Kukoh kids reach for the stars

British High Commission staff Paul Broom becomes Mr Bean for a good cause: for kids attending the Magic Bus programme, a programme that uses sport and games to teach social and other skills. – PHOTO: COURTESY OF PAUL BROOM
British High Commission staff Paul Broom becomes Mr Bean for a good cause: for kids attending the Magic Bus programme, a programme that uses sport and games to teach social and other skills. – PHOTO: COURTESY OF PAUL BROOM

It takes a village to raise a child, so the saying goes.

I saw this for myself last weekend, at a Housing Board estate in Singapore. Jalan Kukoh is nestled just off the CTE entrance opposite the Singapore General Hospital at Outram Road. I’m sure many of you have driven past the slip road leading to the estate and never wondered what lies there, or ventured along its path.

Last Sunday, I drove down the road to attend the launch of a programme called Catch-Plus, an after and before school care programme for children in the estate aged seven to 16. The name is a catch-all name for a host of different programmes run by a bunch of grassroots and community volunteers, assisted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and other government agencies.

Jalan Kukoh is an interesting neighbourhood. Most older HDB estates have ageing populations. In Jalan Kukoh, many are young families. According to the area’s MP, the indefatigable Lily Neo, the estate had been slated to be torn down for redevelopment.

But meanwhile, she was encountering young couples and families who needed rental housing and sought her help at her Meet-the-People Session where she meets constituents. She persuaded the relevant government agencies to convert the blocks of flats into interim rental housing.

Within a period of a few years, about 1,000 households moved into the rental flats. Many were young couples with children. Some children had parents in prison or came from broken marriages. Many others came from families where the parents worked but didn’t earn much, but tried their best to raise the kids the best they could.

Dr Neo mobilised her grassroots volunteers, who in turn mobilised their friends and their friends’ friends and networks. In the way of close-knit Singapore, word soon spread about the community. Many folks chipped in.

At the launch event on Sunday, I met some of them. There was Philip Loh, the chairman of the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee who mobilised resources. He roped in a friend Derek, who has a business selling women’s clothing. Derek was moved to stump out a six-figure sum to fund the construction and retrofitting cost for a new centre for the kids at the void deck.

Government agencies approved the construction. Derek was thrilled to know the kids would have more room for group activities.

I met Chiang Kim Seng and his wife. They run Global Education Hub, which specialises in providing tuition for kids from the Gifted Education programme and in preparing students for the Math Olympiad.

When asked if they could help, they did not hesitate. But their programmes for academic super-achievers were useless for kids who need tutoring at the foundational level. So their tutors had to design a programme from scratch. The couple pay their trained tutors to teach at the centre twice a week.

Nor was it only Singaporeans involved. I saw an ang moh man in the crowd. He was the only person wearing a jacket that hot Sunday morning, on the top floor of a multi-storey carpark. I wondered who he was and went to chat.

Turns out he’s a staff member of the British High Commission, where he is director of political affairs. He had gotten involved with the Jalan Kukoh project after getting to know Mr Ramanan Raghavendran, the chairman and seed founder of an outfit called Magic Bus, a programme that uses sport and games to teach social skills to youth.

Mr Ramanan is seed founder of Magic Bus that began in India. He got it tailored for Singapore kids for the Jalan Kukoh programme. A 45-year-old American investor in tech companies who has lived in Singapore since 2012, he’s passionate about helping underprivileged kids: “The most rewarding thing I have experienced in my life is to see happy children, for they are our future and our legacy — and even the early experiences in Jalan Kukoh have shown me that Catch Plus and Magic Bus can combine to bring hope and a sense of purpose to children here.”

And Paul Broom? Some weekends and at special events, he does a Mr Bean impersonation to add cheer and fun to kids’ programmes. He is seen in the picture above on a bus with Kukoh kids earlier this year. 

Many others are involved in various ways. Tutors from the National University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic help coach the kids. Select Group caters meals. Volunteer efforts supplement and complement what social workers and hired staff do.

The efforts coalesce into systematic programmes. Each day, about 40 children attend the after school care programme. Their home work is supervised, they get meals, and music and art lessons, and time for computer games.

The centre opens from 2.30pm to 9.30pm on weekdays. On Saturdays, a bunch of young folk turn up for the Magic Bus programme. Some kids drop by once or twice a week for tuition. Others come for ukulele or guitar lessons.

When a group of students go up stage to perform a song on the ukulele, I see a woman stride right up to the front to take pictures. She has Proud Mother written all over her. We chat. Madam Huang Caiying, 41, is from China and married to a Singaporean.

She was beaming with pride when she snapped photos of her son, Mok Lui Yang, 10, performing. He goes for ukulele classes and tuition. “All the classes here are free,” she says. And she adds: “He topped his class in math.”

Another mother, let’s call her Madam Siti, is young and pretty. A scarf is tucked round her ears, fringing her big, bright eyes. She has manicured nails and a winsome smile. She’s proud to tell me about her three children in the Catch-Plus tuition programme. She herself has just started work after several years.

She’s now working full-time as a supermarket cashier, earning $1,695 a month. Is it hard, I ask her. “Tough on the feet, but otherwise very easy!” Her kids have done well enough in the Catch-Plus programme to win the monthly bursaries given out: “In February, all three got bursaries: $75, $100, $50.”

MSF minister Chan Chun Sing officiated at the launch, and told reporters he hoped the programme can be replicated in other needy estates in Singapore. He had mentioned this programme in Parliament during the Budget debate, which I had covered and I’d been interested to go take a look for myself.

How much can one MP do, with a bunch of grassroots volunteers, tapping their friends, their friends’ friends, and their associates? What can a bunch of young people do, spending evenings and weekends tutoring a bunch of active kids? How much change can anyone effect?

We never know till we try.

It’s early days yet for the Kukoh kids. But judging from the beaming smiles and the stories told by parents of how their kids are now doing better in their studies, my guess is that the volunteers will find happy returns on their investments of time and energy.