November 24th, 2015

Reflections on ‘Doing Good Great’

readingA guest blog post by Camille Neale

The newly launched Doing Good Great: Thirteen Asian Heroes and Their Causes by Willie Cheng, Sharifah Mohamed & Cheryl Tang (Epigram Books) celebrates the work of thirteen individuals in Asia, tracing their first steps in promoting social change, their motivations and personal philosophies. The authors call these individuals social heroes, galvanising change despite their own struggles. Their work engages with meaningful problems of human suffering, whether through advocating for workers rights, media freedom, or laws against child prostitution.

The people working to address social issues are not always as well-documented as the issues themselves. In my view, it is important to bring an awareness of them into the mainstream media. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by societal injustice, but these stories show that even when you can’t count on your government to protect your rights, individuals working in social justice can make positive change.

Singapore’s chosen “social hero” is Braema Mathi, a previous president of AWARE. The specific issue in focus concerns the status of migrant workers in Singapore. The authors trace the development of Ms Mathi’s social consciousness, which started early through the example of her parents. The authors see cause and champion as closely entwined, so that activists’ personal stories are an important part of understanding their work.

In Singapore, migrant workers’ needs are often overlooked and their rights violated. As Singapore has one of the highest percentages of migrant workers in Asia, this is a considerable social issue. During the course of her work, Ms Mathi was forced to rethink the ability of legislation to promote social change. Notably, she succeded in reducing the use of the word “maid” in the lingua franca and replacing it with “foreign domestic worker.” This simple change altered public perceptions of foreign domestic workers– they are not servants and should not be treated as such.

In 1992, Ms Mathi started volunteering for AWARE. She was elected president in 2006, leading to an appointment as an NMP (nominated member of parliament). She notes that her time as an NMP taught her important lessons that made her a better advocate – such as the importance of making contacts inside the government in order to enact change.

Now MARUAH (a Singaporean human rights NGO) is the main vehicle through which Ms Mathi advances her human rights agenda. She does not know the future of MARUAH and her work, but she notes that the responsibility is on everyone to uphold the rights of others: “how can we sit back and not do something about a child, an old man, a disabled person, a woman who struggles daily without basic necessities, just because he or she was born into a family that has less, or in a country that has less? It is our duty and our opportunity to share what we have… if when we took for ourselves, was it also at their expense further down the chain.”

NGO work can be thankless. Ms Mathi has faced numerous setbacks, but stories like hers must be heard. They widen awareness of the types of resources at your disposal, and show the need for the involvement of individuals and civil society. Simply doing away with a term such as “maid” can have a significant impact as it changes the narrative. In refusing to participate in the use of derogatory language, you take a stand against a system that prioritises certain lives over others.

As the chapter demonstrates, in Singapore, some work is more valued than others, and income level and societal respect reflect these hierarchies. Although the problem is more insidious than perhaps can be “solved” by changing laws, Ms Mathi’s work reveals the power of public education. The book suggests that although tackling social issues is slow going, human rights work is valuable because it recognises the innate dignity of humans. It shows low-wage earners that society will prevent them from going hungry; and shows women who’ve experienced abuse that their voices are important.

Doing work that you love is a privilege. Ms Mathi feels lucky enough to have this privilege, and so chooses to do work that dismantles oppressive institutions. In reading this, I was reminded of a quote from Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams”:

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”

About the author: Camille Neale is currently an intern at AWARE.

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