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CELEBRATING THE SINGAPORE SPIRIT

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// STORY KOH ENG BENG
// PHOTOS CHUA SOON LYE & COURTESY OF HOMAGE, OUR GRANDFATHER STORY, SUSTAINABLE LIVING LAB & BETTER THAN NORMAL / ILLUSTRATION KUAH ZHI MING

As Singapore celebrates its 53rd birthday, values such as strength and resilience are more important than ever as the nation enters an era of new challenges.

The potential for forging an even brighter future for the nation is tremendous – if Singaporeans can stay united, be enterprising, and most importantly, help one another.

We Are Singapore – this year’s NDP theme, which shares the same name as the classic NDP song, aims to remind Singaporeans of the values of past generations, and to overcome adversity together. PIONEER brings you five stories of Singaporeans who continue to play their part in making our home a better place.

Creating Sustainable Solutions

  • Veerappan Swaminathan, 32, Founder of Sustainable Living Lab
  • Farah Sanwari, 29, Executive Director
Mr Veerappan (left) and Ms Farah help companies and public organisations produce sustainable solutions and products.

They have gone from creating a better Singapore to changing the world. Mr Veerappan and Ms Farah are the people behind Repair Kopitiam – gatherings where trained volunteers teach residents to repair broken home appliances like fans, kettles and irons. Their goal is to combat the buy-and-throw-away culture.

Away from home, the duo has worked with Intel to train vocational school teachers in Indonesia to build smart poultry farms. A for-profit social enterprise that helps organisations create sustainable solutions, tech company Sustainable Living Lab (SL2) has consulted for and worked with companies like Applied Materials and Bosch.

Volunteers teaching residents how to repair their broken appliances. The Repair Kopitiam helps to combat the buy-and-throw-away culture.

“If you can use your talent to work on issues that matter, and also make a living, why not?” said Mr Veerappan, who has a mechanical engineering degree. He started SL2 as a student club in university, before turning it into a business in 2012.

Ms Farah was a volunteer who later joined the team as a product designer. Now, she takes charge of the company’s daily operations as well as its expansion into Indonesia.

Eco-system builder

“You can call us an eco system builder for sustainability,” said

Ms Farah. A sustainable solution or product is one that serves a social purpose, causes minimal harm to the environment, and has commercial viability, she explained.

An example is their upcoming rooftop hydroponics farm, which will be ready by the end of this year. Housed in the United World College South East Asia (East Campus), the 10,000 sq ft (about 930 sq m) farm will produce crops which will be sold to the school’s canteen operator.

“The problem with these hydroponic farms is that they struggle to find buyers for their produce. What we have done is create a closed-loop system – by having a contract with the canteen operator who will buy all the produce,” said Mr Veerappan. If the prototype farm business is successful, they plan to introduce it across Singapore.

Doing Singapore proud

Mr Veerappan and Ms Farah are also looking forward to the Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games in 2020, where a new bottled drink – that comes with a disabled- and elderly-friendly cap – will be launched.

Nippon Closures, a Japanese company that produces bottle caps, commissioned SL2 to create a new cap design for the elderly. The duo gathered designers, as well as experts on ageing and disabilities, to come up with five prototypes, which were later tested by residents in Tampines.

They are proud to have contributed sustainable solutions in Singapore and across Asia. “I am grateful and have been blessed to be born here,” said Ms Farah. “Singapore can be a hub for sustainability; it has sound infrastructure, established laws and funding opportunities.”

Mr Veerappan hopes that more Singaporeans will embrace sustainability.

“Sustainability is a long-term business. The net effect of whatever we do for Singapore and across Asia will not be seen until much later. We have to think long term, and not be swayed by short-term gains.”


Inspiring Hope

  • Hitesh Ramchandani, 26, motivational speaker and former national cerebral palsy footballer
Motivational speaker Mr Ramchandani uses his life story to inspire and help people who are struggling.

In school, no one wanted him in their football teams because they were afraid he would slow them down.

“I would get picked last and they would refuse to pass the ball to me,” said Mr Ramchandani. He was born with cerebral palsy, a brain condition that affects his movement and speech.

Since then, however, he has gone on to represent Singapore in football tournaments, winning Silver at the 2013 ASEAN Para Games, and Bronze in the 2015 edition. “It’s like living the dream. I never thought I would be able to represent my country.”

