Singaporean quits job here to help villagers in Thailand

Singaporean quits job here to help villagers in Thailand

In a remote village in Phetchabun, a northern Thai province, where most residents are of the Hmong ethnic minority, life is hard and occasionally dark.

The 17,000-strong village, called Khek Noi, is impoverished, and the villagers are poorly educated.

As the transit point in the drug trade between the Golden Triangle and Bangkok, the village has different drugs circulating among the population, including among its youth. Glue-sniffing is rampant, snaring children as young as six.

Domestic abuse cases are common: there are cases of battered wives and children sexually assaulted by their fathers. Some mothers have also sold their children into prostitution, or to organ harvesters.

Amid these sad stories, a small relief agency, operating out of a concrete building located next to a graveyard, has been making a difference. Called Radion International, the Christian non-profit group was set up by Singaporean Eugene Wee eight years ago.

It is a Singapore-registered non-government organisation (NGO) and most of its donors are Singaporean.

The agency runs a farm, microenterprises and anti-drug programmes, shelters battered women and has rehabilitation shelters for high-risk children.

One of its most transformative initiatives is the Streetkids Program, where a sponsor covers a child’s school fees, uniform costs, transportation, medical care, allowance and shelter.

The programme has since expanded to cover secondary school education in Chiang Mai, as educational opportunities for the children are limited after they complete primary school in the village. More than 100 kids have benefited from this.

Radion’s story is remarkable on several counts, not least due to the hope and change an aid agency can offer to underprivileged communities. But Radion’s story is also a story about one man’s determination to improve the lives of others.

How it all began

It all began after Mr Wee, 34, came to know about a refugee camp with Hmong refugees from Laos.

The Hmong are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The Laotian Hmong have faced government persecution for generations, not least because they backed American forces during the Vietnam War. After the communists won the war, the new government swore to wipe them out. Thousands of them were forced to seek asylum in Thailand.

“There were about 8,400 people in this camp. They had insufficient fresh food, were depressed, and suicide rates were high. I felt compelled to help,” says Mr Wee, adding that there were no big-name humanitarian agencies helping out there except Doctors Without Borders.

He decided to dedicate a year volunteering there. He quit his defence-related job, cancelled buying his sports car and sold his stock portfolio, which amounted to more than $50,000.

“My mother thought I was mad. Thinking back, I was mad,” he says.

Needing a “base camp” of sorts while waiting for access permits to enter the refugee camp, he set up Radion International in 2007 in a shophouse together with a Singaporean friend in Khek Noi village, which was en route to the camp.

Radion started out serving the needs of the Hmong Lao in the refugee camp, but later focused its energies on Khek Noi’s Hmong Thai.

With four computer terminals, Radion’s first office was also the village’s first Internet cafe.

Before long, the cafe attracted the village’s five most notorious gangsters, aged between 12 and 15.

They came initially for the Internet, but soon asked Mr Wee to house them as their families did not want them.

He agreed, but on condition that they did not come home high on drugs. The five boys agreed and were drug-free six months after Mr Wee’s continuous efforts to counsel and help them.

Villagers also began to inform him of domestic violence cases.

One of the most horrific cases of child abuse involved three siblings kept in the jungle by their stepfather to look after his livestock and keep house, and who hit and shot at them when he was angry.

“When we went to rescue them, they were like wild animals running around in fear, without social skills and with the ability to communicate only in grunts,” Mr Wee says.

He wanted to do more, but money was running out. Radion had been spending most of its money on food and necessities for the Hmong Lao refugees in the camp – the agency’s original target group.

In 2008, he started a blog to get the word out about the plight of the children in the village. Enough Singaporeans responded for there to be a 1:1 ratio of donors to children – that was how the first Streetkids Program began.

In 2009, Mr Wee had enough funds to start a farm to provide employment for impoverished households. The money came from private donors, as well as from profits from Radion Enterprise, a social enterprise which he started in 2007 providing consultancy services and training for start-ups and NGOs.

By then, he was running community development programmes, teaching families everything from personal hygiene to food preparation techniques.

That year, his parents made their first trip up to Phetchabun. Mr Wee has an older sister, 38, who works in risk management. His mother, Mrs Christie Wee, 65, says she had been “very unhappy” with her son’s “drastic move” in 2007.

Seeing her son’s lifestyle there pained her even more.

“I didn’t understand why he gave up his King Koil bed to sleep on the floor. I saw him bathing with muddy water infested with mosquito larvae, and sometimes eating plain rice and vegetables. Even the children he was taking care of were getting better food and bedding than he was,” she says.

