Ordinary Singaporeans with Extraordinary Stories
You don’t have to be famous to be extraordinary - even though many Singaporeans featured here are not celebrities, they each have an inspiring story to tell. Differences in appearance and background aside, everyone of them has something in common - a passion for a cause. Be it running to raise funds for charity, or simply a love for volunteerism, every individual here has a quality that makes them stand out.
This list is not exhaustive - there are so many remarkable Singaporean stories that it’d be impossible to cover them all - but I hope that each of the 20 stories here will warm your heart. It doesn’t take much to be extraordinary; to others, your own life story may be an inspiration to them!
1. Subhas Anandan
'Let's put it this way: Who is the lawyer to decide if the person is guilty or not? The moment you decide about the guilt or innocence of people, then there is no need for a court of law.’ - Subhas Anandan
Many lawyers will hesitate to defend a rapist or a murderer, but for the late Subhas Anandan, the criminal lawyer has never turned a single one away. Known for his grisly hair and death glare in court, Subhas Anandan was known for his outright honesty, never wasting the court’s time.
Besides defending many prolific Singaporeans, Subhas also defended a German, Julia Suzanne Bohl, who faced the death penalty for drug trafficking, making international headlines. She was eventually handed a lighter sentence.
Even though Subhas had many regrets in his life - spending too much time chasing after fame and recognition, and excessive drinking and smoking in the past - there is no discounting the work that he has done. He was a defender of all, a firm believer in justice.
2. Dr Kumaran Rasappan & Dr Gayathri Devi Nadarajan
“It’s about dreaming big and believing in the dream no matter how many people are against it” - Dr Kumaran
The first Singaporean who climbed Mount Everest for a charitable cause, Dr Kumaran took a year off work to pursue his endeavors, costing him a place in Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s residency program. But his sacrifices paid off: he raised $30,000 (possibly more) for the hospital’s community charity fund, helping needy Singaporeans pay their medical bills.
With a goal to make a difference in the lives of Sherpas (natives who live near Everest), Dr Kumaran has even raised money to help the Nepalese town of Gorkha, a remote village with no doctor, by carrying computers to a school and setting up a clinic. Source
His wife, Dr Gayathri, is no less amazing. When her then-boyfriend Dr Kumaran was doing practice climbs in Nepal, the duo visited the villages. It was then when they realised that there was a lack of medical equipment and infrastructure - the nearest hospital was a four hour walk away. In Phortse, there was only a room with an examination bed, and a tap with no running water.
The duo subsequently approached organisations and people for equipment, such as foldable stretchers, before heading to Nepal. Dr Gayathri gave health education, teaching the nurses ways to treat different illnesses, and brought along 100kg worth of equipment and supplies. They are currently working towards making a sustainable impact on the Nepalese community.
3. Jason Chee
“If I don’t give up, I will fulfil anything that I want” - Jason Chee
Despite an accident on board a navy ship in 2012, resulting in the loss of both legs and his left arm, Jason Chin has not only bounced back, but he has accomplished more than an average Singaporean. In Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen’s Facebook tribute to Jason Chee, Mr Ng attributed Jason’s speedy success to “something special within him”.Source
In just a mere 6 months, Jason had regained independence at home, and even started taking public transportation again. Just last year, Jason even represented Singapore in table tennis at the ASEAN para games - and played with his non-dominant hand. Jason has since returned to work, is studying at UniSim, and is learning to walk again with prosthetic legs.
Having been touched by the kind acts of Singaporeans who came forward to help, Jason has a dream - to encourage disabled Singaporeans to remain positive, and take up a sport.
4. Teresa Hsu Chih
"All my life, I think of people who have less than me. That has been my guiding light all my life." _ Teresa Hsu Chih
Singapore’s very own ‘Mother Teresa’, Teresa Hsu was a prominent social worker who dedicated her life to the underprivileged and the needy. The oldest person in Singapore at the time of her death in 2011, Teresa was still tirelessly serving society even past the age of 100.
Formerly a nurse in England, Teresa founded the Home for the Aged Sick in 1965, before going on to establish the Heart-to-Heart service. Through the service, Teresa helped the poor and destitute by giving out cash and food items to elderly and needy families, leading a simple life throughout her work.
Her secret to a long life? According to Teresa - positive thoughts and laughter. She was a simple soul. Her daily routine consisted of doing yoga twice a day, waking up at 4am to meditate, before going for a morning walk.
5. Dr Alexandre Chao
"Courage does not come in the form of performing a big heroic act; rather, it is overcoming our own fears for the greater good.” - Dr Chao’s elder daughter, Beatrice
We all remember the Sars epidemic which struck Singapore in 2003, where business slumped, schools shut their doors, and people stayed at home in fear. Despite the infectious nature of the disease, vascular surgeon Dr Alexandre Chao was one of the four health care workers who tirelessly answered their call of duty - and eventually succumed to the disease.
