Special needs students learn to bake cookies, tend to gardens during internship at Istana

President Halimah Yacob with students (from left) Murial Chua Ming Hui, Neo Boon Fan and Muhammad Yamin Mohd Yazid, all 16 years old, at the Istana Kitchen on Oct 25, 2017. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - After watching baking videos on YouTube, Murial Chua, 16, decided she wanted to be a baker.

"I was inspired by the colours and the decorations," said Murial, who has a mild intellectual disability.

She took a step towards fulfilling her dream when she landed an internship at the Istana, where she has learnt to bake cookies and kuehs over the past two weeks.

Murial is among seven Secondary 4 students from the Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) Katong School who are on the internship at the Istana kitchen and Spice Garden.

Over 10 sessions lasting 32 hours in all, the interns either learn cooking skills from the Istana's chefs or horticultural knowledge from National Parks Board curators. The programme aims to boost their chances of getting full-time jobs.

On Wednesday (Oct 25), President Halimah Yacob met the interns at their workplaces and chatted with them over cakes and spring rolls the interns helped prepare.

She told reporters she was keen on the internship as she was told it is not easy for APSN to secure such stints for their students, and called on employers to do more.

"Students really need these internships and it does not take a lot for (employers) to provide that kind of experience, knowledge and skills to them. You may need to modify the work processes a little bit here and there, but those are not insurmountable obstacles," she said.

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It is the first time students with special needs are interning at the official residence of the President, although there have been interns from polytechnics.

Istana's junior sous-chef Muhammad Adi Rezza Fauzilan, 28, coached Murial and three other food and beverage interns. Instead of having a rigid plan, he asked the students what they wanted to learn, and they chose baking, he said.

"It's my first time working with students with special needs. They are not that different from other students. They may lack focus but are way more driven to learn," he said.

The idea for the internship originated from Madam Halimah's visit to APSN's Centre for Adults last month - her first public event as President. After the visit, APSN Katong School's culinary trainer and job coach Han Xuan Chou - who used to work as a chef at the Istana - pitched the idea to his former Istana supervisor.

The school's principal Yazilah Amir said students apply skills like stamina and discipline during the internship. She hopes to lengthen the duration and involve more students if there are future runs.

Horticulture intern Muhammad Solehan Hamid, 16, who has a mild intellectual disability, said he appreciated the chance to work independently. One task he found challenging was transplanting herbs like holy basil into the garden, as soil must be packed carefully around the plants to keep them upright.

"But I just keep pushing myself to do better. I feel like I've improved a bit so far and I want to continue to learn more skills," he said.

Madam Halimah said that with guidance, students with special needs can contribute meaningfully.

She added: "I hope more employers will open their doors, open their hearts and provide opportunities to our students, so that we truly mean what we say when we talk about being an inclusive society."

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