Mighty Red DotToday, security threats come in all forms and often target the hearts and minds of people. Total Defence (TD) is possible only when everyone does their part. PIONEER looks at how six Singaporeans help to strengthen our multicultural identity, our journey towards becoming a cyber-savvy nation, and our resilience.
// Story THRINA THAM
// Photos KENNETH LIN & courtesy of interviewees
Strength in diversity
Finding home in harmony
Dr Zakir Hussain, 48, is not shy to admit his initial reason for moving to Singapore in 2006. The then-surgeon was seeking a better salary when he came here with his wife, Dr Sabita, and daughter Nilopher Bann, then six years old.
Migration was not new to the former Indian citizen, who had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and the Maldives previously.
Little did he expect that he and his wife would settle down in Singapore - spending more than seven of the past 10 years in community work and even enlisting in the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps (SAFVC).
A new country
When the couple joined the SAFVC in 2015, they had to leave their daughter home alone as they stayed in camp for Basic Training.
Thankfully, they found a friend who gladly opened her home to Nilopher for dinners during the two weeks. "We were very surprised at the interracial unity and harmony in Singapore," said Dr Zakir, a lecturer at the National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.
"People are friendly and differences in religion, culture and language never come between them."
The couple recalled an incident during their first few months in Singapore when they found themselves locked out of their apartment. Through the window, they could see their keys on the dining table – way out of reach.
"Our neighbour saw that we had some problem; we were scolding each other about who left the keys there," said Dr Sabita, 40, a lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, with a laugh.
By attaching a hooked stick to a bamboo pole, their Chinese neighbour fashioned a gadget long enough to retrieve the keys.
Not only did it save the Hussains the hassle of calling a locksmith, the act of kindness also made them feel at home.
Sense of belonging
It was by chance that Dr Zakir met the Chairman of the West Coast Community Club (CC) – both greeted the other while jogging – and started to take part in CC activities.
In no time, he became a grassroots leader and started to forge close friendships with others in the community.
The Hussains were soon celebrating festive occasions at friends' houses: from fumbling with chopsticks during Chinese New Year lo hei (tossing of raw fish salad symbolising prosperity) to witnessing the slaughtering of sheep during the Hari Raya korban (a ritual of sacrifice).
During Deepavali in 2008, the family visited five houses in one day. Said Dr Zakir: "From morning to night, we were out visiting! In between each house visit, we would come home to wash our faces and then quickly head out again."
Soon, the couple started dedicating their time to community work, even though it meant that most of their weekends are spent on CC meetings and activities to promote social cohesion among residents.
Dr Zakir is also the Assistant Secretary of the CC's Indian Activity Executive Committee, where he helps to organise at least three big Indian traditional events every year.
"We invite everyone to come - that's the important thing," he said firmly. "For example, we'll invite the Chinese and Malays to come, and dress up in traditional Indian costumes and sing Tamil songs."
The SAFVC also gave the couple a chance to serve the country, and has allowed them to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the SAF and National Service.
Dr Zakir brings 26 years of professional medical experience to his role as a Medical Trainer (Doctor), in which he trains medical officers and medics on managing emergencies.
Meanwhile, Dr Sabita serves as an Auxiliary Security Trooper and has supported the SAF in security operations during events such as the 2016 SAF Day Parade.
The pair became citizens in 2015 and are proud to call Singapore home.
Said Dr Zakir: "When we came here, what caught our eye was the infrastructure and neatness of the country; but there are countries even more beautiful – that was not a pulling factor.
"It was the people."
A voice for change
If Ms Ashley Tan had her way, everyone would be having conversations about difficult race issues daily. The OnePeople.sg (OPSG) Youth Advocate's passion for the cause began in 2016 at the OPSG Model United Nations (OPMUN). In the three-day conference, youths aged 13 to 17 discussed policies regarding race and religion.
OSPG is a ground-up national body that promotes interracial and interreligious understanding in Singapore.
Representing different sides – the government, the opposition party, and even various organisations championing minority rights – the teens had to pass favourable resolutions that would be in the interest of all.
As a student delegate, Ms Tan spoke on national integration within madrasahs, which are Islamic religious schools.
"(Before that), I didn't even know that madrasahs existed. As someone who's Chinese, discussing racial issues wasn't really at the forefront of my mind," admitted the Junior College Year 2 student. "I felt very insular; I didn't understand what was happening in my own country… That inspired me to find out and do more."
Since then, Ms Tan has been volunteering at OPSG. As a Youth Advocate, she spreads awareness of racial issues through dialogues and outreach.
