You’re one of the first volunteers in a programme called Back-alley Barbers (BAB). What’s it about?
BAB was founded by Cai Yinzhou, the person behind Geylang Adventures and his friends in 2014 (Geylang Adventures is a non-profit that organises social initiatives in the district). They were motivated by migrant workers they spoke to who were forgoing haircuts in order to send more money back home. There were three of them initially, but two left. Yinzhou then recruited more volunteers, and that was when I joined in 2016. We were trained by a professional hairstylist over five weeks, and then thrown into the deep end to start cutting hair!
Who was your first client?
He was a senior living at the Thian Leng Old Folks Home in Telok Kurau. To be honest, it was a stressful blur, as hairdressing involves a lot of multi-tasking. Technically, you have to know what you’re doing, because this is an actual human being, and not a mannequin’s head. Then there’s the speed; some of the better BAB barbers are fast and can serve eight clients per session. I’m not as fast — I had to keep track of my time management. Lastly, it’s social as well: you have to talk to whoever you’re cutting hair for, be it an older person or a migrant worker. To make that personal connection is important.
How many volunteers does BAB have and who are the clients?
Right now, there are more than 20 volunteers. BAB strives to serve anyone in need of a haircut, so it doesn’t matter who you are or what social-economic class you’re in. So far BAB has served mostly eldercare homes as the nurses there tend to have to do it, and these nurses are overstretched as it is. Also, BAB works with TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) and other non-profits, so we give haircuts to migrant workers who seek help from TWC2 and elsewhere.
What’s your personal motivation for volunteering AT BAB?
BAB isn’t really about free haircuts. The haircut is a means to an end — to humanise urban life again, and to allow social connections between marginalised populations such as the elderly, streetwalkers and migrant workers, and locals like us. These connections enable us to foster empathy, and to understand their needs as fellow human beings.
You have a great passion for and commitment to bettering the community. What sparked this?
Sociology at NUS has shaped me to think of myself not as an individual, but as someone living within societal structures, rules and networks. I see the community as others who share more similarities than differences with me. Learning about social inequalities, social movements and human rights has taught me that social justice is necessary. It’s my raison d’etre.
What memories do you have of your years at NUS?
I had superb professors at the Sociology department. Associate Professor Narayanan Ganapathy, who taught me Jurisprudence, opened up a whole new world to me, which led to my interest in the legal aspects of Sociology, and thereafter, my Masters in Law. Associate Professor Daniel Goh also led a class on Race and Society, it was mind-blowing for us who previously took racial stereotypes and policies for granted.
What other community projects have you worked on?
A few years ago, I worked with friends on an community art initiative with the youth staying in rental flats in Lengkok Bahru. We wanted to understand their lives, and wanted them to tell their stories so that they could be empowered to advocate for their needs. We provided nine youths, aged 13 to 18, with film cameras, and gave them themes like “Everyday life”, “My spaces”, “Important stuff”. Working with Beyond Social Services, this project culminated in photo exhibitions at *SCAPE and a sharing session. Our project “Kopitiam Lengkok Bahru” was featured on Channel News Asia, and in The New Paper and Berita Harian . This project was presented at the 2017 IPS-SAM Spotlight on Cultural Policy Series: Roundtable on the Development of Community Arts in Singapore.
You are the epitome of “Be the change you want to see”. What are the changes you want to see and how do you influence others to support your vision?
The biggest change I’d want to see is a really small one. The other day, my neighbour shut the lift door in my face. I wish for a day when it becomes intuitive to be gracious towards each other as fellow human beings. It seems silly, but I think empathy leads to greater ripple effects that can positively influence your own personal life. That’s the change I want to see: my neighbours holding the lift door for me. As for influencing others, if they see that it isn’t all that hard, they could try it themselves? Whatever “it” is, be it a passion or hobby that can enable others as well.