Think Differently?

by | Nov 22, 2021 | Read | 0 comments

ON THE CORRIDOR BETWEEN THE CAR park and the bank’s sliding door sit a few people who would ask for a dollar or two. One sits on a wheelchair, selling packets of pocket tissue and ballpoint pens. Another person on a bamboo mat filled with packets of fried banana chips, cashew nuts and prawn crackers. Her mantra is, please help a single mother. RM10 per packet. Another gentleman, a few feet away, is sprawled on the floor, disabled because of a deformed limb. He holds a cup before him and faces down in silence. His contorted physique is disconcerting.

Going to the ATM has never been an awkward and guilt-ridden trip. 

Some days we give generously. Some days, we justify not helping because this time around, our bank balances are diminishing. We whisper to ourselves: I, too, have a family to feed. Some have mastered the art of not making eye contact to manage the awkwardness. Some provide eye contact but offer a half-smile to telepathically inform them that we really want to help but maybe another time.

Should we give money or not? Do we give them all? Or should we reward only those who sell something because they are taking action to better their situation? What about giving to the neediest of them all — the physically disabled one who cannot speak for himself? 

Wait, what if they are all scams, and just raking in money for a syndicate who is profiteering from them? Maybe they are not needy, but just lazy. Who knows how they might spend the money — alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gambling? But, what if we don’t give and their syndicates abuse them for not producing enough?

There is a never ending stream of questions. Secretly we wish that this scenario had never existed. But it is a reality that will possibly not end. How do we reconcile this societal predicament and our inward moral compass? Is there a different way of thinking and taking action?

The new normal

The Covid pandemic was a game-changer for everyone. Many families were deeply affected by the lack of resources and were made vulnerable. Within weeks of the lockdown in Malaysia, people started rallying together to help others in need. 

Social media was buzzing with groups like the Caremongers and initiatives like the White Flag campaign (where needy families can place a white flag outside their homes to signal their need for aid). Strangers came together to offer their time, money, food resources and other necessities. There were constant requests for help raised for vulnerable people around them. It was a heartwarming episode of solidarity and support. Malaysians empathised. Malaysians took action.

Not all was positive during this time. Some began to blame marginalised people for a variety of things. Refugees were accused of being delinquent for not following the health standard operating procedures. People reprimanded some for taking up resources meant for Malaysians. Some were even blamed them for spreading Covid-19. In that same breath, other harsh insults were directed towards them. 

Nevertheless, there was a significant wave of positive responses by Malaysians to help and protect the underprivileged. 

The pandemic presented a common denominator. We knew what it felt to be restricted. We felt the pinch of not having enough. We started thinking about people in worse situations than us. And we recognised the importance of working together, to meet people’s needs.

The pandemic presented a common denominator. We knew what it felt to be restricted. We felt the pinch of not having enough. We started thinking about people in worse situations than us. And we recognised the importance of working together, to meet people’s needs.

What is the difference between the help given during the pandemic and the help we constantly negotiate to provide on a day-to-day basis? 

The difference was, everyone shared pain points, the barriers came down to reaching out for help, everyone pulled their strengths together. The pandemic is a unique encounter, but poverty and marginalisation are endemic and deserve long-term thinking and action. 

We can start by thinking differently. Here are a few fundamental principles to ponder:

Empathise, Not Sympathise

To sympathise is to express how we feel about another’s predicament. But to empathise is to put yourself in a person’s shoes. When we do that, we begin to be acquainted with the barriers a person encounters and understand their limitations. 

There will still be gaps as we empathise. Not everyone is wired in the same way, and not everyone has the same starting point in life. But the process of empathising is a journey and conversation that happens over time. 

We empathise when we decide to listen instead of offering advice or an opinion. We empathise when we go to where people are instead of making them meet us where we are. We empathise when we check our biases and leave them at the door.  

During the pandemic, people started empathising, and empathy led to the innovation of practical ways to help others in need. 

Poverty and marginalisation are systemic issues that need to be addressed at all levels. But from the grassroots level, we can already start playing an active role.

Remove the labels

Labels should only remain on bottles. Not on people. Often, the labels applied to people are harder to peel off. And this sets them back further into their already marginalised situation.

Stereotypes like ‘refugees are dirty’, ‘indigenous people are lazy and complacent, ‘poor people are alcoholics, gamblers and waste money’ are not representative of marginalised communities. In most cases, they are false beliefs that only serve to widen the chasm between people. 

The trouble is, we believe these stereotypes and pass them down to others. 

What are the labels we privately apply towards others? How did we get them? Are they a valid representation of the community? We need to search these out and correct our perspectives.

The lenses we wear shade the way we think and act towards others. Our beliefs determine our actions. When we wear faulty lenses, our actions can harm instead of help others.

Some helpful questions to help us dismantle stereotypes are:

Why do I think of them in this way? What prompted me to start thinking this way? How is this true of everyone in that community? If this person has done something wrong, have I acted in a similar way towards others? What circumstances could they be in that may be limiting them from making better decisions or acting more responsibly?

Find what is strong

The reality is that each individual and community has strengths, expertise and assets that have helped them survive thus far. Their circumstances may have changed, but their core strengths remain intact.

Through culture and traditions, how they have socially organised themselves, the skills and work ethic they possess, and the lessons they pass down to the younger generations, these things are strengths that have kept them resilient. 

Marginalised communities are not limited to an ethnic population. They may also include people from a locality, shared experiences, or have a common mission. They may be migrant workers who are here hustling to send money home, people with disabilities, the B40 communities, stateless people without any means for education, disenfranchised urban youths, or a particular orang Asli tribe competing for land rights.

As we look at marginalised communities, we should not ask:

What is wrong with them but what is strong about them

We ought to change our mindset that we have all the solutions for them and that they have a lot to learn from us. The opposite is true. We have a lot to learn from them. We may have some facilities and programmes that can help them improve their circumstances, but all these do not make sense to them or prove to be sustainable if we do not recognise the strengths and assets they already have within them.

We ought to change our mindset that we have all the solutions for them and that they have a lot to learn from us. The opposite is true.

Ending the cycle of marginalisation

The scene at the bank corridor is a grim reminder of the cycle of marginalisation. There is never an easy solution to how you should respond each time you face people who ask for help. Many times, this is a matter of conscience and good faith. Some days, you feel free to give, and some days you don’t. But regardless of how you decide to respond, it is essential to know that they too have strengths, stories, aspirations, and the potential to be better in life.