The biggest issue with race is the notion that there is no racism in Singapore, warned the 18-year-old. As an example, she referred to the 2016 Channel NewsAsia- Institute of Policy Studies survey which showed that a fifth of Singaporeans felt that not hiring someone based on their race was not racist. "I feel that racism exists in a spectrum. There is no institutionalised racism, but I think it's in our daily actions."
It is also more likely for members of the Chinese majority to perceive that there is no racism, she added.
Ms Tan recalled a recent school trip to South Korea where the tour guide asked if everyone could understand Chinese.
"It was so instinctive for me to say 'yes'. Then I turned around and realised my friend does not understand Chinese. And she was saying 'no!' as I said 'yes!'
"That showed that I do have preconceived notions in my daily life. It was perturbing, but it also inspired me to be better."
She eventually made it up to her non-Chinese friend by translating for her during the tour.
Ms Tan hopes to promote a positive mindset towards understanding different races through small steps.
For a start, she spreads awareness of race issues to her friends as well as to other communities she volunteers at.
She is also a Youth Executive Committee member at the Bukit Batok constituency and volunteers for humanitarian organisation World Vision.
"I believe in change happening in ripples… It is through daily conversations that we really understand each other."
The student, who took up a co-curricular activity in the Model United Nations Club, also extends her passion on these issues to letters to The Straits Times Forum.
One is titled "Create safe spaces to discuss race, religion", while another is "Multiracial leaders for a multi-ethnic society". Meanwhile, her stints at OPSG allow her to "foster discussions and even greater connections with people from different racial groups".
In 2016, she facilitated discussions at HarmonyWorks!, an annual conference that reaches out to about 1,000 youths to discuss racial harmony in Singapore.
Apart from dialogues, OPSG also works at rallying the community. Last November, it organised its annual Orange Ribbon Walk event for the fifth time. The event saw more than 2,500 participants walking in support of the Rise Against Racism campaign.
Have you ever?
Check out Ms Tan's TD checklist and see if you have played a part in promoting racial harmony in Singapore:
♦ Does your phone have at least five contact numbers of friends of a different race?
♦ Have you ever attended a different racial or religious group's wedding ceremony of festival?
♦ Have you been mindful of speaking English when around others who don't speak your mother tongue?
♦ Have you called someone out for making a racist statement?
♦ Have you stood up for someone who was the butt of a racist joke?
♦ Have you been understanding of a friend's different cultural habits (e.g. dietary requirements)?
Cyber savvy nation
Helping seniors get cyber savvy
As Mdm Grace Ng tells it, she fell into her Information Technology (IT) volunteer work by chance and was roped into becoming a cyber guide.
Now, the 62-year-old housewife is one of the go-to persons for IT assistance at RSVP Singapore (RSVP) – a non-profit organisation that runs IT courses for seniors – where she has volunteered for close to 10 years.
She supports a community of elderly who are eager to bridge the digital divide.
Mdm Ng's volunteer work in IT started with an advertisement in the papers on the Silver Infocomm Day in 2008 - an initiative by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, now the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).
She followed up on this and signed up for her first basic computer course.
RSVP is one of the senior-friendly IT learning centres, called Silver Infocomm Junctions, where courses are held.
The course was so popular then, she could barely get in from the lift lobby, recounted Mdm Ng. But the crowd that day did not deter her, and she went on to pick up new skills in email, Internet, photo-editing and other areas.
Eventually, she was asked to stay back after courses to help as an assistant cyber guide.
"The environment was nice and they needed assistance. This was how I was roped in to help in training."
In 2012, Mdm Ng was appointed as one of IMDA's pioneer group of Silver Infocomm Wellness Ambassadors, which consists of seniors above 50 who help other seniors in infocomms.
Sharing her expertise
Like a true cyber geek, Mdm Ng is not just proficient at using computer software, but the hardware too – she can teach you how to build a computer from scratch.
When the RSVP senior participants started receiving hand-me-down electronics from their children, there was a need for maintenance assistance. Mdm Ng then picked up computer repair and maintenance skills from RSVP's tech team.
Since the setup of the Silver IT Care programme in 2013, she has used her skills to assist seniors with computer housekeeping, including diagnostics and changing of hardware parts.
When she's not fixing computers, Mdm Ng can be found assisting at courses and giving "remedial" to seniors during their practice sessions. In fact, the full-time staff said that they see her almost every working day at RSVP's Volunteer Learning Centre in Bishan.
Of her students, Mdm Ng is most proud of Uncle Lim, whom she met three years ago, hesitant and unsure at the RSVP lobby.
Today, Uncle Lim is adept in computer skills, from using Google Maps for cycling directions to trawling the Internet for his grocery shopping.
