“CARE IS THE STORY OF WHO WE MIGHT BE” A reflection by CRT volunteer Rocky Howe

Rocky HOWE leads research and advocacy at the Cassia Resettlement Team. This is an excerpt of his reflection from They Told Us To Move: Dakota—Cassia edited by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team, which looks at public housing resettlement in Singapore through the eyes of Dakota residents, volunteers and academics. His piece builds upon the experiences of former resident Tong, which you can read more about here.

Tong’s health suffered after the move to Cassia Crescent. On the first occasion I met him, he looked pale, wan and in obvious discomfort. I was about to drive him to SGH to be hospitalised. I was told that he had rejected being hospitalised previously. It was only after he had time to sort out his affairs at home and pass his house keys over to a trusted friend for safekeeping, was he willing to head to the hospital. It was also here that I began my journey caring for Tong.

Caring for someone requires learning about and interpreting the needs they have. In Tong, my colleagues and I saw regaining independent functioning as his fundamental need, one tied deeply to the matter of personal dignity. Core to Tong’s independent functioning seemed to be his personal mobility, and we spent much time encouraging him to take short walks about the common area in the hospital. After all, for someone so tethered to the freedom of his bicycle, the hospital bed and the wheelchair could not have done him any good.

We settled into a routine of visits to keep him company at the hospital, always making sure that he got his chee cheong fun. It was his favourite food, but perhaps he had always requested it for the reason that it was one of the few things he could chew on. Tong, being hard of hearing, often struggled to communicate with the hospital staff and had to rely on us as intermediaries. At that time Tong suffered streaks of emotional instability and showed signs of depression, which we attributed to his frustration with being in the hospital, his difficulty coping with the fasting required for his endoscopies, and being physically immobile. He would often repeat to me that there was nothing to be done about his health at his advanced age. But perhaps the challenges ran deeper. Reading his interview now, one sees how similar refrains of helplessness shape other aspects of his life, including a reliance on the goodwill of others to lend him money to stay afloat. What comes across is his acute consciousness and discomfort with his own dependence on and vulnerability to others.

Tong, it seems, had internalised a narrative far too common in a society that glorifies self-reliance and individual ability, that a dependency on care implies powerlessness and failure. We assume that everyone is suited for independence, but this disavows dependent relationships as a normal part of human affairs and fails to recognise that we ourselves have vulnerabilities as an intrinsic part of our lives. For myself at least, in treating Tong’s mobility independence as his first and foremost priority then, I could not go further in caring for Tong than alleviating what was a surface need.

We were in retrospect perhaps too caught up with the material and short-term needs of Tong. Perhaps we could have paid better attention to the narratives around ageing and dependency that Tong had articulated. Perhaps there were ways in which we could have better convinced Tong that dependence and care was nothing to be avoided, and that it should not be an impediment to the exercise of agency. Caring for Tong was one of the earliest instances in which we had to so intensively care for and work with a resident, and I certainly felt inadequate in my task. Trying to truly understand his needs required us to step away from the perspective of the caregiver, and replace it with that of the care-receiver, evaluating whether the care provided has met the recognised care needs.

Whose responsibility is it to care?

One concern that has consistently emerged in our work with the residents of Cassia Crescent is the risk that public social institutions would become dependent on ground-up actors like the Cassia Resettlement Team (CRT) to do their caring work for them. This has posed difficult questions about the appropriate scope of care work volunteers at the CRT ought to take on, especially when caught between urgent unmet needs of residents and unsympathetic public institutions.

While caring for Tong and other residents, we often loath to consider these questions, and were inclined to jump right in to address what we take to be the problem at the first instance. We would highlight instead—and still do to this day—that the care we provide can only be a stop-gap measure, and the needs of the residents should be met by public institutions in the future. This response, however, seems to defer the difficult question rather than address it. In that regard, this friendship model of care must be embellished by a system of human rights and institutional accountability.

But we ought to be equally worried, in my view, as to whether the state and public institutions can ever be truly responsive to the diverse needs of its constituents, since it would involve the hard task of adjudicating the needs of different people and offering individualised support. The utopian universe that we dream of, in which the state “works properly” to address our needs, might simply be one that engages in the paternalistic simplification of the needs of Tong and all of us. Even if recognised, the extent of our human rights might be set at a lower level and used to justify a low maximum limit to welfare rather than setting a meaningful minimum to which the state is accountable for.

More crucially, institutional care as it is today is often different by kind rather than degree. The duty of care exercised by doctors, nurses, and social workers in their professional capacity are constrained by resource limitations, liability concerns, and functional differentiation. The model of care provided by CRT volunteers, on the other hand, motivated by what I see as friendship, love and solidarity with our residents, is not a fixed package of goods or services, but is instead a set of open-ended obligations that can lead to transformative social relationships. Both kinds of care are necessary and cannot be substituted for one another.

What does care really do?

The journey with Tong has raised difficult questions for the volunteers who have spent time with him. How do we identify his needs? How should we care for him? And, so what if we care?

When we do tell stories like Tong’s, there is a risk of reaching the conclusion that what we ought to do is simply to better honour and thank them for the hard work of nation-building. There is no better example of this than the Pioneer Generation Package. The contribution-based calculus on which it is predicated not only constrains just reward to those who have been productive citizens, but claims that such a reward is the be-all and end-all of what we deserve, thus missing that we might have further vulnerabilities and needs that are worthy of address. Such a model of society is also deficient in its belief that the goal and purpose of justice is to return someone to an original state of affairs after suffering a loss.

We might ask, counter-factually, if things could have been different if the powers-that-be had stepped in earlier to address the uncertainties in the experience of relocation, or spotted the early warning signals to Tong’s health problems. But Tong will never return to life as it used to be in Dakota Crescent. He continues to grapple with adjusting to a new state of health and way of living at this very moment.

The work of caring does not stop at the recognition of the gaps and problems of society; it seeks actively to transform the world we live in through acting together with others. As the work of the CRT matured over the last year or so, I have increasingly witnessed how it, together with the residents of Cassia Crescent, has the potential to find purpose and power in solidarity and human relationships. In continuously grappling with providing care and responding to each other’s needs, our acts of care do not reflect just our private morality, but public demand for social and political transformation, and in it a different promise of community and the future to come.

Rocky HOWE stumbles around endless different interests and activities, including emancipatory politics and social movements, feminist and queer ethics, alternative histories, law and political economy. He leads research and advocacy at the CRT. Currently, Rocky is working on an environmental history of mangroves in Singapore, searching for old and new relationships with and in nature. During barely existent free time, Rocky visits museums and can be found striking out drafts of his Chinese poems.

About They Told Us To Move: Dakota—Cassia

They Told Us to Move: Dakota—Cassia tells the story of relocation through a three-part conversation, involving interviews with the residents, reflections by the volunteers of CRT who have helped them with resettlement, and essays from academics. Together, they draw out the complex issues underpinning each story, including urban planning; gender and family; community development and participation; ageing, poverty, and social services; civil society and citizenship; and architectural heritage and place-making.

The book explores human stories of devotion, expectation, and remembrance. It asks what we can achieve through voluntary action and how we can balance self-reliance and public services. This book is for people who want to understand the kind of society we are, and question what kind of society we want to be.

They Told Us to Move: Dakota—Cassia is available at all outlets of Books Kinokuniya, Times Bookstore, Grassroots Book Room, and here on our website