The Value of Giving
Seven long-service volunteer awardees with the Singapore International Foundation share what they gained from giving up their time to help overseas communities.
BY AUDRINA GAN
ILLUSTRATIONS THAM SZEMIN
uilt on the idea that shared skills and experiences can empower communities and uplift lives, the Singapore International Volunteers (SIV) programme of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) has enabled more than 5,500 Singaporean volunteers to improve the lives of thousands of beneficiaries abroad, such as in India, Indonesia, China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
These volunteers have proven to be the perfect citizen ambassadors, by making a difference in global communities and building a better world. On Dec 4 last year, SIF recognised the longstanding service of seven of its SIVs and their commitment towards enriching lives and creating a positive impact on international communities.
We turn the spotlight on these citizen ambassadors and find out their motivations, inspirations and takeaways from volunteering.
“Iʼm touched by the humility and hospitality of the people of Cambodia. It helped me reconnect with the essence of being a doctor, which is to help the sick and to teach and pass on my knowledge.”
Dr Chin Pak Lin
PASSING ON KNOWLEDGE
Orthopaedic surgeon Chin Pak Lin calls himself an “accidental” volunteer. Although he had always wanted to share his medical experience with other medical practitioners in the region, he lacked the impetus to do so until he met Professor Tay Boon Keng. A fellow orthopaedic surgeon, Prof Tay frequently led medical personnel on medical and academic exchanges overseas.
Dr Chin, who runs his own practice at Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre, then became involved in SIF’s Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Project in Cambodia at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital as a specialist volunteer in 2010. Specialist volunteers are trained professionals working in various fields. They include doctors, allied health-care professionals, teachers, social workers and IT specialists.
Dr Chin helped to train doctors in Cambodia in joint replacement surgery for the hip and knee. He also mentored Cambodian health-care professionals during their training attachments in Singapore. Since then, Dr Chin has visited Phnom Penh on SIF missions three times a year and plans to continue volunteering his time if his expertise is needed.
He says his team of volunteers was gratified to have made a positive impact on the community in Cambodia, adding: “Cambodians no longer need to travel overseas to have hip or knee replacement surgery. In the past, they would have flown to Vietnam or Thailand for such surgery. This is now readily available at some private hospitals in Cambodia and at Calmette Hospital, where the procedure is state of the art.”
“I have made new friends and built strong ties with the people I met during the volunteer projects. I have also gained exposure to different health care dynamics.”
Dr Shephali Tagore
SPOTLIGHT ON WOMEN’S HEALTH
Dr Shephali Tagore is a senior consultant in Maternal Fetal Medicine and Director of the International Medical Programs in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH). She became a specialist volunteer with SIF as she hopes to improve women’s health globally, especially in developing countries in Asia.
She says: “There is a lack of access to basic antenatal care, and limited resources and expertise to deal with obstetric emergencies. There is a need to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality in these countries.”
From 2010 to 2013, Dr Tagore taught obstetrics to medical professionals in Vientiane, Laos, to improve their perinatal care and introduced safe clinical practices. She also helped the local medical community to streamline their systems and processes. In 2014, she embarked on another SIF project, this time in Trichy and Chennai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, teaching local health-care staff how to deal with prenatal care and obstetric emergencies. Dr Tagore, who plans to go on more SIF missions to India, hopes that the health-care standards in places where she had volunteered will one day match Singapore’s. She says: “Women die every day during pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these deaths are potentially preventable with effective interventions.”
“Volunteering gives me a chance to contribute to society. At the same time, it strengthens the community, brings people together and builds camaraderie and teamwork. Every volunteer makes a difference.”
Associate Professor Lim Swee Hia
THE ART OF GIVING BACK
For the last seven years, Associate Professor Lim Swee Hia, who is senior director of the SingHealth Alice Lee Institute of Advanced Nursing at the Singapore General Hospital, has been sharing her expertise through SIF’s Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Project in Cambodia and its Cardiac Intensive Care Unit Nursing Project in Vietnam.
As a volunteer, she trains nurses in developing countries to enhance their skills so that they improve patient safety and patient-care outcomes. Some of those trained have been appointed as Master Trainers, passing on what they have learnt to nurses from other hospitals.
In her interactions with the nurses, Prof Lim has come to be inspired by their enthusiasm. She adds: “The nurses, especially the Master Trainers, now have the knowledge and courage to lead others as they challenge and play their part in (developing) nursing skills. They are also empowered to make decisions with their advanced knowledge and skills. With their enhanced competency, the nurses are now recognised by their hospitals and have been promoted to the level of supervisors to lead and guide their own teams.”
