is this is a complicated problem?”

Braema: Despite the government’s Many Helping Hands approach, we have a disconnect where meeting the needs of people are concerned. It’s not that there aren’t schemes or that we’re not doing enough. But people are still falling through. What are we going to do about this? Singapore needs to start thinking about the Social Protection Floor Initiative (SPFI), which is driven by the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation and supported by ICSW. The government needs to start reviewing the trends of people falling through the net and what it can do for them in terms of establishing a concrete floor from which they can step up. Developed countries are using the SPFI, especially because of ageing societies. It is time Singapore considers this approach.

“Radha, as a Straits Times journalist, you’ve actively reported on social issues. Could you tell us about some of your personal encounters with people in need?”

Radha Basu: I want to contextualise poverty, which is a very strong word. I’ve covered malnutrition and areas where people have no access to food and shelter. I don’t think anyone dies from starvation in Singapore. But are there unmet needs? Absolutely. And personally, I feel it is growing.

12 Apr 2012 (2)

“We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it.”

There is no official poverty line but there are 200,000 local families who are living in the bottom fifth of the income scale.  Their average monthly income in 2010 was $2,040, but the poorest 10 per cent – about 100,000 households – earned only $1,400 per month.

We don’t have current household expenditure figures, but in 2007-2008, the latest year for which figures are available, the average monthly household expenditure among the lowest 20% of resident households was $1,760.   That’s about $500 more than their average monthly income at the time ($1,274).

There is a gap in income and basic expenditure before state cash-transfer policies like Workfare are put into place. There is also a disconnect between people not knowing which schemes are available or considering it onerous to seek help. Recently, though, MP Amy Khor announced that there will be just one form to apply for assistance at the Community Development Councils (CDCs).

Who needs the most assistance? Generally, these individuals have uncommon or multiple needs. The existence of multiple problems is what exacerbates their conditions. Consider these examples:

  • * a low-income earning couple with a special needs child
  • * homeless men who cannot go to CDCs for help because government schemes require an address
  • * foreign brides — with Singaporean children, but estranged or widowed from their husbands — who are not eligible to rent a HDB
  • * the mentally ill, who have homes but cannot get along with parents or family members.
  • * unwed mothers who have been low on the government’s priority list for fear they might procreate more illegitimate children
  • * and foreign workers who have been cheated or injured.

“You must have followed up with the government on these issues? What were the official answers to these hardship cases?”

Radha: There is both a lapse in communication outreach in terms of implementing the schemes by the State as well as the “shame” factor among potential applicants of such schemes. So something needs to be done.

“We are Singaporeans, but yes we have subsets of groups like Mendaki, etc that focus on one group. Nadia, you work with 4PM, Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu. Are we wrong to assume that the Malays are out of proportion when it comes to poverty or hardship?”

Nadia Bamasri: At 4PM, our work revolves around children, youth and their families. We do not only work with Malays; we have a 70-30% policy to help non Malays as well.

12 Apr 2012 (3)

Nadia Bamasri at “Ramadan on Wheels,” an annual project to assist low-income families.

But there is a Malay problem. Statistics have shown that when it comes to education, Malay parents have lower levels of education and as a result are in the lower income bracket.

We don’t see poverty and slums because we live in these boxes called flats. But you just have to open the door and you can smell and see the poverty.

Braema talked about withholding judgement. We are not supposed to judge, but as a social worker, we are required by funders or the government to ask so many questions about income and other family characteristics before we can help these families. However, do we really know what these families/individuals need? That’s a more pertinent question. Handouts are not always the solution. There needs to be more cross cutting measures, not just within the Malay community, but across all groups.

“Radha alluded to single mothers. I was brought up in Geylang in the 1950’s. Malays then were very communal and would support each other all the way. Is this apparent today?”

Nadia: Today, we live in flats and have lots of social issues. Who’s fault is it? We never blame ourselves. If you ask people, they’ll tell you about the government, their long working hours, etc. This is different from the kampong days. People nowadays are much too worried about labels and judgement.

