Like so much else in the COVID-19 era, NUS’ annual Day of Service (DOS), which took place on 5 September 2020, looked different this year. DOS was inaugurated in 2016 as a day when NUS alumni, students, and staff around the world — together with their families and friends — give back to society through a variety of community activities. But how could they do so when the pandemic meant that volunteering en masse was out of the question?
Yet, ironically, the significance of DOS has arguably never mattered more. COVID-19 has impacted countless lives and businesses. Marginalised and vulnerable groups, such as lonely seniors and low-income households, have been disproportionately affected; in Singapore, migrant workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic. So while COVID-19 may have complicated things for DOS organisers, it simply stiffened their resolve to come up with new and inventive ways to help those in need. It also offered a timely reminder of the true intention behind DOS: to inject the spirit of giving into the NUS community and encourage its members to do something beneficial for the wider society, not just on this one day, but all year round. This is an ideal that the University has always strived towards, whether in peacetime or during a pandemic.
There are always people in need. Even amid the crisis and its safety rules, we can still give back.
Mr Jeremy Ee, NUS Alumni Advisory Board member and founding Chairperson of DOS
CHANNELLING AWARENESS INTO ACTION
COVID-19 has disrupted global economic activity and everyday life, effectively knocking the world off its axis. As each of us scrambles to adjust to the impact of the coronavirus on our own lives, it can be easy to forget that others are also going through a difficult time, if not more so. “Even before COVID-19, there were many out there who needed help. The crisis just created an additional hurdle to help these groups, and it has also driven more people into similar circumstances,” says Mr Jeremy Ee (Engineering ’05), an NUS Alumni Advisory Board member and founding Chairperson of DOS. “There are always people in need. Even amid the crisis and its safety rules, we can still give back.”
To keep everyone safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19, DOS 2020 featured a scaled-down list of volunteering opportunities. Instead of letting individuals plan and implement their own community activities, efforts were directed towards supporting existing organisations that had approval to continue operating under COVID-19 restrictions such as maintaining safe distancing, wearing masks, and keeping to groups of five or fewer. “Our focus this year was to promote local causes by various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that had activities with measures in place to reduce the chances of infection, and that do good for the community and rely on volunteers to be operational,” says Mr Ee.
For example, on 5 September, small groups of volunteers helped out at Willing Hearts’ soup kitchen, donated blood to the Singapore Red Cross, or headed over to The Food Bank Singapore to pack bags of staple food items for disadvantaged families. Moreover, activities were not confined to just one day — some even took place digitally. These included a months-long online fundraiser by the NUS Students’ Community Service Club to help low-income families struggling to get through the pandemic, and to also provide care packs to healthcare workers in appreciation of their efforts during this period; a Zoom storytelling session on 4 September for underprivileged children from Beyond Social Services; and a virtual run for RunNUS (from 13 July to 27 September), with proceeds channelled to the Singapore Disability Sports Council and Disabled People’s Association.
In another departure from previous DOS installments, the personal stories of NUS alumni, students, and staff doing their part to uplift the community during the COVID-19 crisis were shared on the DOS website and on social media. The organising committee hoped that by spreading the word about these acts of kindness — such as making fun science kits for needy children and launching a neighbourhood buddy system to support vulnerable families and seniors — others in the NUS community would be inspired to make a difference.
“Doing good should begin from the heart — with a cause that resonates with you — but it has to be further developed by applying the mind and the will.”
Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, Chairman, NUS Board of Trustees
SERVING THE UNDERSERVED
NUS’ commitment to creating a more caring and gracious society received a shot in the arm last year through the Seeds of Good (SOG) initiative. Jointly launched by the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Alumni Relations on 20 March 2019, SOG is a community development programme that empowers NUS students to collaborate with the community and engage in social causes. Students work in teams to initiate, plan, and execute projects with a community partner of their choice, so as to enhance community well-being.
The structure that SOG brings to acts of giving harnesses students’ sense of empathy and develops their “focus and clarity of purpose” — which are required to get projects off the ground and make a positive impact in society, notes Mr Hsieh Fu Hua (Business ’74), Chairman of the NUS Board of Trustees and former President of the National Council of Social Service. “Doing good should begin from the heart — with a cause that resonates with you — but it has to be further developed by applying the mind and the will.”
