Singapore government clamps down on medical tourism in public hospitals

When his father needed treatment for a prostate problem in 2008, property developer Yudi Rahmat Raharja got a recommendation for an agent who could arrange for it to be done at a public hospital in Singapore.

The Jakarta-based agent organised everything, from an ambulance pick-up at Changi Airport to doctors’ appointments.

“I don’t remember being charged any agent’s fee, and generally had no issue with how much we were charged by the hospital,” Mr Yudi, 50, said.

“We understood the agent’s work was reflected in the total bill.”

Instead of Mr Yudi being charged for it, the agent’s commission was paid by the hospital.

This practice of paying foreign agents to refer patients had been going on for years in some public healthcare institutions, with agents earning potentially thousands in referral fees. But the institutions have now been told to terminate such contracts.

The Health Ministry (MOH) issued the order after the practice in hospitals including National University, Singapore General and Changi General was highlighted by The Sunday Times in September.

MOH told The Sunday Times the priority of public healthcare institutions was to serve Singaporeans’ healthcare needs.

While foreign agents were not tasked to market the hospitals’ services and served mainly to facilitate visits by foreign patients, the ministry said it wanted hospitals to cease such contracts, “to avoid potential misinterpretation and misrepresentation.”

Foreign patients did not get subsidies and could be charged a premium for procedures performed by senior doctors, so agents’ fees, as a percentage of the total bill, could be very lucrative. In one case, an Indonesian agent contracted to provide NUH “administrative services” was paid eight per cent of the hospital bill, excluding doctors’ fees, for every foreign patient accepted by NUH.

The agent would get an additional percentage if the patient bill exceeded S$500,000, and even more if it exceeded $1 million.

Among the agent’s duties was to provide information and help arrange appointments with specialists.

Jakarta-based hospital agent HCM Medika said it had helped to facilitate medical visits for 15,000 patients to Singapore and Malaysia, since it was established in 2007.

HCM Medika would recommend the hospitals and specialists, and send patients profiles of the doctors recommended.

Potential clients would be asked for their medical records.

“For Singapore public hospitals, an appointment could take one to two weeks. For private hospitals, patients can get a confirmation and meet a doctor as quickly as the next day,” Ms Lena, a relationship officer with HCM Medika, told The Sunday Times.

“No additional fees. We have agreements with the hospitals we send clients to,” she added. “We don’t charge patients. We are getting fees from the hospitals.”

She declined to disclose how much hospitals paid her company.

Other agents in Indonesia and Vietnam told The Sunday Times they too had arrangements with SGH and CGH.

Among other hospitals, Tan Tock Seng said it did not engage such agents, while other public hospitals did not reply to queries.

SingHealth, which runs SGH and CGH, and NUH told The Sunday Times they would cease the agreements by the end of October.

“NUH’s foremost priority is to provide care for Singaporeans,” an NUH spokesman added. “NUH reviews all referrals to ensure that it has the capacity, capability and resources to provide treatment that will be beneficial to the patient. Singaporeans are given priority, for appointments and hospital beds.”

SingHealth said the primary role of agents, which it termed “medical associates”, is to help overseas patients navigate the healthcare system, including advising them on the relevant health records needed, and assisting with administrative processes, paperwork and travel arrangements.

“Medical associates are non-exclusive to SingHealth and they charge an administrative fee (per patient) for their services,” said SingHealth.

Doctors interviewed by The Sunday Times expressed their concern about such fees.

“This practice of giving a ‘referral fee’ to ‘medical agents’ is unethical,” said Dr Keith Goh, consultant neurosurgeon of International Neuro Associates, bluntly. The 8 per cent commission on a hospital bill of S$500,000 would be S$40,000 – “which is more than the annual salary of a staff nurse,” he noted.

Some doctors pointed out that under the Singapore Medical Council’s (SMC) ethical code and guidelines, they are not allowed to offer a percentage of a bill as a referral fee to third parties.

Dr Tan Chi Chiu, chairman of SMC’s Medical Ethics Committee, said there is nothing wrong with public doctors treating foreigners. But foreign patients may pay more, and “doctors need to ensure that this does not set up a financial incentive” to favour such patients over subsidised ones, he said.

The concern about foreigners crowding out Singaporeans in restructured hospitals has surfaced before and was raised in Parliament in 2010.

After The Sunday Times published its report, comments flooded social media, with many people demanding to know how many overseas patients were being treated at public hospitals, and if they had contributed to the long waiting time for appointments.

As a result, two MPs raised the issue in Parliament in November.

Responding, Senior Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min said public hospitals attended to 10,900 foreign patients in 2017. Those whose referrals were supported by contracted service providers made up about 0.4 per cent of attendances in public health institutions.

He also said the proportion of foreigners admitted as inpatients or for day surgery at public institutions was about 1.5 per cent in 2017, lower than the 2.4 per cent admitted in 2008.

Following the MOH’s instruction to end contracts, public healthcare institutions also removed or blocked webpages containing information for overseas patients.

This story is a compilation of articles by Joyce Lim and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja from Sept 30 to Nov 21 last year.

Senior Correspondent Joyce Lim first got wind of the dealings between foreign agents and public health institutions when The Sunday Times uncovered one contract signed by NUH with an Indonesian agent to provide “administrative services”. She spent a month staking out at public hospitals and eventually managed to track down some foreign agents from Vietnam and Indonesia who confirmed they had arrangements with NUH and SGH. The hospitals declined to say how long such practices have been ongoing but the agents told The Sunday Times they had been bringing in patients to the hospitals since 2009. The investigation crossed borders, with Indonesia correspondent Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja convincing Jakarta-based hospital agent HCM Medika to open up about the trade. The exposé led to a public outcry over PHIs paying incentives tagged to the size of hospital bills when PHIs should be focused on treating sick patients in Singapore. Questions on such arrangements with foreign agents were also raised in Parliament which led to the Health Ministry disclosing the percentage of foreign patients over total number of patients treated at PHIs. But the statistics did not give an accurate picture of how many foreign patients were treated at PHIs over the years.

Tales of sorrow from electricity consumers

Looking at Mr Innocent Okparah, as a smile lights up his handsome fair face, it is hard to imagine that just some months ago, he was battling to stay alive in the hospital.

But that was exactly the case. For almost two weeks, Okparah danced between earth and the great beyond.

But he is now full of life.

Okparah pulled up a chair, sat down and looked straight into the eyes of Juliana, our crime journalist. His smile slipped as recollections flashed through his mind.

Settling further into his chair, he recounted his bloody encounter with the Americans and military men, saying: “I was beaten with guns, boots and fists. It was just too much for me. I couldn’t fight back. They overpowered me.”

Okparah may have forgotten many unpleasant events, but he will never forget the day armed soldiers – allegedly working for the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC) – gave him the beating of his life.

The assault intensified after Okparah attempted to use his smart phone to take snapshots of the soldiers and BEDC officials. For his temerity, he had to spend weeks in the hospital fighting to live.

Aside from Okparah, other victims have also claimed to have experienced the same encounter with soldiers and white men. BEDC officials also tried to disconnect the power supply to their homes.

Mr Innocent Okparah who was assaulted by armed soldiers allegedly working for the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC). Source: New Telegraph

Despite sounding irrational, the beatings were discovered to be over the struggle for possession and ownership of electrical wires, ladders, power disconnections and estimated billings.

Consumers wanted their electrical wires handed back to them after they were disconnected, insisting they had purchased them. However, the BEDC refused to release the items.

For many Nigerians, it was abnormal to see DISCO officials, armed soldiers and white men coming to disconnect power supplies , but residents of Benin, Edo State, alleged that it was an everyday occurrence, which they had now got used to.

The acronym DISCO refers to electricity Distribution Companies in Nigeria.
Our correspondent gathered that many electric consumers are petrified of going to the media, fearful that the soldiers might pay them an unscheduled visit.
This was even after human rights activists dented the trend after ferociously fighting against such practices.

Recalling the encounter, Okparah said: “We had been hearing about it, but that day was my first experience. The BEDC officials came with military men and white men! After disconnecting the light, we told them that we wouldn’t allow them to go with our wires.”

