SINGAPORE - While checking social media messages in July 2020, Mr Sakthibalan Balathandautham came across a plea by a young couple looking for a liver donor for their one-year-old child.
Over the next three hours, he could not stop thinking about the toddler. Mr Sakthibalan read up about organ donation online, learning more about the surgical procedure and expected period of recovery.
By the time he called the couple at about 1am that night, Mr Sakthibalan had resolved to donate part of his liver to the little girl he had never met.
After several rounds of tests, the 28-year-old senior sales executive donated 23 per cent of his liver to baby Rheya two months later on Sept 30, undergoing a five-hour operation at the National University Hospital's (NUH) National University Centre for Organ Transplantation.
Rheya's transplant surgery was also conducted at NUH, which is the only hospital in the public sector in Singapore that performs liver transplantation for children.
For his selfless act and being an inspiration to others, Mr Sakthibalan was named The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2021 on Wednesday (Feb 9).
He received the award from President Halimah Yacob, who was the guest of honour at the award ceremony at UBS University in Penang Road.
In her opening address, Madam Halimah noted that the finalists reminded Singaporeans of what it means to serve a greater purpose.
She said: "The ST Singaporean of the Year finalists challenge us to think and act beyond our ordinary capabilities. They make us feel uncomfortable to continue living in our comfort zones occupied with ourselves but to exceed even our own expectations.
"In the current pandemic, when our everyday lives can appear rather gloomy and mundane, they lift our spirits and show that nothing can stand in the way of humanity."
Mr Sakthibalan's generous gesture has given a new lease of life to Rheya, who was diagnosed with biliary atresia a few weeks after her birth in 2019.
The rare disease causes bile ducts in the liver to be inflamed, blocking bile flow to the gall bladder. The condition can eventually lead to liver failure.
After a successful recovery by both donor and recipient, Mr Sakthibalan forged a strong bond with the toddler and her family. He is now an advocate for organ donation, encouraging more people to step up and help patients in need.
On why he had stepped forward, Mr Sakthibalan said: "I thought to myself, 'I'm young, I have time to recover, so why not step up?' I am thankful to everyone who voted for me to become Singaporean of the Year. I would love to share my story with others, because there is a long list of people waiting for an organ donation, and we can work towards achieving an even longer list of people willing to donate."
Organised by The Straits Times and presented by UBS Singapore, the Singaporean of the Year award is given each year to a Singaporean individual or group that has made an impact in society.
This could be through achievements that have put Singapore on the world stage, or for improving the lives of others in the community, or showing resilience in the face of adversity. The award is now in its seventh year.
The award ceremony was streamed on the ST website as well as its Facebook and YouTube channels.
Watching Mr Sakthibalan’s win online was an emotional moment for Rheya’s parents, Mr Sunil Jayakumar, 32, and Ms Ruthra Saravanan, 31.
Ms Ruthra said: “We were in tears when he saw him walking up the stage to receive the award. We are so glad that Sakthi came into our lives and is a part of it. I hope this creates a platform for others to come forward for such selfless acts.”
The ceremony was also attended by the other finalists, including canteen stall operators Asanul Fariq Sani and Norhasyimah Awaludin, who provided free groceries for their neighbours in need, mental health advocates Porsche Poh and Silver Ribbon (Singapore) for their efforts to address mental health issues, and good Samaritans Azlee Abdul Shukor and Johnson Chia, who rescued a woman from her car after an accident.
Other finalists included business owner Abdul Malik Hassan, who supported hawkers in their time of need, heritage researcher and consultant Lynn Wong, who fosters Chinese culture and heritage in Singapore, and entrepreneur John Cheng, who is breaking new ground in food sustainability and innovation.
Trailblazing athletes Yip Pin Xiu, Joan Poh and Loh Kean Yew were also finalists for the award.
A judging panel of 13 as well as online voting by the public contributed to the final decision. The judges included editors from ST, social entrepreneur and activist Saleemah Ismail, Singapore Airlines (SIA) vice-president of public affairs Siva Govindasamy, and Institute of Technical Education chief executive Low Khah Gek.
Mr Sakthibalan was awarded a trophy and $20,000 in cash, while the other nine finalists received $5,000 each. The prize money is sponsored by UBS, which has supported the award since its inception.
Other sponsors include airline partner SIA and hotel partner Millennium Hotels and Resorts. SIA is sponsoring a pair of business class tickets for the Singaporean of the Year, and a pair of economy class tickets for the other finalists. The top award recipient will also receive a five-night stay at any of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels’ global properties, while the other finalists will each get three-night stays.
Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of SPH Media Trust's English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of ST, said: "Last year's Singaporean of the Year winners - our Covid front-line fighters - were always going to be hard to beat, not least since they are still hard at work battling this dreaded disease.
"Still, we managed to have a strong line-up of finalists this year, from people pursuing a cause, from promoting mental well-being to food security and safeguarding our heritage. There were also individuals who stepped up to do their part, from courageously coming to the rescue to pitching in to help others in need in the community.
"But in the end, it was an individual act of bravery, selflessness and sheer humanity that won over the judges. We were all inspired by Sakthibalan's act of courage, generosity and desire to put his own health and well-being on the line to make a difference to the lives of others. He is indeed a worthy winner of this award."
Mr Edmund Koh, president of UBS Asia-Pacific, said: "Our Singaporean of the Year 2021, Sakthibalan Balathandautham, showed us an extraordinary act of selflessness and generosity in stepping forward to donate an organ to save a stranger.
"Sakthibalan and all the finalists are indeed role models who show us the good in people and the best of humanity, how we can rise above adversity to accomplish great things for our community."
Last year's award recognised front-line fighters in the ongoing battle against Covid-19, with representatives from the healthcare, security and academic research sectors receiving the award on behalf of their peers.
Some of the front-line accounts were captured in a new book, In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story. Written by journalists from The Straits Times newsroom, the book chronicles the first two years of Singapore's fight against the pandemic.