Former cleaner is first non-professional to win fellowship for social change

Ms Nurhidayah Sazali was awarded a fellowship by think-tank Institute of Policy Studies in October. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE – Armed with just an O-level certificate when she first started work, Ms Nurhidayah Sazali, 32, once felt she would not “go far” in life.

She was an auxiliary police officer, a retail assistant and a cleaner before leaving the workforce to care for her two daughters, who are now three and five years old. Her husband is a delivery rider.

So it was beyond her wildest dreams to be awarded a fellowship by think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in October.

She is the first person without a professional job to be given the Ngee Ann Kongsi Community Fellowship, said IPS’ senior research fellow Justin Lee, who is in charge of the fellowship.

Ms Nurhidayah said: “I didn’t think someone with just O levels could get a fellowship from a big organisation like the IPS. Besides, I’m shy and my English is not good, unlike highly educated people.”

The fellowship was started in 2021 for community leaders and change-makers to implement community-based participatory research that contributes to community development or social change.

Such research empowers community members to define the issues that matter to them and be involved in doing the research together with the researchers and coming up with solutions, Dr Lee said. Two to three Ngee Ann Kongsi Community Fellowships are awarded a year, and they are sponsored by Teochew philanthropic organisation Ngee Ann Kongsi, he added.

Asked why Ms Nurhidayah was chosen, Dr Lee said: “The South Central Community Family Service Centre (FSC) proposed giving it to someone from their community to stay true to the principles of asset-based community development approach, which focuses on identifying the strengths of people and equipping them to be able to solve their problems.  We really liked the idea and supported them.”

Ms Nurhidayah and another mother partnered the South Central Community FSC, a social service agency which works with low-income and vulnerable families, to start a support group for low-income mothers living in highly subsidised Housing Board rental flats in Bukit Merah.

For her year-long fellowship, which comes with a $1,500 monthly stipend, she is doing research on the support group called Mum’s Collective.

The idea for a support group came when her family faced multiple problems during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Her husband’s income as a delivery rider fell by 20 to 30 per cent to about $1,500 a month during the circuit breaker in 2020, and they had no computers for their children when schools switched to home-based learning, until the South Central Community FSC gave her family two laptops.

At the time, three nephews and her mother-in-law were living with her family of four in a two-room rental flat.

She started working part-time as a temperature screener at the South Central Community FSC to supplement her husband’s income. At the FSC, she met other women with similar problems as hers, and she said sharing her struggles with her new friends helped to lighten her burdens.

She said: “We want to let the mums feel they are not alone. We want to understand their needs better and assist them better.”

The mums meet twice a month to discuss and share topics close to their hearts, such as mental health and childcare issues, and to do activities together such as baking.

After she was promoted to a cleaning supervisor, she also took up a diploma in leadership management at a private school. She is keen to upgrade her skills and knowledge, and said being awarded the fellowship gave her confidence a big boost.

She said: “All this while, I looked only at my weaknesses, but I have now learnt to also look at my strengths. I can empathise with and relate to others. When I can help someone, I will go all out to help in whatever way I can.”

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