First-time volunteer Jason Lim says the experiences of his youth shaped his views towards migrant workers and domestic helpers. “I remember being shocked when I asked my mom how much we paid our maid,” said the 29-year-old civil servant. “I think it was just under $300 a month and I thought it was unjustifiably low for someone who worked long, hard hours.
“Also, I went to a boys’ school, where it was very common to make fun of migrant workers and to hold stereotypical views and prejudices about them.
“I always felt uncomfortable by the narrow views of my peers, not only because they were wrong but also because such attitudes were (and continue to be) terribly unkind to a struggling, marginalised segment of our society.”
Jason began volunteering at TWC2’s Cuff Road Food Programme this past April. “You could say that I have a soft spot for the downtrodden and I like rooting for the underdog,” said Jason, who is a keen sportsman and an avid distance runner. “And that’s why I was drawn to TWC2, as they advocate the cause and rights of down-on-their-luck souls who are not Singaporeans.”
Being a volunteer has opened Jason’s eyes in unexpected ways. “I too had my own stereotypes about foreign workers and held many misconceptions about them.”
Among the surprises that emerged was the fact that a sizeable portion of migrant workers were educated, well-mannered and skilled. “We have this notion that these workers are uncouth, barely literate villagers,” said Jason who volunteers on weeknights at Isthana Restaurant in Little India. “Not true at all. Some are the exact opposite of that; they are intelligent, urbane city slickers with relatively good education and yet they end up in Singapore doing menial work.”
Like many who volunteer, Jason too can attest to learning numerous life lessons as a result of his contributions and interactions with those he assists. “I like the camaraderie and the rapport within the Bangladeshi community,” said Jason. “They look out for one another in ways reminiscent of the kampong spirit Singaporeans once had and would do well to reclaim.”
Jason reiterates that observing how migrant workers work, live and deal with challenges provides insights in figuring out how to better our society. “They are here to make a living, so there’s no reason to treat them like lesser beings,” said Jason. “I’m a sociologist and I see how people treat their domestic helpers in public; you can tell via body language, how they feel and what they think about these workers whom they treat like slaves.”
Jason says such anachronistic attitudes are a damning reflection of our society. “There has to be more awareness programmes to say, ‘Hey, this is not on!’ and to teach people how to value these workers,” he said.
Seven months into his stint, Jason finds his most rewarding moments are when out-of-work migrant workers begin to find their feet. “When you a see a worker for the first time, they are so lost,” said Jason. “You talk to him; register him; give him food; you understand what he’s going through and over the weeks he becomes more confident, happier and not too dejected. And the best feeling is when they have had their cases settled and they come to say thanks.”
Jason has a word of advice to those thinking of volunteering. “Choose something you have an affinity for and give it a shot,” he said. “It’s not difficult juggling a career and doing voluntary social work. Besides, this country needs more proactive citizens.”
He sees himself in it for the long haul. “The Cuff Road Food Programme is a good way to see what’s on the ground – to get a feel of what the workers are going through,” said Jason. “As I get more experienced, I’d like to volunteer on other projects run by TWC2 and to continue to help improve the plight of these workers who are truly unsung heroes.”
“They built our infrastructure,” said Jason. “Our country is extremely successful today because of their unstinting toil.”