Adventure charity Raleigh International ends run; Singapore chapter not affected

  • Raleigh International, an adventure charity, ceased operations on 19 May 2222, closing the chapter on an era that spurred many young people to explore the world and be involved in community projects.
  • TheHomeGround Asia speaks to Singaporeans who have been through the gruelling journeys and have grown up along the way. 
Copywriter and screenwriter Huzaima Mahrom went to Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 2011 as a venturer because she wanted an adventure of a lifetime. (Photo courtesy of Huzaima Mahrom)
Copywriter and screenwriter Huzaima Mahrom went to Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 2011 as a venturer because she wanted an adventure of a lifetime. (Photo courtesy of Huzaima Mahrom)

It is the end of yet another era. Adventure charity Raleigh International has called it a day. 

A statement on its website says Raleigh International Trust has ceased operating “from Thursday 19 May 2022 and will be entering Creditors’ Voluntary Liquidation”.

A sustainable development charity with ties to the British royalty, Raleigh International says, “the combination of dramatically reduced funding and foreign aid, plus the legacy of two years of delayed or cancelled programmes due to the Covid-19 global pandemic and its associated overseas travel restrictions have had an irreversible impact”.

A meeting of creditors “is being convened for 16 June 2022”.

Raleigh International: running for over 40 years

In 1978, Prince Charles and British explorer John Blashford-Snell launched Operation Drake, a round-the-world voyage with the participation of young people from many countries, to develop self-confidence and leadership through adventure, scientific exploration and community service.

Following the success of Operation Drake, a more ambitious Operation Raleigh was established in 1984. In 1989, it became a land-based expedition. Its name was changed to Raleigh International in 1992 to reflect the growing diversity of expedition volunteers. 

Since 1978, the charity has placed over 55,000 young people aged between 17 and 24, from over 100 countries in its international sustainable development programmes to work with young people alongside communities living in poverty across the world. 

Prince William spent part of his Gap Year between school at Eton and St Andrew’s University working on a voluntary building project in southern Chile in 2001. (Photo source: The Independent)

These volunteers raised funds to pay for the opportunity and they included Prince William and Kate Middleton, who took part in development projects in Chile in 2001.

The Singapore chapter: Raleigh Singapore

Since 1984, Singaporeans have taken part in Raleigh International expeditions as volunteers to remote parts of the world. From the 1980s till late 1990s, an average of five to 10 Singaporeans a year participated in Raleigh International expeditions in different locations like Belize, Chile, China, Malaysia, Namibia, Siberia, and Uganda. 

In a pursuit to continue to pay it forward and contribute to the local community, these venturers started local as well as regional community projects in Indonesia, Myanmar and Mongolia upon their return from the Raleigh International expeditions, President of Raleigh Singapore Ong Ling Lee tells TheHomeGround Asia, adding that to date, there are about 100 to 150 active local members participating in and organising its activities. 

The news of Raleigh International ceasing operations came as a shock to the alumni.

Ms Ong says while Raleigh Singapore is deeply saddened by the news of Raleigh International ceasing operations from Thursday and is in touch with representatives from Raleigh International to understand the situation better. 

But she assures that it will not affect the Singapore chapter’s operations as it is run independently from Raleigh International.

“As its alumni, we had benefited immensely from our experience with Raleigh International, leading us to formally register the Singapore chapter as a society in August 2001 to continue the work on youth development through adventure. We are a registered society in Singapore, consisting of volunteers who are alumni of Raleigh International expeditions, as well as Raleigh Singapore projects held in Singapore and regionally,” Ms Ong says. 

“Since the 1990s, the Singapore chapter’s volunteers have organised expeditions and run projects independently of Raleigh International. Through these activities, we have stayed connected with other Raleigh chapters, for instance, our more recent expeditions in 2018 and 2019 were conducted jointly with volunteers from Raleigh Mongolia. We also hold our independent flagship event Let’s Take A Walk bi-annually to rally the local community to support charities in Singapore,” she adds.

It was Huzaima Mahrom’s first time travelling solo, so her family was naturally worried for the “baby of the family”. (Photo courtesy of Huzaima Mahrom)

Copywriter and screenwriter Huzaima Mahrom, who  went to Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 2011 as a venturer because “I wanted an adventure of a lifetime, plus I wanted to give back”, tells TheHomeGround Asia the news came as “a big shock to me. How could a giant charity shut down all of a sudden?”

“It was also my first time travelling solo, so my family was naturally quite worried for me as I am their baby girl, though I’m no longer a baby anymore,” she says, adding that the challenges were fundraising and “that doubt of whether I was physically and mentally up for the challenge”.

