Sandakan – A lesson in hope (3)

[Read Part 1 and Part 2]

 

It was almost evening by the time we made our way to the last village of the day. It had been a hot and tiring day but we were in high spirits, buoyed by the optimism and warm hospitality that had greeted us in all the prior villages.

We walked through a deserted street, crawled under a fence and came to a muddy plot that looked like an abandoned housing project.

 

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Nobody but our Goducate guides knew what was coming up next.

Negotiating our way through the muddied site, we arrived at a deforested area where construction vehicles were parked. Still no sign of any village.

 

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It was then that our guides told us the story of Water World.

 

Village #5 – Water World

Not too long ago, a community of Filipino war refugees, just like the ones we had visited earlier in the day, lived in this swampy area that would get flooded often as the tide went up, hence the name Water World.

I suppose they were happy enough, compared to starving in their previously war-torn homes. Here, at least, they could find simple jobs as woodcutters or seamstresses to feed their children.

One day, civilisation happened. The area on which they were residing was picked for a housing development project. The refugees had to uproot their homes entirely and migrate just a little further up towards the coast.

It was not too far, in fact, only a hundred metres or so. But they had to tear down all their wooden huts and rebuild them from scratch.

Beyond this mangrove copse (picture below) we could see evidence of a recently uprooted settlement. The wooden stilts that used to serve as legs of the villagers’ old homes remain fixed in the ground.

 

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Traversing a foul-smelling land muddied with what looked like toxic sludge, we finally came upon the new settlement.

 

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A wave of sadness washed over the group as each of us silently took in the sight that greeted us. We could hardly have expected this.

It was perhaps fortunate that the tide was down when we visited, allowing us to avoid having to wade through the village in knee-high water. But the absence of water all the more highlighted the waste and pollution that contaminated the landscape.

This is the condition under which the villagers live.

 

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And, yet, I couldn’t feel sad for long.

A little boy walked slowly towards us, eyeing us curiously as he tried to button his shirt. He took little steps with his bare feet, innocently oblivious to the slime and moss that squelched under them.

As we waved at him and said “hello”, he gave us a shy, impish smile even as he walked past us, still buttoning his shirt.

 

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Water World was my biggest lesson in hope. We were greeted with such warmth and sincerity that we couldn’t help feeling touched by the villagers’ happiness, optimism and generosity of spirit.

Despite the village being affectionately named Water World, they do not get enough sanitised water, relying on a few small plastic water tanks that catch the rainfall to supply the whole village.

And, yet, they bought cartons of bottled water for us and cheerfully handed those out to us as we sat on plastic chairs to enjoy the performances that their children had prepared for us.

 

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More than anything else, I felt touched by their love and acceptance of us, total strangers to them.

As we stood up to bid them farewell, the children swarmed around us to take our hands and touch them to their foreheads. I’m told this is their way of receiving our blessings.

 

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Also extremely touching was the way the villagers appeared to be so thankful for their lives and whatever little blessings they received.

An abundance of hope and innocence shone in the faces of the children as they took in their English lessons.

 

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As we started leaving the compound, these two precious kids lingered around us, gazing at us shyly. One of them was the boy we first encountered.

They quickly overcame their shyness as they enthusiastically posed for photos, by themselves and with us.

 

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With that, we concluded our tour for the day, each of us with different thoughts flitting through our heads and emotions raging in our hearts.

But even as we thought different things, maybe reflecting on our lives, maybe thinking about the children, maybe happy, maybe sad, I’m quite sure that not a single one of us didn’t feel deeply touched by what we had experienced.

 

Credits

ieatishootipost – Dr Leslie Tay and his community raised a sum of S$22,000 through fundraising efforts to finance a van for the Sandakan refugee community. This trip was made for the purpose of presenting the cheque to the people.

Goducate – Through the selfless work of this organisation, many underprivileged children in Asia now have the chance to receive an education and to dream of a better future.

Nuffnang – Ever supportive of charitable works, Nuffnang sent a small team to this trip to support the mission. I was one of the representatives.

ieat Sandakan Makan mission group – Shout out to the people with whom I shared a fulfilling four days with: Leslie, Lisa, Wee Kiat, Shirley, Ryan, Jimmy, Irene, Nicholas, Huiwen, Estee, Gregory, Kay, Amylia, Veronica, Pastor Victor, Dr Paul Choo.

