Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Saving Lives & Building the Community Spirit in Singapore

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."  


- Howard Thurman, African American pastor, philosopher and author -



The run up to the Lunar New Year 2012 saw The New Paper (TNP) covering 3 reports that demonstrates that many people are unable to cope with the stresses of life.  Anger management, the high costs of living and the increasing number of people suffering from mental illnesses need to be addressed and tackled - quickly. Our suicide rates have also gone up, and so have our divorce cases.

TNP report 1

(a)  In the Woodlands chopper attack- “Wife denies flirting, then slashes hubby” published on Tuesday 17th January 2012, 59-year-old Mr Ng Tiong Lam was slashed in both arms and ear by his wife, 48-year-old Madam Boon Soon Leong who suffered from depression.  Madam Boon later died after falling from their 10-storey Woodlands flat.   The couple had been quarreling often over his gambling habits and her drinking sessions with men outside a foodcourt near their flat.
A neighbour living on the same floor of the couple’s flat told a journalist that the police had been called 20 times to break up the fights between Mr Ng and Madam Boon.

What puzzled me is that why didn’t the police refer their marital problems and the husband’s gambling habits to the Ministry of Community Development, Youths and Sports (MCYS)? A life could have been saved if somebody just cared, but sadly, no one did.

TNP report 2
(b) In another TNP report, “Woman sat naked on toilet bowl for two and a half years” published on Thursday 19th January 2012, Madam Leong Mee Yan who suffers from mental illness sat in the toilet for two and a half years, claiming that “there’s a force holding me down.” According to her husband, Mr Ong Kian Ann during her two and a half years stay in the toilet, Madam Leong showered only 18 times.  Mr Ong appeared helpless and was contemplating leaving her, but could not find it in his heart to do so. With the help of Mr Ong’ niece, he finally decided to call the police and got her admitted to IMH. With medication from IMH, Madam Leong’s condition is slowly improving, but her husband hopes that with physiotherapy, his wife can one day regain the use of her legs and walk again.
TNP report 3
“Knife attack in queue to see MP” published on Friday 20th January 2012 spoke of an angry handicapped man in his 50s’ who attacked a man whom he felt had jumped the queue. Police had to be called in and the handicapped man was later arrested.

Another foreign student dies mysteriously

In a separate incident, a 20-year-old student from China - Miss Lan Xing Ye attending a bridging programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) was found dead in one of NTU’s halls on the night of Friday 20th January 2012. Shin Min newspaper reported that a roommate told the reporter that Lan suffered from clinical depression.   

Task force urgently needed to tackle suicides, mental illness, and anger management & divorce cases

Given the increasing number of people, both local and foreigners who are unable to cope with the stresses of life, with several dying tragically, I urge the government to set up a task force to tackle the rising number of people suffering from mental illness, to bring the suicide rates down, to address the increase in divorce cases and to find sustainable solutions for anger management.  We are too economically driven that we forget that human lives are more valuable than anything else.

What is also needed is to intensify public education on mental illness. We must reach out to all sectors of the population, train grassroots leaders on how to manage the illness and train caregivers how to manage a loved one stricken with mental illness and help them in their recovery.
Building the community spirit here in Singapore

How much difference can one person make?  Imagine the impact of the entire nation working together to improve the community.

If you have been to IMH for meetings or attended talks there, you will find the word "KAIZEN" written on one of its rooms.  So, what is "KAIZEN" and how is it related in this chapter?

"KAIZEN"was created in Japan following World War II.  The word Kaizen means “continuous improvement”.  It comes from the Japanese words (“kai”) which means change or “to correct” and ('zen”) which translated means “good”. 

Kaizen is a system that involves every employee - from upper management to the cleaning crew. Every worker is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a once-a-month or once-a-year activity, but a continuous all-the-year round process that encourages employees to submit ideas to improve the company's performance.  Japanese companies such as Toyota and Canon have staff submitting 60 to 70 suggestions a year.
I found the KAIZEN system very useful and applied it in my own scope of work during my stint with a big media company, as well as in the community work which I have been doing. 

Here are 3 proposals that I submitted to the government when I was serving in the government feedback focus groups.

( 1 ) Setting up a Singapore Wish Foundation – Idea submitted to the late President Ong Teng Cheong on 9 June 1999

I was deeply moved by a movie which I watched on the Malaysian TV network sometime in May 1999.   The film was based on a true story about a young American child by the name of Missy who was stricken with cancer.  Missy, who was dying from the deadly disease, had one wish before she closed her eyes – She wanted to visit the White House in Washington.   Her request was made through the American Wish Foundation – an organisation that was set up to fulfill the dying wishes of children stricken with cancer.  

Even though it was not easy to grant Missy her dying wish, given the high security at the White House, the staff from the American Wish Foundation went out of their way to grant Missy her wish, and the child even got the rare opportunity to meet former U.S President Bill Clinton.  The joy and happiness Missy experienced was indescribable and before she passed on, she was all smiles. 

