The Straits Times Asian of the Year 2018: About 'The First Responders'

(Clockwise from top left) Mercy Relief; the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management; Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management; Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma; and the late Mr Ng Kok Choong. PHOTOS: FACEBOOK/ MERCY RELIEF, YOUTUBE/ AHA CENTRE, NG KOK CHOONG, TWITTER, TWITTER/ ANI, AFP
(From left) Mr Marcus Ng and Madam Sharon Ng - the family of the late Mr Ng Kok Choong; Mr Nasaruddin Shafawi, executive director
of Mercy Relief; and Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times.

SINGAPORE - The Straits Times Asian of the Year 2018 was awarded to four men of courage and two disaster relief organisations.

Collectively labelled The First Responders, they are the late Singaporean paraglider Ng Kok Choong, Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma, Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB), 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.

Here is a closer look at them.

1. Ng Kok Choong


The late Mr Ng Kok Choong, a Singaporean paraglider who helped save lives in the Central Sulawesi quake, alongside other individuals who rushed to the scene of disasters, including the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand, for exemplifying the spirit of selflessness seen in individuals who step up to help others when caught in disasters themselves.

When the Sept 28, 2018, earthquake and tsunami struck Palu, most of the foreigners in town for a paragliding event fled.

Not Mr Ng, 53, a former commando, who sat for hours in the dark and risked his life to help a woman trapped under rubble.

His courage left a deep impression on fellow paraglider Francois de Neuville, 29, who told ST later: "Despite the obvious danger of staying there, KC didn't run away. Thanks to him, this woman is alive today and reunited with her family."

Alas, less than a month after escaping death in Palu, Mr Ng was killed in a paragliding accident in India. But the memory of his selfless act lives on.

2. Vijay Varma and P. Rajkumar

Indian Navy Commander (Pilot) Vijay Varma (left) and Captain (Pilot) P. Rajkumar. PHOTOS: TWITTER, CAPTAIN P RAJKUMAR

Indian Navy Commander (Pilot) Vijay Varma and Captain (Pilot) P. Rajkumar for their death-defying rescue flying during the floods in Kerala, India.

With dozens of navy helicopters, India's navy pilots undertook high-risk missions to save people from rooftops and isolated land as the southern state battled a flood crisis in August.

Commander Vijay, 42, who was widely praised for leading the rescue in a district of the state's major port city Kochi, winched up a heavily pregnant woman who gave birth just after being airlifted to safety.

Captain Rajkumar, 54, winched 26 people up from a rooftop in Kochi while hovering between trees and other houses just two days after receiving a medal for saving a fisherman last year. A video of his Sea King helicopter pulling up a wheelchair-bound pregnant woman was widely shared on social media. He ended up with 32 people on board.

3. Sutopo Purwo Nugroho

Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. PHOTO: AFP

Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman, Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB), for putting a face to the hundreds of government and military personnel involved in disaster relief efforts in South-east Asia.

Dr Sutopo, 49, spared no effort in updating the local and international media round-the-clock on the Sept 28 central Sulawesi earthquake even though he was battling Stage 4 lung cancer.

A household name in the disaster-prone archipelago, he has continued to tirelessly be the public face of his country's disaster relief efforts. He has also taken to social media to counter "fake news" on disasters at a time when disinformation can not just spread easily but also cause unwarranted panic and fear, and soldiered on despite the grim prognosis doctors have given him.

He told ST this month: "The meaning of life is not determined by how long you live, but by your contributions to the community. We don't know how long we'll live, but we should do good, and be useful to others. Illness or death is in God's hands, but while I'm still alive, I still want to do my best to serve others."

4. Mercy Relief


Mercy Relief, a home-grown non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been instrumental in humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Mercy Relief marked its 15th anniversary earlier this year, and in the short span of time it has been around, the Singaporean NGO with roots in a Malay/Muslim community group has made an outsized contribution to helping disaster victims in the region.

Since its formation under the auspices of Perdaus, the disaster relief organisation has responded to more than 71 humanitarian tragedies and natural disasters, with more than $34.3 million in relief across 25 countries. It has also set in motion over 50 initiatives for sustainable development, and touched more than two million lives.

It does not just focus on handing out cash aid or supplies, but also works on longer-term programmes to uplift and empower communities in the key areas of water and sanitation, shelter, sustainable livelihoods, healthcare and education.

As the group says on its website: "When disaster strikes, it is easy to see those affected as victims: desolate, destitute, and defeated. Here at Mercy Relief, we see things differently. We see people coming together to help one another, fight back, and protect their way of life. We witness their indomitable spirit, and are committed to supporting it."

5. Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre)


The Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) for leading the region's response to the various disasters that have struck South-east Asia this year - especially in the Philippines, Laos and Indonesia.

The AHA Centre is an inter-governmental organisation established in November 2011 by the Asean member states to facilitate cooperation and coordination of disaster management among themselves. The centre primarily works with the national disaster agencies of the various Asean countries, and partners international, private sector and civil society groups such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the United Nations to deliver aid speedily.

In major disasters, the Jakarta-based centre works closely with the Asean secretary-general to mobilise more resources and coordinate efforts with Asean leaders and other partners.

It also has a stockpile of relief items and continues to build capacity so that an Asean Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ERAT) can be deployed at short notice to support affected members.

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