Our Chaplain in Singapore, Toh Soon Kok, and his wife Susan Koh, the Mission’s Centre Manager, reflect on the current challenges facing seafarers.
In the busy port of Singapore, the team visit between 400 and 500 hundred ships a month. This is a remarkable number, but as Soon Kok explains, “We’ve barely covered 20% of need, which is why we’re trying desperately to expand our team, so no one falls through the gaps. Perhaps the only thing holding them back is the lack of volunteers – a perennial challenge for many of our port operations. “Currently our volunteers are our committee members, we have been trying to recruit more volunteers to come and help us, but unfortunately in Singapore, we do not have a volunteering culture,” explains Soon Kok. If more people understood the sacrifices that seafarers make, and how rewarding it is to work as a ship visitor or centre volunteer, they may come forward. “Every day is different, so I do enjoy the diversity,” confirms Soon Kok.
The small team provide a full range of support for seafarers: from overseeing communion services and supporting the mental health of the crew, to providing information on legislation and shopping for essential items! Perhaps one of the most important roles our chaplains play is as a trusted confidant. “Just last week we went onboard a vessel to conduct a holy communion service,” explains Susan. “The chief cook approached me crying, saying, ‘before I came onboard my wife just passed’. He just left behind two girls in the Philippines. So, he asked [us] to pray for him and for his late wife.”
Emotional and Spiritual Support
Some of the most challenging situations Soon Kok and Susan address are onboard bereavements. The busyness of ship life means seafarers just have to get on with the job at hand. Many crew members suppressed dealing with the emotional impact until they are in port. Here, the support from our chaplains is vital. Soon Kok and Susan work as a tight unit, sensitive to the specific needs of each seafarer. “We do receive more female seafarers so it’s more appropriate for Susan to talk to them one-on-one in confidence or in privacy, so in that respect, Susan comes in really handy!” confirms Soon Kok.
Trusted Source of Information
In these times of constant change and flux, the crew also rely on our teams to update them on the latest legislation regarding shore leave, vaccination, and crew changes. “Information changes so quickly and sometimes it changes before we can disseminate it,” explains Soon Kok. While most ships that travel through Singapore are owned by reputable companies that have the best interests of their crews at heart, there are those that don’t hit the mark. As Soon Kok says, “These are people who we have to keep a look at. “With more than 20 years of experience each, Soon Kok and Susan are sensitive when it comes to recognising seafarers in distress. They are not afraid to ask the difficult questions and take the initiative to intervene.
But the team aren’t always dealing with life-and-death situations. Often, they play the important role of reminding seafarers that there is a life beyond the ship. “Recently I received a message from a lady seafarer, and she asked to buy some arts and crafts so that she can de-stress when she is free,” explains Susan. During the pandemic, requests like these came thick and fast. Seafarers were often asking for things that reminded them of home. Soon Kok recalls getting a message simply asking, “Sir, can you help me get 20 Big Macs?”
Whether it’s supporting grieving seafarers, sharing the latest shore leave information, or delivering chocolate, Soon Kok and Susan are a vital part of the maritime community in Singapore.