'Don't whack people trying to do good'

He's done it again.

The general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement has waded into the fray.

Last week, in a letter to Today newspaper, Dr William Wan defended the Singapore Island Country Club's "poverty simulation" exercise.

The country club is set to hold the exercise next month to allow participants to experience the issues faced by those less fortunate.

Noting the hostility online, he wrote: "A majority found it ludicrous that a workshop to understand poverty would be held at one of the most elite clubs here."

But he pointed out in the letter: "Why dismiss a worthwhile programme... just because of its new setting? Must we find something wrong with a workshop just because we find it dissonant that poverty could be simulated in a country club?"

The letter drew even more ire from netizens.

One Vanessa Yung wrote: "I honestly do not know what to make of a society which requires simulation session(s) to emote empathy for the needy or marginalised."

So we asked Dr Wan out for a coffee, fully intent on grilling him about the indulgence of such an exercise, and whether it reeks of bourgeois pity.

"I kena whack, I kena whack, lah," says the bespectacled man with a wry grin.

It's not something he's unfamiliar with.

Back in 2014, he wrote a sharp comment piece chastising the manner people had chased down Mr Anton Casey's personal information, dispensing social media justice.

Mr Casey, a British expatriate, was fired from his wealth manager job in 2014 for for denigrating public transport users here through his Facebook posts.

Dr Wan also retired Singa, the Kindness mascot, and drew plenty of brickbats for doing so.

On inviting controversy, he says: "Yah, I tell my friend, not only am I botak, I also kena bokok (trashed in Malay)."

"I don't expect everyone to agree - I am not an egomaniac - but let's have a conversation, and maybe we can have a discussion that can throw light, not heat," says the one-time lawyer, who speaks eloquently but breaks into colloquial dialect too.

"But I need to speak up, if its something worth saying."

He says "poverty simulation" is a terrible name that was given to the workshop.

"Simulation suggests a kind of game, or a way to 'imitate' poverty'. Poverty is serious, how can we even try to imitate it? It gives people a very terrible impression."

The original name of the workshop - In Their Shoes - is much better, he says, as it gives participants an idea of the kind of challenges a person with a such a background has to deal with.

Dr Wan went through something similar in the US in the 1990s. He was living there as a visiting professor at Eastern University, Pennsylvania, when he took part in the church programme.

Role-playing the profile, he claims, opened his eyes to challenges. "I was supposed to 'go' to the 'employment agency', but the resume I had meant it was terrible trying to find a job," he says. "I wasn't qualified, and I became even more depressed."

It made him realise how difficult it can be to even get the basics right.

"It was a life-changing experience for me! I began to realise that many people among us who need a bit of help, and we need to be understanding and empathetic."


Like it or not, there is a class of people right here in Singapore who need their eyes to be opened, he says.

"They have no idea what the poor actually go through."

When pressed to identify this group, he asks this reporter, with a smile in his eye, whether I was being deliberately obtuse. "You also know who they are."

He recalls how as a lawyer, he acted pro bono for a homeless man who shoplifted.

Young associates could not understand how someone could be genuinely homeless here.

Dr Wan will encourage the people at the country club to go for the workshop, he says, as some will come away with a better perspective.

"How many of us have friends - real friends - who are poor?" he says. "So we have only very superficial contact. You don't know what they go through.

"I have been to homes where there are stacks of Milo tins rusting away, instant noodles, Marie biscuits - but that's not what they need," he asserts.

"The point is, don't whack people who are trying to do some good."

This article was first published on Feb 14, 2016.
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