“Four Nigerian soldiers fought me. They tore my clothes, flogged me, used their boots on me and hit me with their guns. I resisted to an extent, but I finally succumbed because I couldn’t contend with the power of four military men, who were fully armed.”

Okparah added that the new chapter opened by BEDC was difficult and consumers couldn’t cope. He explained that BEDC was urged to return to the original operating system, but it allegedly refused.

He said: “They became mad and we joined in their madness, and then they brought soldiers. They disconnected our house, we told them no problem, but that the ladder and wires belonged to us. We bought them with our hard earned money. The only thing that belonged to them was the energy.”

Okparah disclosed that the fight with BEDC started in 2017 after a court case, where DISCO was instructed to stop disconnecting consumers until further notice. He said that BEDC failed to recognise and respect the judiciary, so consumers also decided not to obey and respect the company.

“BEDC was doing illegal billing. The court judgement was given in Lagos and we wanted them to adhere to it, but they refused. We decided to protest their billing system. We decided to pay what we feel we consumed. Most of us know our billings and nothing was removed or added in our electrical consumptions, so how come the billings increased?

“Assuming your bill before was N5,000(US$13) or N10,000 and you’re suddenly given a bill of between N30,000 and N45,000, what will you do?”

That was our case. Part of the court order was that if a bill is being contested, the consumer should be allowed to pay what he or she was being billed before.”
He claimed that some bills even surpassed the consumer’s rent.

Some apartments had bills that increased from N1,500 to N5,000 while the rent for the apartments cost N3,000.

He added: “The court asked them to return to the original billing system, but BEDC refused. While we were busy paying our normal original billing system, they were busy compiling their new system of billings for us, which we had earlier refused to pay.”

After Okparah walked out of hospital, he embarked on a quest for justice, supported by the Edo Civil Society Organisation (EDOCSO).
He reported the situation to the Nigerian Army, the Police and Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS). He demanded that the white men should be investigated for human rights violations and be repatriated.

Okparah shared that he filed a complaint against the soldiers at 4th Brigade of the Nigerian Army and also petitioned the Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki.

A DISCO official trying to disconnect a consumer’s lighting. Source: New Telegraph

It was discovered that the white men were working closely with some DISCO officials in three different states. The soldiers were attached to the white men.

Okparah also learnt that the white men were in Nigeria under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), under the Power Africa Project.

“We heard that another company brought them to Nigeria and the arrangement was that each white man should be escorted by two soldiers. So, they are now using those military men to molest people. We are law-abiding citizens because we obey the court order,” Okparah said.

“When the Army called me about the matter, they asked me if I wanted the soldiers to be sacked, I responded that they were my brothers. There was no way I could watched them being laid off just because they became stupid by obeying total strangers. The truth is that I expected the soldiers to realise that as Nigerians, we are all brothers,” said Okparah.

Shaking his head in disbelief, the man said that despite everything, BEDC’s crazy billings have not stopped.

The New Telegraph learnt that because of BEDC rights violations, human rights activists in the state teamed up and embarked on a series of protests, often staged at the front of BEDC’s head office in Benin, demanding that the firm and its Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Funke Osibudu, should go.

The Coordinator General of Edo State Civil Society Organisations (EDOSCO), Leftist Omobude Agho, also had an encounter with the soldiers, white men and BEDC officials.

Agho said he received a call that power to his apartment was about to be disconnected and immediately rushed over to his community, to find out what was going on.

He was shocked to see armed soldiers, white men and BEDC officials.

Agho said he initially tried to reason with the delegation, but the situation soon snowballed when he was barked at and ordered to sit on the ground.
He was speechless with outrage. The incident occurred on Medical Road, Benin, where Agho lives.

He said: “I was in the middle of the meeting when I received a call that some white men and soldiers were at my house and wanted to disconnect my light. They said that I owed electricity bill.

“When I got there, I was annoyed. I went to meet the sales manager of BEDC, later identified as Mr. Ayiayi, who was also there. I asked what led to white men, who are foreigners, coming to our land with soldiers to harass us. He said that he was sorry; that the white men were from BEDC headquarters.”

“I was still speaking with him when one of the soldiers pointed his rifle at me and asked the sales manager if I was the one. The next thing I knew, the soldier placed the nozzle of his rifle at my chest and ordered me to sit on the ground. I didn’t know if the gun was corked or not.

The Coordinator General of Edo State Civil Society Organisations (EDOSCO), Omobude Agho, also had an encounter with the soldiers, white men and BEDC officials. Source: New Telegraph

According to Agho, when he started writing petitions against the military men and reached the DSS office, the DSS boss said his men were not attached to BEDC.

Agho said that although he had heard of such incidents, his own experience was an eye-opener. Armed with this experience and knowledge, he petitioned the Nigeria Police Force, DSS and Nigerian Immigration Service, to call for thorough investigations of the activities of the white men.

“Initially, we found such stories hard to believe until it came to our doorsteps. Nobody had been brave enough to take snapshots of them in operation. Mr. Innocent Okparah who tried it was almost killed. The soldiers and BEDC workers do not want to be captured on video or picture. Okparah spent two weeks in the hospital.”

Agho said that customers’ challenge with BEDC was not getting better, with everyone angry and the atmosphere tensed. According to him, Edo State indigenes no longer want the contract of BEDC to be renewed.

Agho, who said that the only solution to such human rights abuses was for the revocation of BEDC’s licence, added that opportunity should be given to someone, serious about providing power supply to take over.

Mr. Kelly Osunbor Omokaro also has a story to tell, but not as shocking as that of Okparah and Agho.

Omokaro explained that he was able to achieve peace, because of his vast experience in working with security agents and understanding their minds and psychological dispositions. The incident occurred at Oko GRA, Airport Road, where Omokaro lives.

He said: “The time was about 11am. I was at home when I heard my security guard knocking at my door. I opened my door and saw BEDC officials standing at the gate; I went out to meet them. I noticed that two soldiers and some policemen were with them. The policemen were not in uniform. They said we bypassed our meters.”
“On that day, they asked why my meter was bypassed. A BEDC lady led the delegation, but a soldier was the person asking questions. They were 13 people, including soldiers, policemen and BEDC officials.

“I explained about the court injunction on ground. I presented them with a copy of the court’s judgement and where BEDC was asked to revise the N13.50k, which they added on the tariff. Before increasing, BEDC was supposed to call a meeting where we discuss and negotiate the price increment. Thus they failed to do so and refused also to obey court order.

“If I was not well-grounded with the rules and regulations of the military, I would probably have started shaking and begging at the sight of the military and other uniform men.”

Omokaro said that he knew and had cordial relationship with some military commanders in the state. He said that when the soldiers noticed how he spoke, they were taken aback.

They soon relaxed their hostile stance.

The soldiers decided to return to BEDC office, insisting that Omokaro made a lot of sense with his argument.

“Four Nigerian soldiers fought me. They tore my clothes, flogged me, used their boots on me and hit me with their guns. I resisted to an extent, but I finally succumbed because I couldn’t contend with the power of four military men, who were fully armed.”

According to Omokaro, the Edo State people’s argument is that before such increase, BEDC should call a stakeholders’ meeting.

He said he went to BEDC headquarters to register his displeasure and renew argument, where some of the staff he meant on the ground told him that some of them were even suffering more than the consumers because, “their salaries had been slashed with almost 70 per cent.

They said that their welfare was now quite poor compared to the era of Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) and the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA).”

Omokaro said that he made efforts to report the soldiers and also to find out about their connection to BEDC. But the Army in the state only promised to look into the matter.

He said that even BEDC’s MD, Funke Osibudu, had military details attached to her. He said that Osibudu was the owner of BEDC and actually did buy it from the government.

“She is guarded night and day by soldiers. She stays at Protea Hotel in Benin. Go there right now; you’ll find soldiers everywhere. Even if you go to BEDC headquarters, you will see soldiers there. According to our law, the only person entitled to be guarded by soldiers is the Nigerian President. Even the Edo State governor is not guarded by soldiers. He is only guarded by police and DSS operatives. But to be guarding a private citizen, even down to the hotel she stays is against the law,” Omokaro fumed.

He added: “If you are spending more days in Benin and move around, you will hear a lot of stories. The major problem is that because soldiers are involved, victims shy away from speaking out. They are all afraid.”

