Gold dreams, mercury woes

Brazilian special forces crush illegal gold mining operation

NABBED: Gold prospectors are detained by agents of Brazil's environmental agency on the Uraricoera River during an operation against illegal mining on indigenous land.
NABBED: An indigenous Yanomami village deep in the Brazilian jungle.
DESTROYED: An illegal gold mine burns during Brazil's environmental agency's operation against illegal mining on indigenous land in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
DESTROYED: A gold prospector is stopped by agents of Brazil's environmental agency on the Uraricoera River.
THREATENED: A member of the Yanomami tribe follows agents of Brazil's environmental agency to an illegal gold mine during a raid. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 tribals.
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She's 2, he's 5 and they have visited 28 countries

Couple quit jobs to take children, aged 2 and 5, on year-long trip to 28 countries

Switzerland.

Last year, Yau Yi Xi and her brother Yi Ken went on a year-long backpacking and cycling trip with their parents across Asia and Europe.

They visited 28 countries including Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Mongolia, and sometimes slept in tents.

So what, you might ask? Others have done this too.

Well, how many of them were aged two and five?

"We had always wanted to take a long vacation before Yi Ken starts primary school," said Mr Sean Yau of his son, who was then five. Yi Xi was even younger - she was only two.

"This seemed like the perfect opportunity."

The 40-year-old former research engineer wanted to expose his children to new cultures in the hope that they would develop an open mind while they were still young.

"We wanted our children to interact more with foreigners," he said.

Most parents would not take their children on such long trips, but Mr Yau said that if they had kept worrying, they would not have gone at all.

"We knew there would be problems, but we decided we could deal with them along the way," he said.

So in February last year, Mr Yau and his wife, Ms Tan Dun Lin, 36, an administrative executive, quit their jobs.

The next month, they left for their first port of call, South Korea, before moving on to 27 other destinations. They returned to Singapore on March 24 this year.

They mostly stayed at hostels, their friends' homes or at homes found on holiday home rental website Airbnb and Couchsurfing, a hospitality exchange and social networking website where travellers stay as guests at a host's home for free.

Mr Yau enjoyed this aspect of the journey, especially in Russia, as he got to learn a lot about the countries and their cultures.

FAVOURITE

For Yi Ken, the visit to Everland, South Korea's largest theme park, was his favourite.

When they embarked on the cycling phase of the trip in August, the couple bought a tandem bicycle, with a child carrier attached, and a child trailer (below).

They cycled from Finland to Macedonia through countries like Norway, Croatia and Montenegro.

The children were not used to the 10 to 20 deg C temperatures.

To distract them from the cold, their parents would encourage them to sing. Mr Yau said: "We often sang nursery rhymes and songs from The Sound Of Music while cycling. This helped to keep the kids entertained.

"I enjoyed it because everyone was more involved.

"We made decisions together as a family."

On the cycling trip, they also faced their toughest challenge: looking for places to sleep at night.

When they were unable to book accommodation, they would knock on villagers' doors in the hope that a family would take them in.

Most of the time, they were successful.

"I was very relieved and touched when strangers offered us their homes to stay. They gave us food and sometimes treated us better than their own family members," said Ms Tan.

However, twice in Croatia, they had no choice but to sleep in their tents on concrete pavements and grass patches.

Said Mr Yau: "It was tough because it was cold. But the children were happy to sleep in the tent so I was not so worried."

They were also fortunate as the children did not fall ill during the trip.

After the cycling trip, the family resumed backpacking in Switzerland, making their way across western Europe. They then flew to Thailand before returning to Singapore.

Below, they are seen with friends they met in countries such as Lithuania, Mongolia and Macedonia.

Mr Yau said that after the trip, he has become more adventurous and adaptable.

However, it is Yi Xi who has shown the most significant development.

"She can talk more now. We even toilet-trained her in Russia," said Mr Yau.


I was very relieved and touched when strangers offered us their homes to stay. They gave us food and sometimes treated us better than their own family members.

- Ms Tan Dun Lin


WHERE THEY WENT

The Yau family visited 28 countries. They spent between $25,000 and $30,000 in total.

