October 2018 | Issue 38
The 3 Ms of Overseas Community Projects
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By Associate Prof Tham Kum Ying, Subject Lead (Emergency Medicine), Assistant Dean for Year 5

A well-planned overseas community project jointly undertaken with a collaborative partner has great potential for medical students to learn important lessons that are not available in Singapore. To learn and hopefully to contribute to an overseas community, there are 3 Ms that students should heed: mindfulness, modesty and malleability. 

There are two aspects: being mindful when (i) relating to others i.e. outward and (ii) examining our own thoughts and emotions i.e. inward. Outward mindfulness begins with the sensitivity to appreciate the differences in culture e.g. customs, food etc., and the nuances in speech patterns and expressions that may carry a weight far more than what we are used to. An appropriate level of situational awareness also helps in outward mindfulness, especially when the situation is changing rapidly and actions – driven by external factors – are deviating from plans. Inward mindfulness, akin to metacognition is an awareness and appreciation of our own thoughts, decision-making processes and emotions. The ability to “stand outside” of ourselves, to analyse ourselves objectively and learn more about ourselves when we are outside of our comfort zone, without being too lenient or too harsh, builds resilience. 

With the affluence that we are used to, it is upsetting when we see how the lack or misdistribution of resources in overseas communities impact health and basic well-being. When the system efficiency that we take for granted is absent making routine work laborious e.g. requesting for replacement of critical medications, it is jarring and upsets our sense of productivity that we take as national pride. Mindfulness should make us sensitive to the different priorities and difficulties that encumber the community, and modesty must guard and guide our decision whether to voice our views, and if so, when and how. Carl Sandburg  said, “Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can only be forgiven, not forgotten.” Very often we have not earned the right to ask for forgiveness from the affected community. 

Planning, which is essential when undertaking an overseas project must be matched by malleability i.e. appropriate adaptability and flexibility when putting the plan into action at the ground level. This can be challenging because malleability translates into (i) walking away from plans that we have spent hours of hard work in discussion and debate, and (ii) venturing into something unknown – an anxiety–inducing situation. While rigidity does not work well neither does a blind changeability that compromises principles and decisions that represent the integrity and identity of the team. Achieving the right balance is therefore a key component of malleability. 

Therefore in summary, while preparation for the team starts with planning, preparedness for each student starts in the heart and mind. 

[1] Carl August Sandburg (January 6, 1878 – July 22, 1967) was an American poet, writer, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. Source: Wikipedia

A/Prof Tham Kum Ying is currently faculty mentor for Project Isip but has been involved in other OCIPs previously