One day when she was five years old, Saleemah Ismail saw three teenage bullies letting a dog loose on a kitten in the playground.
When the traumatised puss scampered into a drain, the feisty girl told the rowdy teens to back off. She then took the cat to her flat - on the fifth floor of a Housing Board block in Circuit Road - to clean it up.
Not long after, another teen turned up, took the kitten away and went up to the 10th floor of the block. He dangled the writhing creature over the edge of the balcony and menacingly asked Saleemah: "Do you think I dare to do it?" Her tearful pleas to spare the cat fell on deaf ears.
"He saw how I stood up to the boys in the playground and wanted to let me know who was in charge," says Ms Saleemah, now 46, who is single.
A few days later, she saw the same teen running away from the police who were out to nab bad hats in the area. She stood in his path, stretched out her hands and tried to trip him.
"But he ran past me," she recalls with a laugh.
Nearly four decades have passed. But her desire to right wrongs and fight for the weak and exploited has not dulled.
It explains why she has given up a cushy corporate life to devote her time to social causes.
For more than a decade, she sat on the board of the National Committee for Unifem Singapore where she held positions of president and vice-president.
As co-chair of its anti-trafficking committee from 2003 to 2012, she engaged the Government as well as the public and private sectors to raise awareness about human trafficking.
After that, she worked on gender issues and gender rights in Cambodia and Myanmar for the United Nations Development Programme. Three years ago, the articulate woman returned to Singapore where she became vice-chair of Suara Musyawarah, a committee to engage the Malay Muslim community on important issues.
The co-founder of Aidha, a business school for migrants and low-income communities, she is spearheading New Life Stories, an initiative to help former women inmates bond with their children through reading.
Chatty and gregarious, Ms Saleemah is comfortably ensconced in a settee in the spartanly furnished three-room Circuit Road flat she shares with her mother, a former washerwoman.
The youngest of six children, Ms Saleemah has lived in the same flat all her life. The minimalist look, she says, is deliberate.
The floor space is perfect for chit chat and communal dining when loved ones and friends come calling, which is often.
In fact, her late father, a kindly store-keeper with a big heart, practised an open door policy, often welcoming needy strangers into their midst.
"My father used to say, 'As long as there is floor space, as long as they are happy to eat what we eat, anybody can stay here'," she recalls.
Although it is now safe and pleasant, the neighbourhood, she says, was not a salubrious place in the 1970s when she was growing up.
"It was the wild, wild West, with a lot of drugs, sex and violence," says Ms Saleemah, who recalls witnessing suicide, domestic violence, gang fights and drug abuse from her kitchen window.
A physically abused neighbour two floors down hanged herself, two of her friends were gang-raped after running away from home, and several junkies in the neighbourhood ended up in jail for drug trafficking. One even got executed for killing a policeman during a struggle.
There were many attempts to pull her into the sleaze.
"When I was 10 or 11, I was offered glue to sniff. I rejected not because I thought it would kill my brain cells but because it looked like phlegm in a bag. That was enough to make me want to throw up," she recalls with a laugh.
Men offered her money for sex, but not once did she think of succumbing because the security of growing up in a loving family, she says, made her grounded.
"I grew up in a very protected space, and I grew up with much love. I don't need to do things for gratification or validation," she says.
"My dad set the tone, he was a very polite man and never raised his voice. He named me Saleemah, which means the protected one," she adds. Her father died when she was nine. A self-starter, the former Cedar Girls' student breezed through school.
"I wasn't hardworking but I paid attention and had a good memory. I would have liked it if someone had sat down with me and asked me, 'What are your life goals?' My life could have turned out differently," she says. At 17, she became a bit of a searcher. "I started reading Nietzsche and other philosophers and asking myself what the meaning of life was," she says, grinning at the recollection.
After completing her A levels at Nanyang Junior College in 1987, she decided to skip university.
"I read a lot and decided that intellectual pursuit was far better than the pursuit of wealth. I studied all the religions, went to various places of workship and met pastors, monks and nuns."
She found a job working as a customer service officer in a bank. But every opportunity she got, she travelled.
"I backpacked from Bombay to Goa, travelled across Western Europe, and went from Jakarta to Bali and the little islands in between."
