SINGAPORE - He became paralysed after a freak diving accident in his first year of university, but Mr Wong Zi Heng, 27, never wallowed in self-pity and persevered to become a teacher.
Ms Zulayqha Zulkifli, 24, was homeless for many months, yet she was still determined to become a social worker, and will soon graduate with a bachelor's degree in social work.
He was once a drug trafficker who did "many wicked things", but Mr Thomas Liao, 32, turned his life around in jail and is now helping families as a senior social work associate.
For inspiring others with their resilience and heart for the community, the trio were honoured on Monday (May 6) with the inaugural The Straits Times Generation Grit Award 2018, presented by re-insurance company Swiss Re.
Mr Wong, Ms Zulayqha and Mr Liao were picked from a pool of 24 nominees who were all featured in The Straits Times' fortnightly column Generation Grit from December 2017, when it started, to December last year.
The winners were picked by a panel of judges comprising ST editors and representatives from Swiss Re. The public's votes for their favourite stories were also considered in the judging.
The column features millennials in their 20s to mid-30s who demonstrate extraordinary grit and courage in overcoming adversities - from poverty and troubled family backgrounds to sudden disabilities.
Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, who attended the awards ceremony held at The Pod in the National Library Building, said the 24 nominees have given others a deeper appreciation of what the millennial generation can do.
Millennials are often thought of as the entitled and less resilient children of an era of plenty, yet this is not a fair or accurate picture and there is much evidence to the contrary, he said.
“In you and your life stories, we see the promise of the future, of individuals with the courage, conviction and determination to overcome adversity, persevere and realise your life dream,” said Mr Iswaran.
He presented the awards to the three winners together with Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, who also heads the English/Malay/Tamil Media Group of Singapore Press Holdings, and Mr Victor Kuk, Swiss Re’s Singapore Country president.
The three winners each received $5,000 and a trophy.
Mr Fernandez said the heartwarming stories in the Generation Grit column have gained a strong following among ST readers.
The features have frequently topped ST’s charts of the best-read stories and videos, he added.
“These are stories about the millennials, for the millennials, and we are happy that it is resonating amongst them because we want to continue serving Singaporeans, including young Singaporeans, for many years to come,” he added.
The three winners took to the stage to talk about their experiences in a short sharing session with Straits Times senior social affairs correspondent Theresa Tan, moderated by Swiss Re’s Asia-Pacific director of communications Mae Loon.
Mr Wong, a teacher at Bedok South Secondary School, said he hopes the stories remind people to be grateful for what they have in life.
People are often caught up with what they do not have, but neglect what they do have, he said.
“I’m very grateful to be given this award, but I would say everyone here, be it a nominee or not, has their own stories and challenges that they face,” he added.
Mr Liao, a senior social work associate at Fei Yue Community Services, said there are many others who also deserve accolades for helping the community, and he is thankful for the many unsung heroes who have helped him turn his life around.
“I came today because it serves as a reminder to myself that I have been saved by my religion, and I should be thankful that I have the opportunity to live right and do the right things,” he added.
While both Mr Liao and Mr Wong have no plans yet for their prize money, Ms Zulayqha said she plans to help fund her brother’s further studies with the cash gift.
The social work associate at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore is doing a part-time undergraduate course in social work, and is expected to graduate next year.
Like Mr Liao and Mr Wong, Ms Zulayqha said she did not expect to receive the award as there were many other inspiring individuals who were deserving.
The event has been a good opportunity for her to meet these other people and to know them better, she added.
“Our stories connect us together. Without them, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know about all these wonderful, amazing people,” said Ms Zulayqha.