Doris and I couldn't stop crying throughout the movie.  

“It's so depressing to see children dying from cancer,” my wife said, fighting back tears.

Missy's story played on my mind for one solid week. 

Then an idea struck me. 

“Doris, remember that movie we saw last week about that cancer child.  Wouldn't it be marvellous if we could start a movement like that here in Singapore to benefit our own child citizens?”

“You're  always full of  ideas and you care for children so much, Ray.  Okay, draft that proposal and I'll get it typed for you,”  Doris smiled.  “Who are you going to sell the idea to?  Not easy to get it implemented, you know?”

“Our very own President, His Excellency Mr Ong Teng Cheong?” I told Doris.

“President Ong!   Are you serious, Ray?” Doris was stunned.
 “Yes, President Ong,”  I repeated myself.   “He is a very caring person,”  I assured Doris.


June 1999
My three-page proposal was submitted to the President on 9 June 1999.  His three paragraph reply to me dated 14 June 1999 through his Principal Private Secretary was most encouraging.  The letter mentioned that the President was touched by my proposal and my concern for terminally ill children.  My suggestion was then sent to the appropriate organisation to consider.

However, the suggestion was not implemented at the time as the agency concerned felt that there was no need for a Singapore Wish Foundation during that period.  However, based on my proposal, the agency did agree to facilitate the receiving of such wishes if the need arose.  I was pleased to hear this.

I prayed that one day this idea would be implemented because I have a strong affinity with children. And that movie haunted me for months.


June 2002

A few years later, a group of professionals who included doctors, lawyers and consultants submitted a similar idea, and it was implemented.  I was happy that at last our terminally ill children would benefit from a suggestion that I had first mooted.

That aside, perhaps the civil service could have a system in place to keep useful ideas/suggestions on  file, and then review it  periodically to assess the suitability for their implementation.   This will encourage and motivate Singaporeans to come forward with useful suggestions that can make our country a better place to live, work and play in. 

( 2 ) News captions for the hearing-impaired – Idea submitted to the then-Prime Minister,  Mr  Chok Tong on 3 November 1998

Sometimes my wife and I will brainstorm for ideas that can improve the quality of the lives of all Singaporeans.  The hearing-impaired is certainly one group that needs to have a better quality of life.

It can be very frustrating to be hearing-impaired.  People do not usually understand the disability, and communication can be difficult.  We must understand that the hearing-impaired can be intelligent functioning adults.

Having seen how hard it is for this group to lead a normal life, we decided to put up a proposal that could help the hearing-impaired  keep abreast of current affairs.

We drafted a proposal - “News captions for the hearing-impaired” and submitted  it to the former Prime Minister - Mr Goh Chok Tong. 

Mr Goh came from humble beginnings and I guess he could resonate well with those in need.   

The idea to put out simple news captions on our local TV stations during the daily news, which we viewed as a community project, was to enable the hearing-impaired to relate to current affairs and by keeping abreast with current affairs, these less fortunate members of society would not lag behind.  We proposed that captions need not be too wordy- simple one liners that could spell out what the visuals were screening.  For example, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, the news caption could read:  “PRINCESS DIANA DIES IN CAR CRASH”. 

Statistics were produced to justify why the above suggestion could improve the lives of 5,009 registered deaf persons in Singapore. 

On  3rd November 1998, the idea was presented by Doris to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
We were pleasantly surprised and pleased that the idea was considered for implementation when the Government Feedback Unit wrote to my wife  on 7th January 1999 to break this good news.  
Today, our hearing-impaired can keep in touch with news and current affairs on national television because we fervently believed that this idea was workable and that every citizen should have a place in society.

( 3 ) Using technology to enhance the lives of prisoners - Idea submitted to the then-Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong on 5 March 2004

Several years ago, I was requested by a lady friend to give moral support to a man who was arrested and put on trial for a crime.  The accused parents would fly in from India each time the trial convened.  Before the trial commenced, the accused would go on his bended knees and ask for forgiveness from his parents.  I felt sorry for him as well as for his parents.  It was costly to fly in and out of Singapore to give their son moral support.  Not to mention the lawyer's and court fees.  If the accused was convicted and given visitation rights, his parents would once again have to fork out more money to fly over.

Prisoners, I was told are given limited number of letters to write to their families. 

As I left the court, an idea came to mind.  I decided that given the limited access that families have with their imprisoned relatives, it would be helpful to use technology to enhance the lives of those who are separated from their loved ones.  Many a time when ties are restricted, spouses and children who may have to wait years before the prisoners are released can go astray. 

I presented my proposal - “Using technology to improve the lives of prisoners”  to former Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong on 5 March 2004.
In my proposal, I outlined the problems prisoners face when they are given limited access to their families and understanding the government's good intentions of giving prisoners a second chance, I suggested that the prisoner authorities could allow prisoners and families to link up with each other through emails.  Carried out weekly, these online letters could be screened by a moderator from the prison departments.  Computers could be given by corporate sponsors and seeing that this was a community project, I had every confidence that they would readily step forward.

