Published in: Macau Daily Times
By Poyi (Natalie) Leung
Having been leading Caritas Macau for nearly 18 years, Secretary-General Paul Pun Chi Meng is upholding a belief that only by serving the poor as if they were guests, shall Caritas become a true charitable organisation.
Caritas was founded in Macau on October 8, 1951. Now being the largest non-profit charitable organisation in the territory with over 1,000 staff and volunteers, it operates a great variety of social services such as residential services for disabled people, elderly services, nursing homes, hospital visits, financial assistance and community outreach services.
Speaking to the Macau Daily Times at his office in Largo de Santo Agostinho, Pun talked about how Caritas is different from the Social Welfare Bureau and why society nowadays is more difficult to deal with.
Reporter: What role does Caritas play in society when there is the Social Welfare Bureau or are other measures from the government to help people in need?
Paul Pun: Government has its own moves and will implement measures according to the law. Society has unexpected changes and organisations will not stop offering special social service after the government enacts a new legislation. Hence Caritas can give some prompt responses in terms of human caring. People say not only does Caritas fill in the gap caused by the government, but it also seeks to provide extra social services that ther people don’t prefer to do.
Disadvantaged groups which are usually being overlooked by society will also be taken care of by Caritas, such as mental illness patients who need to be hospitalised, homeless people or disabled children. These people are not among the government’s top priorities, but economic or education improvement.
Our services aren’t restricted by the political climate. We offer services which other people don’t usually want to do at a particular time. For example in the lead-up of the elections, if a candidate helps imported labour, he or she must not win the election. So we are free from this kind of constraints and to concern people in need. However, Caritas doesn’t exist to help the government provide social services.
We have always been insisting on our own food bank service. Since 1951 we have been giving away rice every month to people in need (in early years including bread, milk powder and other groceries) such as the new arrivals who aren’t in Macau for over 18 months and thus can’t obtain assistance from the government.
From the political climate point of view, it’s not appropriate to help new arrivals as society will question why our resources are given to them. But the bigger picture is, their children will be local residents and part of Macau, so why can’t we do something to help them?
Our services are for everyone who is in need, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, language or whether they have Macau Identity Cards.
I found that Macau doesn’t help neighbouring countries such as India or Cambodia as much as it does to Sichuan. Our aim is not to shift own resources to outside, but Macau should be an international citizen and become an active member of the international society.
Caritas runs a school – Escola São João de Brito – near Kun Iam Temple. Usually organising this kind of school won’t have a very good reputation. It has a main campus for local students who got kicked out from the original schools or are out-of-school, also a sub-campus (English teaching, primary 6 to junior high school) specially set up for non-locals such as from the Philippines, Korea or Cambodia who can’t afford tuition fees of a mainstream international school. It also has a night section that enrols students in primary 6 to senior high school. It is also Macau’s first school to admit students with visual impairments. The boy we had before is now in university, and the girl we have now is in Form 2 in the main campus. The school operates an inclusive education system in which people with disability will have classes with other students. It has a lot of advantages such as other students will be more kind-hearted.
R: How did people’s needs change over the years?
Mr Pun: They changed very obviously. People in the old days asked for Caritas’ help to pay school fees or go to university. I was also one of the beneficiaries to have received financial assistance to go study in an university abroad. But Caritas didn’t ask them to repay the money or sign any contracts. In addition, people would come for money to pay blood transfusion or other medical related expenses.
But following the government’s measures to cover medical expenses for the poor and the elderly people, nowadays Caritas will help people solve housing problems such as paying the bond for them when they rent a house. We will encourage them to repay the money so that we can continue to help others in need. But we can’t control if they choose not to return the money. It’s completely voluntary. But nearly 70 percent of them will repay the money.
Our funding is enough only to support Caritas for two months. As Macau’s largest charitable organisation, we’re the poorest. We have to feel the feeling of the disadvantaged groups when we are short of funding. Then we will also go ask for help and try to raise fund.
This kind of services may not seem something very great, but we say to our staff that if they can help the weakest people in society, they’re doing what Caritas is doing.
R: What people nowadays are most lacking or what do they need the most?
