These leaders don’t wear capes but their selfless response to help the sick, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged during the Covid-19 pandemic places them in the league of the heroic.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Photo 123RF

For many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call. But soon, we settled into the new normal – video conference meetings, regular work calls, a work-from-home schedule occasionally punctuated by a midday workout. This was not the case for many of the disadvantaged and less fortunate among us, many of whom had jobs that were upended by the coronavirus, with no savings or resources to fall back on. They say that the barometer of a civilisation is in how it treats its helpless. The six business leaders we’ve featured in the following pages, all of whom have gone out of their way to do their part to help those around them, have certainly made their mark and raised that barometer. The Peak salutes them. 





My Reading Room

A Helping Hand A known advocate for migrant workers, Dipa Swaminathan is an assistant general counsel for SingTel by day. 

When Covid-19 hit our foreign workers hard in March this year, there was one woman right in the thick of things with them – Dipa Swaminathan, the founder of migrant worker non-profit group It’s Raining Raincoats (IRR). She started the organisation in 2015 to highlight the efforts of the country’s migrant workers and, at the same time, increase society’s compassion for them.

Known for her passionate advocacy and tireless work, Swaminathan and her volunteers found themselves swamped when the crisis deepened. “It made our work non-stop,” she says. “We opened up our helplines just as it began to hit them, so many of us have not had a good night’s sleep since.”

Many of the initiatives IRR had started pre-pandemic continued, like helping with salary claims and providing care packs, snack packs and data card top-ups, the last of which greatly helped foreign workers to stay connected despite being in isolation. Others came about during the lockdown. They included a collaboration with the Singapore Medical Society of Ireland that resulted in an online booklet (in several languages) to help migrant workers with their mental health, and the MadWish Programme, which has volunteers teaching English to migrant workers remotely.

“We’ve just partnered The British Council and have close to 500 teachers now,” says Swaminathan. “It’s become an avenue through which Singaporeans can connect with the migrant workers one to one. In addition, they also become a friendly voice or a buddy, someone the workers can talk to about their fears and worries, so it serves many purposes.” 


Indeed, Swaminathan is known for handing out her number to workers and encouraging them to call her with their problems. “Migrant workers are probably the most vulnerable and least privileged community in this country,” she says. It is clear that her compassion springs from the same spirit that fuels her quest for justice, a quest that, not surprisingly, led her to become a Harvard-trained lawyer and an advocate for the disadvantaged. “From as far back as I can remember, I have always sympathised with those who don’t have a voice to speak up for themselves.”

Looking back on the whirlwind that has been the last few months, “I realised that anything is possible with the right people,” she muses, while acknowledging that the pandemic brought a lot of attention to the cause, leading to a doubling of her volunteer numbers as well as support from a wide range of groups – from schools and churches to restaurants and law firms.

The other aspect that keeps her going are the many instances when things fell into place so perfectly that it gave her goosebumps. For instance, the day when the donor care pack pipeline seemed to dry up was the day that a large MNC e-mailed to confirm that it would step in. Then, there was the time when 10 minutes after a worker asked about carrom boards, a group of NUS students incidentally donated the game.

“Taking calls, getting food, putting all the pieces together – it’s been a huge toll on all of us,” she says. “But all these stories help us believe that we are on the right track – and that the universe is conspiring with us.” 

My Reading Room


“During the crisis, my 86-year-old mother decided that she would do something to raise money for migrant workers. So once a week on Tuesdays, she wakes up at 4am to cook multiple orders of one dish, and all the sale proceeds go towards helping the workers. She plans for it days in advance and gets about 50 orders a week. She even has a Facebook page called Janaki’s Kitchen. She feels great that she can do something with her own hands. Hopefully, this inspires older people because helping others really can give them a sense of purpose and so much joy.” 

Text Charmaine Chan Photography Vee Chin 




My Reading Room

Sweating For A Good Cause Permanent resident Anthony Houlahan cycled over 2,000km to raise funds for the Children’s Cancer Foundation during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period. 

