Throughout life, there are certain pivotal moments that shape our worldview. For me, the first such moment came at the age of 15, when I took my first-ever flight 5000 miles to Bangkok. Having bid adieu to the way of life I had always known, this was the beginning of my transformation. I would spend the following two years at the Regents International School in Pattaya, Thailand, completing the IB Diploma Programme (DP). This was a time of great contrasts for me. From Slovakia’s spruce trees and cold mountains to Thailand’s coconut palms and scorching sun, where the education also stood in a stark contrast. More specifically, the creativity, activity, service (CAS) and theory of knowledge (TOK) opened my eyes in ways that traditional book-based learning could never have.
The foundations of my moral compass were recalibrated, as I critically examined all my assumptions and deeply-held beliefs. During our CAS trip, we spent one week in the Mae Hong Son province of Thailand to build a playground at a local village. The village life was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Unpaved roads, dilapidated houses, no mobile phones or even running water. The villagers seemed happy, but their vulnerability was shocking. The nearest hospital was 10 hours away in Chiang Mai. Extreme rain or drought could wipe out their crops and damage housing. The spread of diseases and climate change-induced extreme weather endangers the very existence of these communities. I felt I had a personal stake in supporting these communities. And yes, we all have a responsibility to each other. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “a civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members”.
“If this crisis teaches us anything, it is that we rely on the support of the vulnerable, of the socially neglected, of the economically deprived, of the ones we often make unheard and invisible.”
The village in Thailand is one of the many examples that highlighted the unequal distribution of privilege and entitlement globally. We don’t choose the circumstances we are born into. This is simply a lottery of life, creating an unequal playing field, where a minority of people get lucky, but the majority don’t. The sole fact that I am writing (and you are reading) this already signifies our fortune in being literate. Having the time to read without worrying about food, shelter and safety already places us in the upper brackets of privilege, globally. We are very lucky to have won the lottery. Yet being lucky has never been a measure of a moral virtue. The real measure of a moral virtue is how we use the opportunities we’ve been given to benefit those who were deprived of them. In other words, we don’t deserve our luck unless we consciously share it.
One of the ways to rebalance this inequality is through service to communities, be it volunteering, mentoring, fundraising, etc. To me, this service represents a social and moral duty that is expected of me. Living in Singapore, I often see hard-working construction site workers, wearing heavy protective clothing despite the sweltering heat. Among them, there are certainly those, who have the same talent as me. Given the right opportunities, they would also work in air-conditioned offices and probably might be better IB students, who write better articles. I don’t know why this is my life and that is theirs. All I know is that I had to give them my time; time to understand them better and time to figure out how to help them.
When a young Indian migrant worker named Parthiban injured his left hand, he lost his job, income and means of providing for his family. His father was also a construction worker, so he was never allowed to think of himself as anything more; they just never had the opportunity to consider a different future. Parthiban’s favourite hobby was pencil drawing. He would draw at night on the upper bunk bed with only a light from his phone. All Parthiban lacked was the right opportunities; a bridge of sorts, to connect him with the right people. Yet building bridges takes time, which I was ready to dedicate. Two years later, Parthiban is now an art teacher at the Lalaji Memorial Omega International School in Chennai. He often teaches IB students through his extracurricular classes and I’m hopeful that one day he’ll become an IB-certified teacher to inspire the next generation.
“The real measure of a moral virtue is how we use the opportunities we’ve been given to benefit those who were deprived of them.”
Acknowledging our privileged positions is the first step in realising the power we hold. I believe that the most powerful moments in life are those when we exercise our power to make a positive mark on someone’s life. In times of crisis, such as a global virus outbreak, social responsibility is our beacon of hope. If this crisis teaches us anything, it is that we rely on the support of the vulnerable, of the socially neglected, of the economically deprived, of the ones we often make unheard and invisible. Our help to them is by no means a one-way transaction. In fact, we may give them our time and perhaps other resources, yet in exchange we gain something far more valuable. Those who we often neglect are the everyday heroes from whom we can learn lessons about being positive, humble, grateful and, above all, mindful about the responsibilities that come with our privilege.
Marcel Bandur is a Research Associate at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Currently, he is also pursuing a part-time MBA Degree at the NUS Business School. He completed his IB diploma at Regents International School in Pattaya, Thailand in 2008. His passion is volunteering for socially disadvantaged groups, especially migrants and minorities. Speaking Hindi, his dream is to run charity projects in India. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.
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