One of the things I want to do when lockdown is over is to visit Chek Jawa again. For those of you who are not familiar, Chek Jawa is a 100-hectare wetland located on Pulau Ubin. There are many things to see at Chek Jawa – but the one that I enjoyed the most is the intertidal flats that one can only visit during low tides below 0.5 metres. Amazing marine life – sea anemones, starfish, sand dollars – usually submerged under water, are revealed during these super low tides.
Like the Chinese saying, 水落石出, when the water recedes, the stones are revealed. The covid-19 pandemic, like the low tide, also revealed many things we are not usually aware of. While I was aware of the inequalities that exist in Singapore, it is not until the recent few months that the scales really fell off my eyes as many people drew attention to the realities faced by the least among us.
Migrant workers and lower income families are the most severely hit during this crisis. We have a glimpse of their struggles as different NGOs like Beyond Social Services, HOME and TWC2 draw our attention to what these people face.
How do students from lower income families cope with learning from home when they do not have a computer, much less an internet connection? While some of us may feel cooped up during this period, how do these students cope with sharing what space they have with their sibilings, all having to attend lessons online at the same time?
Our first Circuit Breaker Conversation led by Angela a few weeks ago was centered on the short film “Salary Day” by Ramasamy Madhavan, a migrant worker in Singapore. It is a short film – about 12 minutes long – if you have not watched it, you can find it on Youtube. Christine Pelly, a member of the Executive Committee of TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) joined us and shared her experiences and insights.
While many of us are shocked at the conditions of the dormitories, and wonder how some dormitories can profit at the expense of these workers, the receding waters reveal much more. These workers are more worried about getting paid, so that they can send money home, they can pay back the debts owe they incurred paying the agents to get the job here.
What are we called to do as faithful followers of Jesus?
I think this question is echoed in the first part of Micah 6:8 – “What does the Lord require of you?”
And the answer would be “To do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
I am saddened by the amount of xenophobia and the callousness in the comments many people have made regarding the migrant workers.
*“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
We must remember for a majority of us, our ancestors were migrant workers too, coming to Singapore to make a living, just like the migrant workers of today. We are called to love them as ourselves.
How do we translate “Doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God” into action?
Let me start by telling you a parable I have heard. and some of you may have heard variations on it – A man and a woman were fishing on the river bank when they saw a woman struggling in the river. They rescued her. Soon, they saw another man struggling in the river too. They rescued him, too. This continued all afternoon as they came across more and more people struggling in the river. More people joined in the rescue effort, trying to rescue as many people as possible.
This continued all afternoon, and the people were exhausted. One of the rescuers started to run upstream – and someone yells at her “where are you going? We need as much help as we can to rescue every single person!” The woman replied “I am going upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river!”
As she went upstream, she saw many bridges in various states along the river. Some were made of stone, some made of steel – sturdy and well maintained, being located near some well-to-do folks who could afford such bridges.
Others were old and rickety, the wood rotting, and looked like some parts may give way any time. It isn’t surprising that those who lived near these rickety bridges were poor and could not afford to repair or improve these bridges.
Rescuing folks from the river is the work of mercy. It is directly alleviating the suffering or addressing the needs people are facing. Whether it is donating money to the organisations like Beyond Social Services, TWC2 or HOME, or contributing used laptops and tablets to SGBono or Engineering Good to be refurbished for lower income students through Family Service Centres and MOE, or donating to organisations to meet immediate needs during a disaster, these are actions to alleviate the current situation.
Like the story about the starfishes washed up on the beach, this is about throwing the starfishes back, one by one. It matters to that single starfish.
A lot of our Dirty Hands initiatives – befriending the elderly, adopting the wards at IMH, the T-mart project providing groceries for the T-project shelter – are works of mercy.
But mercy is not the only thing we are called to do. There is justice. While mercy is like throwing back starfishes back one by one, justice is about addressing what causes them to be washed up in the first place.
Justice is about addressing the broken systems that lead to the suffering in the first place.
It requires us to venture upstream to investigate what causes the issues.
We do not see the realities – like the living conditions of the migrant worker dormitories – until someone ventures upstream to investigate.
And while it may be easy to see why people have fallen into the river, it may not be as easy to see what causes poverty, inequality and exploitation. We may identify the wrong reasons behind these issues as well – like the myth that the poor are lazy that’s why they remain poor.
Sometimes, there is no one party who is responsible for the issue – the situation arises because that is the brokenness of the system. We cannot fault those who are well-to-do for being able to pay for the maintenance of the bridges near where they live, nor are we able to fault the poor for not being able to do the same.
Justice work then is about finding ways to address the brokenness of the system. Perhaps, it is about putting someone in charge of maintaining all the bridges. It will involve finding a just way of collecting the money required to maintain the bridges. It may involve advocating on behalf of the poor – to stand in solidarity with them and say everyone deserves to cross bridges safely – whether they can afford it or not. It may even involve confronting those who profiteer from collecting exorbitant tolls for people crossing the well-maintained bridges, forcing those who cannot afford to cross the rickety ones, taking the risk of falling into the river.
The work of justice involves changing the system to address the issues, so that we help not just the one, but also the many. It means finding ways to stop more people from falling into the river.
