ST Singaporean of the Year: A reminder that the astonishing is often found in the anonymous

The generosity of the mostly unknown nominees of ST award deserves a wider imitation in these strained times of a lurking virus

To a historic building yesterday evening came an unusually distinguished gathering. The walls at the Istana are accustomed to hearing the authoritative voices of visiting heads of state, but these were leaders of another sort. They held no power yet warranted respect; they do not command armies yet help build our spirit. They are a city's insistent, principled voice.

These 11 finalists for the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award are important because they gently correct a mistaken assumption. In modern times, the famous have become confused with the extraordinary, but on this evening, we were reminded that the astonishing is often found in the anonymous. These mostly unknown nominees do good for no reason except that it should be done.

You may not recognise Mr Muhammad Riau Alfian if he walked past you, but he pulled a man from a fallen lorry. You may not have Mr Abraham Yeo on your list of autographs to collect, yet his charity befriends the homeless. One might say these men extend a literal hand to strangers. In these strained times of a lurking virus, their generosity deserves a wider imitation.

A virus can't be seen and so, common sense is the best armour against fear. There are, for instance, many ways to greet one another and so the handshake made way yesterday for the Indian namaste and the Japanese bow. It made for a strangely beautiful evening, full of welcomes from other cultures and touching tales from this land.

Every conversation I had was about giving, as if the virus was being met with an outbreak of its own. As Mr Sarabjeet Singh, one of the nominees this year, said: "Kindness is contagious." Someone introduced me to Mr Benedict Cheong, a nominee in 2015, who has just ordered 2,000 masks from India, and a few thermometers, to distribute here. Why? How absurd to even ask.

It was fitting that this evening was illuminated with goodness because this virus, over the next weeks and months, is going to examine our larger humanity. No one is immune from it or exempt from playing a role. A crisis tests nations and reveals our character and tells us, months later, if we did the simple things well.

Were we, we will ask ourselves, like these nominees? The decent Singaporean.

Perhaps, as we confront this virus, we can learn from these nominees, for in their actions lie clues to what we might like to achieve. The virus, for instance, can divide people and fuel suspicion, yet these people at the Istana were all instinctive joiners.

Mr Singh helps non-Sikhs understand his religion by inviting them to gurdwaras, while Ms Gillian Tee puts professional caregivers in touch with seniors who need help. Mr Veera Sekaran, a botanist who emerged from poverty, used to hire former convicts. In connection, they tell us, is found the strength of community.

In a planet of the show-off gesture, many of the nominees represented the power of the small, simple act. Siblings Seng Ian Hao, 15 and Seng Ing Le, 13, created a portable walking-stick holder and, as young teens, have already understood the idea of service.

President Halimah Yacob with (front row, from left) Mr August Hatecke, country head for Singapore and co-head of global wealth management for Asia-Pacific at UBS; Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH) English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times; Ms Angie Chew, The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2019; SPH chairman Lee Boon Yang; and president of UBS Asia-Pacific Edmund Koh. Also with them at the event at the Istana yesterday were (back row, from left) award finalists Danny Yong, Seng Ian Hao, Seng Ing Le, Chalmers Chin, Muhammad Riau Alfian and Abraham Yeo; Ms Ng Wang Ching, marketing manager for OSIM International; Mr Siva Govindasamy, vice-president for public affairs at Singapore Airlines; Mr Andre Scholl, senior vice-president of operations for South-east Asia at Millennium Hotels and Resorts; and Ms Yeoh Choo Guan, head of global markets for Asean at UBS; and award finalists Gillian Tee, Veera Sekaran, Ahmad Fauzi Sani, Lucas Ngoo, Quek Siu Rui, Marcus Tan and Sarabjeet Singh. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR


"Good", said Mr Veera, "can come in many forms" and so we might also ask: What small selflessness can we bring to our nation? Perhaps just leaving a packet of masks in the shop for the next person. Or thanking a nurse in the train who tomorrow might be sponging your father's fevered body at 3am. Or simply washing your hands out of respect for the next person you come into contact with.

This award endures because every year, quite wonderfully, new stories emerge from this land, stories hopeful and inspiring, stories that we can relate to, stories that remind us that there is good out there. These are not people with halos and capes, but ordinary folk with doubts who somehow push through. It is human to feel fear, but it takes strength to resist it.

President Halimah Yacob spoke wisely of the value of resilience during a crisis and, indeed, our actions will define us. We don't realise it, but our children are watching - in how we treat a foreigner with a cough and whether we hoard toilet rolls.

It is up to us, the adults, to lead and it is why we should be thankful for yesterday. For an evening at the Istana so full of fine examples of what it means to be a good citizen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2020, with the headline 'A reminder that the astonishing is often found in the anonymous'. Print Edition | Subscribe