While loneliness and boredom might have inspired him to moonlight as a food delivery cyclist, Anthony Houlahan’s objective to raise funds for charity was anything but self-seeking.

Soon after the start of the Circuit Breaker period, the vice-president of strategy for Ericsson Telecommunications found himself struggling to cope with the isolation of living alone in Singapore. “I wanted to do something active. If I was going to go out on my bike, I thought about how I could make that meaningful,” muses Houlahan, 49, who has lived in Singapore for 18 years. His wife and two daughters are in the United Kingdom.

So he decided to sign on as a food delivery rider – first with GrabFood and subsequently with Foodpanda – as food was something people needed during the lockdown.

Houlahan chose the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF) as the beneficiary. “I wanted to help children because they have done nothing to deserve their illness. Also, my mother died of cancer. When you lose a parent in that way, it stays with you and you can always feel the pain other people are going through.”

He began making food deliveries on April 22 and roped in his family in the UK to help him create posts on social media to amplify his efforts. Besides sending messages to customers to tell them about his fundraising initiative, he also encouraged supporters to make donations directly to CCF or to make pledges based on his earnings. By the time he’d concluded his campaign on June 29, he had earned $5,000 as a rider and raised a whopping $120,000 in donations and pledges. 


After covering some 2,000km as a rider, Houlahan naturally has a few stories to share. He laughs as he tells of the time when he dropped a cup of Starbucks coffee in the rain and had to buy another one to fulfil the delivery. Today, he barely breaks a sweat when cycling up the hills of the River Valley area, which he found challenging at the start.

The riding gig also gave him an insight into the lives of the riders who were very welcoming of his efforts to raise funds for charity. For instance, they would share “insider” information such as the areas that were perpetually busy. They also taught him how to avoid long waits at some establishments. “I have the utmost respect for the people who do this job. They work hard,” says Houlahan, who estimates he earned between $20 and $25 an hour as a rider.

Along the way, it was the people he met and their responses to his efforts that moved him most. “People in Singapore really got behind me,” says the permanent resident. “After the initiative became more well known, people on the streets would stop to thank me. I am happy that what I did has had such a positive effect but, for me, it was a no-brainer. It was a chance to be a part of society and doing it made me happier and more balanced.” 

My Reading Room


“About 10 years ago, I coached soccer at a local home for girls. They were keen to get involved and were attentive when we taught them; we even arranged matches against other girls’ teams. They were lovely girls, who happened to be in a tough situation. It was rewarding to help them pick up a sport they could dedicate themselves to, which was helpful to those going through a difficult period in life. This experience inspired me to continue finding ways to give back.” 

Text Karen Tee Photography Vee Chin 




My Reading Room

Going All Out Johann Annuar did his part to ensure that every child had a laptop when schools closed and switched to home-based learning. 

A big signal that the Covid-19 situation had turned serious in Singapore was when schools closed on April 8 and moved towards home-based learning. Suddenly, all school children needed a laptop.

That was when Computers Against Covid, an initiative started by Engineering Good (EG) to collect pre-owned laptops and distribute them to students in need, was born. Pre-pandemic, the non-profit organisation had been working with groups that focused on assistive technology for disadvantaged children, so it was natural for those groups to turn to EG when it came to computer needs.

“It all started with one small request for 24 laptops from the South Central Community Family Service Centre for its kids,” says Johann Annuar, 46, executive director and co-founder of EG, recalling how quickly those laptops were collected. “I thought we would spend one weekend working on those laptops, pass them on and then I would get back to clearing my Netflix backlog,” he says with a laugh.

Instead, things snowballed and requests came in thick and fast. Thankfully, there was an influx of volunteers and donations as well. “At the end of two weeks, we had more than 100 volunteers, over 600 laptop donations and more than 800 requests,” Johann says.

To date, EG has received more than 4,000 laptops, including some that were brand new and others of generally good quality, and given out close to 2,700 of them. The gap represents those that could not be reused or are being refurbished. Donations of money and laptops came from individuals and corporations, whose generosity struck Johann strongly. 


