Four Singaporeans, One United Purpose
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During these unprecedented times of a shared crisis, Singapore stands in solidarity with the world.
In the past months, Singaporeans have come alongside the rest of humanity to play their part as caring, responsible citizens with a heart for the world.
This National Day on August 9, Our Better World acknowledges and celebrates four Singaporeans dedicated to improving the lives of the vulnerable in international communities, at home and beyond.
They remain resilient in building social unity during a time of social distancing, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they have continued to serve these international communities.
VALOUR IN VIETNAM
Poh Weiye, a soft-spoken father-of-one, found his calling during a six-month backpacking trip across Southeast Asia in 2010. His mother had just passed away and as the only child in a single-parent household, was at a loss as to what to do next.
“I was devastated. I had lost the person I loved the most. I was trying to find some meaning back,” Weiye recounts with a deep sadness. “The trip really opened my eyes to see the poor, the kids on the streets. I felt a great need to reach out.”
He had spent those wandering months volunteering at various NGOs in the region, particularly in Cambodia. After which, he returned to Vietnam, where his journey had started. There he met a nun who had taken in abandoned and neglected children living off the streets in Vung Tau province.
Weiye with Mdm Nhan, the nun who founded Thi An Orphanage. (Photo courtesy of Blessed Discoveries)
Impressed with the way she had given them a safe and loving sanctuary to grow up in, he decided to stay on to help. Using the inheritance from his mother, he started to support the running of Thi An Orphanage. From just six kids, it now houses 33 residents aged two to 18 years.
Weiye wanted to ensure that Thi An Orphanage could remain independent without relying solely on donations. He set up a social enterprise called Blessed Discoveries in 2013 to provide a sustainable source of income that he could channel back into running the orphanage.
Based in Singapore, the social enterprise organises trips to Vietnam for volunteers, including tertiary students. During their visits, they help to uplift the community where the orphanage is located. Activities include sprucing up homes and facilities in the village, as well as teaching local kids. Weiye notes that the orphanage is not open to volunteers.
“Our mission is to help to coordinate trips from Singapore to Vietnam,” explains Weiye. “For example, the school might need to send the students for their overseas service learning. So we act as a service provider. We know where the needs are. We realise that if this organisation were to bring resources from Singapore into Vietnam, that would be very good.”
He recalls the invaluable impact these students made after a typhoon hit in 2018: “It really destroyed a lot of villages in the province. So the community here reached out to me saying: ‘Is there any way that I can bring people to build up their houses?’”
The group of volunteers managed to rebuild three houses in about three weeks. “I think the most important thing is to let this group of people learn about empathy, learn about love,” says Weiye.
“They can use what they have to be a blessing to the people that doesn’t (sic) live as well as them.”
Given the impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of villagers, Weiye reached out to friends and family in Singapore to offer relief to locals living in the same area as Thi An Orphanage.
“I just cannot turn a blind eye,” Weiye says. “I asked them whether they want to support some of the households with necessities. The response was very good. We were able to bless about 120 to 250 households. To help them to tide over this very difficult period of time.”
TENACITY IN THAILAND
In his late teens, all Alvin Ong wanted was to have a “regular”, “safe” and “cushy” job after graduating. But something stirred in him in university when he began reading about the “plight of the poor” and their “lack of opportunities”.
As the engineering undergraduate became more involved with social initiatives to help the less fortunate, he questioned his purpose in life.
He remembers asking his younger self: “‘What am I living my life for? Is it just to pursue money? Why am I studying so hard for this degree? Why do I want an engineering job? What’s the meaning of life?’
“It came to a point where I decided that I don't want my life to be just about pursuing money, get a house, car...although these things are good. But I wanted my life to be much more,” says Alvin.
“That’s why I entered the non-profit sector,” he adds. “I really buy into the idea of living for a cause that’s greater than myself...we can definitely do our part to make someone's world a little bit better.”
After graduating, Alvin volunteered with Radion International, a not-for-profit organisation based in Thailand and founded in 2007 by two Singaporeans. He now works full-time as its country manager for Singapore.