For example, if you are pregnant and Malay, first thing your parent will do is to send you to a home. Why? To cover it up. The pregnancy is taboo. It is very embarrassing to the families. However, there is no support at the home. The young women are allowed to go to work or school. This only entrenches poverty further, especially for these single mothers.

“Laurence, in your maiden Parliamentary address, you spoke about introducing a Social Health Index in Singapore. What is this? And how do we achieve social health?

Laurence Lien: At the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and the Community Foundation of Singapore, my job is to get the well-to-do to give. Almost all the time, the question I get is: “where are the needs in Singapore?”. I explain, then they say “What is the government doing about it?”. Then I have the burden of explaining why we must not wait for government.

There is little visibility of our social realities on the ground. As a society, we like to hide our problems and the marginalised. We need to stop hiding poverty, especially if we want people to be part of the action to address social problems.

12 Apr 2012 (4)

“We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume.”

I visited the Boston Foundation in the United States two years ago. This foundation publishes the “Boston Indicators Project” every two to three years. It wasn’t initiated by the government; they started it. They publish this wonderful report that galvanises people to think about how to address issues in society.

We need to do this in Singapore. We track the economic indicators so closely. But isn’t social health just as important?  The last elections demonstrate that social issues are critical to our citizens . When it comes to economic health, the government has all the levers. But when it comes to social health, it’s scared that it doesn’t have all the levers and they don’t want to be accountable in the same way. We need to look at individuals, families, community cohesion and happiness as well. We should measure subjective well-being.  This idea was poo-poo-ed by the politicians. But at the end of the day, this is what we want. What is life for if we do not seek to be happy?

The Social Health Index is to help identify the needs of the people and what the government is doing about it. For it to work, the community must be accountable as well and it must have equal ownership of the issues

We are so fixated with economic indicators, don’t we care about social health indicators?


Dr Kirpal thanked all the speakers for their answers and sharing of experiences. One hour into the discussions, it was time for the audience to pose some tough questions . . .

People are falling through the cracks. What is the real role of elected govt in resolving poverty problem?

Laurence: I see the government as putting big stones into a container. It has the power to tax and redistribute resources. They must use the levers; these are the big stones. But there will be gaps and that’s where civil society comes in. The government must have a cutoff by income, but often that criteria is insufficient. This is where civil society can come in to play a role. The government can also set a poverty line and minimum wage. I’m not convinced by the arguments against the minimum wage. We need more informed dialogue about this.

Braema: MCYS receives the smallest budget of all the ministries. This is unacceptable. When I started the Straits Times School Pocket Fund, it was because the criteria were too tight. But today 1700 is not enough for children and their families. The goal posts have shifted.

Radha: It’s too easy to bash the government. In fact, a lot of the anti-government bashing online is misinformed. Take Comcare. It’s a 1 billion dollar fund. When I asked Mdm Halimah last year, she told me that only 1 out of 10 families in the bottom fifth of the income scale uses Comcare. Why? Because, when asked, most needy families said they don’t need government assistance; they say their relatives will help them.

And take the recent discussion about cleaners wages. The first reply is that foreign workers are pushing down the wages. But three-quarters of our cleaners are local. What’s the elephant in the room? It’s cleaning contacts. The town councils enter into blatantly one-sided contracts. Cleaners earn $40 a day, but and be fired at will for no reason.

We can say the government isn’t doing enough, but will Singaporeans accept higher conservancy charges?

Braema: I need to reply to that. During the budget discussions, a minister asked ‘Singaporeans, would you like for your tax to increase?” I’m quite tired of this manner of discourse. Every time we raise a social issue, the politicians response is ‘are we willing to pay more?”. We are complicit in this way of thinking. It’s become like a contract we have with each other and we have to break it. It’s a question of shared responsibility.

Another member of the audience from a large local non-profit organisation shared these observations:

  1. When this forum started, I was taken aback with being uncomfortable with the term ‘poverty’. Factually the underclass community in Singapore is present. How come the word ‘poverty’ is seen to be so strong and taboo?
  2. Today we have more working class with low wages. Permanent jobs are scarcer and scarcer. Contractual work is becoming much more common instead.
  3. Bluntly speaking, the ‘blaming the victim’ attitude is quite prevalent, from the apex of the hierarchy to the bureaucrats at the bottom rung. Self-help bodies, including my organisation, are so busy trying to be politically correct that we lose sight of the well-being of our clients. The public at large is not used to the term poverty, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from getting to know what poverty is all about.

