Dec 2019 - RSVP Singapore, The Organisation of Senior Volunteers

“… money is not all that matters.”


Grandparents tell stories, fetch grand kids from school, baby sit, feed, take innumerable photographs and often do what they didn’t have time to do with their own children. Some grandparents, through their actions, also weave experiences and values for the younger generation to think and act upon. Meet Mr. Gurdip Singh, grandfather to three young children and a 67-year young passionate volunteer.

His eyes smile too as he thinks of his grandchildren. After a brief pause and just a fraction of a second of that faraway look in his eyes, Mr. Gurdip Singh nods his head as if affirming his thought, “ I would say to her that money is not all that matters.” Mr. Gurdip Singh is a grandparent to an almost four-year-old granddaughter, and two-and-a-half-year-old pair of twins. Over Himalayan Tea Latte we are talking about his journey to and through volunteerism.

Mr. Gurdip Singh retired from his successful family retail business in 2015. Retirement seemed like the time to make up for all that he missed out or couldn’t do while he put in long hours at work. With his homemaker wife Mr. Gurdip Singh travelled, watched movies, went out for dinners, read books. But when all that seemed to become a chore too, he did some serious thinking. He knew he couldn’t while away his days just waiting for the clock to tick, for sunrise to turn to sunset and then the night to fall. Work had kept him busy, productive, engaged and had given his day a structure. He wanted to continue being productive and engaged. “After retirement I had sufficient funds to see me and my family through, I didn’t have to worry about my rice bowl at the end of the day; but I didn’t want to become redundant!” he says.

Retirement, he saw was an opportunity to learn something new and do something meaningful.

“I went to the website of RSVP (the Organisation of Senior Volunteers). It was really the name that got my attention. I remember as children we would say RSVP stands for Remember Send Valuable Presents!” he says with the childhood twinkle back in his eyes. “RSVP has a lot of avenues for those wanting to volunteer. I made the effort of going to them, speaking with them and understanding what it was all about. I felt comfortable and said to myself, let’s give it a try. I looked at each category of volunteering opportunity and thought whether it would match with the person I am. I decided to go ahead with the opportunity at Changi airport, because in many ways it was an extension of what I did. I ran a luggage shop for a living and Changi is full of them. When I am at Changi I look around at the trends in luggage, their designs, I engage with passengers helping them with information, guiding them to their areas of interest. I can speak Punjabi, Hindi, English, Malay, even a bit of Tamil, so it helps. I really enjoy my hours there. I love interaction. The place is full of life, I get so many good vibes. Often people come back to say thanks to me. The other day this man came up to me and said that I seemed really passionate about my job, he couldn’t believe that I was volunteering and that there was no money or salary involved. Moments like these make my day. It’s not that I am doing some great or a big job, but I am making a difference to someone.”

Starting off volunteering though wasn’t very easy. Mr. Gurdip Singh had to appear for his first ever interview post retirement! It was at Changi airport. “It was a lot of pressure. I had never in my life appeared for an interview! I called my daughter and asked her what I should do. She gave me good advice. She said, Pa, just remember that now you are not the boss. You are a small part in a big canvas. Just be yourself, play your part well and feel happy about it. That’s what I did. And happy I did feel.”   

Mr. Singh has a busy week with volunteering several days a week. Apart from Changi, he has been a familiar face at Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Wisma Geylang Serai Heritage Gallery and the Singapore Art Museum. He is also up and about at 4am every Tuesday to pack 200 vegetarian meals with fellow volunteers at Gurudwara Sahib Katong, popularly known as the temple on Wilkinson road to be sent through Willing Hearts. (Willing Hearts is nearly wholly run by volunteers that prepares, cooks and distributes nearly 5,000 daily meals all over Singapore to the needy).

“The culture of ‘seva’ or service has been very strong in our culture. From childhood my parents drilled it into us- do good and get good. It is true. What you get in return from volunteering is this amazing feeling that you cannot get otherwise. You know, it’s something like the pleasure people say they get from massages. It’s like that- energizing and calming.”

Volunteering is a journey that he learnt, says Mr. Singh. He believes anyone can volunteer provided they are in the right frame of mind. He believes when you volunteer you give a part of yourself; everything cannot be for the money. As a volunteer one needs to understand that returns will be in kind. Mr. Singh says he is surprised by himself when he thinks of how his entire work life was about selling more and earning more, and how he has changed in terms of volunteering.

“I built so much confidence through volunteering. 12 years ago, my eldest daughter got married. I refused to give a speech. I was so conscious, so uncomfortable of speaking in front of so many people. This year my younger daughter got married. I said no problem, I will give a speech. I wrote it, delivered it and I had people saying they never knew I could speak, let alone in front of so many people, and so many lawyers of those!”

“My wife says I am more energetic when I return from volunteering. My kids are happy for me. My grandchildren see I am productive. I make new friends where I go. I continue learning. I am happy,” sums up Mr. Gurdip Singh. “My father-in-law still can’t get around to understanding why I do all this without getting paid! But it’s okay. I am not trying to explain my point of view to him anymore. Volunteering gives me a good feeling and that feeling is irreplaceable.” he smiles.

I think it’s a feeling he would like to share with as many as people as possible.


Sunanda Verma is a volunteer with RSVP Singapore. She is the author of the Namaste! Series of books.