Family support

Growing up, doctors said he would not be able to walk on his own. But his father was determined to train him to walk, and banned the use of a wheelchair at home.

Eventually, his muscles grew stronger, and he even learnt to swim, roller-blade and cycle.

During his teens, he joined his cousin Vicky Vaswani for football games every Sunday. Despite being the first to arrive and last to leave, he was only allowed to play for 10 to 15 minutes.

Mr Vaswani remembers a dejected Mr Ramchandani yelling: “There are players who play lousier than me, but just because they are ‘normal’, you let them play. It’s not fair!”

Mr Ramchandani (back row, first from left) is part of the national cerebral palsy football team who won Bronze at the 2015 ASEAN Para games.

Mr Vaswani then blurted out a wild suggestion: try out for the Paralympics team. The next weekend, Mr Ramachandani went for a trial with the national cerebral palsy football team; he was selected and the rest was history.

Taking the stage

Today, he is a motivational speaker who has given talks in India, Malaysia and the United States (US). Speaking on topics such as mental toughness and personal leadership, he uses his life story to help people who are struggling.

His journey in becoming a speaker is an inspirational story in itself.

Mr Ramchandani once suffered a nervous attack during a school presentation. And when Mr Vaswani, who now works as his manager, encouraged him to join a Toastmaster club to build his confidence, he ran out of the room during his first session.

“I was afraid that people would laugh at the way I spoke and judge me,” said Mr Ramchandani. After going through training, he started speaking to two people, then four, and eventually to hundreds.

In 2015, he was invited to speak in front of an almost 1,000-strong crowd in Orlando, United States. Mr Ramchandani was voted the top speaker among 45 participants from around the world.

He often shuttles between Singapore and India for speaking engagements, and the constant travelling has made him realise how much he appreciates home.

“Being Singaporean means everything to me,” he said. “I miss Singapore a lot – my parents, my friends, and the food.”

Asked what’s one lesson that he wishes to share with Singaporeans, he said: “No matter what happens in life, never give up. Be more garang (Malay for fierce or courageous)! We must have grit to fight for our dreams without fear.”


Caring For The Elderly

  • Gillian Tee, 36, Chief Executive Officer of Homage
  • Lily Phang, 44, Chief Operating Officer
Ms Phang (left) and Ms Tee are co-founders of Homage, an app that helps S’poreans find professional care for their elderly.

Most people look forward to a good rest at home after a long day at the office, but this was seldom the case for Ms Tan (not her real name). She had to juggle work as well as singlehandedly take care of her elderly mother, who suffers from dementia.

The situation was taking a toll on Ms Tan, both physically and emotionally, until she discovered Homage, an app that connected her to professional caregivers.

Now, a caregiver comes in during the day to look after her mother, while Ms Tan is away at work. This is a typical family that Ms Tee and Ms Phang have been helping through their tech company Homage.

Like a Grab for elder care, it matches suitable caregivers to seniors who need help. “We want to improve their quality of life in the comfort of their homes,” said Homage co-founder Ms Tee.

“It’s also about providing respite for the caregivers in the family,” added the 36-year-old. “Taking a break allows them to go the longer haul. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.”

Pay it forward

For Ms Tee, Homage is a tribute to those who have taken care of her.

Her nanny raised her until she was 10, while her maternal grandmother looked after her when her parents were going through a divorce.

Before starting Homage, Ms Tee was based in New York and Silicon Valley. She was the co-founder of a start-up that helped people save on travel costs, which raised US$18 million ($25 million) in funding.

Upon her return, she got to know Ms Phang, a former healthcare executive, who shared her vision of using technology to enable better senior care.

Since its launch in 2016, Homage has recruited over 500 caregivers, and provided more than 100,000 hours of service.

All the caregivers are Singapore citizens or permanent residents who go through training from schools certified by the Agency for Integrated Care.

“Being able to speak the same language (as the seniors) is important. Our caregivers not only help with their physical and medical needs, but also provide emotional care,” Ms Tee explained.

Preparing for a greying population

These caregivers come from all walks of life – some are full-time freelancers, while others hold full-time jobs and work as caregivers in the evening or on weekends. Many are relatively young, with more than 70 per cent between 20 and 40 years old.

Ms Tee hopes that Homage will attract more young people to the profession, and widen the pool of caregivers for Singapore’s greying population.

Homage connects professional caregivers to elderly who need help.

