Making a difference: Singaporeans’ contributions to the Nepal earthquake recovery efforts

Making a difference: Singaporeans’ contributions to the Nepal earthquake recovery efforts

More than two years after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, here’s how three Singapore-based organisations went beyond simple rebuilding efforts to touch affected Nepalese communities.

singaporeans in nepal
Singaporeans involved in the Nepal earthquake relief effort: (clockwise from top left) Founder of Awful Grace Christine Tan, Founder of Manaslu Foundation Nigel Kow, and TOUCH International's Eugene Seow, Ernest Ho and Shawn Lim. (Photos courtesy of Awful Grace, Manaslu Foundation and TOUCH International)

KATHMANDU: Rebuilding community facilities like schools and setting up health posts was a key focus of the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) in their efforts to help Nepal, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated the country in 2015.

But more than two years on, the contribution made by the SRC and their network of more than 15 partners has gone beyond simple rebuilding efforts. The partners – nine of which are Singapore-based – showcased their work at an SRC exhibition held in Kathmandu on Thursday (May 4) attended by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Defence Maliki Osman.

These are three of their stories.


nigel kow
Founder of Manaslu Foundation Nigel Kow. (Photo: courtesy of Nigel Kow)

For 27-year-old Nigel Kow, it all started with the desire to save the lives of those who saved him.

It was 2014, and the then-third year university undergraduate was leading a climbing expedition to Nepal. In the process of going down a steep cliff, his rope snagged on a rock and his body smashed into the rock surface.

The next morning, he woke up to find himself paralysed from the waist down.

“My mountain guides were so worried for me, so they called in a helicopter and dug out the landing pad,” he recalled. “They saved my life.”

Six months later, the earthquake hit. And despite being in the midst of his final exams and having only S$11 in his bank account, Nigel did not think twice. 

“I found out that the guides’ villages were at the epicentre of the quake,” he said. “And I asked myself, if someone saved my life and now their livelihoods are destroyed, am I going to just take the easy way out and say, let me find someone who can help you?

“I asked my guides, do you want me to come down? And I made myself available.”

He approached friends from his church and school, and together managed to raise about S$8,000 which he used to buy and distribute basic essentials to the guides’ villages, which could only be reached after a one-day off-road bus journey and a three-day trek through mountainous terrain.

In delivering the aid, he made numerous trips to and from Nepal while juggling his studies in chemical engineering at the National University of Singapore. In the process, he also started the Manaslu Foundation together with the mountain guides who saved his life. The foundation is a non-profit organisation focusing on earthquake relief and regeneration efforts in Nepal’s Gorkha district at the earthquake’s epicentre.

The Manaslu Foundation helped to rebuild and equip five schools and a health post in Manaslu, and Nigel’s next project is to equip the schools with WiFi towers.

“I went in totally blind and knowing nothing,” he said. “I had to learn everything through experiencing it myself, or by asking my guys. That’s why all this would really not have been possible without them.”

Nigel has come a long way from when he first started out. And a big lesson learnt, he said, is that there is no substitute for being on the ground, and seeing the needs of the people first-hand. 

“I could have taken the easy way out and just transferred money to them,” he said. “But by me literally walking through the village, I can see what they really need.

"It means I can talk to the locals, see the situation there and feel their heartbeat.”


TOUCH international
From left: Eugene Seow, Ernest Ho and Shawn Lim. (Photo: courtesy of TOUCH International)

There was no shortage of local volunteers in Nepal when the earthquake first hit, according to TOUCH International’s Shawn Lim. Better still, he said, that they knew the ground and could handle the country’s mountainous terrain.

But the problem, according to Shawn, who was part of TOUCH International’s advance team to Nepal in 2015, lay in managing the volunteers.

“Our partners had a base of one or two thousand volunteers, and everyone was so eager to help their own people,” he recalled. “But they were really disorganised.

“They weren’t even tracking where they sent their volunteers, so there were duplicates, and resources that were unaccounted for.”

TOUCH International had come to Nepal with the purpose of finding out what the needs on the ground were and meeting them. At the start, this included helping to provide basic essentials like clean water and temporary zinc shelters. But Shawn added that small but significant changes could also be made - helping the partners come up with a system to track relief supplies, roster volunteers and organise an SMS reporting system for the volunteers.

“It may be second nature to us in Singapore, but not necessarily so for them, especially in a crisis situation where people panic,” he explained.

The organisation was also able to tap on their years of experience – whether in responding to natural disasters or in their work in Singapore – to offer more value-added help.

One of their ongoing projects is the rebuilding of an elderly nursing home in Kathmandu. But TOUCH International’s CEO Eugene Seow said the team saw an additional opportunity.

“We didn’t just want to rebuild the infrastructure, but also to change the programme of the place,” he said. “So for example, it could be more than just a nursing home, but a senior activity centre, similar to what we have been running in Singapore.”

“Intergenerational volunteers can also come in, and the stronger elderly can take part in senior activities,” he added. The team is also exploring the possibility of opening a childcare centre next to the nursing home, and having a staff exchange, where staff from the nursing home come to Singapore to see how a senior activity centre works.

Underlying all this, said Eugene, is the team’s focus - to make givers, rather than receivers.

“We want them to go away knowing that after encountering us, they are confident that have been enabled and empowered to do things for themselves,” he explained.

“That has always been the heart of what we do at TOUCH, where we leave behind a community of people who are able to help others.”


christine tan
Founder of Awful Grace Christine Tan. (Photo: courtesy of Christine Tan)

Beyond basic essentials like food and water, another immediate need facing quake survivors in Nepal was trauma counselling. And as a trained counsellor in Singapore, Christine Tan, the founder of Awful Grace, hoped to fill that need in a particularly creative way: Art therapy.

In 2015, she teamed up with another organisation named The Red Pencil to bring two art therapists to Nepal to help children, a group she said was particularly vulnerable.

 “Sometimes children don’t have the words to express what they’ve gone through, especially because of the language difficulty,” she said. “And we found that it all came out through the drawings.

“We would have children drawing things like people hiding under tables, things that express their experience in the quake. From there, we could talk to them about their drawing, and identify which children needed more help.”

Her team also trained local volunteers in art therapy and trauma counselling.

As Christine was initially with Prison Fellowship Singapore, she focused on what she described as the “hidden communities” - families and children of those in prison. But last year, she decided to strike out on her own and start Awful Grace so she could expand her reach to help those in the villages these families and children came from.

“Increasingly I was starting to feel that even though these prisoners’ children needed help, there were so many other needs outside as well, so I wanted to do more,” she explained.

Awful Grace also organised a mobile medical and dental clinic and did health screening for the children. But Christine said they had to go beyond meeting the basic needs in the community, and move into sustainable community development.

To that end, she’s trying out a new project after seeing a similar model at a rehabilitation centre she visited - enabling families to run their own goat farms.

“We identified 60 families in total over 3 years, and we bring them to the rehab centre where they learn how to look after and breed goats and cows,” she explained. “At the end of the training, we will give them a pair of goats and cows and they can start breeding, and after 18 to 24 months, they will return two goats back to us.

“I realised that in order to address the health needs, we need to lift them out of poverty,” she added. “We want to be able to help them help themselves, so the community can be a steward to those around them.” 

Source: CNA/lc