When she first joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ms Stephanie Or was looking forward to exciting new experiences overseas.
But she never guessed that she would step straight into the path of a super typhoon.
In 2013, during her overseas posting as an administrative secretary at the Singapore Embassy in Manila, Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines, leaving a swathe of destruction in its wake and dozens of Singaporeans stranded.
Strength in adversity
With barely a moment to catch their breaths, she and her team worked around the clock to contact e-Registered Singaporeans, trying to ascertain if they were safe, and render assistance if required.
It was no easy feat. The typhoon had disrupted communication networks and disabled power grids. Even when Singaporeans in distress were located, ensuring that help reached them presented a new set of difficulties — roads were blocked, aircraft were grounded, and ships were stranded in the harbour.
Ms Or also had to find out how to help Singaporeans who were low on funds, as working automated teller machines were hard to locate in the storm’s aftermath.
But one of the most pressing concerns was locating three Singaporean students who were doing their final-year project in Tacloban, one of the areas that was hit hardest by the storm.
After several days of trying to establish contact, good news finally emerged: a photograph of the girls’ handwritten note, saying that they were safe and sound, had begun circulating on social media.
With the Singapore Embassy’s support, all three girls returned to their homes and families safely.
Seeing to the logistical arrangements for then President Tony Tan’s state visit to the region after the storm had died down also allowed Ms Or to see firsthand the devastation that Haiyan had wrought, in particular the cities of Tacloban and Samar.
It also allowed her to witness the strength of the human spirit, as communities across the Philippines started their rebuilding efforts slowly.
Five years later, Ms Or, 31, is now an assistant director of language training at the MFA’s Human Resource Directorate. In her role, she supports the Ministry’s efforts to improve the language proficiency of its officers.
Primarily, she plans the language training of officers who will be posted to the MFA’s Overseas Missions. She also regularly reviews language requirements and the proficiency that is required of the officers, in order to ensure that the Ministry’s training remains relevant.
Even as her ninth anniversary with MFA approaches next month, her role in the Haiyan recovery efforts remains one of the highlights of her career.
But she has been able to enjoy a wide range of opportunities in the MFA, after graduating from the National University of Singapore with a degree in communications and new media.
Since starting off as a foreign service officer on the Functional and Corporate track, she has held positions in various divisions, from the Singapore Embassy in Manila, to the Strategic Communications Directorate to her current position.
Says Ms Or: “Many may not be aware of the resources and effort that the Ministry puts in to develop and prepare its officers for a career, including overseas assignments.”
But while her time overseas has expanded her horizons and broadened her world view, it is the opportunity to help people that she values the most.
“The most rewarding part of the job is knowing that I’ve made a real difference in people’s lives and helped overseas Singaporeans in need,” she says.
“In doing so, I have helped to fly the Singapore flag high, and contributed to furthering Singapore’s interests abroad.”