How a dogged 83-year-old shook up Singapore’s health system

Getting old and paying for healthcare is an increasing worry for many people around the world, but the elderly in Singapore could be forgiven for thinking their country had it sorted. After all, its healthcare system ranks among the best in the world, delivering basic, affordable treatment for those who qualify. And this is not all on the taxpayer, either, with individuals paying an initial amount and then a national health insurance scheme kicking in.

The compulsory health insurance scheme, called Medishield Life, was introduced in 2015 to help cope with the needs of a rapidly ageing population, with families worried about the large medical bills that can arise with a loved one becoming frail.

But the recent case of 83-year-old Mr Seow Ban Yam revealed that for some, the worry had not gone away. He was shocked by a medical bill well over a thousand dollars higher than he expected, and for which he received only a S$4.50 (US$3.24) insurance payment. The bill was for treatment at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC).

The normally mild-mannered Mr Seow took it upon himself to challenge the bill, writing to hospital authorities and insurance administrators to get to the bottom of the issue.

However, the explanations, which essentially said no mistake had been made, merely confused him further. That’s because the maximum amount that he could claim under for his surgery was S$2,800, yet he was charged S$3,664  by the public institution (after taking into account government subsidies).

The puzzled retiree, worried that maybe it was he who had got his sums wrong, contacted The Straits Times in a neat, handwritten letter saying:

“Hopefully, you can find my case worth looking into, not only for myself, but also for the sake of the many people like me who otherwise are not aware of what a Medishield Life claims entails.

“We all think that Medishield Life is to subsidise large hospital bills. It is only when one goes through some kind of operation will one know it may not be true.”

What The Straits Times discovered thanks to Mr Seow shocked even those in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Health – that at least one public health institution had raised fees to levels much higher than those covered by the national health insurance scheme.

In Mr Seow’s case, the reason for his paltry insurance payout was that the subsidised bill from the SNEC was 50 per cent higher than the claim limit for that procedure.

The wider implication was that thousands of patients in Singapore were probably finding themselves in the same situation each year as Mr Seow, facing bills from public institutions which were higher than what the government allows MediShield Life to cover.

As a result of Mr Seow’s determination and the newspaper’s inquiries, the issue was raised in Parliament in January this year (2019).

The government has now decided to review national health insurance claim limits every three years instead of five.

And there was more good news for those who rely that the system will deliver basic, affordable healthcare – in March, the SNEC cut its fees for 20 procedures by between 15 and 32 per cent. This could reduce each bill by up to several hundred dollars for about 14, 500 procedures done a year at that institution.

What The Straits Times discovered thanks to Mr Seow shocked even those in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Health – that at least one public health institution had raised fees to levels much higher than those covered by the national health insurance scheme.


What got Mr Seow so riled up and made the issue such a talking point was that when Medishield Life was introduced, the trade-off for making it compulsory was that the government made a promise: lower-income people now need never fear having to foot big medical bills entirely themselves for treatment at public hospitals.

The aim was that 90 per cent of patients would have 90 per cent of their bills covered, beyond an initial amount – which insurers call a “deductible” – and co-payment over that.

But Mr Seow’s complaint led to the discovery that, in the years since Medishield Life was launched, coverage had in fact dropped to 80 per cent of fully subsidised bills.

And these are patients who need a helping hand – about a third of 4 million Singapore residents rely entirely on MediShield Life for their health insurance. The rest can afford policy add-ons from the private sector.


So how did Mr Seow, who is retired and lives in a subsidised government apartment, end up caught between high medical fees and low insurance payout, sending him on the road to being an unlikely healthcare hero for the needy?

It all began in 2017 when he went to the Singapore National Eye Centre for two operations involving unblocking his tear ducts in both eyes in preparation for cataract surgery. He certainly wasn’t prepared for the financial shock that followed.

Mr Seow knew he would have to pay 10 per cent of the bill after the deductible, which is capped at S$3,000 a year, but only expected to only fork out a total of S$3,148 himself. However, he ended up paying S$4,472.30 – a figure S$1,329 more than he had anticipated. To a retiree, this is no small sum.

The main problem was that the bill was S$1,472 over the claim limit of S$3,005 including room and board as well as the operation. The latter alone was limited to S$2,800. This capped amount is stated in the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) table for surgical procedures, though there is no explanation how the amount is arrived at.

Said Mr Seow: “The whole idea of MediShield Life is to meet heavy bills. I don’t understand why it is limited to S$2,800 when the bill is more than S$4,000. This defeats the purpose of insurance.”

Mr Seow Ban Yam, a subsidised patient who went for an eye surgery at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC).
Source: Chong Jun Liang

Another was that while S$3,005 was claimable, as Mr Seow is over 80, the insurance scheme requires him to pay the deductible amount of S$3,000 himself. As for the remaining $5, the helping hand of Medisave Life paid the 90 per cent, alright – a grand sum of S$4.50. Mr Seow’s 10 per cent co-payment was still required, of 50 cents.

Fortunately, Mr Seow did not need to take out a bank loan for the overall big bill – he could pay the amount from a long-established scheme the government operates where workers pay into designated savings accounts that include a healthcare one called MediSave.

In January, addressing ST’s report over Mr Seow’s plight, Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong not only announced more regular reviews of claim limits that cap national health insurance coverage, but also promised: “We will continue to review, refine and strengthen MediShield Life and other components of our public healthcare financing system, and just as importantly, manage our healthcare costs to ensure that public healthcare remains affordable for all Singaporeans.”

As for Mr Seow, his dogged pursuit of his SNEC bill will benefit those who undergo similar procedures: in particular, patients who need the same surgery as him – called dacryocystorhinostomy (duct drainage surgery) – as well as procedures such as glaucoma surgery with implant and retinal detachment surgery, “will see subsidised bill sizes lowered by an average of 25 per cent”, said a spokesman for the centre..

And what of the amount that Mr Seow had to cover himself? SNEC has since offered Mr Seow a goodwill payment of S$1,300 – or near the amount MediShield Life would have covered if the entire bill had been within the limits set.

This story is a compilation of a series of articles by Salma Khalik published by The Straits Times from Dec 31, 2018 to Jan 16.

On discovering Mr Seow’s plight, StraitsTimes senior health correspondent Salma Khalik spent four months probing the gap between Singapore’s health insurance claim limits and subsidised fees charged by public health institutions. Not only did her coverage spur debate in Parliament about the adequacy of national healthcare insurance in January 2019, it led to the government’s decision to review national health insurance claim limits every three years instead of five. The 83-year-old patient in the centre of the issue was also delighted to hear that the Singapore National Eye Centre’s (SNEC) decision to review and adjust its charges. “This will help many other people,” he said.

Taking down a drug mule syndicate

In a crowded shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, 16-year-old Shirley* (not her real name) met with two men she had never seen in her life. They gave her a flight ticket to Hong Kong, and RM2,000 (US$474.32) in spending money. A friend she had met on Facebook, 15 years old at the time, had arranged the trip, telling her it was a free holiday. He had gone several times before, and even brought souvenirs back for her.

On the morning of her flight, one of the men showed up again and gave her and another fellow traveller a pair of shoes each. They were asked to wear them to Hong Kong.

Hours later, her life as she knew it was over. After arriving at Hong Kong International Airport, she was picked out for a body search, and 700g of heroin were found in the soles of the shoes.

In the past year, nearly 30 young Malaysians – some still teenagers – have been arrested in Hong Kong for being drug mules on behalf of international syndicates; and experts say the arrest numbers are just a fraction of those who actually make it through.

For Shirley’s parents back in Malaysia, the nightmare was only just beginning. For nearly two months, they had no idea what had happened to her. The last time they saw Shirley, their only child, she was begging them to let her go to Hong Kong with her friends. She was only supposed to be gone for three days.

Her parents searched everywhere – the airport, the police, hospitals – and found nothing. They couldn’t eat or sleep, and yet, as the owners of a small business, they had to continue working each day to survive.

And then came a phone call which gave them fear and relief in equal measure. It was from Hong Kong Correctional Services – their daughter was facing over 20 years in prison on drug trafficking charges. Ever since that moment, Shirley’s parents have been working frantically and desperately to prove their daughter’s innocence. But Shirley is not alone.

In the past year, nearly 30 young Malaysians – some still teenagers – have been arrested in Hong Kong for being drug mules on behalf of international syndicates; and experts say the arrest numbers are just a fraction of those who actually make it through.

