The Social Mission Conference discussed ways Catholics can reach out to the poor

Mr Laurence Lien (far left), the conference moderator, with panellists at the Aug 13 Social Mission Conference: (from left) Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn, Mr Zainal Bin Sapari, Dr Christopher Cheok and Mr Jonathan Chang.

Assisting low-wage workers, helping single parents find work-life harmony and supporting caregivers. These were some of the topics discussed during the Aug 13 Social Mission Conference organised by Caritas Singapore.

The biennial event, which began in 2008, aimed to deepen Catholics’ understanding of the Church’s social mission in reaching out to the marginalised.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, president of Caritas Internationalis and Archbishop of Manila was the keynote speaker of the conference held at Catholic Junior College.

The 600 participants were encouraged to reflect on the theme, Witness to Mercy, Bearer of Compassion.

Archbishop William Goh, in his opening address, said, “Caregivers need to grow in faith and human integrity if they truly want to help others.”

He also highlighted the difference between humanitarian work and Christian charity.

“Christian charity is motivated by a love for God, motivated beyond humanitarian concern. All who wish to be involved in this charity must therefore extend the same love of God to others.”

Realities of poverty
The conference speakers then came up one by one to speak on issues and challenges faced by the poor.

Mr Zainal Bin Sapari, Assistant Secretary-General of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), spoke about the need to help low-wage workers and to reduce the income gap between them and those earning average incomes.

“Employers of low-wage workers are cutting corners and using unfair contract terms to take advantage of their vulnerable situation.

“For fear of losing their jobs, the workers are often afraid to raise the matter,” said Mr Zainal.  
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle urged participants to ‘see, hear and touch the wounds of others.’

To offer a solution to the problem, he introduced an NTUC initiative called U Care Centre, a one-stop centre dedicated to promoting the welfare of low-wage workers in Singapore.

Mr Zainal said that the centre, which opened in November 2013, provides “workers with guidance over work-related issues and opportunities.”

Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn from the Division of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) addressed the poor work-life balance of single-parent and low-income families.

“Finding such harmony ... should not be a class privilege,” she said.

Assoc Prof Teo went on to share a story about a single mother of three kids.

The single mother worked as a school cleaner and was hoping to take leave to look after one of her sick children at home.
“Fearing for her job and wanting to verify her leave, she had to record a video of her sick child at home and show it to her employer. She was granted two weeks of unpaid leave,” recalled Assoc Prof Teo.

She suggested supporting low income households by providing subsidies and paying them fairly.

Mr Jonathan Chang, an Adjunct Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Singapore Management University (SMU), spoke about the need to better cater to the needs to physically-disabled workers (PWDs).

He noted that families are the first line of support for PWDs and encouraged participants to change their mindset regarding the physically-disabled.

“Making them feel lesser than they actually are leads to isolation and is a form of bullying,” said Mr Chang.

He also highlighted that not all office buildings are accessible to the PWDs and said it was something companies could work on to extend their support.

Rounding off the discussion was Dr Christopher Cheok, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health.

He spoke about problems faced by people with mental illnesses. Noting that about five to 10 percent of society have some form of mental illness, Dr Cheok said less than 10 percent of them seek professional help.

“They are afraid it will go on record and affect their future job aspirations or it could be they are afraid of being judged.”

He urged participants who knew anyone suffering from a mental illness to encourage them to seek help as soon as possible.

Two avenues of help suggested by Dr Cheok are the National Addictions Management Service and Clarity Singapore.

Panel discussion

During the panel discussion moderated by Mr Laurence Lien, Co-Founder of the Asia Philanthropy Circle, one participant asked if the problem of poverty was getting worse or better.

Mr Zainal replied, “There will always be low-wage workers due to the increasing cost of living, however there are improvements with regard to gross monthly income.”

Keynote address

Cardinal Tagle, in his keynote address, invited participants to picture two streams that lead to mercy.

“The first stream is compassion,” the cardinal said. “We need to serve the poor God’s way,” he said.

“The second stream is fidelity,” he added.

He also encouraged the audience to “be in touch with your woundedness as you serve others.”

Recounting an experience, Cardinal Tagle shared how he encountered mercy during a visit to a refugee camp in Greece.

He had met an Australian couple serving there. He noticed that the father was carrying his baby in a harness. Intrigued, he asked the couple what they were doing at the refugee camp with their child.

“They told me that they were here on holiday but had cut it short when they heard about the needs of the people in the refugee camp.” 

“See, hear and touch the wounds of others”, he reminded the participants.

Mr Frank Wong, chairman of the Caritas Singapore Board of Trustees, asking a question during the conference held at Catholic Junior College. Archbishop William Goh, in his opening address, said more faith formation should be provided for caregivers.

Q&A with the cardinal

After lunch, participants had the chance to ask Cardinal Tagle some questions during a dialogue session moderated by Jesuit Fr Colin Tan.

“How can I balance Christian charity and a business career?” asked a participant.

“Try to see the opportunities that the business world is opening for yourself and seize those chances to deepen your faith. An example would be thinking about the environment when planning your business models,” replied Cardinal Tagle.

Another participant asked, “What kind of experiences should young people strive for in order to grow before helping others?”

Cardinal Tagle, after a moment’s thought, said: “Focus on strengthening the relationships in your family and practise good values that can be a good example to others. Also, I encourage you to visit the local orphanages or elderly homes in Singapore to feel the wounds of others.”

Breakout sessions

The audience were then given a choice of six breakout sessions to attend.

In the Caregivers group, participants shared that was a lack of awareness about availability and accessibility of services to provide caregivers with tools to aid their work. They suggested more platforms for sharing of experiences and resources.

In the group discussing the Elderly, participants shared their concern about elderly people living alone. They said creating more activities to promote social interaction would be a viable solution.

In the group on Low-Wage Workers, participants identified lack of family support for the workers as a cause for concern.
They suggested offering tuition services for the children of these workers.

In the group discussing People with Mental Health Issues, the stigmatisation of people with mental disorders was brought up. Participants suggested further educating the public on the matter.

In the group discussing People with Physical Disabilities, participants felt there was a lack of service and infrastructure for the physically disabled.

They suggested an increase in transport facilities.

In the group Single-Parent Families, participants suggested providing more childcare services for the family.

They raised the possibility of tweaking child care centre operating hours to match single parents’ family circumstances.

Participants said they found the conference enriching.

“It made me think about issues plaguing the poor in Singapore and what I could do better. I feel that we as Catholics should speak more with our actions and this conference solidified that belief,” said Ms Kimberly Chua.

Mr Michael Ong said he attended the conference to “find opportunities in which to serve the marginalised”.
“I certainly hope to play my part,” he said.

For more information on Caritas Singapore, visit n

By Jared Ng
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