ST Asians of the Year

First responders honoured

Straits Times award goes to four brave men and two disaster relief organisations in region

This year, the Asian of the Year awardees – four people and two organisations – were chosen by The Straits Times for their commitment to disaster relief and courage for stepping up in the moment of greatest need.

Four men of courage and two disaster relief organisations, collectively labelled The First Responders, are The Straits Times Asians of the Year.

The late Mr Ng Kok Choong, the Singaporean paraglider who was acclaimed for his rescue work in the aftermath of the earthquake in Central Sulawesi; Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma, whose death-defying rescue flights saved dozens of lives during the floods in Kerala, India; and Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), were the four men named for the 2018 award.

Also recognised were Singapore's Mercy Relief and the Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre).

The winners were announced at yesterday's Straits Times Global Outlook Forum 2019.

"When calamity strikes, the natural instinct of human beings is to flee. Yet, there are some who, rather than leave the scene, swivel to confront danger and fight. Risking their own lives, they protect the herd. Each of you exemplifies the best of your breed," said the award citation.

"As First Responders, your courage, selflessness, calculated risk-taking and presence of mind have mitigated many a terrible situation. By putting yourself in harm's way, your work has turned many certain defeats into stalemates, and stalemates into victories. Your often-lonely soldiering has been society's good fortune. Asia owes you, your families and the institutions that moulded your lives and personalities," it added.

In deciding to honour The First Responders, only the second time the award has gone to a group since it was instituted in 2012, Straits Times editors were minded by the fact that across Asia, the scale of disasters, and the extent of devastation they cause, has increased over the past decade.

This year, Japan suffered some of its worst floods in recent memory, as did the southern Indian state of Kerala. Indonesia has been struck by more than one severe earthquake. Four South-east Asian nations are listed among the top 10 countries worldwide prone to disasters stemming from climate change issues.

For these reasons, it did not take long for the editors to arrive at their decision.

The AHA Centre, Mercy Relief, and the men named have operated in plain sight. Amid large-scale flooding, earthquakes and a variety of other disasters, they have served as a beacon of selflessness and the finest instincts of mankind - to preserve and protect the flock at the cost of their own lives, if necessary. One of this year's winners, Mr Ng, is a posthumous awardee. He was killed in a paragliding accident in India.

Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, said that The First Responders were picked after the briefest of debates because theirs was a standout case of courage and selflessness.

"In an Asia witnessing disasters of increasing frequency and intensity, it is clear that there is nothing like 'over there' any more - we all are equally affected," he said. "These men, and the two organisations we picked, have taught us through personal example that at the end of the day, security is indivisible."

Mr Ng's widow Sharon, who was present to receive the award from Mr Fernandez, said she was gratified that her late husband's self-less act had been recognised.

"It was something he would have done anywhere, any time," Mrs Ng, accompanied by her 28-year-old son Marcus, told The Straits Times. "He was a man of action and an example to others that everyone can help in some way. If Kok Choong had been alive, he would have been thrilled to bits."

Mercy Relief executive director Nasaruddin Shafawi said the award for his organisation came as a pleasant surprise, more so since Mercy Relief had just celebrated its 15th anniversary.

"This has been a year of back-to-back challenges," he said. "Since August, we have responded to no less than five major disasters, including the Japan floods and the Sulawesi tsunami and earthquake."

The Straits Times Asian of the Year award, announced towards the year-end, has become an important part of the Asian calendar. The inaugural award went to then Myanmar President Thein Sein, followed by a joint award for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, and to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

In 2015, the award was given posthumously to Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

In 2016, five Asian pioneers working in the intersection of technology and commerce were honoured as The Disruptors - the first time the award went to a group.

Mr Xi was Asian of the Year in 2017.

Straits Times foreign editor Jeremy Au Yong said: "In a year where personalities and egos often made the news for the wrong reasons, we could think of no more deserving candidates than the many people who behaved selflessly - for no reward other than simply because it was the right thing to do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2018, with the headline 'First responders honoured'. Subscribe