Heroes Wanted – All Shapes And Sizes Welcome!


Karen Neoh


9 min read

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Photo credit (above): red_sunshinegirl | Flickr


Be a hero: It’s never too soon

It is with a heavy heart that in my capacity as the editor of our little pullout, I pen this final article. This last year has been a roller coaster ride with ample opportunity to grow, to meet amazing people and to connect with yet many others worldwide.

The small and incredible team I work with has certainly gone over and beyond to develop content which we hope have inspired you, our readers to do some soul searching perhaps, invest in some “me time” for personal growth, and in turn to reach out to the people around you to help them grow.

The editorial team also epitomises the story of the unsung hero – like Prof Severus Snape, the leading man in this instalment of our work. Misunderstood and vilified for the better part of the seven Harry Potter books, Snape was a character who quickly came to the fore right at the very end – as Potter finally understood that his foe was truly his protector.

Not only did Snape not receive recognition, he assumed the role in secrecy and at great personal cost. I suspect my brother figured it out sooner than most – perhaps because Ken is a hero in his own right!

Heroes who build lives

As much as I would like to share how I, Karen Neoh, leapt out of my seat to cheer and simultaneously weep for the fallen Snape, I think there are more important stories to tell.

Snape was many things, but perhaps we should not forget that he was, first of all, a teacher to Potter and his friends.

There’s a teacher I briefly met – let’s call her Rachael Francis – who is a teacher stationed in a somewhat remote part of the country. The only interaction we have now is through her Facebook posts of encounters, activities and successes (great and small) with her students. Her enthusiasm and zeal to grow her students just leaps off the page.

There was a meme floating around the interweb recently about how teachers are the rare breed that buy and use their own stationery for their school kids, rather than “procure” office stationery for personal use. The teachers I know are no exception.

A basketball coach devises all sorts of drills and innovative uses of everyday items to get the players learning (or at times unlearning bad habits!) – working till the wee hours of the night to develop a new way to inspire and impart.

It’s riveting to see a coach who is so clued in to his students – sensing when they aren’t getting it, approaching the class from angle after angle till the lesson becomes clear.

There are people in our lives who may not bear the role of “teacher” but who generously give their hearts to build and grow others. People like the Leaderonomics Youth team and their “extended” team of alumni who still tirelessly dedicate themselves to building young people.

Do find someone in your life like that – and go give them a hug and the respect they so deserve!

Heroes in disguise

Rather than talk about Tony Stark or Spidey, I would like to call attention to the profession many don’t immediately associate with heroic gestures.

I recently watched A Civil Action, an old movie starring John Travolta playing a personal injury attorney. Not exactly a highly regarded type of lawyer, but the type that has been stereotyped as “ambulance chasers” who encourage victims who have suffered from a company’s negligence to take them to court for huge claims.

Travolta’s character reluctantly takes on a case that he realises would not be profitable for the law firm. Over time, he becomes more involved in the lives of the families who had lost their loved ones, and continues going up against a large conglomerate suspected of contaminating their water source with harmful chemicals.

As it turns out, it becomes a long drawn out case – in the process, he loses his wealth, friends and firm – and yet, this “shyster” is unwilling to give up on them.

A real life hero, someone we featured earlier this year, is Leena Ghosh. As a youth, the passion for human rights had already been ignited and today, Leena is a human rights lawyer working at the Asean regional level. So hang on to your dreams, but definitely take action to get you closer to them.

It seems obvious. Find a job or a calling that fulfils your purpose in life, stay true to it and have work life balance. But one of the important lessons I learnt from my Pa is never to feel that you need to wait till all your ducks are in a row, that you have the necessary qualifications or that dream job.

Stating that I wanted to “Save the world!” but lamenting that I could not help anybody as a kid, Pa always said that I should just do what I could with whatever skills and resources I had at the time. Because if not anything else, the person needing that assistance needed it at that moment.

Heroes at risk

Often, I sit at my desk (or beanbag as the case may be), wondering how through my writing I can help change the world. We know of many courageous writers who have placed themselves at great personal risk to bring about change.
Here I would like to focus on people in social work – the people we hear about quite rarely – the people portrayed in movies as being overworked and underpaid, and grossly unappreciated.

I had the good fortune of working with many dedicated social workers during my time in Cambodia – people who had for example, worked with the authorities to rescue women and children who had been trafficked and abused. People who work to change policy in order to protect their rights. And the social workers who work directly with the women and children during rehabilitation – I am afraid I cannot mention names as they themselves are often at great risk.

Extra security is provided to social workers as they go to and from work, because apparently estranged husbands or irate pimps stalk them to discover the location of the shelters.

Why? To forcibly return the women to the nightmare they were rescued from.