“At that time, I wanted to serve maybe one, two years. Two years became four. And fast forward, here we are, 14 years [later],” he says.
Radion’s work ranges from sheltering at-risk children living in Northern Thailand, to nurturing and educating youth, to providing the medical and emotional needs of the elderly and teaching livelihood skills to rural women. To date, it runs projects across three cities, including in Phetchabun and Chiang Mai Provinces, impacting about 7,000 lives each year.
Although COVID-19-related restrictions have made it harder to carry out their programmes, organisations like Radion International remain resolute in their efforts.
Shares Alvin, “On the onset of the pandemic, we saw that the effect is going to be very widespread. There is definitely going to be health concerns, but also an economic impact.
“Someone from the team suggested we should go to the outer reaches of the community and visit their homes and give them care packs. One of the residents actually cried. She was in tears because she didn't expect anyone to visit or to offer help.”
Radion’s staff and volunteers distribute care packs to villagers living in Northern Thailand. (Photo courtesy of Radion International)
The organisation has also started a new initiative called, Hope Scholarship, which will “provide Thai kids with the opportunity to go to university.”
Alvin elaborates, “Right now people are struggling...We wanted to make sure that children from the poorest homes will have the opportunity to attain a higher education.”
“What's most rewarding is when you see the fruits of your labour,” reflects Alvin. “That you've managed to influence the life of someone...to see change in other people's lives.”
GOOD SAMARITAN IN SINGAPORE
On most days, if not every day, since Good Friday, a masked man wanders the deserted lanes of Tuas industrial estate on the western end of the island.
Nothing, not even a pandemic-sized virus, has managed to stop this devout man from fulfilling his daily mission.
It started as a mammoth quest to “hunt down” and feed the thousands of guest workers living in the dozens of factory-converted dorms (FCDs) in the area. And has turned into a heartwarming tale of a good Samaritan.
There are more than 300,000 migrant workers living in different types of dormitories across the island, including FCDs and purpose-built ones. Due to their crowded conditions, they have become virus hotspots resulting in most of them being quarantined.
What Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen eventually found were hundreds of starving men, from countries like Bangladesh, India and China, who had been neglected and not eaten for days. Placed under strict lockdown and forbidden from leaving their living quarters, they were unable to buy food or necessities.
“We started dorm hunting, evaluating and meeting the needs. What started from a small number, it rose to a maximum of 20,000 meals at our peak. And we've been doing this for the past three months,” says Pastor Sam. “Meeting not just the physical needs, which is food, dry rations, hygiene products, but also meeting the emotional needs.”
Come rain or shine, Pastor Sam delivers food and necessities to migrant brothers at their dorms in Singapore during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach)
Through the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO, as part of the Hope Initiative Alliance), its chairman, Pastor Sam, has been raising funds from the public and its partners to provide these workers with what they need. This ongoing generosity has enabled AGWO to deliver more than one million meals since April.
AGWO was set up in 2019 and brings together outreach groups supporting migrant workers.
Pastor Sam’s abiding concern for the guest workers he calls his “brothers” was nurtured from a young age. He credits his late father for instilling this unshakeable sense of duty towards them.
And these feelings have been reciprocated in kind. Pastor Sam recounts an incident that touched him deeply.
“I was bringing food to them and on this particular day, I had a gout attack. They rushed towards me and they picked up the packets. Another guy within a few seconds brought a chair. And in the middle of the road, they sat me down. And then another guy comes with warm oil and he takes off my shoe and he starts rubbing my leg.
“I only met them for three, four days. But these guys were willing to care for me as if I'm their own family member. And because of the way that Singapore has rallied together to help them, I think many of them want to give back to Singapore.”
CARE IN CAMBODIA AND SINGAPORE
“It is not easy to work in an NGO,” says Lynette Lim, matter-of-factly. “Every day we hear stories that break our hearts. And sometimes you see people you want to help, but can’t. But we press on.
“We may not be able to save the world,” adds Lynette. “But every life is precious. And we thank God every day for that one life we are able to impact.”
