Meet-the-People sessions (MPS) are meetings between Members of Parliament (MPs) and their constituents in Singapore. They are typically conducted once a week and are staffed by partisan volunteers. Two millennials, who became friends after helping out at the same constituency office for years, chat about their experiences thus far and why they are committed to volunteering regularly.
Editor’s note: Names were changed.
How They Started Volunteering
Phoebe: My volunteering journey began in 2016. It was the summer after my first year of college and I had time on my hands. While I did consider joining an extra-curricular activity, I eventually decided that I would prefer to commit to something that could last beyond my schooling days. My mother mentioned MPS in passing and one day, I decided to email an MP to find out how I could start. They invited me to attend the next session and I’ve been a regular volunteer ever since. Actually, I’m not even volunteering for my own constituency but the branch office that I go to is still pretty near my home.
Joey: I have been volunteering at MPS — under my own constituency — since late 2018. I started doing so during the second year of studying for my bachelor’s degree. While my peers succeeded in finding internships, I was facing obstacles. Still, I was determined to make full use of my time. As such, I started looking for volunteering opportunities.
MPS was one of the many activities that I signed up for. I also volunteered with a social service agency, Loving Heart, and offered free tuition to students. My volunteer work with Loving Heart was extremely meaningful; for months, I was in charge of planning and executing activities for at-risk youths in primary and secondary schools. However, it was an ad-hoc initiative and the timings did not always fit my schedule, especially when I had classes. Out of everything I tried, MPS was the only one that was both meaningful and sustainable in the long run.
On Their Roles and Tasks
Joey: MPS is an avenue for the constituents to approach the elected MPs in hopes of resolving problems they encounter in daily living. My role as a writer is to listen to the residents and assist in drafting the letters that will be sent to the respective ministries, agencies, or statutory boards. Writers have to ask pertinent questions and sieve out important details that need to be included.
Phoebe: At the branch office where we volunteer, writers prepare a rough draft of the letters after speaking to the residents. Through the online system, the MP is able to read the draft and consolidate their thoughts on how to assist the resident before meeting them — either face-to-face or through a video call. At the start of my volunteer journey, my primary concern was that I did not know enough about the policies and laws in Singapore. So I shadowed more experienced volunteers for a month before I finally mustered the courage to speak to residents alone.
I realized that most of the time, the residents would elaborate on their issue, state the type of assistance they need, and even supply the letters that they had received from the relevant organizations. And so, being a writer is less intimidating than I thought it would be. When I occasionally find myself at a loss with regard to which organization to address or what to include in the letter, all I have to do is to approach the more experienced volunteers and administrative staff for guidance.
Joey: I believe that the learning curve is not steep and what matters the most is to be sincere when we listen to the residents. I know that it is not easy for them to share personal information with absolute strangers. As volunteers, we are not there to judge or tell them what we think of their actions. We are there to be a listening ear and to ask difficult and sensitive questions in order to draft a better appeal letter. It is essential that we try our best to help the residents succeed in their appeals.
Phoebe: It is hard to strike the balance between being empathetic and efficient though. I once listened to an elderly woman speak on the phone for an entire hour because I didn’t have the heart to stop her. In the end, the administrative staff helped me hang up the call after informing the resident that I had to work on other cases as well.
Also, since we are both experienced volunteers, we started branching out and helping out in more areas. So apart from being a writer, we also edit and format the letters that have been approved by the MP before printing them out. We have also attended house visits with the MP, which is a slightly different experience since it requires us to summarize the issues that residents face and take down key points swiftly.
On Whether Their Jobs Are Related to MPS
Joey: My day job is quite similar to the volunteer work I do at MPS, from dealing with residents to helping them route their concerns to various agencies. What differs is at work, I have to find solutions for the residents. For example, if they face water seepage issues from the external walls, I will need to coordinate with contractors to rectify the issue and expedite the process.
