Thinking Aloud

Inspiring hope in a year of many shocks and surprises

Few could have predicted the events of 2017; but amid the gloom, were moments of joy too

Lawyer Satwant Singh, 53, is spending Christmas with a group of 20 Singaporean volunteers in Ratokke, where they are sprucing up a school in the village in Punjab, India.

They will be painting old buildings, adding a library, installing a water filtration system and rebuilding the school's toilets.

The school will be the 17th that Mr Singh has worked on as part of Project Khwaish, run by the Young Sikh Association, which he set up with some friends in 2003.

Then, there is general practitioner Goh Wei Leong, 57, who is just as public-spirited. A decade ago, he co-founded HealthServe, a non-profit that runs clinics to provide affordable medical care and support for foreign workers in Singapore. Last year, the group treated nearly 8,000 workers, double the 4,000 in 2015.

These two men are among this year's nominees for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award. This seeks to honour Singaporeans whose extraordinary acts of goodwill, daring, or determination are an inspiration to all of us.

Others include 18-year-old Muhammad Luqman Abdul Rahman, who has helped save as many as 20 lives by being among the first to respond to calls for help on the Singapore Civil Defence Force's MyResponder app. The app alerts users within 400m when someone seeks help after suffering a heart attack.

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The schoolboy rushes to the scene, on foot or on his bike, and when necessary, steps up to perform life-saving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). "I felt useful - I managed to play a part in giving him a second chance," the former Temasek Junior College student said, recalling his first CPR on a Chinese factory worker in his 20s.

The list of nominees also includes cartoonist Sonny Liew, 43, who swept three coveted Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards in July for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye; film-maker Kirsten Tan, 36, whose film Pop Aye won prizes at the Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals and has been chosen to represent Singapore at the next Academy Awards; orchestra conductor Wong Kah Chun, 31, who took the top prize at the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany last year, and was given the Young Artist Award in October; and Kyra Poh, 15, the School of the Arts student who won the freestyle junior title at the biennial FAI World Indoor Skydiving Championship in October.

All of them have distinguished themselves in their chosen fields on the world stage. They worked hard to realise their dreams, and did not allow any impediments - a lack of public support or even cynicism about their efforts - to hold them back from making their mark.

In a different vein, but no less laudable, are emergency responders Mohamad Fuad Abdul Aziz and Syed Abdillah Alhabshee, who helped avert a major disaster when they rushed to put out a fire after a taxi burst into flames in the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway tunnel. Or 28-year-old Qin Yunquan, who seeks to impart self-defence skills to help others fend off attacks or deter sexual harassment - an issue that has made lamentable headlines around the world this year.

Last but not least is navy serviceman and national para-athlete Jason Chee, 34, who won many hearts when he won a gold medal in men's singles table tennis at the Kuala Lumpur Asean Para Games in September.

Amazingly, he pulled off his victory just four months after having to undergo surgery to remove his right eye due to cancer.

Asked how he remains so positive despite the many setbacks he has faced since the tragic accident in 2012 that left him without both his legs, left arm and three fingers on his right hand, he told this newspaper: "A lot of people ask, why are you so determined, despite losing so many things?... I just tell them we only live once. We have to fight on."

 

By their actions and lives, these Singaporeans inspire us to dare, to dream, and also to do things that make life a little better for others. To my mind, their stories are all the more compelling in a year that has proved especially trying for many of us, with its many unexpected ups and downs, twists and turns.

The panel of judges, which I chair, will have a hard time picking a winner from this field. We will need your help to do so. You can send us your choice, starting tomorrow, Christmas Day. Details on how to do so will be published in tomorrow's paper. To vote, go to: str.sg/soty17vote

During this dreadful year, with all its shocks and surprises, I was immensely cheered by the energy and enthusiasm I witnessed among the nearly 200 young talents who took to the stage for this year's ChildAid concert. In doing so, they helped raise more than $2.1 million for their less fortunate peers.

They spent months rehearsing for the 90-minute show, titled An Amazing, Awesome Asian Adventure. Created by singer-songwriter and Cultural Medallion recipient Dick Lee, the show tells the story of four children whose dream masks are stolen by a witch. They embark on a trail around Asia, following clues provided by an imp, in search of their lost dreams.

Along the way, they perform Asian songs, martial arts, Bollywood dances and more. It all leads up to a grand finale in Singapore, where they perform an old Dick Lee number about this tiny red dot. Ironically, the song is titled Big Island.

"Big Island; bigger, bigger than it can be!" the chorus resounds.

It was an apt conclusion to the heart-warming story, in which the children discover that their dreams are not lost, but out there to be discovered, and that they have it within them to make them as big as they chose to.

I have been fortunate to attend just about every one of the 13 ChildAid concerts organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times over the past years, and each was special in its own way. But this year's resonated especially with me, perhaps because of its message of youthful hope and never giving in to doubts or despair.

This message is especially pertinent in a year when the world has witnessed it all - terror attacks from London to Las Vegas, industrial disruption and economic uncertainty, political unrest in many countries, floods, droughts, fires and snowstorms.

Most disconcerting, however, was how so many of the events that unfolded seemed to have struck from out of the blue, catching many of us off guard.

To see this clearly, just imagine how you might have reacted if anyone had said to you on Dec 24 last year that in the months ahead, a long-drawn and embarrassing squabble would break out among the Lee family. Or that SMRT trains would collide, tunnels flood and staff get caught for falsifying maintenance work records.

Who would have thought that Chinese President Xi Jinping would emerge as the biggest champion of globalisation, free trade and the fight against climate change, even as his counterpart in the United States disavowed these causes his country once upheld?

Indeed, anyone who had predicted that the two European strong women, in Britain and Germany, would find themselves in precarious political positions, after elections most people believed they would win easily, might have been accused of having too much rum in their fruitcake.

And, as the weary year draws to a close, all talk of peace and goodwill among men rings a little hollow, given the callous way in which the iconic holy city of Jerusalem is being used by old ethnic and religious rivals to further their own political purposes.

What to make of all this? What does it all portend for the months and years ahead?

My two simple takeaways from this fraught and frenzied year are these: best to prepare for more shocks and surprises to come, and learn to expect the unexpected.

For in deep and complex ways, many of the political events that are playing out are underpinned by the major transformation being wrought in just about every sector - from technology giants to taxi operators - and this is far from done. On the contrary, it might well be in just its early stages. The changes that might follow will have far-reaching social, economic and political implications for all of us, as old certainties fade away. Brace yourselves.

Yet, even as everything seems to change, much will also remain the same. We are still moved by human kindness, bravery and compassion, as the stories on the nominees for the ST Singaporean of the Year or the young ChildAid performers show. For all the doom and gloom of the year's headlines, these stories remind us that there remains much to be thankful for, and offer glimmers of goodness and humanity to inspire in us a sense of resilience, and hope.

As I reflected on all of this over the past week, I was reminded of the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, titled Christmas Bells. He wrote it in 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, striking a note of optimism even amid those troubled times.

I reproduce it here, in the hope of offering some yuletide perspective, and perhaps even a little cheer.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; "For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Happy Christmas, everyone, and my very best wishes for 2018.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 24, 2017, with the headline 'Inspiring hope in a year of many shocks and surprises'. Print Edition | Subscribe