News that government investment firm GIC was doling out cash grants to encourage youth volunteerism, through its “GIC Sparks and Smiles” programme, was met with incredulity. It made no sense for “volunteers” to be compensated for their services, and as I tweeted the arrangement sounded more like a paid job. A cash grant of S$3,000 to S$5,000 for 25 hours of community work was a generous payout, with further concerns that motivations could be distorted as a result. After all a volunteer by definition should expect no financial gains for the services provided. Even if these students did come from lower-income households – since these students “must come from households with a per capita income of below S$2,000” (ST, Jan. 3) – other assistance schemes could have been arranged.
These criticisms stem from the belief that volunteerism should be altruistic, with no expectations – from the volunteers – of anything in return.
The GIC programme is therefore an odd one, and scepticism of it has persisted because the transaction – of money for service – appears more direct. But there is something to be said about community service in Singapore, especially if they serve personal ends. (At this point, I think the news report can be faulted for focusing on the corporate positioning of the programme, rather than the experiences of the students. For instance, it did not elaborate if the current batch of 48 university students have been volunteering before “GIC Sparks and Smiles”, their sentiments about the programme, and whether the cash grant will make life easier for their families. GIC has also clarified that it is not “paid volunteering”, but “a leadership and mentoring programme” (ST, Jan. 5), with the cash grant as support for the students from difficult financial circumstances.)
And discussions about transactions lead me back to my experiences, when pragmatism characterised my voluntary endeavours in the beginning. While there was no exchange of cash, active participation in the community involvement programme or service-learning brought benefits beyond the hours: the hours first signalled a commitment to the community, which reflected favourably in applications for scholarships or programmes, and ultimately brought in awards too. In many ways the advantages of volunteerism often accrue to the volunteer – vis-à-vis the beneficiaries – and there are often ironic temptations to glorify these contributions and sacrifices. Altruism in this vein is presumed, even if it does not necessarily apply.
“The ends justify the means” is a common retort in these discussions, since the beneficiaries do benefit, one way or another. Yet assumptions should not go unchallenged, including but not limited to: the sustainability of the service endeavours, the careless objectification of individuals (especially on overseas projects, where photography can be exploitative), and the effectiveness of the programme in the first place. And perhaps more fundamentally, volunteers should come to terms with our own motivations. What drove us to embark on this project, what do we stand to gain from involvement, and what drives us now?
And since our motives are hard to ascertain – even which we ourselves are often blind to – I think developing that reflexivity is key to volunteerism. It is the ability to remain sceptical and to always question one’s work. At schools reflection processes can be encouraged, through which students can be honest with their sharing. It will take time. After all since I started my journey nine years ago in 2006, my priorities have been varied and changing, and at times I have benefited disproportionately and been uncertain. Such acknowledgements then define what volunteerism means to us, and shapes our ambitions for the future.