ST: Stories of Young Asian Activists (Oct 10 )

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Oct 10, 2007

When 1+1 = 11

By Chua Mui Hoong

KV STANLY and ML Parashu were young rookie reporters in Mysore, India, when they met a prostitute who changed their lives. They were in a park for a photo shoot, for a story on the harsh life of the city's horse-cart workers. A lady standing under a tree derided them. 'You're wasting one day's earning by taking this picture,' she told the cart workers.

'These reporters put you in the newspaper so they get a byline. Tomorrow, they will move on to another story and you will still be struggling here.'

She challenged the reporters: 'Why don't you write my story?'

Disturbed by the encounter, they looked for her the next day to hear her story.

She took them to her 'home' - a strip of pavement where her son sat studying.

Mr Stanly wrinkles his nose as he tells me: 'She had been sold to a brothel by her husband. After a few years, the brothel also threw her out. She's stinky and drunk. Her clients are the lower class and poor labourers. All she wanted was to make sure her son has a decent life.'

For Mr Stanly and his friend Mr Parashu, that was a defining moment. They pooled funds to take the woman and her son off the streets into a spartan home.

Her next challenge for them: 'You are helping me but I am an old lady. What about all the other young girls in the brothels?'

Their consciences pricked, the two young men started Odanadi Seva Samsthe, a group that helps rescue girls from prostitution. They went on to build a shelter to house, school and train these women.

'I also trained in therapy, so I could do psychotherapy for the women and help them recover,' Mr Stanly told me over lunch.

He was one of 200 young leaders attending the Asia 21 Young Leaders' Summit held in Singapore over the weekend.

I asked if he ever got into trouble with criminal gangs that run the brothels and he nodded matter-of-factly. 'It's a fact of life. I've been hospitalised several times.'

Today, Odanadi, which means soulmate in the Kannada language, has rescued more than 400 girls from prostitution. It organises an advocacy group for prostitutes and has helped rehabilitate hundreds of women into mainstream jobs. A few were married in well-publicised
ceremonies, helping to remove the stigma against girls forced into prostitution.

The organisation received a special award last Saturday from the New York-based Asia Society, which organised the summit.

As I spent the next two days among the participants, I would learn that stories like Mr Stanly's are common among this unusual lot of people, activists who did not stand by in the face of injustice, but rolled up their sleeves to change their respective corners of the world.

Mr Ravi Krishna, a lawyer trained in Pennsylvania, America, had a comfortable state counsel job in India. He often accompanied his frail mother to hospital and grew incensed at the way patients were dying en route to hospitals because there was no proper ambulance service.

He got together with friends to set up an ambulance service.

Called 1298 - Dial for Ambulance, the service uses technology to overcome the challenges of navigating the back lanes of Mumbai.

GPS (Global Positioning System) and RTS (Realtime Tracking System) track the location of 24 vehicles every moment of the day and night. Mr Krishna wants to use Google Earth maps to help in navigation - with ambulances sending back pictures of uncharted back lanes to widen
Google Earth's future coverage.

To do so requires each ambulance to be fitted with a laptop computer. Problem: Traditional laptops which are fan-ventilated and run on hard discs are vulnerable to damage in Mumbai's treacherously bumpy, dusty environment.

Solution: Mr Krishna is talking with Taiwan company Via to use its fanless computers that do not run on hard discs.

As Mr Krishna told his story over dinner, Mr Faiysal AliKhan peppered him with questions.

Turns out Mr AliKhan, a logistics professional by day, runs a foundation devoted to rural development in Pakistan. 'We have the same problem about having no ambulance service and we're thinking of setting one up,' he said.

After dinner, the two caught up with each other and promised to get in touch. Despite the periodic tension between the two countries, development work knows no boundaries when activists like these are bound by a common zeal to improve the lives of those around them.

Many of those at the forum had incredible stories to tell - of how they moved beyond self, work and family to do something for others.

There was Filipino military commander Dennis Eclarin, who decided to build lives. He started a microfinance foundation to reach the highland and most remote parts of the Philippines.

Then there was Mr Mitchell Pham, who fled Vietnam in a rickety boat when he was 13, with 65 others or so. The boat ran out of food, then water and fuel.

A cruise liner passed them by - with clueless tourists waving and taking pictures of the refugees in their dire straits. The next ship was an oil tanker, whose captain rescued the refugees.

'That was my leadership moment,' said Mr Pham. 'I learnt that even if you are in business, carrying on with your life, you can choose to ignore others' call or you can choose to make a difference and help. The cruise captain chose one, the oil tanker captain chose another.'

Mr Pham stayed at an Indonesian refugee camp for 1 1/2 years before settling in New Zealand, where he now runs an IT company and is active in business and community organisations, having chosen not to ignore others' problems.

Closer to home, there was Ms Eileena Lee, who started an online support group nine years ago for gay and lesbian people in Singapore. She now runs Pelangi Pride Centre, a resource centre on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.

'I never saw myself as a leader. But I suffered in my own journey when I came out as a lesbian woman, and if I can do something to help others on that journey, I felt I had to.'

As a panellist at a discussion put it, it is about starting small, and making one plus one equal not two, but 11.

Listening to stories of these activists' 'leadership moments', learning what spurred them to act, I was humbled into silence.

I am a columnist but for once I have no point of view to offer, nothing but these stories from those who make a difference.


Merrill Lynch was the lead sponsor of the Asia 21 Young Leaders' Summit. Singapore Press Holdings was a media sponsor.

Copyright (c) 2007 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.