Photo credit: JOSIAH TEO


Josiah Teo Ming Ern, 19, is currently completing his National Service. He previously led the Service Learning (SL) Project HCI Habitat For Humanity, where his team organised Project Homeworks to clean and rehabilitate the living conditions of the underprivileged who often live in cluttered and infested one-room HDB flats. He shares some lessons that he has learnt throughout his journey.

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!

As someone who has led a fairly comfortable life in a middle-class family, I did not engage in a lot of physical labour growing up. All I’d have to do is complete my schoolwork and help out occasionally with the household chores.

Joining HCI Habitat for Humanity truly puts me in diverse environments. Going for my first Project Homeworks home-cleaning session, I was absolutely terrified. I encountered bedbugs,  something I considered as a myth.

However, once I actually started to get into the process of cleaning people’s houses more frequently, and upon seeing the tangible impact I was making on people’s lives, I slowly grew more comfortable in such environments. If I had not gotten my hands dirty, I would never have accomplished what I had done for the beneficiaries.

Your opinion of what's best may differ from what others think

When serving others, one needs to keep in mind that they are often not just passive bystanders waiting for the service to be completed. In my experience of serving, the homeowners would often observe us anxiously as we sorted through their items in an effort to declutter some of the unnecessary ones.

Sometimes, even though we were doing what we thought was in their best interests, we faced objections from them. In one instance, an elderly resident stopped us from discarding her bedbug-infested cupboard even though we were providing her with a replacement (albeit a smaller one). We had to calmly but firmly explain to her our rationale for our actions, and come to a compromise. Eventually, we bought her a cupboard similar to her original one.

Don’t be afraid to use your connections

Every SL Project needs many volunteers, especially when you have one as labour-intensive as mine was. Before going for each home-cleaning session, I remember struggling to recruit enough volunteers to help us. In such circumstances, I would always text almost everyone I knew from my various social circles, but it was still not enough.

Through many cycles of experience, we began to take advantage of our connections in more innovative ways. For example, my teammate, who was the captain of our junior college’s Judo Club, organised a Club Community Involvement Programme Activity in collaboration with us, in which members of the club cleaned the houses alongside us.

Don’t expect to be thanked all the time

Community service can be a thankless job. At times, even though my team and I poured our hearts and souls into refurbishing a beneficiary’s house, the beneficiary would still lodge complaints over minor details, such as how certain things were organised.

In this line of service, one needs to remember why they embarked on this arduous journey in the first place – to make the world a better place, no matter how small these improvements may be. As long as one knows in their heart that they have given their best and made a positive impact to others’ lives, they should feel that their mission has been accomplished, even if no thanks were offered.

Community service is not a competition

Building on the point about knowing why you serve, oftentimes, at the secondary school or junior college level, one can actually forget their core motivations. With so many students participating in school-wide and/or nation-wide SL programmes, those in the spotlight are bound to receive a lot of attention.

It can thus often seem that those participating in SL Projects are doing it as a means to gain influence and outdo one another, in terms of the number of people we have reached out to or the money we have raised.

To be honest, my project wasn’t the largest in scale. We didn’t reach out to the most number of people, and we didn’t raise a lot of money, but we still put in our best and improved the lives of our beneficiaries.

Start early

Community service projects involve a lot of administrative work – whether it is preparing the necessary paperwork, finding volunteers, or getting the correct logistics. You have to recruit sponsors to fund your projects, and then spend a lot of time preparing for the presentation to be made to them. While my team used to do these things a little too close to our deadlines, through experience we realised how the world outside of school doesn’t work on last-minute notices.

Just because they are invisible to you doesn’t mean they don’t exist

As someone who lives in a middle-class neighbourhood and went to a school with many students from relatively wealthy families, I hardly interacted with those who came from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds, where facing financial difficulty is a part of their everyday lives.

However, after going to multiple blocks of rental flats around the island, I was confronted with how socio-economic inequality and relative poverty were lurking insidiously in the many corners around our island, which is known for being modern, developed and prosperous. In order to make a difference in the lives of others, we must first open our eyes and notice these people who do not fit into the narrative of our world.

Go in with an open mind

We all have our prejudices against certain groups of people who seem different from us, and may form judgments from our preconceived (and often unverified) notions about them. Before I embarked on this project, I was guilty of thinking that those who were living in poverty in Singapore, a land of prosperity and opportunity, were just not industrious enough.

However, after interacting with the underprivileged first-hand, I realised that many were in their situation because they had been left behind in our nation’s rapid growth, or had chanced upon ill circumstances in their lives. When interacting with beneficiaries who may be starkly different from us, clear your mind of your biases, otherwise, you may fall into the trap of “confirmation bias” – where we look selectively at their habits to “support” our prejudices.

You have a team for a reason

Serving others can be tough. One must have a team behind them to cover blind spots and weaknesses, and to challenge us to be a better version of ourselves. Take the time to know your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses well, so that you can find out how to delegate the work. Assuming you have chosen your teammates well, never be afraid to voice out your frustrations to them. In return, be a listening ear for them.

Remain humble

One will never know everything in our vast and complex world. Do not come in to serve others with a condescending attitude – just because you may be more privileged than your beneficiaries, or a high-achiever in your school, does not mean that you are inherently better than others.

There are so many things that they are better at than you. It would be great to take the opportunity to learn various traits from them. In my service, I have often been inspired by their resilience and grit.

This article was published on Dec 24, 2021

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