Story

The Garden With a Difference

Not a garden for plants but one that grows individuals and lovingly nurtures their talents, skills and lives.

This story is the third 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.

Think of a garden and one pictures a peaceful space, full of life, where plants and flowers flourish in abundance, lovingly nurtured and grown.

The Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) is such a garden for people with intellectual disabilities. In fact, so integral is the garden concept that all four of their Special Education schools have ‘Garden’ in their names, as part of their common identity. And, as with any garden, everything begins with a single seed.

In post-war Singapore, a group of pioneers from Singapore Children’s Society initiated a pilot project to cater to the needs of children with intellectual disabilities. Set up with a modest donation of $10,000 from the Rotary Club, it focused on education and training served 26 children and operated out of a single room in a Towner Road shophouse.

Within a year, this effort gave rise to a distinct organisation dedicated to serving the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities, as well as a full-fledged education centre for children with intellectual disabilities.

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That centre was the first of many across Singapore, known as Chin Pu centres. “Chin Pu” is Mandarin for ‘progress’ which is an appropriate name – for this was the era where much strides were made in the field of Special Education. The work gained traction with support from government funding. But the real breakthrough was a societal shift in awareness, understanding and attitudes. This began when parents and caregivers started raising concerns about the inappropriate and negative connotations of the word ‘retarded’, which was then part of the organisation’s name. Guided by listening to the community it serves, the organisation changed its name from “Singapore Association for Retarded Children” to the name we now know as MINDS.

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This is the approach MINDS continues to follow, says acting CEO, Ms Koh Gee May, and she would be in a position to know as MINDS was her first job after graduating with a degree in psychology. Apart from a brief break in the late nineties, she has been with MINDS ever since, witnessing its transformation over the years in terms of the number of clients served and the variety of choices offered. #nonprofitgoals

I believe that the client needs to have more choices. If not, they are forced into services that do not help. So it’s important to have multiple services, to give them as many choices and just as many opportunities as anyone else in society.

Ms Koh Gee May Acting CEO, MINDS

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MINDS offers a stunning array of choices for their clients, tailored to their life stage and needs, from education for children, to vocational training and employment for adults and residential home for those with no family support, among others. Its social enterprise arm provides clients opportunities to pick up skills and earn a small monthly allowance. This includes handicraft or baking skills development, car washing or taiko drum performances.

And apart from hard skills, MINDS also meets the needs of clients through their Me Too! Club (MTC), a volunteer group set up to encourage social interaction of their clients through befriending activities. “We realised that clients sometimes receive all their services but are not able to make friends. This club was set up solely for recreational purposes. It’s not for training – it’s just fun! Because our clients, like everyone else, want to enjoy life.” says Ms Koh.

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Photo Credit: MINDS MTC

As the organisation looks into the future, they recognise that many clients are close to retirement age, and likewise their caregivers. MINDS is continually looking at empowering older clients to live independent lives through lifespan services. With such passion and ambition for their clients, one might be quick to assume that the past fifty odd years have been a somewhat smooth journey for MINDS, but this is far from the truth.

“The biggest challenge has always been lack of awareness.” Ms Koh says matter-of-factly. “Societal attitudes, sometimes even caregivers and parents struggle to understand their kids or intellectual disability.”

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The renowned MINDS Taiko Drum Troupe (pictured in the book) engages clients in performing arts and has made appearances both in private and public events, such as National Day.

How do they handle such a difficult challenge, you may well wonder.

You get creative with what you can do, you innovate. But there has been a gradual shift too. We’ve become a more caring society, with more awareness of the issues and challenges. And that’s had an important impact – you move from fire fighting to really looking at growth of these individuals

Ms Koh Gee May Acting CEO, MINDS

This is what they do. They grow individuals, nurture their talents and skills – and lives.

This is what makes their garden, which seeded from the dream of a brave few over fifty years ago, took root, and from there bloomed into Singapore’s most beautiful garden.

Read other stories in our Origin Series: Charity Edition.


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

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