EACH YEAR, the third Monday of January is celebrated in the United States of America as a unique national holiday that honours the spirit of community service.
In short, this special day is dedicated to volunteering, a defining way of life for many American citizens, most of them, spurred to take action by a personal and religious ethos, driven to fill the gaps of a weak welfare state that leaves millions behind.
The day has a true distinctive history that goes back to the years of the civil rights movement where millions of African Americans nonviolently protested against a discriminatory system gamed to favour the white population.
One of leaders of such movement was Dr. Martin Luther King, the activist who paid with his life the price of freedom and emancipation.
The 15th of January is the birthday of Dr. King and the third Monday of each January has been officially sanctioned to commemorate the gestures and efforts of this modern times hero, a person that always believed in the responsibility of each person, no matter the background and social economic conditions, to do the best to serve the community, always striving to support those most in need.
From US to Malaysia is a long stretch and yet the teachings of Dr. King have universal meanings that extends well beyond the boundaries of the nation where he was born.
It is true that the 5th of December is already celebrated worldwide as the International Volunteering Day but still, it is important to think of what is now known as Martin Luther King Day as an inspiration for the entire world.
Malaysia as a nation should do more to harness the power of volunteerism, a tool that promotes social cohesion, local development and skills.
There are many ways to encourage local citizens, from all ages, races and economic status, from emboldening local social purpose organisations to the recognition of small but still significant gestures being carried out assiduously and in the shadows by millions of Malaysians, day in and day out.
The country is developed enough to design a strong, localised volunteering supporting infrastructure that harnesses, recognises and celebrates locally led volunteering initiatives.
A multitude of stakeholders can play a role, from local schools to universities, from small to big private companies, from local government to the federal one and from citizen to citizen, including the youngest and the eldest.
The government of Singapore, fully cognizant of the ethnic diversity of its population, prone to lead segregated lives and, propelled by a culture that awards resilience over dependency, has always been encouraging its citizens to volunteer and serve their communities.
The city state therefore has developed a sophisticated volunteering “architecture” with a multitude of programmes and initiatives.
With different ministries always trying to involve the local citizenry, the leaders of country had the farsightedness of creating a special agency in charge of promoting a culture of empathy across the nation.
Since 2008, the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, NVPC has been mandated with the task of engaging not only the people of Singapore but also all its stakeholders with a variety of volunteering options, all tailored made to cater to the specific needs of its constituencies, from school children, to the members of corporate sector.
Recently NVPC has launched a bold and long term strategic vision of making Singapore a “City of Good” which is, according to its chairperson, Mildred Tan, is a “community where people care for one another and building it, “is not the job of one, but the responsibility of all”.
Those thinking of the City of Good as just branding exercise are wrong.
It is instead a systematic, radical strategic plan that wants to truly transform Singapore for the better, helping to set the foundations for a society that is less divided by inequalities and more united by a government encouraging a citizenry led welfare system.
Maybe it is an imperfect and debatable model spurred by measures to offset the side effects of the local "turbo capitalistic mindset" but it is interesting enough for the way it tries to engage the population.
With Malaysia and Singapore sharing a common history and a shared destiny, also because of their responsibilities as founding members of the Asean, it is mandatory to set aside egos and jealousies and working for a common good by harnessing, locally and regionally, the power of volunteerism.
Stimulated by the work being done in Singapore, therefore it is high time that the Malaysian government invested in setting up a strong volunteering infrastructure able to target all different groups and stakeholders within the country.
Initiatives in this direction taken by local social purpose organisations, many of which are not for profits or social businesses, should not be stifled by this new entity but rather supported.
‘Volunteering Malaysia’, let’s assume this would be the name of such agency, should work as framer of new national policies and initiatives that can build on what already exists.
It can also become an enabler, partnering with programmes currently run by non-state actors, helping them get rid of red tapes and other constraints, especially from the financial point of view.
For example, on the one hand, also following the example of the Corporation for National & Community Service, another public entity that similarly to what NVPC does in Singapore, supports volunteering throughout the US, including coordinating Martin Luther King Day, Volunteering Malaysia should set standards and parameters of national programs able to meet the greatest challenges of the country, helping Malaysia achieving its own Sustainable Development Goals.
It can do this by running programmes directly or by launching bids where local social purpose organisations can become the implementing partners.
On the other hand, while national volunteering programmes will be the unifying glue of national civic engagement agenda, Volunteering Malaysia could nourish local promising ideas from existing and new not for profits, social businesses and private corporations.
Fostering, leveraging and scaling the creativity and ingenuity of those actors already promoting an engaged and cohesive nation should be one of the strategic priorities of this new agency.
Let’s not forget that later this year the International Association of Volunteering Efforts, IAVE, the global not for profit championing volunteerism around the world, will organise the 26th World Conference that will be hosted by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi in October.
What a great idea would be having the Prime Minister of Malaysia attending its inaugural ceremony and announce the world the creation of Volunteering Malaysia. No doubt that Dr. King would have surely have approved it.
The writer is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths to promote social inclusion in Nepal. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times