Unsung? By design yes. Even so, caregivers and social workers deserve more than the recognition that sometimes they cannot receive. Always giving a piece of themselves to their wards, the phenomenon of compassion fatigue is very real. Closer to home, a tiny shoutout to Divya Chandy.

So even if I haven’t been gifted to be a doctor or therapist, I did spend a big part of my life trying to find ways to facilitate their good work. Helping and supporting the true heroes is rewarding too!

Heroes who were persecuted

Allow me to highlight the story of Alan Turing who was engaged by the UK government’s intelligence agency during the Second World War. Having only read about it and watched snippets from the movie The Imitation Game, here is a brief rundown of his story.

“…Turing was a cryptanalyst who ended up pioneering computer programming and helped the Allies win the war by cracking the Enigma code. He was also a homosexual during a time in Britain when such things were deemed a felony, however, and as the film recounts, he was forced to endure ‘chemical castration’ treatments after being arrested in 1952.” – Rolling Stone

Cracking the code meant that Turing was responsible for saving many lives, and changing the course of history. Still, the government did not apologise for the heinous treatment he received till many years after his death, nor was he officially pardoned until 2013.

While there seems to be some healthy debate about who invented the first computer, I can still credit Turing for allowing me (to some extent), to keep in touch with at least one hero who has been persecuted for helping others.

My friend (and again I am unable to provide a name here) fled his country about 20 years ago as he had been imprisoned (repeatedly) and beaten (repeatedly).

For what, you ask? During his student days, he mobilised his group of friends to find ways to help the underprivileged communities in his impoverished nation. Step by step, they began to make a difference – and gained the recognition and respect of the people.

Unfortunately, some thought this unacceptable and persecuted the entire group of young students. After trying to locate his friends over the past two decades, my friend fears that he may be the only one to survive.

And after waiting for more than a decade himself, he has finally been relocated to a safe place and begins a new chapter in his life. Did I mention that even in his state of destitution, he still continued to help everyone around him the entire time he was a refugee?

Heroes who save lives

It might be a while before I write again, so let me conclude with my favourite topic. Health and caring for people.
Unlike Snape and Spidey, the movie here is based on a real person living in West Virginia. Patch Adams inspired me not to worry about being different – but in fact to thrive and choose to be different, better – as long as I remain true to my purpose in life.

This is corny, but Patch made sure “care” was a part of “healthcare” – finding ways to overcome the odds to attend to the healthcare needs of underserved populations.

In my years, I have met many selfless healthcare professionals – the first one being my own mum Mi. As a nurse, she remembers a time when she delivered hundreds of babies in the homes of poor neighbourhoods.

She also recalls a time during which confused patients screamed insults and even threatened her with bodily harm – even as she and the doctors worked to save their lives.

And she has left her legacy through my sister, practicing as a doctor and impacting the lives of many in Northern Ireland.

As a health economist, I counted myself lucky to play a role in supporting the good work of health professionals – allowing them to be able to provide the right care to the right patient at the right time.

There are so many unseen and unsung heroes in healthcare – the intricate network of people, equipment and organisations that need to be orchestrated to support the entire gamut from preventive health, to curative and rehabilitative care, to palliative care.

From the organisational point of view, it is heartening to know that everyone – from the nurse director’s office to finance, from engineering and maintenance to the surgeons, from the housekeeping staff to the front desk – knows how their role is important in ensuring the best patient outcome.

Before I close, allow me to highlight a young pharmacist – quite the local hero – Syed Azmi Alhabshi. Although a healthcare professional, Syed Azmi doesn’t allow his zeal to help make the world a better place to be hampered by lack of imagination or his professional degree – and goes over and beyond to understand the needs of people, and to deliver. Hats off to you, Syed Azmi!

Concluding remarks

There’s a reason there are unsung heroes. Perhaps by virtue of them being selfless to start with, their stories often go untold. As someone pointed out recently, if the motive for the heroism is purely for bragging rights, then well… their rewards have already been received.

But if by sharing the stories of the unsung hero, the lightbulb goes on for others, the initial heroic deed could be doubled, quadrupled, and increased exponentially.

So maybe banging away on a computer can still help save the world – if only by proxy.

It’s my last article (for now) – please help me help others! Write in with stories of the unsung heroes you know – so that they may inspire others to make a difference, no matter how small.

Let us share their stories (in a way that they are comfortable with), stand back and watch it ripple out to others.

Thank you readers! Thank you for all your feedback, kind words, and constructive criticism. You have definitely helped me grow and be a better person (albeit very much a work-in-progress!).

Karen has rather bizarrely maintained a childlike side to herself – always keen to see, learn and do new things. Yet she has remained grounded on finding the best way to help people – especially those who have the skills and heart to do incredible things. Write to us at editor@leaderonomics.com. For more Be A Leader articles, click here.

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