After 30 years in a diplomatic career that spanned the globe, Benjamin William took a leap of faith and joined the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) on a three-year secondment. Serendipitously, the opportunity to lead the SRC as Secretary General and CEO opened, which he took. A decade on, the organisational transformation and community impact is evident. On the occasion of his 12-year work anniversary, Benjamin reflects on his Red Cross journey.
Following an illustrious career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that spanned three decades, with several overseas diplomatic postings under his belt, Benjamin William made a decision that would change the course of his life.
He became the SRC’s Director of Special Duties on secondment from the MFA, and played an instrumental role in the revision of the SRC Constitution, for the homegrown humanitarian organisation with over 60 years of history.
He explained, “The SRC embraced a more corporate management structure. With clear distinctions between management and oversight, an enhanced framework for sound financial management and good corporate governance, we enhanced accountability and responsiveness to meet the humanitarian challenges."
A year on, when former SRC Secretary General Christopher Chua stepped down, Benjamin was asked by then-Chairman Tee Tua Ba to lead the humanitarian organisation.
In March 2012, Benjamin took the helm as Secretary General and CEO of the Singapore Red Cross, and the rest, as they say, is history.
"I saw it as an opportunity to play a part in SRC's next stage of development. Many people perceive the Singapore Red Cross to be solely involved in overseas humanitarian work. I wanted to change that notion. I felt that, as a local organisation, SRC's primary mandate must be to first, fill the social gaps in Singapore. Furthermore, no organisation would always remain relevant if it did not review and reinvent itself to meet the prevalent needs in the society," he says.
Myriad humanitarian services for Singapore’s vulnerable
To better address the nation’s evolving needs, the SRC underwent a period of research and needs assessment. The results indicated that much support was needed by the vulnerable elderly, persons with disabilities, lower income families, and their children and youth.
"The society was ageing, and the number of elderly persons living on their own was increasing rapidly1. In addition to our core TransportAid service, we introduced ElderAid, where volunteers provide a listening ear and the precious gift of friendship to the elderly living alone. We enhanced their safety and well being with the Home Monitoring and Eldercare (HoME+), a non-intrusive monitoring system with community responders ready to provide 24/7 assistance. We also launched Community Health on Wheels (CHoW), a community-based mobile healthcare programme incorporating mental wellness activities, health talks and workshops and basic health screening for the elderly. During the pandemic, we extended this service to foreign domestic workers and migrant workers," he shared.
Besides meeting the needs of the elderly, the SRC also reached out to families in straitened circumstances who had difficulty putting food on the table.
He shared, "We introduced the Family LifeAid service to provide supermarket vouchers which alleviate the financial burdens of families. Many of these families are single-parent families, families where grandparents are caring for their grandchildren as the parents are incarcerated, estranged or otherwise unfit.
“From the home visits to these families, volunteers and staff understood that a more proactive approach was necessary to break the cycle of intergenerational vulnerability. Cognisant that literacy and academic support are keys to ensuring the children and youth keep up at school, we introduced the Young Hearts programme. Our Young Hearts volunteers provide storytelling, tuition and mentorship for children to help them in their studies and consequently with their esteem, and in the long run, instil moral values to shape them to become responsible and socially conscious citizens of the future, and ultimately, give them a better chance to advance in life.”
The “accidental humanitarian”, which he calls himself, shares passionately, “Our humanitarian programmes grow the SRC's presence and footprint locally and strengthen the raison d'être of the SRC locally."
Empowering Community Resilience
With his media savvy and warmth, Benjamin committed himself to championing SRC’s causes and mobilising the community to take steps to be more resilient. This includes having a robust blood donor pool, i.e. getting more people donating blood, learning first aid (including having a first-aider in every home) and promoting mental well-being, including Psychological First Aid.
The Singapore Red Cross is the National Blood Donor Recruiter, and through the blood donations 30,000 lives are saved every year. However, only 1.7 percent of Singapore’s residential population donates blood. Over the years, Benjamin has spoken and written extensively to call for more blood donors to step forward.