“It gives me real joy when I see my volunteering efforts result in new palliative care services, especially in places that previously did not have them.”
Dr Ramaswamy Akhileswaran
Since 2009, Dr Ramaswamy Akhileswaran, a consultant in Palliative Medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital’s Department of Geriatrics, has helped to develop palliative care services in Jakarta, Indonesia, through two SIF specialist volunteer projects. The first project, from 2009 to 2012, helped to develop a paediatric palliative care service for terminally ill children, by training doctors, nurses and allied health workers.
The second project, which started in 2014, trains medical, nursing and allied health professionals to improve existing palliative care services and develop new ones for adults.
He is especially touched by the proactive attitudes shown by the Indonesian health-care workers. “The eagerness to learn and to put to use the knowledge and skills learnt to improve the quality of life of patients and their caregivers is really inspiring, and spurs me to do more,” he says.
The training has already made a difference in hospitals across Jakarta. He says: “The healthcare professionals are now able to manage the symptoms of the palliative care patients and offer them good symptom control options, while providing psychosocial support to their families.”
“These doctors and nurses donʼt earn much, yet they continue to work tirelessly in the public hospitals to take care of the poor who are sick.”
Dr Ng Kee Chong
Since Dr Ng Kee Chong, a paediatrician at KKH, started volunteering with SIF in 2003, his efforts have produced tangible results. In Cambodia, he led an SIF project dealing with emergency paediatrics at Phnom Penh’s National Pediatric Hospital between 2004 and 2007. As a result of better triaging and identification of sick children, as well as an improvement in the skills and knowledge of emergency paediatrics through SIF’s programme, the infant mortality rate at the hospital dropped from 57 per cent to 30 per cent.
He was also part of an SIF team that helped to equip doctors and nurses at the Children’s Hospital in Vientiane with better resuscitation skills and knowledge to better manage acute paediatric emergencies. This collaborative effort between Singapore and Laos has helped to lower Vientiane’s infant and maternal mortality rate.
For Dr Ng, the intangibles resonate most. Volunteering has made him better appreciate the daily struggles experienced by other populations in the region. He has also learnt important lessons from the doctors and nurses he has trained. For example, witnessing hospital staff use a handheld resuscitation device, in the absence of mechanical ventilators, on a sick child to keep him breathing has taught him the value of human attributes like patience and resilience.
“What we learnt was the importance of respecting others and the ability to adapt. We learnt to understand their vision, see what resources they have and collaborate with the local partners to serve their needs.”
Low Siew Hong
A BETTER EDUCATION FOR CHILDREN
Low Siew Hong, who has more than 30 years’ experience in early childhood education, has been a specialist volunteer with SIF since 1999. That year, she embarked on the Early Childhood Care and Development Project in Vietnam, which was followed by a similar project in Myanmar in 2003. In both projects, she helped to set up model preschools and train early childhood educators, parents and social workers.
Low heads the Centre for Professional Qualification at Seed Institute, which grooms early childhood professionals. She is an advocate of providing children with quality education, the primary motivator in her volunteerism.
She believes she has gained even more from taking part in these projects. She was in Myanmar in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis struck and devastated parts of the country, destroying the preschool that her team had helped to build.
She says: “When we stood under the broken roof, teary-eyed, the parents and teachers comforted us and said, ‘Please don’t be sad, we will build a better one!’ Such is their resilience and commitment. This is what inspires me to continue working with them to ensure that their children are given an equal head start in their education.”
“The wider world... shows us ways of life that deepen our shared humanity as well as beauty to astound and enrich us.”
PROVIDING SOCIAL WELFARE TRAINING
John Ang’s first volunteer experience with SIF more than 10 years ago took him to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, where he trained officers from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. Subsequently, his volunteer work took him to the University of Labour and Social Affairs in Hanoi, Vietnam, between 2010 and 2012. There, he shared his knowledge of social work and its teaching in a variety of specialised settings. Ang, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Social Work, says that the training improved classroom liveliness, student engagement and faculty confidence.
One memory from his Vietnam trip remains seared in his mind. He had visited a village near Hanoi with local social workers and spoke to the farmers living there to learn about their issues first hand. Walking around the village and examining the community revealed communal needs, he says, such as a drop-in centre for the elderly when the able-bodied go out to their farms.
He says: “The participants saw how a single day’s visit could offer a richer understanding of issues of daily living. This allows social workers to mobilise people to come together and find solutions. It opens up possibilities for exploring ways of doing social work in the community.”
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