Professionally, she did not do too shabbily either. She made good money doing business development and marketing for companies including courier company TNT and The Asian Banker, a company providing information for the financial services industry.
But in 2000, her life turned an unexpected corner when a close friend told her she had been raped in her teens.
The revelation stunned her and brought back memories of all the lives she had seen destroyed by rape and violence when she was growing up.
"I told myself I wanted to do what I could to support and help women," she says.
So she wrote to a few NGOs, offering her services as a volunteer. None of them replied except for Unifem, now renamed UN Women. Her first assignment was to translate for a group of nurses and doctors sent by Unifem to Batam, Indonesia, to teach sex workers there about safe sex.
It was a disaster, she says. Seeing sex workers aged as young as 11 and listening to their stories, she started crying.
"I was not wired to be a translator. I was supposed to be neutral but I was crying. I was also not supposed to have opinions but I could not just sit there talking about safe sex when I strongly felt that more needed to be done," she says.
After one more such trip, she went back to Unifem and told the then president - social activist Melissa Kwee - that they needed to do more than talk about safe sex; they needed to stop trafficking.
Not long after, she became Unifem's vice-president, and started beavering away on an action plan to raise awareness about the issue.
"It was a very personal and wonderful journey. Every time I talked to a person who had been sexually exploited, I saw myself. What made me different was the family I had. I felt that I had been given blessings and abundance that they didn't have," says Ms Saleemah, who joined Unifem full-time in 2005 and sat on its anti-trafficking committee for nearly a decade.
"I felt that I was doing it for my sisters. I looked into their eyes and saw how broken they were. That was what drove me," she adds, brushing away tears.
Ignoring naysayers, she and several compadres at Unifem engaged not just the private sector but the Government as well.
In 2005, they even organised a conference on trafficking. They approached embassy officials, regional NGOs working on trafficking, and other interested parties.
"We wrote to them and said, 'We would like to invite you to Singapore to share how you dealt with the problem. But we don't have any money and you would have to pay your own way," she says, adding that more than 140 people attended the conference, held at Hilton Hotel.
Last November, the Singapore Government passed the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act.
"It was a long journey and many helped to push the cause. Credit must be given to people like Kanwaljit Soin and Braema Mathi who raised the issue in Parliament," she says, referring to the two former Nominated Members of Parliament. In 2008, she took up an appointment with the United Nations Development Programme to work in Cambodia and Myanmar.
"In Cambodia, it was working with women to see how they could get involved in politics both as politicians and voters. In Myanmar, it was working with local NGOs to help them plug into the bigger non-profit world out there." The stints, she says, were invaluable.
"In Cambodia, I learnt a lot about love and forgiveness. Many of the activists suffered so much but they are still filled with so much love for their land. It made me realise that no matter how small and how crowded Singapore is, it will always be home." That realisation awakened in her an urge to return home and contribute to the little red dot.
"The universe works in strange ways. Two days after I made the decision to come home, I received a call asking if I would be keen on a project," she says.
That project was Suara Musyawarah - which means the voice of lively discussion in Malay - which was set up to collect feedback on the needs, concerns and aspirations of Malays
Over six months, Ms Saleemah and a committee talked to 500 community members at 35 focus group sessions. Their feedback on issues ranging from education to aspirations was compiled into a 70-page candid, unvarnished report in 2013.
For the past year, she has been helming New Life Stories, a social enterprise which works with formerly incarcerated women and their children.
Ms Saleemah's biggest wish is to break cycles of negativity, from poverty to violence.
Her interviews with women inmates reveal that many nurse a lot of pain.
"There's a lot of forgiveness which they need to go through - forgiveness for their parents, their children, themselves. Almost all of them say they cannot forgive themselves for the pain they cause their children."
New Life Stories is her way of helping mothers and their children reconnect. The aim, she says, is not pedagogical.
"It's reading for the sheer joy of it. It doesn't matter if your English is broken or your pronunciation is wrong. If you read with love, your child will feel it."
She is well aware that some will roll their eyes at her idealism.
"Call me idealistic, call me a tree hugger but I really believe in the power of love. I have seen it break the cycle. So roll your eyes, I don't care. I will keep saying it. What will heal is love."
This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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