BUSINESS WITH A CONSCIENCE
“I see volunteerism as a growing trend in Singapore, though it fluctuates at times. People are becoming more actively involved in understanding social and environmental sustainability issues, how these impact everyone’s lives, and what we want for our children’s lives in the future,” says Mr Nicholas Ooi (Computing ’18).
As the co-founder and CEO of bantu, a social enterprise which empowers non-profit organisations to recruit, manage, and retain volunteers using its proprietary tech platform, the 30-year-old himself has been influential in growing the volunteer movement. bantu was founded in 2017 by Mr Ooi and three other University mates from the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme, with NUS Enterprise providing funding support. Creating a socially-conscious start-up while still studying was risky, but it was a risk they were willing to take. “At NUS, we tackled real-world problems in class, such as improving recycling through technology. This made me realise that building technology alone will not improve lives; we also need to persuade people to volunteer more,” he explains.
bantu does just that — its bantu.life
portal currently has a network of more than 23,000 volunteers in Singapore and neighbouring countries who give their time across different causes, while its bantu Workspace volunteer management system has been used by more than 100 social and environmental purpose organisations to date.
More than 60 community projects have been seeded to date under SOG. In one completed project, a team of students conducted IT workshops for children and youths from AWWA Family Services during the December 2019 school holidays, to equip them with basic IT skills that will be useful for their studies and future careers. In a more recent project, another student team joined forces with Yew Tee Community Club to prepare and distribute homemade hand sanitisers — along with instructions on how to make them — to Yew Tee residents, especially the elderly and stay-at-home parents. This helped alleviate the shortage of hand sanitisers in local stores after COVID-19 broke out.
The whole University also came together to help those most affected by the pandemic. From May to July, Prince George’s Park Residences (PGPR) was converted into a Community Recovery Facility (CRF) to house and isolate migrant workers recovering from COVID-19. To make their stay at PGPR as comfortable and as enriching as possible, NUS faculty and students developed a specially-curated mix of online ‘classes’, exercise activities, and entertainment options for the workers, beyond simply quarantining them. As Associate Professor Ho Han Kiat (Science ’00), NUS’ Vice Dean of Students, told The Straits Times: “We want to give the migrant workers a good experience, and what NUS does best is education. We want to treat them like they are our guest students.”
Based in part on feedback from the workers themselves, bite-sized e-courses were offered on topics that were relevant and of interest to them, such as how to plan their finances, avoid phone scams, prevent back injuries, and manage mental health. The NUS sports community produced workout videos for migrant workers to follow. Singing, dancing, and drawing contests were organised to help them pass the time. Students and professors who were fluent in the migrant workers’ native languages, such as Bengali or Burmese, provided translations and voice-overs.
On and off campus, NUS students lent a hand wherever they could to ease the hardship felt by migrant workers. Some donated T-shirts to those staying at PGPR, or contributed their IT skills to create and maintain the CRF @ NUS website where migrant workers accessed the online lessons and programmes. Others acted as translators to bridge the language gap in cases such as doctor-patient consultations, or used their artistic talents to raise funds for COVID-19 community relief efforts targeted at migrant workers.
A lot of these initiatives were led by students from the College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT), who already had experience reaching out to migrant workers before COVID-19 hit. Community engagement has always been a core part of CAPT’s curriculum; for example, CAPT students visit migrant worker dormitories every semester, and the College has also hosted workers for meals, carnivals, and sports events on campus. The COVID-19 crisis was thus, for CAPTains, another opportunity to interact with this underserved segment of the community. “COVID-19 has shown us that community engagement includes but goes way beyond altruism. It has shown us that society has to invest resources in caring for the marginalised and uplifting them, so that they can better cope with health or other challenges. When they don’t, we — the mainstream — pay a high cost,” says Associate Professor Tan Lai Yong (Medicine ’85), Director for Outreach and Community Engagement at CAPT. He coordinated the curriculum for the guest students at PGPR, together with CAPT student-residents. “Going forward, we need to hold high the needs of the marginalised for the sake of the larger good.”
COME ONE, COME ALL
A defining feature of Yale-NUS College is its diverse community, with a current student body of 1,018 students from 69 countries. Their differences are celebrated each year during the Yale-NUS Diversity Week, which seeks to “bring the community together in uplifting ways and engage them in topics related to identity, diversity, and inclusion”, says Ms Sahar Kazemini, Senior Programme Manager (Intercultural Engagement) at the College’s Dean of Students Office.
