Tropical Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and the island of Madagascar in Southeastern Africa in early March this year, causing catastrophic damage, with over 1,300 lives lost and more than 3 million people affected.
I have strong affinities with the people in the affected regions as I had spent two months in that part of Africa more than 20 years ago. The suffering of the local communities deeply touched my heart, and I closely monitored the situation through the media, including Tzu Chi’s Da Ai TV. The coverage on Da Ai TV was especially poignant as I was again reminded of the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters brought upon by climate change.
These climate disasters, which cause much human suffering, are largely fueled by the unbridled consumption and over-indulgent lifestyle of mankind, especially in developed countries. However, impoverished communities in developing countries, which consume the least, often disproportionately suffer the most.
Hence, when the opportunity for fundraising for the cyclone victims arose, I volunteered to help out without any hesitation. The fundraising drive was organised by the Tzu Chi Merit Organization (Singapore). I have served as a Tzu Chi volunteer for six years. Most of my early involvement had been through medical aid missions with the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), but I have progressively involved myself in the other spheres of Tzu Chi, such as community volunteerism, environmental protection and humanistic culture.
Early on a fine Saturday morning on 5th May, I joined a team of some 50 Tzu Chi volunteers in the vicinity of Kuan Yin Thong Hood Cho Temple in Bugis for the street fundraising event to raise funds for the victims of Cyclone Idai. Concurrently, there were many other teams of fundraising volunteers stationed at various locations throughout Singapore.
Armed with a placard and a donation box, our team of three was stationed very close to the main entrance of the Kuan Yin temple. It was interesting to observe the many other street collectors representing other local organisations at the same location. This temple is particularly popular with large throngs of devotees. Many of the devotees were very generous and came ready with small change for our donation boxes. Some donated into every single box whilst others were more selective.
We observed the relatively “aggressive tactics” of some of the street collectors who badgered those exiting the temple. Thus, we tried to maintain a respectful distance and stance so as to not obstruct people exiting the temple. Giving has to be voluntary and comes from the heart. We were just there to provide an opportunity for those who would like to reach out to those in suffering.
Many of the devotees did choose to donate to us, often generously. However, there was a very small number who chose not to donate once they learned that the collection was for Africa. Quite often, there were little opportunities (due to the high traffic) to explain to people that helping the needy in another country (that most are less familiar with) does not compromise our efforts to help the underprivileged in Singapore. There were also little opportunities to engage with the visiting tourists, who were put off by the aggressive tactics of the other street collectors in the vicinity.
Nevertheless, it was a meaningful way to spend the morning.
Priceless lessons as a street collector
I will always remember my first experience as a street collector several years ago. After the event, I tried to share my experience with my colleagues at the hospital.
One of them seemed very intrigued, and started asking questions, such as who and how many of us were out there on the streets, the number of hours we put in and even how much we had collected…… I explained that all the donation boxes were sealed, and they were only opened after they were sent back to Tzu Chi’s office. He pushed me for an “estimated amount”, so I replied, “Okay, this is just an estimate —maybe around X amount of dollars.”
He paused and seemed deep in thoughts, before finally saying, “So, the three of you spent all those hours collecting X amount of cash…… Wouldn’t it have been easier for you to donate the same sum of money yourself? As a group, you all can work and earn more in those hours than the amount you’ve collected!’’
I understood his point and was well aware of the maxim: “Time is money and money is time”. I explained to him that actually, most of us had already made personal donations to the same cause, but there were deeper meanings to why we volunteered our time and effort.
Being a street collector provides many priceless lessons. Saying thank you to the donors with a bow requires humility, sincerity and respect towards strangers. It is important that in trying to promote a more caring and compassionate society, we must not only reach out to help others, but also do our part to “create opportunities” for others to help, so as to form a cycle of love.
Taking the analogy of the thousand-arm Guan Yin Bodhisattva, those arms are collectively represented by the volunteers on the ground and the numerous donors from all corners of society. Working together, these compassionate arms are able to bring relieve to those in need in a distant land. Many people do have compassionate hearts, and there is a need to create more opportunities to get those hearts into action! Volunteering in a street fundraiser is a meaningful way to realise this aspiration.
*Editor’s note: The writer is a senior consultant ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeon at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.