The personal donations, especially, were substantial – of the more than 4,000 laptops collected, 3,000 came from individuals. Of the corporations, some conducted fundraisers for EG’s goal. “There were other corporations doing what we did but at the organisational level. We chose to do this at the individual level for two reasons,” Johann says.

“The first was environmental: to give devices a second lease of life. The second was that in this period of uncertainty, it was evident that we needed to stick together and feel like we were part of something bigger.”

He adds, “By personally donating laptops, people would feel like they were giving back to society. And so many people supported and trusted us.”

This philosophy of helping others came from Johann’s exposure to people and places through his unique life experiences. He was a support member of the Singapore Everest team in 1998, had embarked on a 15-month cycling expedition from Turkey to New Zealand in 2003, and is a current board member of Medecins Sans Frontieres (also referred to as Doctors without Borders). “It makes sense to work for things beyond myself, to make the world better than when we found it and, by so doing, give my kids a better space to live in,” he says.

With students back in school, the ongoing drive has expanded to support adult learners, as well as the elderly who are taking their first steps into digital literacy. “We give laptops but we don’t provide the education or infrastructure required,” says Johann. “We also want to provide IT support to beneficiaries, so we are looking into all those things right now.” 

My Reading Room


“When I was cycling in Pakistan, I visited a refugee camp. It had at least 100,000 people and it was in the middle of a desert. It highlighted to me that there were people with very hard lives. Also, I was living out of six bags, each the size of a school backpack, for 1.5 years while cycling and that showed me that I didn’t need more. There is no reason for us to take more out of the world. If we do, then we have to give back, not just to the people of the world but also the world itself.” 

Text Charmaine Chan Photography Vee Chin 




My Reading Room

To Help The Needy As hunger mounts in the midst of a pandemic, two siblings step up to the plate. 

Huddled in a budget hotel, a group of Vietnamese women survived for five days on crackers and water. As Covid-19 continued to shut down restaurants and retailers in Singapore, foreign workers such as these women found themselves out of a job and void of income.

Alerted by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre to their predicament, Nichol and Nicholas Ng sent over piping hot meals in under two hours.

As co-founders of non-profit organisation The Food Bank Singapore, the siblings have been feeding underprivileged families and the vulnerable elderly since 2012. With the pandemic upending livelihoods in its wake, the charity has been leaving the door open for anyone – not just Singaporeans and permanent residents – needing to fill their stomach.

The Food Bank typically works with a network of 360 charities to collect and distribute produce and pantry items to beneficiaries. But, when social distancing measures kicked in during the Circuit Breaker period, it did something it hadn’t done before: deliver cooked meals.

“We were one of the few charities that still had the licence to go door to door, and we took it upon our small team of seven to fulfil our charity partners’ roles. We were essentially a small-scale Foodpanda that had to match meals to addresses while handling dietary requests,” says Nichol, 42, describing Feed The City – Take-away Edition, a Food Bank initiative that sought to deliver 50,000 meals to needy families while supporting struggling restaurants. Donors pay for meals from food partners such as caterer Grain and three-Michelin-star French restaurant Odette that are then distributed across Singapore. 


At the height of the pandemic, the initiative saw over 13,000 meals delivered per day, a feat made possible as corporations also stepped up to the plate. “We had a team of SIA pilots who volunteered to deliver food to the east. And DBS Bank activated drivers from its limousine service to help,” shares Nichol.

As of July 10, 700,000 daily meals have been delivered to over 15,000 beneficiaries in 1,307 locations. Even though the project has exceeded its target, the siblings will continue to run it as hunger remains a serious concern. “We’ve been receiving many urgent e-mail messages from people asking for food. Before the pandemic, we might get about five such e-mail messages a month. Now, we get 20 to 30 messages or calls daily,” says Nicholas, 41.

Beyond putting food on the table, they also want to provide tasty, nutritious meals to close what they perceive to be a gap in the ecosystem.

