by Jum Tan Zijie
Jum is the warrior of wonders at PlayMoolah and co-facilitated Skillseed's pilot Microfinance, Macro Impact journey in November of 2015. For someone who once thought he would go insane with 1 hour of coding, Jum has spent the last 3 years enjoying his work in front end development, and still finds joy with every chance he gets to code, and is currently still sane.
THE ROAD TO OCIP is paved with good intentions – building civic responsibility and incalculating the value of service. It still exists to serve that intention, but over the years, people have taken advantage of this: many of us are familiar with stories of organisations capitalising on images of people from rural areas, in their most impoverished state, to appeal to the sympathy of those with bleeding hearts. Volunteers are made to feel good that they have contributed to the so-called "less fortunate". It takes only one bad egg to ruin the bunch: my perspective of volunteerism since turned skeptical.
Embarking on this OCIP trip as a facilitator, I guess I can say I let this skepticism guide me so I did not ever feel like I was more superior to the Cambodians. And I wanted to ensure that the students who went on the trip did not feel that way too because that would defeat the purpose of the OCIP. And with the knowledge of the 8 forms of capital – social, material, intellectual, living, experiential, spiritual, financial, and cultural – I knew that we were not going to a less wealthy country; we were merely going to a financially poorer country.
My pre-trip reading, Muhammad Yunus' Creating a World Without Poverty gave me more information on the context of some of the challenges people living in many rural areas face, what microfinance is, and how it can serve as a possible solution to getting people out of poverty. I find it fascinating that the repayment rate of the microloans made to the people is an astounding 98%, especially given the fact that borrowers need not provide any collateral, and pay a higher interest rate compared to bank loans. The repayment rate of bank loans is nowhere close to 80%. Go figure.
Visiting Samrong Tong was a humbling experience. Nature surrounded us. The village was almost exactly how I expected it; the only thing that took me by surprise was the hospitality provided by the villagers, and I was and am truly impressed, and humbled by that. You could see and sense that they would go the extra mile to ensure that you felt comfortable.
Interacting with the youth in the village reminded me of a definitive aspect of human nature: connection. As humans, we all crave connection, regardless of our extroversion or introversion. We crave to be understood, to not be alone. It also reminded me of the quality of interaction without technology (I’ve been around technology long enough to forget this at times) - a form of exchange where both sides know little of each other’s language, but want to connect and communicate regardless. What results is often attempts to speak the other's language, but not getting it right, long awkward silences, ultimately only knowing the name of your partner. But that is beautiful! In this world populated with telecommunication devices, we often turn to our phones to avoid awkward silences. When we take away the devices, both sides may try hard to figure out another way to make a connection. We often think about how awkward this situation is for ourselves, forgetting that the other party is probably feeling the same way! (Perhaps, this is another way we can relate to others.)
One of our students’ reflections really struck a chord with me: happiness is not merely the absence of negative emotions, but the presence of positive ones. It might sound obvious, but makes a lot of sense: if there are neither negative nor positive emotions, you’re probably just feeling neutral, not happiness. He also mentioned – and this is what made me nod my head furiously – that the people of Samrong Tong weren’t happy because they appreciated what they had; no, they were happy because of this thing called hope. Hope for a better future. Hope for a better life. Hope for more comfort for the family. And because they can see this hope, they are happy, for they are moving towards their goal. They can see it. They can see that it can happen to them, this better future. And this is really enlightening to me, because I had always thought that people living in less developed countries knew how to appreciate the things they have, but now I know it's more than that. Knowing how to appreciate the things around you requires a mindset of gratitude. But hope, especially when you see that other people have succeeded in achieving that better future, is what lights them up.
I saw this in the villagers as we interviewed them. For some, perhaps they are passionate about the services they provide for their neighbourhood. But along with that, comes the hope that what they do will eventually allow their family to live more comfortably. And I feel this holds true, too, for the people in OBCR, the organization that we worked with: they are essentially lending hope to the community.
Returning to the 8 forms of capital, I just want to mention how much I like the amount of social and cultural capital the villagers we worked with have. The community is tightly-knit, and most villagers know and hang out with their neighbours! In Singapore, we may have more financial capital, but here it seems they possess more of the other capitals. It seems pretty funny to me how we, considered by some definitions a more developed country, “progressed” when really we are merely exchanging one type of capital for another.
Honestly, I am unsure whether we provided any form of service to the community. Impact tracking is a long-term endeavour and we cannot ascertain the aggregate effect of the work we did together in Samrong Tong overnight. I'd like to think we did - not with the intention of patting ourselves on the back - but with the genuine acknowledgement that our intention was to be of service to this community. But for now, perhaps connection is enough.