The smell of the putu piring - from the famous stall in Haig Road - was irresistible, but they would have to wait.
Security officer Peter Lim was about to lift up his crisp white shirt to show an L-shaped scar - measuring 15cm by 15cm - on his abdomen. The 54-year-old got it last March after he went through 10 hours of surgery to donate 60 per cent of his liver to a complete stranger.
It elicited wide-eyed looks of awe from those around him, including Mr Jabez Tan, a former drug peddler who now runs five bak kut teh stalls which employ many former convicts.
It was a gathering of heroes yesterday at the Command House, a stately building with expansive and verdant grounds perched on a little hill in Kheam Hock Road.
Once the dwelling of powerful military men and now the UBS Business University, the premises were used to host The Straits Times Singaporean of The Year award ceremony, supported by UBS Singapore.
There was a surfeit of good food, goodwill and good vibes under a white marquee from which gold chandeliers hung.
One would not have expected less; this was, after all, a soiree to celebrate more than a dozen local heroes, including Mr Lim and Mr Tan, who moved, inspired and made a difference with feats admirable and deeds laudable last year.
Ashvin Gunasegaran, the plucky 12-year-old who rushed to the aid of a pregnant woman involved in a car accident in Yishun last March, could barely contain his excitement at meeting fellow finalists: Paralympian swimmers Theresa Goh and Yip Pin Xiu.
Dressed in his school uniform, the Fuchun Secondary School student was accompanied by his father A. Gunasegaran and mother Swares Helen Louisa.
Ashvin had implored his principal not to tell the whole school he was attending the ceremony.
"Shy lah," he said.
Not so shy was Mr John Shu, a 50-year-old mechanic who generously gave $6,000 to fund the studies of a former drug addict and single mother he had met at a bus stop.
Gregarious and garrulous, the lumbering giant introduced himself to all and sundry, calling everyone "Bro" and "Sister".
He sniffled and wiped away tears when he saw himself in the video The Straits Times had produced for every finalist, but quickly recovered to recommend iced oolong tea to fellow guests, including singer Nathan Hartono - who made Singapore proud by coming in second at last year's Sing! China competition - and Dr Radiah Salim, the doctor who started Club Heal, a charity for those suffering from mental illness.
In his ripped jeans, fire engine red T-shirt and black leather jacket, Mr Hartono was a magnet for autograph hunters and wefie-seekers.
Mr Marc Lim, The Straits Times news editor and one of the judges, said approvingly: "Not bad, quite hunky. A lot of girls and aunties swooning lah."
The finalists and guests had time to mingle while waiting for the arrival of guest of honour, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
He presented the Singaporean of the Year award to the winner, Colin, May and Joseph Schooling. Joseph had put Singapore on the world map by beating swimming great Michael Phelps in the men's 100m butterfly event at the Rio Olympics last August.
On stage, the champion's father told the crowd that they shared Joseph's award with all the finalists.
This award is for all of you, you're all winners, he said.
Meanwhile, Ashvin, when asked what he would do with his $5,000 cash award given to all finalists, said: "I will donate $200 to an old folks' home, give $1,000 to my father, the rest to my mother, and keep $50 for myself."
And what would he do with the $50?
"Buy myself a pair of headphones so that I can listen to music."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'When a nation's heroes gather together'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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