Secondary school dropout becomes first ITE graduate to get into NUS medical school
SINGAPORE - The long shot has come good.
Mr Nicholas Chan, 23, is the first Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduate to make it to the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, which this year had about 280 places for about 2,000 applicants.
Money lost, a life claimed by suicide, but Dignity Kitchen's founder never gave up
There have been obstacles along the way, from naysayers to a lack of government funding to a forced relocation, but social entrepreneur Koh Seng Choon is still going strong.
SINGAPORE: As a successful social entrepreneur, Mr Koh Seng Choon has many things to be proud of.
Among other initiatives, he created Asia's first community food court managed by people with disabilities, and a second-hand bookshop concept run by youngsters with special needs and their mothers.
His social enterprise Project Dignity won the President's Challenge Award in 2015.
But for all the accolades, one incident weighs heavily on him: The death of a woman he had trained and placed in a sticker-making factory. The 20-year-old had bipolar disorder.
"People (when depressed) don't talk, and they keep (everything) inside … One day, on a Monday afternoon, at 3.30pm, she went home. From the sixth floor of her building, she jumped," he recounted.
"That was the biggest mistake I've ever made."
He later found out, from watching CCTV footage from the factory floor, that she had been affected by a supervisor who had engaged in nitpicking and shouting at her.
After that, Mr Koh expanded his team so that there would be no lack of focus on individuals.
As the 59-year-old tells the programme Money Mind, there have been tribulations, setbacks and hurdles in his journey to establish a social enterprise that helps people who feel that they have lost their sense of dignity. (Watch the episode here.)
With a degree from the United Kingdom, this trained engineer was working in Europe, China and the United States before returning to Singapore to start a consultancy.
Driven by a desire to help people with disabilities and the socially disadvantaged, he started community volunteering.
"My thought was that if I could make rich people very rich, why don't I help the poor people to have a better life?" he said. "I thought that one day a month, I'd do something good."
He termed it Dignity Day, when he would hire a bus to take the elderly on day tours. He did this for about seven years, and it went from a four-person tour to two busloads.
Next, he taught youngsters in a remand prison, and then advised inmates at a drug rehabilitation centre how to start a business.
In 2006, he decided to do more, with the idea of a food court where he could help to train and employ people with disabilities and social disadvantages.
"If I want to help these people, I must skill them. Cooking is a skill … If I can train them, they must go out and earn proper money," he explained.
He sought funding from various government agencies, but that did not work out. So he set out to find people who would help him with his social enterprise.
"I went to a lot of people, famous hawkers … They said it wasn't possible, (that) trying to train normal people to run a food court was already very tough, (let alone) people with (disabilities)," he recalled.
"A lot of people rejected me."
LOSING $1,000 EVERY DAY
When he knew he could not rely on others for financing, he re-mortgaged his office property, raising S$200,000 to build the first Dignity Kitchen at Balestier Market Food Centre — in 2010, four years after he had conceived the idea.
It had four stalls selling nasi lemak, vegetarian food and local desserts, and although he was unfamiliar with the food business, his passion pushed him on. But the losses were heavy.
"The first and second year, I lost a total of S$700,000 ... I was losing S$1,000 a day. That was very stressful and very tough," he said. "You know, I had two sons studying."
He tried asking for help and, to his disappointment, found little support again. "Even my friend didn't want to answer my telephone call because (I was) doing something that nobody believed could be done," he said.
Mr Koh eventually received help from his family to tide him over. He also stumbled on the reason he was sustaining losses.
He had initially thought it would be a good idea to have the staff, including those with mental health issues or visual impairment, to wear badges identifying their disability so that customers would be understanding.
"I was a bit idealistic. I thought everybody would buy (food) from disabled people … Nobody bought. Everybody (who) came and saw the word 'mental' (on some badges) walked away," he said.
He recounted what one man told him in Hokkien: "You must be mental to get mental people to sell. Aren't you worried mental people would put dirty things in (the food)?"
A lack of empathy among some people, he realised, was the biggest challenge. It meant lots of leftovers that he had to pack home, give to friends or throw away.
"One night … the cleaner said, 'Cannot throw food away', so I decided to go to the toilet and, for the first time in my life, I flushed three kilogammes of nasi lemak down the toilet," he added.
The loss-making venture turned round only after his staff took off their badges. And the stalls were soon bringing in S$20,000 monthly.
When the lease expired, Dignity Kitchen moved to Kaki Bukit. After a few years, however, rental increases forced it to relocate to Serangoon Avenue 3, where it is today a sustainable social enterprise, although high rents remain a challenge.
