Written by: Amanda Teo (Photo by: Gary Goh)
Interview with Wally
A self-declared nerd, Wally Tham (Founder of Big Red Button) is often compelled to go beyond himself and find solutions to injustice found in society. At the height of the transboundary haze situation this year, Wally and his team started Sayang Kalimantan, Sayang, a social initiative in which they went to Kalimantan and to help the locals. We spoke to Wally to find out more about his heart behind equipping locals, medical nurses, and fire fighters with the resources needed to combat the haze.
During October’s haze crisis, you went over to Kalimantan to provide masks and aid to the locals. What was the air condition like?
When we arrived at Kalimantan, the PM2.5 reading was above 50,000 outdoors, which is equivalent to someone smoking one pack of cigarettes every day. The PM2.5 reading is worse indoors at approximately 63,000 because the air particles are so small that it gets trapped in the room.
When we went down to a NGO at Kalimantan, the PM2.5 was at 184,000 indoors, which is equivalent to someone smoking four packs of cigarettes. What more, the people who were part of the NGO were not wearing masks!
As PM2.5 is a different measurement from the PSI, what PM2.5 reading is considered as hazardous?
PM2.5 readings refer to the number of fine particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in width in a cubic metre of air. Anything above 50 is ‘unhealthy,’ which means that in Kalimantan, the air quality was extremely hazardous. These particles can enter into your blood stream, and if it accumulates in the brain, you’ll get a stroke; if it does accumulate in the heart, you’ll get a cardiac arrest. It can even cause lung cancer.
What was the hardest thing that you witnessed during your trip?
The hardest thing about my trip to Kalimantan was witnessing the devastation of locals’ health and listening to the stories of loved ones who have passed away because of the haze. It is especially dangerous for children — many who were exposed to the air had severe diarrhoea and some kids actually fell dead on the streets.
Were the locals aware of the danger they were in?
Many do not actually understand the severity of the situation and there has been much misinformation. I believe that it is in knowing the truth that you are able to decide what’s best for you. The sad truth is that even those who are aware of the danger they are in do not leave their homes because they do not want to lose the land that they’re living in. This is especially so in the poorer villages, as they have not secured ownership of their houses.
What did you do in Kalimantan?
We went down to educate the locals by convincing them with data and demonstrated the effectiveness of a N95 mask. We gave a talk to nursing students and showed them how to wear the masks properly. We wanted to give them a handle on how to teach others about the N95 mask as well.
Why is this project called Sayang Kalimantan, Sayang?
I joined the Let’s Help Kalimantan group to support them via media work. My initiative was a separate one which aims at supplying data tools to the NGOs and firefighters in Kalimantan. It is called Sayang Kalimantan, Sayang because my intention was to be there for them as a brother and a friend, and what I’m doing is simply loving and caring for them, whereby I am there to “sayang” them. That’s how the name came about.
Do you plan to go back to Kalimantan?
Yes, I will be going back in December to build “clean rooms” — rooms that are sealed up and have air filters, and where it will be safe for children with asthma or older folks. We will be building three of them as prototypes. Should it work, we will build more.
I am also going to get drills for the fire fighters, so that they are well equipped to dig the wells faster. When we were there, we met the fire fighters working on the grounds. We found out that the fire is actually going on 10–20 metres underground, and out of the many hotspots, some of these fires come up through the peatland, creating the fires we see on land.
So these firefighters are digging wells to pump water deep into the ground to stop the fire at its source, before it spreads through the ground and above the ground. Extinguishing the surface fires still leaves the ground smoking because the fire is happening way below ground. (Learn more about the fire fighters in Kalimantan here: https://vimeo.com/143869190)
These fire fighters are not official civil servants — they are businessmen, teachers, and students, who have flown into Kalimantan to help their people. When crises arise, leaders emerge.
What did you gain through this process?
I’ve witnessed the generosity of Singaporeans. People have responded so amazingly. The ones who have stepped forward to raise funds on my behalf were amazing.
Sayang Kalimantan, Sayang has also allowed me to be my nerdy self. I now do a daily reading of the air quality. For me, I get to play in the areas that I like and do good at the same time — combining my skill set and my convictions together. I enjoy helping people to understand something that is complex, using technology to help their situation, and making videos for publicity.
How do you think others can start initiatives like this?
- Get good with your hands.
Be good at what you do, and people will come knocking on your door for your skills. Be wise with how you spend your time and be active in improving yourself. Life isn’t simply about recognising that you are loved and valuable to God, but realising that God has placed stuff in your hands for you to give to the world.
You need to find your strength and gifting, and work on it. For example, I think I am able to take rather complicated things and simplify them. I also know how to bring different resources together to create a solution. It might not be a typical skill like playing a musical instrument, but it could your passion or your personality that God has wired for His purposes.
- What do you respond to?
There are many things in life that we have a very visceral reaction to. What injustice or societal gaps do you respond to? We innately respond to many things; we just need to recognise and do something about it.
Don’t be afraid or overly cautious such that you miss the God-given moment. Every good deed, God has commanded us to go. It is all in the revealed word of God: feed the hungry, help the widows, and care for the poor and needy. Go do it, and tell them that Jesus is great.
We live in a fallen world, and there will always be too many holes to plug. You can only pray that more Christians will do their part. Choose based on who God has created you to be. Use what you have in your hands, and be useful to someone else.
Do you think that this is what Jesus would have done?
I can’t say that I am like Jesus, and neither can I confidently confess that I think I am beautiful and well-loved. But it is when you look at your own brokenness and question who you are, that you begin to look at what God is saying about you in His Word, and who you really are in Him.
By faith, I am loved and beautiful, even if I don’t feel it in the flesh. By faith, I am doing what the Bible says: to help the poor and needy. I think the lack of security in our identities in Christ is the reason why people do evil. It is not because we want evil, but because we don’t really feel and understand that we are loved. Thus, we ignore when others suffer and we become apathetic and hard-hearted. We feel that “we don’t have enough to give,” hence we don’t give and serve others.
Our misplaced identity is the source of a lot of suffering, and our identity in Christ gives us the place and space to be a blessing. If everyone simply embraces the truth of what God says about them, I think the world today would have been very different.