This is part of a three part series on school-based community service in Singapore. The first part deals with broad concepts of community service in Singapore (here, April 20, 2012); the second touches on the Community Involvement Programme (here, April 23, 2012); the third highlights Service-Learning, and the other concerns (here, April 25, 2012). Because this series revolves exclusively around recommendations, do read this document (here) to get a brief idea of what school-based community service in Singapore encompasses.
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I have always been a passionate proponent for community service in Singapore (here, here and here), because I – having been part of them – recognise the merits associated with the Community Involvement Programme (CIP) and Service-Learning (SL) projects. Nonetheless, with this appreciation, I am certainly cognisant of the plethora of criticisms and shortcomings hurled against the initiatives; hence, between 2010 and 2011, I independently crafted and started an ambitious (overly so, in retrospect) study (here) to consolidate these perspectives.
The survey yielded 484 responses from schooling individuals, while I had 12 email interviews with students, non-government organisations, and a former teacher. It would not be constructive to do a quantitative presentation of the findings, unfortunately (because of the poor sampling methodology and structuring of questions); still, I would like to take advantage of this multitude of excellent views gathered, and to supplement them with my personal insights and proposals for the institution of change. I am extremely grateful to all the respondents for taking time off to pen their thoughts so comprehensively and thoughtfully.
My ultimate aim at the end of this brief series, of course, is to engage the Ministry of Education (MOE), as well as to explore further platforms for discourse and the gathering of feedback for the crafting of feasible policy considerations.
Reaffirming the value of community service, and should the CIP continue to be compulsory in Singapore? Most would agree that the intent of CIP is noble, and it has – over the years – indeed made students more aware of different conditions in the country, and set the ground for them to be more active stakeholders, as citizens. Most students are cognisant of their roles and responsibilities as contributors, and they do see the value of their service. Naturally, schools are excellent platforms for the promotion of the community service, and they must strive to continuously change the pedantic mindsets of students who might not see the long-term value of their participation in activities.
– CIP should be constantly perceived as a springboard, and not an end. There was an excellent point raised by a respondent from an organisation, who mentioned that “we get exposed to issues on a superficial level and it only means something when we experience something on a deeper level … [t]hat’s where the initial exposure that CIP creates plays a part in laying the foundation of the cause”. Most, nonetheless, reckoned that the number of hours is insufficient to turn one into an “effective volunteer”.
– The mandatory nature of CIP should stay, because – at the very least – it forces a certain level of participation, albeit minimal and sometimes painful, amongst lethargic youths.
– Ideally, volunteerism should be motivated by altruism, but CIP – pragmatically – serves its purposes. Overall, I don’t think it is the compulsory nature of CIP that is the problem; the main shortcoming is how CIP is forced on students (with monotonous activities exacerbated by poor execution, and the inability to encourage more of them to be involved in SL). The road to hell is paved with good intentions: “the concept and thinking behind CIP can be noble … [yet] the execution process needs to be vibrant, dynamic and strategised”.
– Student volunteers do bring about benefits for the organisations, in terms of funds, public education (awareness and advocacy), research projects, as well as direct service (manpower and logistical support). For the students, they develop an appreciation for their surroundings as they emerge from their sanctuaries; they strengthen their character traits and emotional maturity; and also pick up different management and communication skills (here).
Broadening the understanding of “community service”, and infusing sustainability. Present definitions of “community service” are very limited, so initiatives are hence limited to a very small selection of endeavours that may be repetitive, or those that yield negligible long-term returns. Community service, in the words of one of the respondents, should not reinforce the sense of the “needy”, of helpless people and that need to be “helped”. It is possible to view CIP and SL as constructive stepping stones – primarily for exposure and the effecting of small-scale change – to heighten corresponding discourse on policy-making.
We need to better follow-up on programmes, using better tools and networks to sustain the engagement of volunteers beyond an isolated experience or required school hours. This means volunteer capacity building, and development in networks that can constantly link volunteers to new experiences and opportunities.
Spiralling constructively upwards. When students begin to delve into the identification of socio-economic problems in Singapore, they would have chances to hone practical problem-solving skills. These forms of civic mindedness and consciousness could instil a sense of pride and service to the community. Educators need to have stories, examples and curriculum that they can use to teach students about their roles in the promotion of long-term solutions to local and global issues. One methodology to consider would be to have a session on community problems within a locality, and to invite ideas or activities so as to address them.
Recognising that community service is not just about the portfolio. Individuals raised the concern that many of their counterparts engaged in community service for the sake of embellishing their progress reports, or presenting themselves well to qualify for different awards (after all, present trends point to community service as a “star factor” that differentiates individuals). I was certainly guilty of this when I first started doing my service learning projects in school: I joined programmes solely for the sake of presenting myself in a more positive light, and to constructively boost my curriculum vitae.
– Is there something wrong with this? In retrospect, I don’t think so (in any case, tangible solutions for this would be hard to formulate), because students contribute to the community for dissimilar motivations. I only recognised how myopic I was after I had actively participated in different activities for about a year, after I had the chance (here) to interact with volunteers and staff members. If necessary, we could then consider the options of organising sharing sessions or candid dialogue opportunities in schools.
– Most of the time, people are just looking for a purpose (or an “excuse) to get involved; however, one would not understand the transforming power of his contributions until he takes the first step. CIP provides this first step, but we have to make it easier for the student to find “causes” to connect to. Speak to his desires, and listen to his experiences. Does he have a clear connection to the cause? Are his parents or families volunteering? Is there an area which he is particularly knowledgeable in?