To that end, they are working with the Singapore Heart Foundation to create dishes such as ginger fish, brown rice vermicelli and black pepper chicken in an initiative backed by an $80,000 donation from the Philips Foundation. 

An additional $650,000 injection from UBS will enable the Food Bank to roll out 40 vending machines across the island to dispense these meals alongside dry rations.

While the Ngs, who also run food distribution company FoodXervices Inc, have seen their family business slow down during the pandemic, upholding Food Bank’s mission of eradicating food insecurity remains par for the course.

“When our late father became bankrupt and we lost it all, we knew from the first day that if we had the opportunity to give back, we would do something. Businesses everywhere might be facing cash flow issues how, but there are people who don’t even know where their next meal is coming from and that drives us forward significantly,” says Nichol. 

My Reading Room


“My maternal grandmother passed away in 2011. I am who I am because she told me that it’s more important to be able to give than to take. It’s a simple statement but it stuck with me as a kid. This is why I often choose to give a lot more and not calculate how much I need to take back.” Nichol Ng 

Text Denise Kok Photography Tan Wei Te




My Reading Room

For His Second Home Running a food distribution foundation during Covid-19 helped Tiffin Labs co-founder Shaun Smithson forge an even closer bond with the local community. 

As someone who bakes every Sunday for friends and family, American Shaun Smithson has always shown love by sharing food. This passion for food is also keenly felt by the other three co-founders – including chairman Kishin RK, 36, one of Singapore’s youngest billionaires – of his food tech company Tiffin Labs. So, naturally, it was all hands on deck when they launched the Food Is Love Foundation to provide meals for those in need during the Covid-19 crisis.

“I’ve always had food as a centrepiece in my life and appreciate the joy it brings to people. During these challenging times, providing meals allowed us to share our passion and respect for food by giving back in a tangible way,” says the 51-year-old. His Singapore-based company, which owns 10 restaurant brands including Publico Express and Huraideu Korean Fried Chicken, aims to meet the needs of the global in-home dining market.

The Food Is Love Foundation buckled down to work by partnering the Free Food For All charity to prepare and distribute food to the elderly and young families whose breadwinners had lost their jobs.

While families in need were of key importance, their aim was also to help the essential workers caring for the community. To that end, they sent meals to the medical workers at Singapore General Hospital and other healthcare facilities. Since the launch of the foundation on April 18, they have delivered over 25,000 meals. 


One of Smithson’s priorities was to provide meals suited to the community’s needs and preferences. Based on a combination of data as well as consultations with Nizar Mohamed Shariff, founder of Free Food For All, the team took pains to adjust and customise the menus. What helped was the fact that Tiffin Labs could leverage on its culinary teams.

“The meals were local favourites such as mee goreng, teriyaki chicken, Hainanese chicken rice and pasta. Where we could, we tried to ensure the recipes were unique and personalised,” he says.

Together with his team, he was able to assist with food deliveries on the ground on occasion and meet beneficiaries. “People were genuinely thankful. I was humbled by their appreciation and how the interactions showed a mutual respect for one another. We have all been through tough times and have had to deal with challenges. This experience allowed me to be both introspective and grateful,” he reflects.

Smithson adds that there are plans to introduce this ongoing initiative to other markets as Tiffin Labs expands beyond Singapore. “Our team is excited to work with organisations that make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

For the F&B veteran who moved to Singapore from Washington DC with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law 18 months ago, being involved in this grassroots initiative also gave him the opportunity to connect with the local community.

It also touched his family and strengthened their ties here. “We fell in love with the country and its people, and we’ve felt welcomed from the start. This chance to show the people how much they have meant to us has helped us feel even more at home – like we belong here and made a difference.” 

My Reading Room


“Growing up, my father travelled a lot for work and my mother did not drive, so we often got rides from our neighbours. We were appreciative of how people treated us and, as we grew up, we always tried to return that in kind. My mother taught us to understand that others may be going through tough times and she lived by that through her giving and caring spirit. That’s probably why taking care of others is something that brings me joy.” 

Text Karen Tee Photography Tan Wei Te