Another participant comment:

Our government has consistent budget surpluses, except in 2009. After a period of time, the surpluses are locked into reserves. This comes from the society, but what’s being done with the surplus?

The conversation in singapore drifts towards schemes and an incrementalist approach. We should move towards a different type of score card. By changing the method of assessment, we can measure the unmet needs more easily, for example, how many people with income less than $5000 have had to pay $100,000 out of pocket due to catastrophic illness?

A woman from another social agency disagreed with a suggestion by Braema that Singapore needs more social workers . . .

We need to shift the discussion to ‘what can i do’ to help people in need. Otherwise the blame game will continue. We need to shift policy. How do we handle the poor? Can we resolve poverty? Who should be resolving it? As professionals, what can we do to activate the citizenry?

A member of the clergy added this reflection:

It’s not lack of money that prevents the government from helping. 25% of the budget goes to defence. My feeling is what’s lacking is the voice of the poor. The poor here are docile. We need stronger unions.

The Panelists’ Final Reflections

Laurence: We are confronting this not just as a nation, but as a globe. Income inequality is hitting the whole world. The whole capitalist model has to be reviewed. We shouldn’t be ashamed. There are poor here and we need to talk about it more openly. But they are not helpless and always receiving. We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. It’s the mindset. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume.

Nadia: I think I speak for social workers and all the wonderful people who do this work, we need a lot of workers who are passionate . . . we see are a lot of people with zero income and nothing in the bank. How do you compare that with 1500 a month? These are the people we look at. I agree with Laurence, I see our beneficiaries with strengths. They are resourceful, but their basic needs are not met. How much can we really do?


  1. We touched on minimum wage and contract jobs. Go to wikipedia and type in minimum wage and collective bargaining – almost all developed countries have one or the other, if not both. We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it. Contract jobs and immigration may be worldwide phenomena, but other countries have support systems that we don’t.
  2. We need more discussion as well from welfare groups. When I asked them for interviews to discuss unmet social needs, they refused to talk because they saw our story as being ‘too negative’.
  3. Should we be spending $850 million on baby bonuses every year, but less on welfare?

Braema: At the end of the day, we are talking about people in need. We need to treat the person coming through the door with dignity. Yes, they have a blame approach. Now they talk about teaching the person to fish, but what if you fence the pond or what if the pond has no fish? Having a conducive environment is equally important. I want to go to fish, but i can not find the pond because there are too many obstacles in my way.

Kirpal: Sometimes, it’s easier to say yes and sign protocols, but when you visit them on the ground they are not as good as Singapore. There’s a lesson by old guys like me. We always begin by saying to government, ‘it’s your job to help me’. The government might be less anxious if we see them as a partner rather than always putting them on the defensive. They’re human too. There are practical ways of moving forward, without judgement and the blame game.

resized to width 750 15/4/2012 13:43:43

Joe Wan, Michele Yap, Braema Mathi, Laurence Lien, Radha Basu, Nadia Bamasri, Hani Mohamed, Thulasi Mahadevan, Michael Switow

If Girls Spoke Up, the World Would Change

By Jaswinder Thethy

“Things won’t change overnight. We have to wake people up,” exclaims Sampat Pal, the founder of the “Gulabi Gang,” a group comprising hundreds of lower caste women in Uttar Pradesh, India that stands up to violence against women.

7 Apr 2012 (1)

Domestic abuse is still persistent in India even though there are laws against it. Rape and sexual abuse cases are rarely registered for fear of social stigma. Women often hide behind their veils rather than defend themselves. But the Gulabi Gang empowers women who are suffering from abuse and educates them about their rights.