Lynette is the Director of Development and Communications at Hagar Singapore, which is part of Hagar International, an NGO started in 1994, in Cambodia. It was set up in response to the “prevalence of extreme domestic and community violence affecting women and children” in the country, after its civil war ended in the mid-70s. It has since expanded to 10 countries, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam.
Hagar Singapore helps survivors of human trafficking and slavery to heal and get back on their feet, through trauma recovery, legal support, education, economic empowerment and community reintegration. To date, it has helped more than 19,000 people, and it also conducts training in local communities on trafficking awareness.
In 2017, Our Better World told the story of Lilis, who at 14 years old was tricked into leaving her hometown, with the prospect of earning a living overseas to lift her family out of poverty. She ended up working in a brothel in Singapore, instead.
“One of the toughest parts of my job is hearing the stories of the beneficiaries - they have gone through some of the most unimaginable types of abuse and exploitation,” says Lynette. “Many times I wish that we could remove the pain immediately from what they have gone through.”
Before COVID-19 struck, Lynette visited women survivors in Cambodia on a regular basis, and has built strong bonds over the years. (Screenshot from footage courtesy of Hagar Singapore)
Despite the emotional and psychological intensity of her work, Lynette finds meaning in being part of each woman’s journey to recovery, and to witness her transformation from victim to survivor.
She says, “We have journeyed with these beneficiaries through their lives. They have become like family to us.”
And adds, “I'm committed to being part of this work. Just being able to touch, to influence and empower a life is so gratifying and something that obviously money cannot buy. And that type of reward keeps me going.”
In response to the pandemic, Hagar Singapore has extended its services to include non-domestic, low-wage migrant workers.
Lynette says that many have lost their jobs, and hence an income, so Hagar is helping them to find new employment. While, also providing short-term financial assistance to pay for food, rent and to send monies back to their families.
“During this crisis, a lot of these workers are under tremendous stress and anxiety,” she explains. “So we are also providing tele-counselling to these distressed workers, helping them to cope with their fears. Especially when they see their friends falling sick.”
“They don't take our help for granted,” says Lynette. “Sometimes we think that we are helping them. But these workers have given us much more through their genuine friendship. Being able to laugh and cry together, that's very special.”
RESILIENT IN THE FACE OF A PANDEMIC
“The journey to recovery is going to be long and hard,” Lynette notes, adding, “But I'm committed to this. And I believe that it is possible to recover from this crisis and emerge stronger.”
Says Alvin, “We have it in us to be generous. We have that empathy. We do not just think about ourselves. We also think about our neighbours who may be less well-off, less fortunate, and who need help in these trying times.”
DISCOVER MORE INITIATIVES BY SINGAPOREANS IN THE REGION
We have put together a list of other organisations that Singaporeans have set up or run for more opportunities to make a difference in international communities. View the listicle here.
About Singaporeans Making a Difference
ABOUT ALLIANCE OF GUEST WORKERS OUTREACH
Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach is a registered charity under the Hope Initiative Alliance and brings together outreach groups that support migrant workers. It was started in 2019 and actively provides assistance to migrants in various areas, including food, leisure activities, healthcare, and mental wellness.
ABOUT HAGAR SINGAPORE
Hagar Singapore helps survivors of human trafficking to heal and get back on their feet, through counselling, education and legal support. To date, it has helped more than 19,000 people, and it also conducts training in local communities on trafficking awareness.
ABOUT RADION INTERNATIONAL
Started in 2007, Radion International is a relief and development agency based in Thailand that reaches out to people living on the margins of society. Its programmes target at-risk children, youth, rural women and the elderly. To date it has impacted an average of 7,000 lives each year, and runs 12 projects across three cities.
ABOUT THI AN ORPHANAGE AND BLESSED DISCOVERIES
Singaporean Poh Weiye began supporting Thi An Orphanage in Vietnam after he met the nun who started it and was inspired by how she had provided a safe home for abandoned and neglected children, who were living on the streets in her province. To continue to keep the orphanage running, Weiye then set up Blessed Discoveries in Singapore in 2013 to provide a sustainable source of income. Through this social enterprise, he is able to bring volunteers from Singapore to Vietnam, where they help out in the village.
Producer & Writer