This story first appeared in Mothership on July 25, 2020.
Lee Zhong Han tells us how he started a community initiative from scratch, garnering tens of thousands of views online.
What comes to mind when you see the letters WTS?
For 23-year-old Lee Zhong Han, what may normally stand for a crude expression of incredulity, is actually the name of his brainchild, WTS Community, a visual storytelling initiative.
“Yes, WTS is an abbreviation for We Tell Stories,” he told Mothership.
The initiative started as a social media campaign seeking to tell stories about how everyday Singaporeans were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic but quickly evolved into a platform that also features other ground-up efforts addressing community needs.
Today, a quick look at the initiative’s Facebook page shows that the initiative’s videos have clocked up tens of thousands of views on average with WTS Community’s latest video bringing to light the struggles that local food and beverage businesses are experiencing.
Another video was devoted to the SGUnited Buka Puasa Initiative, a community effort which provides free Buka Puasa meals to underprivileged families during Ramadan.
OVERWHELMED BY STRUGGLES FACED BY COMMUNITIES
“Storytelling as a force for good”, Lee explained, is at the core of what his community initiative does.
Through WTS, we aim to bring more stories to light and increase the awareness of social issues faced in Singapore through exploring the micro and macro aspects of society.”
The project, which started in March this year, was the product of an “accumulation of experiences” from working on nonprofit and social enterprise initiatives and learning about societal and environmental issues.
The 23-year-old, who is currently studying counselling at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, recalled being overwhelmed when he first started learning about society and the environment.
“I was shocked by the vast amounts of information. There was so much I didn’t know. I was also overwhelmed by the struggles faced by several communities,“ he said.
I wanted to continue my learning journey and build a community where we learn and support one another together. To satisfy my desire to learn more about different issues in society and bring others along on this learning journey, I decided to embark on WTS Community.”
SELF-DOUBT AND THE FIRST VIDEOS
The team today is made up of a dozen youth volunteers, united in their passion for storytelling and digging deeper into the struggles facing Singaporeans.
However, Lee told us that the initial stages of the initiative were difficult; volunteers were hard to come by and organisations that they wanted to work with were quite distrustful.
“They [doubted] our intentions and professionalism. As a young person, I do sense that we need to work harder to gain the trust of our partner organisations,” he mused.
But it wasn’t just organisations that hesitated, Lee faced doubts from his friends and even his parents.
Then there was also the act of actually producing a video and uploading it for audiences to see.
“When I posted our first video on our social media platforms, my heart was palpitating,” said Lee.
I felt very nervous as if I was on stage giving a speech.”
That first video saw WTS Community hitting the streets and talking to youths about the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Actually, I did. Just a bit,” admitted one interviewee when asked about the panic-induced buying that beset some Singaporeans at the supermarkets.
The vox-pop ended with participants sending well wishes to Singaporeans and frontline workers before directing viewers to different organisations in need of volunteers.
While Lee said that he felt a sense of accomplishment and joy shortly after the video went up, self-doubt and uncertainty soon crept into his psyche.
It would be another two months before WTS Community would post a second video.
Yet soon, things began to pick up steam for Lee and his group of volunteers soon grew to include friends of friends who were interested in what WTS Community was doing.
“WE TAKE OUR WORK VERY SERIOUSLY”
The initiative’s second video was also more substantive, featuring the executive director of Zero Waste Singapore — a non-governmental organisation dedicated to helping Singapore eliminate the concept of waste, and accelerating the shift towards zero waste and the circular economy.
The video sought to encourage viewers to reduce their single-use food packaging.
Now, a better-oiled machine, Lee approaches prospective partner organisations by telling them “we might be a volunteer initiative but we take our work very seriously”.
When deciding on a new video topic, Lee’s team looks out for projects or issues that are under-reported and can offer new perspectives.
They then spend a few weeks doing research, talking to people familiar with the issues at hand, and sourcing for interview profiles.
The team, he explained, is keenly aware that viewers today have shorter attention spans.
There are many societal issues that deserve attention but are often not reaching the masses. We want to make it easy. Allow others to learn about society in an experiential and fun way. We condense what we find from research into short-form video content, designs and social media posts.”
The result is a slickly edited, snappy video delivering bite-sized information on issues targeted at young Singaporeans, before directing them towards an avenue to act on their newfound curiosity.
GETTING HELP AND FUNDING
All this would not be possible without the initial funding that Lee received from the Our Singapore Fund (OSF).
Supporting the Singapore Together movement, the fund seeks to support meaningful projects by passionate Singaporeans that build national identity and a sense of belonging or meet social and community needs.
Funding, explained Lee, took a week to get approved after he sent in a proposal to OSF’s online portal.
The partial grant helped WTS Community “get off the ground” by paying for marketing and production costs.
More than just providing financial support, the team managing OSF also gives Lee feedback on the team’s videos and offer advice on how to make the initiative sustainable in the long run.
“THE TYPE OF SHIFT WE WANT PEOPLE TO HAVE”
The support provided by OSF has allowed Lee and his team to focus on delivering fresh and impactful content. Speaking about impact, Lee was reminded of a comment left by a friend on WTS Community’s social media:
I have a friend who commented on one of our social media posts about how some people need regular blood transfusions due to conditions like leukaemia. His comments were: ‘Nice that’s quite a perspective I have never come across before.’
When I saw this, I felt a sense of satisfaction as we are inching towards creating content that serves our vision.”
Ultimately, that incident offered a glimpse into what WTS Community hopes to achieve.
While Lee has grand plans to expand the initiative into a sustainable non-profit organisation, the mission — to bring change through storytelling — will remain unchanged.
It’s even exemplified in the playful pun in WTS Community’s name, said Lee:
[WTS is] typically exclaimed when the person comes across something they didn’t know before that is usually incredible or hard to believe. And yes, that’s the type of shift we want the people to have when you consume our content… in hopes that they take action and contribute to the common good.”