Lawyer Darren Tay, 27, became the first Singaporean to win the prestigious World Championship of Public Speaking in Washington last month. Ironically, he used to be afraid of speaking in front of large audiences.
In fact, the night before he was to speak to his class 12 years ago, the then Xinmin Secondary School student could neither eat nor sleep.
"I was very afraid of speaking in front of people, so I tried to stay on the sidelines. During group presentations, I would be the one clicking the presentation slides," he said.
"One day my English teacher realised that I'd never presented in class, and made me do it."
His presentation drew unexpected praise from the teacher. "That bolstered my confidence," he said.
He was later encouraged to enter the YMCA Plain English Speaking Awards (Pesa) in 2005. With some coaching from his teacher, hebecame a finalist in the public speaking competition. This year, Pesa commemorates its 30th anniversary while a similar competition, the YMCA Mandarin Speaking Awards (MSA), is in its 10th year.
"Pesa was an eye-opening experience," said Mr Tay, who has become better at thinking on his feet.
Yesterday, an awards ceremony was held at Anglo-Chinese Junior College to honour the achievements of this year's Pesa and MSA participants. Besides addressing the importance of cultivating good English and Mandarin speaking habits, both awards are aimed at sharpening students' speaking skills and developing their abilities to communicate effectively.
This year, 414 entrants from 169 schools - ranging from pre-school to tertiary institutions - took part in Pesa, while 231 students from 62 schools participated in the MSA.
Innova Primary School pupil S. Sanjula Rajan, nine, the Pesa winner in the lower primary category, said: "I usually feel nervous when I get on stage. But once I start talking, the feeling goes away, and I have fun and enjoy myself."
St Anthony's Canossian Primary School pupil Meera Mardolker, 10, the MSA winner for the upper primary category, is also fluent inHindi, Konkani and Tagalog.
Despite her parents not speaking a word of Mandarin, she developed a passion for it early on. At the age of three, she was already conversant, thanks to a neighbour who chatted with her daily. "I enjoy speaking the language. I am happy my hard work has paid off."