With drug production in South-East Asia’s infamous “Golden Triangle” region hitting record highs in the past year, the number of mules being recruited to transport drugs could grow even higher across Asia, and Malaysia – the region’s low-cost airline hub – appears to be the perfect transit country.

Drug syndicates operating in Malaysia have been using Facebook pages and WeChat groups with devastating effect, luring impressionable young people with “paid holidays” (like the one Shirley went for) or part-time courier jobs. Some openly say the job involves drugs.

If the mules get arrested, they are left to rot in prison while the syndicates get off scot-free. All communications are done using fake profiles on chat apps, so the recruiters can’t be traced.

Posing as a potential mule, a R.AGE undercover journalist (left) secures a meeting with a drug syndicate recruiter.
Source: R.AGE

After receiving a tip-off from a lawyer and a prison chaplain in Hong Kong, investigative journalists from R.AGE started looking into this increase in drug mule activity and working with the families of the arrested mules to find out more about the syndicates. Through its investigations in Malaysia and Hong Kong alone, the journalists were able to uncover syndicates which were sending mules to Vietnam, China, South Korea, Taiwan, the Middle East, Australia, and even as far as Brazil and Peru.

The team then went undercover, posing as potential drug mules to meet with the syndicates’ recruiters, in hopes of exposing their tactics – which range from friendly recruitment to brutal physical force. Little did they know, their investigations would eventually help expose a dangerous drug trafficking network, with connections to a dealer in Hong Kong.
But it all started with a series of prison visits in Hong Kong.

Shirley, now 18, told R.AGE her story from behind a glass panel at a Hong Kong prison. She was supposed to be graduating high school this year. Her Facebook page is full of photos of her and her friends from school. None of them know what happened. Only her parents and a few close relatives were clued in.

“I told her not to go,” said Shirley’s mother, her voice trembling as she spoke from their home, in a small town two hours south of Kuala Lumpur.

They haven’t moved anything in Shirley’s room, the bigger of the two rooms in their home. It’s also the only one with a window, so the parents offered it to her. “She’s such a sweet child – her grandmother’s favourite, and popular with all her schoolmates – but she started mixing with these ‘friends’ on Facebook, and now they’ve ruined her life.

“She begged me to let her go with them. I felt bad because we never had the money to bring her for a holiday overseas, but I still said no. In the end, we just couldn’t stop her,” said the mother.

Her parents, too, had never been on a plane. Despite surviving on a combined RM3,000 a month, they spent almost all their savings making two trips to see Shirley in Hong Kong, desperate to find evidence that could help her case before she is sentenced.

“I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I just cry myself to sleep every night thinking about her,” said the mother. “Just one trip – her first time on a plane,” said her father ruefully. “Look what it has done to us.”

“I believe I was set up (to be arrested),” said Shirley. “I was the one to take the fall. Why else would they only plant 700g on me? That seems like a very small amount.”

Shirley has not heard from the 15-year-old friend who recruited her. He was on the same trip, but on an earlier flight. As far as she knows, he’s back in Malaysia, safe and sound. Other mules tell us it’s a common diversionary tactic – keep the authorities busy with one or two arrests, while the majority pass through.
“I believe I was set up (to be arrested),” said Shirley. “I was the one to take the fall. Why else would they only plant 700g on me? That seems like a very small amount.”

Proving that in court, however, seemed an almost impossible task for her parents. The syndicate had burned all traces of their involvement, and the parents didn’t have enough money to hire a lawyer.

Although Shirley eventually pleaded guilty to avoid trial, the group of undercover journalists’ investigation behind this story put a dent in local drug syndicates’ operations by exposing their mule recruitment methods.Their work has helped raise awareness about Father John Wotherspoon’s work, a prison chaplain from Hong Kong on a mission to expose drug mule recruiters in Malaysia before they ruin any more lives. With the help of corroborative intel from Father Wotherspoon and families of incarcerated drug mules, a drug lord dubbed as Shanker was detained under the Special Preventive Measures by narcotics officers in February.

Another three senior figures in his syndicate were arrested as well. However, much remains to be done, like many others the teenage recruiter who made Shirley a drug mule is still at large.

* All names have been changed to protect the identity of the families involved.

This story by Ian Yee and Shanjeev Reddy was originally published by R.AGE, the Star on June 24.

Drug syndicates operating out of the infamous Golden Triangle in Myanmar have been flooding Asia with record levels of synthetic drugs, with Malaysia a strategic transit point — particularly for the recruitment of innocent young mules. Undercover journalists from The Star’s R.AGE team followed the trail of information left by the mules and their devastated families to track down the syndicates’ recruiters, and found enough information to help Malaysian narcotics officers make several arrests, crippling at least one drug mule network. Their work, which included a hidden camera sting operation on a mule recruiter, helped stem the tide of Malaysian drug mule arrests in Hong Kong — another strategic transit point for drug trafficking, according to experts. It also helped create widespread awareness about the drug mule syndicates’ recruitment strategies. In the months after R.AGE’s investigations, there were zero Malaysian mule arrests reported in Hong Kong, according to one activist; compared to the over two dozen that had been arrested in the nine months before. Then, on May 2019, another two arrests emerged. R.AGE is now working with the arrested mules’ families to provide information that could help the mules’ cases in court, and is planning a follow-up campaign to tackle drug abuse.

Sexual abuse on campus: 174 survivors across Indonesia speak up

“The road was quiet with only palm trees around and it was only two of us in his car when he began to caress my thigh and slip his hand under my bottom. I don’t know why but I couldn’t scream. I didn’t fight back because I was so scared. I was afraid he would get angry and he could do anything to me if I screamed. I could be killed. I didn’t want to die in vain,” said a student from a state university in Sumatra, recalling her chilling story of sexual abuse at the hands of her lecturer. She was going with him on a field trip to do research.

Her story is among 174 stories from survivors, which reveal that sexual harassment and abuse on campuses in Indonesia are widespread in 29 cities from the western to eastern parts of Indonesia, encompassing 79 state, private and religious-based universities.

Most of the survivors were female college students at the time of the alleged abuse, with seven being male.

The cities include Serang and Tangerang in Banten, Medan in North Sumatra, Makassar in South Sulawesi and Malang in East Java.

Many of the cases were not reported and those that were are mostly unresolved.


From Feb 13 to March 28, The Jakarta Post, and VICE Indonesia working in collaboration in a project called #NamaBaikKampus (CampusReputation) received 207 testimonies, of which 174 were alleged cases of sexual harassment.

Eighty-eight per cent of the survivors, who shared their stories on an online testimony form, come from universities in Java, with Semarang and Yogyakarta being named the two cities with the highest number of survivors who filled out the collaborative online form.

Yogyakarta and Semarang are home to Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and Diponegoro University (Undip), respectively, which have been named in high profile cases of alleged sexual abuse. There have been two cases at UGM, one of which went viral in November last year, in which a student, whose pseudonym is Agni, reported that she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student.

Last month, #NamaBaikKampus revealed a case at Undip, in which students testified that they were harassed by a male lecturer. The collaboration recorded a spike in testimonies coming from Undip after, the Post and VICE Indonesia published the story.

The National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) said sexual abuse reports were usually the tip of the iceberg, with more reports meaning more survivors speaking up, but no reports from a certain institution does not mean there was no abuse at that institution.

Women and men march on International Women’s Day in Yogyakarta on March 8. Source: The Jakarta Post/Bambang Muryanto


Most of the survivors were female college students at the time of the alleged abuse, with seven being male.

Data compiled from their testimonies showed that 50 percent of the survivors said they had experienced sexual harassment multiple times, while the other 50 percent said it happened only once. They were harassed on- and off-campus by students and lecturers when going about their daily activities, during university events, internship programs, community service programs or when doing research.

In another story shared by a survivor, who was a medical student at an Islamic-based university in Central Java, she claims to have been harassed before an operation by a doctor during her internship at a hospital.

“He was sleeping in a resting room so I called him because the patient was ready for surgery. He then asked me to sit next him for a chit chat. He was my professor so I did what he asked me to do, I sat down. He then put his arms around me and tried to kiss me. I was so shocked I didn’t fight back; I just covered my face with my hands. Luckily, my friend suddenly opened the door, I got up and excused myself,” she told #NamaBaikKampus.

The medical student then told the story to her parents. Although they were angry, her parents decided not to do anything about it.

