“When Singapore is mentioned, ‘rich,’ ‘first-world country,’ and images of people driving cars to go shopping come to mind.” These were the first impressions that Boo Chanco, a columnist with “The Philippine Star”* newspaper had of Singapore. “However, there are also people suffering from poverty, sickness and age; Tzu Chi (is the one that) cares for them. After this visit, I realise that a real need exists and that makes Tzu Chi’s work all the more important.”
On 26 May 2015, six entrepreneurs and experienced media professionals from the Philippines, led by CEO of Tzu Chi Foundation (Philippines) Alfredo Li, visited the Jing Si Hall, two Tzu Chi free clinics, the Eco-Awareness Centre and the Tzu Chi Great Love PreSchool in Singapore. They were accompanied by the CEO of Tzu Chi’s Singapore branch, Low Swee Seh.
Applying the Dharma Wherever One May Be
“I was once an entrepreneur, too, and after I became the CEO (of Tzu Chi Singapore), I realised that I was even busier than before. There are many meetings to attend and I often sleep only five hours a day, yet I am much happier than in the past, when I was earning so much more.” Low Swee Seh’s self-introduction on the bus and his “formula for happiness” aroused the curiosity of his listeners.
At every stop, the visitors were warmly welcomed by warm smiles, beautifully presented refreshments and a detailed introduction of Tzu Chi’s work by volunteers. They were told that Tzu Chi’s philosophy was evident in every single detail; from minor ones such as the gesture of clasping palms together, to prominent ones, such as the picture of “Buddha Caring for the Sick” in the Tzu Chi Free Clinic at Redhill.
“Don’t underestimate yourself, because everyone has unlimited potential.” Li read out a Jing Si Aphorism in English pasted on the wall and went on to express how much he liked that particular aphorism as it would have motivated countless others. After listening to the explanations, the visitors whipped out their mobile phones to take pictures of the aphorism for keepsakes.
Boo Chanco felt that Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms are words of wisdom and useful for everyone living in today’s complicated society. In addition, Tzu Chi’s philosophy of living was one of giving back to society and helping others, which is very applicable to an environment like the Philippines, a country with a wide rich-poor divide and plagued with frequent earthquake and typhoon disasters.
Treating the Sick Like Family
TCM physician Lin Li Fang introduced the operational model of the Tzu Chi Free Clinic to the visitors, explaining that quality service has been made possible with a mix of volunteers and staff, benefitting many low-income patients with free medical care over the last six years.
Lim Kim Yan, a professional nurse and a member of the Tzu Chi medical home care team, also shared some anecdotes, one of which concerned Grandpa Lin, who was deaf, and blind in one eye. The first time the home care team visited him, Tzu Chi’s medical consultant Dr. Edwin Lim brought along a steel measuring tape which he slid under the front door, wriggling it back and forth in an effort to catch Grandpa Lin’s attention. Yet after half an hour of effort, they still failed to get him to open the door.
After the presentation, Boo Chanco stood up and expressed how touched he was by this attitude of treating the sick like one’s family. Eduardo Yap, one of the visitors who is also a member of the Rotary Club, commented that no government in the world can satisfy the needs of every one of their sick and elderly, and therefore, volunteer organisations like Tzu Chi are needed, and nongovernmental organisations should also join in to help.
Bringing the Learning Back to the Philippines
In preparation of the visit, the Tzu Chi team in charge of decoration and setup had specially took pains to ensure that the posters at the Eco-Awareness Centre were put up the afternoon before. The visitors were especially curious about the process by which Tzu Chi’s DA.AI Technology** transforms waste into useful products. Eduardo said that he would try to implement the concepts that he had learnt when he returned to the Philippines, in particular, the collection of used resources for recycling.
Entrepreneur Carlos Chan stood in front of a poster depicting the “cash-for-work” programme in the Philippines during the Typhoon Haiyan disaster for a long while. After the 2013 disaster, he had donated 1,000 prefabricated housing units for the victims in support of Tzu Chi’s rebuilding efforts.
On this occasion, Chan had responded to Li’s urging and invited other entrepreneurs as well as media professionals to come visit the Singapore branch; following this, they would also visit the Indonesian branch in order to let the group understand more about Tzu Chi’s work. Li revealed that Chan was a respected entrepreneur in the Philippines, and he hoped that with his support, more entrepreneurs would join the ranks of Tzu Chi.
When the visitors arrived at the Tzu Chi Great Love PreSchool, they were welcomed by neat rows of children who sang them a welcome song before presenting them with shoe bags. The visitors could not help patting their little heads and taking photographs with them. The little children from the class for five year olds carried out their roles as visitor guides while supervisor Wang Xuan Bi stood by to help out when necessary.
Tony Katigbak, also a columnist from the “The Philippine Star”, promised that when he returned to the Philippines he would write an article on what he had seen and heard on the trip, saying that Tzu Chi’s efforts were very inspiring; he hoped that others would follow the path that Master Cheng Yen had laid out and engage in works of charity, too.
