Cheers to Korea's volunteer spirit

Cheers to Korea's volunteer spirit
DEDICATED AND FRIENDLY: (Above) A volunteer stands on the flag plaza of the Athletes’ Village during a media tour. (Inset) Cheerful volunteers posing with the official Games mascots — the spotted seal siblings Barame, Chumuro and Vichuon.

In the war memorial museum in the South Korean capital of Seoul stands a two-wheeled wooden cart.

An innocuous looking cart, which is mounted by a vertical board with cylindrical holes punched into it.

Called the Hwacha, the simple, crude-looking contraption was developed by the Koreans in the 1400s to fire 100 rocket-propelled arrows in a single shot.

The Koreans managed to put simple concepts together to great effect then, and here at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, they have pulled it off again - albeit to achieve a more unifying effect than the Hwacha ever did.

The Asiad may only officially kick off tomorrow, but decked in pastel green and grey, the volunteer corps here have adopted a simple battle cry, undertaking their mission with heart and an attitude that Singapore can learn from.

Starting next month, the Republic will welcome some of the world's best to our shores.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Finals will bring the best female tennis players to Singapore next month.

Next June, the South-east Asia Games will be held in the Republic for the first time since 1993, with the shiny new Singapore Sports Hub the centrepiece of action as the Republic celebrates its 50th birthday.

Last week, the Football Association of Singapore revealed its plan to host the Under-17 World Cup in 2019.

Putting smiles on the faces of those who come in simple personal ways, like the Korean volunteers are doing here, will be a great way to win hearts and attract even bigger events to our sunny shores.

Now we have the hardware - a state-of-the-art $1.33 billion facility - and the software to go with it, but it is surely the "heartware" that will make it an unforgettable experience for the athletes, their supporters and officials.

Stacey Allaster, CEO of the WTA, has spoken about the liveliness and unique atmosphere in tennis arenas in cities like Istanbul and London.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics is still regarded as the best Games and much of it was because of the friendliness of the volunteers, and their eagerness to go out of their way to help visitors. From coaches to officials and journalists here, all are unequivocal in their praise of Korea's volunteer corps.

One volunteer went out of her way to help Singapore men's hockey coach Solomon Casoojee find a solution to his internet connectivity issues, but it was something else that brought a smile to his face.


"She was chatty and cheeky, but generally they've got a great attitude! One of the volunteers even greeted me by punching me in the arm - that's not something that Singaporeans generally do, do they," he quipped.

At an out of the way football training venue in the south of Incheon, two volunteers went for a break, and came back with snacks, of both the warm and packaged variety, offering it to team officials as well as Singapore journalists - that they were meeting for the first time.

Arriving in Incheon two days ago, some Singapore journalists asked a volunteer for directions - and he offered them a ride instead, in his own car, no less. For the Koreans, it is both a matter of national pride, and to soak in the experience of it all.

"My home town, Mokpo, is a five-hour drive from Incheon, but this is big, it's a national event," said 24-year-old Kang Ki Eun, who reads biology at Texas' Baylor University. "I've live abroad, can speak English and I just wanted to use my skills to help however I can."

Kang's partner in crime at the Main Press Centre's transport desk, Oh Eugine, whose focus of study is the Middle East, wants to be a journalist, and is happy to just soak it all in.

They revealed that volunteers aren't just thrown into the deep end. There are applications, interviews for specific vocations, and even classes in the lead-up to the Asiad.

"They talk about how we should treat foreigners who approach us, how to help, what to do, and even what to do when you don't know how to help," said Kang.

The Hwacha saw most action in the 16th century, in the Japanese invasion of Korea, in one battle some 3,000 Koreans reportedly repelled 40,000 Japanese with the help of just 40 Hwachas.

Korea's volunteers have been been wildly effective in solving problems, and more importantly, they have arrowed in on just how to win hearts.

When I asked the 25-year-old Oh if she has been enjoying the volunteer experience so far, she said: "Yes, I am," before breaking out into a cheeky smile and adding, "Because I've met you."

Both Kang and Oh broke out in cackles.

This article was first published on September 18, 2014.
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