What’s even more noble is that Dr Chao had actually voluntarily cut short his leave in the United States, choosing to return to help his colleagues in the battle against Sars. As his colleagues in Singapore fell to Sars, he was the only ‘clean’ surgeon available to run the medical surgery, hastening his return to the battlefront.
Dr Chao, along with doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers - those who died and those who survived - are our unsung Sars heroes, gone but not forgotten.
6. Philip Lau
What does it mean to go the extra mile? Professor Philip Lau and his Swedish friend Professor Mikael Hartman, both breast surgeons from National University Health System, went the extra 14,291 miles - in the name of breast cancer research - when they rode their motorcycles from Singapore to Sweden in March 2014.
With a journey spanning 17 countries and 23,000 kilometres, they visited cancer centres and hospitals along the way, raising awareness about breast cancer by giving lectures, surgical demonstrations, and participating in forums.
Apart from hiccups along the trip such as being detained at a police station in Iran, their three-month journey raised $3 million for Asian breast cancer research!
7. Tony Tay
At 4:30am, when most of us are still sleeping, Mr Tony Tay, founder of Willing Hearts, is already in the kitchen. Willing Hearts is Singapore’s largest food kitchen, with many distribution points around the island to hand out free food to the needy.
As a young boy, Tony grew up hungry, but the turning point came at his mother’s funeral - he was amazed at the number of people who came to pay their respects. Despite no formal announcement, the people came - simply because his mother had assisted them, and became their friend.
Tony first started distributing bread to migrant workers, before aiding about 50 people in Bukit Ho Swee per day. As he saw the gratefulness in their eyes, Tony never stopped. Today, Willing Hearts distributes 3000 meals a day - 100 times that of when it first started. Tony has even started a bursary fund and bereavement service for the poor. Still working 360 days a year, Tony’s aim, simply, is to serve.
To join Tony in his cause, simply walk into the Willing Hearts kitchen to volunteer! Check out their website for more information here.
8. Bowen Beckman
An early bird, 6 year old Bowen Beckman wakes up at 5am every Tuesday - not to prepare for school, but to fulfill his dream of saving the Earth. Taking the lift to the top floor of his condominium, he makes his way down, collecting recycling bags and throwing them into the that his father wheels behind him. Once he is done, he sorts them out, puts them into the recycling bin, before having breakfast and getting ready for school.
Bowen first thought of the idea after watching a documentary on melting polar ice caps, before spending a day writing a letter to the condominium’s management. After getting the go-ahead, he gave out fliers to households and went door-to-door to gather support. He had even presented his idea to residents, and 18 other children have started their own collection services at 4 other apartment blocks.
I can’t remember what I was doing at the age of 6, but it definitely wasn’t something as extraordinary as this. A young boy, but with a dream bigger than many of us!
9. Chow Wei Lin
"Once you have decided on an action, you should just stick to it" - Chow Wei Lin
Would you donate a part of yourself to someone you’ve never met? Factory supervisor Chow Wei Lin did exactly that - he donated 28 percent of his liver to 10 year-old Phyllis Poh, who suffered from a rare disease. Despite a 10 to 15 percent risk of complications and a 1 percent risk of death, Mr Chow went ahead with the operation.
His exceptional generosity stems from his Buddhist beliefs, where he is taught that everyone is family. Yet, he feels that donating his liver was nothing special. As he told The Straits Times, "If it had been my children who needed the liver and neither my wife nor I could donate, I would wish for someone to come forward to help."
10. Kathy Xu
“I want to live in a world where my children, and my children’s children can still see sharks alive in the oceans.” - Kathy Xu
Having been a teacher for 7 years, Kathy Xu didn’t want sharks to just feature in picture books, and decided to walk the talk. She discovered that in Lombok, Indonesia, shark hunting was a means of sustenance for the fishermen. They would borrow money to buy supplies, go out to sea and fish for sharks, before returning and selling their shark hauls. Every day, approximately 400 sharks are killed.
After talking to fishermen in Lombok, Kathy started The Dorsal Effect, which gives them an alternative source of income. Instead of killing sharks, they can bring tourists on snorkelling trips, earning an income while conserving sharks at the same time. Through the efforts of a Singaporean, there will be more sharks around for the next generation!
Book a snorkeling trip to Lombok and help the fishermen earn an eco-friendly living by clicking here.