“We couldn’t do much. He is a doctor, a professor and the former director of that hospital,” she said.

Some survivors also reported being verbally harassed. One of them is a student at a Catholic university in West Java. She said a lecturer made a “joke” about susu, which can mean either milk or breasts, while pointing at her breasts in front of her friend and another lecturer.


Of 174 survivors, who shared their stories, 87 said they did not report the harassment to any authorities.

“I was still a student when the harassment took place. I’m afraid that [by reporting the case] the university would postpone my graduation because of this matter. Studying at the university already costs so much and I only want to finish my studies on time without any delay,” a survivor in Semarang said.

Most campuses do not have any known procedure to help survivors report their cases. The Research, Technology and Higher Education Ministry’s director general of learning and student affairs, Ismunandar, said in an interview with VICE Indonesia in February that universities in Indonesia were “autonomous” entities and such sexual abuse cases should be handled by each individual institution. The ministry did not have any plan to issue a guideline on eradicating sexual abuse on campus, including abuse perpetrated by lecturers.

However, UGM might be the first one to set up a university-wide policy. After much criticism about how the rectorate handled Agni’s case, which included victim blaming from some officials, UGM is deliberating a policy to give the rectorate a tool to handle future cases better.
“My lecturer also harassed my friend when we were still students but we didn’t know what to do or who to call for help. We didn’t have any facility on campus to solve this issue until now,” another survivor said.

Some of the survivors also did not report their cases because they suspected that university officials would care more about the university’s reputation.
“I’m scared of the top officials who resolutely try to protect the university’s reputation,” a survivor in Banten said.

This story by Gemma Holliani Cahya and Evi Mariani was originally published by Jakarta Post on April 29, 2019. To read more, click here.

Technology offers freedom of mobility

For an able-bodied person, it takes less than 10 minutes to transfer from line No. 2 to line No. 6 at Sindang Station, one of the biggest transit points in Seoul.

For a person in a wheelchair, it takes up to 40 minutes.

The corridor at Sindang Station is long. It contains a lot of stairs and not enough ramps or elevators to help those using a wheelchair move on their own. During rush hour, the commute is a nightmare.

“Most subway stations in Korea were designed without mobility disabled people in the picture,” said Hong Yun-hui, founder and head of Muui, a nonprofit that provides transit information for people with physical impairments.

To point out one problem, “because Seoul’s subways are operated by more than two organisations, the signs are inconsistently placed,” she said.

“There are even blind spots in stations where there are no signs at all. It is impossible for people with an impairment to even bother to use the subway relying on these signs.”

“People with impairments are generally not financially affluent,” said Shim Jae-shin of Todo Works. “It is critical to develop something that can be used right away, which is what we are doing.”

Last year, Muui released a service that gives passengers the easiest transfer routes in select subway stations. The app can tell users which subway car is closest to the elevator and which corridors have more ramps. The nonprofit started with 14 stations and expanded the service to 33 this year. Volunteers collect the information by actually wandering the stations in wheelchairs.

“We have to consider everything from the perspective of those who move around in wheelchairs,” Hong said. “Even if there’s a sign, it is not useful for the mobility disabled because they cannot see them.”

Hong started Muui because of her daughter, who is unable to walk due to neuroblastoma. She believes people with disabilities should venture out and raise awareness of their experiences, but the infrastructure and technology in Korea is far from sufficient.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, one out of four people in South Korea face difficulties getting around on their own. Ten per cent of that population has limited mobility because of conditions inherited at birth or wrought by a tragic accident. That adds up to about 1.2 million people in a country of 50 million.

Volunteers from Muui explore the Seoul subway in wheelchairs to collect information on accessibility. Source: Muui

Perceptions of people with disabilities cannot change overnight, but technology and services can.

“With the help of electronic wheelchairs and computer-assistive equipment, I was able to study and participate in society again,” Kim Jong-bae, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Yonsei University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

An accident in graduate school paralysed Kim from the neck down, but he was later able to study rehabilitation engineering in the United States with the aid of diverse technology and equipment.

“I severely felt the importance of rehabilitation engineering and how it is vital for disabled people to live independent lives,” he said.


Hong Yun-hui believes in the positive effect of technology for people with physical impairments, but she also says it does not have to be expensive or sophisticated.

“Very, very small changes can entirely change how disabled people move around outside,” she said.

Todo Works is a Korean start-up that provides kits to turn manual wheelchairs into electric ones.

“I witnessed my daughter’s friend struggling with a foldable wheelchair, so I made a motor in about six months that let her more easily move around,” said Shim Jae-shin, founder and CEO of Todo Works. “I received more than 200 calls from parents of mobility disabled children to make the same motor for them after this one-time product.”

The motor weighs about 4.5 kilograms and coupled with a foldable wheelchair – which can weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 kilograms – the contraption is lighter than an electric wheelchair, which can easily exceed 100 kilograms.

Shim said the kit, called Todo Drive, represents a “midway technology” that resolves an immediate inconvenience until a more complete solution is developed. The motor can drive a wheelchair about 10 kilometres on one charge.

“It is a rather simple task for the manufacturer to make these kinds of products,” Shim said. “But for disabled people, these simple products change their entire lives. The most frequent feedback I hear from parents is that the personality of their disabled children has changed to become brighter and more positive.”

Todo Drive sells for 1.76 million won (US$1475.89), while similar imported products go for over 5 million won (US$4192.88) on average.

Conglomerates have also started initiatives to help people with limited mobility. Hyundai Motor Group, the nation’s largest automaker, set up a social enterprise called Easy Move in 2010 to develop products catered toward that population.

The company remodelled its Carnival van and Ray box car with a ramp in the trunk so that wheelchair-bound people can easily get in and out of the car. The modified cars and other products posted 2 billion won in sales in 2011 and went up to 7.7 billion won last year.

Easy Move also designed a wheelchair for children that resembles a baby stroller. “Most of the wheelchairs sold in Korea are made for adults,” an official from Easy Move said. “But children who are unable to walk also need to use wheelchairs instead of just settling for a baby carriage because that option is not safe” since they were not designed for children with disabilities.

Like Todo Drive, the domestically developed and manufactured Easy Move products are less expensive than comparable imports.


Hyundai Motor has given its researchers opportunities to come up with novel ideas that help the disabled population.

Last year, it held an R&D festival where a team called Sympony took first prize for creating a system that turns sound into visible colors in a car’s front window to help the hard of hearing easily identify police or ambulance sirens.

A researcher from Sympony, a team of in-house researchers at Hyundai Motor, demonstrates a system that visualizes sound. Source: Hyundai Motor

The automaker’s research has even expanded to the realm of wearable robots. At last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it unveiled three types of wearable robots, also known as exoskeletons.

One of them, called H-MEX (Hyundai Medical Exoskeleton), allows people with lower spinal cord injuries to walk. Paraplegics can sit, stand and even walk up and down stairs by controlling the legs with a joystick.

The exoskeleton market is expected to exceed US$3.4 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights, and research on the technology is rising in South Korea. The number of patents related to exoskeletons filed in the Korea Intellectual Property Office hit a record high of 44 last year compared to just 11 in 2010. Hyundai Motor and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering filed the most patents between 2007 and 2016.

Such futuristic technology, however, has a long way to go in practically helping people with physical impairments. “Most of the robotic equipment being developed today cannot be worn or taken off by disabled people on their own,” said Prof. Kim Jong-bae at Yonsei University.
“I wonder if they can be really called a practical invention for the disabled.”

Accessibility is also a problem. “People with impairments are generally not financially affluent,” said Shim Jae-shin of Todo Works. “It is critical to develop something that can be used right away, which is what we are doing.”

“We already experienced information gap problem when the internet and PCs first emerged,” Professor Kim said. “If technology of the so-called fourth industrial revolution doesn’t consider accessibility among the disabled population, it will end in a serious ‘technology gap.’”

This story by Jin Eun-Soo was originally published by Korea JoongAng Daily on March 12, 2018.

