Looking back: People who made the headlines

Grit, greed and gratitude: 10 people who made the headlines in Singapore in 2015

Mr Yong (right) and Mr Lim ran 2,500km - 50km daily over 50 days - to mark SG50.
Mr Yong (right) and Mr Lim ran 2,500km - 50km daily over 50 days - to mark SG50.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

2015 had its share of heroes and villains, as well as some who split public opinion and had the nation abuzz for weeks. From the eyebrow-raising antics of teen blogger Amos Yee and Sim Lim shopowner Jover Chew to the heartwarming stories of volunteers who stepped up in times of need, here are 10 personalities who captured the attention of Singaporeans this year.

1. Going the distance for SG50


Ultramarathoners Lim Nghee Huat and Yong Yuen Cheng chose to mark SG50 with an unprecedented endurance feat - running 2,500km in 50 days.

Between April and June, they ran 50km daily for 50 consecutive days, as a tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore's pioneers.

They also hoped to inspire Singaporeans to lead healthier lifestyles and to surpass their limits.

Mr Lim, a media producer, and Mr Yong, a physical education teacher, had to battle both hot weather and heavy rain to finish the Go50 run.

Mr Lim also had to deal with a bout of diarrhoea in the early part of the challenge, while Mr Yong suffered a strained Achilles tendon and, later on, gastric pains.

The duo ran a variety of routes that included Marina Bay, Upper Peirce Reservoir and the track at Hwa Chong Institution, where Mr Yong teaches and where they were cheered on by 3,000 students.

They were joined on and off by other runners who came to support them. Many, such as members of the Safra Running Club, were already fitness enthusiasts.

Others, such as former general election returning officer Yam Ah Mee, were not experienced marathoners but nevertheless joined them in completing 50km.

For their efforts, the two ultramarathoners were given the honour of igniting the flame for the South-east Asian (SEA) Games by using two parabolic mirrors to capture the sun's rays.

The flame was later used to light the SEA Games torch.

The duo have since been nominated for the inaugural The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year Award, which recognises Singaporeans who have gone above and beyond in inspiring the community.

2. Just call him Mr Fix-It



After earning the reputation of Mr Fix-It for his work in the ministerial portfolios of health and housing, it came as little surprise when Mr Khaw was tasked to helm the Ministry of Transport in September's Cabinet reshuffle.

While Mr Khaw, 63, had indicated before his appointment that he would not be volunteering for the hot seat - as he did for the position of National Development Minister back in 2011 - he could not turn the Prime Minister down.

With public dissatisfaction mounting over rail breakdowns and overcrowding on trains and buses, the transport job had arguably claimed the political careers of two ministers. Mr Raymond Lim (2006 to 2011) stepped down from the Cabinet after the 2011 General Election, and he and his successor, Mr Lui Tuck Yew (2011 to 2015), both resigned from politics this year.

Mr Lui quit even though he had made significant changes to the public and private transport sectors. These included a reform of the bus industry towards a contracting model and tweaking the Certificate of Entitlement categorisation for better separation of mass-market and luxury car buyers.

Mr Khaw has set out to tackle a huge commuter bugbear: MRT reliability. He espouses closer collaboration between regulators, designers and builders, and operators. He also said earlier this month that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) should be ready to take over the MRT system should the need arise and has asked the LTA to beef up its engineering team.

3. Controversial teenager



Teenage blogger Amos Yee was sentenced to four weeks' jail in July for making offensive remarks against Christianity in an expletive-laden video and for uploading an obscene image.

Yee had uploaded the video and the image, of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the late former British premier Margaret Thatcher, after Mr Lee's funeral in March.

He was arrested after at least 20 police reports were filed against him.

He was convicted on May 12 by District Judge Jasvender Kaur after a two-day trial, but his sentence was delayed after he refused to be assessed for probation. In all, he spent more than 50 days on remand, walking free on July 6 after his sentence was backdated. He did not appear at his own High Court appeal, which was dismissed.

His trial was marked by dramatic moments, such as when a stranger slapped him outside the courthouse, and when he falsely accused his former bailor, youth counsellor Vincent Law, of molestation.

His trial sparked protests both in Singapore and in Hong Kong for his freedom, and prompted the United Nations Human Rights Office for South-east Asia to call for his release.

