SINGAPORE (July 16): At the peak of the haze crisis in 2015, many Singaporeans shut themselves indoors to escape the thick smog emerging from forest fires in Indonesia. But Jonathan How was instead headed towards ground zero in Kalimantan. How and other members of Relief Singapore (RSG) — a non-governmental organisation (NGO) he founded in 2014 — were set on distributing N95 masks to the locals who faced life-threatening Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) levels of about 1,800. How says he was moved to action after seeing the news on the suffering of ordinary villagers who were under-informed about the dangers of breathing in the haze. “In Singapore, people were calling for our schools to be closed and for children to stay indoors. Then I saw the television news, where the PSI was about [10 times higher than in Singapore],” says How, who is the CEO of RSG.

How with RSG volunteers in the peatlands of Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

He also realised that many of the firemen battling the peat fires were armed with little more than scarves or thin surgical masks. Over the course of several trips to Indonesia, RSG not only provided the villagers with N95 masks, but also brought the firemen respirators to protect them from the pollutants. The grassroots mission to Indonesia is just one of many projects RSG has undertaken. Since its inception, How has led missions in Asia, the Middle East and beyond — from villages devastated by the 2015 Nepal earthquake to a refugee camp in Lebanon ravaged by fire, and Vanuatu, which was hit by Cyclone Pam.

In recent months, RSG has focused on providing medical support to the flood of Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In particular, the NGO is rostering volunteer midwives, gynaecologists and obstetricians to help pregnant Rohingya women at the Jamtoli primary health centre, situated in a camp housing over 40,000 refugees. It is also procuring 200 delivery kits for Jamtoli, as well as a Doppler machine that can be used to monitor the foetus. Helping victims of natural disasters and political conflict may seem like a gargantuan undertaking, let alone for a small outfit like RSG. In Cox’s Bazar alone, for instance, there are about 48,000 pregnant Rohingya women in need of assistance, RSG concluded during a needs assessment in March. The organisation is also looking to assist those in “protracted” situations, meaning a long-term approach will be essential.

Despite the mammoth nature of the task before him, How reckons that it helps to think about the situation as making a difference to one person at a time. For instance, providing Rohingya refugees with sterilising solutions, gloves and simple equipment could go a long way in preventing infections for both the newborns and the mothers. “Even things we may overlook such as cotton buds and plastic sheets are essential,” How adds.

At the same time, it is also about getting Singaporeans to work together for a meaningful cause. “My mission is to rally people in Singapore to volunteer, that’s why our logo is mostly red,” he quips. “We hope people can come work with us to contribute whatever skills they have.”

How with Indonesian firefighters in the South Sumatra peatlands .

Sending love from Singapore
Before delving into the world of humanitarian aid, How had a bit of a “meandering” career. “Not one that I would recommend anyone to follow,” he says with a laugh. Trained as an accountant, How went on to work in a bank, pursue a master’s degree in international relations and at one point even founded an open-microphone concept cafe. But after having his third child and closing down his cafe, he decided it was time to pursue a “deeper passion” — that of international volunteer work.

In particular, How was deeply struck by media images of refugees suffering around the world, caught in complex humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters and conflicts. In 2012, he set up World Refugee, the predecessor to RSG. “With World Refugee, I led about 40 volunteers over a few missions, and a few remained as core volunteers,” he says. Under this banner, How organised some mission trips, but realised that he wanted to make the outfit more Singapore-centric. In 2014, he set up RSG and narrowed the focus on getting fellow Singaporeans to participate.

Today, How is on a mission to encourage more working professionals to do humanitarian work. He is seeing more interest from young, working Singaporeans — particularly through publicity generated by social media. RSG’s advisory board includes high-profile names such as Professor Freddy Boey, senior vice-president of the National University of Singapore, and Walter Chia, a deputy director at the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore International. Chia has also been a long-time volunteer at RSG.

In line with its roots here, RSG’s flagship campaign is called “From Singapore With Love”. How describes this as a call for Singaporeans to reach out and help neighbours in need. “In the Asean region itself, there are many natural disasters, and there is a lot of work to be done. At the same time, we don’t keep our radar too tight. For example, we helped a refugee camp in Lebanon [last year],” he notes. “We had some money from donors in Malaysia and decided to use it to help a small Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley that had been burnt down.”

How and Syrian refugee children at a camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

Many of these projects arose from observing global developments and were sometimes inevitably reactive to the news, How says. “But we are trying to be more strategic and deliberate in our projects. We would like to do longer-term projects, especially in the area of disaster risk reduction, which is about identifying disaster-prone areas and equipping the people to be more prepared and resilient,” he adds.

Keeping the spark alive
One of the biggest challenges RSG faces is getting ordinary Singaporeans to volunteer. Indeed, providing international aid can seem like a tall order, especially if one lacks field expertise in distressed areas. But How points out that RSG provides training to prepare its volunteers. “For example, many of our volunteers from the medical profession are used to an urban setting. So we provide them with training to operate in an austere environment, where there is no operating theatre or hospital. We teach them to adapt.”

How with a pregnant Rohingya refugee and her family at the Jamtoli camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, other “generalist” volunteers take on tasks in line with their interests, such as logistics, photography and field research. In the most recent trip to Cox’s Bazar, several volunteers learned to operate water filtration equipment made by WateROAM, a local enterprise. Others interested in research went to talk to Rohingya women to understand their needs better.

Sustainability is another key challenge, and How hopes to achieve this by building several revenue streams. “We are set up as a social enterprise. We want to generate our own revenue and be sustainable. We try not to depend on institutional funding, which I feel is suitable for a small NGO, unlike a bigger one that needs funds for things like large-scale relief programmes.”

How hands over a water filtration system to the staff at the primary health centre at Jamtoli Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

How plans to raise revenue mainly by conducting training sessions. “Later in the year, we plan to organise training sessions in corporations, schools and faithbased organisations for field [volunteer] work. This would be for those who have not had experience before and would like to gain more confidence in the field.

RSG also plans to organise more events that could add to its top line, he says. In 2015, for instance, RSG organised the Asia Humanitarian Forum, bringing together experts and NGOs in the region to share their insights with members of the public. “It was not meant for academics or technical experts. That’s part of our DNA — we really want to engage everyday people,” How says.

A young Rohingya mother (left) with her twin babies in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Ultimately, RSG believes in bringing the “people” factor to international aid. Very often, aid is in the form of bulk supplies and donations, but it is also important to put people on the ground, to interact with and personalise the delivery of help, How says.

“So for RSG, we really focus on getting our people out there… We also want to focus on some neglected areas, like clearing debris and providing psychosocial support. Refugees are often distressed, and they need support. These are big global problems, but we hope to give [volunteers] some sense of agency in making change — even if it’s as simple as clearing the rocks ,” he adds.