Asianthinkers interviewed Michael Switow, a co-founder of ONE (SINGAPORE). Michael is an anti-poverty campaigner, freelance writer, producer and editor. ONE (SINGAPORE) was founded in 2005 by a group of Singaporeans. It is dedicated to raising awareness and taking concrete actions to make poverty history and create the world we want. It envisions a just world where no one lives in poverty – be it overseas or here at home in Singapore.
Can you tell us more about your organization, ONE (SINGAPORE) and its mission and objectives in Asia ?
ONE (SINGAPORE) is dedicated to raising public awareness and taking concrete action to Make Poverty History. We set up in late 2005 and believe in a world where no one is impoverished, be it here at home in Singapore or overseas.
It’s important to note that we are not just one organization standing up and saying ‘we can eradicate poverty’. The leaders of the world have also signed on to a programme to do this. We need to see that they follow through.
In the early years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) provided a framework for our work. Now you will see that we now have ten main focus areas that are linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The very first SDG promises to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. We want to hold world leaders to this promise, and at the same time, accompany them on the path to get there.
What are some of the key initiatives of ONE (SINGAPORE) ? Do you have a regional role and work with other international NGOs? Do you work with your own volunteers ?
There are two sides of our mission: raising awareness and taking action. We try to bring both of these elements into play. Because if you don’t know about a problem, you can’t do anything about it. And once you learn about it, you want to take action.
We have done a wide range of activities over the years, including public forums, film screenings, school programmes, creative events like ‘Make Poverty History’ hunger banquets, flat paintings, food drives and more. In the process, we have successfully engaged a broad range of community supporters, including students, executives, celebrities and the general public.
ONE (SINGAPORE)’s Concrete Actions Programme (CAP) links corporate and non-profit partners in a variety of projects in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Public awareness initiatives have included discussions about the extent of local poverty, meeting social needs, migration, human trafficking, and sustainable development.
The ONE (SINGAPORE) Awards recognise individual heroes and companies that are making outstanding contributions to the community in line with the campaign to Make Poverty History.
ONE (SINGAPORE) is an independent Singapore-registered volunteer-led organization. We have worked with international coalitions, like the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP), particularly on international days like ‘Stand Up Take Action Against Poverty’.
What are some of the challenges that ONE (SINGAPORE) faces when it comes to rolling out your poverty eradication programmes ?
Organizations focused on awareness and advocacy generally have a tougher time connecting with people, as compared with direct services providers. However when people see our tagline – Make Poverty History – this resonates with them and they want to learn more.
When we first started to focus on local issues of poverty and inequality, it was difficult to organise an event with the word ‘poverty’ in it. This has fortunately changed over the years. You can talk directly about the P-word now. It’s still a surprise to a lot of people, though, that there is poverty in Singapore.
Researchers estimate that at least one in ten Singaporeans cannot make ends meet and are living in poverty. They don’t have enough on their own for food, shelter, utilities and other essentials. Another surprising fact is that the majority of Singaporeans are living in poverty are working – they just do not earn enough to make ends meet.
There is another aspect of poverty in Singapore to recognise and this has to do with migrant workers. There are too many cases where wages are not paid, employees are cheated by employment agents or workplace injuries impoverish migrants. In addition, migrant workers are also generally indebted even before they start working here. On top of that, you have the problem of human trafficking. Labour trafficking and sex trafficking are major issues that need to be tackled. The government, not too long ago, passed a bill to address this problem. They recognize this issue, but there’s still more work to do to put an end to human trafficking once and for all, while also addressing the needs of those affected by it.
Is unemployment in Singapore contributing to the poverty cycle ?
Unemployment among Singaporeans dropped recently from 3.5 to 3.3%, however this is still the highest unemployment rate since 2010. At the same time, if you compare this with unemployment elsewhere in the world, it’s still very low. Unemployed Singaporeans account for about 20% of Singaporeans living in poverty. Three times that many impoverished Singaporeans are working, but their wages are just too low. The Singapore government has programmes in place to address issues of poverty and inequality. In the view of many observers, these programmes are a good start, but do not go far enough.