Phase 1 Backpacking

1 South Korea (March-April 2015)

2 Japan (April 2015)

3 China (April-May 2015)

4 Mongolia (May 2015)

5 Russia (May-June 2015)

June 13 to July 17:

6 Estonia

7 Latvia

8 Lithuania

9 Finland (July-Aug 2015)

Phase 2 Cycling

10 Norway (Aug-Sept 2015)

11 Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sept 2015)


12 Croatia (Sept-Nov 2015)

13 Montenegro (Nov 2015)

14 Albania (Nov 2015)

15 Kosovo (Nov-Dec 2015)

16 Macedonia (Dec 2015)

Phase 3 Backpacking

17 Switzerland (Dec 2015)

18 Austria (Dec 2015)

19 Liechtenstein (Dec 2015)

20 Germany (Jan 2016)

21 France (Jan 2016)

22 Belgium (Jan 2016)

23 Netherlands (Jan-Feb 2016)

24 Poland (Feb 2016)

25 Czech Republic (Feb 2016)

26 Denmark (March 2016)

27 Sweden (March 2016)

28 Thailand (March 2016)

His baby boy was taken to hospital

Property agent suspects loan sharks set his door on fire, worries for family's safety

DESTRUCTION: The fire damaged Mr Richard Tan's front door and metal gates. Some shoes were also ruined.
DESTRUCTION: The fire damaged Mr Richard Tan's front door and metal gates. Some shoes were also ruined.

Mr Richard Tan, 50, was preparing to go to bed when he smelt something burning.

The property agent initially thought someone had left something on the stove.

It was the cries of alarmed neighbours that alerted him to the fire blazing outside his main door which reeked of paint thinner, he said.

Mr Tan swung into action. He grabbed a pot of water to put out the flames.

By then, the fire had damaged his front door and the metal gate.

It also destroyed two pairs of slippers and a pair of leather shoes left outside the two-room rental flat at Block 59, Lengkok Bahru.

His 27-year-old wife was unhurt in the 2am incident on Sunday.

But their 14-month-old son was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation.

He has since recovered and returned home.

Mr Tan told Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao: "Luckily my neighbours helped to put out the fire. Though our main door was burnt, the fire had become much smaller when I discovered it."

Shin Min Daily News reported that Mr Tan went to sleep at around 1am, but woke up 45 minutes later to find his main door on fire.

He said his family had moved into the rental flat just two weeks ago.

He suspects loan sharks were behind the fire because he found the name "Andy" scrawled four times outside his door.

He believes this could be the name of the previous occupant, who had left behind unpaid traffic fines and over $200 in unpaid utility bills.

Mr Tan said a stranger had knocked on his door recently and asked if he had just moved in.

The stranger identified himself as a licensed moneylender, reported Shin Min.

"You see this stuff on television and the movies, but you never think it could happen in real life.

"But here it is, happening to me," said Mr Tan.

He is now worried about the safety of his stay-at-home wife and their child.

DISTRESSED

Mr Tan told Shin Min: "My wife is a housewife and my son is still young so they're often at home. I'm worried for them and can't concentrate while I'm at work in the day."

A neighbour known only as Mr Guo, 82, said residents in the block received a threatening letter from Malaysia in their mailboxes three months ago. It identified Mr Tan's unit.

The letter, which he has thrown away, demanded the repayment of money, otherwise the unit would be set on fire.

"I didn't bother about it after the previous tenant moved out," the retiree told Wanbao.

Mr Tan told Shin Min: "Before moving in, I checked out the surroundings and was very happy with it, and the neighbours were nice.

"I didn't expect to suffer because of the previous tenant's debts."

Mr Tan said he hopes to apply for another rental flat for his family's safety.

Bukit Timah condo fire: Victim was at our window, then...

Neighbours who gave extinguisher to man who climbed out of 7th-storey window of burning flat: He wanted to save his parents

NEIGHBOUR: (Above) Mr Cheong's wife showing where Mr Timothy Ng stood before they opened the grilles of their sixth-floor unit.
BRAVE: Mr Ng used a curtain to lower himself from the seventh-storey to the 25cm-wide ledge (above) on the sixth storey.
DEAD: Mr Alvin Ng Swee Seng.

They were awoken by screams for help coming from above, but when his wife went to look out of the master bedroom window, she could not see anyone.

As the screaming continued, his wife ran into their younger son's room and was shocked to see their upstairs neighbour standing on their window ledge.

Businessman Cheong Wing Kiat, 58, told The New Paper over the phone yesterday that he ran into the room after his wife.

"He was holding onto the metal (window) grilles, and shouting, 'Fire! Fire!' He asked us to open the grilles," he said.

But when the couple tried to open the grilles to let their neighbour into their sixth-storey unit, they realised the grilles were locked. They could not remember where the key was.

The fire started on Saturday about 5.30am in the seventh-storey unit above the Cheong's in Hillview Green, a condominium at Hume Avenue in Bukit Timah.

Mr Cheong and his wife were alone at the time. Their two older children are studying overseas and their younger son, who is in the army, had been away in camp that night.