Mr Pun: They lack of a spiritual growth. People nowadays chase for wealth, honour and social status. In contrast, those disadvantaged people continue to seek for a sense of security, stability in daily lives. They are poor but we can feel that they don’t take our help for granted and just come to get things they need.
With the development in society and the gaming industry, young people around the age of 14 and 15 are getting more materialistic. They want to share the benefits brought by the economic growth, even though their parents may not be so keen on it. The teenagers nowadays tend to have a lifestyle of over spending and not saving any money, and spending on themselves but not on the others.
R: Which one – the old Macau or the new Macau – is harder to deal with?
Mr Pun: Society nowadays is harder to deal with. In the old days, the problem was fundamental – about food. The difference between each person was small. Yet, nowadays some people work harder than the others but they don’t get more. The social differences are wider now. Thus, people complain why some people who don’t contribute much to society but get the most benefits. They say the new arrivals have already moved into social housing, while they are still renting a small room. It’s the system which is not fair. The resources are being allocated irrationally.
Most of the people in Macau can’t share the fruit of the economic growth. Even though the government gave away 5,000 and 6,000 patacas (to permanent residents), residents need to work much harder for a long time in order to catch up to the living stability they used to have in the past. Because of inflation, rising living standards and especially the property prices were growing disorderly, the next generation will probably not even think about having their own homes.
The problem is attributable to the government for not launching policies properly. For example, prices in restaurants were pushed up because the Macao Foundation was giving away subsidies to social organisations and schools to celebrate the handover of Macau and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The home buying interest subsidy scheme will also push up property prices. The income subsidy makes people not willing to work extra hours. The 150 pataca electricity subsidy encourages people to use more energy. The government didn’t look at the bigger picture. They could have done better in these policies.
The two billion patacas the government used for the cash handout scheme can be used to solve the imbalance of Macau’s medical system or to improve other livelihood issues instead. Two billion patacas can build two hospitals and maintain a long-term foundation.
R: What did you do to prevent people from being too dependent on Caritas and becoming lazy?
Mr Pun: We encourage people to repay loans, become volunteers for Caritas or other organisations, or gather them to help single mothers in the community. Some people may afterwards give up receiving financial aid from Caritas as they see there are other people who are in a more worse conditions. But we should allow some people such as the paralysed to rely on us as we need to create a ‘charity force’ in order to attract the government’s attention not to ignore their needs.
It’s not good for them to depend on us, but to rely on us to get contact with a religious belief is a good thing. We are most delighted to see them help the others. I always say to the children that being poor is not a bad thing. I believe that only when all our staff can treat poor people as their guests Caritas will become a good charitable organisation. It’s a theory, but it’s hard to put that into practice.
R: Is there anything that you regret most about your work in Caritas?
Mr Pun: I want to open a hospital but can’t yet be done. No one encourages me to do this though. We’ve written in our meeting’s minute that if we can get a spot we will raise fund for the construction. I believe that as long as there is a need, fund will be able to be raised.
Not only will the hospital treat patients, but it makes people feel that at their most painful moment there is someone to ease their pain and lets them know that life is valuable and meaningful.
I believe I will be able to raise enough money for the construction. Because there are many expatriates in Macau who doesn’t receive medical support here from the government, and local residents need another choice of hospital especially elderly people require more medical services. As long as society has the need, people will make donations. It will cost about 200 million patacas to build a hospital.
Yet, there is nothing that makes me particularly happy about. I need to maintain my emotional intelligence and not to get excited or upset so easily or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to operate all these social services.
R: Your job seems tough. What have been keeping you to do this all over these years?
Mr Pun: I became the Secretary-General of Caritas Macau in 1991, which at that time was still under the director position. After the 1999 handover, the Secretary-General changed to become the top position in Caritas.
But I never feel my job exhausting, as I’m just fulfilling my wish. If I’m not doing what I wish to do, it’ll be as hard as being jailed. My grandma and my mother were always helping people when I was still a kid. So I don’t feel I’ve paid more efforts than others. Eventually I’ll be the one to receive. People are grateful to me and recognise my efforts.
Now I hope someone will be able to take over my job in Caritas. But I will never leave the social services field. I’ve many ideas in my mind to implement different social services in a creative way – I want to make good use of my talent.