Strengthening Community Through Law
By Anita Parkash, Volunteer Storyteller, Pro Bono SG
7 May 2023
There is something about the inaugural location of Pro Bono SG’s Community Law Centre (‘CLC’) project that is deeply moving.
Image of the Community Law Centre at Tian De Temple
Two modest container pods sit in front of a row of four Chinese temples in the Tian De Temple complex at 109 Hougang Ave 5. They take up an unceremonious patch of paved asphalt on the temple grounds – barely large enough for a couple of large cars to park comfortably. The containers overlook a carpark surrounded by HDB flats, a coffee shop, a school, a youth centre and a social services centre. A single front-facing window in one of the containers keeps vigil in watchful anticipation of visitors to assist. Behind the site on which the containers sit is an open space that separates a condominium development from the temple complex. Million-dollar condominium blocks and one-room HDB rental flats face each other without quite looking each other in the eye.
The need is not obvious until you start asking why: about the free food distribution by the temples, about the too-many clothes that hang listlessly out of windows of the one-room flats, about the payphone and water dispenser facilities in the void deck of the rental block, about the presence of youth and other social services in close proximity. It takes multiple visits for me to appreciate the finer details. To see more than just need. To confront my own limiting conceptions what it means to help.
It begins with a brief history of the site by one of the CLC’s most passionate advocates, Cai Chengying (‘CY’). CY is a treasure trove of stories about the temples and the neighbourhood having spent her childhood there. She shares with me an anecdote of how her mother came to pray at one of the four temples for a child, only to discover thereafter that she was pregnant with CY. She knows all the temple caretakers and they know her. There are waves and smiles and greetings as we move from temple to temple. She is CLC project manager, mission ambassador, tour guide.
CY explains the rationale for the Community Law Centre – last mile access to legal help for the most vulnerable, working in concert with community partners such as the temples and social services.
She shares cultural insights. The narrow walkway that separates the two containers is there to allow a clear line of sight to the statue of the main temple deity which should not be blocked. In the back of one of the Taoist temples is a shrine to a Hindu deity for the convenience of worshippers in the neighbourhood who do not have close access to a Hindu temple. At the front of another of the temples is a sign offering free non-denominational funeral services.
She sheds light on demographics. The area has a number of older Hokkien and Teochew residents who have mobility, language and technology challenges. Social services professionals who are at the frontline of community help face challenges appropriately triaging issues that have legal implications. Word about the help available at the CLC has spread such that people from other parts of Hougang and beyond have been coming by.
CY paints a vivid picture not of a geography of need but of a community of care. Volunteers from the community are responsible for literally bringing down the barriers and paving a pathway to facilitate access to the CLC’s container offices.
One name keeps popping up as CY shares stories about how the container offices came to be set up and the CLC team looked-out for: Uncle Steven, a custodian of the Tian De Temple who once worked in the construction industry. Uncle Steven helped with the set-up of the containers – installing lights at the entrance for safety, blinds on the windows for privacy, even proposing pruning a tree so that the signage for the Community Law Centre would not be blocked from view. He regularly checks-in on the CLC staff, reminds others in the community to look out for them, and does all of this without having any formal responsibility to do so.
We manage to convince Uncle Steven to speak with us and I start by sharing with him how highly-regarded he is by the onsite CLC team who see themselves as beneficiaries of his kindness. Uncle Steven sheepishly expresses that his heart is full from the gratitude being expressed. I ask him why he goes the extra mile to help and his answer bears quoting:
“Aiyah, this one is common sense what. You see people under the hot sun, you got umbrella… you must share what.”
He says it so sincerely, so matter-of-factly, that it is my heart that is full of gratitude for this simple truth.
Noblesse oblige is the conventional conception of charity. Those who do well have an obligation to do good. This is an important duty. Without it, a project like the Community Law Centre could not have broken ground. But Uncle Steven’s comment strikes me as a deeply profound counterpoint to the concept because it compels everyone, regardless of station or privilege, to do what they can to alleviate the suffering of their neighbour as a simple, logical imperative.
From that moment, the CLC comes into sharp focus for me as the place where the learned friend helps as the good neighbour – to strengthen community through the law. So be a good neighbour and reach out to help in whatever way you can. There is no act of service too small.
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