The Flipside of Community Service

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.



  1. Thanks for the post. I believe this situation arose from a lack of planning on the part of the organizers. However, to be honest, you were competing as a service provider (you obtained gratification for your work) and it is inevitable (in this case) that the party offering a lower cost (money-wise) wins the bid. What you could have done was to request for the trash to be ‘donated’ to the karang guni man, thus solving the dilemna of doing community service without making it more difficult for the karang guni man to obtain his income for the day. This has raised interesting questions for me to consider…

  2. Interesting post that I can really relate to 🙂 I myself volunteered for the same event, and I too saw a karung guni man making his rounds around the estate. I felt quite bad, for there I was helping unload a lorry almost full of recyclables at a central collecting point, and there he was not far away, his trolley unusually empty.

    @dtkr, I do not think that this situation is merely a one-off thing that arose due to a lack of planning on the part of the organiser of this event. In addition to helping unload the recyclables, I assisted one of the lorry drivers as he drove around the estate to designated checkpoints to pick up the recyclables that the volunteers had collected. As I rode on the lorry with him, I learnt that his everyday job was to drive around the estates to pick up the recyclables (placed in recycling bags provided) that residents would leave outside their units. On his dashboards were stacks of the familiar green recycling bags that I would sometimes see distributed to every unit in my estate. It then dawned on me that maybe the karung guni man did not simply face competition every once in a while when a organisation or school decides to hold a recycling event, that in a way, the lorry driver (and perhaps others like him) could be competing with the karung guni man for the same resources. However, the irony was that the lorry driver was very much similar to a karung guni man in some ways – both their jobs were undoubtedly tough (the driver has plasters and panadol on standby in a compartment of his dashbaoard), and both were working really hard to secure their own livelihoods. It made me ponder about our nation’s recycling programme. The programme had undoubtedly created some jobs (such as those of the lorry driver), but it had inevitably affected others like the karung guni man.

    Perhaps, instead of seeing karung guni men as competitors, they could be roped into the recycling efforts, and their labour tapped on?

    Just my two cents worth

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