11. Mohammad Shariff aka SG Blade Runner
Born without a left foot, and with a subsequent amputation of 5 inches on his stump, Mohammad had a moniker of nicknames growing up. With a poor financial situation at home, and with nobody willing to take care of him - they called him ‘bad luck’ - he learned to be strong, resilient and independent.
Today, Mohammad, or better known as SG Blade Runner, is an avid marathoner who ran more than 520km of races in 2012. He is also currently at the Boston Marathon in USA, and his goal is to run the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon to celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary this year. Having gone through so much hardship as a child, his dream to inspire the world lives on.
12. Tan Choon Kiang
To us, lunch breaks are precious - it’s a time to get away from work or lessons, recharge, and socialise with our friends. However, for Mr Tan Choon Kiang, his lunch breaks are spent doing neither of these things. Once it’s lunch, he will get on his bicycle, fill the basket with lunch packets from Willing Hearts, and deliver them to the poor, elderly and disabled at Chai Chee Estate.
Each round lasts 10 to 15 minutes, and Mr Tan will then cycle back to his workplace - but without lunch for himself. He has also become a ‘brother’ to the citizens, listening to their concerns, and encouraging them to attend meet-the-people sessions every Monday to seek help. Sometimes, he even has new additions to his delivery route, and deals with unhappy residents who don’t get a share of the food.
Although he knows that lunchtime routine is not sustainable in the long run - after all, he is a senior citizen - he is determined to go on until he feels “very tired”. His hope is for Singaporeans to step forward and volunteer, doing their bit for the community.
Follow Mr Tan in his footsteps and check out the food distribution points here.
13. Laurentia Tan
I can’t run but when I ride a horse, I feel like I am running. I can’t dance but on a horse, I can look like I am dancing." - Laurentia Tan
Born with cerebral palsy and profound deafness, doctors once warned that she might never walk again, and would need institutional care. Despite the gloomy advice, Laurentia Tan took up horse riding at the age of 5, as a form of physiotherapy to strengthen her back and muscles. Fast forward to today, and she has won 2 bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and a silver and a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games.
Remarkably, she participates in dressage events, where the rider-horse duo has to complete certain movements to music. Being deaf, she is given a signal when the music starts, and controls the horse by sensing its rhythms. Currently working towards a post-graduate diploma in psychology, Laurentia is Singapore’s most decorated paralympian, and a true inspiration.
14. Leong Poh Yin
"Be optimistic. When you face difficulty, share your troubles with your friends and let them help. Don't keep your problems to yourself, one person can't handle it all." - Leong Poh Yin
Mdm Leong Poh Yin is the epitome of a dedicated and inspiring mother. Her son, Clement, has been bedridden for the last 15 years after a motorcycle accident which left him with severe brain damage. Despite having gone through a painful childhood and marriage - she was given up for adoption, and was forced to stop schooling after Primary Six - Mdm Leong does not harbour grudges.
Besides looking after her son, Mdm Leong willingly reaches out to other disadvantaged children in need. Through World Vision Singapore, she sponsored 3 children in Thailand as she does not want them to be deprived of the opportunities she never had. 2 of the children have since graduated from the program. And even though her income is meagre, she puts aside $45 a month to ensure that the remaining child has access to education, healthcare, clean water, and food.
Besides sponsoring children, Mdm Leong has even volunteered for over 10 years at Lion Befrienders, looking after the welfare of poor and lonely elderly. Even though life is not a bed of roses for her, Mdm Leong’s unwavering optimism shines as she helps others in need.
To follow Mdm Leong’s example and sponsor a child through World Vision Singapore, check out this link.
15. Lily Goh
Social entrepreneur Lily Goh has been deaf since she was 2 years old. Despite this, she is the co-founder of ExtraOrdinary Horizons, an organization which promotes arts, culture, heritage and language among the Deaf. Together with her deaf friends, they also form a band called ExtraOrdinary Percussions, making music and promoting the arts.
In 2013, the band went to Cambodia to teach music to deaf children, imparting knowledge and skills on entrepreneurship and performing arts. Now, it is her goal for ExtraOrdinary Horizons to run their first annual nationwide Deaf Arts Festival, showcasing the artistic skills of the deaf and encouraging them to chase their dreams.
For More Stories
If you’re in need of more inspiration, do visit the websites below for more stories!
- Yahoo’s Inspiring People column
- Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame
- Young Talents SG
- Singaporean of the Day
- The People of Singapore
- We Are Singapore
- Our Better World
For some, an inspiring act is a world-changing fundraiser; to others, an inspiring act may simply be a gesture of kindness or turning over a new leaf. To many of us, our parents may be our greatest inspiration. Anybody can be an inspiration to others, so believe in yourself, and believe in your cause!