How can you impact positive change ?
Change takes place at multiple levels. At the macro level, whether we are talking about local or international issues, you need to have the right policies in place. Because these policies impact communities and hundreds of millions of people. At a micro level, each and every one of us can make a difference in our communities.
ONE (SINGAPORE)’s campaign, as well as community projects, are based on this idea. Whether we are sponsoring a girl’s education or painting low-income rental flats – to provide the residents with a cheerier atmosphere — these are all actions that we can take, as individuals or as members of the community, to assist our neighbours-in-need.
Who are some of your stakeholders in ONE (SINGAPORE) ? What are some of the fund raising methods in place ?
ONE (SINGAPORE) is a locally-registered society and charity. We are a member and volunteer driven organisation. We have a variety of initiatives to generate revenue, including merchandise sales and a Concrete Actions Programme in which we organise ‘Corporate Days Out’. These are half-day or full-day volunteer activities. We place these activities in context so that the participants learn more about poverty and inequality issues.
We’ve also launched an initiative called the $10 Campaign to End Poverty. The proceeds are spent in two ways:
○An Emergency Fund to aid people in urgent need of assistance, for example with bus fares, utility bills, spectacles and diapers and
○Research & Advocacy to create long-term solutions to eradicate poverty and ensure that everyone in our nation can live with dignity.
To learn more about the $10 Campaign – or to take the #tendollarchallenge (taking a photo of what you can buy for $10) – please go to www.onesingapore.org/take-action/10-campaign.
Who are some of your partners that have assisted your programmes in Singapore and in the regional countries? Can you share some of your successful programmes to date that have been launched in various parts of Asia in eradicating poverty?
We work with a number of organizations, charities, NGOs and networks both locally and overseas. It’s quite a long list.
One organization that we are very proud to support overseas is called the “Little Sisters’ Fund” in Nepal. They understand that if you educate a girl, you educate a nation. The programme not only provides scholarships, it’s helping foster a new generation of leaders. And by ensuring that girls stay in school, the programme ensures that they are not trafficked as child labour, do not become child brides and are not subjected to other forms of abuse. ‘Little Sisters’ correspond with their sponsors. In one case, we connected a Nepalese girl with a young Singaporean student, who recently wrote a great article about their friendship.
Locally, we also helped set up a meals programme called The Cuff Road Project with an organization called TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too). This initiative enables migrant-workers-in-need to eat in places that have a safe and clean environment. It also provides a platform to assist with the workers’ cases, learn more about their needs and advocate on resolving them. While we played an important role launching this initiative, it’s entirely run and administered now by TWC2. We also have a great partnership with The Food Bank Singapore to engage members of the public, as well as companies and schools, on food and poverty issues.
What impact do you think your programmes have made in Singapore ?
On a community level, ONE (SINGAPORE)’s projects have made a very real difference in the lives of people, both here in Singapore and overseas.
In terms of awareness, there was certainly less cognizance of poverty and inequality issues when we started our campaign than there is now. I can’t say that we take credit for this shift, but I would like to think that we contributed to it.
ONE (SINGAPORE) is moving more into areas of local advocacy. We would like to see some changes in policy that would ensure that no one in Singapore lives in poverty. In the meantime, we continue to work with companies, schools and other organizations to raise awareness on these issues and provide avenues for people to take action.
What are some of lessons to learn from ONE ( SINGAPORE ) ? How will it expose individuals to eradicating poverty in a meaningful way in Asia ? How do you reach out to the youths in Asia ?
One of the first lessons is that poverty is not natural. As Nelson Mandela said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. “
The second lesson is that everyone can make an impact and a difference. One of our slogans is “ONE by ONE . . . by ONE!” Because when one person takes action, it leads to another person taking action as well, and there is a ripple effect. There is a West African proverb that says that by putting one foot forward the next one will follow, and then another.
So we do see an impact at the micro level, where people’s lives have been changed for the better. Have we reached our goal yet? The answer is NO. We will have succeeded one day where there is no need for an organization like ours. Like Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus says, the only place we should be able to find poverty is in a museum. Until then, we need to continue to take action.