By Yang Guangyu, HealthServe intern & student of NUS Master of Social Sciences in Communication
What lies ahead for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Singapore and beyond? This World NGO Day*, we catch up with our visionary co-founder Dr Goh Wei Leong on his motivations, learnings as well as aspirations for the sector.
“Have you heard of the term ‘Ubuntu’?” Dr Goh asked.
An ancient African word that packs a punch, “ubuntu” means “I am because we are” or “humanity to others,” where the other shapes us and we shape one another. A saying that has long guided his work (and also often referenced by Nelson Mandela), Dr Goh believes that NGOs, too, embody this spirit.
NGOs have the potential to act as catalysts for common humanity, he shared, when asked about the role of NGOs in today’s polarised world. To achieve this, agility is key. By staying attuned and responsive to the evolving needs of the communities they serve, NGOs can continue to make a lasting, positive impact in the world.
In our hour-long insightful chat with Dr Goh, certain words and phrases were hard to miss. Notably, he emphasised the importance of dignity in recognising and respecting each individual as a unique and fellow human being with the same basic needs. From access to food and clean water to affordable healthcare and education, these basic needs need to be met. In every society, dignity – in the form of all fundamental aspects of human life – ought to be accorded to everyone regardless of their background, nationality or race.
“Lived dignity forms the basis of equitable relationships and shared humanity.”
HealthServe: A Safe Space to Understand and Deepen Dignity
When Dr Goh co-founded HealthServe with businessman Tang Shin Yong in 2006, they had a simple goal: to provide healthcare to Singapore’s marginalised migrant worker community, which they had identified as a huge gap then. However, they quickly discovered the migrant community’s needs were much broader and more complex than they had originally anticipated.
“We came in with the mindset that we had all the solutions to all of their problems – their ‘perceived’ problems,” shared Dr Goh. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“The issue was much larger – medicine alone wouldn’t solve their problems.”
In order to effectively and sustainably support the migrant community, they needed to first understand and address not just the medical gaps, but also financial and social gaps. And to help migrant workers, they needed to learn and understand their culture, befriend them, and really be a part of their community.
“Who best to tell us their needs than the migrant brothers themselves?”
“Knowing the migrant brothers better, and touching base with them was key.”
Through their ground and advocacy work over HealthServe’s earlier years, the team soon developed a more holistic approach to caring for vulnerable communities, including legal advisory services, social workers, counseling, and mental health services.
“How much is enough to plug the gaps?”
“At the end of the day, we learn that the world we live in is very broken – and that we can’t save the entire world,” shared Dr Goh, as he acknowledged the limitations of NGOs’ work, while well-intentioned.
Regardless, he reminded us to stay true to the course by seeing the value and importance of building equitable relationships with our communities.
“Giving comes from connection,” says Dr Goh. “It’s about forming a real community of real people, where every member recognises each other’s equal importance, whether giver or receiver, migrant worker or not.” He stressed the need to walk the talk.
“My dream has always been for us to work ourselves out of a job,” Dr Goh shared with a laugh. He dreams of our society becoming “more gentle, generous and gracious”.
“A city, community and world of good.”
We like the ring of that, as distant as that may be for now.
Despite having taken a backseat since stepping down as HealthServe’s Chairman in 2020, Dr Goh remains actively involved in the social services sector. He continues to mentor our next generation of changemakers – both local and around the world – and is also involved in medical outreach work in Southeast Asia, focusing on needy communities.
*World NGO Day is observed on February 27th every year to recognise and celebrate the contributions of NGOs towards making the world a better place.
HealthServe’s impact in supporting Singapore’s low-wage migrant community over the years is a testament to the power of shared humanity and dignity, collaboration, and community-driven solutions. As we commemorate World NGO Day, let us reflect on the important role that NGOs play in the global ecosystem, and the vision that Dr Goh has painted. Let us strive to create a culture of generosity and interdependence, where every global citizen is empowered to support one another, and NGOs can someday work towards becoming obsolete.