The key thing is to take the first step and just try

Somewhere in the middle of January, I noticed that there were a lot of news articles about Singaporeans hoarding food items at the supermarket. I felt it was selfish and irresponsible of these people to do so. Some of them even left the food items behind because of the long queues, and they did not stop to think about the staff who had to clear them.

In the same month, the government also announced that they were going to distribute surgical masks to every household. So with these two things on my mind, I thought that I should at least do something to benefit fellow Singaporeans to spread kindness and generosity. I then posted about it on Facebook, including my thoughts, after which I invited my Facebook friends to share their thoughts and interest.

A friend whom I had known during my tertiary education had contacted me to tell me that he liked the idea and asked how we should proceed. That’s how this initiative, Contribute.SG came about with my co-founder, Jerry Lim.

The concept is similar to the Giving.sg platform. Giving.sg is a platform for Singaporeans to donate an amount of money to a charity or Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWO) that they want to help. In this case, with the intention of helping others and also using the Giving.sg concept, we wanted Singaporeans to donate their items to us, be it a surgical mask, thermometer, hand sanitiser, or anything. We would then redistribute the resources to those who would really need them.

With the website that we have, including Facebook and Instagram, we spread awareness about Contribute.SG even through our friends. Thankfully there were some media outlets who picked it up and mentioned us too.

Then we thought about where people could drop their items. As we didn’t have the storage space, we relied on our network of friends to ask if we could use their storage space as the drop-off points for the public. 

For instance, we had a drop-off point at Kim Choo, Home Nursing Foundation, Singapore Kindness Movement, some of the community clubs like Marine Parade GRC, Teapulse (bubble tea shop), and Haar Attic Salon. 

Initially, we had a lot of beneficiaries coming in to request for masks, and so we would match the items that we had on hand to the organisations that needed it. 

Somewhere about 3 months later, the number of email enquiries from beneficiaries slowed down. So with the items we had on hand, we emailed and called the organisations and asked if they required masks or anything, so that we could channel it to them. After a while, it was usually the same group of beneficiaries that asked for the items, like masks, thermometer and vouchers. A lot of items started coming in too but there was no one to receive it.

At one time, the donations slowed down and it got us thinking like, “Since there are no more donations, is it time to close down our current campaign and move on to another one?” But then again, there was also a time where we ran out of hand sanitizers and when people asked us for them, we had to tell them to wait till we received some. 

Another challenge we faced was our lack of transportation. So, it was lucky that we could tap on funds from the Singapore Kindness Movement to help us with our transportation cost. 

People might think it was easy to redirect resources to organisations. However,  there was a lot of back-ends and administrative work. When you have a lot of items on hand and you can only depend on your home as storage space, you have to think of how to clear them before new items come in. 

However, when you tried to clear the items, you could not just clear them anyhow either as you needed to think and go through the list of (VWOs) and see if they really needed the items based on their clientele. I also did not want to keep giving the items to the same organisations as I would prefer to divide the resources to various organisations. In this case, more organisations would benefit from them.  

Accountability was also important and we would assure donors where their items would go to, by posting photos of our distribution or giving acknowledgement on Facebook.  

When Contribute.sg first started, it was purely with focus on masks and hand sanitizers. Slowly more partnerships came about, like with DIY ear savers (that helps to prevent painful ears when one wears the surgical mask) and face shields. 

Our current, ongoing initiative is with Mask for All Singapore. It is also a ground-up movement but they focus on educating the public on how to wear the mask properly. I’m working with them on this movement called the Migrant Worker Campaign where we give care packages for the migrant workers living in dormitories. They helped with mask education too by designing posters accordingly and we would share the posters with the VWOs and some of the MP-elects.  

We also worked with community clubs like Whampoa Community club when Contribute.SG just started, to help pack the donated surgical masks and sanitisers with their community welfare department and to deliver them to the residents living in rental flats. 

We helped to liaise with the VWOs too, like for instance, there was once when the public donated one-ply of surgical mask, which technically could not be donated to anyone as minimally, the masks needed to be 3-ply to meet the health standard. So the receiving VWO actually asked what they could do with it. As I know of a home-baking business who had use for the one-ply surgical masks, I had contacted them and passed the masks over to them. 

Whatever items that people donated to us, we would just try to accept and match the items with the organisation that needed them, including items like breast pumps and canned food. For us, we feel a sense of satisfaction when we are able to send the items to those who really need it. This is a kind of happiness you can give someone on their journey. 

Through the various VWOs that I liaised with, I got to know more about the organisations and also met interesting people overseas. 

There was a guy from Batam, Indonesia who wanted to donate hand sanitizers to us. He had actually dropped by Singapore to stay for about two days and donated the hand sanitizers to us. We also had an expatriate working and staying in Singapore with his family. His wife actually met me to pass me some items. 

To me, it’s interesting to see donors who are not locals but who want to do something for the community too. 

Sometimes we can get frustrated and feel bad, when we want to help people but can’t do so.  For example, during the Migrant Worker Campaign, we had to call up the migrant workers to confirm the items that they want. There was a migrant worker who was staying in the hotel and he had asked me to help him buy coffee. I was not able to help him as food delivery services were too expensive and it was not worthwhile to send only the coffee to him unless I could get some meals for him to meet the minimum order. However, as I was not too sure if he could finish it, I ended up suggesting to him to call the hotel staff to get the housekeeper to help him buy a nice coffee and I said sorry before ending the call. 

To me, Contribute SG will not be a one-time event and even after COVID-19 were to end, I don’t foresee that this platform will stop moving forward to lend a helping hand. The word ‘Contribute’, is actually about spreading kindness and generosity while preventing fear and anger. It can extend to every pocket of heartlands in Singapore in which each individual is a contributor of something. In a way, you resemble a kindness ambassador keeping a lookout for your neighbours or taking care of their welfare- and I think that is good enough already. In this way, the effect of kindness multiplies no matter how the demographics differ. 

We want to take a step further on our plans for Contribute SG too when COVID is over. As there are a lot of social enterprises, we are thinking of integrating these social enterprises into a platform where users can indicate their interest by signing up with us. 

For instance, if their interest is in the special needs, we will help to match the person with the special needs social enterprise. From there, there is a network for them to volunteer or reach out when there are events. It is something like SG Cares, but we want to make it more sustainable. I feel that there is a lot of awareness on VWOs but not so much on social enterprises, so this platform can help them to increase their profile. 

I would say that Singaporeans in general are kind and helpful. Somehow we just need to give them a little push for them to do more. You noticed that during this COVID-19, you see a lot of youngsters doing more. I read the other day that a group of youngsters went to distribute food to the rental flats.

For me, what I hope to see is that even after their community service program has ended, that helping spirit would continue through their career and to their family. The youths should know that if they want to do something, they should just shout out for resources either by asking around or to write to ministries to seek funding or to sound out their ideas.

I believe everything starts with passion. You need to love what you are doing. This journey in doing community service started way back in my tertiary days and has allowed me to bring happiness to someone and be able to spread the key message across. This pushes me to do more for the community. 

Regardless of whether COVID-19 exists or not, every little action that an individual can do, will really make an impact. You do not have to wait for something to happen. If you see someone out there who needs your help, and you think that there’s a need, you should just do it, just like for example, our migrant workers, who would definitely come and help us when they see that we are in trouble. 

The key thing is to take the first step and try it. 

Jonathan Tan

Contribute SG started from a simple idea by two ordinary Singaporeans when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Through this initiative, they want Singaporeans to see there are many people with big hearts who will triumph over fear and hate during this crisis.