“We were the forerunners of the psychosocial support and psychological first aid course before they gained traction among organisations, big corporations, and even Civil Defence and first responders in Singapore. The importance of mental well-being has been highlighted in recent years, by the pandemic and even now in the new normal of the post-pandemic era,” he emphasised.
Not one to rest on his laurels, the Secretary General and CEO led the rebranding of the Red Cross Training Centre as the Singapore Red Cross Academy (SRCA), an Institute for Humanitarian Studies. The Academy provides training in the areas of First Aid and Life Support (FALS), Psychosocial Support (PSS) and Humanitarian Education. Over the years, the SRCA has introduced Child First Aid, Caregivers' Course in Elderly First Aid, and Psychological First Aid (PFA) to cater to the different segments of society.
The SRC also took a more proactive approach with first aid coverage, expanding Community FirstAid at national and community events, to include First Aiders on Wheels at the national parks.
To position the SRC as a thought leader, he launched the Humanitarian Lecture Series to provide insights on the challenges faced by humanitarians, promote understanding, galvanise public interest and garner support for humanitarian work both domestically and abroad.
"These humanitarian lectures, which are open to the public, leverage the expertise and experience of international humanitarian thought leaders. Over the years, SRC has gained recognition as an organisation dedicated to specialised training and development," he said.
He adds that; “A key element of thought leadership is promoting innovation in the humanitarian sector. I believe that much more investment must be made in humanitarian innovation, including systems, to meet the increasing and more complex humanitarian challenges facing us, both locally and globally.” In recent years, the SRC has been promoting humanitarian innovation, especially amongst our youth.
On its global engagement, under his leadership, the SRC has gone beyond merely responding to disasters. The SRC now champions capacity building amongst the National Societies in the region, as well as enhancing our ability to respond to crises together. Just prior to the onset of the global COVID19 pandemic, the SRC launched the Centre of Excellence for Pandemic Preparedness (CoEPP), a platform to spearhead information sharing and the development of pandemic expertise and preparedness within the SEA region.
No regrets. Only fulfilment.
"As I continue on my Red Cross journey, many experiences affirm my decision to be a part of the Red Cross. Besides gaining the intrinsic satisfaction of witnessing the impact of the SRC's humanitarian work in the community, I also enjoy finding, working with and maximising the potential of the right people who believe in the Red Cross mission. I am proud of the current team at the SRC for taking the path less travelled - sacrificing higher remuneration elsewhere, to work for a good cause at the SRC," he says.
The people leader encourages people with the heart and specific personal attributes to join the SRC to serve humanity.
"To gain fulfilment and sustain a career with the SRC, the person should have the capability and the heart to serve humanity. People with good social and interpersonal skills will stand in good stead to be in a team-based environment like the SRC. We do our utmost to match people with the experience, expertise, credentials, and personality traits to the right roles.
“In the long term, they will need a vision to do well at the Red Cross. The charms of a career in the social services sector include the visible impact of making a difference in the lives of the vulnerable; skipped-generation families, the elderly, and people with disabilities. They can also enhance community resilience through disaster mitigation, crisis preparedness, and capacity building for our sister Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the globe,” he shares.
Giving One's Best
“Going forward, the challenges posed by an ageing population in Singapore will continue to grow. Organisations like the SRC must up their game in terms of professionalism, and the rigour with which they provide the services to fill the gaps in society,” he says.
In inspiring his teams, he says, “I encourage my colleagues, volunteers and youth members to give their best in everything they do. By delivering our best, we hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards.”
“We are always looking out for people with big hearts, big enough for humanity to walk through, and come out better on the other side.”
“Our volunteers, donors and supporters bring humanitarian assistance and relief to our community. I encourage individuals and organisations to partner the Singapore Red Cross as volunteers, donors or supporters. Together, we can make a big difference to the lives of the vulnerable, and enhance resilience in our community.”
By Lee Kher Shing, Volunteer
Copyedited by Sondra Foo and Stella Lim, Marketing Communications and Partnerships
1 - The Straits Times 'Singapore's population ageing rapidly: Nearly 1 in 5 citizens is 65 years and older' on 27 September 2022, based on an recently released annual Population In Brief report.
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