Sampat and the Gulabi Gang are the focus of a documentary by British director Kim Longinotto called “Pink Saris,” which was recently screened at Singapore Management University by ONE (SINGAPORE) with the support of the British High Commission.

Being a woman, and coming from a British Indian background I was immediately drawn to this project. Plus it gave me an opportunity to wear a pink sari! I could hardly refuse to represent the High Commission on this one.

Longinotto’s documentary follows Sampat as she mediates on behalf of woman that turn to her for help. Sampat is assertive, fearless and extremely outspoken; she has a huge voice and her threats are often delivered in punchy one liners, though unfortunately the wit is at times lost in translation. Sampat herself is a former child bride and victim of abuse. However she took the unusual step of fighting back and risking disgrace by leaving her husband and village.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to her campaign is that Sampat can only do so much herself. She survives on donations and cannot always afford to lodge women who turn to her when they have nowhere else to go. In one case in the movie, Sampat returns a girl to her abusive in-laws. But first, she confronts the family in public. I can’t help but wonder if the young woman will continue suffering and I hoped the situation wasn’t made worse by Sampat’s intervention. In the end, it’s up to the girls to stand tall.

The documentary also reveals that Sampat still has complex personal issues to confront, especially when her motives are questioned. At one point, her longtime boyfriend asks if she is not being driven by ego, an accusation that appears to be at least partly true after Sampat proudly refers to herself as the “Messiah for Women”.

Regardless, there is no question that the Gulabi Gang is making a difference in the lives of women, men and children in Uttar Pradesh.

“If girls spoke up, the world would change,” Sampat says. “Be Brave”

7 Apr 2012 (2)

Jaswinder Thethy introducing “Pink Saris” at SMU.

About the Screening of Pink Saris in Singapore

The British High Commission supported ONE (SINGAPORE)’s screening of Pink Saris in collaboration with the Wee Kim Wee Centre to help mark International Women’s Day, the 8th of March, and to highlight the unjust treatment of many rural women.

Kirpal Singh, Associate Professor of English Literature, opened the event, after which, Jaswinder Thethy gave a short speech on the UK’s work in India, which includes investments in education for girls, providing access to finance, skills and low carbon energy, safe births, reducing violence against women, children’s health and nutrition.

Jaswinder Thethy is an Assistant Attaché at The British High Commission.

Related Links

Find out how to support the Gulabi Gang.

How do we stop Human Trafficking?

How do we stop Human Trafficking?
Discussing “Child Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Poverty”
By ShuQi Liu

Across the globe, states appear to be giving a higher priority to drugs and wildlife smuggling, not to mention media piracy, than human trafficking. And did you know that, here in Singapore, trafficking victims – who often do not have access to their own passports, much less the freedom to leave their place of ‘work’ – are caned and jailed for overstaying their visas?

These are just two of the points raised in front of a congregation of white collared workers, tertiary students, academics and social activists on a recent Tuesday evening at Singapore Management University at an event organised by ONE (SINGAPORE) in association with SMU’s Wee Kim Wee Centre. Trafficking issues strike a chord in the hearts of many in our community, myself included, and this was clearly evident in the packed seminar room in SMU’s business school, where additional chairs had to be brought in to seat participants.

Complex Politics and Twice Persecuted

Professor Kirpal Singh, one of Singapore’s most prolific cultural critics, strides up to the front with a purposeful sense of insight. He observes that Singapore, as a country which both exports sex tourists and is a destination market for traffickers to send their victims, is in a curious position on the night’s topic.

“We are perhaps not doing anything concrete,” Kirpal notes. “The politics of the situation is complex, we are not aggressively firm, but have also shown unhappiness at the diplomatic level.”
27 Jan 2012 (1)

“How are we talking about the issue of human trafficking? When a woman shares a story of being duped by a promise of quick money in Singapore, only to be forced into the sex trade, do we ask ‘how could she have been so blind?” As individuals we need to suspend judgement of the victims.” ~ Braema Mathi

“There are no disparities in human trafficking – it affects men, women, boys and girls”, adds Braema Mathi, a former president of AWARE (the Association of Women for Action and Research) and ex-Nominated Member of Parliament.