Published on March 12, 2018, business reporter Jin Eun-Soo’s story in JoongAng Daily drew attention to the plight of people with mobility impairments in South Korea and the technology that improved their lives. Listening to the difficulties of parents with disabled children in South Korea inspired her to shed light on the issue in a society so inattentive to their needs. She said: “It wasn’t an intentional violence, they say, but this ignorant attitude was what eventually lead to hostility and discrimination towards disabled people.” Her conversations with these parents revealed how small changes, such as information about which subway exit has ramps and an elevator, could help tremendously. The journalist then searched for people behind the products and services making these changes. They were eager to talk, because despite how useful their service was, nobody seemed to care. After running the story, Eun-Soo received many messages from people with disabilities and parents of disabled children thanking her for telling their stories to the world. She said: “They did not wish for immediate changes, but were thankful that the story could act as a pathway to elevating social awareness on disabled people and letting them know that small changes could really have big impacts on these disabled people.”

Trouble in paradise

A single mother, Atelma Jacosalem Familara used to feed her family by working as a massage therapist for weary tourists at Boracay, the Philippines’ most popular beach destination that is located in Malay town, Aklan province.

Atelma lost her job earlier this month. The spa she worked for was shut down due to the lack of proper permits. Shortly after, environmental officials issued notices for her to vacate her family’s bamboo-made house that sits on one of almost a dozen wetlands, which were said to have been reclaimed.

The businessmen have money at the bank, but we don’t. Can the government sustain us, the poor?

Boracay natives are the most likely to suffer from President Rodrigo Duterte’s abrupt order to halt the entry of tourists starting April 26, 2018, and pave way for the six-month rehabilitation program.

The resort island has contributed P56.14 billion (US$10.7 billion) to the economy and provided jobs to 17,328 registered local and foreign workers as well as 19,289 unregistered workers in 2017.

Atelma’s brother Thiting Jacosalem told Manila Bulletin that she could not sleep and stopped eating on the night she lost her job.

Anxiety grew as it dawned on the family that, with the island’s closure on April 26, it would be improbable to sustain her family.

The 42-year-old mother, who lost her husband to terminal illness five years ago, turned to the Bible and somehow drew strength from it, as she went around her neighborhood spreading the word of God.

“Kumakapit na lang siya sa panalangin kasi wala na siyang maasahan na iba (She’s praying for Divine Intervention. She has no one to turn to),” he added hours after social workers picked up Atelma and took her to a treatment center in the mainland.

Her plight is only all too familiar in Boracay.

The government’s crackdown to reverse the environmental damage to the resort island dubbed as “Asia’s 24/7” destination is beginning to upend the daily life of an estimated 56,444 residents.

“Sabi dati ni President Duterte, dapat mayroong malasakit. Ang tanong ngayon: Saan ang malasakit sa kapwa? Sa mga mahihirap? (President Duterte previously said there should be compassion. The question is: Where is the compassion for your fellow human being? For the poor?),” said Ron Degayo, a 39-year-old motorcycle driver.

“Daw kulang nalang silingon sang Presidente nga mag halin na kami diri sa Boracay (It’s short of saying the President want us to leave Boracay),” added Hilton Gelito, a 53-year-old native.


Boracay before rehabilitation. Sewage water flows directly to the beach, affecting water quality and increasing levels of coliform bacteria. Source: Czar Dancel

The pollution of Philippines’ most popular beach attraction brings to light the government’s failure to enforce existing regulations, which could have curbed its environmental degradation.

President Duterte’s description of Boracay as “cesspool” came from videos showing untreated wastewater being dumped into the sea from the island’s back beach, an area that is popular among foreigners for water kite surfing.

This came almost two months after Boracay experienced its worst flooding in history. Before Christmas in 2017, continuous rainfall flooded almost 90 percent of the island.

Inspectors found that businesses such as hotels, resorts and restaurants were illegally connected to the drainage system. Instead of only handling wastewater, it was also carrying waste.
There’s also the garbage problem.

In 2017, the Malay local government had to haul off more than 20,000-30,000 kilograms of trash from Boracay to the mainland after both tourists and residents complained of foul odour and health risks from uncollected garbage.

The construction of structures in areas considered as forestlands is also questionable. Of the 377.68 hectares of forestland area in this island, at least 90.61 hectares have land titles while 287.06 hectares are not titled.

Several establishments were also found to have violated easement rules, built structures that were less than 30 metres from the shoreline along the famous white-sand beach, while also encroaching the access roads. Several local residents, who requested anonymity, blamed local government officials as well as those from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Tourism (DOT) for allowing investors to build in no-build zones.

Many claimed that corruption tempted some officials to wantonly issue permits to operate or build at the expense of the environment and upkeep of this island.


With the closure, it is estimated that 36,617 workers in Boracay will lose their jobs.

Shienna Caigoy, a 26-year-old waitress at one of the posh resorts, said she will have no choice but to go back to her hometown in Nabas, Aklan.

Not having reached regular working status, she will not qualify for the almost P2 billion (US$38.2 million) fund that will be distributed by the government to tide over Boracay’s displaced workers.
Dianaluz Señeres Tolentino is set to lose P21,000 (US$401.49) per month from workers renting rooms in her modest boarding house.

Worse, Dianaluz is worried that her residence, which she inherited from her parents, might be demolished by the government’s rehabilitation team.


What is breaking the hearts of local residents is that the closure order will affect most individuals who have done nothing wrong to cause the problem in Boracay.

Resident Dan Gelito said that President Duterte should have thoroughly thought of his decision and only went after the violators. Dan pointed out that he spent P40,000 (US$764.66) so his house can legally connect to the sewage system while big businesses have been left untouched.

“Mga negosyante may kwarta sa bangko pero kami wala. Wala sila labot kon six months o pila ka tuig magsarado. Ang gobyerno, maka sustain bala sa amon nga imol? (The businessmen have money at the bank, but we don’t. Can the government sustain us, the poor?),” lamented the 54-year-old.

Even the 58-year-old tribal chieftain of the Ati indigenous group expressed dismay about President Duterte’s decision. Delsa Justo said several Ati families are already feeling the burden of the closure. Ati men, who were hired as construction workers, were laid off and are scrambling where to find money to feed their children.


A few days before the formal opening, Boracay is seen here in its rehabilitated state. The beachfront is cleaner, the water is more pristine and new rules are imposed. Source: Yvette Fernandez

With only a few days before the closure, Boracay locals can only hope that the government can realistically achieve the rehabilitation program.
In a mixture of Tagalog and English, Johnny Sacapaño said that he is supportive of the clean-up drive as long as it is done properly.
“Ang dumi talaga ng Boracay (Boracay is very dirty),” he noted.
For the 65-year-old, the time has come to properly enforce the law and regain what was lost in Boracay for the past 40 years.
“Dapat tuloy-tuloy ang rehabilitasyon at sulit din yung sakripisyo namin (The rehabilitation should be continuous and that our sacrifices will be worth it),” Johnny concluded.
This hope was ultimately realised.
A few days before the official opening of Boracay, the Task Force in charge of the island laid out new rules and regulations for both business establishments and tourists.
Despite the cost that the closure had on livelihoods, Boracay’s successful rehabilitation shows that with political backing, cleaning the environment is not an insurmountable challenge.

This story by Tara Yap was originally published by The Manila Bulletin on Aug 22, 2018.

On the last day before the closure of Boracay, Tara Yap reported the unhappiness of locals about the devastation it would have on their livelihoods. Published on Aug 22, 2018, the article is one of a series of features by the Manila Bulletin, that extensively documented the impact that the six-month closure with journalists from various beats – tourism, the environment and labour. In wake of President Duterte’s shock decision to close the island, a team of reporters from the Manila Bulletin interviewed stakeholders ranging from government agencies to public transportation drivers. Through a series of stories following the island’s transformation, the publication quelled rumours about the ‘real’ reason for the island’s closure, including the purported construction of a casino complex by a foreign company. Their efforts to hold government agencies to account proved successful in Boracay’s eventual restoration.

Only unmasked protester that stormed LegCo explains July 1 drama

Hundreds of protesters stormed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on the 22nd anniversary of the city’s handover to Chinese rule on July 1, breaking glass panels, windows, dismantling furniture, daubing graffiti in the chamber and attempting to put up the British colonial flag.

Brian Leung Kai-ping, 25, was among those who entered the legislature – and the only one who has openly revealed his identity that night.

The storming made international headlines and marked a “quantum leap” for the entire movement against the extradition bill and the city’s push for democracy, he said.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, via a Telegram phone call – the social networking tool widely used in the movement – he explained his actions and why he had no regrets.

Watch South China Morning Post’s video here.

Where were you on Monday (July 1) and what was your role?