After nearly half a year under the radar, Yee is back in the spotlight as police announced on Dec 12 that he was under investigation again for allegedly making more religiously offensive remarks online.

4. S'pore don's GM fish gets US okay



Last month, Emeritus Professor Hew Choy Leong became the man behind the world's first genetically engineered animal approved to reach dinner plates.

The 73-year-old, from the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore, created a fast-growing salmon that was given the green light by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after 20 years of deliberation dogged by controversy. He will not receive royalties but said he was happy the years of hard work were paying off.

"The patent expired five years ago and I don't get any money," he said. "But to me, intellectually, I am happy that we get recognised for the work."

After the genetically modified (GM) salmon was created in 1992, the technology was licensed to AquaBounty Technologies, where Prof Hew was chief scientist before he left in 1999. The company first applied to the FDA for approval in 1995.

The fast-growing Atlantic salmon can grow to a marketable size of 4kg to 5kg in 18 months, about half the time taken by ordinary salmon.

The FDA found the GM salmon was safe to eat and met the claim that it grew faster. The inserted genes also remained stable over several generations of fish. Modified to carry a growth hormone gene from the Pacific chinook salmon and DNA from the eel-like ocean pout, the salmon can grow faster as the hormone is kept active all the time. The sterile fish cannot breed with populations in the wild.

5. 'Accidental' green champion



Retailers here were jolted into action when the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) asked major players to declare they did not sell products from alleged haze culprits like Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

The move forced companies, like NTUC FairPrice, Sheng Siong and Prime Supermarket, to decide if they would pull the products off their shelves. Smaller players also started relooking their processes.

SEC executive director Edwin Seah, who led the movement, said the form has since been sent to over 200 firms, with 145 signing it.

"The whole incident led to a spike in interest in green procurement from businesses, and even consumers wanting to buy more green products," said Mr Seah, 45, who calls himself an "accidental environmentalist". He said the reason for sending out the forms had at first been to protect the credibility of the Green Label scheme.

Mr Seah, who joined the SEC in October last year as its communications director, and took over as interim executive director in February, said his love for the environment grew as he got more involved.

He said the SEC will advocate having green areas in supermarkets and standees to explain sustainability and eco-certification. All products with Green Labels will have to carry the label.

"We should not let the momentum and good work of this year be in vain," he said.

6. Hand severed in lift accident



Lift safety in public housing estates came under scrutiny in October when Madam Khoo Bee Hua had her left hand severed by the doors of a lift in Block 322,Tah Ching Road, where she lived.

The 85-year-old widow had been walking her dog on Oct 9, but it did not follow her into the lift before the doors closed. The dog's 2mm-thick leash, which was too narrow for the sensors to detect, got trapped between the doors. When the lift went up, the leash tightened around Madam Khoo's wrist, pulling her hand into a gap at the bottom of the lift doors, where it was crushed and severed.

An investigation report submitted to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) found that the lift's safety devices were in working order when the accident happened. Madam Khoo's 59-year-old son, who gave his name only as Mr Lee, continues to question how the lift could have met safety standards. The BCA said it plans to boost public awareness on lift safety.

Madam Khoo, who also broke her left leg when she fell during the accident, had to undergo two operations and is still recuperating in hospital.

The weekend before Christmas, she had another operation as her leg wound had become infected and the metal implant inside it had to be removed. Her hospital stay is likely to be extended for another five weeks.

The Jurong Town Council said its insurer AXA will foot her hospital bill, as well as homecare expenses for two months after she is discharged.

7. Sim Lim's serial cheat gets jail



In November, the boss of an electronics shop notorious for its unscrupulous sales practices was sentenced to 33 months in jail and fined $2,000.

Jover Chew had faced charges of cheating 26 customers of $16,599 over a period of 10 months, and had pleaded guilty to 12 charges.

Four sales executives who worked with him at the Sim Lim Square shop - Mobile Air - were also sentenced to terms of between four and 14 months.

In one case, Chew duped a Chinese national into paying $1,400 more than she expected for a mobile phone. She went to the Small Claims Tribunal, which ordered Chew to refund her $1,010. He did - in coins. Shop staff also verbally abused her, and made her and her aunt pick the coins off the floor.

