Deborah Gilles was only 21 years old when she spent her first night in Singapore. The British young lady was here on a solo layover during her flight from London to Sydney.
Although the details of that night some thirty years ago remain hazy, Deborah remembered walking the streets of Orchard Road, a place that was worlds apart from the coastal county of Cornwall that she grew up in.
In 2011, her husband’s work posting brought her back to Singapore once again. Deborah was excited, as her younger brother also lived here with his Laotian girlfriend (now wife). “I heard many positive things about Singapore from them, such as the booming economy, great international schools, low crime rate, and efficient transportation system,” says Deborah, who was keen to make Singapore home and raise her then four-year-old son.
Adapting to Local Culture
Living in a new place proved challenging at first, as it involved the process of carving out new daily routines, finding social and interest groups, and immersing in the local culture.
It was especially tough for Deborah, who had joined her husband in Singapore without a job of her own. Without an office and colleagues, she initially struggled to find a social network to fit into.
“It was quite a bit of a culture shock for me initially,” Deborah admits. “I had difficulty understanding the Singaporean accent and they had difficulty understanding me.” Sometimes, as a Caucasian in a predominantly Asian country, she felt like an outsider in a strange land.
Today, Deborah has adapted well to Singaporean culture. Through her interaction with Singaporeans over the years, she has also picked up some local habits. “I ‘chope’ (reserve) seats at the food centre with tissue packets,” she says, laughing. “And I greet the driver with ‘Hi Uncle/Aunty, have you had your lunch?’ when I get into a cab.”
Deborah (standing, first from right ) made friends with people from all over the world at RDA Singapore.
Engaging with the Community
Back then, the settling in process for Deborah was made much easier because of the support from her younger brother and partner and the Australian and New Zealand Association (ANZA), an organisation that provides networking, social, sporting and cultural opportunities for expats in Singapore. However, Deborah wanted to be more active in the community and meet new people, especially other locals. Hence, she grabbed the chance when the opportunity to join Riding for the Disabled Association Singapore (RDA Singapore) as a volunteer came along in 2013.
RDA Singapore is the only charity in Singapore that provides equine-assisted therapy (also known as hippotherapy) to children and adults with physical and mental disabilities. Therapy sessions are offered free of charge.
For Deborah, she found a greater sense of purpose for her life here in Singapore through volunteering. “I grew up with horses back in the UK, so it was really nice to be able to re-establish close contact with them again in Singapore,” Deborah shares.
Through volunteering, Deborah (in green) found a deeper sense of purpose for her life here in Singapore.
“I made friends with people from everywhere – Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, as well as England, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, and Ireland,” Deborah says. “And as a mother to a young child, it was really rewarding to be able to work with children with special needs.”
Although Deborah returned to work and had to step back from volunteering with RDA Singapore in 2018, her current role as Advertising Manager with ANZA still allows her to contribute back to society by supporting sixteen charities and non-profit organisations in Singapore through fundraising and volunteering activities. “Volunteering is my way of giving back to Singapore as my adopted home, as well as experiencing a different side of life here in Singapore,” Deborah says.
She shares, “To be honest, when we first came to Singapore, we didn’t expect to stay for so long. However, the safe and clean living environment that Singapore offers is really hard to come by. Our son has also grown up here and is used to this place. We are very happy to stay in Singapore and we can’t imagine raising our child anywhere else. I look forward to contributing more in the years that we continue to call Singapore home.”
Deborah (first from right, in stripes) continues to give back to Singapore through her work at ANZA.