From striking gold at the Asean Para Games after losing three limbs and an eye, to producing an Eisner-winning graphic novel on Singapore’s political history, their deeds have made them headliners in 2017.
Now as the year draws to a close, the nominees for Singaporean of the Year are looking forward to another productive year.
Para-athlete Jason Chee will be training hard for the Asian Para Games as he continues to use table tennis therapy to help patients at Yishun Community Hospital – in line with his goal to “live life to the fullest with positivity”.
Award-winning conductor Wong Kah Chun is looking forward to his debut with the Czech Philharmonic, a four-city concert tour of Japan and his leadership of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra.
He will also be continuing his music education initiative, Project Infinitude, with the children at non-profit institution Child at Street 11, he said.
Dr Goh Wei Leong, co-founder of charity HealthServe, which provides affordable medical care to migrant workers, hopes “every migrant worker will be able to experience a deeper level of real Singaporean compassion, generosity, justice and friendship”.
Lawyer Satwant Singh, who has been helping to rebuild schools in Punjab, India, every December for the past 14 years, said: “I wish that Singaporeans would come forward to help more and be less critical and not quick to judge others.”
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Film-maker Kirsten Tan, whose debut feature Pop Aye was picked as Singapore’s submission to the 90th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category, wants to spend 2018 “dreaming up a new storm”.
Cartoonist Sonny Liew, who won three Eisner awards for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, hopes “to learn just a little more, while not forgetting too much”.
Ms Qin Yunquan, co-founder of Kapap Academy, which teaches self-defence, plans to keep on “empowering ordinary people, especially disadvantaged women and children”.
Public voting for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2017 award begins today, and the outcome will be used as a reference by the 15 judges when making their final decision.
Joseph Schooling and his parents, May and Colin, won last year’s award after he took home Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal in the 100m butterfly. In 2015, Madam Noriza A. Mansor won hearts when she helped a senior who soiled himself in public.
The Singaporean of the Year will receive $20,000 and a trophy, while the other nine finalists will each get $5,000. The prize money is sponsored by UBS.
The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony on Feb 6. President Halimah Yacob will be the guest of honour.
Caring for migrant workers
DR GOH WEI LEONG, 57, & HEALTHSERVE
Since its first clinic for migrant workers opened in 2007, HealthServe’s track record has been nothing short of robust.
The charity offering affordable medical and dental care now has clinics in Geylang, Mandai and Jurong. Its consultations doubled from fewer than 4,000 in 2015 to nearly 8,000 by the end of last year. In the first three quarters of this year, it helped 445 migrant workers over work injury and salary-related issues.
But co-founder Goh Wei Leong, 57, is cautious about the organisation growing too quickly. In the year ahead, HealthServe will pump more resources into research and to campaign for causes.
“When we grow too fast, we may compromise some of our deeper values,” he said, and fostering a sense of community is paramount.
He added: “Our dream is to work ourselves out of a job. To close HealthServe once there is enough public responsibility, and workers are cared for by employers.”
Fighting on despite setbacks
MR JASON CHEE, 34
Jason Chee, 34, lost his legs, left arm and three fingers on his right hand after a naval accident in 2012.
After the accident, he spent 14 months in rehabilitation and about a year learning to stand and walk.
He not only returned to work within 18 months of the accident, but also set himself the goal of representing Singapore in para-sports.
Picking up table tennis, Chee made his Singapore debut in the Asean Para Games (APG) in 2015, and won a silver.
He was training for this year’s APG when he was diagnosed with cancer of the right eye and was told he had to have surgery to remove it.
Just four months later, in September, he was crowned champion in the men’s singles Class 2 at the Kuala Lumpur games.
Chee, who has a desk job as a training specialist at Changi Naval Base and attends night classes, said: “A lot of people ask, why are you so determined, despite losing so many things? I just tell them, we only live once. We have to fight on.”
Eyeing win at Academy Awards
KIRSTEN TAN, 36
Film-maker Kirsten Tan’s debut feature Pop Aye was recently picked as Singapore’s submission to the 90th Academy Awards in the Foreign Language Film category. The road movie, about a disillusioned Thai architect and his elephant friend, won prizes at the Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals, both firsts for a Singaporean.
“I hope to push boundaries, yet stay generous to the audience… and not pander to the most basic instincts,” said the 36-year-old.
With multiple award-winning short films and documentaries under her belt, she also makes a living doing commercial work for the likes of Giorgio Armani.
Tan, who has a master’s in film production from New York University, remembers the initial difficulties. “For the longest time, I was putting in my own money. The scary thing was not knowing whether my years of effort would amount to anything.
“You definitely need to be a bit nuts. You have to love your craft.”
Flying high in indoor skydiving
KYRA POH, 15
When she was in primary school, she dreamed of being able to fly.
These days, 15-year-old Kyra Poh “flies” every day, whirling and somersaulting inside a vertical wind tunnel – all part of a sport known as indoor skydiving.
The School of the Arts student won the freestyle junior title at the biennial FAI World Indoor Skydiving Championship in October, to add to another freestyle junior title she won last year, cementing her reputation as a top young talent in the sport. She also won two gold medals at the annual Wind Games held in Spain this year.
All this began when her mother was helping indoor skydiving facility iFly with advertisements about seven years ago. iFly needed a child to appear in its ads – and Kyra was roped in.
Said Kyra: “I would never have thought this was a sport I could have represented my country in.”
