Beyond The Comfort Zone

Three individuals went from being mere observers to Singapore International Foundation (SIF) volunteers living and working with overseas communities. This comes with its own unique challenges and high points, as their stories reveal.

By Leong Wen Shan, with additional reporting by Melissa De Silva

Lion in the Land of Elephants

Russell Neu Wee Teck, 34
SIF volunteer, English Language Trainer
Institute of Foreign Affairs, Vientiane, Laos
Jul 2008 – Dec 2009
Surviving on a monthly stipend of US$350 taught this volunteer English language trainer that one can have very little materially but be spiritually rich.

“In my time there, I found that if my heart and mind were aligned, I would be able to turn my passion into reality.”

— Russell Neu

Russell Neu, second from right, taking a break from work for a game of football with his Laotian friends. Photo: Russell Neu

“A friend once asked me what I was doing in Laos. Instead of focusing on my teaching career — I was understudy for head of department at a secondary school in Singapore — I decided on a long-term overseas volunteer stint. Didn’t I know better? Only the ugly and unloved would volunteer. As reasoning goes, volunteers do not have children, or are unpopular among their friends, so they have to give their love to the less fortunate. “It has been three-and-a-half years since I left Laos, where I learned about humility. Singapore is very comfortable — the efficient transportation to the plethora of food that is available 24/7, the myriad entertainment options to a very comfortable home. Whilst these were things I was thankful for, I also took them for granted.

“In Laos, I was out of the comfort zone that was Singapore. Food was a 30-minute walk away and available only till about 11pm. Also, certain parts of the town where I stayed were dimly  lit or not at all. I was not used to that after the brightly-lit streets of Singapore. All these made me realise that I was very fortunate to be a Singaporean.

“I saw how the students in schools took learning seriously despite the conditions — dimly-lit classrooms, unevenly paved floors with potholes, zinc roofs that would exacerbate the heat at the height of summer, flaky chalkboards. These things were unheard of in Singapore. Seeing how the students in Vientiane took to learning, I felt that we Singaporeans should be ashamed of ourselves.

“There is a difference between knowing and understanding. I always knew that wants and needs were very different, yet I didn’t really understand that until I went to Laos. Vientiane is not a cheap place. The presence of the many international NGOs raises the cost of living. Food is not cheap and I was eating like a local. There was no need for that extra shirt or latte I would not hesitate to buy were I in Singapore. With a monthly stipend of US$350, I found that that I could survive on very little materially yet receive a lot spiritually and personally.

“In April 2009, a Laotian colleague asked if I could help to build an extra room for the teachers of this school in her village. The teachers shared a room with the students. As a teacher, I knew that was neither a conducive nor comfortable arrangement. Teachers need their own work place. Singapore was still reeling from the National Kidney Foundation fiasco and I was not sure if I could raise the US$2500 needed. Nonetheless, I took photos of the school and sent them to friends and relatives in Singapore. Surprisingly, when I went back in June for my vacation, I managed to raise the sum needed. I was very thankful for the trust and encouragement my friends and relatives placed in me. I bought the materials for the school and the villagers built the room, saving US$700. The savings went to giving the school a fresh coat of paint. I got fellow Singaporeans, my Laotian students who were government officials and the villagers to paint the school. The villagers cooked us a wonderful thank you lunch.

“If raising money for the school touched me the most, then the 1st Laos-Singapore Charity Run must have been my proudest achievement in those 18 months. In October 2009, the 1st Laos-Singapore Charity Run was flagged off by the Singapore Ambassador and the Vice Minister of the Laotian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after six months of planning and coordinating. From conceptualising to carrying out the project, I was very thankful for the advice and assistance of the Singapore Embassy and SIF. The US$15,000 raised went to a school for children with cerebral palsy and to help rebuild schools in the south of Laos that were badly hit by Typhoon Ketsana.

“In my time there, I found that if my heart and mind were aligned, I would be able to turn my passion into reality. On hindsight, this would not have been possible if I did not believe in what I was doing and the impact that it would have on the people of Laos and between the two countries. As author Paulo Coelho wrote, I proved that when I set my heart and soul on doing something, the whole world conspires to help me.”

Making a Difference in Cambodia

Diane Kwok, 28
SIF volunteer, Analyst
Siem Reap Water Quality Laboratory, Slorkram Commune,
Mar – Aug 2010
Analysing water quality data might not sound like the most exciting work, but this volunteer research analyst was driven by knowing that it contributed to over 600,000 Cambodians getting clean drinking water every day.

“For someone who comes from a country where everything is fast and efficient, I have learnt be more patient in my interactions.”

— Diane Kwok

Over 10,000 biosand water filters installed across Cambodia supply clean drinking water to  Cambodians. Photo: Diane Kwok

“The lab that I worked at is part of an NGO called Water for Cambodia and, as its name suggests, is a water-testing facility. My role was to analyse the lab’s water quality data together with its local staff, and help train them in the use of a statistical analysis programme software and in analysis to get meaningful results. And because the organisation had technical advisors in North America, part of my role was to find ways to improve the communication between local staff and its advisors.

