Faces at the Frontlines
By Anita Parkash, Volunteer Storyteller, Pro Bono SG
16 July 2023
Good vibes only – a candid shot of a candid moment during the conversation (picture by Lim Tanguy)
I am seated on a colourful pouf in a corner of a container office that is Pro Bono SG’s Community Law Centre (North-East) in Hougang (‘CLC’). Over a lunch of sandwiches, the three ladies who are the engine-room of day-to-day operations at the CLC share with me their journeys in life that have led them to serve the community through this initiative. These are short sketches of my interactions with them and my key takeaways. Hopefully, some of this will inspire you to reach out to help in whatever way you can.
I am chatting with Alice Tan and it is clear that Alice can’t help wanting to help. She has over the course of her career served in the public service, contributed as a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) volunteer and now is a fulltime Community Law Advocate with the CLC. On the latter, she shares that she connects with the initiative on a number of levels. First, the Teochew environment. Alice grew up speaking the language at home and the neighbourhood represents a kind of cultural homecoming for her. Second, the rental flat demographic which, as a child, Alice herself was a part of. She is acutely aware of the challenges faced by that segment of the community and therefore feels that she is best placed to help.
On more than one occasion, Alice uses words like ‘happy’ and ‘delighted’ to characterise how she feels about her work at the CLC. She expresses the sentiment with so much earnestness and so little ego that my mind can’t quite wrap itself around it. Candidly, I can appreciate how the nature of the work may be meaningful and deeply fulfilling – but delight is a stretch for me. I am curious about the source of her passion so I probe a little deeper. As Alice shares, I realise that what I see as problem-solving, she sees as bridge-building. Access to justice is not just a knowledge gap or a money gap to be filled. It is also a culture gap, a language gap and a physical access gap to be bridged. Alice, through her work on the CLC project, sees it as her mission to build bridges across those gaps for the community. Alice shares how they have received visitors seeking legal advice from outside Hougang, some of whom have travelled considerable distances, which is why the team admits visitors even if they arrive past the formal consultation hours.
It suddenly makes sense to me as a fellow builder – albeit of different things with different tools. When we build using what we are good at, towards achieving some good, it is happiness and delight that we feel. From the tiny container office, Alice works hard to bridge gaps with her expertise and experience because she has lived enough of life to know that justice is not a zero-sum game, and faith paves the way for hope. It is no wonder then that Alice’s passion for what she does simply can’t be contained.
The first time I meet Natasha Baobed is on a visit to a social services organisation in Buangkok. She has an air of no-fuss competence that makes me want to pick her to be on my team in a fight. So, I am a little intimidated when we sit down to talk about her work as Office Manager of Pro Bono SG’s Community Law Centre (North-East) in Hougang (‘CLC’). It does not take long for me to discover that Natasha’s steely exterior belies a deeply empathetic spirit. Her team-mates laugh as they recount how Natasha is the resident ‘counsellor’ whose superpower is her ability to communicate even with people she does not share a language with. I ask Natasha what motivates her to care and she shares that she has always had an interest in the legal field and a passion for social service work – the latter a result of her father’s own active volunteerism. She confides that it was not straightforward to find a way to connect these two passions.
Her start in the legal services space was as an allied legal professional in the real estate department of a law firm. While she benefitted from her time in that space, she began to feel like her calling required her to be using her allied legal skills towards serving the community in a more direct way. So, when an opportunity arose to get involved in legal pro bono, she jumped at it. Natasha, like many of her teammates, wears many hats. She is involved in running Pro Bono SG’s legal clinics and used to be involved in the Family Justice Support Scheme. Yet, when approached to take on another portfolio in the form the CLC, in her words:
“I didn’t even ask any questions, I just said yes.”
In the short few months that the CLC has been open, Natasha shares how it has been eye-opening to encounter people who are often just frustrated with navigating the system on their own and looking for some form of clarity, someone to look out for their interests. She shares how sometimes it is not even legal advice that is needed but help navigating administrative processes that, in catering for the masses, can sometimes inadvertently create an unlevel playing field for those who have special needs. For Natasha, access to justice is about providing peace of mind and you do not have to be a lawyer to play a part in that, you simply have to decide to help the best way you can. By walking the talk one extra mile at a time, Natasha is very much the grease that helps the wheels turn smoothly for those who come knocking on the CLC’s doors for help.
With just three years of post-qualification experience, it is easy to cast Goh Qian Hui as the baby of the group. That would be a mistake. Right from the start of our conversation, her insights are composed, articulate and thoughtful. Unlike peers who graduated and took conventional routes in legal service, practice or academia, Qian Hui decided to follow her own true north in social services. She shares how difficult it was to try and find a job in the social services sector without any prior work experience. A chance encounter with a job advertisement by Pro Bono SG was all Qian Hui needed to turn her calling into her first fulltime job right out of law school and she has not looked back since.
Qian Hui speaks with the confidence of someone who not only cares about her work but who cares about thinking deeply and critically about her work. She shares her observations about the ‘last mile’ challenges of the access to justice landscape. She speaks passionately about the need for practice and policy, innovation on the ground and strategic visioning, to work in tandem to address such challenges. She holds my attention with a nuanced articulation of how the Community Law Centre initiative is an important way to address the crucial need to create awareness of schemes of support and provide simple practical guidance of how to access them amongst the people who need them most. She points out that by meeting their needs where they are, and working in tandem with social services which are the touchpoint, the CLC is a meaningful attempt to reach the most vulnerable: the young, the elderly, the severely disadvantaged. With her Community Law Centre Fellow hat on, observations and ideas tumble out of her.
Then she catches her breath with this punchline:
“I think I am one of the very few people in my age group who is able to say I actually love my job.”
I believe her completely. I ask her where she gets the courage to not be swayed by peer-pressure to find success in the law in the usual ways. She shares that it has never been a challenge for her to choose to stay the course over a traditional career in practice especially since she has the unwavering support of her parents to pursue her chosen path. She concludes with the sober-minded view that it is pointless to compare herself with others who have more when everyday she encounters many who have so much less. I can’t help but wonder at the wisdom of this three-year-old.
If You Can, Why Not?
As I wind-down the chat, I ask Alice, Natasha and Qian Hui what they need to help them as the work of the Community Law Centre grows. Alice looks thoughtful and then says:
“We need the right people with the right heart to come and assist. In whatever way they want to assist us, we will definitely find a place for them.”
Here are some specific ideas for how you can help:
- Young lawyers wanting direct exposure to managing clients, you may find helping at the CLC a great hands-on way to do some good and also develop crucial listening, empathy and crisis management skills.
- Lawyers with some flexibility in your schedules, do consider helping out during the work day as most visitors to the CLC happen between 10am to 12pm and 2pm to 4pm.
- Non-lawyers with language competence in Teochew and Hokkien – your help as volunteer translators is needed to ensure that language is not a barrier to someone seeking assistance.
University students, do consider helping out with tours of the CLC and the neighbourhood as part of awareness-raising activities for potential volunteers and donors
To donate, please make a donation to The Shield Fund!
Donations will be matched dollar for dollar under Tote Board’s Enhanced Fundraising Programme, subject to caps.
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