I skipped another major rally to stay around the Legislative Council complex for nearly eight hours, keeping a close eye on every move. Like most protesters, we had been waiting for this opportunity to make a statement inside Legco. There was, of course, no clear consensus at the time how long we should occupy it, which underlined the very nature of the extradition bill movement – decentralised, leaderless and spontaneous. We were improvising.

After an hour and a half, reporters observed you removing your mask and asking everyone to stay. Why did you do that?

At the time, more and more people, wary of police countermoves, started to leave the Legco chamber.

I made a risky move to step on the desk of one lawmaker, removed my face mask, and shouted at the top of my voice: “The more people here, the safer we are. Let’s stay and occupy the chamber, we can’t lose no more.”

Some protesters warned me not to remove my mask, but I felt it was the defining moment of the night. I felt we ought to appeal to the crowds to join in and form a barrier and support those inside the Legco complex. No one could tell when we would step foot in Legco again.

As police were drawing closer and closer, after some deliberation, most decided to end the siege. I volunteered to be in front of the camera to read out the key demands of protesters in the chamber.

The last thing I wished to see, after all the action taken, was to have no clear demands put on the table.

If we didn’t do that, the public might only remember the vandalism and point fingers at us as a mob. That would also hand the government a convenient reason to prosecute each and every one of us, which would mark yet another setback to civil society like in the 2014 Occupy movement.

But weren’t the actions of the protesters that day, along with the damage done to Legco, violent?

Be clear that any damage was only done to the Legco building or properties within, not so much to any person or even police officers. Protesters have been restrained in their use of force.

It is worthwhile to note the graffiti was not merely vandalising. For instance, protesters spray-painted and covered up “People’s Republic of China”, leaving behind only “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”. That is a clear mistrust of the two-systems principle. Most of the other graffiti was about commemorating the three lives lost in this movement.

So they were only telling the public that this was not just mob action but to register the accumulated frustrations of an unfair electoral system. Compared with the death of three people who used their lives to deliver a message, does the damage to several glass frames even count?

So what was the young protesters’ state of mind in being part of the July 1 protest and other sieges?

The pursuit of freedom and democracy is what fundamentally drove hundreds of protesters on Monday into Legco, the same goal shared by hundreds of thousands who took to the streets earlier. The government has thus far turned a blind eye to our demands, and there was no real change nor real actions tabled. If Carrie Lam claimed herself ready to be more humble, why did she not make clear the suspended bill was completely withdrawn, a move that could easily settle the controversy?

Or, the government could choose not to charge protesters arrested earlier, which we saw happened to those in Taiwan’s Sunflower movement. Or, it could task an independent inquiry into police’s excessive use of force.
Any of these would be welcomed by the civil society, but the government refused to take these calls on board.

You mentioned the three deaths. These are suicide cases. Isn’t it wrong to glamorise them and call them martyrs?

It was evident that protesters were so outraged that three lives were sacrificed throughout this movement, when peaceful means were almost all exhausted. Young protesters were at a point of desperation.

We were not in a position to pass any judgment on their decisions but what the protesters could do was to honour their faith.

One may well argue that time is supposed to be on young people’s side. But with the disqualification and jailing of pro-democracy lawmakers and activists after 2014 “umbrella movement”, the entire generation was banned from the political system.
We do not have the luxury of our parents to settle down in another place. Nor do we have the burden of a 30-year mortgage to worry about. Young people have nothing to lose, their only hope is to stay safe to see the sun rise, and hope to join protest another day. We want democracy, now.

Can you share your personal background, your schooling, your parents?

Hong Kong’s social movement has always inspired my academic study. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a dual degree in law and politics, I chose for my master’s thesis the topic of how civil society could help democratic transition and prevent authoritarian regimes.

I have always aspired to become a professor and return to teach Hong Kong students to be socially aware in the future.

I really don’t want to mention my family, as I don’t think that’s helpful.

What’s next for the movement? And what’s next for you? And are you in Hong Kong?

Civil society has already exhausted every possible peaceful means, and it is not trying to exercise violence for the sake of violence. The government needs to reflect on its response.

For my own part, I am not sure whether I can fly to the United States this September to continue my PhD studies in political science at the University of Washington. I am still considering various options, and seeking as much advice as I can.

While I am not yet a political dissident in exile, that is a real threat ahead of me and my peers if the government chooses to press charges against all those who entered Legco, who played their part in this protest.

I am blessed to receive legal advice and other recommendations from my social network, while remaining financially independent through a role as a teaching assistant. For those who may be 17 and 18 years old, there could be real consequences and it is worrying.

This story by Alvin Lum was originally published by the South China Morning Post on July 5. Read more here .

Alvin Lum is an award-winning political journalist specialising in Hong Kong politics and the city’s justice system. He sought to understand the reason why protesters stormed the council even after the government had shelved the bill. This led him to contact Brian, who had left Hong Kong right after the movement, through a mutual acquaintance.Published on Jul 5, his exclusive interview was a scoop, Alvin being the first journalist to speak to the only protest leader who was willing to take off his mask during the trashing of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. “That interview, when it was published, helped fill the void why protesters still need to resort to this kind of more radical measures which has never happened before in Hong Kong,” Alvin said. Tammy Tam, editor-in-chief, South China Morning Post added: “Alvin’s exclusive interview with Brian Leung reflects the vital role SCMP has played in independently covering and revealing insights into an important chapter of this still ongoing unprecedented political crisis in our city. We will continue in our unwavering commitment to report these developments with professionalism and courage.”

Battling the spectre of fires in densely populated areas

Fires in commercial establishments do more damage than setting buildings ablaze.

Lives are lost, businesses disrupted and wounds take years to heal.

In Bangladesh, a survey by the Fire Service and Civil Defence headquarters, in 2017, showed that only 129 of 3,786 establishments in Dhaka, the country’s capital city, were not classified as “Risky” or “Extremely Risky”.

The results signal the high risk of accidents taking place.

On Mar 28, 2019, a massive fire engulfed the FR Tower in Dhaka’s commercial Banani area, killing 26 people and leaving around 100 people injured.

Barely a month ago, at least 70 people were killed after a fire broke out in an apartment building that was reportedly also used as a chemicals warehouse and spread to nearby buildings.

Fire accidents are not uncommon in densely populated Bangladesh owing to lax safety regulations and poor building conditions.

Officials say the problem is that the laws requiring buildings to have safety measures was enforced only in 2006.

There is a treasure trove of risk assessments conducted by urban planners over the years all nailing down the same conclusion — the city needs to be protected.

“In 2017 we surveyed over 3,500 schools, colleges, universities, hotels banks, hospitals, media houses and shopping markets within Dhaka city to assess their vulnerability to fire, and what we found was pretty frightening,” said Major AKM Shakil Newaz, the director of operations at the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence headquarters.

“None of the buildings built before 2006 have the things necessary for fire protection, because the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) was yet to come into effect,” he added.

The BNBC was drafted in 1993 and published in the form of a government gazette, but was not enforced as a legally binding document until a decade and a half later.

The factors examined were quite simple and gauged a building’s basic fire-safety measures – does the building have firefighting equipment? Is it heavily populated? Does it have emergency exits? Does the establishment practise evacuation drills? Was there any chance of an electrical fire? Is there an underground water reservoir?

“All high-rise constructions that took place after 2006 needed to get a fire safety clearance from the Fire Service department. They will not be able to build any building over six storeys without having the plans inspected by someone from this department,” said Major Shakil.

However, this still excludes majority of the city.

This is what people in the 22-storey FR Tower – which was constructed before the 2006 cut-off mark – were quick to find out.

There was not a single fire-protected staircase in the entire building.

“The building had only one staircase,” said Kazi Saad Nur, whose wife Zarin Tasnim works on the 12th floor of the building.

“She called me and told me she cannot come down, so she went up to the 15th floor. But after that her phone was found switched off and I was unable to reach her,” he said. Zarin was later reported to have suffocated to death.

The staircase, which was already overcome with smoke, was, however, not the only one in the building.

There was another – a barely one-foot wide staircase snaking out of the back of the building. This staircase had become a doubly precarious undertaking during the fire.

The risks were such that the Fire Department actually sent two letters in 2017 and 2018 to the building authorities which highlighted the lack of fire safety measures in the building.

“The staircase was filled with smoke and my brother, who was stuck on the 9th floor, was unable to use it to escape. He and his colleagues used a hacksaw to cut open the iron grilles on the toilet window and jumped to the next building,” said Nalifa Mehelin, another relative of a victim who was trapped in the fire.

