ST Singaporean of the Year 2020: They help other rental flat residents who are in need

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Mr Zulkifli Atnawi and his family reached out to help their neighbours in need amid coronavirus outbreak and launched Project Hills to help residents of rental housing estates.
(From left) Ms Zulastri Zulkifli and her father Mr Zulkifli Atnawi. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - When rental flat residents in Mei Ling Street in Queenstown need help with money, food or filling up forms, they look for their "kampung head", Mr Zulkifli Atnawi.

The retired cleaner lives in a two-room rental flat with his four adult children, who gave him the title for his readiness to help others, such as by buying food for the needy.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Mr Zulkifli, 60, and his children checked in on their neighbours, knowing the circuit breaker period would be especially hard on them.

With the little money he had, and donations from his children and friends, he bought groceries for families hit especially hard by the crisis. He said: "Anything that they want or need, I tell them to come to me or to go to my daughter."

Mr Zulkifli's daughter Zulayqha Zulkifli, 26, is a social work associate who won The Straits Times Generation Grit Award 2018.

He has another daughter, 25, who is a student care associate, and a 23-year-old son who is a pastry chef. His eldest child, Mr Zulhaqem Zulkifli, 28, is pursuing a master's degree at Oxford University in Britain on a government scholarship.

The family's care and concern for others also comes from the tough times they themselves have had. When the children were younger, the family slept at the void deck for a time because Mr Zulkifli had lost his job as a technician and sold their family flat. He is now divorced.

Not content with giving out groceries to immediate neighbours, Mr Zulkifli's children recruited volunteers and started going to rental flats in other parts of Queenstown, like Stirling Road, and further afield in Kim Tian Road in Tiong Bahru, as part of an initiative they call Project Hills.

The group, made up of about 70 volunteers, visits residents in these estates with Mr Zulkifli, distributing items and helping with home repairs. They also help people who are brought to their attention, like a homeless family they found living in a cemetery.

Mr Zulhaqem said the aim of Project Hills, which started in April, is to help needy people who may have slipped through the cracks. It also tries to link those who need help with the authorities and non-governmental organisations.

For Mr Zulhaqem, the real reward is the news that the people he and his family have helped are stepping forward themselves to help others.

He said: "I thought that was really wonderful. Without us realising it, a culture has been established. When we help others, they go out on their own and help other neighbours."

Mr Zulkifli waved away words of praise, saying his efforts are something "small". What matters to him, he added, is that he has a chance to give back to society.

He said: "The goodness of man is not measured by his work, status or donations... It's about how much you help others."

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