The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of EDOCSO, Comrade Osazee Edigin, said the fight against such rights violations by BEDC had been on for years.

He remembered that on December 25, 2015, BEDC officials with soldiers went into a community at Country Home Road, off Sapele Road and attempted to disconnect the community transformer because some people owed electricity bills.

Edigin noted that the BEDC officials stormed the community in two trucks filled with soldiers. The disagreement was over estimated billing.

On August 15, The New Telegraphs’ correspondent, Julia Francis, went to the BEDC headquarters to see Osibudu, but the effort was futile. She was directed to the Assistant General Manager (AGM), Corporate Affairs Office.

At the BEDC headquarters, there were three soldiers in full uniform. One of them, patrolling the outside perimeter of the building, was armed.

The Head of Public Affairs, BEDC, Mr. Tayo Adekunle, was not around, but Mr Ibeh Odoh, his assistant, attended to the Julia.

Reacting to allegations that their company uses soldiers to harass, intimidate and brutalise energy consumers, among other atrocities, Odoh said it was a pack of lies.

He said, “ Those white men are USAID members working with BEDC. They are not our staff; they are more like technical partners, under USAID Power Africa Project.”

When asked why BEDC officials in company with the white men and soldiers struggle for possession of electrical wires with their consumers, Odoh explained: “We collect the wires to discourage customers from reconnecting illegally. Before we embark on disconnection, we usually give first, second and third warnings.”Speaking further on soldiers brutalising customers, Odoh said: “If there are victims, let them come to our office to complain and we shall carry out investigations.”

The New Telegraph’s correspondent also contacted the US Embassy, Lagos to question it about the allegations of human rights violations.

On September 5, she contacted Mr. Sani Mohammed, Senior Information Specialist, US Embassy, Public Section, Abuja.

He replied the following day, asking for further information about the journalist and the story she was working on.This information was provided and emailed to him.

However, as at the time of filing this report no response has been provided.

This story is a compilation of articles from Oct 18, 2018 to Oct 25, 2018.


The story is about the energy crisis in Nigeria with special focus on victims of the Benin Electricity Company (BEDC), a firm that handles power distribution in Edo, Delta, Ondo and Ekiti states. The report detailed the pains of the consumers in the hands of BEDC using the military to intimidate and brutalise them. New Telegraph’s Crime Editor, Juliana Francis, who went to the Edo State to speak with the actors involved. The saga began after a court case in 2017, where DISCO (electricity Distribution Companies in Nigeria) was instructed to stop disconnecting consumers until further notice. The BEDC failed to recognise and respect the judiciary, so consumers also decided not to obey and respect the company. After the publication of the report, the Edo State governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, openly decried the capacity of the electricity company. Also, the Benin traditional leaders have visited President Muhammadu Buhari to make similar complaints. Already, BEDC have told electricity consumers that it is working hard in addressing the challenges. However, no punitive measures have been taken against the soldiers used to deal with the electricity consumers. The Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, has declared that the electricity firms lack the capacity and infrastructure to provide power supply to Nigerians. Consequently, the Federal Government has vowed to look into the entire privatisation process.

Why women in Beed district don’t have wombs

“You will hardly find women with wombs in these villages. These are villages of womb-less women,” says Manda Ugale, with gloom in her eyes.

Sitting in her tiny house in the Hajipur village within the drought-affected Beed district of Maharashtra’s Marath-wada region, she struggles to talk about the painful topic.

Women in Vanjarwadi say that it is the “norm” in villages to remove their uterus after having two or three children. 50 per cent have already had hysterectomies.

The majority of these women are cane cutters who migrate to the sugar belt of western Maharashtra during the cane cutting season. With the drought intensifying, the number of migrants multiplies.

“The mukadam (contractor) is keen to have women without wombs in his group of cane cutters,” says Satyabhama, another cane-cutter.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women from the region migrate to work as cane cutters between October and March.

Contractors draw up contracts with the husband and wife counted as one unit. Cane cutting is a rigorous process and if the husband or wife takes a break for a day, the couple has to pay a fine of 500 Rupees (US$6.99) per day to the contractor for every break.


Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines. Thus, the answer, in Beed, is to go in for a hysterectomy so the women no longer have them.

“After a hysterectomy, there is no chance of menstrual periods. So, there is no question of taking a break during cane cutting. We cannot afford to lose even a rupee,” says Satya Bhama.

Contractors say that during menstrual periods, women want a break for a day or two and work is halted.

“We have a target to complete in a limited time frame and hence we don’t want women who would have periods during cane cutting,” said Dada Patil, a contractor.

The Ugale family in Beed. The family goes for cane-cutting every season as its members’ livelihood depends on it. Perennial drought and lack of work opportunities leave cane-cutters vulnerable to exploitation by cane contractors. Source: Vikas Ugale

Patil insists that he and other contractors don’t force the women to have a surgery; rather, it is a choice made by their families.

Interestingly, the women said that the contractors give them an advance for a surgery and that the money is recovered from their wages.

Achyut Borgaonkar of Tathapi, an organisation that has conducted a study on this issue, said: “In the cane cutter community, menstrual periods are considered a problem and they think surgery is the only option to get rid of it. But this has a serious impact on the health of the women as they develop a hormonal imbalance, mental health issues, gain weight etc. We observed that even young girls at the age of 25 have undergone this surgery.”

Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines. Thus, the answer, in Beed, is to go in for a hysterectomy so the women no longer have them.

Bandu Ugale, Satyabhama’s husband and a cane cutter himself, explains the logic behind the practice.

“A couple gets about 250 Rupees after cutting a tonne of sugarcane. In a day, we cut about 3-4 tonnes of cane and in an entire season of 4-5 months a couple cuts about 300 tonnes of sugarcane. What we earn during the season is our yearly income as we don’t get

any work after we come back from cane cutting,” says Ugale.

“We can’t afford to take a break even for a day. We have to work even if we have health problems. There is no rest and women having periods is an additional problem,” he explains.

School girls in Beed. Child marriages are prevalent in drought areas. Girl children are married off even as young as age 14. By age 16 and 17 they have children, and then they undergo hysterectomy surgery so that menstrual periods don’t hinder cane-cutting work. Source: Radheshyam Jadhav

Septuagenarian Vilabai says that the life of a cane cutter woman is hellish.

She hints that there is repeated sexual exploitation of women by contractors and their men.

“Cane cutters have to live in cane fields or near sugar mills in a tent. There are no bathrooms and toilets. It becomes even more difficult for a woman if she has periods in these conditions,” says the old woman.

Many women in villages in this parched landscape said private medical practitioners prescribe a hysterectomy surgery even if they complain of normal abdominal pain or a white discharge.

This story by Radheshyam Jadhav was originally published by The Hindu Business Line on April 8.

The Hindu Business Line set out to provide in-depth coverage of the drought in large parts of India, given the fact that agriculture accounts for a substantial share of the Indian economy. While reporting on the crisis in Maharashtra, in western India, Deputy Editor Radheshyam Jadhav came across heart-rending narratives about women undergoing hysterectomy surgery – to remove their uterus – under duress, for fear of losing their jobs as sugarcane-cutters. After Business Line broke the story, it was picked up by other media groups and even the international press. Administrative action too soon followed. The National Commission of Women, a statutory body established by the Indian Government, which offers policy advisories on matters relating to women, issued a notice to the Maharashtra Chief Secretary UPS Madan asking for legal action to end the practice of womb removal by women working as sugarcane cutters.

Investigating river construction to save the streams

“ The only way home is to bash against a wall.”

In March 2018, the Environmental Ethics Foundation of Taiwan released a video shot depicting fish jumping from a river in order to reach the upper streams to spawn.

However, as the river bank was made of concrete, the fish were defeated by the task and died at the river side. None completed their mission to return.

This was not a special case, but an average scene by the rivers of Taiwan.

The Society of Wilderness investigation team on Taitung streams investigated 40 streams in Taitung but discovered that only one was not modified.

The rest had their base and bank covered with concrete. As such, there was no upper stream for fishes to return to or water for crab-eating mongooses to drink.

The streams were also losing their fauna.