"After 10 years now, things are better. People are more receptive," said Mr Koh. "We try to have more events and engage people more."
Dignity Kitchen, which employs more than 60 people, generates revenue from its food court, catering services, event hosting, consultancy services and training.
"We aren't an organisation that cooks food and gives to the disabled … We want (them) to go out and get a job. It's training," Mr Koh added.
"Once they're out working … we're not (only) helping the individual, we're helping the family and the extended family."
When he realised that not everyone can be trained to do hawker work, he started Dignity Mama, which employs youth with disabilities — such as Down's syndrome — and their mothers to sell second-hand books in local hospitals.
The idea is for these young adults to gain basic entrepreneurial skills, and to keep their carers employed. Initially, however, the hospitals were lukewarm to the idea.
"We wrote to a lot of people," said Mr Koh. "Nobody would give (us) a site."
But after Project Dignity was featured in a local show, the hospitals offered them space. There are now three Dignity Mama shops, which employ 26 people in all, with a fourth to start soon.
Mr Koh is now looking at expanding the Dignity Kitchen concept overseas; for example, he believes the Singapore model can work in Hong Kong.
It has been a long road he has travelled since he kicked off his social enterprise project. While he has met his fair share of naysayers, he has never been discouraged nor distracted by them.
It boils down to self-belief and passion for the cause. "It's not a project I can walk away from," he said. "If I walk away, my people would be out of a job."
This social enterprise, he added, "is a need, not a want", as those with disabilities "need to earn money" to support themselves. "People want to work. People want to have a life. And that's why I've kept going."
Watch this episode of Money Mind here. New episodes every Saturday at 10.30pm.
Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by a virus that is transmitted to humans from animals mainly in central and western Africa. This happens when a person comes in close contact with infected animals such as rodents.
"The patient reported that prior to his arrival in Singapore, he had attended a wedding in Nigeria, where he may have consumed bush meat, which could be a source of transmission of monkeypox virus," said MOH.
Human-to-human transmission can happen from close contact with infected respiratory tract secretions, skin lesions of an infected person or objects recently contaminated by patient fluids.
Symptoms of monkeypox include fever, aches, swollen lymph nodes and skin rash. It can cause serious complications such as pneumonia or even death in some cases.
The man had been staying at 21 Lorong 8 Geylang, the address of Hotel 81 Orchid, before he was hospitalised. He had also attended a workshop at 3 Church Street on Apr 29 and Apr 30.
On Apr 30, he developed fever, muscle ache, chills and skin rash, said MOH, adding that the man said he remained in his hotel room most of the time between May 1 and 7.
He was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital by ambulance on May 7, and was referred to NCID that same day.
MOH said it conducted contact tracing and identified 23 people who came into close contact with the patient.
They include 18 people who attended the same workshop, one staff member of the workshop venue and four hotel employees.
"Close contacts of the patient have been assessed by NCID and offered vaccination, which can prevent the disease or reduce the severity of symptoms," said MOH.
"As a precautionary measure, they will be quarantined and monitored for 21 days from their date of exposure to the patient."
MOH told CNA that no one from the list of close contacts showed any symptoms of the virus.
The risk of monkeypox spreading within the community in Singapore is low, said executive director of NCID Professor Leo Yee Sin.
"There is no evidence to date that human-to-human transmission alone can sustain monkeypox infections in the human population," Prof Leo said.
"On average, each infected person transmits the infection to less than one other person. This is much less infectious than the common flu. The chain of transmission can also be broken through contact tracing and quarantine of close contacts."
MOH added that the disease is usually self-limiting, with most patients recovering within two to three weeks.
Apart from the 23 people quarantined, all other contacts who have a low risk of being infected have also been put under active surveillance, and will be contacted twice daily to monitor their health status, said MOH.
One workshop participant who had left Singapore on May 5, before the patient was seen and diagnosed with monkeypox, has reported to MOH that he remains well with no symptoms.
As a precaution, MOH said it has informed the public health authority in the participant's home country.
SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Health has confirmed one imported case of monkeypox infection in Singapore, involving a Nigerian national who arrived last month for a workshop.
The 38-year-old man tested positive for the rare viral disease, which is primarily transmitted to humans from animals, on Wednesday (May 8), said MOH on Thursday. It is the first case of monkeypox reported here.
He is currently in an isolation ward at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), and is in stable condition.
Meanwhile, 22 out of 23 individuals who have been identified as close contacts of the patient are also under quarantine as a precautionary measure.
One of the close contacts, a workshop participant, had left Singapore on May 5 before the patient was diagnosed. He has reported to MOH that he remains well with no symptoms.