Read the ieatishootipost Sandakan report here.

 

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Sandakan – A lesson in hope (2)

Continuing the journey I recounted in Part 1 yesterday, our mission group went on to a third refugee village in Sandakan.

 

Village #3 – Hajjah Village

This village was the very first to receive Goducate’s aid three years ago. You can see the vast improvement in the standard of living by the stark contrast against the other villages we saw.

Hajjah Village is a huge compound with brick buildings and clean floors, and an actual “school area” made up of a large number of classrooms that actually look like classrooms. The children here are also a bit less shy, on the whole. You can feel certain levels of confidence emanating from them as a result of three years of education.

 

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Angelica (picture below) is 14 years old and has been learning English for two years. She was assigned to take our group around the compound and answer our questions.

You can tell she’s shy and nervous about her role but, at the same time, she answers questions with enthusiasm, eager to please. Her adeptness at communicating in English is remarkable after only two years of learning. Shyly, she told me that she hopes to become a teacher herself one day.

 

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Angelica is one sweet personality who left a deep impression in my heart. I only wish I was able to chat with more children because I think every one of them has a precious story to tell.

The kids are truly a delight. In honour of our visit, they prepared a series of performances for us, dancing and singing songs in English. Most of them were quite shy about performing, some even looking traumatised but, on the whole, they seemed to delight in our visit.

After the performances, the kids hung around the compound and played joyfully among themselves. There was even a disco party of sorts at one time where they played Lady Gaga songs and sort of danced around by themselves.

 

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Village #4

The next visit almost didn’t happen. The sky opened and it started pouring crazily. We had driven to the the nearest point where our cars could be parked, after which we needed to make a 30-minute trek through a forest to get to the village.

The thunderstorm kept us in our cars for quite a long time. We didn’t have enough umbrellas for everyone to make the trek together.

Thankfully, at some point in time, some resourceful villagers on the outer edge of the forest noticed our fix and cut for us a whole bunch of banana leaves to use as umbrellas. By that time, the weather had also dwindled into a light rain.

With that, we managed to keep our date with the villagers.

 

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The schoolhouse in this village was of the worst condition I’d seen thus far. It was a crude shelter of wood and zinc, forming a roof and support beams around, but no wall enclosure around the perimeter.

But the children nevertheless looked happy learning their ABCs. It’s quite a heartwarming sight to see kids enjoying their lessons.

 

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Because the school compound is built away from the residential compound (which we didn’t get a chance to visit), the kids have to travel a distance through sloping forest paths every day, rain or shine, to get to school.

In the rain, the steeper slopes are hard to manoeuvre. A few of our group members slid and fell during the trek and were rewarded with dirty bottoms. It made us appreciative of the fact that we didn’t have to live on a daily basis around such conditions.

After Village #4, there was just one more village to visit. It was the one village that touched everyone’s hearts the most. That story I will share tomorrow.

Thank you for reading thus far!

 

[Go to Part 3]

Sandakan – A lesson in hope (1)

On the north-eastern coast of East Malaysia, overlooking the Sulu Sea towards the Philippines, a large community of war refugees struggle day by day for survival.

Oblivious to the hardship of life, the children of the weather-beaten villages run freely about in play while their parents look upon them with a quiet pride even as deep lines of worry etch their faces.

Here’s the situation in Sandakan, the makeshift home of peace-loving people who have fled from the ceaseless wars in the Philippines to make a simple life for themselves and their children.

A visit to these villages was made possible recently through the combined efforts of Dr Leslie Tay and his ieatishootipost.sg community, and Goducate, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping underprivileged Asians make better lives for themselves.

Goducate empowers poor villagers around Asia by turning village mothers into teachers, teaching their children English. Efforts are also made to instill in the villagers a desire to improve their lifestyles overall.

 

Village #1

After trekking through a vast expanse of barren land, open to scorching elements, we were first rewarded by the sight of little slippers lined up neatly outside a wooden shack even as little voices reciting the Alphabet rang out cheerily from inside.