The lack of safety measures in buildings has become alarmingly common.


On March 2, 2019, just ten days after an inferno took over Churihatta in Chawkbazaar, a fire broke out again in the area. This time it was a scrap metal shop where a gas cylinder had exploded, turning the shop white-hot, and leaving three staffers with as much as 30 per cent burns.

On the very same day a fire broke out in a slum in Tejgaon Industrial area, gutting 50 homes. This newspaper reported that the fire stemmed from a pile of rubble left behind by government workers, following an eviction drive.
Three days later, a fire broke out in a tyre warehouse in Old Dhaka’s Nawabpur area. Media reported that it took firefighters two hours to bring the flames under control.

Before the fumes from that had died down, there was a fire in a slum in Nakhalpara – one big enough for the fire service to need eight units to bring it under control. Following this, there was another fire in another scrap goods warehouse in Lalbagh.

All of this was a month’s work.

But more importantly, these were only the ones that were reported – in fact a Star Weekend analysis showed that only one per cent of fire incidents are ever reported in the media.

Calculating from the statistics of the last three years published by the Fire Service Department, there are on average 43 fire incidents every single day that need to be tackled by firefighters.

Additionally, an article published in 2004 by the Institute of Engineers, Bangladesh, titled “Fire Hazard Categorization and Risk Assessment for Dhaka City in GIS Framework”, found that the Tejgaon Industrial Area, Fulbaria and Postogola were the most hazardous areas in the city to live in, having more than 30 fire incidents annually. The next-worst areas were found to be Jatrabari, Sadarghat, Shakhari bazar, Waizghat, Simpson Road, New Market and Mirpur-1.

Risk zones are many. In 2001, a Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) graduate student studying the area of Mohammadpur found that shopping centres and filling stations have more frequent fire incidents.

On top of the pile of tinder – which are high-rises without basic safety measures – there are 867 chemical warehouses spread throughout the city which too are operating without fire safety clearances, according to statistics provided by the department.
In 2012, students from BUET’s department of Urban & Regional Planning (URP) assessed 153 chemical warehouses on Armanitola road for fire risk.

All the chemical warehouses studied showed that the amount of chemicals stored exceeded the amount allowed by BNBC. In most of the warehouses the amount stored was between 2,500kg and 5,500kg, with the highest going to 10,000 kilograms.

Worse yet, they found that of the warehouses, 17 percent had chemicals that would ignite almost immediately – similar to what had been observed in Chawkbazaar.

“None of the buildings built before 2006 have the things necessary for fire protection, because the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) was yet to come into effect,”

Only a quarter of the warehouses were storing non-flammable materials.

This fire risk did not seem to cause a dent in the psyche of the businessmen there – very few of the warehouses had fire extinguishers and none of them had fire alarms or any fire-protected staircases. A quarter had staircases which also served as storage units. Shockingly, half of the warehouses had homes and hospitals in the same building.

“The people who are in the business of importing and storing chemicals do not have knowledge of the chemical properties of those substances at all. Most chemical shop and storage owners do not even accept that they are dealing with chemicals,” said Nushrat Jahan, one of the authors of the paper titled “Fire Hazard Risk Assessment of Mixed Use Chemical Storage Facilities: A Case Study of Chemical Warehouses in Old Dhaka”, which was published in Journal of Bangladesh Institute of Planners.

The author, currently a Planning PhD student at the University of Toronto, also added that all of this boils down to creating awareness.

There is a treasure trove of risk assessments conducted by urban planners over the years all nailing down the same conclusion — the city needs to be protected.

A thesis published in 2008 by the Department of Urban Planning (URP) at BUET narrowed in on what was then ward 72 (now ward 36) comprising Islampur, Shakhari bazar, Simpson Road and Court House Street, and found that most of the buildings there were moderately vulnerable to fire.

Similarly in 2015, a report published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction by graduate students of University of Texas and BUET, studied the buildings in ward number 29, which is the area around Islambagh.

They found that less than half of the buildings there could be accessed by fire engines and that nearly 59 percent of the buildings were vulnerable to fire.

So why can not the fire service simply go and evacuate the places without any fire safety clearances?

“We do not have the powers of a magistrate. We can only intervene after a disaster has already occurred,” said Maj Shakil.

Besides, he added, that it was not as if they could empty out the city considering the widespread nature of the problem.
“Did you know that 71 percent of the streets in Dhaka are too narrow for fire engines to pass through?”

According to the current law, the roads need to be at least nine metres wide for fire engines to pass through. There needs to be at least a 4.5 metre wide space in front of the building for the fire units to set themselves up.

“These laws completely fall flat in entire areas like Old Dhaka, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Rampura and Khilgaon, among others,” he said.

This story by Zyma Islam was originally published by the Daily Star on March 29.

Published on March 29, journalist Zyma Islam exposed the inadequate fire safety of buildings in Bangladesh hot on the heels of a massive fire on March 28 in Dhaka, the nation’s capital. Dubbed as the Banani FR Tower fire, the flames left 26 people dead and around 100 injured. In response to criticism, Housing and Public Works Minister SM Rezaul Karim declared on March 30 that all buildings constructed violating rules would be identified within 15 days. “If necessary, the identified buildings will be sealed off, demolished, or all activities will be suspended there until safety is ensured,” he told reporters after visiting a Gulshan kitchen market where a fire broke out in the morning.

A girl’s journey from slavery to activism

For 25-year-old Pachayammal, freedom tastes like biryani. That’s the dish she first ate after being rescued from six years of bonded labour in Tamil Nadu. “We were finally able to eat a meal in peace,” she said.

Now a feisty activist, Pachayammal, along with her husband Arul, has rescued over 100 people from slavery, advocated for homes and work for them, and has rehabilitated them.

Pachayammal’s story is one of ten first-time women voters featured as a part of The Quint’s “Me, the Change” campaign. The campaign, presented by Facebook, sought to put focus on a demographic usually ignored by mainstream media — the first-time woman voter. Launched in October 2018, the campaign highlighted the issues and aspirations of the first-time woman voter in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Pachayammal married Arul when she was barely sixteen years old. She married willingly, for love. But little did she know that she married into slavery. The days would be hard and long, breaking and carrying rock from 4.30 am to 9.00 pm. There would be only one meal a day, of watery rice gruel.

Speaking of her ordeal, Pachayammal says, “My husband’s parents had a debt, which he had to repay. The ‘owner’ decided to get me married to him so that we form a ‘pair’(easy to manage, won’t run off, lower pay). We didn’t know this. I too really liked my husband, so I married him.” They faced physical, verbal and sexual abuse daily. Paid 200 rupees(US$2.79) a week, Pachayammal slaved for the quarry owner with more than 25 bonded labourers for six years.

“At 4 am every day, the owner would call us to break rock. Some days, the men would have to work till midnight”, Pachayammal says.

Until, she was rescued.

According to The Quint, over 1 million people were bonded labourers in Tamil Nadu, India in 2018. After Pachayammal was rescued at the age of 23, she turned to activism. She draws from an unending well of self-confidence, to seek out from the government basic rights (homes, electricity, work) for rescued bonded labourers.

And she rescues those still under the throes of slavery. She stakes out quarries, brick kilns, carpentry units for months on end. She goes in to work in those units, to get close to the bonded labourers to ascertain the truth, ropes in government officials and organises a raid.
Pachayammal is now part of the SRLM (State Rural Livelihoods Mission) and gets a steady monthly income. Occasionally, she does daily wage work. Her husband, Arul, earns a living by driving an auto-rickshaw he received from a corporation as part of their CSR. Both of them are doing very well today.

This story by Vikram Venkateswaran was originally published by the Quint on Nov 30, 2018.