"Nonetheless, as a precaution, MOH has informed the public health authority in his home country," said the ministry.
MOH added that while it is possible for the disease to be transmitted between humans, the risk of spread is low.
Precautions to take when travelling to areas affected by monkeypox in Central and Western Africa
- Maintain a high standard of personal hygiene, including frequent hand washing after going to the toilet, or when hands are soiled.
- Avoid direct contact with skin lesions of infected living or dead persons or animals, as well as objects that may have become contaminated with infectious fluids, such as soiled clothing or linens (e.g. bedding or towels) used by an infected person.
- Avoid contact with wild animals, and consumption of bush meat.
- Returning travellers from areas affected by monkeypox should seek immediate medical attention if they develop any disease symptoms (e.g. sudden onset of high fever, swollen lymph nodes and rash) within three weeks of their return. They should inform their doctor of their recent travel history.
Before coming to Singapore, the man attended a wedding in Nigeria, where he may have consumed bush meat - a possible source of transmission of the monkeypox virus.
Bush meat, the meat of wild animals hunted and sold for food, is a popular source of protein in some parts of Africa where meat from domesticated animals are scarce or expensive.
Upon his arrival on April 28, he stayed at Hotel 81 Orchid in Geylang. In the following two days, he attended a workshop at the Samsung Hub in Church Street, in the Central Business District.
On April 30, he developed fever, muscle ache, chills and skin rash. Between May 1 and 7, the man reported that he stayed in his hotel room most of the time.
On May 7, he was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital by ambulance and referred to NCID.
Subsequently, MOH identified the people who had come into close contact with the man, including 18 participants and trainers who attended the same workshop; one worker at the workshop venue; and four hotel staff.
They have since been assessed by NCID and offered vaccination to prevent the disease or reduce the severity of symptoms, said the ministry.
"As a precautionary measure, they will be quarantined and monitored for 21 days from their date of exposure to the patient," said MOH.
Those who develop symptoms will be treated at NCID, and all others who came into contact with the man and have a low risk of being infected are being put under active surveillance, and will be contacted twice daily to monitor their health status, the ministry added.
MOH's investigation and contact tracing operations are ongoing.
Common symptoms of the disease are fever, headache, muscle ache, backache, swollen lymph nodes and skin rash.
In its statement, MOH said monkeypox is usually self-limiting, with most patients recovering within two to three weeks.
"In some cases, however, the virus can cause serious complications such as pneumonia, sepsis, encephalitis (brain inflammation) and eye infection with ensuing loss of vision," added the statement.
"There have been reported mortality rates of 1 per cent to 10 per cent during outbreaks, with most deaths occurring in younger age groups."
Transmission of monkeypox mainly occurs when a person comes into close contact with infected animals, usually rodents, through the hunting and consumption of bush meat.
It added that transmission of the disease between humans is possible but limited, as a person is infectious only when he has symptoms, particularly skin rash.
"Transmission typically occurs from close contact with the respiratory tract secretions or skin lesions of an infected person, or objects recently contaminated by an infected person's fluids or lesion materials," it added.
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Going eco-friendly: Can you really pursue a sustainable lifestyle in Singapore?
Is Singapore truly embracing sustainable living? Sprout, the country's largest farmers market event includes eco-friendly exhibitors such as Edible Garden City. (Photo: Edible Garden City/Sprout)
If you fancy yourself to be an eco-warrior, a recycling guru, an organic food lover or simply a hipster who loves the idea of sustainable living, there's only one place to be this weekend – at the mall.
Touted as Singapore's largest farmers market in the city, Sprout: Farm-To-People Festival is back for its second edition on May 11 and 12 at Suntec Singapore Convention Centre. The two-day event will showcase over 90 exhibitors that include specialty food and artisanal brands, produce from farmers, and all sorts of workshops and masterclasses from Michelin-star chefs.
There's arguably no other event of such scale and diversity in Singapore right now that puts the spotlight on the movement for sustainable living. And with efforts to go green and responsible regularly popping up in the news – fast food outlets giving up plastic straws and Marie Kondo telling people to declutter, for instance – the timing seems right.
THERE'S A GROWING AWARENESS
But just how far has the preaching gone? And has it been making an impact among consumers in Singapore? Sprout organisers and participants whom CNA Lifestyle talked to were optimistic, albeit with a number of caveats.
Last year's inaugural two-day event drew 23,000 people. "Based on that turnout, we would say there is significant interest from consumers to embark on a more mindful and sustainable way of life," said Arun Madhok, chief executive of Suntec Singapore Convention Centre, which organises Sprout.
