Recently, the Kembangan grassroots organization created an event called ONE Community. Several friends and I were unusually excited by the notion of community service (perhaps as a result of powerful encouragement by our schools) – we swiftly decided to volunteer. So on this particular gloomy and overcast Sunday morning, we devoted ourselves to serving others.
The music of the karung guni horn diffuses along the serene little avenue. An old Mitsubishi truck growls towards us, producing a hoarse, grumpy noise that I thought only a tractor could produce. On a tiny grass patch along the fringe of the street, I relieve myself of the last bundle of newspapers that we had to carry from a donor resident’s home. The truck comes to a halt right beside our bundle of newspapers. With an air of lethargy, a the truck driver comes down from the truck and confronts us.
The man from the truck begins to rant about inequality, income, diesel prices, his family… We are getting increasingly tired of nodding our heads to stop his talking (if we were not already exhausted from hours of trekking). I try not to listen, but ears don’t have lids, so I’ve no choice but to listen to every single word of every single monotonous sentence. “You kids are messing up my life”, he suddenly exclaims. He had our curiosity, but now, he’s got our attention. How are we, even remotely, messing up his life?
This man turns out to be one of the many who feel the pinch – thanks to the government’s well-intentioned community service efforts. As governmental and charitable organizations beef up their efforts to reach out to the community and extend the tentacles of “love” and “compassion” to more people in the estate, some livelihoods are being threatened. Many services that the government had ignored are served by informal service-providers who use this opportunity to make a profit. However, as the government extends its hands into these thriving informal sectors, informal businessmen are hurt. The rag-and-bone uncle feels the pinch because of me and my friends volunteering under the banner of “charity” and “environmental protection”, which deprived him of his usual collection of newspapers – and therefore his income for the day. And here’s the most disturbing part of it all. It’s ironic that his man, who probably would qualify as a “beneficiary” of this charitable effort, despises this very particular charitable effort. Does he not feel the aura of community service?
So we come to the astonishing and unnerving conclusion that even community service proves to be a double-edged sword. After all, how can we expect to really do “good” to society, in a world where a tree’s death gives a mushroom life; where one man’s junk gives another man bread? As I excite from self-gratification and feel the halo above my head, I cannot prevent myself from thinking that, damn it, at the same time, I just successfully deprived a hardworking man of his income. “You are doing this out of a good, kind heart”, says the karung guni, “But I have to feed my family too.”
Finally, the aged Mitsubishi truck growls into the distance. In the unnerving emptiness of the truck’s trunk, I could only imagine heaps of newspapers.