Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I landed at Changi on March 15. After spending the last few weeks in Hong Kong and Bangkok, Singapore seemed a safe haven as public health social restrictions inexorably cascaded across Asia. Business in the Lion City appeared to be proceeding as normal: very few masks, no temperature taking, and no problems sitting together in groups at restaurants. What was originally planned as a quick one-week stopover to network and help support the social enterprise I founded, Soap Cycling Singapore, turned into a two-month sojourn.
Soap Cycling Singapore
Soap Cycling Singapore (SCSG) had weathered the early days of the coronavirus crisis well, holding smaller volunteer sessions with new social distancing measures and even taking advantage of the new “hand-hygiene” climate to raise awareness of its mission and get soap out to those in need. The COVID crisis and the subsequent increase in cases among the migrant worker population in Singapore presented an unprecedented challenge. Our two primary sources of revenue, charging hotels for soap collection services and charging corporates to hold volunteer sessions, were suddenly unviable. Hotel occupancy in Singapore, traditionally above 80% even in bad times, plummeted close to zero. Corporates were unable to hold group events. In order to survive the incredibly difficult business conditions as well as help the ever increasing numbers of our community that were struggling, SCSG had to pivot quickly to new strategies.
I soon found myself stuck in a Singapore that was quickly enacting ever more restrictive social distancing measures. Then Circuit Breaker restrictions, announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long on April 7. With Hong Kong enacting mandatory quarantine for travellers, the prospects of going back didn’t seem appealing. So I made a decision to stick it out in Singapore and hope that the situation would improve. My usual abode during recent Singapore sojourns was a shelter for injured migrant workers run by one of our charity partners. If a bed was open, I was allowed to stay. The accommodation was spartan: a bunk bed in a shared room. But the space was very comfortable, with a full kitchen and plenty of space to work. The experiences shared during this unique time with my roommates and my Singapore friends will certainly go down as one of the most meaningful in my life.
While I had found a safe haven to weather the COVID-19 storm, SCSG was facing additional challenges. Apart from the revenue we lost from hotel soap collections, the fact also remained that it was also our only source of soap. Our first option to stay afloat was to tap into other sources of soap in our network. Thinking outside the “soap box,” we sent out a personal appeal to our network for donations of unused soap bars collected by individual Singaporean travellers. We received a tremendous outpouring of support from members of the community. Personal donors stepped up to dust off hotel soap bars and amenity bottles in storage that were collected from years of travel in the region. All in all, six individuals donated 110 kg of soap bars (2,750 bars) and 45kg of bottled amenities. The latter will be packaged into SCSG’s first ever hygiene kits to be distributed to migrant cleaners through the circuit breaker.
Life of a Migrant Worker
In the meantime, my own lifestyle was taking a drastic shift, adjusting to the realities of Circuit Breaker. During my time in Farrer Park, I got to know my housemates very well. We all took turns cooking communal meals, with Bengali fast becoming a favourite. Sichuanese and 东北 northeastern Chinese also making frequent appearances. I’m afraid my own attempts to cultivate appreciation for American cuisine made little headway. We couldn’t venture out legally except to purchase food. Our time was chiefly taken up with helping the charity that runs the shelter to take donations and prepare donations for the migrant worker dormitories that were struggling with the worsening coronavirus outbreak. Filling 50 ml hand sanitizer bottles, cleaning and packing soap, and packing care packs for our migrant worker brothers became our mission day in and day out.
With the Circuit Breaker measures in effect, it was not possible to host volunteer sessions with members of the public at our activity space in Farrer Park. At the same time, many Singaporeans were stuck at home and were looking for an outlet for their volunteer energies. Using our network of existing volunteers, we instead started to arrange pickups of soap for homebound helpers to clean and package soap bars for distribution. One challenge was training. Without a Soap Cycling representative present, how would we give feedback and maintain quality control? The team came up with a creative solution by producing a video to train volunteers on the basics of soap cleaning and packaging. Using technology and creativity, we spread the work across the Lion City and were able to meet our goals On Time, On Target (OTOT).
Sheltering in Place
Through my time residing at the shelter I came to a greater understanding of the sacrifices that my housemates had undertaken to migrate to Singapore. Paying punitive agency fees to secure a position meant that they often had to work for months (sometimes a year or more) to pay off their debt. They all worked seven days a week regularly with overtime, yet only earned, on average, S$1,000 month. Deducting the cost of food, transport, rent, and sending much-needed funds back to their families left little savings or extra funds for self-enjoyment. Still, my housemates maintained a positive attitude and took whatever pleasure they could in our unexpected predicament. A particularly cherished memory was an impromptu dumpling party initiated by our Chinese flatmate. Whatever struggles we were going through, homemade dumplings made everything better.
Circuit Breaker Soap
With soap supplies secured and sufficient manpower engaged to clean and package our product, the situation in the migrant worker dorms steadily worsened through April with several hundred cases reported each day. Isolated in their dorms and unable to leave to purchase necessities, migrant workers who were already living in overcrowded and suboptimal conditions were now living in a waking nightmare of fear for their health, jobs, and families back at home. Working day and night with our remote volunteers and interns, SCSG was able to process 12,000 bars of soap to deliver with care packs containing sanitizer, vitamin C, and masks. While the donated items were definitely much appreciated by the 4,000 beneficiaries, the simple act of visiting with them and showing that the community cares about their plight was perhaps the greatest act of kindness in this difficult period.
A Call to Action
While SCSG spends the vast majority of its energies on trying to save soap from the incinerator and get it to those in need, our organisation also requires funds to remain solvent. In particular, costs for logistics, materials such as masks and gloves for volunteer sessions, and rent to maintain our space requires a steady flow of funds. With these sources of funding cut off due to the coronavirus situation, the team needed a new strategy to earn money. The team brainstormed possible sources and came up with a campaign to both raise funds to help the less fortunate Singaporeans struggling during this period as well as raise awareness of our mission. Using the crowdfunding platform, give.asia, #SoapforSingapore was born.
Over S$10,000 was raised from over 100 donors, enough to donate 10,000 bars of soap to the local community. The messages received from donors explaining why they donated their precious funds to our cause were incredibly heartening and underscored the importance of our work.
Food and Fellowship
Back in the US after a 30-hour flight through another coronavirus hotspot, New York City, every day brings reminders of the fun and frustrations we all shared back in Farrer Park. My heart remains with my friends back in Singapore as they try to regain some sense of normalcy in lives suddenly turned upside down in 2020. It was truly a privilege to share a portion of the Circuit Breaker together, and I hope to return to Singapore soon. As a bonus, I’ve even tried my hand at Bengali cooking, with rave reviews from my family, though only a pale imitation of the original. ~ Pat Davis