When your professional training meets the call of the spiritual, it can be a life-changing experience, especially if you have spent half your life answering that call.
That inner desire to administer to the poor and vulnerable came in the early 1990s for “B”, then a young junior college teacher in Singapore. Her decision was not one many would make – head to the Thai-Myanmar border to undertake the hazardous task her church had assigned her, to bring Christ’s message to impoverished villagers in the notorious region of the Golden Triangle.
Burma, as Myanmar was called then, had been engaged in conflict with different factions within and without for decades. Thousands of its own people fled the country, which was ruled by a brutal military junta, into the safe havens of Thailand just across the border.
It was under such circumstances that B left her teaching job, moved to Bangkok, the Thai capital, and then onwards 600km north, to Mae Sai, the northernmost district of Chiang Rai province, bordering Myanmar.
She would spend the next one year lodged there as an educator, and missionary.
Life in the community was simple but treacherous. Incidents of girls forced into the sex trade and human trafficking were rife, in Myanmar as in neighbouring Laos & Cambodia, along with the pervasive presence of drugs which attracted users and addicts from all over the world.
“They were all from very poor family backgrounds,” B says, referring to the girls whom she encountered during her work. “Being a teacher, being very sheltered in Singapore, I had never seen [these sort of things] in my life,” she adds.
B divided her time between visiting villagers on the weekends, and going up the mountains to teach the Bible to the tribal people there on weekdays. To her surprise, some of the villagers were Christian, having been visited by European missionaries in the past.
There was also a Yunnanese community among these villages. The people there were descendants of Kuomintang soldiers who had escaped from China and forced to seek safety in Myanmar after the civil war in 1949. In the 1970s, the Thai government officially granted them refuge after they agreed to help the Thai government fight communist guerillas in the area.
“Till this day if you visit, there is a predominant Chinese culture there,” B says. “Unfortunately, they are also involved in drug smuggling, they are the big time traffickers.”
The existing Yunnanese who were already in the drug trade would rope in the new emigrants. So the drug trafficking network expanded very rapidly.
“They get rich very fast,” B says. “They can afford to send their children to travel overseas, and to Singapore to study. They can afford it because of the drug trade.”
Meanwhile, in her own work, B’s Bible class groups expanded to several groups. Because of her close relationship with them, B became the de facto guardian, educating and protecting them from being lured into vice.
“The border is a very dangerous and high risk place,” B says. “With our Singaporean mindset, we probably would not go there if we knew [how dangerous it was].”
“The pastor who sent his daughter to work with me carries a gun with him,” B says. “Can you imagine a pastor doing that? So, life there is not simple, it’s actually quite complicated.”
Eventually, in 1993/94, the violent situation at the border region, with constant clashes between the different religious factions, made it untenable for her to continue her work.
She was recalled by her church.
“In my heart, I couldn’t let go,” B explains. “I said, look, out of nothing I have built this. How can I let go?”
But she had to return to Singapore, whereupon she decided to take the opportunity to pursue her Master’s degree. But soon, sometime in 1996, another opportunity to serve came calling – this time in a place which she had initially wanted to go: China.
An international organisation invited her to lead an English teaching programme in China in Yunnan and Sichuan, with the objective of helping the community work towards self-governance as well as to improve their economic situation.
“I agreed and started the work, taking teams first from Singapore to go teach there in the villages, and that was a marvelous experience,” she says, recalling those days. “I loved it very much. We went to the very rural areas of China which no tourists would go.”
Her passion for the work saw her being involved for the next 20 years.
While they taught the villagers English, their primary work was medical care. In the areas where they operated, which borders the Golden Triangle, the high unemployment rate there meant many people got into drugs, and because of drugs, HIV was prevalent – and so was ignorance of its consequences.
“So the initial part of our programme we do a lot of HIV education,” B explains. “Our doctors and nurses go in to teach them about HIV and about why drugs is so dangerous, things like that.” They taught local Chinese doctors, carried out immunisation for the villagers, and trained them in vocational skills, among other work.
As missionaries, however, they had to tread more carefully in China, which did not take kindly to religious activities. Being mindful of these sensitivities was necessary, in order to impact the community and to gain the trust of the local authorities, which was crucial for the work they sought to do. Fortunately, the local authorities appreciated their work.
“They could see a lot of selfless people, lots of professionals, who came to volunteer and to serve,” B says. “Some of the volunteers are top surgeons, professionals, businessmen and we send them to China. Some of them even left their jobs and brought their whole family there.”
The emergence of Xi Jinping as China’s paramount leader in 2012, however, heralded a new era of self-reliance, which became the new national ethos. Foreign intervention or involvement would be curbed.
“A lot of the NGOs were asked to leave, including some very well established ones,” B says.
The Chinese government also took over the running of the vocational youth centre which B’s group had set up.
Nonetheless, B is proud of what her group of volunteers had achieved.
“If you go to these areas now, you would not recognise it from what it was,” B says. “There are now shopping malls, for example. So in the eyes of the government, we had reached our objectives, they can be self-governing.”
With her time in China coming to an end, B looked for opportunities to get involved again, and found it with the Rohingyas, having been moved by what she saw about their plight in news reports.
Member of Parliament Louis Ng made a call for volunteers and B responded. Mr Ng is the Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC and has been active in raising the plight of the Rohingyas in Parliament. He now leads volunteer groups to Rohingya refugee camps and schools in Malaysia and Bangladesh.
“We do a simple programme of teaching English, singing songs, telling stories, making handicraft with the children,” B explains of her work in Malaysia.
“It is horrific, what happened to them,” B says of the children in the school. “When I stepped into the school, that sense of compassion, it overwhelmed me. This was because previously I could not attach faces to all the problems that I saw they had to deal with. I felt deep sympathy towards them.”
But the 50 to 60 children in the school, aged 4 to 14, also drew her admiration.
“As I’ve seen in China and among the rural folk I worked with, and the children who had gone through the earthquake (in Sichuan, China), I must say that I am very amazed at the kind of resilience that children actually have,” B says. “It’s a resilience that many times as adults we are not even aware of, that they can withstand so much trauma that would be difficult even for adults.”
The Rohingya refugees, which number more than 160,000 in Malaysia, awaits an uncertain fate, as international efforts to bring them lasting peace moves at snail’s pace.
But hat makes B, a born-again Christian with a doctorate in Education, do what she does – dividing her time between lecturing in the Singapore universities as an associate lecturer, and doing humanitarian work in impoverished areas and communities?
“We will find meaning in our profession when we are able to use it to help other people,” B says, invoking the words of Hudson Taylor III, the great-grandson of the missionary who travelled to China in the 1800s and died during the Cultural Revolution.
“It’s this sense of connectedness, whereby your own spiritual beliefs and professional training meet and you find such meaning in your job, and it goes beyond physical provisions,” B says.
“We could see the results in terms of lives saved and people doing well, having a future,” she adds. “That kind of satisfaction, I must say, was even far more than the satisfaction that we have in our own home country performing our day-to-day jobs.”
Not all of us want to be missionaries or subscribe to religious beliefs, but certainly we can emulate those like B who give of their time to reach out to the vulnerable, whether here in Singapore or elsewhere.
As B said to some Vietnamese teachers whom she was instructing, “Life is not just about what we can get for ourselves, but about what we can give to others and the community.”