When Maurice Tan retired in 2014, he searched for a meaningful post-retirement activity. The former company director of construction equipment company Kobelco found the answer in volunteer work with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF).
Since then, Tan, 67, has gone to Cambodia and Indonesia on 12 Water for Life trips – twice as a team member and 10 times as a team leader. Water for Life is the SIF’s clean water programme that addresses gaps in rural communities’ water ecosystems through the implementation of clean water technology, along with hygiene lessons. Equally important is how these trips enable the volunteers to connect with the local communities for better mutual understanding.
The experience with the SIF not only allowed him to share his overseas expertise and management skills, but also opened his eyes. He says: “I used to be in charge of international marketing and was responsible for 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. My core competency is therefore in global networking. In my search for a meaningful post-retirement activity, SIF’s work offered the perfect fit.”
Thap Sokchea, the SIF’s in-country administrator in Cambodia who has helped Tan with translation on the ground and has become a good friend, agrees. He says: “By engaging in this collaboration, I have learnt about cross-cultural knowledge, new working experiences and building friendships with different nationalities, especially Singaporeans. Tan’s contribution to the water filter project has made a great positive difference to Cambodian communities. Children get clean water, and so, get sick less often and go to school regularly.”
Here, Tan talks about the importance of reaching out to and connecting with other communities.
1With your wealth of experience, organisations would pay for your expertise as a consultant. Why did you choose to volunteer instead?
We give a lot of ourselves when we go on these volunteer trips. But often, what we take back and learn from the communities overseas can be and is more often than not just as rewarding.
Once on a volunteer trip, I saw people living in the compound of a children’s hospital. They were waiting to see the doctors the next day and the queues were so long. We bought towels, soap and toothbrushes for them, and later learnt that many suffered from water-borne diseases. I knew I had to help.
Recently, the mother of a teenage girl who went on one of the trips I led told me that her daughter had changed after Cambodia.
She had become more responsible in her ways and sensible in her thinking. The mother asked if I was going again – she wanted to send her second daughter with me!
2 Volunteering overseas to build these large water filters can be tough work. How did you adapt?
Water for Life projects require us to mix and shovel cement to make the shells of the water filters. Each filter weighs about 80kg. Thankfully, the labour was manageable. I was used to travelling Business Class, staying in five-star hotels and eating hot food at restaurants. The first time I went with the SIF to Siem Reap, I couldn’t eat the packed rice meals because they were cold and sustained myself on nuts instead. I changed my room at a three-star hotel because of bed-bug issues. I was the oldest person in the group, which was made up mostly of people in their 30s. But I reminded myself not to get upset because I was there for a purpose. These were challenges I had to overcome. Now, people I work with have even told me they are inspired that I volunteer overseas despite my age!
3 Why do you keep going back?
I keep going back to Cambodia because of my six-digit returns: smiles. The Cambodians share such broad smiles. While they have a simple lifestyle, they go out of their way to make us feel comfortable, like steaming tapioca and peanuts for us for lunch. Once, when we were installing water filters in Kampong Speu province, a villager climbed up a banana tree so that she could cut down an entire bunch of bananas for us. These are simple gestures that have made an impact on me. It makes me wish I had started volunteering in my younger days instead of waiting until retirement.
4 How have you made an impact on the local community?
Apart from seeing that the people are benefiting from drinking clean water through Water for Life, I enjoy nurturing personal relationships with the locals. There are many young people in Cambodia who work hard to better their lives.
Most of the translators I’ve met are taking night classes to get a degree, on top of their work. One asked me for investment advice. I sat down with him one night and gave him a crash course on how to grow his funds. Today, he has re-activated his father’s advertising business.
Another young man, whom I became close friends with, invited me to his wedding, which was held in a village that was a six-hour drive from Phnom Penh. I was given the honour of symbolically cutting the bride and groom’s hair. It is an honour reserved for parents, relatives and close friends.
My father once told me: ‘Don’t count your age on your birthday; count how many new friends you have made to see if you lived a good life.’ I have made many good friends through my volunteer work.
5 You have a huge network of local and foreign friends. How do you tap on these connections to further inspire action for good?
It’s like a chain reaction takes place whenever I mention to my friends about unmet needs, which can range from providing overhead projectors in Indonesia to helping to raise funds.
Once, I noticed the students of a Cambodian school we visited wore old and stained school uniforms. Together with my fellow volunteers, we visited a Singapore school that had a similar uniform, gave a presentation on what we saw and asked for donations. We collected nearly 40kg of used school uniforms in good condition, which we distributed in Cambodia. The kids there didn’t want to let go of their “new” uniforms!
I also activated my network of friends another time to supply bicycles to the children of Kampong Speu, Cambodia. They had to walk long distances to school. In April 2016, I asked a volunteer to help set up a Facebook page, calling for donations to buy 100 bicycles at US$40 (S$54) each. The cost was low, thanks to a good friend in Cambodia, Vichetr Uon from the Sao Sary Foundation, whom we met on the Water for Life project and who tapped on his contacts to obtain cheaper bikes. Within 36 hours, I received pledges of 118 bikes!
Five of us, all SIF volunteers, then flew to Cambodia at our own expense to transport the bikes from Phnom Penh to Kampong Speu. We spray-painted the bikes to make them look old so they will not be stolen. We placed a small sticker of the Singapore flag, with a slogan – “Learning for the betterment of your life” – and the name of the individual donor who made that pledge.