Getting to know Singapore by volunteering at Istana

(From far left) Madam Chia Bee Lian and Madam Karine Hoffer are volunteer guides at the Istana on its open house days, while Madam Leong Yoke Lim, training director at make-up school Cosmoprof Academy, sends her students to do face painting for child
(From left) Madam Chia Bee Lian and Madam Karine Hoffer are volunteer guides at the Istana on its open house days, while Madam Leong Yoke Lim, training director at make-up school Cosmoprof Academy, sends her students to do face painting for children during the open house events. Children pay $5 to have their faces painted and the money goes to the President's Challenge, which raises funds for charity.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

When Swiss-born Madam Karine Hoffer, 54, moved to Singapore 11 years ago, she took proactive steps to get to know the city better.

The best way, she decided, was to volunteer her time.

The mother of three began conducting tours at the local museums. In 2013, she joined the Istana as a volunteer guide when it began offering guided tours on open house days.

The 147-year-old Istana is open to the public up to five times a year: on Chinese New Year, Labour Day, Hari Raya Puasa, National Day and Deepavali.

"Volunteering has helped me be more accustomed to Singapore culture. It's a wonderful opportunity to learn about the place you live in, and its people," Madam Hoffer said. She was among 97 people who attended a tea reception President Tony Tan Keng Yam hosted yesterday at the Istana to thank volunteers who help at its open house.

Dr Tan said the Istana open house is "extremely popular" and the most recent one held during Chinese New Year in February attracted about 21,000 people.

"It's good to open up the Istana so that people can see the buildings and grounds and learn a little bit about the history as well as the artefacts here. But to do that, we need volunteers to help us. The Istana staff alone cannot do it because of the number of visitors," he said.

The Istana volunteers include guides from the National Parks Board and National Heritage Board, and the Singapore Scouts Association. They conduct tours of its buildings and the biodiversity found on its grounds, help register visitors, and provide activities like face painting for children.

Dr Tan said he hopes more will come forward to be volunteers, not just at the Istana, but for various causes across Singapore.

"I believe that encouraging Singaporeans to volunteer is good for Singapore, good for volunteers and good for society," he said. "Everybody can help... If we all do so, it makes Singapore more cohesive."

Also at the reception was 60-year-old Madam Chia Bee Lian, who, like Madam Hoffer, conducts guided tours of the Istana.

Volunteering at the national monument allows Madam Chia to combine her love for learning, heritage, and mingling with people: "I love to learn about things. Each time I conduct a tour, I will read about the place again. When I conduct tours for young children, they treat me like their grandmother. There's a personal connection."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Getting to know S'pore by volunteering at Istana'. Print Edition | Subscribe