Stories From The Heart

For Singapore’s 50th birthday, Our Better World celebrates the efforts of individuals and organisations from Singapore in doing good and making a difference to world communities.



ecause of Singapore’s small size, it has always been open, connected and outward looking. This global orientation is also reflected in Singaporeans’ concerns for social and environmental issues, which transcend national boundaries, and their contributions to groups and causes overseas.

For Singapore’s 50th birthday, Our Better World, the digital storytelling initiative of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), has cast the spotlight on 12 stories of individuals and groups from Singapore that have made a positive impact on communities in Asia – from helping women find better prospects in life to teaching disadvantaged children.

With their grit, compassion and “just do it” attitude, these people have redefined what real success means. Out of the 12 stories, here are three stories that reveal the heart of Singapore and its people.


The Indonesian island of Pulau Air Raja is less than two hours away by ferry from Singapore, but it is worlds apart from the cosmopolitan buzz of the Republic. With a population of more than 700, the quiet fishing village has no electricity and some households do not even have running water.

Mostly fishermen, the islanders used to rely on homemade kerosene lamps to carry out their activities at night. But this slowly changed in 2010 when Nusantara Development Initiatives (NDI), a non-profit organisation founded in Singapore, started a developmental project in which women were encouraged to become entrepreneurs by selling solar lamps.

Known as the Ibu Rumah Terang (Mothers of Light) Program, NDI trains women from Pulau Air Raja to sell handy, lightweight solar lamps on the island as well as on surrounding islands in the Riau province. NDI sells these lamps to the women at a cost price of US$12 (S$16.50) each. The women then sell them to other villagers at a few dollars more than the cost price. The villagers pay for these lamps by instalment – the amount is often no more than what they would pay for kerosene each week.

These lamps provide clean, affordable and reliable light sources to rural communities, while the profits from their sale give women an additional income to pay for their children’s education and other necessities. There are intangible benefits too. The women entrepreneurs gain self-confidence and start earning greater respect from their community.

Five years on, the programme has been expanded to two other islands in the Riau province, and NDI has extended its operations to Jakarta and Bali. There are now more than 20 Mothers of Light. They have sold more than 3,000 lamps and improved the lives of over 10,000 rural Indonesians.


Volunteering is often seen as an activity that requires ample commitment and great effort on the volunteers’ part. But Gladys Ng, who volunteered with SIF’s Words on Wheels mobile library project in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, argues otherwise.

She says: “Sometimes there’s inspiration when you hear somebody so dedicated to voluntarism (that he or she) puts in 40 hours. But I think that may also discourage people who have very few hours to spare. “I don’t see volunteer work as something that needs to move you in order to draw you to it. Whatever time you have, you just share a little bit of it. Then, it doesn’t become too onerous.”

Some of her other volunteering experiences include visiting seniors at an old folks’ home, and helping to run enrichment classes at a boys’ home. She says: “My involvement in voluntarism has been off and on. When I have the time, I remember it or I hear about it, then I just go for it.”

This was also her approach when she signed up for Words on Wheels. The project, which also operates in Bandung, Indonesia, sees volunteers working with local partners to bring books and educational workshops to schoolchildren.

Ng had fond memories of borrowing books from a mobile library when she was a schoolgirl and wanted other children to have that experience.

For her, it is not the amount of time she gives, but the lives she touches in the process, that motivates her to keep volunteering.

“It’s a great feeling to feel that you’re part of a meaningful project,” she says.


Stepping out of a guesthouse in Siem Reap, former piano teacher Mavis Ching came across a scene that continues today to stir strong emotions in the Singaporean mother of two.

“As basic as food is that feeling, that need to feel that somebody cares about you, that you actually exist in someoneʼs eyes.” Mavis Ching, soup kitchen founder

She recalls: “I saw a kid digging into one of those round, black rubbish bins. He was rifling through it, then he pulled out a plastic bag which had melted ice inside and he drank from it. That was the moment I decided I had to do something here.”

That encounter resulted in her moving to Cambodia to set up a soup kitchen in June 2008. Running out of her home in Siem Reap, the organisation, called Touch A Life, serves free nutritious lunches to about 160 needy children on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Saturdays, she and her team of volunteers deliver food to the children’s villages so they can feed their families too.

Aside from meals, Ching also offers balms, plasters, over-the-counter medicine and hugs to the kids.

She says: “The most popular thing is a Band-Aid. What they want is that bit of attention so I’m happy to paste it on them and just pat them for a little bit.”

Though the concept of a soup kitchen is a simple one, it is more than food that she dishes out.

Ching says: “Food is just a means of getting closer to people. As basic as food is that feeling, that need to feel that somebody cares about you, that you actually exist in someone’s eyes.”




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