In the first of a series on SIF’s Citizen Ambassadors, we profile a military man whose difficult growing years have propelled him to help raise the living standards of underprivileged communities in Cambodia.
BY Alywin Chew
To achieve this goal, many Singaporeans and Friends of Singapore enable our work by giving generously of their time, talent and treasure. Their collective efforts bring us closer to being a nation of responsible global citizens.
In particular, Singaporeans play the role of Citizen Ambassadors when they volunteer to work alongside their overseas counterparts to shape new realities, while fostering greater intercultural understanding. All our volunteers abide by the SIF Global Citizens Charter, which sets out the principles, values and behaviours expected of them, based on our mission.
o his trainees and subordinates, Seluasundram Nagalingam may come across as a strict commander with exacting standards. But outside of the office, this master warrant officer from the Singapore Armed Forces is an affable individual who lights up the room with his warm smile and self-effacing humour.
The thousands of Cambodians he has helped through his humanitarian efforts would know this all too well. Since 2013, Sundram – as he is known to his friends – has been a volunteer with Singapore International Foundation (SIF), playing an active role in the organisation’s Water for Life project in Cambodia. Launched in Siem Reap in 2010, the project provides rural communities with access to drinking water through the implementation of cleanwater technology, and educates the locals on better health and hygiene practices. “Water is nature, which nurtures us.
Humans are microcosms of nature. We come from the earth, and we will eventually return to it. I think that by helping people get access to clean water, we are showing gratitude towards nature,” he says. While Sundram claims that he is not spiritual, he does concede that his life philosophy has been shaped by the religious teachings of Ramakrishna Mission Boys’ Home, the Hindu home for youth where he spent much of his childhood. Coming from a single-parent family with many siblings, he decided to join the home to alleviate his family’s financial burden.
“I used to be an underdog in life. It was only after being educated at the Ramakrishna Mission, and joining the army, that I was given the opportunities to progress and excel,” he shares. “That’s why I decided to pay it forward.”
MISSION TO GIVE BACK
Sundram’s journey of volunteerism began when he signed up to help educate and provide medical aid to street children in India. This programme was run by the Ramakrishna Mission, the local branch of a worldwide welfare organisation based on Hindu teachings. To equip himself with the necessary knowledge for the project, he engaged in research to find out what locals lacked the most.
This was when he learnt about the lack of access to clean water – a common problem faced by many underserved communities – as well as the possible solutions that could be applied. In 2013, he put this knowledge to further use when he joined SIF as a volunteer on Water for Life, a community service project by the organisation.
Having made more than a dozen trips to the Cambodian province of Kampong Speu, as well as the city of Siem Reap, he eventually became an SIF Direct Service Trip Leader. The role sees Sundram leading groups of SIF volunteers, including students from the Institute of Technical Education on missions to Cambodia, while managing logistics and liaising with local stakeholders.
This is not to say that he does not have a hands-on approach to demonstrating good hygiene habits to the villagers, or mixing cement and casting them into moulds to create bio-sand water filters. As someone who has taken part in military training exercises in various parts of Southeast Asia, Sundram was already keenly familiar with the culture prior to his inaugural Water for Life trip.
He can, in fact, even speak a little Khmer. As such, he managed to hit the ground running when it came to coordinating project matters with the locals. The main challenge, the father of two recalls, was allaying his family’s anxieties about his safety.
“My wife and kids were initially worried about my frequent trips to Cambodia because they were concerned for my safety. Once, a riot took place in another part of the country when I was there doing volunteer work. I was also in Cambodia when a volcano erupted. It just seems that I’m always in the country at the wrong time!” he jokes.
“ I used to be an underdog in life. It was only after being educated at the Ramakrishna Mission, and joining the army, that I was given the opportunities to progress and excel. That’s why I decided to pay it forward. ”
Seluasundram Nagalingam, master warrant officer, Singapore Armed Forces
To reassure his family of his well-being while he is volunteering overseas, Sundram keeps in constant contact with them and provides them with progress updates.
“I’ve even brought them along for a few trips so that they can see for themselves the good work SIF is doing,” he shares. Convincing his family was one thing, but dealing with scepticism from the locals in the project’s initial stages was another.
This problem, he says, was overcome by persistence and a genuine desire to help. “At first, it might seem that the Cambodians are cold and unfriendly, but that’s not really the case,” he explains.
“It only appears so because they are wary of trusting you – after all, you’re a stranger. But when they see you coming back all the time, and putting in the time and effort to make a difference, they will eventually feel the sincerity and open up.”
Evidently, Sundram’s persistence has paid off. In fact, it was only after he got to know the locals better that he discovered how many of the kids in mountainous regions, such as Kampong Speu, were not receiving an education because it was simply too far to walk to the nearest school. Determined to find a solution for this problem, he started a fund-raising campaign to buy bicycles. This campaign has been ongoing for the past four years.
“I used to be an underdog in life. It was only after being educated at the Ramakrishna Mission, and joining the army, that I was given the opportunities to progress and excel. That’s why I decided to pay it forward.” Seluasundram Nagalingam, master warrant officer, Singapore Armed Forces
Interacting with the Cambodians has also helped him to gain new perspectives in life. According to him, his experiences have taught him humility as well as how to live in the moment. “I’ve learnt from the Cambodians that we should always be grateful for what we have and take nothing for granted. These people hardly worry about tomorrow; they just focus on the present. And despite not having much, they still share everything they have with those around them.
It’s a humbling experience,” he says. On the other hand, he believes that the Cambodians have learnt through their interactions with him and fellow volunteers that Singapore is more than just a wealthy nation in Southeast Asia – it is one that is home to many compassionate people.
As the frequency of the Water for Life projects in Cambodia has started to taper off because many rural areas now have access to clean water, Sundram no longer has to make as many trips to the country. But the 53-year-old hasn’t quite slowed down on his volunteering.
Last year, he took up a leadership position in another SIF programme called Words on Wheels. The initiative provides underserved children in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh City better access to books and information technology through the use of mobile libraries. When asked about what drives him to continue giving back to the less fortunate, Sundram replies with a question. “Have you heard of the starfish story?” he asks.
“It’s about a child who tries to save the countless starfish that were washed ashore after a storm. A man walks past and tells the child that he can’t save all the starfish, but the child continues to toss the creatures back into the sea. And that’s how I view life. No, we can’t save everyone. But the least we can do is try to help as many as we can.”
WATER FOR LIFE
According to a 2015 UNICEF report, of the 748 million people worldwide who lack access to safe drinking water, 50% live in Asia. Since 2010, the SIF’s Water For Life programme has been uplifting lives through the provision of clean water technology and improved hygiene practices to communities in Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia.
55% improvement in regular school attendance due to better health
Brought clean water and hygiene tips to more than 118,000 adults and children
84% improvement in the health of children
82% improvement in health due to reduced frequency of waterrelated illnesses