Giving Starts with Awareness

Knowing how help is needed can spark the pro bono spirit, says lawyer Adrian Tan.
Giving Starts with Awareness, Adrian Tan

During the last General Election, visually handicapped Singaporeans faced their usual hurdle: they could not vote in secret. Many complained they weren’t allowed to mark their own ballot papers. Instead, overly enthusiastic officers at the voting centres insisted on asking for their voting choice to mark the papers for them. In frustration, some blind voters tore up their ballot slips, rather than reveal their choice to absolute strangers.

Helping the blind in this case could have been quite simple: if they were told the layout of the ballot paper, they would be able to write an “x” in the right space. The Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) President Tan Guan Heng wrote to the Ministry of Law to address the issue. With typical Singaporean efficiency, Minister K Shanmugam’s team very quickly organised a meeting with the authorities and SAVH representatives. Procedures were swiftly revamped – as a result, during the 2011 Presidential Election in August, stencils were provided to blind voters to help them “read” ballot papers. For the first time in Singapore history, the blind voted, on their own and in secret.

Why didn’t this happen decades earlier? I put it down to a lack of awareness.

The blind needed to talk to lawyers, who could then research the law and prepare a letter to propose changes in voting procedures. And there were (and still are) many lawyers who would have jumped at the chance to help the blind – if they knew about the problem. If only there was a way to matchmake public-spirited lawyers with charities that needed pro bono legal help.

Now, we have such a matchmaker. The Singapore Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office runs Project Law Help, an initiative to match non-profit organisations with lawyers who want to help them. Project Law Help placed me in the SAVH and with the blessing of my law firm, Drew & Napier, I provided free legal help to the organisation. I had a small part to play in looking up voting laws and starting the ball rolling to change our election practices.

Like many lawyers, I was always keen on pro bono work but without Project Law Help I would never have known how to go about it. It’s only when we discover that people need our help that we start to think about what needs to be done, and how we can do it. Since then I’ve found that there is no shortage of ways to help the blind.

Make no mistake: blind Singaporeans are very capable but every now and then they encounter problems that the sighted would never dream of. For instance, the blind, like others, want to own and operate their own businesses. But every business needs a corporate bank account to receive and pay out. So far, we have not been able to find a Singapore bank willing to open a current account to be operated by blind businessmen. The reason? Banks don’t feel comfortable allowing the blind to sign cheques.

We haven’t solved that problem, just as we haven’t solved the problem of traffic crossings. The Land Transport Authority had introduced beeping traffic lights for blind pedestrians but some residents asked for them to be removed, complaining that they disturbed their children’s studies.

Now that you’re aware of these two problems and the help that is required, please let me know if you have ideas or can lend a hand.


Adrian Tan is a lawyer and author of bestselling novels The Teenage Textbookand The Teenage Workbook. He was the moderator for the inaugural inter-varsity Pro Bono Debate between the law faculties of the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Management University in September 2012.

    Mar 18, 2013
    Adrian Tan
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