Operasi Raleigh Batam or ORB as it is fondly know as, was conceived as Raleigh International Singapore’s first home grown overseas community service expedition in the region in 1996. Having acquired an alumni from 1986 of very active, motivated and passive volunteers, I felt that we had the ability to mount our own expedition on behalf of Singaporean youth. The opening for ORB came through the Singapore Red Cross Society, which had organized a number of medical clinics in the Riau islands around Batam in partnership with Palang Merah Indonesia Batam. I was invited to help run some of these projects and so got to know Ibu Sri Soedarsono, Chairman of PMI Batam and her team. When the idea was mooted for a youth expedition, she was very enthusiastic. Over a short, intense period of meetings and reconnaissance trips to the islands around Batam, we identified Pulau Geranting as our expedition location. The villagers of this little island were fishermen, but their livelihoods were being threatened by commercial fishing and the loss of the next generation to the mainland, while facilities on the island gradually degraded. The village head was also very welcoming of help.
Back in Singapore, a core group of ex-venturers and staff was assembled as the working committee. I approached Mdm Ho Ching, then CEO of Singapore Technologies, for help and she responded very positively by offering the resources of Batamindo Industrial Corporation for our expedition. We also raised funds from companies. Publicity was generated to recruit volunteers from amongst our tertiary institutions and youth groups. Meanwhile, during a visit to UK, I found that the Raleigh Support Group that I knew were very keen to join us, so to make the expedition more international in outlook, UK Raleigh alumni were included in the final team of some 30 volunteers and 10 staff.
The three week long expedition took place in August 1996. It was flagged off by then Minister of State for Information and The Arts and Chairman of the National Youth Council Mr David Lim. The ferry was greeted by an extraordinary ceremony by the islanders, with song and dance, costumes and buntings. There was a lavish opening ceremony with many speeches, before we made camp in the compound of a local school.
We had a number of projects organized:
(1) Digging a reservoir to provide fresh water to the village
(2) Refurbishing a Madrassah school
(3) Building an access stairway down a cliff to the beach to allow children safe access
(4) Digging a new village well behind the school
(5) Conducting a health survey
(6) Repairing the plank-way of the village pier, so children did not risk falling into the sea
(7) Teaching English in the classrooms
(8) Digging drainage ditches around the playing field so that it would not flood in rain.
All of these projects required not only volunteer manpower but also specialised machines and tools, provided by Batamindo and their field managers, who became very much part of our expedition group. The work was intense and time was short. We successfully completed almost all the projects in time, except for the digging of the reservoir and lining the base with polymer, a task for which we had underestimated the time required, and this was completed by Batamindo on our behalf after the expedition was over.
The expedition was also characterized by intense cultural exchanges between the islanders and the expedition team, in various forms such as food, games like soccer and tug-of-war, song and dance, in particular a wonderful evening of Dikir Barat put on by our volunteers. An additional aspect of cultural interaction was the presence of UK volunteers, who, as they said, for the first time on a Raleigh expedition the Brits were in the minority and had to adapt to local food tastes (spices were a particular challenge and meals had to be cooked in two forms, “hot” and “not hot”!), toilet and living conditions.
The expedition concluded with another epic ceremony put on by the villagers to send us off. As Raleigh venturers and staff have learned over the years, when we do expeditions, we always leave benefitting more than we give. We were touched by the warm hearted hospitality and friendship of the villagers who accepted us readily into their midst, worked with us and made us feel at home. We were impressed by their contentment in living simple lives on Pulau Geranting without any modern conveniences, where even fresh water was not to be taken for granted. My lasting memory was an elderly woman who came by to draw water from our newly dug well, who said quietly, with tears in her eyes: “I will never forget you for what you have done. Thank you.”
Recounted by Dr Tan Chi Chiu who led the expedition and was also the first Chairperson of then Raleigh International (Singapore).