Photo credit: ANNA TAN


Tan Min Min Anna, 21, is the co-founder of Unseen City. Birthed from a final year project with her school, Unseen City strives to raise civic awareness on Singapore’s social issues faced by vulnerable communities. It aims to inspire and encourage its community of youth to grow an interest in various societal issues, as well as drive them to initiate social change.

As an individual with volunteering experience in social organizations and working in social enterprise start-ups, Anna shares some lessons she has picked up on her journey.

We don’t always have the full picture

Through our research at Unseen City to find out what some of our youth think of individuals from lower-income families, there tend to be preconceived stereotypes of the community which often leads to prejudice and discrimination against them.

“Got hands and legs what, why don’t they just find a full-time job? I bet that they’re just lazy…”, are some of the common phrases we hear from people describing tissue sellers on streets or stay-home individuals.

It was only during our interview with some members of the lower income community that we gathered several possible reasons why individuals might not have a full-time job, such as health conditions or intense caregiving duties for family members. This taught me that we have to look beyond the surface for the truth.

Be slow to judge

We tend to pass judgment when we see people from lower-income families splurging on “luxurious” products or services, for example, utilizing their financial assistance support fund on premium food or spending all of their salary on cigarettes.

But if you take the time to understand those from lower income groups, having “surplus” income can appear to be an opportunity to purchase things they often don’t get. Having grown up with less, I witnessed these tendencies from my parents because these chances didn’t come often.

With regards to buying cigarettes, some individuals might resort to smoking as a stress reliever. Everyone has their own styles of stress coping mechanism, and smoking might be the only affordable avenue that they can seek.

Adapting to “new normals” is much harder for some

When the pandemic hit us, those from lower-income families, like everyone else, had to adapt to a new routine and rising spending due to delivery or electricity costs. This, of course, was harder on them as they already had lesser resources than others. For the elderly who used to gather at void decks for community purposes, they were largely isolated as they are also not digitally savvy to keep them connected. That said, I’m thankful for initiatives such as Seniors Go Digital by Infocomm Media Development Authority that equip seniors with basic knowledge to be technologically independent.

Everyone should be treated with respect

“Turn judgments and assumptions into curiosity” was something I learnt from a lecturer in school.The truth is, no one chooses to be poor. A person’s potential should not be limited by their socio-economic status (SES). We are all humans, and we all have different needs. Coming from a lower SES background doesn’t make a person any lesser than the next. Everyone should be treated equally.

Know your core motivations

Having previously spoken to various social entrepreneurs in their own expertise, they shared with me the importance of figuring out my “why” – my core motivations that drive me to do what I’m doing. This made me think about my childhood. Though I didn’t exactly experience life on the extreme end of the lower income population, I remember how my parents tried so hard to help me save up so that they could support me in breaking out of the cycle that they came from. Perhaps addressing and advocating for low-income families is my calling.

Stand by your convictions

There’s no way that one solution, approach, or methodology can please everyone. It’s difficult to find a solution that pleases everyone because we all have different wants and preferences. But what matters more is our ability to stand firm to our beliefs and commit to them.

You’re only young once

I was very focused on producing good academic results in school, but eventually had a shift in my mindset after interning with a couple of social enterprise start-ups in the education space. There is so much that we can do as students. Some of us are more intellectual, some of us are more creative by nature, some of us work better by getting our hands dirty… That’s what makes each of us unique. Being young is our power – so go out there and learn!

Support others to help themselves

I have always thought that my life mission was to ‘help others’. But what exactly is “help”? I get a little more resistant when it comes to using the word “help” to describe the work we do at Unseen City. To me, it brings the idea that helpers have more power than people on the receiving end, that they aren’t able to help themselves. I personally prefer to use the word “support” or “serve”.

We may sometimes overlook certain considerations in our intentions to uplift people’s lives – when we come up with a solution in an attempt to solve an individuals’ issue, we might be overly obsessed with our ideas, blinded by the perspectives that we’re in, thus neglecting the real need that the communities are facing.

Let me introduce this concept of community mapping: “It is all about involving residents in identifying the assets of their neighborhood, looking at opportunities, and creating a picture of what it is like to live there.”

Explore ways to maximize impact

When it came to Unseen City’s graphic novel project on sharing stories from the “unseen” lower income population in society, we wanted to provide the opportunity for members of that community to be involved in the project as well, so we reached out to social organizations and sourced our graphic illustrators from there. This was a way to financially support young graphic illustrators, as well give them a chance to showcase their talents.

It's Not Them, It’s We Who Are The Real Beneficiaries

A thought hit me one day that beneficiaries don’t actually benefit as much as the volunteers do. How much can a gift pack actually last for a beneficiary? To what extent can the items in the bag support the individuals in breaking out of the poverty cycle? On the other hand, having the opportunity to interact and hear stories from the beneficiaries as volunteers increases our level of awareness and understanding towards the community – for life.

This article was published on Feb 19, 2022

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