River enforcement projects by the government are the main culprit behind this environmental degradation.

After the cement was refurbished in the upper portion of the Taigan River in Taitung, the river resembled a ditch that had been blown up by explosives. Source: Taitung Wilderness Association Wild Creek Investigation Team

The first two projects, which cost over US$6.6 billion, dried up streams and caused the disappearance of creatures along them.

Last year, the Forward-Looking Infrastructure project budgeted US$8.35 billion on water resource improvement.

How much more damage will this cause?

The erosion of these streams and the retaliation of nature can strike at anytime.

Countless “river-strengthening” construction projects have destroyed the river bank habitat.

Taitung’s natural environment is regarded as one of the least developed in Taiwan.

However, even a beautiful country like Taitung is embedded with a truth we cannot ignore and forget.

Eastern Taiwan’s streams contain a rich eco-system. Most of them flow into the ocean without joining other streams or rivers.

These crooked river paths join the ecosystems of the river and the ocean. Reproduction and immigration of each species shapes the beauty of river bank habitat.

Conducted over three years, the Society of Wilderness investigation report on the streams of Taitung revealed that 39 out of 40 streams have changed greatly over the period.

The state of the river exceeded our imagination when we followed the investigation team to Hsing Bridge in Bei-nan county.

Layers of concrete and beams reinforced the construct. Each river bed was paved with concrete and filled with sand and stones.

Yan Chia-Chun, the section chief of the creature section said, “it’s now becoming a ditch, not a stream.” We climbed down to the river bed surrounded by a concrete wall. It is impossible for fishes, crabs or any other river creatures to survive on this river bed.

“Ditches and layered river beds are the worst,” he added.

At the estuary of Ding-Chiao Stream in the Tung-he township, the water had disappeared into mud and soil.


One species that has suffered from these changes is the Sicyopterus japonicus, also known as the monk goby. The fish is common in the streams in Taitung.

Its pectoral fins contain suction cups used to move between pebbles and rock walls near the estuary. But the construction makes the river bed too high for this fish to climb , not to mention other creatures.

The river dam in the process of being destroyed. Source: Ching-Hung Hung

The team also said that, Pseudograpsus setosus crabs could normally only be found in Taitung streams.

They spawn at the estuary in March and April each year and return to the upper stream after their eggs have hatched. Unfortunately, after the construction, no creature movement has been spotted in their record.


Not only has vertical movement become impossible, reaching the river is now fatal. On the day of the investigation, we discovered the flattened body of crab eating mongoose.

“They have to risk their lives just to drink water, ”said a volunteer of the investigation team. The volunteer theorised that the mongoose had smelt the presence of water beneath the highway but was unable to find a way to the riverbed. It then died after being run over by a vehicle.

Environmental observer Hong Wei-Ting once recorded a saddening video. A pair of moorhens were circling at the river bank.

It turned out that their baby moorhen had fallen into the river and the mother moorhen could not do anything.

Hong threw a log and saved the baby moorhen. He said that the growing construction eventually killed most of the creatures along the river.


Improper riverside construction can also make specific species extinct. The Rhacophorus arvalis frog which could be found in Yunlin and Chiayi counties can no longer be found as riverside construction has destroyed their homes.

The former director of Environment Management Institute in Trans World University Mr. Chang Tze-Chien said, before the increase in construction works, there were around 2,000 tree frogs along the stream Lun-Tze near the university.

Chang added that after the Lun-Tze river was re-constructed, the bamboo forest along the river transformed into concrete river bank.

Gone were the tree frogs’ houses as well as the water in the bamboo forest.

The tree frogs used to inhabit at Dounan Township as their far west habitat.

Around 500 Rhacophorus arvalis were able to survive when there were bamboo forest along the riverside.

As the river bed was broadened from 10 metres to 400 metres in order to accelerate flow, the bamboo forest was removed and no Rhacophorus arvalis has been spotted since.

We might be witnessing the extinction of the species as it happens, said Chang.

This story was originally published by United Daily News on Jun 14, 2018.

After the article was published, the Vision Project launched the feature report “Looking for the Streams, Saving the Waterways.” It reported how the authority tried to strengthen the river by covering the river bank with concrete. What was meant to be quick and efficient turned the river into an environmental disaster.The ecosystem was destroyed and no circulation was able to revive the river. The Vision Project covered the experience of Singapore and Japan, and report the current situation of the rivers in Taiwan. After the report was launched, environmental protection activists echoed our coverage and encouraged local government and authorities to respond. The Water Resources Agency then announced that the current construction on the rivers should be reviewed and proposed a more eco-friendly method of construction. The River Bureau has also suspended construction and decided to recover the ecosystem before further construction movement is reviewed to be necessary.

‘Wasting’ our lives, we’ll let our country go to waste

A drainage canal is not a garbage landfill.

Why state the obvious?

Because, on the ground, they seem synonymous. Every day, their stench assails our nostrils.

Yet, we persistently treat our surroundings as a free-for-all garbage repository.

How many of our rivers and other water bodies have died or are dying?

In April 2018, a drainage canal in Hanoi’s Yen Hoa area was partially restored after a pile of garbage was fished out.

This included different types of untreated household waste and carcasses. After many years, the stench had become unbearable, but it was only after the media raised a stink that the authorities deployed sanitation workers to clean it.

But the dead and dying water systems in the capital city and elsewhere are not just the authorities’ responsibility. Anyone can see that a year after Hanoi’s campaign to prevent its rivers and streams from being choked to death by garbage- mainly To Lich, Nhue, and Đay rivers – such efforts are just a drop in the ocean. Every Hanoian is complicit in polluting the city’s environment, and the same can be said of localities nationwide.

Which also means that every Hanoian and every citizen of this country is responsible for cleaning up our rivers, our soil and the air we breathe.

A Hanoian who has lived all 38 years of her life along the Kim Nguu River, a distributary of the To Lich River, said that despite the daily effort of workers from Hanoi Sewerage and Drainage Limited Company (HSDC) to dredge out the garbage, many neighbours do not hesitate to dump their household waste in it.

The pollution is so severe that the river has stopped flowing and reeks of rubbish.

We can no longer afford to accept inane, comforting messages that say small actions make a big difference. We need big actions that make a huge difference.

Compare such crass indifference with the concern shown by someone like Gondai Shoichi, a Japanese national who is organising a volunteer group to collect garbage at different places in Hanoi including Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Hoan Kiem (Return Sword) Lake, Thong Nhat Park and Thu Le Zoo. Gondai told Viet Nam News that the pollution of rivers and lakes in Hanoi was similar to that of Japan in the 1950s. He ticked off a few important points: garbage should be separated at source; environmental education should start very early; environmental regulations should be very strictly followed.

We need to go much further.

Beyond obedience to laws, every action that protects our environment should become second nature. This is the biggest lesson we need to learn from our Japanese brethren.

Wako Takatoshi, a Japanese expert in drainage and sewerage who has been working as a policy advisor on urban environment with Vietnam’s Construction Ministry for the last three years, said that removing garbage from rivers and lakes in Hanoi, as was done with the Yen Hoa canal, was very important, but by itself, it was not a sustainable measure.

The responsibility of individuals and agencies for maintaining different parts of rivers, canals and other water bodies has to be clear cut, and people’s awareness raised to a point that their habits change, he said.

Wako also offered a key psychological insight: “People can easily litter in a place that is dirty, but they tend not to do so when a place is very clean.”


According to the Hanoi Urban Environmental Hygiene Company in 2018, the capital city generates more than 6,200 tonnes of garbage each day. Only 70 per cent of this is collected and treated. The remaining 30 per cent is dumped into the environment, including our water systems.

Hoang Thao, who founded the Noi khong voi tui nylon (Say No to nylon bags) group, said many people dump garbage thinking they are being clean and doing their part for the environment.

“For example, they put nylon bags or plastic bottles into a waste basket and think that they are doing it right, but they are not. It takes dozens of years for the former and hundreds of years for the latter to decompose completely,” she said.


Wako, Gondai and Thao were participants at a workshop on “Clean Water for Healthy Living” organised last Sunday by the Japan-Vietnam JDS Specialist Network (JSN) and the US-based FHHER Social Impact Fund.

