Big Hearts, Big Dreams: Stories of ST Singaporean of the Year finalists told in new book

The lives of 31 people in the running for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award are recorded in a new book, Big Hearts, Big Dreams

Left: Ms Megan Loy overcame life-threatening burn injuries to become a medical student. Above: Olympic gold medallist swimmer Joseph Schooling and his parents, May and Colin.
Ms Megan Loy overcame life-threatening burn injuries to become a medical student. PHOTO: ST FILE
Left: Ms Megan Loy overcame life-threatening burn injuries to become a medical student. Above: Olympic gold medallist swimmer Joseph Schooling and his parents, May and Colin.
Olympic gold medallist swimmer Joseph Schooling and his parents, May and Colin. PHOTO: ST FILE
Left: Ms Megan Loy overcame life-threatening burn injuries to become a medical student. Above: Olympic gold medallist swimmer Joseph Schooling and his parents, May and Colin.
Wong Kim Hoh PHOTO: ST FILE

From helping complete strangers to putting Singapore on the world map, the selflessness and devotion of those nominated for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award is chronicled for posterity in a new book.

Big Hearts, Big Dreams compiles the stories of the 31 people who were in the running for the award, which was begun in 2015 by The Straits Times and supported by bank UBS to recognise Singaporeans who had made headlines and inspired the community.

It took ST senior writer Wong Kim Hoh two months to catch up with most of the award's finalists from 2015 and 2016 and to flesh out their stories.

"It jolts you a bit to know that there are people out there who cared so deeply that they would do such selfless acts," says the 56-year-old, who is best known for his interviews with inspiring Singaporeans in his weekly It Changed My Life series in The Sunday Times.

Swimmer Joseph Schooling and his parents, May and Colin, won last year's award after the 22-year-old took home Singapore's first Olympic gold medal in the 100m butterfly in 2016.

In 2015, bedsheet promoter and single mother Noriza A. Mansor won hearts when she helped an elderly man who soiled himself in public and went on to befriend him and his wife.

Mr Wong spent late nights and weekends on lengthy interviews with the nominees in order to pick up interesting nuggets from their histories that would enable him to retell their stories anew.

He spent three hours with the "effervescent" Ms Megan Loy, who almost died from burn injuries sustained when a fireball ripped through a Taipei water theme park three years ago.

Now a second-year medical student, she was nominated for the award last year alongside plastic surgeon Chew Khong Yik and Associate Professor Tan Bien Keem, who helped to get her home from Taipei.

Without flinching, she recounted in detail to Mr Wong what it was like to be caught in the path of the fireball. She is now considering specialising in burns treatment and reconstructive surgery.

Mr Wong also got classical conductor Darrell Ang, who snagged a Grammy nomination for his first CD recording with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, to open up about the struggles his family went through to kick-start his music career.

Ang's parents had to sell their home to put up the $75,000 exit and permit bond he needed to leave for Vienna after completing his O levels. After he moved to Moscow to study, he lived in the basement of a church for at least a year and a half because he could not afford the rent elsewhere.

Last year, he became the conductor and artistic director of the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra, a rare appointment for a Singaporean.

"It takes guts and gumption to act on what you want to do," says Mr Wong.

He is one of the judges for the award, the third edition of which will be given out on Feb 6 by President Halimah Yacob.

The 10 finalists this year range from para-athlete Jason Chee, who overcame the loss of his limbs and eye to clinch medals for Singapore in table-tennis, to award-winning film-maker Kirsten Tan and Ms Qin Yunquan, who teaches self-defence to the needy and former victims of crime.

Their stories will be included in later editions of the book.

Mr Wong hopes Big Hearts, Big Dreams will inspire Singaporeans. "It is only through stories that you realise what you think is impossible is in fact possible. Stories help to ground us. They make us gripe less and do more."

• Big Hearts, Big Dreams ($25) is available at major bookstores.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 28, 2018, with the headline Big Hearts, Big Dreams: Stories of ST Singaporean of the Year finalists told in new book. Subscribe