Chia Ti Lik’s Blog

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American Vision, Leadership & Compassion – Food for Singaporean Thought on 9th August 2009

Right now is nearly 4pm on 8th August 2009 in Florida, USA. It is 4am on 9th August 2009 in Singapore. Its our national day – our nation’s birthday. I am in my hotel’s internet room  sitting out our Florida beach visit as I am experiencing a headache from a morning of gardening under the hot sun.

As part of the State Department’s programme, I had participated in a  sampling of community service work at Safe Harbour, Jacksonville, Florida.

Another reason which made me sit out the beach visit and forgo the Florida Beach Babes was this compulsion to pay tribute to the things I have seen. 🙂

Being given the opportunity to immerse myself in selected aspects of American life and society, i cannot help but see the stark differences between Singaporean and American society.

Safe Habour is a home set up for troubled boys and has been around for 25 years. Safe Harbour is really actually a real harbour located in a humble spot in Jacksonville, Florida.

The single storey buildings were very modest – the buildings were in bad shape when they were acquired and had been manually rebuilt by hand by their owner Doug and his wards with donated materials. The entire home had none of the extravagance that we find in some Singapore charities.

Troubled boys in their teens are sent to Safe Harbour to be educated. In Safe Harbour, they are taught diligence, thrift and problem solving skills.

Moored beside the wharf are a number of disused boats. Each boy stays on one boat by himself. These boats were donated by other Americans and are the subject for the boys’ learning and also double up as the personal home for each of the boys. Hands on work is a daily routine. The boys are guided to repair and improve their boats which would be theirs to keep when they are ready to leave.

The founder of Safe Harbour is Doug and his wife. Doug was in mainstream business previously. He was the owner of a company in the electronics and robotics business and he had pioneered certain concepts in digital transmission technology in acoustics, in particular the concept of transmission of sounds to the inner ear.

How did Safe Harbour get started?

Having made enough money to retire, Doug and his wife has sold their home and business and bought a yacht intending to travel the world as part of their retirement dream.

A local Judge had then asked Doug to take in 3 kids as a favour for the county’s juvenile homes were full. The couple agreed and took three boys  to live on board the yacht with them. This led to what became their second calling and to setting up Safe Harbour.

At the outset, Doug and his wife selflessly funded Safe Harbour with their savings. When that ran out, fundraising became a necessity. This they did with some success given their impeccable track record of rehabilitation which was the best in the USA.

Help also came from the local government and community. Safe Harbour was given a lease for the land from the local government at USD$1 per year for something like 50 years. Some kind donor purchased an adjoining property and turned it into a donation.

Safe Harbour’s wards grew up to be useful members of society. One of the boys grew up to be successful, entered politics and was elected into public office. Safe Harbour’s success was so impressive that the Hallmark Channel was inspired enough to shoot a movie based on their story.

The movie, however, had an unintended effect. Donors thinking that Safe Harbour must have made a bundle because of granting rights to Hallmark to make the movie cancelled their standing donations. The reduction in income was further worsened by the recent economic crisis which led many others to stop their donations.

Operating now on a very tight shoestring budget, Doug and his wife no longer employ any staff. Its just the couple and some volunteer staff who share their values and who choose to contribute without pay.

Doug spoke to us of having come full circle, starting out with little and now back to continuing with little. Nevertheless he remains undaunted and selfless. Admitting to experiencing frustrations of his work at times but was re-energised by timely letters of gratitude from his past wards and wives thanking Safe Harbour for the critical thinking, character and work ethic their husbands possessed.

Doug humbly and wisely interprets his setbacks in capacity to be the opportunity for him to personally spend quality time with the boys whom he is supposed to act as father figure.

Doug’s sincerely believes that he plays his part to make the world a better place saving one kid at a time. Indeed waves start out as ripples. 

What compelled Doug and his wife, who were wealthy enough to retire on their savings and enjoy life, to set up and run a voluntary welfare organisation and make perform the best teen reformation record  in the USA?

People shown compassion by the system in the past now return to society the favour. Doug had been a troubled kid in his early years and he got into trouble but a local county Judge chose to give him a second chance. Therefore when Doug was requested to assist in reforming three troubled teens, he rose to the occasion and did not shy away from what was needed to be done.

Over the past week, our delegation was exposed to a multitude of American non-profit NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations). Where individuals choose to work for little pay to further the causes which they believe in and people are encouraged to get organised to lobby and fight for the causes which they believe in.

At th end of my first week here, I am touched and humbled by the vision, leadership, compassion, humility and self-sacrifice present in the US Government and the American people i have met.

It makes me wonder how much such compassion, kindness, wisdom, vision and self-sacrifice that is so trademarkly American could have contributed undoubtedly to their progress as a nation and their nation’s position as a world leader and superpower for the last six and a half decades or so.

Whereas Singapore’s model is based on a one size fits all policy yet some are more equal than others, a i-know-best attitude, practicality chosen over morals, arrogance chosen over humility, one strike and you are out – no second chance, system intolerant of differences, a government which is deliberately divisive and conniving to the point where the promotion of a cause can be outlawed by legislation, and a leadership personifying the epitome of selfishness and which has rubbed off onto our people.

The United States of America is a Federation of 50 autonomous countries with different laws and governments and systems. They are, however, steadfastly united by the framework provided by their Federal Government and have rights enshrined in constitutional documents and respected by one and all – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary and the people.

As it is, people all around the world seek to make the United States their home whereas many of my fellow Singaporeans whom i have spoken to question the effectiveness of my lonely fight against the establishment and express the intention to flee instead of fight when given the choice.

The United States might be facing severe problems for now but as theirs is a society with compassion, respect for the individual, leadership and immense depth. I have little doubt USA will ride out the rough times to bounce back stronger.

As for Singapore as a nation, in its 44th National Day today, from the way it is going, i am sadly confident that we are doomed to fail.


August 8, 2009 - Posted by | Life, Politics


  1. […] Day 2009 – Article 14: 8:22 – The Hypocritical Oath – Chia Ti Lik’s Blog: American Vision, Leadership & Compassion – Food for Singaporean Thought on 9th August 2009 – mollymeek: Surreal […]

    Pingback by The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 14 Aug 2009 | August 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] Day Address – Article 14: 8:22 – The Hypocritical Oath [Recommended] – Chia Ti Lik’s Blog: American Vision, Leadership & Compassion – Food for Singaporean Thought on 9th August 2009 – mollymeek: Surreal […]

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