Just Saying

Award with a difference for making a difference

Singaporean of the Year award draws from the unapplauded, not the acclaimed

There is no measuring tape to verify the decency of citizens. No weighing scale to estimate goodness. No yardstick by which to compare a playwright's achievement with that of an environmentalist. No slide rule to precisely determine the conviction of a priest who defends religious harmony and the virtue of an activist who upholds the rights of construction workers. It seems a lovely but impossible idea and yet already the nomination forms are out - on the Internet - for you to recommend a Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2017.

Of course we might say there are too many awards these day, from Bad Sex in Fiction to Stinky Sneakers. People clearly have too much free time and lord save me from another cheap plaque. In the old days, at least they put up a statue of you. Or dispensed with awards with the practicality of Mother Teresa.

As the Catholic News Service once reported: "When Blessed Paul VI visited Bombay, now Mumbai, India, in 1964, he presented Mother Teresa with a white ceremonial Lincoln Continental given to him by people in the United States. She raffled off the car."

And yet I like the idea of a Singaporean of the Year as long as it finds an identity quite unlike Time's Person of the Year. I grew up on that magazine and Roger Rosenblatt's essays - if you have not read Man In The Water, kindly stop tweeting immediately and start reading - and would like to be reincarnated just for a day as Nancy Gibbs, till recently the editor-in-chief, for she wrote with such elegant eloquence.

The Person of the Year remains a grand idea and a lovely habit and they were clever enough to once give it to the computer and on other occasions to whistle-blowers, protesters and soldiers. But mostly, and understandably, they are partial to famous folk and the Singaporean of the Year - and I am talking about ST's two-year-old award - must look the other way.

Drawing not from the acclaimed but the less familiar. Seeking not everyday statesmen, business people, politicians, actors - all the usual culprits who sit on magazine covers and boards of companies - but mining the landscape for the smaller deeds, the great devotions, the profound kindnesses offered by the unapplauded in the shadows of this city.

Not people who make the Top 100 Influencers of the Decade or whose face is already stencilled in your memory. But people like Peter Lim Kok Seng - an ST Singaporean of the Year candidate last year - who gave someone part of his liver. Just like that. Just took part of his body and handed it over to someone. Here, stranger, live.

Mr Lim offered these extraordinary words, "Just to save a life, that was my heart's desire", and in response, shamed, I thought: I can't even give $10 to the girl from some cancer association with a can at the MRT station? This is what Mr Lim does, he makes us question ourselves. Who are we? What do we contribute? Is it buildings and ordinances which make a city, or people?


Mr Peter Lim Kok Seng - an ST Singaporean of the Year candidate last year - gave someone part of his liver, and offered these extraordinary words: "Just to save a life, that was my heart's desire." PHOTO: ST DIGITAL

It has become routine after disasters to speak of a city's resilient spirit, but for some, the spirit does not require great calamity to appear. I love the fact that in the first year, ST gave the award to a lady who cleaned the faeces off an elderly stranger at a supermarket. Compassion has an unbeatable power, kindness a lovely muscle.

Last year, we gave the award to the Schoolings as a family, a fine, deserving people who I know and admire but I wouldn't give it to an athlete on his/her own. Unless they stood for a cause and fought injustice, unless they fought some terrible adversity, because they're sufficiently buried in medals, prizes, sponsorships and plaques.

It has become routine after disasters to speak of a city's resilient spirit, but for some, the spirit does not require great calamity to appear. I love the fact that in the first year, ST gave the award to a lady who cleaned the faeces off an elderly stranger at a supermarket. Compassion has an unbeatable power, kindness a lovely muscle.

I like that in previous years we've nominated and heralded a wide variety of quiet Singaporean achievers. The doctors who alerted us to the Zika outbreak. Athletes with disabilities who are forcing us to confront our prejudices. A man who builds schools and medical centres. A nurse who worked with Ebola patients. A woman who set up a family violence specialist centre.

They matter because they don't own some matchless talent like a great champion, but are people we could possibly and partially be. They matter because they teach us the idea of mission, the strength of devotion, the nature of cause. It is not saints we seek here but those who live the purposeful life, often doing the very things that we leave to others.

They matter because in many ways they comprise the vital counter-narrative to the silliness of our times. They are our reply to the crude tweeter and the refugee-hater, they are our defence against the misogynist and the selfish, they are our resistance to the fundamentalist and the racist. They are the stories of ordinary decency that become our armour as a society. The finer threads of our fabric. Offering us a view of life beyond the latest restaurant and an alternative tale to tell our kids in a time of hyper-masculine political leaders across the globe.

When we write the history of lands we are unerringly drawn to the same names, as if nations are built only by the extraordinary, every chapter divulging the next shining hero, when in fact we are also an anthology of lesser-known stories, an aggregation of overlooked tales. Not every story can be told but we must try and it is this course correction that I hope my newspaper's Singaporean of the Year award will continue to address. After all, our choices reveal what matters to us.

I wanted to ask readers, if you know of such people, have seen them in the news, speak up for them. Find that form on the Internet. Fill it up. Assert your case.

In a jeering TV world of unpleasant debate, this is the best kind of discussion we can have because no one really loses. One person prefers the single act of kindness, another a lifetime of service. Everyone, eventually, has his own Singaporean of the Year for this is not a contest but in fact a celebration. An excuse for the best kind of gathering. Where one award will be handed out and yet we will prize them all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Award with a difference for making a difference'. Print Edition | Subscribe