 

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When we made an appearance, the children got up excitedly, some shyly, and greeted us in unison in English under the direction of their teacher.

 

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The huts in which they live are patchy and worn, providing the barest of shelter. I can’t stop wondering what life for them is like, what they think every day. Are they happy? Scared? Oblivious?

 

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They did look kinda of happy and contented, to be honest, which makes it all the more touching.

 

Village #2 – Boat Village

To get to this second village, we had to trek through another wasteland before arriving at a rickety dock where small boats await to take us across to the village proper.

 

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Boat Village is in worse condition than the first. Because of the marshy land on which the villagers have settled, flimsy wooden bridges provide walkways for the entire village. Unused to such, we had to pick our way carefully through the sparsely connected planks.

We finally arrived at the schoolhouse, which was just a square of space at one end of the village. There, the children were seated in neat rows, working on writing basic English sentences in their little exercise books.

Every so often, they would turn their heads to stare curiously at their smiling visitors.

 

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The villagers are friendly and yet shy. Despite their living conditions, you can’t really feel sorry for them. With help from Goducate, they have a sense of purpose to strive for a better life. I think purpose is what makes life fulfilling, not just what you have around you.

So what really touched me was not how they’re suffering a life of poverty and substandard sanitation, but how love and hope has brightened their lives as they work towards a meaningful future.

Not only are the children taught English, they are also taught ambition and self-worth. Promising children are further taught how to function in civilised society so that they may one day venture out and make comfortable lives of their own.

While many villages are now being helped in this way, many more remain isolated. The number of refugees dotting the coastal landscape of Sandakan is quite staggering, numbering in the six-digit range.

 

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After Boat Village, we went on to visit two more villages. Will continue with those tomorrow because I have too many photos of them.

Will now leave you with this beautiful poster that Leslie made.

 

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[Go to Part 2]

Dinner with President Nathan at a 6-star hotel

Sponsored

Remember I spoke about the POSB Everyday Champions Award, about how I wanted to nominate the Goonfather for the award for attacking me during his sleep and inadvertently training me in unarmed self-defense combat (although he’d like to have you believe that it’s the other way round)?

Well, the winners have been revealed and I was invited to attend the award ceremony last Thursday to join in the celebrations of these champions for sport.

(The POSB Everyday Champions Award pays tribute to individuals, coaches and organisations that contribute consistently and selflessly, beyond the call of duty, to inspire others to play and grow through sports.)

I had at first pictured the event as being held in a small function room with a mock-up stage and rows of seats facing the stage, and maybe a buffet table serving snacks at the side.

I was told the event would be held at St. Regis Hotel but I knew of no such hotel in Singapore.

When I arrived at the hotel, I was startled by its majestic presence.

St Regis Hotel

I was even more startled to see a row of uniformed hotel staff lining up along the driveway leading to the hotel lobby, as if they were preparing to welcome a VIP.

As I entered the lobby, there was a row of hotel staff wearing formal black suits standing at attention right in front of me. I wondered what big event was happening.

A black suit approached me and asked if he could escort me to the event.

I stared at him dumbly, wondering how he knew what event I was attending. Sensing my hesitation, he confirmed with me that I was attending the POSB Everyday Champions Award Ceremony and showed me the way to the reception lobby.

Impressive.

At the reception, I saw more black suits and dressed-to-kill ladies milling about.

It was while picking up my media pass at the registration table that I confirmed that President S R Nathan was going to be the guest-of-honour for the event. That explained everything! I also found out that St. Regis is a six-star hotel.

How fitting that these sporting heroes should be given due recognition with a grand ceremony in a prestigious six-star hotel. It made my eyes tear to see them recognised and rewarded. I mean that, totally.

With the President of Singapore himself supporting the award and St Regis hosting the event, it illuminates just how important these champions are. Noble and selfless, our sporting heroes truly deserve the prestige of being honoured in such a grand manner.

You might be interested to know that 3,375 nominations were made over a one-month time frame, and 57 winners spanning three categories were picked to receive the award.

The ceremony was held at the John Jacob Ballroom at St. Regis Hotel. It’s a huge, magnificent ballroom. Attending were VIPs, the winners and their guests, and members of the press.

