'The First Responders' are The Straits Times' Asians of the Year 2018

This year, the Asian of the Year awardees – four people and two organisations – were chosen by The Straits Times for their commitment to disaster relief and courage for stepping up in the moment of greatest need.
(Clockwise from top left) Mr Ng Kok Choong, Indian Navy helicopter pilots Vijay Varma and P. Rajkumar,  Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), and Mercy Relief.
(Clockwise from top left) Mr Ng Kok Choong, Indian Navy helicopter pilots Vijay Varma and P. Rajkumar, Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), and Mercy Relief.PHOTOS: NG KOK CHOONG, TWITTER, TWITTER/ ANI, AFP, YOUTUBE/ AHA CENTRE, FACEBOOK/ MERCY RELIEF

SINGAPORE - Four men of courage and two disaster relief organisations collectively labelled The First Responders are The Straits Times Asians of the Year.

The late Mr Ng Kok Choong, the Singaporean paraglider who was acclaimed for his rescue work in the aftermath of the earthquake in Central Sulawesi; Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma whose death-defying rescue flying saved dozens of lives during the floods in Kerala, India; and Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB), were the four men named for the 2018 award.

Also recognised were Singapore's Mercy Relief and the Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre).

The winners were announced at Wednesday's (Nov 28) The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum 2019.

"When calamity strikes, the natural instinct of human beings is to flee. Yet there is a breed of man who, rather than leave the scene, swivels around to confront danger and fight. Risking their own lives, they protect the herd. The four of you, as well as the AHA Centre and Mercy Relief, exemplify the best of your breed," said the award citation.

"As First Responders, your courage, selflessness, calculated risk-taking and presence of mind have mitigated many a terrible situation. By putting yourself in harm's way, your work has turned many certain defeats into stalemates, and stalemates into victories. Your - often lonely - soldiering has been society's good fortune. Asia owes you, your families and the institutions that moulded your lives and personalities," it added.

In deciding to honour The First Responders - only the second time the award has gone to a group since it was instituted in 2012 - ST editors kept in mind the fact that across Asia, the scale of disasters and the extent of devastation they cause has increased over the past decade.

This year, Japan suffered some of its worst floods in recent memory, as did the southern Indian state of Kerala. Indonesia has been struck by more than one severe earthquake. Four South-east Asian nations are listed among the top 10 countries worldwide prone to disasters stemming from climate change issues.

 
 
 

For these reasons, it did not take long for the editors to arrive at their decision.

The AHA Centre, Mercy Relief and the men named have operated in plain sight, the citation said. Amid large scale flooding, earthquakes and a variety of other disasters, they have served as a beacon of selflessness and the finest instincts of mankind - to preserve and protect the flock at the cost of their own lives, if necessary.

Said Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English, Malay, Tamil Media Group, and editor of The Straits Times: "The First Responders were picked after the briefest of debates because theirs was a standout case of courage and selflessness. In an Asia witnessing disasters of increasing frequency and intensity, it is clear that there is nothing like 'over there' anymore - we all are equally affected. These men, and the two organisations we picked, have taught us through personal example that at the end of the day, security is indivisible."

One of this year's winners, Mr Ng, is a posthumous awardee. Mr Ng’s widow Sharon, who was present to receive the award from Mr Fernandez, said she was gratified that her late husband’s selfless act had been recognised.

“It was something he’d have done anywhere, anytime,” Mrs Ng, accompanied by her 28-year-old son Marcus, told ST. “He was a man of action and an example to others that everyone can help in some way. If Kok Choong had been alive, he’d have been thrilled to bits.”

Mercy Relief executive director Nasaruddin Shafawi said the award for his organisation came as a pleasant surprise, more so since Mercy Relief had just celebrated its 15th anniversary.

“This has been a year of back-to-back challenges,” he said. “Since August, we’ve responded to no less than five major disasters, including the Japan floods and the Sulawesi tsunami and earthquake.”

The Straits Times Asian of the Year award, announced towards the year-end, has become an important part of the Asian calendar. The inaugural award went to then Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein, followed by a joint award for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, and to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. In 2015, the award was given posthumously to Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

In 2016, five Asian pioneers working in the intersection of technology and commerce were honoured as The Disruptors - the first time the award went to a group. Mr Xi was Asian of the Year in 2017.

Said Mr Jeremy Au Yong, ST's foreign editor: "In a year where personalities and egos often made the news for the wrong reasons, we could think of no more deserving candidates than the many people who behaved selflessly - for no reward other than simply knowing it was the right thing to do.

"The Straits Times correspondents spread across Asia often got to see first hand how these unsung heroes - through sometimes little things, like sharing what few rations they had - made a tremendous impact. This is the Asian story we think deserves telling this year, the story of hope amid despair."

ST CITATION FOR THE FIRST RESPONDERS

  • The late Ng Kok Choong, paraglider, for his rescue work in the aftermath of the Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, earthquake, alongside other individuals who rushed to the scene of disasters, including the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand
  • Indian Navy Commander (Pilot) Vijay Varma and Captain (Pilot) P. Rajkumar for their death-defying rescue flying during the floods in Kerala, India
  • Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman, National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB), Indonesia
  • Mercy Relief
  • The Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre)

While much of Asia has been fixated on geostrategic issues for most of the year, many in the region have tended to overlook the significance of the threat posed by disasters. Like blows to the back of the head, they have often surprised us, stunning in their savagery.

The scale of disasters, and the extent of devastation they cause, has only increased over the decade past. This year, Japan has suffered some of its worst floods in recent memory, as too the southern Indian state of Kerala. Indonesia has been struck by more than one severe earthquake. Four South-east Asian nations are listed among the top 10 countries worldwide that are prone to disasters stemming from climate change issues.

It is clear that when it comes to disasters of epic scale, there is no "over there" anymore. Everyone in Asia, countries large and small, rich and poor, is equally vulnerable.

When calamity strikes, the natural instinct of human beings is to flee. Yet there is a breed of man who, rather than leave the scene, swivels to confront danger and fight. Risking their own lives, they protect the herd. Each of you exemplify the best of your breed.

As First Responders, your courage, selflessness, calculated risk-taking and presence of mind have mitigated many a terrible situation. By putting yourself in harm's way, your work has turned many certain defeats into stalemates, and stalemates into victories. Your - often lonely - soldiering has been society's good fortune. Asia owes you, your families and the institutions that moulded your lives and personalities.

The Straits Times Asian of the Year award honours a person, people, or institution who has contributed significantly to their society, nation, or the wider Asian continent. In recognising you for the 7th Asian of the Year award - only the second time we have bestowed this recognition on a group of people - we also hope that more Asians will be motivated to follow in your footsteps and step up to the challenges we face.

You have taught us through personal example that at the end of the day, security is indivisible. It is a truth that must be imbibed by all.