“We want to educate people to be aware of what’s involved in caregiving. You can start by just being a bit more caring to your parents who are still well.”

Last month, Homage received $4.15 million of fresh funding from investors for expansion. The funding will be used to enhance training for its caregivers, and to foray into new foreign markets.

For Ms Tee, the upcoming NDP is a reminder that even though Singapore is a small country, there is still a lot that Singaporeans can do. Using Homage as an example, she said: “With just a small pool of 500 caregivers, we make a difference to many people by helping them to live independently.”

“My wish is for Singaporeans to take more risks, build innovations that have human elements, and to solve society’s problems in a way that has never been done before.”


Telling Heritage Stories

  • 2SG (NS) Ng Kaiyuan, 25, Co-founder, Our Grandfather Story
(From left) 2SG (NS) Ng, with team members, Ms Chong Kaiyan, 24, Ms Nelia Phoon, 23, and Ms Amrit Kau Jastol, 25.

How are old-school snacks like rainbow ice-cream bread made? How do the last remaining local craftsmen like knife sharpeners and carpenters keep their trade alive?

Perhaps only the older generations are familiar with the answers. But thanks to a series of mini video documentaries produced by digital publisher Our Grandfather Story, more young Singaporeans now know about their heritage.

Our Grandfather Story documents Singapore’s heritage through its food, traditions and people.  It was started by four students – 2nd Sergeant (2SG) (NS) Ng, Ms Carine Tan, 27, 3SG (NS) Matthew Chew, 25, and Ms Cheah Wenqi, 23 – as part of a school assignment two years ago. Their first video, which featured pink and green ice-cream bread from Jackson Bakery & Confectionery in Bedok, garnered over 150,000 views on Facebook in a week.

The early success paved the way for them to turn their idea into a start-up. They went on to make over 150 videos and gather more than 76,000 followers on their Facebook page.

The start-up now has seven team members, and they have expanded their repertoire, telling stories of everyday Singaporeans.

One of their recent hits? A clip about a makcik (a middle-aged or elderly Malay lady) who travels from Sengkang to Kranji just to have lunch with her husband at work. It racked up more than two million views.

Bite-sized content 

Their target audience are mostly younger people, who are known to have a short attention span, so the team focuses on creating bite-sized documentaries, explained 2SG (NS) Ng, an Assistant Mortar Platoon Commander from 922nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment.

“We (look for) ways to interest them, to get three minutes of their time to watch a video… Instead of just telling you, ‘oh, this food is very nice,’ we talk about the history behind the dish. If it’s about a place that’s going to be torn down, we ask what’s the story behind it.”

“It’s really about exploring and telling people about Singapore in a more light-hearted way.” The team also has plans to tell more heritage stories offline through events. Earlier in May, Our Grandfather Story organised an open house at a mama shop in Geylang that was closing down after 70 years of operation.

Singapore identity

For co-founder Ms Cheah, her motivation was to preserve her memories of Singapore. “I grew up in a time in which Singapore was constantly changing. Many of the things and landscapes I saw as a kid have changed, so I felt a need to capture these moments, trades and places before they change again,” she explained.

Fellow co-founder Ms Tan noted that while the younger generations may not go through experiences like war, staying in kampongs or using pagers, Our Grandfather Story can help to “pass the good values of the older generations to the younger ones, and continue to write the Singapore story with deep connections to our roots”.

(Clockwise from top left) 3SG (NS) Chew, Ms Tan, 2SG (NS) Ng, Ms Cheah, Ms Amrit, and Ms Chong. They produce bite-sized documentaries on Singapore’s heritage.

2SG (NS) Ng agreed that their videos will help to strengthen the Singapore identity. “When we were making these stories, we found out so much more about our heritage… I realised that I didn’t know much about the different cultures in Singapore. We are so diverse, but we are all living together and calling ourselves Singaporeans.”

He added: “I wish for Singapore to maintain its peace and stability. We have to understand one another more. This understanding is what holds the country together.”


Uplifting Lives

  • 2SG (NS) Richardo Chua, 36, Founder and Group Managing Director, Adrenalin Group
2SG (NS) Chua (centre) with his staff, Ms Chua (left) who has had three toes amputated due to diabetes, while Mr Quek is wheelchair-bound after a stroke.

Ten years ago, he gave up a well-paying job at a government agency to start his own events company.  2SG (NS) Chua, who has a communication studies degree, then went without pay for 18 months.

