Professor David Koh: Giving back

22 Sep 2012

Outstanding Singapore International Volunteer Award 2012 recipient Professor David Koh on the things that drive his passion and commitment to volunteerism.

My journey as a Singapore International Volunteer (SIV) started 17 years ago, when I was invited to take part in an Occupational Health team to Jakarta. Since then, I have never looked back. In fact, I am looking forward to my next volunteer project.

Over the years, we have had projects in almost all parts of Indonesia and in the northern, central and southern parts of Vietnam. On average, I have been involved in one SIV mission a year. Our latest interest is to explore a SIV volunteer mission to Myanmar.

In addition to my projects with the SIV, I am also involved in other international work, for example, with the World Health Organisation. I have worked on WHO projects in Indonesia, Vietnam, the Solomon Islands, and most recently Myanmar. This experience is relevant and adds value to my work with the SIF.

We must have passion and believe in what we do. It is important that we take action if we really feel that we want to help others. I’m definitely a strong advocate of giving back to society and one way to do so is by volunteering. To sustain all these years of volunteer services, one must really believe in what one does, and still have “fire in the belly” for one’s work.

This is especially true when one works in disciplines such as preventive medicine and Occupational Health, which are less glamorous and perhaps less recognised. Our aim is to reach out to populations that are underserved and disadvantaged.

When we interact with our counterparts, we also learn from them. Significant numbers of workers from those countries may be working in Singapore. Through a better understanding of their people, culture and norms, we are better equipped to manage and look after the health of their workers in Singapore. In this way, the health of these foreign workers in Singapore can be better protected and improved.

My motivation for doing what I do was initially based on the logic that preventing suffering is always better than reacting to it.

Over the years, my reasons have become more philosophical. I feel that we are all here for a purpose and one important purpose is to help others as much as we can.

Right now, both my logical and philosophical motivations are what drive me. I know that I’m doing the right thing, I’m happy to do so, and I won’t look back with regret.

No one has the definitive answer to what is the best way to help, but we can all help. Volunteering is just one way to help. We all aspire to better things and those of us who are in the position to help others, should.

There were times when bureaucracy and bottom line considerations, which took precedence over the workers’ health and welfare, made me lose heart. However, that has neither stopped me nor waver my belief in what has to be done.

Like everything else, one has to remain focused, bounce back and stay the course in order to succeed and make a difference. After all, someone has to keep doing the work, and champion the cause of prevention. I am privileged and honoured that my fellow volunteer team members are like minded. They inspire me and sustain me.

One of the most rewarding things for me is seeing improvements in the health of the working population in the countries I work in, during our follow up visits. It is also great to see the people we train being promoted to positions of authority in their fields and continuing to effect positive change in their own countries by training other practitioners and employing best practices.

It is a never ending journey, but a journey full of satisfaction and rewards – to see improvement in the lives of our fellow workers and their families.

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