The workshop was organised at a coffee shop on Lieu Giai Street, with participants being advised to bring their own mugs in case the shop had no environmentally-friendly receptacles to offer.

Personally, the get-together, second in the JSN’s Coffee Talk Series, was an eye-opener that went beyond learning about safe water. Experts and environmental activists shared shocking information: Humans have created enough plastic to cover the eight largest country in the world – Argentina; Vietnam ranks fourth among top 20 countries in mismanaging plastic waste; globally, up to 91 per cent of the plastic isn’t recycled.

Every day, their stench assails our nostrils. Yet, we persistently treat our surroundings as a free-for-all garbage repository.

Ironies abound in the way “experts” attend workshops on environmental protection, despite the lavish lifestyles many of them lead, the means of travel they use, the amount of plastic used at such meets and so on.


As a nation, institution or individual, the biggest change starts with a single step.

One such step is the “#7 Day Challenge” launched on April 10, 2018 by the United Nations in Vietnam in collaboration with the Embassy of Sweden and the Live & Learn environmental education organisation.

The challenge encouraged people to practice ways of eating, moving and living without damaging the environment. It commemorated Earth Day which was ambitiously themed “End Plastic Pollution” in 2018.

Participants raised awareness by posting photos and stories of taking buses and bicycles to work, not using nylon bags or plastic cutlery, turning off all unnecessary bulbs.

Our leaders, like the Environment Minister, the President and the Prime Minister, can give this campaign a powerful push by accepting the challenge.

I hope to see this happen, but the question remains: Is this enough?


We, as people, experts and politicians, are very fond of intoning the need for “drastic” measures, but fail to recognise that what is needed is a drastic, sustained change in our attitude and lifestyle, a change that cannot be postponed or passed on to others. The change starts with each one of us.

Nothing else will work.

More than a year after a hefty increase in fines for littering violations, there has been no appreciable improvement in the situation, not a dent in the magnitude of change that is needed.

We can no longer afford to accept inane, comforting messages that say small actions make a big difference. We need big actions that make a huge difference.

This commentary by Hồng Minh was originally published by Viet Nam news on April 13, 2018.

Vietnam is one of Asia’s five worst polluters of ocean with plastic waste, according to international organisations. This commentary by Hồng Minh was published together with an anecdote about a dying canal in Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, due to littering. The writer investigated the pollution of the city’s water system as well as other parts of the country. The writer also met and talked to experts and activists dealing with the problem and had some suggestions on how to help prevent and reduce waste, especially plastic waste. The piece was then widely shared among sanitation and plastic waste experts as well as environmental groups. The problem of illegal littering and untreated plastic waste has become so alarming that the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, launched a national campaign on June 9 to prevent plastic waste with the target to rid Vietnam of single use plastic products by the year 2025. Viet Nam News has been running a series of articles, news, opinions regarding the problem in the country as well as measures to reduce the consequences.

Indian star tortoises homeward bound

Surya and Perumal are two illegal immigrants who have been living in Singapore for the past five years. On Nov 26, both will be sent back to their homeland – India – along with 48 others at a cost of about $50,000 (USD $36,300).

What’s so special about their return? Well, they are not humans – but Indian star tortoises who are now a step away from being listed as an endangered species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The 50 Indian star tortoises who were smuggled into Singapore are lucky: They will enjoy a safe return home on Singapore Airlines as a result of an initiative by the animal welfare group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres). They were rescued by members of Acres at various times and locations in Singapore over the past five years. This species, which is native to India and Sri Lanka, is noted for its distinctive star-patterned shells.

Indian star tortoises are seen as symbols of longevity by many. According to Ms Anbarasi Boopal, Acres’ deputy chief executive, they are also believed to lengthen a person’s lifespan if they are kept as pets.

She added: “These tortoises are meant to live in arid or dry climates and are not suitable for the humid weather of Singapore. By bringing them in illegally, these animals go through a great deal of torment.” The Convention on International Trade in Endangered

Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which Singapore is a signatory, protects the Indian star tortoises and bans their international trade.


Despite international sanctions, between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian star tortoises are smuggled out of India annually. They are usually taken to countries such as Thailand and Malaysia before being smuggled into Singapore, said Ms Anbarasi.

After being snatched from their natural habitat, they are drugged and restrained in tight compartments like suitcases. After which they endure long travel with little breathing space. Many of them don’t survive. Some that do become household pets. But, just like used toys, some owners get bored of them or simply cannot maintain them any more and release them.

Around a hundred of such abandoned tortoises have been rescued by Acres over the past nine years and have been fostered in their wildlife sanctuary. Next month, the 50 Indian star tortoises will be sent on a flight to Bangalore and subsequently to an appropriate wildlife sanctuary. SIA will absorb the flight costs.

“They will be packed in containers which are in full compliance with the IATA Live Animals Regulations. They will be loaded in cargo compartments with temperature control and ventilation,” said an SIA spokesperson.

Rescued Indian star tortoises which were housed at animal welfare group Acres’ (Animal Concerns Research and Education Society) wildlife sanctuary in Choa Chu Kang, taken on 26 Oct 2018. Source: Jonathan Choo

Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) has also expressed its support for the repatriation.

Since 2013, the AVA has handled more than 100 cases of illegal possession of wildlife in Singapore. Of these, 17 involved Indian star tortoises.

Enforcement action, such as prosecution in court, was taken and the seized tortoises were sent to the Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).

“In this case, we engaged the Indian authorities and issued a CITES permit to Acres to repatriate the star tortoises to India,” said an AVA spokesperson.


Repatriating these tortoises comes with a price tag of at least $50,000 and Acres being a non-governmental organisation is entirely dependent on public funds to carry out the process, pointed out Ms Anbarasi.’

“The funds collected will be channelled towards flight tickets for personnel accompanying the tortoises, land transfer, specially-designed transportation crates, food for the animals during quarantine, erecting a soft-release enclosure with CCTV cameras and micro-chipping, manpower for daily monitoring and caring and quarantine and blood tests,” she said.

Acres is now collecting funds through crowd-funding websites! and Coupled with money given by their regular donors, the amount collected now stands at around $21,000.

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam has supported the Acres initiative. He said in a Facebook posting: “Currently, Acres is trying to repatriate the Indian Star Tortoises back to India where they belong. It is a challenging task for the team and they are looking to raise funds to help in this exercise. You can visit the site link they have provided to learn more and extend a helping hand. Do help spread the word.”

They were rescued by members of animal welfare group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) at various times and locations in Singapore over the past five years. The rescued are housed at Acres’ wildlife sanctuary in Choa Chu Kang, taken on 26 Oct 2018. Source: Jonathan Choo

Apart from local organisations, Acres has also reached out to Wildlife SOS India, which has agreed to support this cause. It is a non-profit conservation outfit based in India that has been actively involved in protecting, rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife.

“A team comprising a veterinary doctor, documentation expert and liaison officer will travel to Singapore and accompany the tortoises and the Acres team back to India,” said Mr Kartick Satyanarayan, the co-founder and chairman of Wildlife SOS India .

“They have been working closely with the state forest department to identify a suitable location for the release of these tortoises into their natural habitat. They will install radio telemetry devices to carry out post-release monitoring to ensure the tortoises’ survival in the wild.”

This story was first published in Tabla! on November 2, 2018.