“As a mother, you wonder, why is my son coming here to suffer like this?”

Parents’ blessing

Maternal anguish aside, she recognised that the work her son was doing was meaningful and told him he had their blessing. Mr Wee’s father, Mr Charlie Wee, 70, is a semi- retired remisier.

Mr Wee shrugs off his mother’s comments. “In the past few years, I’ve never been poorer, but I’ve also never been happier,” he says. “These people are fighting to survive. They need people to believe in them and love them. If we continue to give them hope, we can change the course of destiny for some of them.” This conviction has kept him going all these years.

Radion’s assistance to the Hmong Lao refugees ended in 2010 because they were repatriated to Laos. Mr Wee’s partner decided to return to Singapore in 2010, but the organisation’s efforts with the village have continued.

Corporate communications executive Nicole Yeong, 38, who has been a donor with Radion for the past three years and who volunteered with the organisation earlier this year, says she was struck by the warmth of the children at the shelter.

“They have been so hurt and betrayed by adults, but yet they are open to strangers like me. Their willingness to sit near me and reach out for my hand shows me that they feel safe and happy in the shelter,” she says.

Radion also shelters needy or abused wives and visits the abandoned elderly to ensure their needs are taken care of.

Fifteen staff, most of whom are local Hmong, work with Mr Wee in various roles, covering everything from donor relations to accounts to being the children’s caregivers.

He says the organisation can run comfortably with $40,000 to $50,000 a month, but usually receives between $20,000 and $30,000. This covers operations and salaries. Mr Wee draws a “very minimal salary”. Radion is raising funds to construct an education and training centre to equip the villagers with skills to set up their own businesses.

Dr Boon Jiabin, 31, joined Radion as a director last year, after volunteering on several occasions with the organisation.

“Eugene has poured a lot of commitment, heart and passion into the work here over the past eight years and I can see tangible efforts. I believe in what Radion does,” says the general practitioner, adding that he is impressed by how Mr Wee has gained the villagers’ trust with his ability to speak fluent Thai and by working closely with the village heads and local police.

Mr Wee says when he can no longer continue the work, he hopes the villagers can take over.

“For now, I will not give up on these people. Lives are being transformed – that keeps me going,” he says.

Source: The Straits Times

Former ‘wish kid’ now hopes to grant wishes

Former 'wish kid' now hopes to grant wishes

At the age of 13, when her peers were embarking on a new phase of life in Secondary One, Theresa Thang was battling brain cancer.

In January 2006, she had surgery to remove a tumour growing near her optic nerves. This was followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Ms Thang, now 22, recalled yesterday: “I was stuck at home with nothing to do but feel nauseous and vomit.”

But she also remembers a turning point, when the “negativity stopped”.

At the tail end of her treatment, the Make-A-Wish Foundation Singapore organised an exclusive outing to the zoo for Ms Thang with her family and friends, adding special touches like having photographs taken with orang utans and feeding the white tigers.

The international foundation, which started a branch in Singapore in 2003 and grants wishes to children who have life-threatening illnesses, also presented Ms Thang with two frogs after she stated a wish to keep them as pets.

After getting better, Ms Thang started helping out at the foundation by putting together computer slideshows at its events and making balloon sculptures for kids.

She is now studying veterinary science in Australia and hopes to become a “wish granter” herself. These volunteers work with the children and families to fulfil their wishes.

“I hope to be a source of positivity to the kids and to encourage them that it is not over yet,” Ms Thang said.

Among the over 250 volunteers at the foundation, around 20 are former “wish kids” like Ms Thang.

They volunteer in various capacities – such as becoming wish granters, performing at events and supporting the foundation in regular activities, such as its annual Christmas party.

Dr Keith Goh, the foundation’s chairman, said: “They know what these kids go through and they have walked the road before.”

To date, Make-A-Wish has benefited over 1,050 children – granting them wishes, from becoming a race car driver to owning a piano.

While between 100 and 120 wishes are granted annually, Dr Goh feels that more children can be helped.

“That is only about half of the true numbers that are out there in society,” he said, adding that more than 200 children are diagnosed with some kind of life-threatening condition every year.

Members of the public who know a child with a life-threatening illness can contact the foundation on 6334-9474 or e-mail

Source: Straits Times

Volunteer: Mental patients are not violent

Volunteer Mental patients are not violent

She has received marriage proposals from at least five men.