Today, Adrenalin has grown from a team of four to 28 staff. Most people would expect him to be making good money. But the 36-year-old, a Company Quartermaster in Headquarters 3rd Division Support Command, is only drawing a monthly salary of $2,700. Eighty per cent of his staff earn more than him.

2SG (NS) Chua started his company as a social enterprise, to help youth at risk and people with disabilities. They make up about 30 per cent of his staff.

To him, the welfare of his staff comes first. “It’s important that our people get decent wages, before the management rewards itself. That has been my guiding principle for the last 10 years.”

Opportunities to grow

During the interview, 2SG (NS) Chua spoke fondly about two staff with disabilities who have grown with the company.

The first is Mr Michael Quek, 53, who manages Adrenalin’s photo booth services. He suffered a stroke in 2005, which left him wheelchair-bound. After losing the use of his right arm, he could no longer work as an electrician.

He later took a basic IT course to learn a new skill. But as someone with no work experience and who could only use his left hand, it wasn’t easy landing a job.

2SG (NS) Chua took a leap of faith, hiring him as a graphic designer in 2010.

Being employed did wonders for Mr Quek’s confidence. He recalled proudly that his first piece of work, a poster and backdrop for a family day event in Sentosa, was seen by thousands of people.

“It inspired me to move forward,” said Mr Quek, who has since regained about 40 per cent of the use of his right limb. Over the last eight years, he was gradually given more responsibilities. From designing graphics to editing photos in the office, Mr Quek now liaises with clients and organises the photo booth at events.

Also among 2SG (NS) Chua’s staff is Ms Jane Chua, 52, who joined the company last year as an Executive Assistant. She was previously working in the food and beverage industry, but had to give up her job after she had three toes amputated in 2014 because of diabetes.

“But now, I have a good boss and good colleagues who help me,” said Ms Chua.2SG (NS) Chua added: “Over the last 18 months, Jane has gone from one job scope to three job scopes. We expanded it to help her grow, and pay her better over time. She has done really well.”

Dealing with challenges

Life as a social entrepreneur is not always a bed of roses. 2SG (NS) Chua has had his fair shares of challenges too. “We started off wanting to help troubled young people or youth-at-risk but we’ve had limited success over the years,” he said.

The company has hired about 20 troubled youths over the last ten years, from halfway houses or community organisations. Many of them lasted only a few months or even days.

“Some never even turned up for work!” 2SG (NS) Chua recalled. Despite the challenges, he is not giving up.

“Today, if I can influence a young man or lady, hold on to them for three to six months and help them learn a skill, I define that as ‘good’.”

Looking ahead

Adrenalin is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, but 2SG (NS) Chua is firmly focused on the future. After all, he is responsible for the livelihoods of close to 30 people.

“Now we have to plan how we can go from being sustainable to successful – this will be our plan for the next ten years,” he said.

For him, thinking about the future is part of the Singapore DNA. “What being Singaporean means to me is a relentless journey of trying to shape the future,” he said.

“It’s a miracle that in 53 years, we have gone from where we were to where we are… We have built a country that can take care of its people, and I feel proud to be part of this journey.”


5 things to look out for at NDP 2018

Here’s a run-down of this year’s parade highlights!

1. Aerial display

Aircraft from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) will wow Singaporeans by performing an aerial flypast towards the floating platform. There will also be an enhanced aerial display featuring up to 21 RSAF aircraft. Keep your eyes peeled for the F-15SG fighter jet, which sports a special blue livery commemorating the RSAF’s 50th anniversary this year.

2. Freefall waterjump

It’s not just the Red Lions who will soar this year – for the first time, eight divers from the Naval Diving Unit will be performing a freefall water jump. Carrying gear of up to 50kg, they will jump from a helicopter from 6,000ft to land in the waters around the The Float @ Marina Bay.

3. Combined schools choir

A crowd favourite, the 220-strong combined schools choir will be returning after a five-year break from NDP.

4. Largest military tattoo

The parade will feature a 560-strong military tattoo – the largest military musical performance to be held at The Float @ Marina Bay for NDP.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Military Police, SAF Band and the Police Band will be performing with the National Cadet Corps Precision Drill squad and School Display band.

5. Water procession

For the first time, a procession of 18 vessels comprising lit-up boats and floats will sail around Marina Bay during the NDP, bringing the festivities closer to audiences in the area. Look out for floats modelled after iconic local playgrounds!