Journalist Venga first found about the repatriation of the Indian Star Tortoises repatriation by Acres (Animal Concerns Research and Education Society) from the crowdfunding websites and The Facebook page of Acres had also shared some details of the project. The fact that the tortoises were a species native to India and that Acres had actually given the tortoises names such as ‘Surya’ and ‘Perumal’ caught the attention of the journalist who then pitched the story to the editorial team. Garnering the approval of the editor, Venga went to the Acres office on that afternoon itself. It was a Monday afternoon on a 22nd October 2018 when Venga first did the interview with Anbarasi Boopal, Deputy CEO of Acres who enlightened Venga with many details of the repatriation project. This included the common routes used to smuggle the star tortoises and that SIA will be sponsoring the flight cost of the tortoises.
Hearing the information, the editorial team of Tamil Murasu had thought that we could run a full feature on the story accompanying an Infographic. Art Editor Peter Thomas William played a crucial role in guiding the infographic to its final outcome and also suggested to do a video story. Having agreed upon the idea, Venga then arranged for videographer Gregory Marc Loo and did the video interview with Acres. The video comprised of the star tortoises, their living conditions, treatment received and information on their repatriation. Venga also did a PTC both in Tamil for Tamil Murasu and in English for Tabla!
Subsequently, an infographic for both Tamil and English was arranged by Venga with information on the common smuggling routes illustrated by the guiding arrows on a world map, coupled with essential facts and figures on the Star tortoises. Last but not least, two full-length features were written for both Tamil Murasu and Tabla! Including the infographic. All this work was done in just under a week. The team along with Venga did not want to wait to release this exclusive story.
The story along with the video was published on Tamil Murasu on 28th October 2018 whereas it was published on Tabla! on 2nd November.
The Acres tortoise repatriation story was published as features in both Tamil Murasu and Tabla!. The story came with an infographic and an accompanying a video story which was well received by the community at large.

Luxury comes at a price for Puzhal prisoners

On September 3, 2018, a warden at Tamil Nadu’s biggest central prison, Puzhal jail, was caught with ganja hidden in his innerwear when he reported for duty.

He was smuggling it to a Pakistani spy -a National Investigation Agency (NIA) suspect – lodged there, who paid for it at a premium price. The warden has now been placed under suspension.

Photographs from a seized mobile phone from a prisoner provided proof of the sheer luxury afforded to certain prisoners.

Investigations revealed that prisoners could purchase all sorts of comforts – food, clothes, cosmetics, phones – at a very high price.

Though there had been reports of rampant corruption inside prisons in the state, this is the first time that photographic evidence has been accessed by the media.

Sources said that certain inmates who were lodging in the high security block controlled the entire operations inside the jail.

These ‘influential’ inmates could get items ranging from mobile phones to sun-glasses, sports shoes and even tasty food.

Some procured rice and vegetables and not only cooked for themselves but sold the fare to other inmates who craved homemade food.

A spread of food items in hot packs inside the jail. The variety of food is offered to certain prisoners who pay for the privilege, while others are given only rations. Source: DT Next

“The inmates who cooked inside the jail made a killing by selling it to the other inmates,” a source revealed.

Though jail officials claim that cellphone signal jammers are installed on the premises, sources noted that none are functional.

“Even if one or two work, those jammers are not designed to block 4G phone signals. Most inmates lodged there use the latest phones,” the source added.

“One prisoner used to allow others to make calls on his phone but charged a hefty fee – much like a PCO (public call office) booth,”

From the photographs, it is clear that several prisoners talk openly on mobile phones. “They casually pose for photographs and with phones in their hands,” the source said. When contacted, senior jail officials at Puzhal avoided answering queries on the subject.

A little over a year ago, a report by then DIG (Prisons) D Roopa kicked up a storm by revealing video footage of AIADMK (Amma) leader VK Sasikala inside the Parappana Agrahara Central Jail that showed she was provided special facilities, including an exclusive kitchen to prepare her meals, in violation of prison norms.


Beedis to branded goods, the inside story of Puzhal’s barter economy

The common perception of jail life, largely fuelled by films, paints a picture of uniform-clad prisoners, leading an austere life of repentance with steel utensils.

However, the set of images from a Puzhal prisoner’s seized mobile phone sent shockwaves across society because it showed a very different side of prison life.

The images showed cheerful prisoners chatting on mobiles, enjoyed good food, and wearing branded clothes and sneakers that many tax-payers can ill-afford.

An inmate in a polo shirt and branded sports shoes. Source: DT Next

In one of the pictures made available to DT Next, a prisoner was seen feasting on a huge meal served in a casserole dish, a far cry from the steel plates that regular prisoners eat on.

“It looks like they are happily living in a resort. It is not clear how such activities are allowed inside the high security block inside the prison complex,” commented a senior government official.

An investigation by this newspaper into how these ‘A’ class prisoners got access to all these comforts revealed a thriving economy inside jails, one that survives on a combination of barter and bribes.

According to sources, the situation was different a couple of years back.

Most wanted items inside prison:
– Mobile phones
– SIM Cards
– Phone chargers
– Ganja
– Cigarettes
– Good home cooked food
– Pen drives with X rated movies
– DVD players
How goodies get inside jail
– Friends or relatives help smuggle ganja, SIM card or pen drives inside bread, or chargers are hidden in toiletries.
– Pay bribe to prison staff, who would make sure that it reaches the prisoner.
Prevailing ‘jail rates’

– A small packet of ganja priced at Rs 100 (US$1.40) in Chennai, would cost Rs 2000 inside jail
– Mobile phones could cost Rs15,000 to Rs35,000 premium
– Food can cost from Rs300 onwards for a meal

In simpler times, only favours were exchanged among the inmates, and beedis (thin cigarettes wrapped in leaves) were the currency of choice.

It used to be very difficult to ‘earn’ a beedi inside the jail and one needed to ration their smokes wisely to garner favours inside. But time and technology has changed everything.

“Beedis may be still a form of currency for regular prisoners, who don’t have connections to flaunt, or money to spend. However, there are some inmates who have influence, and those are the ones who make themselves quite comfortable inside the prison,” revealed a government source.

According to the official, the modus operandi is quite simple.

The prisoner befriends a jail staffer, or sometimes connects with a corrupt staffer. The prisoner strikes a deal with the staffer, and payment is made to a family member of the staffer through the prisoner’s outside contacts.

That way, the prison staffer does not come under scrutiny. “The prisoners almost always just wants a mobile phone. Once they get hold of that, they start controlling payment schedules through Whatsapp instructions,” the source said.

Through contacts, they can get food, phones, a TV, toiletries, and sometimes comfortable bedding.

Inmates posing for a picture inside Puzhal jail. One of the inmates is on a mobile phone that is banned in the jail. Source: DT Next

However, not all the goods are used for personal consumption. Some inmates run food and grocery businesses from inside the prison, while others merely barter their ‘gifts’ for favours or even protection.

Another business run by inmates is to rent out mobile phone chargers for those who have their own cell phones. One-time use of charging is priced at Rs 100 (US$1.40).

“One prisoner used to allow others to make calls on his phone but charged a hefty fee – much like a PCO (public call office) booth,” said the source.

A parallel economy inside Puzhal prisons may be new to outsiders. However, those who have experienced it first hand say that it is just another form of corruption.


‘Police’ Fakruddin, a prisoner lodged in the high security block in Puzhal prison complex, was till recently running a private mess inside the prison, allegedly earning hundreds of thousands of rupees by selling food to other inmates at a very high premium, according to sources.

‘Police’ Fakruddin, a suspect in terror cases. Source: DT Next

Details on his prison business emerged during a search, when jail officials seized at least 20 kg of biriyani rice, few kilograms of vegetables, at least 5 kg dal, some deodorants and two television sets from the cell of extremists Bilal Malik and Panna Ismail, two of Fakruddin’s associates.

“He was selling three meals a day for Rs. 1,000 to other prisoners. It used to be a good mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and he had good patronage,” sources added.

With the help of three or four other inmates, cooking for 15 to 20 people was not a difficult task for him. And it was rather easy for him to get regular customers who were ready to pay the price he was asking for.

After remaining underground for many years, Fakruddin, a high profile criminal, was arrested in Chennai five years ago in connection with cases including planting a pipe bomb to eliminate BJP leader L K Advani during in Jan Chetana Yatra in the year 2011 near Madurai.

Since then, he had been running a ‘food business’ by procuring rice, vegetables and meat from the outside and cooking them up with the help of a select few inside the prison.

In the last few years, his stature within the prison walls grew, and because of his criminal background and money from the ‘food business’ no other inmates dared question his authority. He and his two associates used to get a daily supply of milk for their personal consumption.

While jail officials confirmed that Fakruddin and his associates Panna Ismail and Bilal Malik in the prison were cooking their own food, they played the food mess business.

“He was cooking own food. We have closed five stoves, which were used by them,” a jail official informed on Wednesday.
Fakruddin had recently been shifted from security block to Puzhal prison II.