TRAPPED

The family above was trapped as the fire raged in the living room and blocked their path to the front door.

Mr Cheong said their neighbour, Mr Timothy Ng, 29, had used a curtain to lower himself from the window of his home above to the 25cm-wide metal ledge outside their son's room.

"We were in a panic. Our windows were open, but we could open the grilles only with a key," he said.

"I tried to force them open, but I could not."

Fortunately, his wife quickly remembered that the key was in a drawer in the dining room, and rushed to retrieve it.

Mr Cheong said: "It was by a stroke of luck that we were able to find the key, and he (Mr Ng) was able to hold on to the grilles.

"I can't imagine if he had fallen. Falling from the sixth storey is no joke."

After they opened the grilles, Mr Ng climbed in, and Mr Cheong gave him a fire extinguisher.

Mr Cheong said: "He asked for a bucket of water to try to put out the fire, but I had guessed that the fire was very big, so I gave him a small fire extinguisher meant for kitchen fires."

Mr Cheong and his wife then called the police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force for help, while Mr Ng ran upstairs with the extinguisher.

The couple made their way down using the stairs with other residents.

Mr Cheong estimated the whole exchange lasted about three minutes, adding it "happened very quickly".

It is understood that the unit on fire housed 10 occupants: Mr Alvin Ng Swee Seng, 68, his wife, Madam Moreen Soh, 69, their two sons, Mr Terrence Ng, 41, and Mr Timothy Ng, their wives, two children and two maids.

Mr Ng told Chinese newspaper Shin Min Daily News he had clambered down from the blazing unit to Mr Cheong's unit below.

He then went back up to open the door from the outside and tried to put out the fire with the extinguisher. He also helped his parents out of the burning unit.

Singapore Civil Defence Force officers rescued the remaining occupants and put out the blaze using two water jets.

Nine people were taken to various hospitals.

Mr Alvin Ng, a retired businessman, and Madam Soh, a retired teacher, were taken to Singapore General Hospital with burn injuries.

Mr Alvin Ng died in hospital later that day.

Lianhe Wanbao reported on Sunday that Madam Soh was in a coma after suffering burns to 24 per cent of her body, including her face and ears.

Mr Cheong, who attended Mr Alvin Ng's wake yesterday afternoon, said: "It's sad what happened to Alvin. He was a really helpful and friendly man.

"Just last week, he came to my unit to retrieve a ball that had fallen into my unit for his granddaughter."

The Ng family declined to comment when approached at the wake yesterday evening.

Mr Cheong added: "Alvin's son was really courageous, I could see he was frightened and shocked, but all he wanted to do was save his parents."

I can't imagine if he had fallen. Falling from the sixth storey is no joke.

- Mr Cheong Wing Kiat

His 'disability' helps him 
excel in mathematics

TOP GUN: Mr Lionel Lee, with an A4SU Super Skyhawk in Singapore Polytechnic's Aero Hub, is passionate about mathematics.

He has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. But he sees it as a blessing in disguise.

Diagnosed at the age of three, Mr Lionel Lee always had problems interacting with others.

"I was always called 'weird' by my classmates and people often shunned me," Mr Lee, who is now 20, told The New Paper.

He will be graduating from Singapore Polytechnic's (SP) Diploma in Aerospace Electronicslater this month.

Mr Lee's condition hinders his ability to relate with others, especially those he is not familiar with.

He is also unable to stop himself paying unnecessary attention to details.

"While my friends are talking, I could be fixated on words written on a piece of paper and how the handwriting is curved," said Mr Lee.

He was unable to participate in conversations effectively and kept to himself.

PASSION

But his Asperger's was instrumental in growing his passion for mathematics.

He believes it is his "disability" that has helped him to focus specifically on details.

He loved mathematics since he was in primary school, as it stretched his thinking.

"I really enjoy the logic behind numbers and I feel powerful when I am able to solve a math problem," 
exclaimed Mr Lee, who perked up once he started talking about the subject.

When TNP spoke to him last Friday, he had been working through a thick stack of mathematics tutorial worksheets from the National University of Singapore.

He was recently accepted into Nanyang Technological University's Mathematics Sciences course.

"I hope to be able to get a PhD and prove a theory. I am confident I will be able to do it if I work hard," said Mr Lee with a smile.

I hope to be able to get a PhD and prove a theory. I am confident I will be able to do it if I work hard.

- Mr Lionel Lee on his long-term goal

Sunlight hurts her

GRIT: Despite being highly sensitive to sunlight, Miss Lee Hwee Leng still wishes to work in the maritime industry.

Her condition is such that she cannot be exposed to sunlight.

