Tough childhood spurred Singaporean of the Year winner to help others, build bridges

Surviving homelessness and other challenges gave winner courage to serve and work to promote religious harmony

Ms Siti Noor Mastura, 28, moulded the shackles of her childhood struggle into bridges that connect people through faith and poverty alleviation.

But there were years when The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year had to stay strong, for the sake of her mother and siblings, and hold on to the hope that there would be light beyond the darkness.

After the divorce of her parents when she was 17, Ms Noor Mastura, the second of four girls, and her siblings endured many nights of homelessness and hunger.

Over five years, they moved 11 times with their mother. "We reached a point where we just had our belongings in trash bags and carried them from place to place," said Ms Noor Mastura.

To compound matters, her mother sank into depression, and her older sister struggled with bipolar disorder.

Faced with the family's financial challenges, Ms Noor Mastura finished secondary school and went out to work as a relief and freelance drama teacher.

"Those dark times moulded me into the person I am now and gave me the faith and courage to help others," she told The Straits Times yesterday after receiving her award from President Halimah Yacob in a ceremony at the Istana.

Eventually, her mother's brother came to their rescue and helped them buy a flat. Ms Noor Mastura got her licence as a property agent, and became a flight attendant.

In 2013, she started Back2Basics with two friends, distributing groceries that they paid for out of their own pocket to a few needy families once a month. That has grown into an organisation supporting some 31 families now.

Then, in 2015, she founded the Interfaith Youth Circle (IYC) with a former school classmate, in response to the fragile state of religious harmony, she said.

The year before, she had written a letter, which she e-mailed to 200 churches here, denouncing the atrocities committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group against Christians in Mosul, Iraq.

In her letter, she reiterated that Muslims stood in solidarity with Christians for peace. It garnered many positive responses online and from church leaders.

Encouraged, Ms Noor Mastura became interested in taking part in interfaith dialogues, but found that many of these were only for academics or invited guests.

Upon a friend's recommendation, she attended a Cambridge University summer programme in interfaith work and came back to start IYC.

The non-governmental organisation conducts monthly scriptural reasoning sessions, where people of various faiths discuss religious texts from different faiths, but of the same theme.

 
 
 
 

It also runs campaigns like Break Bread Build Bridges, which encourages people from a community who celebrate a religious festival to host someone who is not from that faith but would like to experience it or learn more about it.

Muslims open their homes to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri with strangers from other religions, and Christians do the same during Christmas.

"I want to create safe spaces for our youth to have honest conversations about their faiths," said Ms Noor Mastura, who has hosted several novel interfaith initiatives, such as involving the Jewish community in breaking fast with Muslim Singaporeans during Ramadan as well as holding a dialogue on homosexuality with priests and gay activists last year.

On winning The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award, she said it was a team effort.

"I am very humbled," she said. "I am very certain that this award doesn't just belong to me. Like they say, it takes a whole village to raise a child; it takes a whole community behind this award. There is an entire community behind the award, whether it is my family, (or) the interfaith team."

The award, organised by The Straits Times and sponsored by UBS Singapore, honours Singaporeans who have put the country on the world map, persevered through incredible adversity or made the community a better place through selfless acts. It is now in its fourth year.

Social entrepreneur and activist for children and women Saleemah Ismail said Ms Noor Mastura's work building bridges between faiths among youth "is important work to help mitigate the hate rhetoric and fearmongers in our current climate".

Ms Saleemah, 50, who was also part of the judging panel, added: "Peace comes when we understand and respect each other. And her interfaith work is about helping youth from different faiths to understand and respect each other."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2019, with the headline 'Tough childhood spurred her to help others, build bridges'. Print Edition | Subscribe