by Ryan Ma (16S06A)
Although I was not present during Hair for Hope (HFH) 2016, I have had the experience of witnessing the event in previous years, which hopefully lends credence to my commentary.
It was once again the time of the year when thousands of Singaporeans nationwide stood together to ceremoniously shave their heads. This act of shaving is a gesture of solidarity towards the victims of childhood cancer, who have tragically lost their hair through chemotherapy. As always, the satellite event in Raffles Institution was organised by the CCA Community Advocates (CA) whose management of this symbolic occasion took it to a resounding success. Indeed, their slogan, “Go Without, Look Within,” perfectly embodies the vision behind the event, that is, to eradicate the stigma against cancer patients by embracing – and normalising – baldness, which had hitherto othered and alienated patients going through treatment. We are all used to viewing our hair as a cultural object, which defines both our identity as well as our belonging to mainstream society. Thus, by forgoing our hair, we “look within” ourselves and connect with those around us, healthy or otherwise.
Or at least in theory.
Days ago I attempted to raise the problematic aspects of HFH in a conversation with one of the Community Advocates, and she took great offense at what seemed to be a sweeping attack on the intentions of all the participants and organisers behind the event. To avert such misconceptions, I make clear my respect for those involved in HFH: the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF), the Community Advocates, and the participants. The CCF has organised an event for the sufferers of cancer at the periphery of society, and CA has hosted it in Raffles with admirable finesse. Of course, such a symbolic act of sacrifice demands immense courage on the part of the participant, courage that most (myself included) have failed to muster. All of this was done out of a noble intention to let cancer patients know that they are neither forgotten nor alone in their struggles. Interviews conducted by CA have also indicated that the event has been positively received among cancer patients, and I will not contend against this finding.
Therefore, I must emphasise that the problem with HFH lies in the inadvertently superficial undertones in the deed itself, rather than superficial intentions. The problem I intend to discuss is endemic to the broader culture of community service in Singapore. The flaws in HFH are merely reflective of more insidious societal trends.
Upon closer examination, HFH’s effectiveness as a demonstration of solidarity is undercut by the relative ease at which the act is performed. While the decision to shave one’s head might have been difficult to make, the actual ramifications of shaving are insignificant 1, especially for male students who form the majority of the participants. This is largely due to the extensive publicity surrounding HFH, which the event ironically owes much of its success to. Apart from advertising the event both in school and online, the CA had also spotlighted the HFH participants on their Instagram page. Typically, participants pose for an after-shave photograph, coupled with an Instagram caption detailing their motives behind shaving. However, the publicity tends to construct for them an image of agapeic virtue. Though perhaps well-deserved, the focus on the image of participants detract from actually experiencing and empathising with the stigma cancer patients face for their baldness. In fact, participants whom I had interviewed agreed that their initial fears of stigma were allayed by their peers’ positive reactions towards their baldness. Therefore, instead of putting one in the shoes of cancer patients, the bald head has become a trophy and testimony to one’s own sense of compassion. Shaving becomes inconsequential. It hence deprives HFH of its symbolism, and makes it superficial and devoid of much lasting impact – at least till the following year.
In addition, the use of collective baldness as a show of solidarity is inherently out of touch with the needs of cancer patients. For most patients, cancer and baldness are deeply personal issues. As a marginalised group, their sense of abandonment stems from the way the world has distanced itself from them2. By holding for them a flamboyant event from a distance, society is perpetuating the same kind of alienation against them, as it fails to address their fundamental need – to be accepted the people around them. A suitable analogy would be having a disabled classmate who is bound to a wheelchair. HFH in this case would be comparable to the whole class coming to school in wheelchairs for the sake of showing solidarity, which in practice would be ridiculously overwrought, condescending and alienating to the disabled person. Indeed, the purpose of an event like HFH should be to bury the alienating effect of baldness, not accentuate and trumpet it over the span of a few weeks. An alternative approach would make the event much more meaningful. If the organisers could follow it up by deploying the participants to the ground to engage with the cancer patients, it would allow the patients to feel solidarity on a much more personal level, instead of witnessing the collective event behind the pallor of a screen.
The above shortcomings of HFH reveal a disturbing social trend. It highlights that community service in Singapore has become increasingly egocentric and self-indulgent. In the context of HFH, the excessive publicity given to both the ceremony of shaving and the participants subconsciously fosters a culture in which self-affirmation becomes a prerequisite for service. The focus of the advocacy event has drifted from the needs of the beneficiary to the participants’ own vanity.
This is not a problem of the Community Advocates, or even HFH; the problem transcends service groups at the school-based level, as its root lies in society’s mindsets towards community service. Egocentrism in community service has long been a controversial issue in Singapore, with some fearing that students may end up doing community service selfishly, for the sake of meeting requirements rather than genuinely contributing to society. Yet, beneath that mercenary attitude lies a more deep-seated insecurity often faced by people undertaking service work – the need for the value of their work to be recognised and defined through tangible mediums, such as numbers and certificates. This mindset may have been conditioned by society’s emphasis on the quantity rather than quality of service, especially given the integral place of CIP in our education system and the consequent need for students to fill up their service quotas. As a result, we observe charity organisations attuning their work to satisfy their volunteers’ desire for tangible affirmation. For HFH, the organ of affirmation is publicity. Despite the event being entirely voluntary, the participants have been showered with so much publicity that the glamour and moral superiority associated with shaving has effectively become an undercurrent which drives people to take part in the event. Given the reward-based nature of the event and its insulation from the world of cancer patients (as discussed earlier), it is reasonable to infer that the organisation of HFH has been influenced by the social trend which favours self-affirmation over selfless service.
To prove that this issue is not specific to RI or HFH, I shall raise another example. I once participated in a fund-raising event organised by the Epilepsy Care Group, a local fledgling charity organisation with a desperate manque for manpower. During the briefing, the spokesperson for the organisation wasted no effort reassuring the participants that their work will be duly recognised and represented in their portfolios, as if appealing to the student’s need for recognition as explained above. It is even more disturbing that this insecurity is condoned today as a social norm. For both HFH and this fund-raising event, the charity organisations’ adaptation of their activities to their participants’ interests reveals not only the superficiality of the way community service is facilitated, but also the degeneration of service into a transaction between NGOs and students, a social contract from which the real beneficiaries of charity are ironically excluded. In that sense, community service has been commodified.
I must stress once again that I do not ascribe this mildewed social phenomenon to CA or the organisers of HFH. They have invested a lot of effort in pulling off the event and for that they deserve our deepest respect, for the fact that some of our schoolmates are willing to host an event like this in support of a greater cause is heartening enough. However, through the issues I have pointed out, I hope to prompt all of us to reflect on the way we treat service in our country, from the perspective of either citizens or charitable groups. Sometimes, we can be so absorbed in looking within ourselves that we forget to meaningfully reach out to those who genuinely need a hand. At the end of the day, we must remember that service is not an industry, but an exemplification of altruism and humanity.
1 Interview with participants.
2 Coe et al., 2013: The Enigma of the Stigma of Hair Loss: Why is Cancer-Treatment Related Alopecia so Traumatic for Women?