Local Participation in Cash-for-Work Programme
In the evening, at the Jing Si Hall, Li shared his humanitarian aid experience during the 2009 and 2013 typhoon disasters of Ketsana and Haiyan respectively, giving much inspiration to the 150 local volunteers who attended the session. He credited the two experiences for changing the history of Tzu Chi’s Philippines branch.
The Philippines has a tropical monsoon rainforest climate with high temperatures, plentiful rainfall and frequent typhoons. “The alphabets from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ are not enough to name all the typhoons, and it is necessary to start from ‘A’ again (in naming the later occurring ones),” joked Li.
On average, more than 30 typhoons of varying intensities occur every year and the September 2009 Typhoon Ketsana disaster had resulted in the most serious damage recorded around the Manila area. Li lamented that man was powerless in the face of nature’s fury; his car, office and warehouses were not spared and he could not venture anywhere. In addition, the water and power supplies were cut. With benevolent guidance from Master Cheng Yen, volunteers initiated the “cash-for-for-work” cleanup programme in Marikina City. The locals were paid for cleaning up the surroundings and in the process, this boosted their morale towards the rebuilding efforts.
As a result, the numbers of local Philippine volunteers increased significantly and approximately 10,000 locals attended the Tzu Chi volunteer training. Li described natural disaster as not only a challenge but also an opportunity for positive change, as it inspired the goodness in people’s hearts and brought across the message that we should not only count our blessings but also create even more blessings.
During that period, the locals living in low-income neighbourhoods experienced not only flooding, but also breakouts of fire. Tzu Chi volunteers had even entered a disaster zone and distributed supplies to 400 families, offering words of comfort while explaining the origins of the organization – how Master Cheng Yen started Tzu Chi from scratch in the rural east coast of Taiwan, with a group of housewives saving a small amount each day in a bamboo coin bank to help the needy. After hearing the story of the “bamboo bank era”, many residents took home a Tzu Chi “bamboo” coin bank on their own initiative so that they, too, could save up and help others in need.
During the 15th anniversary of the Philippines’ branch, many residents gathered quietly outside the local Jing Si Hall. More than 200 of them had responded to Tzu Chi’s invitation and the number of bamboo banks filled with donations and returned to Tzu Chi exceeded 300. Li admitted frankly that he had forgotten that the residents had taken home bamboo banks, and was thus pleasantly surprised at their coming.
Two years ago, the “cash-for-for-work” cleanup model was also employed during the Typhoon Haiyan disaster. From 600 participants on the first day, the numbers increased to 34,000 on the last day. A total of 6,800 households benefitted from the programme and the city regained its cleanliness and functionality. Before the cleanup started every day, volunteers would spend an hour on conducting a briefing; they let the participants know that the work relief programme was made possible by the dedicated fund raising efforts of many volunteers across many countries. Knowing how much effort was involved, many disaster victims even returned the extra money that their families received due to mistakes in the cash distribution.
Volunteer Hu Zhao Hong who was at the sharing session said, “In the past I merely followed the others and participated in the street fundraisers; this evening after hearing what the CEO of Tzu Chi Philippines said, I understood how the kindness of people all over the world had benefitted the disaster victims in such a tangible manner, (and I am) very moved.” Hu normally volunteers his time in conducting house visits and also participates in the medical home care visits, where he assists in the care of beneficiaries. He said: “If I have the opportunity to render humanitarian aid overseas, I will definitely seize the chance!”
Rebuilding Homes and Settling Hearts
When the emergency rescue period had passed, Tzu Chi would focus its attention onto rebuilding for the mid to long term. Deputy CEO Henry Yunez explained how after the Haiyan disaster, volunteers busily built pre-fabricated homes for the survivors so that they could settle their hearts and families. Volunteers also helped to rebuild damaged structures such as churches, schools, and waiting areas for motorcycles etc.
As it was the rainy season during that period of time, volunteers had to work throughout the night to rush the completion of the pre-fabricated homes. Manpower was limited, and the disaster victims also chipped in to help — thus from beneficiaries who received help from others, they, too, became volunteers who could give back to society. From rebuilding a city, lives were also given a new start. A local woman also mentioned that if not for Tzu Chi, her husband would not have become a volunteer and probably would not have quit smoking.
Chen Hui Yi, who attended the sharing session, was inspired by Tzu Chi’s spirit of helping others in need. By providing medical care, monetary and material aid, Tzu Chi also rebuilds lives. Hence she felt that the organization was helping to make the world a better place.
Volunteers from Singapore and the Philippines had much to take away from the session that day. With the blessings from the Singapore team, the visitors from the Philippines proceeded to head for Indonesia the very next day, and continue with their site visit.
*The Philippine Star is the leading print and digital newspaper in the Philippines with a market share of over 50 percent and over 2.7 million daily readers nationwide.
**DA.AI Technology was established in December 2008 by a group of five entrepreneurs from the Tzu Chi International Humanitarian Aid Association (TIHAA). It is the first eco-friendly social enterprise in Taiwan which manufactures blankets and apparel for adults and children using fabric made of yarn derived from used PET bottles. The blankets are often distributed to the needy and victims of disasters during Tzu Chi’s humanitarian aid missions.