Giving is, Indeed, Receiving

Internship Reflection
Giving is, indeed, receiving

“Love is not patronizing and charity isn't about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same -- with charity you give love, so don't just give money but reach out your hand instead.”

 ― Mother Teresa

I remember when I first chanced upon this internship I was just looking through my school’s mail wanting to do something that would keep me occupied for the summer holiday. Having a keen interest in migrant workers’ issues saw me contacting HealthServe immediately when the internship opportunity became available, and in no time, I found myself at Healthserve’s office attending a briefing by the volunteer lawyer, Mr Ronald. What I did not yet realise was that this internship was going to change my outlook on life tremendously, especially my perspective on reaching out to the less privileged in society. In fact, my life was to be transformed 360 degrees in this short month of attachment.

Prior to interning at HealthServe, I collaborated with Watsons Farley and Williams to draft an employment booklet for the Thai construction workers in Singapore, and thus have a brief understanding of migrant workers’ issues in general. These include the migrant workers’ salaries not being paid in full or on time, forced repatriations, and payslips problems. Nonetheless, what I had was just textbook knowledge, and its contrast with reality became manifestly apparent in my interactions with the migrant workers at HealthServe. In one of my chats with a Chinese worker, he told me that he expected to get a job with the relevant pay immediately when he reached Singapore, but he did not even receive a job after 2 months. In another conversation I had, a poor worker had to deal with false promises by his employer: he had an IPA which contained the contractual terms of his employment, but they were subsequently not complied with. Hearing all these problems from the migrant workers first-hand made me realise how real the situation of workers being taken advantage was.

Another highlight of my internship was following the case of Mr. Li*, of which I had the privilege to attend 3 court sessions in total. Mr. Li was a bus-driver involved in a bus accident 3 years ago, which resulted in the death of one passenger and injuries to another. While Mr. Li has conspicuously expressed remorse over what appears to be a freak accident that was beyond his control, the Public Prosecution had chosen to charge him with rash/negligent driving, which could potentially lead to a jail term. Following this case intently, I got myself thinking about the current state of the justice system in Singapore and how it should be run: How should the Prosecution proceed if he/she knows that the accused was really innocent? To what extent should Prosecutorial discretion be exercised in terms of formulating charges against an accused? Is it really fair for the accused, a foreigner, to be kept from going back to China for a case that drags on for 3 years – the duration of which could have very well been his term in jail? Seeing real-life criminal litigation in practice really gave me much food for thought.

What really impresses me the most was seeing how dedicated the volunteers at HealthServe were in serving the migrant workers – they are patient, compassionate, and most importantly, genuine in their interactions with the migrant workers. The case workers display empathy when collecting empirical evidence from the workers, UWC students take on a cheerful disposition when the workers turn up at their school for the activities, and the medical social workers exhibited professionalism when attending to patients. In every single event, the volunteers gave their all in serving others, fully evincing Healthserve’s motto of healing, inspiring and bridging communities. From simply observing how they helped the less fortunate, I saw how selfless one’s love for another can be – it was really awe-inspiring.

This was a really good internship experience which fully exposed me to the migrant workers community in Singapore, which, more often than not, is overlooked and neglected. Besides helping out with case work, I had the opportunity to help out with the Geylang Food Project and the MRT Top-Up project, which exposed me to how the NGO functions internally. On other occasions, my translation skills were put to the test as I translated forms and letters for the beneficiaries. All in all, I am really thankful to HealthServe for this wide-ranging experience and I would not hesitate in a heartbeat to volunteer my services here again in the future. 

By Suah Boon Choong, a 2nd year NUS Law student

*name changed for privacy

Mr. Wang's Story

28 September 2015. It was raining heavily that day, recalled Mr. Wang, as he reported to his workplace, a construction site in Punggol. It happened very quickly: an unsupported ladder perched on the wet, slippery floor fell onto Mr. Wang, leaving him unconscious.

Waking up each day has been a nightmare for Mr. Wang (not his real name) ever since he sustained a left wrist fracture and head injury at work. A 35-year-old migrant worker from Hebei, China, Mr. Wang is finally able to recuperate his injuries after an arduous struggle with his employers. Matters such as workplace injury compensation and hospitalization leave plague injured migrant workers in Singapore and Mr. Wang is no exception. According to Mr. Wang, workplace safety was rarely emphasized at his construction site. And among those who were injured, some were not even adequately remunerated, but instead sent back to their home country.