And worse still, individuals who have been coerced or tricked into coming to Singapore – with the promise of a high-paying manufacturing or service-industry job, when in reality the work is in a brothel or pays significantly less than promised – are often treated as law-breakers here rather than victims.

“Victims of human trafficking often undergo double punishment when the state’s identity pushes individuals into another dimension. In Singapore, those trafficked are first charged with illegal immigration and then sentenced to jail and even caning.”

Braema notes though that changes in Singapore’s political scene mean that ministers and government agencies are more open to feedback, which provides concerned citizens with greater opportunity to voice out about injustices.

Indeed, Singaporeans need to be more proactive, vocal and aware on this issue. We need to stop questioning or blaming victims and work instead to protect their rights and confront the roots of the problem.

27 Jan 2012 (2)

Eliminating poverty and empowering women are key components in the campaign to end human trafficking.

Four, no Five, P’s

The second speaker, Pia Charlotte Bruce, Executive Director of UN Women Singapore, addressed the topic from a social perspective, noting that high mobility, international travel and economic growth contribute to Singapore’s susceptibility. Like other activists, Pia calls for a 4P strategy to overcome these vulnerabilities:

→ Prevention  –   raise awareness, reduce poverty and improve health & education

→ Protection   –   align local laws with international standards and better training for police and immigration officials

→ Prosecution –   stronger penalties and protection of whistle-blowers

→ Partnership  –   to effectively implement laws at the regional and international levels.

To this, Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a researcher at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, adds a 5th “P”, an underlying cause: Poverty. Chhoa-Howard argues that poverty in the region is a key driver of trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Sex Tourism and Trafficking

But if there was no demand, there would be no industry for traffickers to exploit. And unfortunately, Singaporeans are among the most numerous sex tourists in Thailand and at least 3000 Singaporeans and Malaysians take a ferry to neighboring Batam for sex every week.

Singaporean law provides for extraterritorial jurisdiction for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents who exploit children in other countries. But this law goes unenforced. Rachel points out that Singapore has never prosecuted or convicted a citizen or PR for having sexual relations with a child outside the country.

Last but not least, Bridget Tan, founder and president of H.O.M.E., added a very personal perspective to the discussion.

“One of the girls we took in had escaped from a brothel in Geylang. She refused to talk for one month,” Bridget shared. “The only person she could relate to was a pet dog in the shelter. When she was finally ready to tell her story, we found out that she had been gang-raped every time. And she was old enough to be my daughter. Despite the experience of extreme violation and severe trauma, she was repatriated after six months without any compensation. Is this even justifiable?”

While I know that these things happen, stories like this shock me . . . particularly that something like this can happen in the heart of Singapore, my home.

Better Policies Needed

Bridget also highlighted several areas for change that H.O.M.E. is championing and which we can all work together to achieve, including

27 Jan 2012 (3)

Hani Mohamed produced the short film “Innocence” to move Asian leaders to put a stop to human trafficking and child prostitution.

→ a Victims Assistance Programme

→ drafting and advocating for a legal definition of trafficking, as none currently exists in Singapore

→ better training on the issue for police, lawyers and judges

→ equal partnerships between civil society advocates and government agencies

The presentations were followed by a short film produced by ONE (SINGAPORE) Secretary Hani Mohamed showcasing child sex and human trafficking in Geylang, the popular red-light district here. In the film, a man logs onto the internet, makes a booking on a pornographic website then proceeds to meet a locked-up girl, all within a few hours. In a choked voice, Hani recollects the inspiration behind the film, a segment on The May Lee Show that described how pimps and traffickers threatened unwilling sex workers by caging them and ‘stuffing chillies in their private parts’.

Clearly, no one should be subjected to the brutality of trafficking, much less because of poverty. And every child should be able to enjoy a carefree and joyful childhood. Together, we can work together to manifest a better world. As well-travelled and educated Singaporeans, we can engage ourselves . . . by volunteering at a shelter, boycotting services offered by illegal syndicates, raising awareness among our friends and family so that no one blames the victims and campaigning for policies that will put an end to these evils.

Related Articles