Once families stay connected on a regular basis, chances of marriages falling apart and children going astray would be significantly reduced, I concluded. 

I was delighted to receive a letter from Mr Adam Chew - a staff officer from the prisons department on 17 March 2004 informing me that the feasibility of my suggestion would be reviewed and explored for possible implementation.

I'm not too sure if my idea has been implemented, but I fervently believe that our prisoners and their families will benefit if the proposal is eventually accepted.  Certainly, it can put Singapore on the world map.  And if the implemented idea is proven to be successful, our Government could perhaps, promote the scheme to other countries through diplomatic channels. 

I am confident that once prisoners in all parts of the world are given more opportunities to interact with their loved ones, we will, indeed, be giving ex-convicts a second chance, and in the process there will be lesser social problems everywhere - by way of fewer broken marriages, lesser children becoming rebellious, and a reduction in dysfunctional families.  Won't we then make the world a better place to live in?

In seeking to improve the lives of all those who are marginalised, maybe, we need to dream... the impossible dream.  

Improve the lives of our elderly and people with disabilities.

Many of our seniors citizens who have fulfilled their responsibilities in the past should be able to look forward to a better quality of life in their twilight years. 

MediaCorp TV and radio have a role to play in supporting our elderly.  Certainly a trip down memory lane will help to revive the beautiful memories that our seniors have of what they once enjoyed.

Westerns such as The Rifleman, Rin Tin Tin and The Lone Ranger also had viewers glued to the small screen. 

Ours seniors will definitely appreciate a revival of such TV shows along with comedies like The Jack Benny Show and I love Lucy.  I remember Jack Benny could  easily secure a laugh just by his body language.

I remember veteran broadcaster Mildred Appadurai hosting a radio show dedicated to the sick.   Listeners could write in and request songs and send get-well wishes for their loved ones who were hospitalised. 

Such a programme could be brought back as part of a community project to support the sick in hospitals and nursing homes. 
Studio apartments for the elderly

A Straits Times (ST) reader, Mr Douglas Lee wrote in to the ST Forum Page on Saturday 21st January and felt that the studio apartments built by the HDB was not as elderly friendly as it ought to be. He spoke of the limited space in the bedroom measuring 100 square feet that made it impossible for 2 single beds to be fitted in and yet leave room for a wheelchair manoeuvred.  HDB needs to understand  that many of our elderly citizens who apply to stay in studio apartments could be disabled and sick.

Kindness- Let’s pay it forward!
John brought his wife and six children to the circus with the intention of buying eight tickets.  When told of the price of each ticket, he realised that he did not have sufficient cash for all the tickets.  John was short of $50.   Disappointed, he walked way.  Another middle-aged  gentleman who was also buying tickets to see the show picked up the conversation between John and the ticketing staff, and saw the despondent look on the family.  The middle-aged gentleman decided to bring joy to the family. 

He then deliberately dropped $50 onto the ground - just behind John. 

“You dropped $50 from your pocket, Mister,” the kind-hearted gentleman told John. 

But John was very sure that the money was not his. 

“I figure you must have overheard the conversation I had with the ticketing staff  a while ago, sir,” John told the stranger.  “My gut feeling tells me that the money was actually from you.  Nonetheless, I am very grateful to you.  My family and I will now be able to enjoy the show and we uplifted to know that there are compassionate people like you in this world.  Thank you so much, sir,” John expressed  his  gratitude with a broad smile.

Imagine if everyone in Singapore who is better off can practise such kindness, wouldn't we see the starved being fed, the poor having a roof over their heads, and  those in third world countries living in better conditions.   

Caring for the elderly
There have been many reports of our elderly citizens who have died all alone. And nobody knows until a foul stench comes on.  There are several seniors that are living all alone – even in landed properties.  In the U.K, the government recognizes this problem and has decided to get teenage students- between the ages of 16- 20 years to do community as part of character building. So every day, they would knock on the doors of these elderly citizens to see if all is well.   “Good morning Mrs Brown, how are you today?” the students would ask.

This is a unique way to ensure that if there is no reply, the students can alert the authorities. Singapore should try this as a means, of not only reaching to the elderly, but of also inculcating in our students a sense of caring for our elderly folks.
Build an extra floor at the top of schools dedicated to the elderly
Perhaps some might view this as radical idea, but I fervently believe that it is worthwhile investing in given that by 2020, our fast ageing population will see many more Singaporeans hitting past 60 or more.

Have an extra floor in school buildings that can allocate space for our elderly citizens- it can be a daycare centre for old folks, where qigong can be practiced and activities organized by students and teachers for our seniors. End of the day’s activities with a breakfast served by the students and the teachers.

Sincerely,
Raymond Anthony Fernando 






















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