According to statistics from the Workplace Safety and Health Report, 597 migrant and local workers suffered major workplace injury while 66 workers were fatally injured in 2015 alone.

Mr. Wang  initially went to a private hospital for an open reduction and internal fixation paid for by his company. After surgery, Mr Wang did not receive an MC, but was instructed to perform ‘light duties’ instead (workers given light duty are not eligible for pay). Furthermore, his head injury was wholly dismissed by his attending physician as it was not formally reported by his employer to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Mr Wang soon realized that even ‘light duties’ at his construction site were impossible for his current state, and had to return to his physician to request for an official hospitalization leave, which he deserved in the first place.

To his horror, the nurse told him that he could not get an official medical certification as his company did not believe he was too injured to work.

“I was angry that the hospital was following the company’s order instead of relying on the doctor’s medical judgement.” Mr. Wang said as he thought about the troubles he had to endure since his injury began.

Many migrant workers leave their hometown and loved ones to travel thousand of miles to a foreign land hoping for a better tomorrow but are only rewarded with betrayal when they arrived. They live in dormitories with horrid conditions and have to work up to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Mr Wang himself is the sole breadwinner of his extended family. Promised a higher salary and better living conditions, Mr Wang travelled to Singapore 3 years ago to provide for his wife, 2 children and his parents. Before his injury, his pay was decent and on-time; After his injury, Mr Wang’s employer frequently delayed his pay and denied his injuries. Mr. Wang aptly said that, “The moment I got injured, we (he and his company) became enemies”.

Mr Wang was introduced to HealthServe by his friends after his ordeal, and has been a prominent member of HealthServe’s community since then, where the organization helps injured migrant workers financially, socially, medically and legally. HeathServe has helped Mr Wang with liaising with MOM to investigate his workplace injury compensations and the legal documentations required. Mr Wang now visits Healthserve more than 20 times a month and is passionate in helping out as a volunteer in Healthserve

“I want to be able to volunteer in HealthServe, and help out others like me just like how they have helped me.”

Since its inception in 2007, HealthServe has helped over 5000 migrant workers in cases concerning basic healthcare and legal matters. From its humble beginning in Geylang, it has now expanded to 3 clinics in Singapore. However, its work is never done as there are thousands more out there similar to Mr. Wang.

Unless society as a whole can change their mindset towards migrant workers, we will never be able to achieve justice for them. As the great Ghandi once said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. Healthserve has taken the first step in initiating a change in the Singaporean stigma against migrant workers, and hopefully their concerted efforts will pay off to close the gap between the treatment of the marginalised workers and that of locals.

By Zou Xiangyu, Tan Chek Han, Seah Raynian, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine Students

Zhang's Story

 ZHang at Changi Airport being sent off by our case manager, Jeff, and his migrant worker friends.

ZHang at Changi Airport being sent off by our case manager, Jeff, and his migrant worker friends.



I am a construction worker. Singapore was my dream place to work because in my mind the work here would be safer and more respecting of human rights. But under the leadership of a Chinese boss, all changed to become unreasonable and harsh. On July 7, 2015, my life changed. That day around 5pm, I fell from a platform 3.5 meters up. After falling unconscious for a minute or two, I woke to find every joint of my body in pain, especially my arm. The day after, only after the company brought me to a hospital for a checkup did I discover my arm was severely fractured. It required a surgery, after which I knew I would possibly not be able to work for a long time. However, the doctor only gave me MC for heavy work, even though I couldn’t do any work at all. I thought about my situation with much anxiety. What could I do? I didn’t know anything about the Singapore legal system. I felt helpless. That is, until I heard some of my friends speak about a charity that could help me. Only after going, did I learn this organization was called Healthserve. The staff at Healthserve have been very patient in helping me resolve my case, walking me through what I should do. Quickly, I felt a sense of peace. There are many people at Healthserve like me who are injured at work and don’t know what to do as a foreign worker but receive help from Healthserve. Day after day, Healthserve provided us with free meals, let those who couldn’t walk stay in a subsidized shelter, and gave us medical care to help us recover. Sometimes the staff would even take us around sightseeing. Seeing the scenery of Singapore helped free our oppressed and suffering hearts. What’s more, as we don’t understand English, the Healthserve brothers would go out of their way and tirelessly provide translation. In addition, they would give us 20 dollars each month in MRT money. Healthserve gave us foreign workers so much help—it was unbelievable!  The selfless dedication and love made us foreign workers feel the warmth of home. We are sincerely grateful to you for all the help. Healthserve didn’t have an obligation to do this for us, but day after day, year after year, they do. We hold much thanksgiving in our hearts and wish all the brothers and sisters who helped us at Healthserve much youth and health!