Her goal is to represent Singapore in the Olympics, but she will have to wait for it to be an Olympic sport first, she added.
Duo doused KPE fire in 10 mins
MOHAMAD FUAD ABDUL AZIZ, 36, & SYED ABDILLAH ALHABSHEE, 37
It was nearly 7pm on a weekday in August and emergency responders Mohamad Fuad Abdul Aziz and Syed Abdillah Alhabshee were on their way home.
Just as Mr Syed Abdillah, 37, was about to drive their ambulance into the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway tunnel, they heard a loud explosion.
About 30m inside the tunnel, the front of a Trans-Cab taxi was engulfed in flames. Thankfully, the cabby had stepped out of the taxi.
The duo got out of the ambulance, helped close off the middle lane to traffic, and rushed to put out the fire before the Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived.
Their quick reaction prompted people to hail them as heroes on social media.
Some Gurkhas who were in a van in front of the cab also helped the duo as they put out the fire.
Mr Fuad, 36, and Mr Syed Abdillah doused the blaze in 10 minutes, using a hose near a fire extinguisher from the tunnel.
Only 18, he’s saved about 20 lives
MUHAMMAD LUQMAN ABDUL RAHMAN, 18
Muhammad Luqman Abdul Rahman is just 18, but has already made a difference in the lives of many.
Many strangers have had cause to call the teenager a lifesaver.
He has been performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on people in the vicinity who need help. He does so through the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s MyResponder app, launched in 2015.
It alerts users within 400m whenever someone suffers a heart attack and to call for an ambulance.
Luqman, who runs or cycles to the scene – be it from home or on his way to school – said he has hitherto saved about 20 lives.
In almost all of the cases, he performed chest compression before paramedics arrived.
Luqman started taking lessons in CPR at age 13 at a private training centre, after he saw his friends in uniformed groups learning it.
“I thought I should give it a shot. It is a simple skill. All you need is the power of your two hands,” said the teenager.
Teaching self-defence to masses
QIN YUNQUAN, 28
Kapap Academy chief executive and co-founder Qin Yunquan, 28, wants to teach self-defence to the masses. The 1.62m-tall instructor teaches a version of Kapap, a form of Israeli martial arts.
The academy, which was founded in 2008 and had about 8,000 students this year, tweaked the original version to better suit real-life situations. Programmes are free or subsidised for needy seniors and former victims of crimes, who also get free counselling.
“Once I started hearing stories of the victims, it pulled at my heartstrings. I didn’t want to sit by and do nothing,” said Ms Qin, who picked up Kapap when she was 19 and recovering from anorexia.
Ms Qin, winner of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award 2017, said the academy hopes to license its programme to partners in India, Malaysia, China and Australia.
A version of the self-defence system will be taught to underprivileged and rural girls in India for free. The aim is to help more than 100,000 of them in five years.
Lending a hand to Punjab schools
SATWANT SINGH, 53
Every December for the past 14 years, lawyer Satwant Singh and a team of volunteers have lent a hand to schools in Punjab, India.
This year, Mr Singh, 53, went to the village of Ratokke in the state’s Sangrur district with a team of 20 young Singaporeans, who stayed with the villagers as part of a fortnight-long project. They helped renovate the village’s rundown school, build a library and stock it with 3,000 books, install a water filtration system and rebuild the toilets.
Their efforts are part of Project Khwaish, which Mr Singh set up with the Young Sikh Association – an organisation he started with some friends in 2003.
The National Youth Council supplies some of Project Khwaish’s funding, with Mr Singh and his volunteers raising the rest.
Mr Singh, who is vice-chairman of Mercy Relief and comes from a humble background, said: “Volunteering is never about just doing an act. You interact with people, share stories about yourself. There’s that hope you inspire in them.”
Winning ‘Oscars’ of comic world
SONNY LIEW, 43
Sonny Liew, 43, creator of graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, scooped up three Eisner awards at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards in July.
The cartoonist is the first Singaporean to win an Eisner; the awards are considered the Oscars of the comic world.
Liew’s graphic novel looks at Singapore’s political history through the eyes of fictional artist Charlie Chan, focusing on the 1950s and 1960s when the People’s Action Party rose to power. “Singapore should explore its history more, and look at more different narratives about its past,” he said.
Liew, who came to Singapore from Malaysia when he was five, became a Singaporean when he was working on the graphic novel.
The defining moment was Singapore’s 2011 General Election, the first one he “really felt engaged in”.
Liew’s graphic novel had its funding withdrawn by the National Arts Council in 2015 due to “sensitive content”, sparking debate about funding for the arts here.
Going the extra mile for concerts
WONG KAH CHUN, 31
Conductor Wong Kah Chun, 31, goes the extra mile to prepare for concerts, including observing orchestras incognito.
Wong, who won the first prize at the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany last year, said: “I like to do research on the orchestras I am working with. If I have time, I fly to the city and listen to their concerts first.”
Wong, who gained international attention after his win, is now on a tour of more than 24 concerts in 20 cities. From next September, he will be chief conductor of Germany’s Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, the first Asian in this role.
He won Singapore’s Young Artist Award in October.
Last year, he co-founded Project Infinitude, a ground-up arts project for children, and had a successful pilot with the Enabling Village. He is now working with childcare agency Child at Street 11.
“Cultural philanthropy is wonderful. Especially in a society that is quite capitalistic, it would be nice to set an example,” he said.