JC1 Deep Dive Day #2: Project Chulia Street

JC 1 DEEP DIVE DAY #2 Changemakers Lecture series: Mr Shaun Lee

Written By: Li Xin Rong, 19-I4

Deep Dive Day #2 fell on a Thursday, 11 April, with the theme of Changemakers. Several inspiring figures, from social entrepreneurs to hawkers, who excelled in various ways in their area of focus, were invited to speak to the students. It was a day to be instilled with passion and to be inspired.

Thursday, however, was also a day which signals the wrapping up of another tiring week. With no lessons that day, the JC1 cohort attend lectures they have signed up for in the morning, from 8:30 am all the way to 10:00 am.

Thus, blearily, but with well-founded hopes, I attended the lecture by Mr Shaun Lee: Our Unsung Heroes. Mr Lee is one of the people who helms the non-profit organization, Project Chulia Street (PCS), striving for the well-being of migrant construction workers. It was this target group on which my hopes were founded upon, as I was curious as to what methods he used to accord them the respect, dignity and gratitude he so championed for.

Mr Lee began his lecture with a video. Migrant construction workers careened in and out of the video, many sporting grins of genuine cheerfulness as they queued up in lines. They tossed rings and basketballs into miniature hoops, some perhaps long-forgotten childlike glee lighting their faces. The sight was immediately redolent of a carnival. This was one of the fiestas he had organised for them- a total of three per year- falling on Labour Day, National Day and International Migrant Workers Day respectively. These fiestas provide fun and entertainment, buffet lunches and practical necessities for the migrant construction workers. More importantly, they provide invaluable bonding time among themselves, and between the Singaporean locals and themselves.

After the video, Mr Lee got up and took centre stage with his presentation slides. He was of average height and stature, is in his comfortable ‘uncle’ years, and affected an easy geniality and passion for his cause. His mission, I rephrase, is to redignify migrant workers, and for Singapore to play the role of the enabler. Migrant construction workers make up 350 thousand, nearly a third of Singapore’s workforce, and go through back-breaking work to build our streets, our homes and facilities. Without their continued presence, Singapore’s economy would not go far at all.

3 Main Initiatives of Focus

In Project Chulia Street, Shaun – as he chooses to casually address himself – tells us that it focuses on 3 main themes: Project Chulia Health, Project Chulia Nutrition and Project Chulia Learning. Through Project Chulia Health, Shaun wishes to improve their levels of health through early diagnosis and treatment of diseases, such as early tooth decay and high-blood pressure. Such afflictions are arising in increasingly younger groups of migrant workers; a result of poor, imbalanced nutrition. For example, back in 2013, most three daily meals consisted of copious amounts of rice heaped with curry. The simple carbohydrates are converted to sugar quickly and do not give the workers enough of an energy boost. Project Chulia Nutrition steps in to educate the workers on more wholesome nutrition choices and sees to these improvements as well. Lastly, Project Chulia Learning helps the workers acquire the skills necessary for progress in their career, allowing them to take on higher positions such as crane operation and team management.

What Goes into a Fiesta

Moving on, he explained to us the purpose of the fiestas. The fiestas are a platform for the youth, the community and corporate companies to give back to our Singapore migrant workers. Some of the most heartfelt gestures are the smallest, interpersonal ones, for the biggest smiles were elicited when the children shook hands and thanked them for their hard work and dedication.

Believing firmly in partnership, and not hosting a one-man show, Shaun partners with both profit and non-profit organization to make his vision possible. For example, he partners with a profit organization which collects good quality, second-hand clothes to be sold at only a dollar each at the fiesta. Other basic necessities sold include water bottles.

“During fiestas, I try to shake hands with as many migrant workers as possible.”

This is a sincere attempt on his part to treat migrant workers with dignity: to look them in the eye, to show acceptance and ease during this interaction, to bear the weight of former prejudices against them and perhaps feel contrition. For how many of us have experienced fear or misgivings about migrant workers, who are of a different race, and who work invisibly? Eradicating this mindset is indeed a tall order. Recognising that despite our skin-deep, superficial differences, we share the same hopes and moral values would allow us to consider their personal backstories and depth. This multifaceted viewing goes beyond recognising these humanising traits; they each have their own brands of wisdom and intellect, acquired from their diverse social backgrounds. After all, some of them even hold a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree from their own country.

Question and Answer (Q&A) section

A girl from the front row asked about his management of Project Chulia Street. He responded that he believed there were three kinds of individuals in this line of work.

There is the Mother Theresa: the one who impacts one person’s life and finds great fulfilment and joy. There is the Bill Gates: the one who everything they touch turns to gold. These kind of people are also crucial to the seeing through of the project. Then, there are the networkers: those who interlinked the Mother Theresas and the beneficiaries.

That he had summed up thus in a rather philosophical manner invited much thought in me. Here was a man who zealously championed for the betterment of migrant workers, his efforts many of which were worthy to be emblazoned on the newspaper front-page, like so many other kind Samaritans. Here was a man who was efficient, who struck deals and persevered like a businessman. Yet, he was also someone who connected well with the audience with his insights, sincerity and humour.

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” he said in a hilarious, singsong manner which, if said by a more self-conscious individual, would have seemed pretentious. His ability to pull this one off drew a lot of laughter from the audience.

In all, Deep Dive Day #2 was enriched by these people who possessed a magnetism which drew individuals and crowds to support their cause. I am really inspired by all of Shaun’s ventures, many of which have yielded tangible results. To date, he has impacted 40,000 migrant workers islandwide through the fiestas alone. Though he says this is still a minute fraction of the 350,000, I have no doubt he will not stop trying.

Needless to say, DDD #2 has not failed to deliver. I look forward to the next round of speakers, and to glean something from their experiences once again.

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