At home, Mdm Ng is close to her 25-year-old son who has unwittingly motivated her to keep up with IT skills.
"Why I am so smart in computer knowledge is because I want to keep up with my son," said the spunky mother.
"I am interested to learn. When I see that he is doing something that I don't know, I will come here (RSVP) and learn from them."
Navigating kids through cyberspace
Unlike most of her friends, 16-year-old Elsie Poh is not allowed to take her handphone into her room, nor use it at the dining table or in the car.
These rules, set by her father Poh Yeang Cherng, may seem a tad over the top, but there is good reason behind his tough love.
"My kids never use the phone before they go to sleep," said the cyber wellness consultant. "I guarantee they get half an hour more sleep every night for the past four years."
Such practices are aimed at preparing his three children to use the Internet wisely. And they are not confined to his household as Mr Poh makes it his mission to educate school children on cyber wellness.
Fighting fake news
As the principal consultant and co-founder of cyber wellness consultancy firm Kingmaker Consultancy, Mr Poh partners with schools to give courses on online behaviour and awareness.
These programmes are centred on cyber wellness and media literacy, which has a big focus on combating online falsehoods.
"The biggest threat today is that information is readily available on the Internet… What I'm seeing, more so in recent years, is that (our children's) perception is shaped by what goes online," the 50-year-old explained.
A big part of the learning is therefore to show children how the media can be used to persuade them.
To illustrate this, Mr Poh showed his class a short video that was recently broadcast in the news – of the Polish First Lady snubbing United States (US) President Donald Trump when he offered her a handshake.
Mr Poh then went on to reveal the full video of what happened: she was following protocol to shake the US First Lady's hand before proceeding to address the Head of State.
"The children were astonished that this was happening," said Mr Poh. "This is media literacy - when you are aware of persuasion techniques and know how to be careful."
Children are then taught to do credibility checks by cross-referencing other news sources.
Cyber wellness is a term coined in Singapore to refer to the positive well-being of Internet users. Mr Poh was part of the team at a community-based Internet safety programme that pioneered the cyber wellness movement.
"In the early days of the Internet, home broadband was just about to spike. Everyone was concerned, saying: 'This is dangerous. Don't let your kids connect'."
Instead of seeing a "no-no solution", the programme saw children as early adopters and focused on educating them on how to protect themselves online. "We said that there's good and bad on the Internet. So we throw out the bad and recognise the good," said Mr Poh.
The Ministry of Educaion started to ramp up cyber wellness efforts in schools in 2007, and by 2014, cyber wellness lessons had become a mandatory part of primary and secondary school curriculum.
This January, tertiary institutions have also introduced lessons on media literacy to help students in combating fake news. The move is in line with the Government's appointment of a Select Committee to tackle the issue.
Have you ever?
Have you ever been cyber savvy in using the Internet and protecting your children from online predators? Read Mr Poh's TD checklist to find out:
♦ Have you been mindful of spotting fake news sites?
♦ Have you used a fact-checking website for the things you read on the internet? (Mr Poh uses snopes.com while the Singapore government has set up www.gov.sg/factually)
♦ Have you checked your Google safe search settings for images (strict; moderate; no filtering) when your children are surfing?
♦ Do you have a policy in your home where phones are not allowed in certain areas?
♦ Have you ever Googled yourself and regulated what you've found?
♦ Have you ever checked your Facebook profile under public settings?
A resilient people
Singing through struggles
Take a look at Ms Jean Tan's Instagram and you will see a young woman making music, travelling the world, and living life to the fullest.
But read her captions carefully and you will discover a story of struggles that does not show on the beautiful photo grid.
Born with a cleft palate and lip, Ms Tan had to undergo six operations while growing up. The first, to repair her lip, was when she was three months old. The last, done when she was 18, was to repair her gums that were getting corroded by the screws in her mouth.
When she turned 24, she thought that she was ready to start a new chapter of her life.
The surgeries were over, she had just graduated from university and was about to start work. However, that was when she was diagnosed with kidney disease.
"It came with a whole gamut of emotions, from disbelief and denial to anger and sadness," said the 32-year-old. It also stripped away her ability to pursue her work, music and lifestyle.
During her worst relapse in 2013, Ms Tan put on 20kg of water weight, resulting in a swollen stomach and gut. She was vomiting up to three times a day and despite taking diuretics and suppressants, the vomiting never stopped.
On top of that, the swelling affected her legs so much that she was unable to walk for long.
She gradually took baby steps: from sitting up, to standing for 10 minutes, to standing long enough to do the dishes. While enjoying the bliss of washing and singing, Ms Tan took notice of the red sponge she was holding.
