Front-line fighters against Covid-19 collectively named The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2020

Singaporean of the Year finalists with President Halimah Yacob (first row, centre) at the Istana during The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2020 award ceremony sponsored by award presenter UBS.
Singaporean of the Year finalists with President Halimah Yacob (first row, centre) at the Istana during The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2020 award ceremony sponsored by award presenter UBS.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Covid-19 front-liners, who worked long hours and often went beyond the call of duty to keep Singaporeans safe amid the pandemic, have collectively been named The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2020.

This year, the recognition goes not to an individual but to all the selfless workers and volunteers in healthcare, security and other areas who stepped forward in the past year.

Shaking off fear of being exposed to possible risks of infection, many of these heroes worked long hours in personal protective equipment - sweat dripping from their hair, and faces marked by the tight goggles and N95 masks.

Others researched vaccines, trialled therapies on the severely ill, and made sure healthcare operations ran smoothly. Collectively, their efforts have helped Singapore keep its Covid-19 death rate low, and manage the outbreak well at a time when infections continue to recur globally.

The national front-liners are represented by National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) executive director Leo Yee Sin; Professor Ooi Eng Eong, co-developer of Lunar-Cov19, Singapore's sole Sars-CoV-2 vaccine now undergoing human trials; NCID nurse clinician Abdul Wahab; Mr Benson Ng, a Covid-19 swabber employed under the Health Promotion Board; and Mr Nigel Quek, commanding officer at Certis' Integrated Quarantine Order Services.

They received the award from President Halimah Yacob, the guest of honour and patron of the award, at a ceremony held on Tuesday (Feb 2) at the Istana. The award ceremony was also streamed on The Straits Times' Facebook and YouTube channels from 3.30pm on Tuesday.

Madam Halimah said the Singaporean of the Year award has an enduring value as it reinforces the values that society holds dear.

"Amid the challenging Covid-19 environment, many have stepped up to help others in greater need, from migrant workers, to the underprivileged, to Covid-19 patients. The eight finalists of this year's award exemplify this same selfless spirit we are celebrating today," added the President.

Singaporean of the Year finalists with sponsors, judges and SPH management at The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2020 award ceremony sponsored by award presenter UBS. They include SPH chairman Lee Boon Yang; SPH deputy CEO Anthony Tan; ST editor Warren Fernandez; UBS president for Asia-Pacific Edmund Koh; and President Halimah Yacob. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

(Clockwise from left) Mr Nigel Quek, Mr Benson Ng, Professor Ooi Eng Eong, Mr Abdul Wahab and Professor Leo Yee Sin. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award, now in its sixth year, is given to a Singaporean individual or group that has made an impact on society. This could be through achievements that have put Singapore on the world stage, or for improving the lives of others in the community, or showing resilience in the face of adversity.

The other seven finalists include social activist Cai Yinzhou, 30, a forerunner in efforts to break down social barriers between Singaporeans and migrant workers, and retired cleaner Zulkifli Atnawi, 60. Mr Zulkifli and his four children give out groceries to residents of rental flats in Queenstown and help with home repairs under their initiative, Project Hills.

The winners were picked by a judging panel of 13, as well as through online voting by members of the public. The winners received $50,000 in cash, sponsored by award presenter UBS, and a trophy, while the other finalists received $5,000.

Singapore Airlines gave five pairs of business class tickets to the winning group and up to three pairs of economy class tickets to each finalist. Millennium Hotels and Resorts gave each member of the winning group a free five-day stay at any of its hotels worldwide, while the finalists received up to three sets of a three-day stay.

Mr Abdul Wahab; Mr Warren Fernandez, ST editor; Mr Benson Ng; Professor Leo Yee Sin; President Halimah Yacob; Mr Nigel Quek; Mr Edmund Koh, UBS president for Asia-Pacific; and Professor Ooi Eng Eong at the ST Singaporean of the Year 2020 award ceremony sponsored by award presenter UBS. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, who was one of the judges, said 2020 was a year when the front-liners made all the difference to the lives and livelihoods of Singaporeans.

"There were so many who played a part - doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and scientists, contact tracers and swabbers, volunteers and retired healthcare workers who came forward to help tackle the situation in the dormitories - all pitching in to help see Singapore through."

NCID has been the main battleground in the race to save lives, treat, and break the chain of transmission since the start of the pandemic.

The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2020 award ceremony at the Istana on Feb 2, 2021. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

At the height of the outbreak early last year, more than 2,000 healthcare workers and staff were on active duty at the centre, up from 600 on business-as-usual days.

While the Covid-19 flames are ebbing now, NCID is not done with getting to know the coronavirus, said Professor Leo, 61. For one thing, the centre continues to anchor the Covid-19 Research Workgroup, with the focus now on improving diagnostics and vaccine response, and studying virus evolution, including the more contagious variants.

Thanking all her colleagues at NCID and from other institutions for working together through the challenging period, Prof Leo said: "Covid-19 has united us and we have emerged stronger. The battle is not over yet but we have each other's strength and shoulder to rely on."

Mr Benson Ng, who was deployed at dormitories from May to August last year to take nasal swabs from migrant workers, is personally encouraged that he can continue to play a part in this battle.

He will soon take on a new role as a site supervisor for swab operations, and he has completed his training in phlebotomy to do blood tests.

"I am delighted that there is career progression for me. I am excited to take on new challenges in my new role, especially to lead a team and continue to help fight this pandemic," he said.

In a nod to the award's seven finalists, UBS Asia-Pacific president Edmund Koh, one of the award's judges, said: "It is extremely inspiring to hear the stories of our amazing finalists, who not only overcame their own challenges but also found opportunities to help others in their community.

"Not only have they displayed courage and perseverance in their fields, but (they have) also inspired and encouraged those around them to follow the path they have spearheaded."

Citation for the award recipients

The award is given to front-line fighters against Covid-19 for their unselfish dedication to their jobs in tackling the pandemic, despite personal sacrifices along the way.

Healthcare workers were at the ready when Covid-19 hit Singapore's shores. They had undergone rigorous training and knew just what to do. They were geared up to tackle what many have called the biggest crisis of a generation - and they stepped up to the plate and delivered.

These dedicated front-liners inspired many with their unfailing dedication, working long hours in personal protective equipment, drenched in sweat.

Others researched vaccines and made sure healthcare operations ran smoothly. Their efforts helped Singapore keep its Covid-19 death rate low, and manage the outbreak well in comparison with other countries.

Singaporeans are grateful for the efforts of these heroes, who are represented by nurse clinician Abdul Wahab; Covid-19 swabber Benson Ng; Certis Integrated Quarantine Order Services commanding officer Nigel Quek; Duke-NUS Medical School professor Ooi Eng Eong, co-developer of Singapore's sole Sars-CoV-2 vaccine currently in human trials; and Professor Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.