Launched in 2018, Yale-NUS Diversity Week comprises a week-long programme of activities that explore multiple facets of identity including but not limited to race, sexuality, gender, spirituality and religion, ability status, and mental health. The signature Night Market and Showcase — where students present a taste of home through food delicacies and cultural performances — sits alongside more serious fare such as theatre plays and panel discussions centred on social justice issues. This strengthens the sense of belonging within the College community, and also promotes respect for diversity outside of it. To push forward the diversity and inclusion agenda, Ms Kazemini’s office also runs regular workshops, inter-group dialogues and other initiatives for students. Talking openly and sensitively about identity, inequity, difference, and power “provides a platform for people to grow and learn in spaces that feel welcoming, supportive, and constructive”, she says. Over time, these conversations enable students to “unlearn unhelpful paradigms and move towards a shared understanding”.
SHAPING POLICIES, IMPROVING LIVES
Working for the greater good is also something that NUS’ research institutes have in common. As a leading higher education institution in Asia, NUS and its research community have the best interests of not just Singaporeans, but also people across the region, at heart. At the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), for instance, experts take on key global policy issues and social challenges relevant to Asia, while also educating current and future generations of Asian leaders and policymakers to improve governance standards. For example, LKYSPP Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics Professor Danny Quah explores income inequality and social mobility in his research. According to him, this is part-academic achievement, part-real-world change-making: “I want these ideas to help advance research thinking, change our teaching narrative, and raise people’s wellbeing in an enduring, sustainable way,” he says.
I want these ideas to help advance research thinking, change our teaching narrative, and raise people’s wellbeing in an enduring, sustainable way.
Prof Danny Quah, Dean, LKYSPP and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics
One of NUS’ newest think tanks is the Centre for Technology, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence & the Law (TRAIL), which was launched on 5 December 2019. TRAIL aims to explore the relationship between technology and law, especially as modern developments in IT and biotechnology revolutionise the way humans live, work, and play. “These advancements mean that our laws — as rules that preserve fairness, equality, and justice in human society — must keep up to curb the ills of technology while promoting its best facets. The law cannot remain an outdated artefact divorced from the needs of a technologically-inclined and rapidly-changing society that it seeks to govern,” explains Associate Professor Daniel Seng (Law ’92), Director of TRAIL. For starters, TRAIL plans to conduct empirical research to develop insights into topical legal issues such as intellectual property and technology, privacy and data protection, and cryptocurrencies and virtual property. TRAIL has also organised seminars and talks to get feedback from, and share its research with, the legal community, including a July webinar entitled “COVID-19 and Data Privacy in Asia: Finding the Balance between Public Health and Data Protection” (co-hosted with NUS Centre for Asian Legal Studies).
AGENT OF CHANGE
To date, some 250 NUS undergraduates have gone through the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre (CTPCLC) curriculum. One of them, Ms Raudhah Bte Razali (Arts and Social Sciences ’20), 23, tells The AlumNUS how it has shaped her career aspirations.
“Joining CTPCLC and collaborating on social research projects with community partners — namely, Fei Yue Community Services and the Ministry of Health’s Office for Healthcare Transformation (MOHT) — made me realise the importance of understanding the community’s experiences in creating solutions that can improve their well-being. It encouraged me to identify the community not as beneficiaries, but as empowered people who have various skillsets and strengths which can be tapped on.
My experience at CTPCLC showed me that it is possible to be a community leader in a corporate environment, by understanding the perspectives of the ‘client’ or ‘beneficiary’ in question. Now that I have started my new job as a Communications Executive at MOHT, I hope to work closely with communities rather than for them. I aim to remain close to the ground to understand the community’s voices, and translate these insights into solutions that can empower them to take charge of their own health and well-being.”
Speaking of the pandemic, NUS’ Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH) and the Mind Science Centre (MSC) have made several notable contributions during this time. To help seniors and their caregivers cope with the prolonged isolation and increased anxiety, MSC collaborated with community and educational partners to launch free online resources on mindfulness intervention. SSHSPH researchers used mathematical models to better understand the characteristics and transmission dynamics of the virus, and also prepared weekly briefs for policymakers that synthesised global evidence on diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, population control measures, and exit strategies.
“Policymakers need to be regularly updated with the latest scientific evidence in order to put in place the appropriate policies that are most helpful to containing the situation,” says SSHSPH Dean Professor Teo Yik Ying on the importance of a strong partnership between academia and policymakers amid the outbreak. But even in normal times, both SSHSPH and MSC conduct crucial research to combat public health challenges faced by Asian populations, such as diabetes and dementia.