After the Puzhal prison inmates’ pictures were splashed on media sites, Tamil Nadu prison officials have been in damage control mode and are imposing more restrictions inside the jails across the state. “There will be more checks and inspection from now.

There will be restrictions on visitors and more importantly there will be regular shuffle in roster of prison warders and chief warders. Sensitive blocks will be handled only by staff with integrity,” noted A Murugesan DIG, prisons.

In one of the pictures made available to DT Next, a prisoner was seen feasting on a huge meal served in a casserole dish, a far cry from the steel plates that regular prisoners eat on.

Officials feel that because certain staff connived with few inmates, the image of the prison department has been completely ruined.

“We are now in the process of correcting correctional staff,” one official pointed out adding that transfer of 17 waders and head chief warders from Puzhal prisons was just a beginning.

Officials admit that the problem of mobile phones being smuggled inside is rampant, and several inmates use phone quite openly.

The images from the seized mobile showed several selfies being taken among ‘prison buddies’, which shocked many, including the senior prison officials.

However, the officials assure that this is a wake-up call, and they are fixing all the lapses.

This story by V P Raghu was originally published on DT Next on September 13, 2018.

The report went on to become one of the biggest newsbreaks in the state and was followed up by several national publications and TV channels. There had been a lot of talk of VIP prisoners who get special privileges by greasing prison officials’ palms but it was impossible to get proof. Determined to crack the case, the reporter relentlessly followed the story with sources inside and outside the jail. There was a massive impact on prison administration in Tamil Nadu after the article was published. Withing hours of its publication, the head of the prison department carried out an inspection at the Puzhal Central jail premises. The jail authorities seized a several contraband items including mobile phones, TVs, cooking vessels, a large quantity of biriyani rice, other ingredients stored illegally in prison by inmates with the connivance of jail staff, during a series of searches carried out after the story was published. The story also resulted in the transfer of over a dozen jail staff and at least four prisoners appeared in the pictures published by DT Next, were shifted to other jails.

From Singapore to India– on bikes

When Mr S. Balachandran and his two friends, who call themselves the 2019 Centennial Riders, decided to ride their motorbikes from Singapore to India, they were told that it was impossible.

“There was a lot of criticism and opposition to our idea. Some laughed at us and called us crazy. They said our bikes would break down and come back in pieces,” said the businessman.

The Singaporean trio, however, wanted to prove their critics wrong and so went ahead with the trip to commemorate Singapore’s bicentennial year. They also wanted to push the limits of their Honda Gold Wing motorbikes.

There was very little oxygen and we struggled to breathe. It was so cold that ice started forming on our bikes. But somehow we managed to persevere and reach the Everest base camp.

“We took it up as sort of a ‘resilience challenge’,” said Mr Balachandran.

“Singapore suffered through many challenges to get to where it is today. So we thought of accomplishing something similar. I believe the Gold Wing hasn’t been ridden in such a way, and we wanted to prove that it can be.”

Mr Balachandran, 56, and his friends, Mr P. Pannirselvam, 54, and Mr A. Arunagiri, 53, both of whom are Singapore Armed Forces regulars, started their road trip on March 26 and covered 13,458km, riding up to 400km a day, in 43 days.

From Singapore, their journey took them to Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, China and India.

They usually rode from 5.30am to 5pm and rested at night.

Each rode a Honda Gold Wing, a popular touring motorcycle which weighed about 500kg, and spent more than $10,000 on the trip.

“These bikes are luxury bikes which are meant for well-paved roads and not tough terrains. This proved to be a challenge, especially when we went to the mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet,” said Mr Balachandran.

Three Singaporean bikers pose infront of at Tamilnadu’s Brihadishvara temple or Thanjai periya kovil. Source: P. Pannirselvam


The trio feared that they would be hit by wet weather during the trip. Instead, they faced extreme weather conditions.

India is particularly hot during the summer (March to May), when temperatures in the north can be 40 deg C or more.

Said Mr Balachandran: “The biggest challenge for us was the extreme weather conditions. Certain parts of India, especially the north, were so hot that it went over 50 deg C. Lucknow got as high as 51 deg C. But at the Everest it got as cold as minus 3 deg C.

“When it was hot, we were so tired and thirsty that we had no appetite to eat. We just drank water and took many breaks. We also allowed the bikes to cool. The tyres could have burned if they were in contact with the ground for too long.

“In some places, there were no air-conditioners. We had only fans, which blew hot air at us while we slept at night. Imagine how uncomfortable it was.”

The highlight of their journey was the ride to the base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal, which sits at an altitude of 5,157m.

They started from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, on April 14 and it took them four days to cover the 714km to the Everest base camp. The route took them through Kerung, a village on the Nepal-China border, and Tingri, a picturesque town in southern Tibet.

The bikers were not prepared for the cold and the low oxygen levels, but they had thick clothing.

“Travelling in the Everest area was difficult,” said Mr Pannirselvam, an army warrant officer.

“There was very little oxygen and we struggled to breathe. It was so cold that ice started forming on our bikes. But somehow we managed to persevere and reach the Everest base camp. We are very proud as we believe that we are the first group of riders to take the Honda Gold Wing bike to such heights.”

From the Everest base camp, the bikers returned to Kathmandu and then headed for Varanasi, the holy city for Hindus in India, via Sonauli and Gorakhpur – a two-day, 482km trip.

Bikers at Northern part of India riding past snow-capped mountains. Source: P. Pannirselvam

Other than dealing with the climate, the trio also had to contend with less-than-ideal roads.

“In Kathmandu, there were places without roads, just sandy paths which served as makeshift roads. Heavy pebbles and potholes were common. I fell from my bike many times,” said Mr Pannirselvam.

“Once, the gear-shifting mechanism in my bike broke and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, we hailed a lorry and the driver was kind enough to load the bike and take it to a mechanic.

The riders also had to cross 57 flimsy bridges in Myanmar.

“They were mostly wooden and had not been maintained for many years. We had to push our bikes across most of them,” said Mr Pannirselvam.

In India, the trio were greeted like celebrities. Big groups gathered to gawk at their luxurious bikes, which are rarely seen on Indian roads. People in cars and motorcycles who rode past them often slowed down to take photos.

Crowds also gathered wherever they stopped.

“At times, we couldn’t even see our bikes because people would cover them,” said Mr Balachandran. “We had to push our way through to reach them.

“One guy even tried to climb onto a bike for a photo despite repeated warnings from us. He fell but luckily didn’t injure himself.”

Dodging animals such as cows and dogs on narrow Indian roads was another issue for the riders. Since their motorbikes were big, it was difficult to manoeuvre past the animals.

To ensure safety, they had to maintain speeds of 50kmh to 60kmh, which made their entire trip longer.

This photo was taken in a wooden bridge in Myanmar where a biker had to struggle his way through the bridge. Source: P. Pannirselvam

In Mangaluru, a city in Karnataka, hordes gathered when they parked their motorbikes at the Patillion.

This attracted the attention of a reporter from Kannada daily Hosa Digantha, whose offices are located right next to the hotel.

Their story made the headlines in the newspaper on May 2.

Their arrival in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, on May 5 also attracted wide media coverage. They were featured prominently in the Vikatan and Deccan Chronicle.

They usually rode from 5.30am to 5pm and rested at night. Each rode a Honda Gold Wing, a popular touring motorcycle which weighed about 500kg, and spent more than $10,000 on the trip.

At most of the hotels where they stayed in India, the three men put up stickers celebrating Singapore’s bicentennial.


The bikers began planning their trip in June last year. They first charted the route, engaged agents and identified accommodation.

They then booked their lodgings all the way to Tibet, while keeping their options open in India.

Mr Balachandran acknowledged that there were many questions and doubts in the beginning.

“When I got the idea for the trip, I approached Pannirselvam,” said Mr Balachandran.

“He asked me many tough questions, such as: ‘What would we do in case of a breakdown? What do we do if there are no roads? If someone fell sick or got into an accident, would we still carry on?’

“I did thorough research to convince my two friends that it was possible to do the trip and that it would be a great achievement if we were to complete it. Every problem has a solution, and I was determined to find the solution and attempt this venture.”

The trio wanted to travel to Sri Lanka too but this fell through because of travel restrictions to the country following the Easter Sunday bombings this year.

