No masking their S'pore spirit - doing good for community

Ms Azlina Ahmad's The Pop-Up Grocery initiative allows beneficiaries of food rations to donate those they do not use and to pick up other food rations and fresh produce more suited to their needs. It was first organised last August in Bedok, where Ms
Ms Azlina Ahmad's The Pop-Up Grocery initiative allows beneficiaries of food rations to donate those they do not use and to pick up other food rations and fresh produce more suited to their needs. It was first organised last August in Bedok, where Ms Azlina is a resident.PHOTO: SMILESSALAMSG

When Mr Tony Kee, 61, got together with several friends from his former national service (NS) platoon last March, the Covid-19 pandemic was becoming serious.

As the number of cases started to increase locally, the group wanted to do something to help.

Said Mr Kee, a businessman with property and healthcare businesses in China: "A lot of us are grandfathers, fathers and old men now. We have families and loved ones and the feeling was very strong that we need to do something."

They decided to set up a local mask production facility to ensure that Singaporeans had access to a reliable supply of masks, made with quality assurance and suitable for use in Singapore's heat and humidity.

The company they set up, First N-Lab, was cited by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in his Budget speech last Tuesday as an example of Singaporeans who had stepped up to make a difference.

It was started by 14 shareholders from different walks of life, with eight of the core members former NSmen from the same platoon.

The group's members pooled their work expertise in various areas, such as business and engineering, and also pumped in funds and tapped contacts. They found themselves planning for the new firm during last year's circuit breaker.

By June, they had started work on setting up a refurbished place in Woodlands as the mask manufacturing facility and production started in end-October.

While First N-Lab declined to reveal the number of masks produced so far, it has released three editions or batches of masks carrying a "Made in Singapore" label.

The company aims to sell the masks as cheaply as its costs allow. One box of masks - which comprises 10 packs, with each pack containing three masks - is priced at $28.50 but Singaporeans receive a discount of up to 40 per cent.

To give back to the community, First N-Lab reached out to 21 charities to donate masks. So far, it has given masks to eight such organisations, including Metta Welfare Association.

Mr Kee said he believes Singaporeans should do their bit for the community.

His 22-year-old son Marcus, an undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University, is also involved. He helps run First N-Lab's website and Instagram account.

The younger Mr Kee said he identifies with his father's "heartfelt purpose" in going into the mask-making business: "I think giving back to Singapore is an important aspect of being Singaporean. I truly believe in the term Singapore spirit."

POP-UP GROCERY

Another initiative set up during the pandemic to help the less privileged is The Pop-Up Grocery.

It allows beneficiaries of food rations to donate those they do not use and to pick up other food rations and fresh produce more suited to their needs.

The idea came about from Ms Azlina Ahmad, 40, who works as a front-of-house manager at a performing arts centre and is also the founder of SmilesSalamSg, a group that has conducted volunteer trips overseas since 2018. Her group started focusing its efforts on Singapore when the pandemic disrupted worldwide travel.

While volunteering with local charity groups, she had noticed that food distribution at rental areas still had gaps. Some recipients received items they did not use and there had been things they wanted but did not receive.

So, the idea of The Pop-Up Grocery was born.

It was first organised last August in Bedok, where Ms Azlina is a resident.

Other than getting beneficiaries to contribute unused rations and take the ones that suited them, she also roped in stallholders of fresh produce to donate unsold fruits and vegetables - reducing food waste while allowing beneficiaries to have fresh food options.

Now, her group runs the pop-up event in Bedok twice a month and in Yishun once a month, while collaborating with other groups and individuals who started similar initiatives in MacPherson and Tampines.

Ms Azlina is glad to see volunteers who are keen to start the concept in their own neighbourhoods.

She said she had also tapped the Our Singapore Fund, a grant for Singaporeans to do meaningful projects, to help with transportation costs for the project and received support from Fengshan Community Club, which referred potential food sponsors.

Said Ms Azlina: "There are a lot of kind-hearted people in Singapore... For those who have a heart to serve but don't have funds, there is the Our Singapore Fund which supports passionate Singaporeans."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'No masking their S'pore spirit - doing good for community'. Subscribe