Though not a think tank per se, NUS’ Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre (CTPCLC) has established itself as a thought leader in community leadership and improving the lives of Singaporeans. A full-fledged independent Centre since 2017, CTPCLC aims to nurture Singapore’s next generation of community leaders. Students admitted to CTPCLC receive strong academic grounding and practical experience in community development. They also partner local social service organisations on ground-up initiatives to tackle social issues such as poverty, ageing, the reintegration of ex-offenders into society, and mental health.
“We are the first in Singapore — and I think the world — to have a comprehensive minor degree curriculum in Community Development and Leadership,” says Associate Professor Chng Huang Hoon (Arts and Social Sciences ’87), Director of CTPCLC, who hopes to one day launch a major degree programme as well. “Community development and leadership is envisaged to be a need as our society ages and requires more distributed resources on the ground. We at NUS are in a position, as a University with excellent standing, to provide the scholarly expertise to develop talent in this niche.”
LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD
Going to university allows students to not only identify and develop their niche talents but also expand their knowledge, meet new people, and boost their odds of career success. Unfortunately, access to higher education is nowhere near as equitable as it ought to be, with a large swath of the population unable to afford the cost of an undergraduate degree. COVID-19 and the ensuing economic slowdown has exacerbated this problem. According to NUS’ Office of Financial Aid, financial aid applications received in August 2020 were 15 per cent higher compared to the same time last year.
To provide immediate support and relief to financially-disadvantaged students, NUS announced several measures this past year, on top of its existing financial aid schemes. In April, the University set up an NUS Students Solidarity Fund, which raised an initial sum of $220,000 from alumni benefactors to help needy students during this period. It also suspended loan repayments for the NUS Student Assistance
Loan and, like other local universities, froze tuition fee hikes for Singaporean students enrolled in the 2020 intake.
The NUS Students Solidarity Fund aside, NUS alumni have also shown their generosity in other ways. For example, the Alumni Student Advancement Committee (ASAC) has continued to receive donations for its Alumni Bursary Fund Campaign. “Because our traditional event-based fundraisers such as charity golf events and class reunions are not possible, we’ve shifted to raising money virtually,” says Mr Seah Cheng San (Engineering ’82), an NUS Alumni Advisory Board member and Chairman of ASAC. “Education is a social leveller for poorer students. With the bursary funds, they don’t have to take up, or take up less, part-time work while studying and can therefore enjoy hall life, participate in co-curricular activities, and go on overseas exchange programmes.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, more people will inevitably fall on hard times. How well we bounce back from this crisis depends on our willingness to help one another. Giving back to society — by providing financial assistance to needy students and their families, or volunteering one’s time and skills to benefit the community at large — has been a fundamental principle of NUS for as long as the University has been around. Amid this unprecedented moment in history, the stakes have probably never been higher.
In July 2020, the NUS Alumni Advisory Board welcomed three new members who are in their 30s. They were appointed not by the NUS President, but as the result of a first-time open nomination process to make the Board more inclusive. Representing the younger generation of alumni, they each have fresh ideas to widen the reach to the alumni community and serve their diverse needs.
“I come from a lower-middle socioeconomic background, and from neighbourhood schools where getting into junior colleges and universities was a rarity. As a Board member and with my background in entrepreneurship, I hope to represent women and lower-middle income groups climbing the ladder of meritocracy to address the evolving needs of our community.”
Ms Goh Yiping (Design and Environment ’05), Partner, Quest Ventures
“My motivation for joining the Board is to champion stronger coordination with NUS faculties and offices as well as student groups. From my prior involvement in the NUS Students’ Union (NUSSU), the earlier the University establishes a strong connection with existing students, the more likely they will become active alumni eager to contribute to the NUS community.”
Mr Ho Jun Yi (Law & Public Policy ’11), Associate, Reed Smith LLP
“Many brilliant ideas emerged from the NUS Alumni Leaders Forum 2020, which I had the privilege of participating in. Fellow alumni traded ideas on transforming alumni activities in the digital age. This year’s Bukit Timah Homecoming was one example of what we can expect in this new normal. I aspire to be part of the driving force behind this digital transformation.”
Mr Ow Tai Zhi (Business ’11), Co-Founder and Chief Investment Officer, AutoWealth