ST Singaporean of the Year: A celebration of difference, oneness and what is possible

Gathered in a white tent on a late Singapore afternoon was a diversity of extraordinary people whose ordinariness was disarming. They looked like everybody else, but their stories were not like anybody else's. They had fought adversity, saved lives, put out fires, drawn cartoons, rebuilt schools and helped the disadvantaged. Few were famous, none was a saint, but all were memorable.

Down the red carpet at the UBS University Asia-Pacific walked colourful Singaporeans clad in various hues. In a black dress was Kyra Poh, 15, an indoor skydiver who does remarkable aerial ballet. In a blue printed shirt stood the gentle Dr Goh Wei Leong, 57, who had spent the morning at the beach with his Bible and brought an Indian worker, Mr Balakrishnan Karunakaran, as one of his guests.

We live in strange times where we are often fearful of difference, yet here it was displayed like a brilliant tapestry. Here were nominees of varied ages, sizes, sexes, religions, races, but identified and unified by an uncommon goodness. One man who could not be here, the young conductor from Jurong, Mr Wong Kah Chun, 31, would have liked it. This was a disparate and distinguished Singaporean orchestra.

The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year is a celebration gently disguised as a competition. It is an honouring of difference and yet also of oneness, a lauding of decency and also of achievement, a rejoicing of what is possible as a nation and what we can be as individuals.

This country is more than tourism figures, exquisite gardens and iconic buildings. It is built of more than stone, steel and glass. This is, in fact, a human city. It is peppered with characters who are alive with conscience, duty, creativity, grit - all virtues which are hard to separate. And so there will never be agreement on who wins the prize, but this was not a day to divide, but in fact to unite.

President Halimah Yacob was quite appropriately the chief guest because if she is the people's President, then here were some of her most remarkable people. Here in this gathering lay an endorsement of the strength of a community. Here was a celebration of what is possible in this city. Here was Mr Jason Chee, who lost three limbs but never his spirit and incredibly won table tennis gold at the 2017 Asean Para Games.

Adversity has tested him constantly, it has taken one of his eyes, too, but still he sees better than us. "Life has to go on," he said cheerfully last night as he steered his chair past guests, held out a right hand with just two full fingers for a handshake and introduced himself to people. A young girl asked with a child's innocence, "What happened to you?" and, as he often does to strangers on the MRT, he patiently told his story.

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Dr Goh Wei Leong and HealthServe, which provides migrant workers with affordable healthcare, beat nine other finalists to the award. Dr Goh received a trophy and a $20,000 cash prize.

Mr Chee takes on life. Mr Muhammad Luqman Abdul Rahman, bespectacled and in batik, saves it. At 18, he has helped more people than he has had years on this planet, performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on strangers and standing for something profound: In a modern, self-serving world, he unselfishly reaches out. Shyly, he said: "I don't deserve to be here." Yes, he does.

Camera flashes went off in a room illuminated by a range of characters. Every corner was full of an instinctive camaraderie, every table with a rare story to tell, every handshake firm with humility.

Mr Satwant Singh, a lawyer, has helped refurbish 16 schools in India's Punjab, and when I asked what he gets from it, he said "joy". Mr Mohamad Fuad Abdul Aziz and Mr Syed Abdillah Alhabshee, large fellows with an easy manner, were nominees who stopped to put out a fire and in doing so made us confront two simple questions: Do we ever halt to help? And why not?

Cartoonist Sonny Liew wore a Muhammad Ali T-shirt, but his pen can be as mighty as a punch. Mr Peter Lim, a nominee last year, spoke softly about setting an example. He donated part of his liver to a stranger and this much was quickly clear: Forget the fiction of movies, in this room were real people of action.

This was not a congregation of the perfect, but a gathering of humans who strive to find better versions of themselves. In a cold room, you feel the warmth of their inspiration. None wore it better than Dr Goh, the Singaporean of the Year, who helps foreign workers with affordable healthcare. He embraces the outsider and assists the underprivileged, and for all his slightness of figure, there is nothing as powerful as the moral man.

Mr Balakrishnan, the Indian worker who now volunteers himself, said of Dr Goh: "He is very great." The doctor, a man of obvious empathy, will flinch from such praise. Yet, we need heroic men like him - for we exist in an unheroic age.

We live in times of arrogant opinion and hardened stances, of suspicion and exclusion, of cynicism and mockery. Nations have to fight this, and this award is one small way of doing so. Because it acknowledges some of our finer citizens, it salutes their good works, it advertises their deeds. It tells us we have hope. And that is always worth celebrating.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2018, with the headline ST Singaporean of the Year: A celebration of difference, oneness and what is possible. Subscribe