I am also required to follow up on the cases as well as walk the ground on a daily basis to resolve estate and facility maintenance issues. In MPS, I sit behind a computer, wait for residents to walk in, and help them write appeal letters. We are unable to actively follow up on the cases. When they do not come back, I often wonder if the appeal letter was successful or if it has failed.
Phoebe: Oh, my job is completely unrelated to my volunteer work. I work in the private sector, in an industry that basically runs on consumerism. I never really considered joining the public service because I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to be in touch with my creative side if I did. Actually, having a day job that isn’t particularly meaningful only strengthened my resolve to fork out time for volunteering.
On What Keeps Them Committed
Joey: Knowing that I am making a difference by helping people in need is what drives me to keep going. I try my utmost best to make myself available for MPS on Mondays as well as whenever they require more manpower for the sessions that run on the first Friday of every month. The presence of many regular volunteers who are hardworking, well-intentioned, and take the time and effort to contribute to a great cause spurs me on too.
After becoming a more experienced writer, I’ve taken on a leadership role. Being tasked to guide the new writers and create a more vibrant volunteering community within the branch has become another factor that motivates me to do more — I will continue volunteering for the foreseeable future.
Phoebe: Seeing familiar faces motivates me to return each week but of course, even these volunteers come and go over the years. It took me a while to feel a sense of belonging at MPS; I used to leave immediately after I was done with my cases but now that I have built connections with my fellow volunteers, I find myself lingering around after a session just to interact with them. I definitely feel more connected to my community.
I must admit that there were periods when I became less active, such as during hectic periods of my academic semesters. When I was unemployed after graduation, however, I noticed that volunteering every Monday added structure and meaning to my days. That made me more determined to volunteer even when I am busier since I don’t want to do so only when it serves me.
On Their Politics
Additional context: The MPS that they attend are conducted by the People’s Action Party (PAP), the dominant party in Singapore.
Phoebe: Months after volunteering at MPS, I joined the political party when I was invited to do so because I thought I ought to be more politically engaged by attending talks and speeches by ministers (that were exclusive to party members). In the end, I didn’t even sign up for a single one during my four years as a party member. I eventually quit because I don’t think I was a member for the right reason; I joined because of convenience more so than conviction. Interestingly enough, our political journeys diverge and Joey only joined the party after years of volunteering and careful consideration.
Joey: Of course, when you volunteer for MPS, you’ll have to consider the branch and the political party you are serving. Are you helping out at a PAP ward or an opposition ward? Who is the MP you are working with? Who are the people that you are volunteering with?
I’ve also thought about whether I would help out at MPS if my ward is under a different party and I think I will. Because ultimately, what I am doing is volunteering my time and effort for the community and the people that I am serving are the residents.
Phoebe: I will definitely volunteer for an opposition ward and my reason is the same as Joey’s. It would be interesting to see the ways in which sessions are run differently in an opposition ward, due to the difference in the resources and infrastructure that the opposition parties have. Also, I believe that MPs are committed to helping their residents no matter which party they are affiliated with and I would like to contribute by assisting them.
On Memorable Moments and Lessons
Phoebe: Being asked about memorable cases is quite common, especially during job interviews for the public sector. Off the top of my head, I usually recall the more recent ones and those that are especially heart-wrenching (from domestic violence to sexual abuse cases). During my fourth year of volunteering, I was jaded because I felt that the cases blurred together over time. This made me question if what I was doing was worthwhile if I didn’t even remember the cases. Then I realized that I was making volunteering about myself. Now, I don’t think volunteering should be centered on what I gain from it, or that I gain something valuable only if I remember each and every case.
Joey: I still remember vividly when an old auntie tugged her extremely young granddaughter along to MPS. They were in a dire financial situation and she had to provide for her granddaughter all by herself. Yet, the grandma was not just waiting for financial aid but had been working very hard too. Moments like these let me know that I have made and will continue to make a real difference in the lives of other people.
Feature illustration by Sherryl Cheong