She’s right at HOME!
If there’s a role-model Singaporean, who plays it low-key, yet makes heads turn in high ways, few can match the selfless exploits of Bridget Tan, who champions human rights in a red dot of an island. An overwhelming saga of an extraordinary woman.
BY: Suresh Nair
Bridget Tan, 63, (left) is a simple down-to-earth woman. Selfless, is the apt word. Some praise her as a global hero. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, too, sang praises of her for championing human rights. But this made-in-Singapore “fighter” prefers to play it low-key and wants her volunteer work to say it all for her.
Agelessonline talks to the founder of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) who was previously a human resource manager:
Please tell us about HOME, which provides direct assistance to more than 50,000 migrants and victims of human trafficking and forced labour.
I founded HOME in 2004 and it has been already seven years. There is still much to do even though much has been done. As I look back, I could not believe even what has been achieved in those seven years with my life. A ‘miracle’ like moving a mountain simply because I had the faith of a mustard seed.
What makes you dedicate your life for the betterment of migrant workers? Why are you so passionate about them? You see this as a calling from God?
Yes, it is not my personal choice to choose a life dedicated to migrant workers. I felt the call of God when a Filipino priest, (the late) Father Andy Altamirano, persuaded me to help him set up the Roman Catholic Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in 1997. From then on, there was no turning back, because soon after we set up the Diocesan Commission, Father Andy returned home, was taken up to heaven and left me to tend the flock below.
What were the heart-rending cases among the hundreds of displaced foreign workers you’ve helped, providing from food, shelter and legal counsel. Any endearing examples to share?
There were thousands who came to us for assistance and every person has a heart-rending story. Take the young Indonesian domestic worker who broke her limbs and back when she tried to escape from her employer, simply because she was afraid to be sent back to her agent. Or the Filipina, whose employer pushed chopsticks in her ears.
Most touching was a young Sri Lankan woman, who was raped by her agent and then made to prostitute herself in a locked hotel room serving some 20 to 30 customers a night. This frail and thin woman was literally gang-raped every night. She managed to escape after she encountered a sadistic customer. The police sent her to our shelter. She was so traumatised that she would not speak to anyone for more than a month and could only find comfort in a pet dog at our shelter!
You’re a strong advocate for social justice, wherein you’ve said it is the “responsibility of each and every person … the strong must help the weak, the rich should help the poor”. Your views?
Yes, I’m convinced that we are part of the problem and have to be part of the solution in this imperfect world. Life should never be about pointing our fingers at others for not doing more but pointing at ourselves for not doing what we could do to make our world a just world for all. I live by the call of the prophet in the old testament – to ‘act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God’. That is what Yahweh wants of me.
HOME, under your leadership, won many awards, among them the Asia Public Service Award 2010 by the Asia 21 Society. Likewise, you’ve also won many personal international decorations. You were also nominated for honourable mention in the Reader’s Digest Asian of the Year award for 2010.
For me, I just did what I had to do in the service of people in need – a human feat in response to a human condition. I did not do what I did for the awards and, or the recognition as I’m simply an ordinary person like everyone else but who just knew my mission call and so responded with a zeal that made me the person I am today.
Your personal impressions after you were mentioned in a speech by US Secretary of State Clinton last year? Did this come as a surprise to you?
When I look around the people I know and the people I do not know, I see among them, many who have done even much more to deserve the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Hero award. Yes, I was surprised that I was singled out from the many and my work was singled out among the few by Mrs Clinton in her speech. Sometimes some events in our life cannot be explained and can only be attributed to a God that is in charge of the laws of the universe. I accept these honours with the humility that there is no honour greater than the opportunity given to me to serve the poor of God.
If you could turn the clock back, what would you do?
I learned from a wise priest, the past is dead, the future is to be born, and the present is the now that has to be lived from moment to moment. I live in my reality, hence I do not look back and waste time living in the past. The past was my present before and what I did then will be my ‘now’ today. I live a life with no regrets, the present is our yesterday.
What were the most impressionable memories of your childhood? Please fill in more on the Tan family?
My father died when I was five. I never grew up with a real father figure in my life. My widowed mother was father and mother then and she had to work hard to provide for us. She was an example of thrift, courage and determination. She showed me the woman I could be to take charge of our lives and the lives of others. I was third in a family of four siblings and with them, I grew up in the love of a God fearing Catholic mother.
Who are your role-models in Singapore and on the international front?
In Singapore, my role model is my deceased father. He died when he was 36. Yet in his short lifespan, he left me the deep sense of moral justice and political freedom. My father was a medical doctor, who gave free treatment to those who could not afford to pay for medical treatment. My father was active in the independence movement during the British colonial period. He was precursor to (former Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew and believed in the right of political freedom for Singapore. I’m my father’s daughter!
On the international front, I have, ever since as a young teen, great admiration for a small Albanian Catholic nun – Mother Teresa who grew monumental in her time. Her passion to serve the poorest of poor in India and to do something beautiful for God has impelled me to do no less in the service of the poorest of poor workers in Singapore. When Mother Teresa died, the whole of Hindu India mourned for her – she was indeed an awesome leader for our century of Godlessness. She ‘acted justly, loved tenderly and walked humbly with her God’.
If you were granted three wishes, what would you ask for?
If I had three wishes – I would ask for a more just, more loving and more humble society where we do not live just for ourselves and our families but, more importantly, for the weakest and most vulnerable in our human family. Today in Singapore, the migrant workers are among our disadvantaged in society.
What are your future plans for HOME? When do you plan to take it easy?
My work with HOME is not just work but a mission. I guess I will only retire or “take it easy” when I have a higher call to do something else!
“Our TIP heroes today show us that individual action can lead to some astounding results. For example, in Singapore, Bridget Lew Tan has dedicated her life to protecting migrant workers. And Singapore, albeit a small country, has more than 800,000 immigrants. And she has been volunteering with a local archdiocese. And while there, she met 30 Bangladeshi men assembled behind a coffee shop in the middle of the night, and she helped to set up shelters – one for men and one for women – to provide refuge to migrant workers who had been abused.” – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the release of the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.