5 days without food – selfless rescue at sea gives this ‘Refugee’ a purpose

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She came as a refugee to Singapore when she was barely 4 years old. Today, 37 years later, Ms Yen is shaping young minds and teaching her children the way to help the community

Someone once said that the person we grow up to be is based on the experiences we have had when we were young. The events that transpire in our formative years often shape the way we think and act as adults. So when we come across someone like Ms Yen Siow, the founder of Discovering Without Borders – a social educational enterprise start-up, one cannot help but wonder what her formative years were like.

Ms Yen believes in giving back to the community. That is why we see her busy with numerous social causes, be it helping single mothers find casual employment, or working with shelters for children and troubled teens. Her brainchild, Discovering Without Borders, enables and empowers children to explore the STEM subjects – Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics through interactive workshops.

We had a talk with her about her early years, the experiences that shaped her personality, and why she does what she does.

Ms Yen came to Singapore as a refugee when she was barely 4 years old. Her father escaped Vietnam along with his family in the midst of a political turmoil. The story of their escape and subsequent rescue is nothing short of a spine-chiller.

Here is an excerpt of the conversation we had with her.

Why did your family decide to escape Vietnam?

I was born in 1976, a year after the Vietnam War had ended. A new government regime had taken over and there were challenges with making the people adopt a new ideology. There were cases of brothers, uncles, fathers and grandfathers being sent to re-education camps and not returning. Many people feared for their lives. I believe this fear led my father to make the decision to leave Vietnam in 1980 even though it had been his home for many generations past.

My father’s decision to leave Vietnam was a response to his faith – a belief he had that there had to be a better future, a better country and a new way of living that would offer peace and prosperity for his family. He took that chance knowing that the odds were against him and that he would risk everyone’s life out at sea.


Can you tell us about the escape?

My father left Vietnam along with 12 other family members on board a small fishing boat meant for 10 people – but in desperation 82 people were squeezed on board.

On Oct 15, 1980, in the early morning, my father along with 81 other people left the shores of Vietnam. We sailed out into the South China Sea with just the clothes on our backs and some sacks of rice. The boat was not meant for deep sea sailing and the motor kept on stalling due to the weight of the people.

There was a moment on the boat when the adults decided to cook rice with sea water as they had run out of fresh water. It turned out to be inedible due to the high levels of salt. We drifted for 5 days at sea. Other boats and ships passed us, but none would stop to help us.

I remember sitting on my mother’s shoulders when the water reached her chest. Most of the adults thought that we were going to capsize. We were desperate for any help and would try and signal with fire or smoke or with just the sounds of our voices – but the other ships and boats ignored our pleas.


Five days passed, and we saw the Berge Tasta – a Norwegian Oil Tanker which came close to our boat and then sailed on past us. We lost all our hope. Just then, the Berge Tasta turned back and came for us. The captain and crew helped us all on board and welcomed us with clothing, water and food. I remember clinging to my uncle’s back as he climbed the rope ladder. I felt so weak and exhausted that I felt I would fall. Luckily, everybody boarded the rescue ship safely.

We had been given a second chance at life and it was the most joyous moment for everyone on board. We arrived as refugees in Singapore and then, 4 months later by another miracle, my family was resettled in Australia.

Read on to know how these incidents shaped her life

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