I shared a table with Ming (founder of Nuffnang), Raine (Nuffie) and Leslie (ieatishootipost).

Photos of them later!

There was a huge parade in the lobby before the event started proper, as President S R Nathan arrived and was mobbed by the press.

The other side of the mob:

I like President Nathan. He’s very personable. I had tea with him once at the Istana, together with the cast and crew of Singapore Dreaming. He made the effort to shake hands and talk to every single last person at the event (there were like 50 people, I think). How sweet!

The President’s entrance into the ballroom:

And everyone standing to receive him:

The event started off with a percussion performance, which was unexpected. That was followed by VIP speeches and then dinner.

Oh, before I talk about dinner, I want to remark on the table settings. Everyone had their own personal sauce plates.

The little spoon (about the size of my index finger) is so cute I wish I could have taken it home.

And there’s a pretty and large decoration piece in the middle of the table.

I was wondering where they’re going to put the food, and then the food came. Everyone was served individually. Question answered.

The first course was… very interesting. In fact, almost all courses were quite interesting. They were all very hard to photograph because they were like little portions scattered sparsely on huge plates.

Okay, you know what, this isn’t a food review, so I’m just going to show you a bunch of pictures to sate your curiosity and then we’ll move on.

Alright, I’ll say one thing about the food: The cod fish was sublime. It’s the first time ever I feel compelled to apply the word “creamy” to fish (with no tartar sauce in sight, mind you).

Compliments to the chef. I will have cravings for it my entire life now.

The menu:

There were only five courses but dinner was very filling, overall. I couldn’t even touch my olive and scallop fried rice at the end of it, to my horror, because it was quite delicious. Okay, yeah, I touched a bit of it.

Between courses, the award winners were called up one by one to receive their trophies and certificates from the President.

We were also shown several creative video clips starring the award winners, with the message “Let’s Play”, to promote sports to all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.

Leslie and I picked one winner each to “interview”, although I didn’t do much of an interview because a new dish had just been served at the time I got to speak to him, and I didn’t want to keep him from his dinner.

Anyway, I picked Leo Wen Yeow, a wushu coach, because I am a huge wushu fan. I love watching wushu demonstrations and I love practising it myself, just that I never got the chance to attend regular lessons (problem of got time no money, got money no time).


Raine, myself and Leo Wen Yeow

But I feel inspired to make time for it now, after attending this very sports-promoting event.

Here’s Wen Yeow’s writeup on the POSB Everyday Champions website:

To Wen Yeow, his trainees are his family members. And he certainly exemplifies this family spirit. His doors are always open, so his trainees can easily talk to him and come to him for any problems, even for family matters. On festive occasions, Wen Yeow would even organise trips to Sentosa or the zoo, just to build up their team spirit. He is also a compassionate coach, offering to buy the less well-off trainees shoes and attire. Above and beyond normal training, Wen Yeow also buys DVDs of major Wushu events including the recent Beijing Olympics and points out mistakes and the finer details so that his team will score that extra point.

He has been training since the age of five (the same age as when I started gaming!) and now owns his own wushu school. I suppose a visit is in order!

Leslie interviewed Khu Soon Hin, a hawker who plays hockey. Heheh.

Here’s a group photo of all of us!


From left: Soon Hin, Leslie, Ming, Raine, me, Wen Yeow

The event ended at around 9:45 pm, with the President being escorted out of the ballroom.

The President waved at me (or, rather, my camera) as he walked past my table.

Awww.

Well, the party may have ended and the awards awarded, but the campaign is still ongoing!

Would you like to win $1000 in cash? If you would (I know I would), please visit the POSB Everyday Champions website and look through the winners’ profiles.

Be inspired and touched by the stories they have to share!

(I stole that line from the website. Sorry, I just thought it was quite apt.)

Then choose your favourite and vote for him or her. If the champion you voted for is among the top three in his or her specific category after the voting period, you will stand a chance to win $1000! Simple as that! A total of $30,000 will be given away.

The closing date is March 15, 2009.

The POSB Everyday Champions Award is organised by the Singapore Sports Council, with POSB as the title sponsor.

Do drop by to vote and let me know if you win some cash. I want a treat! =P