SINGAPORE: More Singaporeans are signing up to understand first-hand the stress and constraints faced by the less fortunate.
Done through hands-on activities, demand for these poverty simulation exercises is also not just coming from the community sector - schools and corporate organisations have also been signing up.
Most of the exercises involve some form of role-playing. Participants will take on the role of a person with specific constraints.
The person could have a spouse who needs medical attention and young children to take care of. He or she may work in a small company and have loans to pay off. And this will come on top of children's needs or medical bills. Participants are then brought through how decisions and priorities may have to be made.
These are just some of the scenarios that poverty simulation exercises such as "In Their Shoes" will throw up. The exercise, run by non-profit organisation Methodist Welfare Services (MWS), requires participants to also complete various activities in their simulated roles.
It could include looking for a job, seeking medical attention or getting children to school. And if the participant “fails”, there will be consequences, like seeing your child fall into bad company.
The exercise compresses a month’s worth of activities and responsibilities into a few hours, which church worker Mary Chai said adds to the tension when it comes to making decisions. She said going through the exercise helped her break stereotypes and biases about the less fortunate.
“A lot of times, we do not realise that their priorities are different from us - how they make their choices. They may be pressured by certain constraints that we don't really face. So given (that they) have to make choices under pressure, they will react in certain ways" said Ms Chai.
She added that without understanding the daily pressures that people may go through, possibly because of financial difficulties, others may tend to judge the less well-off unfairly.
MWS has run 15 of these exercises since 2011, and participants are usually people keen on volunteering, church members and students.
MWS is also collaborating with a corporate group for the first time next month - the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC).
Tertiary students preparing for overseas volunteering trips make up the bulk of participants of a similar programme, run by another non-profit organisation, Etch Empathy.
Its Poverty Escape Simulation exposes participants to life in the slums of India, and participants are required to make paper bags out of newspaper to sell, in order to earn money to pay for rent, food and sanitation. And if they do not make enough paper bags, they are sent to another place, where life is harder and they get harassed by loansharks.
Students making paper bags out of newspaper as part of the exercise. (Photo: Etch Empathy)
Etch Empathy's co-founder, Aaron Yeoh, said he hopes participants will understand the frustration the poor face in trying to break out of the poverty cycle.
He said: "When they make the paper bag, it’s a never-ending activity, and they will feel very frustrated that they have to make this paper bag almost every second, and they have to do it at a very fast pace so their 'family' can survive.
"At the end of the whole simulation, most of the participants, their hands will be dirty, their legs will be tired, and they’re relieved that the simulation has ended and no one is harassing them anymore."
Etch Empathy has been running the simulation exercise since 2014 and Mr Yeoh said demand has increased since late last year. For now, Etch Empathy is working with SG Enable to get corporate organisations to come on board.
Looking to the future, Mr Yeoh hopes to work with secondary schools as well, believing that empathy should be inculcated in the young as early as possible.