The work was mundane. Yet volunteers had kept up morale by putting up a scoreboard to try and outdo each other in friendly competition for numbers bottled a day. Mr Bernard Menon, Director of Migrant Workers at NTUC, said Harry’s volunteers had become such experts that “I practically begged them to give us five chaps a day, after they completed their month-long obligation, up until we completed production”. Meanwhile, our patron, Speaker of Parliament Tan ChuanJin, was supportive (he doesn’t seem to sleep much), suggesting ideas from among his extensive networks of “simple acts of kindness and generosity”.
Soon, we had built WhatAreYouDoing.Sg, with its own Facebook community page, as a way to document these pieces, capturing what went on behind walls and among vulnerable groups. Groups that, before Covid-19 hit, held far less of our attention. I remember confessing to a friend who’d asked how I was feeling, that I was heartsick looking at Instagram posts of lavish meals. “I’m really happy that so many are eating well,” I’d said. “But I wish everyone was eating equally well.”
The true impact of our project came later. Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen, Committee Chairman of the AGWO, said his organisation’s hotline lit up after the pieces were broadcast on Facebook. “They truly inspired those who read to stop complaining and do something meaningful to bless our brothers,” he said. “They’ve helped to bring some light into what we do. After the article, we had many who called our hotlines to offer their services as well as contribute towards the cause.”
We realised then that what began as curious storytelling had become something bigger: A counterpoint to the negativity online. Our lockdown project had become a mission.
I am not immune to the allure of classic fashion icons, the excitement of the Met Gala, and the enduring grace of Gabrielle Chanel. I still suffer a voyeuristic couture nerdism from having spent three and a half years writing magazine features for a glossy in the mid-nineties. I own Tod’s handbags, Fendi limited editions, Prada heels, and an assortment of jewellery that mark key milestones in my life, their significance aligned with personal joys: The day our little girl came into our lives, that time my editorial team notched a global award, the year I turned 40, our 10th wedding anniversary, that sort of thing.
These moments, like the brands I gravitate to, have an enduring, robust spirit. A zeitgeist. I buy them because they’re what I hope to give my daughter someday. Now, I think of the intangibles I’d like to give her too, like a portrait of the stock she comes from. As she lobs me a million questions about what she calls “The Covid”, I know these stories will show her how we got through it all, and to remember that kindness speaks loudest in deed.
There’s an oft-quoted description of a Singaporean by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1977, that he “is a champion grumbler”. We don’t focus as much on the former part of what he said: “You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade.”
The most inspiring Singaporeans I know make a huge difference without uttering a sound. They represent the best of us. They are problem-solvers—maybe not the best at saying how they feel, but top-class at getting the job done. As Covid-19 halted so many things, it also revealed “only in Singapore” moments that no self-respecting storyteller should want to miss. Through WhatAreYouDoing.Sg’s mission, we were able to witness for ourselves how Singapore phrases were being reframed:
REGARDLESS OF: That reverend with an inter-faith group organising and delivering Islamic meals during Ramadan to Muslim workers confined to dormitories— with a special briyani treat on Vesak Day, a Buddhist holiday.
RE-SKILLING: Bartenders using their beer-pulling experience to dispense sanitisers into smaller bottles for distribution to migrant worker dorms. Flight attendants putting their service standards to social services, bringing cheer to the elderly.
CHIN CHYE LAH: Churches, mosques and temples housing the newly homeless who had lost their jobs due to the virus, until they could be relocated. Some religious organisations going to the extent of positioning in these temporary quarters qiblas (the direction to Mecca) for Muslims to perform prayers.
I BELANJA YOU: Individuals treating healthcare professionals to meals from restaurants. A student enterprise bee hoon stall turning into a charity to donate its food to beneficiaries of The Food Bank.
OWNSELF DO: Individuals galvanising their immediate social groups to meet whatever needs they knew of, including buying laptops for under-privileged students so they could do home-based learning, and getting chicken rice to overworked healthcare professionals.
When my daughter looks back at the single event that is changing the entire course of her world, I hope she remembers that, despite it being beyond anyone’s control, Covid-19 also brought out our ruggedness. And it’s not in what we said, or what we bought, but what we did.