To find Pachayamal’s story, a team of three reporters at The Quint reached out to International Justice Mission, a global NGO, from where many case studies were sourced before zeroing in on her. Before The Quint’s video, Pachayammal, was a true inspiration, but her story wasn;t covered in mainstream media. The sight of a camera, or a journalist pushed her and the entire colony into what can only be described as the ‘camera effect’. All the responses were rehearsed and interactions were formal. Pachayammal, and the rest of the colony were expecting to be fed the words, which they would then rattle off. This had been their experience of journalists and the media and what had always happened. To tackle this, The Quint’s reporter Vikram Venkateswaran made several trips to Pachayammal’s village with a cameraperson; but without any equipment. The team got to know them, and spent time with Pachayammal, her husband and the children of the colony. It was only on the fourth visit that the reporter took a camera along. On the sixth visit to Ullavur village, which is a three-hour drive from Chennai, the camera was finally rolled. Over a kerosene stove, as Pachayammal prepared a ‘sambar’ (a local dish) for her husband and herself, the reporter started a conversation with her about food — what she liked to eat, and what she got to eat while a slave. And so, began a genuine retelling of Pachayammal’s inspirational story, which the team managed to capture on camera, minus the inhibition.

How Ramadan Diaries series opened minds, homes and hearts

There are almost a million unskilled and semi-skilled foreign workers in Singapore, and those from Bangladesh form a large percentage of the group. They build our homes, clean our streets and take up essential roles in our plants and factories.

Yet, other than occupying the same crowded MRT trains on Sundays or shopping in Little India, Singaporeans hardly cross paths with migrant workers who mostly live on worksites and dormitories away from residential estates.
The lack of interaction does little to help counter stereotypes of the community which tend to make the news only when laws have been broken.

But how much do we actually know about the lives and struggles of these foreign workers?


When property developer Lendlease approached CNA Insider in April 2018 for a collaboration to highlight the lives of foreign workers during Ramadan – a time for family and reflection – the team saw an opportunity to challenge public perceptions that are often biased due to a lack of insight.

A group of four men aged between 26 and 33 was introduced to CNA Insider. They came from different parts of Bangladesh but shared a similar narrative – working in Singapore was their ticket out of a tough life back home.

At first shy and reticent, and self-conscious of their poor grasp of English, they were not the easiest subjects to work with. It took CNA Insider journalists several rounds of chat over home-cooked meals at their Mandai dormitory to get them to drop their guard and open up.

One of them clearly stood out.

Kadir Mohammad Abdul, 32. Source: Ray Yeh

Kadir Mohammad Abdul, 33, wore the taqiyah and kept a large beard. His appearance may intimidate strangers, but after getting to know him, the CNA Insider journalists were won over by his infectious smile and optimistic outlook in life.

They were also drawn to his story of perseverance. Starting out as a general worker who was berated daily by his supervisor, he climbed his way up the ladder to become a construction safety supervisor highly valued by his employer.

The first part of the Ramadan Diaries series offered a glimpse into the daily lives of Kadir and his colleagues during Ramadan – the hardships, sacrifices and the support that they received at work.
The accompanying video story received almost a million combined views on CNA Insider’s Facebook and YouTube pages, and prompted comments like this:

“Heartbreaking. Thank you CNA Insider for opening our eyes to the lives of unsung heroes who build the very homes that Singaporeans live in,” wrote Facebook user Grace Sun.

To maximise the series’ social impact, part 2 focused on what Singaporeans could do to reach out to migrant workers.

Kadir and friends sharing the iftar meal with Siti Zawiyah’s family. Source: Ruth Smalley

It featured a husband and wife pair, Fadzullah Hassan and Siti Zawiyah, who invited Kadir and friends – who had never been in a Housing & Development Board flat – to their home.

“We’ve been breaking fast at the mosque with them (foreign workers), and we’ve always wanted them at our house but we just don’t know how to approach them,” she said.

Being invited to dinner with the family was a “heart pain” experience for Kadir who, having spent six consecutive Ramadans away from his wife and three children, broke down crying.

Kadir getting emotional. He had spent six Ramadan away from his family.
Source: Ruth Smalley

He later said: “My family is just the same. We would break fast like this. I am very happy.”


The Ramadan series on Kadir and his co-workers touched the hearts of many viewers and readers, as seen from comments they left on CNA Insider’s social media pages.

To keep up the momentum, CNA Insider posed a simple question on Facebook: Would you invite migrant workers to your home for dinner?

An avalanche of responses followed. More than 50 families – both Muslims and non-Muslims – contacted the team to express interest in hosting foreign workers at their homes.

With facilitation by CNA Insider, eight families opened up their homes to migrant workers over two weekends.

The experience turned out to be more than hosts or guests had imagined – and the start of friendships for some. One family prepared a special Bengali delicacy for their Bangladeshi migrant worker guests. Another, not content with just a home-cooked meal, gave their guests Hari Raya gifts and food to take back to their dormitory.

At the home of Mohammad Hamim and Fatimah Sawifi. Source: Fatimah Sawifi

“I come this house, I feel like it’s my house,” said migrant worker Shariful Islam who was hosted by Fatimah Sawifi, a teacher, and her husband Mohammad Hamim.

Fatimah said: “It was so very enlightening, we were wondering what held us back (from talking to them) in the past.”

Nicholas Yeo, who is not Muslim, got a Muslim friend to whip up a home-cooked spread.
“We were able to relate with one another over many common experiences, despite being so seemingly different,” he said, adding that he would consider inviting the migrant workers over on other festive occasions.

Marlene Chua, 28 (extreme right) and her sister with their guests on June 17, 2018. Source: Marlene Chua

Another host, Marlene Chua, said “it is like having friends over”. “Migrant workers make up a huge part of our society and life, and yet we know so little about them,” she added.

The difficulty, Hamim said, is: “I think Singaporeans are very open, but we don’t know how to go about reaching out.”

But some viewers pointed out on CNA Insider’s Facebook page that one could easily do what one can, such as Noraini Khodri-Siebley who wrote that during Ramadan, she cooked an extra portion every weekend “for the Bangladeshi boy who cleans my block. He’s just like my son. Maybe he’s not comfortable sitting with my family … at least he would take his iftar which we prepared.”

The stories resonated for a long time, with readers sending questions and compliments for many months after publication.

“The response to this series highlighted how good journalism has the power to challenge stereotypes and be a positive force,” said Yvonne Lim, Supervising Editor of CNA Insider.

This story by Ruth Smalley and Ray Yeh was originally published by CNA on Aug 22. To read more click here.

How Fear & Money Silenced A Murdered Journalist’s Family

In June 2015, journalist Jagendra Singh was set on fire by a minister’s henchmen in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh in India.

A week later, he died of his injuries.

The case never went to trial and none of the accused were punished.

Jagendra had been reporting on the corruption of several powerful ministers, including former minister Rammurti Singh Varma.

At the height of the protests following his death, Jagendra’s family met with then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and received a monetary compensation of Rs 3 million (US$41,690) from the state government of Uttar Pradesh.

Their key demand, though – a CBI inquiry into his death – was not met by the state.

Barely six months later, the family mounted a sudden U-turn. Jagendra’s younger son, Rahul Singh, withdrew the petition that he had sent to the Supreme Court the night before it was heard, effectively ending any cases made on their behalf.

Senior journalist Mudit Mathur had impleaded himself in a Supreme Court PIL demanding a CBI probe into Jagendra’s death. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

“He had been sending me messages that he was under immense pressure, that he was going into hiding, but I did not expect that he would suddenly withdraw at the last moment. The judge was predictably annoyed and we were left red-faced in court,” said Mudit Mathur, senior journalist with Tehelka, who impleaded himself in a similar petition before the court.

Mathur attempted to continue the second case in the Supreme Court in which he had impleaded himself. But with the family withdrawing the petition, that case too was dead, since Mathur had no locus standi.

For the first time, the facts of the case come tumbling out.

In Khutar, Rahul is pensive as he reminisces about that time.

The family, especially his mother, faced significant pressure from relatives, neighbours, friends and even some officials to move on from whatever had happened.

“They started to target mummy that whatever has happened has happened and to make a compromise. Mummy got scared that this is a small family and something might happen to her children. Due to pressure from mummy, we agreed to a compromise,” he said.

When they met Minister Rammurti Varma, the man claimed that he was framed.

Rahul said: “I told him in that case why don’t you let the enquiry take place? If you are innocent, then you will go free. But he said no, whatever has happened with your father has happened and I do not want your lives to be ruined. I will take responsibility for you. I will ensure that your sister is married well. As long as I am alive I will take good care of you.”

The minister then promised to be in their debt if the family forgave him.
When asked why Rammurti would still need to ask for forgiveness if he was innocent, Rahul laughed.

“Only he can answer this. I told him a number of times that at least the others who were involved should be caught – the ones who attacked my father, the ones who filed a false case against him. He said he would ensure a probe takes place and that he is innocent,” he said.