They returned to Singapore from Chennai on May 8. Their bikes were shipped back on June 15.

This story was first published on Tabla!, Jun 21, 2019, Tamil Murasu, Jun 23, 2019, The Straits Times, Jun 25 2019

The story was first published on Tabla! Followed by Tamil Murasu and then The Straits Times. It was an inspiring story portraying the strong nationalistic spirit of three Indian men who rode across 9 different countries in 43 days on their Hold Gold Wing bikes. The trip was intended to commemorate Singapore’s bicentennial year. The story was first tipped off to us by readers through our Facebook. Journalist Venga caught on these leads and started contacting the riders as soon as they came back to Singapore. Venga met and interviewed the riders at their usual coffee shop at Bedok where the riders meet to hang out and plan their trips. The Straits Times picking up the article from Tabla! was the icing on the cake. It brought the inspiring story of the riders to the national audience. Reporter Venga was involved in the process of the story, infographics, photos and social media reach of the story throughout.

The Road to Radicalisation

The Road to Radicalisation is a story told of ‘Hani’, a wife and mother of three children whose husband, ‘Azmi’, gets caught and charged for terrorist activities related to IS or Daesh. Hani is candid in telling us her entire story from how Azmi first got involved, persuading her to move to Syria, right till his arrest. 

When people think of producing a documentary, the thing that always comes to mind is the extensive shooting, recording and editing process. But rarely do people think about the commitment that the documentarians make towards finding the right subject and then gaining their trust. 

The Road to Radicalisation is a story that Ezra Zaid and I told of ‘Hani’, a wife and mother of three children whose husband, ‘Azmi’, gets caught and charged for terrorist activities related to IS or Daesh. Hani is candid in telling us her entire story from how Azmi first got involved, persuading her to move to Syria, right till his arrest. 

It took me a while to identify Hani. Ten months to be exact. Ezra and I tried to make contact with ex-detainees, current supposedly active ‘terrorists’ and even their lawyers, but were never successful. We came close several times, but when it came down to going on the record, these people would always back out and bail. 

It was frustrating. Then, on the tenth month, I met Hani. 

It took Zan Azlee (above) ten months to identify ‘Hani’. Source: Zan Azlee

A friend who works at an NGO that provides legal assistance to those who can’t afford it contacted me and said that he might have someone who would be willing to talk to me. It was a woman whose husband had recently been arrested for being involved in IS. He explained to me her story and I got the number and the next day, I gave her a call. 

Hani was very hostile in the beginning. She yelled and screamed at me accusing me of wanting to take advantage of her story to make money. She even threatened to sue. I let her cool off for a day then I texted her politely and continues to explain why we thought it was important to tell her story and how it would benefit others. 

I almost gave up. But then, after a week, I get a call from her. I answered the phone excitedly and then she started talking. She said she had done some research (ie: Google) and found out that I actually am a journalist and that she was impressed by my anti-establishment viewpoints. 

Then, Hani said that she had spoken to her best friend about the documentary and that we wanted to interview her. She told her friend my name and, lo and behold, her friend and I were friends back in university! Her friend told her that I can be trusted and that she should tell us her story. That did it and Hani agreed! What luck! 

And that’s how we got the story to The Road to Radicalisation. Hani didn’t hold back and told us everything. We hear how she disagreed with her husband and fought with him, how her children suffered after his arrest and how she is conflicted in disagreeing with her husband and still loving him and wanting to be a loyal wife. 

She tells us all this in hopes that it will help people to understand how to fight extremism and how to deal with the situation of losing a loved one to it as well. Now, aside from the documentary being broadcast on radio and available online, it is also being brought on tour around the various universities in Malaysia. 

We engage with students after screening the documentary and we discuss issues related to religious extremism, conflict, and indirectly, multiculturalism, pluralism and human understanding. These screenings and discussions have become a safe space where these students are able to speak and have discourse without prejudice or being judged. 

Since the programme was broadcast on BFM89.9, the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) under the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs got in touch with us to explore the possibility of showcasing the Road to Radicalisation documentary with their respective collaborators. This included a request from the Malaysian Prisons Department, who expressed interest in airing the programme to prison detainees as a part of their rehabilitation programme. 

This is something we, the documentarians, and Hani are extremely proud of. 

This story by Zan Azlee and Ezra Zaid was originally published as an online podcast by BFM 89.9 on 4 October, 2018.

Now, aside from the documentary being broadcast on radio and available online, it is also being brought on tour around the various universities in Malaysia.
We engage students after screening the documentary and we discuss issues related to religious extremism, conflict, and indirectly, multiculturalism, pluralism and human understanding. These screenings and discussions have become a safe space where these students are able to speak and have discourse without prejudice or being judged.
Since the programme was broadcast on BFM89.9, the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) under the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs got in touch with us to explore the possibility of showcasing the Road to Radicalisation documentary with their respective collaborators. This included a request from the Malaysian Prisons Department, who expressed interest in airing the programme to prison detainees as a part of their rehabilitation programme.

Delivery lady with cerebral palsy

Like any other food deliverers, Ms Sumaiyah Ghazali is willing to travel under the scorching hot sun and the cold rain to ensure the food is safely delivered to the customer’s doorstep.

However, unlike other deliverers who ‘run’ to deliver their food on time, Ms Sumaiyah, 40, go through her everyday tasks on a wheelchair.

Despite being diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is unable to walk ever since her birth, her physical disadvantages have never been a hindrance for her to be independent and for her to give back to society.

“I am unable to walk, but with this wheelchair… it’s akin to my legs. At least, I can move, I can work,” said Ms Sumaiyah who started to work as a deliverer with GrabFood since four months ago.

The eldest among four agrees that her siblings who were born normal and have high income are able to cover her living expenses.

However, Ms Sumaiyah wants to make a living on her own.

“If I don’t work, and only my siblings work, I will feel as though I’m useless.

“I do not want to burden anyone, they have to take care of me… till when?” she said.

Ms Sumaiyah has worked in the administration line at an office before, but her fingers were weak which made typing difficult.

Because of that, she decided to switch jobs to a food deliverer with GrabFood.

Ms Sumaiyah works five days and spends six to eight hours a day.

During an interview with Berita Harian (BH), Ms Sumaiyah shared that one of the challenges was to ensure food is delivered on fast and on time.

Besides getting around in a wheelchair, Ms Sumaiyah also takes the public transport to reach further destinations beyond her place in Tampines.

She has received a complaint regarding food delay, but upon reaching the destination, the customer understood and empathise her condition.

Now, Ms Sumaiyah ensures that she informs her customers that she’s disabled to avoid misunderstanding.

“I feel satisfied when I manage to send food orders on time…

“I feel good when I deliver food to people, this means my service is useful to the community…

“Don’t just sit down and do nothing,” she added.

This article by Nur Humaira Sajat was originally published by Berita Harian on April 4, 2019.

Published on April 4, 2019, journalist Nur Humaira Sajat’s story in Berita Harian drew attention to the disabled community who makes a living out of food delivery. Inspired by a cerebral palsy lady who earns a living through food delivery, and gets around via a wheelchair, Humaira decided to highlight a day in a life of the disabled woman. She said: “With the society’s growing dependence on food delivery – receiving their food at their doorstep in the quickest time possible – many are not aware of the challenges faced by the minority who are disabled and have difficulties moving around quickly. We barely hear a first hand account of a disabled delivery rider.” Getting Ms Sumaiyah Ghazali to share her story was not easy. It was only after days of convincing and a few phone conversations that Ms Sumaiyah agreed to open up. The journalist then followed her around on foot and public transport as she does her deliveries around Tampines estate. Humaira witnessed the challenges faced and the resilience Ms Sumaiyah had in ensuring she delivers food on time despite the limitations of her condition and the wheelchair. After running the video and story, positive messages flooded the comments section of the story, and many shared the video while spreading appreciation messages to the disabled like Ms Sumaiyah who displays hardwork and determination despite their setbacks. Humaira said: “Emotional stories that tug on the heartstrings make people empathise more easily. Even though only one individual is highlighted, the story can be representative of the disabled community, and hopefully this can foster values like patience and understanding especially in a fast-paced society like Singapore.”