Volunteers teach English to foreign workers at dormitories
About 11 months ago, the distance from Ms Jena Peh's Redhill home to Tuas was a daunting trek.
The 45-year-old financial adviser for an insurance firm had signed up as a volunteer for Happy Happy English, a programme to help foreign workers learn and improve their spoken English.
The classes, held on Saturdays, are conducted in the dormitories where the workers live.
"It does take a bit of courage to step into the dormitory," said Ms Peh, who is accompanied by other volunteers and surrounded by mostly foreign men in an unfamiliar environment.
But now, the facilitator looks forward to seeing familiar faces each week, helping the teacher to facilitate the classes and playing games with the workers - many of whom have become her friends.
"Because of the relationships, the feeling of the long distance has become shorter," she said.
Happy Happy English is the brainchild of Dr Paul Choo, a retired doctor who founded Shenton Medical Group.
Disturbed by the Little India riot a year ago, Dr Choo wanted to find a way to bridge the communication gap between Singaporeans and foreign workers, and address prejudices on both sides.
What better way than to teach conversational English to foreign workers through entertaining, educational and interactive ways, such as games?
Many of them, especially India workers, already speak English.
Dr Choo said the aim is to let them understand the way we speak and to build their confidence in speaking English to us, so that both sides can communicate better.
The first classes started in Tuas about a month after the riot. The programme later expanded to Toh Guan and Mandai.
About 150 foreign workers have voluntarily gone through the free programme, which has about 150 volunteers - from working professionals and retirees to university students - on the database, Dr Choo said.
The volunteers know about the programme through word of mouth and networking sessions. Not all volunteers are teachers.
The classes usually last for about 12 weeks, with a week's break in between. Each session lasts for two hours, from 8pm to 10pm.
Ms Tay Shi Hui, 26, who works in an IT company and volunteers as a teacher in a dormitory in Mandai, said that until she started volunteering in the programme, she had been indifferent to the workers.
Now when she walks by a construction site, she would find herself peering discreetly to see if she can find familiar faces from her class, so that she can say hi.
She also appreciates the foreign workers here more, adding that the apartment she lives in and the road she walks on could have been built by them.
The affection is mutual.
One of her Bangladeshi students, Mr Sohanur Rahman, 25, calls Ms Tay, "my sister".
Sitting with her over lunch yesterday, he hooked his index fingers together and said "kasha kashi", which means "very near" in Bengali, to emphasise their bond.
It is no wonder. Ms Tay had gone out of her way to help Mr Sohanur, who works as a painter. He aspires to be a hotel manager, and Ms Tay helped him research the relevant courses.
About two weeks ago, she visited him at his worksite with another friend to help him examine a computer he wanted to buy to ensure he would not get ripped off.
After that, they went to a nearby coffee shop to "talk about life and discuss our religions, reality and dreams", Mr Sohanur said.
Mr Sohanur recalled his loneliness when he first came to Singapore last December, a day after Christmas.
"I feel alone. I miss my parents. I miss my friends."
When he joined Happy Happy English in September, Ms Tay was the first to greet and welcome him.
"Sister is my first Singaporean friend," Mr Rahman said.
Through the programme, Ms Magdalene Tan, 56, a senior manager for business development at Make Health Connect and a volunteer teacher in Mandai, said she gets to know the workers as people.
"They are not just a group of workers on the buses, or on the train," Ms Tan said. "They now have faces. They have problems, pain and joys - just like us."
WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT ON DEC 8
9.17pm: Mr Sakthivel Kumaraveluboards a bus "drunk, having jumped the queue". He is asked to alight.
9.20pm: Bus moves off and Mr Sakthivel chases after it. He falls and is run over.
9.31pm: SCDF ambulance arrives.
9.40pm: Assistant Superintendent of Police arrives. Crowd swells to about 400 people.
9.54pm: Mr Sakthivel's body is extricated from under the bus.
10.04pm: First SOC troop is activated. SCDF rescuers locate bus driver and bus timekeeper.
10.15pm: Second SOC troop is activated.
10.24pm: Commander of Tanglin Police Division orders all available resources to scene. Rioters start flipping police vehicles and setting them on fire.
10.42pm: First SOC troop forms cordon across Race Course Road. Second troop arrives minutes after.
11.25pm: Last group of rioters dispersed.
IN THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED...
Dec 13, 2013: Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean orders a Committee of Inquiry (COI) be formed.
Dec 14: An alcohol ban takes place. The Little India bus service, run by private operators, is also stopped for the weekend.
Dec 18: Alcohol ban is relaxed but customers can consume alcohol only within the premises of businesses like coffee shops, bars and restaurants.
Convenience stores and liquor shops can sell liquor between 6am and 8pm.
Feb 18: The Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill is passed in Parliament. The new bill gives police powers to interview and search people in the area for alcohol and prohibited items.
Feb 18: The COI hearings start, with 93 witnesses taking the stand over 24 days. June 27: The COI submits its report to DPM Teo. Three days later, the report is released to the public.
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