However, Rahul maintained that the minister was guilty “in one way or another” because the police would not have gone to his father’s house if a false case had not been made.

Before his death, Jagendra had a fake attempt to murder complaint registered against him. This would enable the police to arrest him and silence his reports on Rammurti’s corruption.

Ironically, a year after Jagendra’s death, the police acknowledged that the case filed against him was indeed false.

Instead of explaining why a false complaint had been lodged against Jagendra Singh, the minister asked the family to withdraw the First Information Report (FIR), that would have allowed the police to commence the investigation of the journalist’s death.

His brother and uncle signed some papers given to them by the minister and they left with Rs 3 million.


While the Singh family, on the surface, appears to have made their peace with the decision to make the compromise, all is not well.

Regret and unease is evident. Both brothers are married and the elder one is a father now.

The money from the state has been used to build a larger home and buy a small car.

“We were left with little choice. I was scared for the lives of both my grandsons. By then all our relatives and family members pushed us toward making a compromise and we were left with little choice. I want the killers of my son to get punishment.”

But the stain of guilt, of having betrayed a courageous father, is yet to be washed off.

“Sometimes I feel like we should have fought the whole fight to the end,” said Rahul Singh. “But at other times I feel whatever happened was a good thing. Because initially there were thousands of people standing with us, then slowly it became 500, then that became 150 and then 100. So in this fashion people left, they sold out, those who were with me too sold out. Those who were asking me to fight turned around and asked me to compromise with the Minister. Then finally the five to six people who were left standing beside me were putting pressure on me to compromise so I thought, what can one do when surrounded by traitors. Anything can happen to us. So when I think of that I feel what I did is right.”

Brother Rajan also feels pricked by his conscience. “Yes I do feel bad,” he said when asked about the compromise. “My Papa was a brave man and we let him down.”

Mother Suman Singh tells herself to be practical, for her children’s sake.
“The man of the house is no more, what can one do?” She asked. “I did not see any other option and I was very afraid for my children,” she said.

Sumer Singh, Jagendra’s father who passed away in January, told the collaboration in 2018 about the multiple threats issued to the family. “Even now I can’t sleep the entire night, with the fear, someone will come to take away or kill my family members. I told them, go sleep inside, let them kill me instead. They threatened us a lot, far too much. Even I was shaken,” he began to sob.

“They are kids, what all they had to undergo,” he said. “We were left with little choice. I was scared for the lives of both my grandsons. By then all our relatives and family members pushed us toward making a compromise and we were left with little choice. I want the killers of my son to get punishment. That is important,” he said.

Ajay Singh, Jagendra’s brother in law who organised the compromise with Minister Varma. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

Jagendra’s sister’s husband Ajay Singh, who had fixed the meeting with the Minister, said that he was convinced there was no foul play in Jagendra’s death.

“The neighbours told us that the police never went inside his house,” Ajay said. “For whatever reasons or pressure, he (Jagendra) had set himself ablaze. From what information I got I felt there was no external hand in this, that it was a result of Jagendra’s anger.”

Ajay though admits that he organised a meeting with the Minister and was present at the “compromise” – although he repeatedly denied any money deal.
“No there was no talk of any money with the Minister,” he said. “But yes, I made a request to the Minister – these are very young children, you have to take care of them, you have to help them set their economic situation right and become stable,” he added.

Lovely Singh, Jagendra’s sister is convinced her brother was murdered. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

His wife, Jagendra’s sister Lovely though is not as convinced as he is that the Minister is entirely innocent.

“The compromise was done under duress,” she said. “Now my brother is gone, we need our nephews and niece – what if they too get killed? That was my fear,” she said.


“She is not like us,” said Suman, waving in the direction of 23-year-old Diksha Singh, who sat silently in the house, preoccupied with her thoughts. “She is like her father. She wants to fight. She wants justice for him.”

Diksha is shy but ask her a question about her father and the angst comes tumbling out in a flood.

Diksha Singh wants justice for her father Jagendra. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

“I was not aware of the compromise,” said Diksha. “Nobody told me or asked me about it.”

Diksha is speaking of the first meeting in Bareilly when Rahul Singh, Rajan Singh and their uncle met with Minister Varma to chalk out the details of the compromise.

“When I heard about it, I was furious. I did not talk to anyone for a few weeks. I just cried,” she said.

The family consoled the young girl, 19 years old at the time, explaining to her that many relatives had even scared her mother saying that anything could happen to her only daughter when she went out alone.

“I don’t want it (the money),” Diksha said, “I wish that not a single penny of that amount should be used for my marriage.”

Fear festered and eventually pulled an unwilling Diksha into the tight distraught circle.

“I went to the meeting at the Shahjahanpur residence of the Minister,” said Diksha. “He kept telling me he did not do it but I did not believe him.”
At this second meeting, the entire family, except for Diksha, signed an affidavit stating that Jagendra Singh had indeed committed suicide.

Upon their return to Khutar, their uncle placed a bag near his sister in law Suman and turned to Rahul and Rajan.

“He said this is for your younger sister, for her wedding,” recollected Rahul. “He said we will conduct her wedding in a grand manner and any further help also the Minister will do.”

Rs 3 million in cash had arrived in Khutar.

Diksha is vehement in her distaste over the whole deal. “I don’t want it (the money),” she said. “I wish that not a single penny of that amount should be used for my marriage.”

Diksha still has nightmares. “I dream someone is following me, catching me and leading me to a fire. I also feel as if I am seeing ghosts and every time I only see they all are trying to cause me harm, trying to kill me. And every time it is Papa who comes to save me. Every time someone is trying to cause me harm in the dream, he is the one to save me and only says one thing – So what if there was nobody to save me, I will always be there to save Rachna,” she says as she blinks back tears.

Another recurring nightmare is based on reality. “Another dream I have often – When I had gone there (hospital), Papa had asked me to give him some water. He said aloud – Rachna give me water. So I went to get him water and over there and I met his doctor.

He dissuaded me from giving him water. He said, his burn injuries are such, water acts like poison, so don’t feed him water. Do you want to kill your own father? I said, of course not, why are you talking like this? If say you say no, I will not give him.

Then I did not give him any water. He kept asking for water. My only regret is, he asked so often for water, in his last breath and I refused to give him, because the doctors said so. This will always remain etched in my mind.
He kept asking me, saying he is extremely thirsty because he said it was burning from inside. He kept saying please give me little, just a little water. And I did not give him any water, with the wish that he will get better soon and my giving water should not deteriorate his condition.
Because once he gets better soon, he can return home and have as much water as he wants.”


It was only after at least two personal interactions that the Singhs opened up enough to reveal another fact.

That the Minister they loathed was still in touch with them and continued to help them.

In late March, Rahul Singh fell off his motorbike and fractured his arm. His elder brother Rajan rushed him to the doctor who was not available.

“My brother called the Minister and asked him for help in organising a doctor,” admitted Rahul. “I did not know about this until we went in to meet the doctor. The doctor asked – oh so you are the ones sent by Mantriji (Minister). I asked him later if he had called the Minister for help. He said that he did,” said Rahul.

Rajan is a little unsure as to whether to discuss this aspect of their strange relationship with the Minister. “There was a friend who had cancer and needed admission in SGPGI (hospital) so the Minister helped with that,” he said.

On being pressed as to whether he had asked for help for any member of his family, he said – “Yeah, sometimes we ask. He helps us.”

“He talks to me sometimes, asks about work and asks how we are,” said Rajan. He currently lives in his father’s Shahjahanpur house and works nights as a security guard.

Rahul, who was working in a private telecom firm, resigned in January after Jagendra’s father Sumer Singh passed away due to a heart attack. He now lives in Khutar with his wife, mother, Diksha and Rajan’s family.

With the grandfather’s pension of Rs 18,000 no longer coming in, both brothers are desperate for the once-promised government jobs.

This story by Sandhya Ravishankar was originally published by The Lede on June 21.

Published on June 21, The Lede journalist Sandhya Ravishankar wrote a four-part series that uncovered the true reason why none of Jagendra Singh’s attackers were ever brought to justice. In the first part, The Lede recounted the background that led to Jagendra Singh’s death in June 2015. The second part revealed why his family chose to stay silent. As part of a collaboration in the Green Blood Project, 60 publications across the world featured the story, which took the story from a small town in India’s most populous state and highlighted the dangerous conditions that journalists work under in India.