But housewife Janet Ponniah, who is in her 50s, takes it all in her stride.

The proposals are all part of her experience at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), where she has been volunteering for almost two decades.

Mrs Ponniah, who is married without children, said: “I’d reject the proposals nicely, by showing the patients my wedding ring and telling them I am already married.”

Today, IMH is holding a Volunteers Appreciation Day event to thank volunteers such as Mrs Ponniah for their contributions to its patients’ welfare and rehabilitation.

Mrs Ponniah started volunteering at IMH in 1984 with the Society of St Vincent de Paul, under the parish of Church of St Vincent de Paul.

She took a break after a year due to work commitments but resumed volunteering at the hospital in 1995. And she has not stopped since.

She said: “The patients hardly get visitors. We are their only contact from the outside world.”

“It fills me with joy when I know I made a difference to their lives.”

Mrs Ponniah now goes to the hospital at Buangkok every other Thursday.

During her three-hour visits, she talks to patients. For Catholics, she prays and takes the Holy Communion with them.

When she first started volunteering, she was apprehensive about helping out at a mental hospital.

She said: “Back then, there was a lot of stigma surrounding the patients due to the lack of exposure.”

But she got used to the patients after the first few visits.

She said that a certain stigma still exists today, with people having the misconception that mental patients are violent and frightening.

“They have these images of patients being tied down with policemen guarding their wards,” she explained.

“But mental patients are actually very friendly, and they always greet the volunteers by waving and smiling.”

She visits about 40 patients and knows all of them by name. Over time, she has also built a close bond with them.

“The patients always try to hug us or shake our hands. The blind patients even recognise our voices.”


The emotional attachment she has with the patients is strong and she feels a sense of loss when they die.

She said: “I always feel sad when I realise that I didn’t manage to say goodbye.”

IMH’s volunteer manager Catherine Chua, 66, has seen Mrs Ponniah interacting with the patients. She said: “They are always happy to see her and I can tell they have a connection.”

This passion for volunteering is why Mrs Ponniah has never thought of stopping. She wishes to see more volunteers at IMH.

She said: “By volunteering, you get to experience love and your life is enriched.

“There is nothing to fear, only to gain.”

Source: The New Paper

NUS dons raise $3m during road trip

NUS dons raise $3m during road trip

A three-month motorbike trip from Singapore to Sweden by a pair of surgeons has raised S$3 million for Asian breast cancer research.

After riding through 17 countries and covering more than 23,000km, associate professors Philip Iau and Mikael Hartman have also returned with fresh insight into how women in developing Asian countries deal with the disease – and a trunkful of stories, like how they were detained in a police station in Iran.

“Until now, I’m still not exactly sure what happened,” said Prof Iau on Wednesday. The pair from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine were also stuck for nine hours when crossing the border from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, a problem which Prof Hartman said was “eventually resolved with a cigarette”.

The aim of the road trip, which they called The Long Ride, was to raise awareness of breast cancer issues, especially in Asia; create collaboration with professionals elsewhere; and raise funds, which will be matched by the Singapore Government one-for-one and are managed by the NUS Development Office.

“We wanted to tell people, even those outside Asia, what it is like to have breast cancer in Asia. We wanted to highlight the uniquely Asian features,” said Prof Iau of the trip, which was completed last month. He explained that Asian women diagnosed with breast cancer face a higher chance of dying than women in the West, as most do not go for regular mammograms. Even after diagnosis, some drop out of breast cancer treatment halfway.

On their trip, the surgeons found out – after meeting breast cancer patients in China, Malaysia and Thailand – the big worry for patients was that the cost of treatment could mean using money that could have been used for their children’s education. They were also afraid of how their husbands would view them if they had to remove a breast.

Prof Hartman said that even in Singapore, the take-up rate of breast cancer screening is “substantially low”, according to his research.

During the trip, the two surgeons stopped to give lectures, attend breast cancer forums and workshops, and meet other doctors and academics. In Chiang Mai, they were also the guests of honour to open the city’s first women’s cancer centre.

In China, they sat in for interviews for an anthropological study on how culture affects the way the disease is viewed. In Uzbekistan, they conducted lectures at the Tashkent State Medical Institute.

“What we wanted to do was to attract attention to breast cancer issues, and what we plan to do about them,” said Prof Iau.

The pair are now thinking about Long Ride Part II. “We haven’t even been to Indonesia or India,” said Prof Iau. “But we have to figure out how to tell our wives.”

Source: The Straits Times