Otherwise, she can break into skin rash or, worse, suffer internal organ swelling and damage.

But Miss Lee Hwee Leng loves the ocean so much that she has decided to work in the maritime industry.

From a young age, Miss Lee has had many fond memories of the sea during her outings with her father. They would go fishing in local waters when she was in primary school.

As she grew older, they started venturing into Malaysian waters at least once a month.

But in Secondary Two, Miss Lee developed a butterfly-shaped facial rash which spread from one cheek to the other. Combined with the frequent fevers and fatigue, she was confirmed to have Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE).

Dr Koh Wei Howe, a Rheumatologist and Physician at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centresaid SLE is an autoimmune condition that can affect any part of the body.It can be fatal.

Miss Lee said: "There were times when I got very depressed because there were many things I couldn't do."

She experienced dark thoughts that included dying, but came round with the support of her family and friends.

She will be graduating from Singapore Polytechnic with a Diploma with Merit in Maritime Business this week.

As a nod to her condition, she will probably be working onshore, to escape the worst of the sun's rays.

She said: "I believe that there are more people living a life worse than mine. So I should live my life to the fullest."

Man battles disease to graduate

Despite facing severe medical conditions, three polytechnic students overcome their challenges and will be graduating soon. The New Paper asks them how they dealt with their difficulties

PAIN: Despite these challenges, Mr Lim rekindled his love for reading and writing and enrolled for Singapore Polytechnic's Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media when he was 30 years old.
PAIN: Mr Lim Tong Lee could not hold a pen because of the blisters on his hand and could not walk properly as the blisters on his feet (above) would rupture. He had no choice but to drop out of university in 2006.
PAIN: Mr Lim Tong Lee could not hold a pen because of the blisters on his hand (above) and could not walk properly as the blisters on his feet would rupture. He had no choice but to drop out of university in 2006.

At the age of 24, he dropped out of the Singapore Institute of Management where he was pursuing a bachelor's degree in business.

It had became physically impossible for him to continue.

Mr Lim Tong Lee suffers from a rare autoimmune disorder - where the body attacks itself. He suffers from painful blood-and pus-filled blisters on his body that would burst.

"I was in a constant mode of numb pain," he said.

Instead of letting the condition, called vesiculobullous disease, rule his life, the 33-year-old battled back, re-enrolled in school, and next week, he will graduate from Singapore Polytechnic's Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media.

He recalled how it started with blisters on his left foot nearing the end of his national service back in 2005 and it soon spread on his other foot and both arms and palms.

His mother, Madam Lim Peck Geok, a 76-year-old widow, spent close to $10,000 on various treatments and medication, for her son. These ranged from acupuncture to steroid cream to phototherapy - light treatment which was supposed to reduce the itch and inflammation.

But new blisters formed at a faster rate.

"It was mostly trial and error because the doctors couldn't figure out what exactly was the problem then ," said Mr Lim.

"There is no cure for it since it is an autoimmune disease and medication only helps to mitigate the symptoms."

Due to his condition, Mr Lim is unable to walk or write properly as there would be pus and blood whenever the blisters burst.

When a blister formed on the sole of his foot, he bled with each step he took.

"The pus would stain my bedsheets, making it very difficult for my mother to wash," said Mr Lim.

Donning long-sleeved shirts and thick socks to prevent the pus from dirtying his shoes was a common thing for Mr Lim.

His condition finally improved after he tried a drug that suppresses the immune system in 2013.

When TNP met him last Friday, he had only some dried skin and scars.

Because of his improved condition, he decided to study again and enrolled in SP.

"I felt very guilty since my mother is old and my income as a primary school tuition teacher was not enough (to support my mother and myself)," Mr Lim said.

However, juggling his health, work and studies was no easy feat.

MISSING CLASS

He often had to miss classes when his condition acted up. His classmates, whom he described as "very kind and understanding" , often gave him their notes.

For modules that required filming, his classmates and lecturers arranged for him to do more pre-production and post-production work as he was unable to work outdoors for long hours.

"Filming can last from dawn to dusk and my blisters would start to form when I was in the sun for too long," said Mr Lim as he touched a scar on his left palm.

When Mr Lim was a final-year student, he did a six-month internship at the Autism Resource Network where he edited press releases and filmed training videos.

His supervisor, Mr Dino Trakakis, 55, the network's managing director, was worried that it would not work out. But, he was pleasantly surprised when Mr Lim soon "blossomed", he said.

Mr Trakakis said Mr Lim demonstrated initiative that he had not expected or seen.

"He never used his skin condition as an excuse to skive off work and I salute him for that," said Mr Trakakis with pride.

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