It involves venturing upstream to investigate – and to take action after that. It involves standing in solidarity with those who are suffering, advocating for them, advocating for change.
It may cost us – perhaps maintenance of the bridges will also cost those people who are further down the river, like the rescuers.
We may be led to think that venturing upstream wasn’t what Jesus did. After all, he could just perform miracles, and heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry just like that. But wait, what was he doing when he told the lepers to show themselves to the religious authorities? He was telling them to confront the system that has been imposed on them to mark them as unclean, and to separate them from society. The healing of the lepers wasn’t something that happened instantly like many of the other healing stories. Their healing happened, as in Luke 17:14, as they were on their way to show themselves the priest. Their healing wasn’t just about healing their health conditions – it was also about healing their social conditions.
This is our calling as people of faith. Throughout the Bible we have God calling people to confront the broken systems that exploit and oppress. They were sent to confront those in power. Moses didn’t free the Israelites one at a time, but Moses went to the source – Moses confronted Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”
Pharaoh may take different guises today – and “my people” will include people who may be quite different from us. Rather than asking “who is my people” like the lawyer who asked Jesus “who is my neighbour,” we should be asking who is “Pharaoh” today?
Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go even in the face of the first 9 plagues. We hope that the Pharaohs of today would not have hardened hearts and it will not take plagues for them to change their minds.
The final instruction – “to walk humbly” – is one we often pay less attention to. But it is a vital one – it is about our attitude as we embark on the work we do. Instead of seeing ourselves as saviours or superiors to the people we are helping, we need to see them as equals.
Walking humbly is also something that is active, not passive. We get off our butts and do something. And the first thing when we walk humbly is to listen. Listen for God, listen to the people who are suffering.
When we engage in this work, it is not out of pity, nor is it to make ourselves feel that we are more fortunate than them, but out of a sense of solidarity. That their problems are our problems as well.
I really like this quote from Australian Aboriginal activist group – “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Our liberation, our salvation, is intricately bound up together.
God calls us to both mercy and justice; to attend to suffering individuals and to address broken systems.
Through listening and walking humbly – we will be able to engage not just as keyboard warriors, but as people standing in solidarity seeking justice.
Worship starts when we begin to put God at the heart of our lives. And it moves from singing praises to worship through our actions – feeding the hungry, sharing tables with the powerful and the lowly at the same time, caring for the sick, having compassion for the poor and speaking out against the Empire that held them in poverty – actions that Jesus did.
One day we will be asked, “When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you give me a drink? When I was a stranger, did you invite me in? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was sick and in prison, did you visit me?”
For whatever we do for our siblings – we do for Christ.
It is when we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly that our offerings, our singing, our praises have meaning – for then, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
I want to return to Chek Jawa once more, because there is a story of hope behind it. As far back as 1992, the government had approved plans to reclaim parts of Pulau Ubin, including Chek Jawa. By the time botanist Joseph Lai highlighted the richness of the biodiversity in a public forum chaired by the National Development Minister then Minister Mah Bow Tan, there was just 6 months before the start of the reclamation.
Research officers from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research embarked on a salvage operation, hoping to collect samples that represented the site’s bio-diversity – they thought that it was their last chance to get such a record.
At the end of the field trips, research officer N. Sivasothi and some other volunteers decided that Chek Jawa was a secret that should be shared. So they invited more people there. ‘We wanted to sow memories of the place and to teach people about their own heritage,’ he says.
Through the museum’s electronic newsletter, they announced that they would be holding two public education weekends, one in September and the other in October.
The response was overwhelming. About 1,000 people turned up for the October weekend, with the last visitor getting back to Changi jetty only at 10.30 pm on one night.
Spurred by their enthusiasm, the organisers decided to go one step further: They would document people’s reactions during those visits and send them to the National Development Minister. They wanted the Government to know that many well-travelled Singaporeans who visited Chek Jawa said they never expected to find such a place in their own backyard. Mr Sivasothi and his friends also included their suggestions on how Chek Jawa could be turned into a marine park and how to manage the flow of visitors.
At the same time, nature lovers, teachers and Pulau Ubin residents were writing to the press and the ministry, urging a review of the reclamation plans.
The appeals were not in the form of letters alone. The URA says that among the 30 appeals it received were CD-ROMs, field data and detailed reports on Chek Jawa’s bio-diversity.
On Dec 20 1992, all the individuals who had spoken up, written in or submitted reports to the Government to urge the preservation of Chek Jawa received a surprise. They were invited for a closed-door meeting at the National Development Ministry, during which Mr Mah announced that Chek Jawa would not be reclaimed. Those who attended the meeting say Mr Mah also told them that the data they had sent in had helped. He asked them for more feedback on how to protect the marine life at Chek Jawa, given that other parts of Ubin would be reclaimed.
The man who first turned the spotlight on Chek Jawa, Mr Joseph Lai, says the efforts of a whole range of individuals ensured the beach’s survival. ‘People made the difference. Ordinary people from all walks of life – families, students, teachers, nature lovers, government people, etc,’ he says.
Chek Jawa is not just a jewel of nature and biodiversity in our own backyard, but a story of how we can participate meaningfully, living out what is required of us.
“Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”