Story

A Fire Brought Together An Unlikely Group of Do-Gooders

50 years ago, something prompted a Buddhist monk, Catholic missionaries and service clubs to come together and do good. Read on to discover the unique beginnings of Beyond Social Services.
This story is the first of a four-part series as we uncover the untold stories of Singapore’s charity pioneers who sought to meet the needs of our city.

Beyond Social Services is one of Singapore’s most recognised and established social service organisations, a grande dame of the sector, having been founded not long after Singapore’s independence and known for its work with lower-income families and disadvantaged communities.

Beyond stands apart from other veteran social service organisations – first, because it was founded by a collective group of organisations and individuals, rather than a single organisation or individual. Second, because of the diversity of that collective.

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photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

In the wake of the Bukit Ho Swee fires of the late 1960s, the plight of low income Singaporeans was front and centre in the nation’s sight. After the second fire, during which the homes of 3,000 people went up in flames, a Buddhist monk, some Catholic missionaries, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran pastors and service clubs came together to form the Bukit Ho Swee Community Service Project.

50 years later, it has evolved into Beyond Social Services.

Besides the fact that they came from different religions and backgrounds, not much is known about the people who founded Beyond Social Services.

What we do know is that they were deeply affected by the Bukit Ho Swee fires and the plight of their fellow Singaporeans. That they saw a need – and got straight onto doing something about it. And that they did not let their differences stop them from uniting in this effort.

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“It was a time when cooperation and collaboration were natural, there was less competition,” says current executive director, Gerard Ee (pictured above), when asked what united Beyond’s disparate founding members.

The country was coming together in many ways, so perhaps it was a sign of the times that this would stand true at every level, including social services.

“It was just born.” Gerard says, laughing and shrugging.

Simple.

And it had a simple vision - to help meet the needs of a disadvantaged community, Bukit Ho Swee.

Dr Sushilan Vasoo, currently a Professor at NUS’ Department of Social Work, was a young social worker in those days and was involved in advising several community based projects, one of which was the Bukit Ho Swee Community Service Project. In an oral history interview for the National Archives¹, he recalls that he had advocated for “a less confrontive…more consensus building approach” and “a more integrative model in community work and community organisation [that] would bring better results”.

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This approach – unique for the time – was empowerment-based, not service-based. The Bukit Ho Swee Community Service Project, as it was then known, worked with others like the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and the Catholic Welfare Services to provide medical services and food. But it also focused on encouraging self-help and facilitating community resilience.

The organisation saw its role as supporting people by creating “opportunities for children, youth and families to help themselves rise above the hardships they face to become masters of their own destinies”, the very essence of empowerment. The reasoning was – and is – that empowerment creates within the community a narrative of responsibility for one’s neighbourhood – and owning one’s future.

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Gerard describes this as a ‘handshake’ approach, rather than a handout. It is a shared journey, with a sense of solidarity.

While Beyond has changed its name a few times over the past 50 years of its inception, it continues to work with lower income neighbourhoods with public rental housing, rolling out programmes that focus on empowerment and ownership with a key focus on the important role a community plays.

For example, Beyond’s Youth United Programme (YUP) builds relationships with youths from such neighbourhoods and provides them with educational enrichment activities, such as homework support and field trips, and also community support, such as neighbourhood meetups and interest group activities.

As a result, the youths are motivated to stay away from delinquent behaviour, make better life choices, get support from the neighbourhood and contribute back to the community. In a study conducted by Beyond & Blackbox Research², participants of YUP reported a significant improvement in their ability to take control of things in their lives for instance handling family problems.

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When talking about the impact Beyond has had, Gerard, who has been with the organisation since the mid-1980s, smiles.

“Everyone who works or volunteers with us has been impacted. The experience impacts personal and professional beliefs. It’s clichéd, but working here has helped me become a better person.”

And the impact on the community?

“People come back.” He says, simply. “Youth come back wanting to do more. And it’s not the programmes they remember. It’s being listened to, being valued. It’s the relationships they remember. Beyond forms relationships.”

Much as the founders intended when they began the organisation. And 50 years later, their vision continues to inspire.


Read other stories in our Origin Series: Charity Edition.


This story is written by our volunteer writer, Mona Thyagarajan, MSW.

¹National Archives of Singapore
² Youth United Programme Evaluation by Beyond Social Services & Blackbox Research
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