"I was so grateful that I could see colour... It was the Christmas period and, for some reason, my eyes were just open, and everything was so colourful - the baubles, the lights and the sponge."
From that experience came Colours, an upbeat and catchy number that belied the tough times it was written from. The track eventually became Ms Tan's first hit – it got picked up as one of the songs featured during the 2015 SEA Games, and reached a listener count of over 30,000 on digital music service Spotify.
Last October, Ms Tan released her first commercial extended play record, or EP, under Umami Records.
Written and produced over the last two years, Hideaway is based on the times when she was confined to home and felt isolated from the outside world.
It must be a message that spoke to many as the EP's first single, Crowns, surpassed 100,000 streams on Spotify in its first two months of release.
The singer-songwriter, whose day job is in the education sector, is set to promote her songs in upcoming gigs and will release a music video to her title track Hideaway in the next few months.
With her smooth, jazzy voice and confident performances, one can hardly tell that Ms Tan was a cleft patient. She gives her mother credit for this.
When Mdm Png was told by doctors that Ms Tan was unlikely to speak clearly, she refused to accept that.
The Chinese language teacher took her daughter out of speech therapy at a young age and trained her on her own.
Mdm Png would tirelessly correct her daughter whenever she slurred and even came up with games, such as blowing through straws, to train her vocal muscles.
Separated from her husband when her children were still young, Mdm Png remains a role model of resilience to Ms Tan. "My mom was a first-hand example of strength in tough times," she said.
Ms Tan has also taken on an "anything is possible" attitude from her mother. "People usually talk about the things that cannot be done…but I will always find a way out of every situation. And it is my mom who shaped me very much in this regard."
Providing support to others
Anyone familiar with the emblem of a red cross on a white background would think of first aid – the provision of basic medical care in an emergency. But not many may be aware of Psychological First Aid (PFA), which is to provide emotional support when someone is in distress.
The concept was introduced here by the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) in September 2016. Since the launch of their one-day PFA course, about 800 people have been trained.
"PFA starts with establishing a human connection in a non-intrusive and compassionate way," explained Mr Muhamad Haikel Bin Mohamed, a freelance psychological support trainer at SRC. "Following that, it is about allowing the person to express their emotions and stories, and then providing practical help if needed."
PFA stemmed from the need to provide emotional support that was lacking in standard first aid (SFA), said Mr Haikel.
Although the 30-year-old joined SRC in 2013 and left in 2016, he continues to work weekends as a psychological support trainer with the organisation.
In a disaster relief effort he was part of during his full-time stint, Mr Haikel noticed that healthcare aid provided to the victims was not enough.
"We were doing a medical mission…but we could see that the children were also affected psychologically. You could see fear, disorientation and a little bit of shock."
Mr Haikel then got the kids to be interpreters, to engage them in a form of psycho-social activity. These human interactions form the root of PFA.
First aid for everyone
Similar to SFA, PFA is for anyone who wishes to volunteer and can be rendered at any time. "In our daily lives, we can actually perform PFA. You don't have to wait for a major disaster to happen," said Mr Haikel.
"Though first aid is technically for an emergency or crisis, a crisis can happen differently for everyone," he added.
For example, missing the bus could feel like a crisis to someone who is afraid of angering their boss, but might be a small matter to another person.
The basic concepts of performing such emotional aid can be summarised in the "A.S.A.P" steps: Active listening; Staying close; Accepting feelings and Providing practical help.
"It may seem very simple and 'common sense', but…some people will be too scared or not know how to respond," he said.
Thus, the trainer constantly encourages his PFA trainees to practise what they learn, even if they lack the confidence to offer their help.
Mr Haikel believes that it should be compulsory for everyone to learn both SFA and PFA.
"If each household has at least one person who is PFA-trained, then that person can support that family, and even their neighbours, to cope with distress... In a sense, it builds community resilience."
While PFA is a basic course, the SRC will offer a more comprehensive Community-based Psycho-social Support Training later this year to assess and certify PFA trainees.
Have you ever?
Have you done your part in building community resilience as well as your own personal resilience? Check out Mr Haikel's TD checklist to find out:
♦ Have you offered your help to a stranger who needed it?
♦ Have you approached and comforted someone who was crying?
♦ Have you truly listened to someone with your heart and mind (with empathy)?
♦ Can you recognise the signs of someone in distress?
♦ Do you know what are the available resources in your community for someone who requires psychological support?
♦ Do you guys practise self-care by keeping yourself hydrated and getting enough sleep to keep a positive mindset?