“It may sound like very technical and potentially boring work, but the actual impact was immense. For one, the lab is the only water-testing lab within a 200-km radius of the capitalcity of Phnom Penh. While it carries out some commercial testing to help fund the NGO, it also works with Angkor Hospital in investigating the causes of water-borne diseases in their patients — children are often the worst hit. Many of the illnesses could be easily prevented with clean drinking water.

“More importantly, the lab monitors the effectiveness of over 10,000 biosand filters that Water for Cambodia has installed around the country. These filters help supply clean drinking water to more than 600,000 people around Cambodia, and samples need to be regularly tested at the lab to ensure the water’s quality.

“Ten thousand water filters may seem like a large number, but in a country of 15 million people, this just reaches a fraction of those in need. This is also why there is an urgent need to ensure that staff have the expertise and confidence to carry out the work.

Diane Kwok, in red, sightseeing with her Cambodian colleagues. Photo: Diane Kwok

“I realise it is important to keep an open mind and to set new objectives in a changing environment where resources can be tight. In the end, I was glad I managed to analyse and complete the reports that were required in my time there, as well as teach the staff who became quite proficient at using the software before I left.

“What really impressed me about Cambodians is their patience. Their patience in talking and explaining things to you, despite the language barrier, is something I really admire. For someone who comes from a country where everything is fast and efficient, I have learnt be more patient in my interactions.”


Reaching Out to Youth in Bhutan

Gary Chia, 35
SIF volunteer, Youth Development trainer
Department of Youth and Sports (DYS), Ministry of Education,
Thimphu, Bhutan
Mar – Nov 2013
A volunteer comes to appreciate the challenges faced by his peers as he learns about the very real social issues that Bhutan faces.

Gary Chia conducting a life skills workshop with colleagues from the Bhutan Ministry of Education. Photo: Gary Chia

“I’m here to share skills with the local youth trainers. Another part of my work as an in-field volunteer is to get to know and understand the youth so I can better understand what the trainee trainers need to deal with. There is a high percentage of out of school youth in Thimphu due to rural-urban migration on a big scale. Some are unemployed and end up joining gangs, taking drugs. It’s the family that takes care of its own children, so in the city, the young people have little support with their families away in the villages.

“I do the same kind of work with at-risk youth back home with CARE Singapore. In Singapore, I’m a local and I can speakdialect like Hokkien. I know the way things work. In Singapore it’s also more structured, for example, we have weekly structured programmes that we carry out in the schools. “Here, the youth don’t come to you. I have learned that you have to go out and get them. So I have gone trawling the streets on a couple of occasions, just to see what their scene is like. But I am told it’s not as safe here to roam the streets. Also, some of the youth may turn up for the first day of a life skills workshop, but not the second day.

Group work and role-play feature heavily in the life skills workshop for out-of-school Bhutanese youth between 18 and 30 years. Photo: Gary Chia

“One thing I try is to tell the youth who do come to the centre is to bring their friends. So I must develop a good relationship with them. I’ve also come up with a system of volunteer management. I get them to mentor the younger ones, since most are older youth between 19 and 25 years old. “Another challenge is that the youth centre is not very well equipped, so I have to find ways to entertain them. We can play indoor games like chess, carrom and board games and outdoor sports. And on the weekends, some of the youth are quite kind and ask if I’d like to go around with them, so I hang out with some of them and get to know them and their current situation better.

“My biggest achievement so far is being able to build a close bond with the youth, given our different cultures and backgrounds, within these four months. They are generally very quiet, most being from the countryside, but like any other youth, they are intelligent and have lots of potential.

“One thing I’ve done is organise a two-day workshop for out-of-school youths. We explored topics like self-awareness, effective communication skills and goal-setting. This aims to equip them with skills and knowledge for applying for jobs. “Another thing is I’ve set up a music programme, as part of the centre’s drop-in activities. The youths interested in music come in daily to practice at the music room in the youth centre. So far, three bands have been formed and they have performed for a number of events, including the youth centre’s summer vacation programme in July.

During the workshop, youth are taught communication skills, especially on how to say no assertively to avoid falling prey to vices and bad influences. Photo: Gary Chia

“There is a 22–year-old I really connect with. He’s very interested in music. He lives in the youth centre compound because his mother works as one of the caretakers. He used to be part of a gang, got into fights and went to prison for a while. When he came out, he came to the youth centre and that’s when we met. There is a music room with equipment at the youth centre so that helps him express himself. He wants to be a musician, but there are little opportunities for musicians here. He plays the guitar well and sings beautifully. He’s a nice, gentle guy, but just has some anger management issues. He’s keen to change and wants a brighter future so I’m trying to find out more about Bhutanese social systems which can support him.”

Volunteering with the Singapore International Foundation Whether you wish to commit long-term or prefer to explore short-term projects, the SIF can match your expertise and enthusiasm with the right opportunities. All you need to do is take that first step. For volunteering opportunities, visit





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