And if the number of people who attended last year isn't enough of an indication, the number of exhibitors, producers and brands have also increased this year, from 60 to 90.
These include a number of returnees such as Comcrop Singapore, which pioneered the idea of urban rooftop farms in Singapore back in 2013 with its first prototype on *Scape.
Today, it has a few more around the island, which provide homegrown, pesticide-free produce and products to online retailers, supermarkets, as well as restaurants and bars.
Consumers are also becoming aware of terms like food waste and security "and even talking about how to avoid discriminating against 'ugly foods'," said Comcrop chief executive Peter Barber.
More and more locals are also keen on finding out where their food comes from. "Years ago, our farm tours were populated with many visitors from overseas. Now, the majority of our tours are made up of Singaporeans, young and old," he said.
For Sprout first-timer Melissa Lam, founder of artisanal brand Bamboo Straw Girl, there's been a huge growth since she started in 2013, when most of her clients were from Australia, Europe and the US and "there was close to zero local interest".
"I do see the eco-movement picking up a lot in Singapore and people are making a conscious effort to reduce their usage of single-use disposables, for example," she said, adding that what has driven change has been a growing network of people and zero-waste or environmental group, and regular events by universities and schools, too.
CONVENIENCE AND MINDLESS CONSUMPTION
But while awareness is on the rise, following through with an actual sustainable lifestyle is another issue altogether.
"It has been an incremental awareness in Singapore the last few years, however the conversion rate has not been high. There's still much effort which businesses and consumers can take to reduce waste," observed Florence Tay, founder of UnPackt, the country's first zero-waste grocery store, which opened a year ago.
The biggest challenge for their store, which encourages people to bring their own jars or bags when they shop, has been convenience.
"Bulk shopping requires some planning to be done prior to shopping. This helps consumers cultivate mindfulness which can reduce waste from impulse buying," she said.
"People have gotten used to the convenience, and even when they start to use reusable straws, cutlery, or bottles, I do get some questions such as "How do I wash them" or "My water consumption has gone up because I'm washing these things" or they have gotten used to the 'buy and throw' convenience culture," said Bamboo Straw Girl's Lam.
She also highlighted the problem of "mindless consumption". "The Straits Times ran a survey that asked people why they used plastic straws and most people responded 'I don't know, it just came with the drink'," Lam pointed out.
Consumer habits are a big hurdle, Comcrop's Barber pointed out. "Singapore's huge eating culture means everyone has an opinion on the best-tasting hawker stalls and dishes. But when choosing food, how many of us actually ask where the stall sources its ingredients from?"
IT'S MORE COMPLICATED THAN YOU THINK
There are other factors to consider when it comes to the nitty-gritty things when you're discussing just how sustainable you can be as a consumer. It's a nuanced issue, said Barber.
For instance, if you're all set to simply buy "organic" or anything with an eco-friendly stamp of approval, be aware that there are companies who'll inevitably capitalise on an obviously growing trend through "branding hype". Or if you're hesitating to go down the eco-friendly route because you think it's more expensive, Barber pointed out that that's not completely the case and there are cheaper alternatives.
He also pointed out that sustainability hinges on specific contexts. "For example, while advocates often extol the 'environmental sustainability' of organic produce, purely organic methods are often only 80 per cent as productive as other farms, which means resource wastage," he said.
"In addition, most organic produce here in Singapore is imported, which means a greater impact on the carbon footprint and food miles." Meaning it's not much different from buying non-organic produce that an import-dependent country like Singapore does anyway.
"The way we go about being 'eco-friendly' may be different from what we read about from other countries."
And sometimes, despite good intentions, campaigns can be misleading. "For example, 'recyclable' is often used interchangeably with 'reusable' and people do confuse the two," said Lam. "Reusing and reducing consumption is the solution – recycling should be the last resort."
But perhaps the one thing that consumers misunderstand is that you don't have to go all-in to be sustainable.
"An eco-friendly lifestyle is actually turning back the clock to the olden days before plastics and single use disposables were created. And it can start with just responsible consumption and civic-mindedness," said UnPackt's Tay. "Buy just what you need, think before you throw. Look beyond the ugly surface of the food items and do not pinch or poke the fresh produce, damaging them."
Bamboo Straw Girl's Lam added: "I like to see 'zero-waste' not as a strict practice, but as an aim. We don't have to be extreme to make a difference. There will never be 100 per cent in this journey, especially living in modern times and in a city. Many people making small, imperfect lifestyle changes is much better than just a few of us living strictly by the zero-waste ideal. I always emphasise the importance of not being too hard on yourself – nobody is going to find that lifestyle appealing."