At the end of February 2016, 8 months after his injury, Zhang received his much-deserved work-injury compensation, and his employer purchased his flight back home. He headed back to China in early March and now is with his family and loved ones.

Meet an Intern: Jolene

Name: Jolene Quek Jia Min
School: Ngee Ann Polytechnic
Internship duration: 15 October 2015 to 14 January 2016

Why did you choose to intern at HealthServe?

I was inspired by Bernice Wong’s project – “Beyond the Border, Behind the Men” where she went to Bangladesh to film some of the migrant workers and came back to Singapore to do a photo exhibition. Migrant workers are so crucial to the growth of Singapore yet their efforts are so unrecognized and some Singaporeans even stereotype them as bad people. Thus, I was curious to know more about their personal lives and I felt that they are an interesting group to work with unlike the elderly, children and family – whom I can easily work with in Singapore. 

What were your duties/what projects were you involved with?

Mainly, I assist in case work, the Geylang Food Project (GFP), and help to coordinate some events. All of these duties have given me an opportunity to build stronger connections with the migrant workers through countless interactions. For my Final Year Project, I did a one-off event called Bond the Builder which provides opportunity for local youths and the Chinese migrant workers to interact through fun and games. I wanted the youths to form positive attitudes towards the workers as I believed that people held certain misconceptions about them. Also, it was an English-cum-interactive programme whereby the workers have to speak English in certain games. Thus, I started English classes for the Chinese workers, and it is still ongoing after my programme.

What are the main things you learned at HealthServe?

I have learnt that the migrant workers are human like us, and there was no need to stereotype them as the “bad people” or stay away from them. Being human, there is always the good and bad. Perhaps Singaporeans only choose to see the bad side about the migrant workers and generalize them as a whole instead of embracing the fact that there are good ones out there too.

Through case work, I was astonished by how these workers have been ill-treated. I came to know more about the Work Injury Compensation Act, and the laws which are supposed to protect these workers. Keyword: Supposed. I agree that these laws have definitely helped them, but at the same time, some existing laws are not strongly enforced. An example: A migrant worker was being chased out of the worksite dormitory into a foreign place with no proper shelter and bed. The law is supposed to ensure that all workers should have proper accommodation, but why is this still happening?

Share one of your favorite experiences

The workers made special effort to celebrate my birthday, pooling funds from their own pockets to buy cakes and drinks. It was a birthday surprise as I did not expect them to know. I was so happy and touched that I cried (not teared) when they sang the birthday song in English. I am so grateful for the connections that I have made with them, and they are certainly my driving force to come to work every day.

What were some challenges you experienced as an intern?

Initially, it was the language barrier because the workers have a heavy accent and also spoke really fast. As I was out of touch from Mandarin ever since I entered polytechnic, I had difficulty adapting to it. However, I will ask them to slow down or repeat what they have said in order to understand what they are saying. As time passes, I slowly got used to it and it was not a problem at all!

Another challenge is how mentally drained I am at the end of the day (sometimes). On certain days, there will be many workers walking in and telling you their problems and you’ll have to sit down and listen to them attentively on what they are trying to say. After that, you’ll have to come up with a solution. This exhausts me mentally and I became grumpy and unsociable – which is not me. However, I recover from this phase during my weekends and learn to find the positive in every situation – even when you feel tired, know that it’s because you’re making a difference in other’s and your life.

What advice would you give a prospective HealthServe intern?

Be passionate about what you do and you must have the heart and curiosity to really know more about the workers. When you are genuine, people around you will feel and it, and this gives you the privilege to connect with the workers and this connection will give you the motivation to work. I really believe in this saying – “With passion, you’ll excel in anything”.