Chew also tricked a Vietnamese tourist into paying $1,500 more for an iPhone 6 than the agreed price of $950. The 30-year-old factory worker could not afford the extra amount and ended up kneeling and weeping, begging for his money back. A video of the scene went viral and vigilante netizens exposed Chew's contact information in online forums. Numerous prank calls were made to him, and fast-food orders made and sent to his last-known addresses.

During all this, Chew and his wife, Ms Winnie Koh, separated. He was reported to be living with his mother before the court judgment.

Sim Lim Square also sought to clean up its image through various measures.

8. Heroes who saved strangers' lives


Mr Ponnan Muthukumar (left) and Mr Subramanian Shanmuganathan (right) ST FILE PHOTO

Mr Ponnan Muthukumar, 24, and Mr Subramanian Shanmuganathan, 35, had no thoughts for their own safety when they saw a toddler dangling precariously from a second-floor balcony in Jurong East in April.

The pair, who were working on the road below, scaled a water pipe so they could reach the two-year-old girl, who had climbed out to retrieve something and was stuck between a clothes rack and the ledge.

Her mother, Madam Naureen Saniri, 27, is convinced she has them to thank for saving her daughter's life. Their brave act was caught on video, and the clip has since chalked up more than three million views.

For their selflessness, the two, who are workers from India, were given Public Spiritedness Awards.

They were hailed as heroes and some Straits Times readers expressed the hope the incident could combat some of the anti- foreigner bias here.

In July, South Korean tourist Kim Sung Mo ended up under the wheels of a truck after an accident at the junction of Bendemeer and Boon Keng roads.

Twelve bystanders ran to tip the lorry to one side to free him, and the crowd grew until a group of 30 managed to get it up far enough for him to be pulled out from underneath.

He was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital with a leg fracture.

That incident also had a video that went viral online.

"Everyone spontaneously joined in and there was no need to tell them... You don't see this every day where people from all walks of life come to help," said Mr Foo Suan Wang, who had filmed it.

Seven of his rescuers were later identified and rewarded with a five-day trip to South Korea by the Korean Association in Singapore in August.

9. MRT Abang thwarts bully


Mr Muhammad Hanafie Ali Mahmood, 26, didn't expect that standing up to an MRT bully on a train ride from Orchard on July 7 would make him famous. But a video of the incident shot by a friend went viral.

During the ride on the North-South Line, Mr Hanafie intervened when an older man threatened to throw a young man off the train for wearing a T-shirt that read, "I'm F--king Special". Mr Hanafie said he stepped in as he was worried a fight would erupt.

He confronted the man, telling him to stop his aggressive behaviour. The victim was quiet throughout the encounter.

Dubbed the "MRT Abang" - Malay for brother - Mr Hanafie was lauded by Law Minister K. Shanmugam for a gesture that "touches a little bit of most of us". He said it was admirable to stand up for someone who was being harassed.

Mr Hanafie, who was then unemployed, now juggles three part-time jobs as delivery rider, security enforcement officer and model.

He hopes more Singaporeans will stand up for others. "Instead of being an extraordinary act, it should be seen as a basic thing to do something decent and help people," he said.

10. S'pore's worst abuser of boys


In March, Yap Weng Wah was given 30 years' jail and the maximum 24 strokes of the cane for sexually abusing 31 boys from November 2009 to June 2012. It was Singapore's worst case of sexual abuse of young boys.

The 31-year-old Malaysian quality assurance engineer befriended victims between the ages of 11 and 15 online, before cajoling them into performing oral sex or letting him sodomise them.

He hunted for his victims on Facebook, often pretending to be a polytechnic student. He set up meetings with the victims under the pretext of giving them gifts, playing computer games, or giving body-building tips.

He cajoled 30 of the boys into having anal or oral sex with him in places such as his rental flat, toilet cubicles in shopping malls and swimming complexes and hotel rooms.

A raid on his home in 2012 yielded over 2,000 video clips of him having sex with the boys. They were catalogued in folders on his laptop with each boy's details.

Deputy Public Prosecutor David Khoo said Yap was a "clear and present danger to society", and had a high risk of reoffending.The Institute of Mental Health diagnosed him with hebephilia - a sexual preference for early adolescent children generally aged 11 to 14.

In the wake of the case, social workers and MPs called for more to be done to educate young people and parents on online risks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2015, with the headline 'Grit, greed & gratitude'. Print Edition | Subscribe