Stories > From Singapore With Love

2020 • Issue 2

From Singapore With Love

Relief Singapore founder Jonathan How doesn’t just want to help those affected by disasters – he wants Singaporeans to be at the forefront of such humanitarian efforts.



onathan How has always had a penchant for following his heart. As an adolescent, he abandoned his A levels simply because he aspired to study music at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music in Boston.

After completing his mandatory National Service, however, he decided to give up his musical dream. Instead, he switched to accountancy studies and took on a conventional but lucrative career in a bank – all for the sake of providing for his girlfriend, whom he was determined to marry, and their future family.

A few years later, he made a 180-degree turn and set up a café-cum-art gallery. In the following years, he went on to work for organisations in different sectors, letting his capricious nature lead the way.

After embarking on a volunteer trip to Thailand to help displaced individuals in 2008, How once again indulged the stirring in his heart. This time round, however, his decision would impact not just himself and his loved ones, but the world.

Four years after that fateful trip, he set up World Refugee, a non-governmental organisation that provides humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to people around the globe.

The organisation was renamed Relief Singapore (RSG) in 2014, reflecting his secondary objectives with this project. “One of my goals for RSG is to rally Singaporeans to help those with humanitarian needs. This is why our mantra is ‘From Singapore With Love’, and our corporate colours are red and white,” says the 48-year-old.

“I think one of my motivations for doing this work is the realisation that like many Singaporeans, I have my own roof over my head, do not struggle to find clean water, and have easy access to quality healthcare and education. Most refugees do not enjoy what my fellow Singaporeans and I enjoy, and they yearn for a better life.”

To arm himself with the necessary knowledge and skills, How travelled to countries such as Nepal and Thailand to attend humanitarian training, exhibitions and conferences, as well as network with people in the industry.

Jonathan How and his team of volunteers have gone on humanitarian missions to countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Vanuatu, Nepal and Malaysia to help with relief efforts during natural disasters or displacement occurrences.

How then hit the ground running. In the first two years of operations, he led volunteers to the Philippines and Thailand. In 2014, under the banner of RSG, he and his volunteers provided humanitarian assistance to those affected by the floods in Malaysia, Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, and the earthquake in Nepal.

As well prepared as he tried to be, challenges were inevitable. He recalls that during the initial stages, finding enough volunteers to go on relief missions was one of the key problems. Social media and word of mouth eventually came to his rescue.

“Many of our supporters are on Facebook and Instagram. Whenever they help spread the word on upcoming missions, their friends take note, especially if these supporters have gone on field missions with RSG,” he says. “Publicity by word of mouth is equally important. Experience in the field also strengthens the testimony of our volunteers when they tell their friends about RSG.”

“I still remember these wise words that were going around: Focus on doing the work well, and news of the good work done will naturally follow. That is, don’t worry too much about seeking publicity. It’ll come eventually if you do good work,” he notes.

“One Of My Goals For Relief Singapore Is To Rally Singaporeans To Help Those With Humanitarian Needs. This Is Why Our Mantra Is ‘From Singapore With Love’”

Jonathan How, Founder, Relief Singapore

Other issues faced in the initial years stemmed from working with local partners. Besides translation and communication issues that hampered operations, some locals did not appear as cooperative as How had hoped they would be. There was little he could do except to bite his lip and take things in his stride.

Having patience, he says, is necessary in this line of work. To raise funds for his missions, he relies on the goodwill of his private donors. He has also taken to fundraising platforms to garner support.

In 2015, for instance, he launched a campaign on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to purchase N95 masks and respirators for villagers and firefighters in haze-affected zones in Indonesia.

Being in places where the spectre of death looms at every corner has been an unsettling experience, but it is also one that allows for emancipating introspection. For instance, How has learnt that becoming desensitised to scenes of death and destruction does not necessarily lead to a loss of compassion.

He recalls breaking down as he recounted to his wife the grim scenes he witnessed in Tacloban City in the Philippines while on a mission there to help those affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The image of the three body bags left along the road are still seared into his mind.

“Over time, as I went on more missions, I became less emotional and this made me worry about losing my capacity for empathy and compassion,” he says. “Thankfully, my compassion for others has remained intact. Now, whenever I head out to the field and witness suffering and pain, I tell myself to be steadfast and not waver, because the quality of my help depends on it.”

These experiences have also had a profound impact on the way he views life. Material desires, he says, no longer have a place in his life. And while he once – like many foodies do – lived for the joy of eating, he now exercises prudence when it comes to gastronomic indulgence.

Adeline Chan, a Singaporean who volunteered during a mission to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, had a similarly poignant experience.

“I think being on trips like these somehow hits home the paradox that it’s always those who don’t have much that seem to give the most,” she says. “I certainly witnessed that in Bangladesh – a country which already struggles to provide for its large population of over 150 million people – which takes in close to a million refugees. Some might say there are political reasons behind it, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it has to carve out resources to take care of the refugees.

“This made me more cognisant of the fact that, here in Singapore, we have so many Bangladeshi workers supporting us in the most underrated but essential services, and most of us are hardly aware of what goes on in their country.”

Relief SG volunteers spend time talking to local children in Bangladesh and providing them with learning materials.

For How, working alongside local volunteers has also proven to be an eyeopening cultural learning experience that has helped to break down initial misconceptions. He recalls an incident when he initially thought that local volunteers in Tacloban City were being indifferent to efforts by RSG’s volunteers to clear the debris from a supermarket decimated by the typhoon.

“I Have Discovered That The Filipinos Are A Rugged Lot Who Love Their Mountains, And Rivers; That The Bangladeshis Are Exuberant And Witty; And The Malaysians Can Bond Strongly With Singaporeans And Yet Hold On To Their National Pride.”

“But the Filipinos soon began labouring alongside us, matching our determination and exertion. It was exhausting, but when it ended, there were smiles all around, and we even took a memorable group photograph.

We later realised that the locals were not indifferent; they were initially passive because they were traumatised,” he says.

“Through my interactions with people of various nationalities, I have discovered that the Filipinos are a rugged lot who love their mountains, valleys and rivers; that the Bangladeshis are exuberant and witty; and the Malaysians can bond strongly with Singaporeans and yet hold on to their national pride fiercely.”

His foreign peers have also managed to glean some lessons about Singaporeans through him. Among them is Emmanuel Batungbacal, a Filipino volunteer who has been helping with missions in the Philippines and Nepal since May 2015.

“I find most Singaporeans are kind and genuine, not because they are capable and can afford it, but because they have an innate desire to help others,” he says. “Through my work with RSG, I’ve learnt that life is truly subjective. What seems like chaos to one person might simply be reality to another. I just need to see the good side of everything.”

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