Like Ms Huzaima, lawyer Gillian Kang also did her growing up on her trip to United States in 1987. “I felt I had been pretty sheltered from a lot of the physical endurance stuff such as mountain climbing. The exhaustion was really debilitating at times but it made me develop grit and perseverance to push on even when things felt overwhelming and insurmountable,” she says.

Lawyer Gillian Kang’s getting picked for Operation Raleigh made it into the Singapore daily The Straits Times in 1987 (Photo courtesy of Gillian Kang)

Ms Kang feels sad to see Raleigh International wind down as “it truly is an end of an era, where the society spurred many young people to go and explore the world and be involved in service initiatives and community projects and to open they eyes to what was going on in the world politically, socio-economically and environmentally”.

The very first Singaporean to go in 1985 was Software Testing Professional Phua Siew Geck, who now lives in Australia. She was 24 then. Ms Phua went to Chile where she surveyed the flamingoes in the Atacama Desert salt lakes. “There were eye-opening experiences living in a remote desert village for six weeks, abseiling in the local ravines, and seeing mummies, which had been excavated for a museum,” she said in  a post on the Raleigh Singapore Facebook page.

It was because of Ms Phua that spurred gastroenterologist Tan Chi Chiu to go on his global expedition even when he was already 25 and the age limit for venturers were 17 to 24 years.

Dr Tan Chi Chiu: The first Singaporean Direct Staff 

Sharing how he became the first Singaporean to be a Raleigh staff member on expedition in the 1980s in a post on the Raleigh Singapore Facebook page, Dr Tan said he spoke to Mr Robert Powell who was coordinating Raleigh in Singapore then and was advised to have himself drafted as Directing Staff (DS). Dr Tan faced then what he called “a formidable interview panel” and was appointed as Singapore’s first DS on Operation Raleigh. He went to Chile in the spring of 1986.

Dr Tan Chi Chiu was not prepared for the freezing wet Chilean spring, nor for the two-week exploratory trek on horseback across the Andes. (Photo source: Raleigh Singapore/Facebook)

It was literally a learning experience” for Dr Tan, who was not prepared for the freezing wet Chilean spring and had to learn to “acclimate over the first few weeks”; he was also not prepared for the venturers to be so independent and forthright and had to learn the art of “leading from behind”; and finally he was made to learn how to ride a horse in just two hours going off on a two-week exploratory trek across the Andes mountains.

“On day one, I was thrown by my horse into a river when he stopped to drink and by the end of the day, it felt like I was urinating razor blades,” he said, adding that he ran his “very first rural community clinic” from a makeshift clinic using medical supplies from the support ship.

Dr Tan became very active with the Singapore chapter two years after clearing his medical specialist examination in 1988. He was asked by retired Col John Blashford Snell, the creator of Operation Raleigh, in 1992 to run a series of medical projects in Outer Mongolia involving health surveys, horse-mounted clinics and BCG vaccinations among the Mongolian tribes. 

Dr Tan Chi Chiu running clinic in Outer Mongolia and administering BCG vaccinations among the Mongolian tribes. (Photo source: Raleigh Singapore/Facebook)

“He requested SAF to second me to him and, amazingly, they agreed! I asked for Dr Richard Tan to come with me and that too was allowed. So I became the Medical Director of the Mongolia 1992 expedition. We had a very successful three months working in the far west of Mongolia, centred on Hovd, at the tri-radiate border of China, Mongolia and Russia,” Dr Tan said.

Dr Tan tells TheHomeGround Asia that Raleigh International, previously Operation Raleigh, was a venture ahead of its time.

“It provided a rare experience for youth to work in multinational teams in remote places, learning about themselves, leadership, teamwork, adventure, community spirit and acquiring a can-do spirit. For many of us in Singapore, the Raleigh experience was formative, though this really belies the true effect on every individual who has gone. It is not an exaggeration to say that for many of us, many of our life success factors were honed on Raleigh and any deficiencies remain our own responsibility!” he says.

Dr Tan says no doubt the strongest factor for Raleigh International to wind up after 40 years has been the Covid19 pandemic, which put a complete stop to all expeditions all over the world, thus drying out the organisation of the lifeblood of young participants and the funding that came with them.

“But also after 40 years, opportunities for youth to experience what Raleigh uniquely offered in the early days have expanded tremendously such that the kind of expedition Raleigh started is now almost ubiquitous. Even in Singapore, I created the Youth Expedition Project (YEP) in 2000, which to this day under the National Youth Council, provides similar developmental experiences to young people, perhaps in more digestible several-week-long bite sizes than the full three month expeditions of Raleigh that required significant sacrifices,” he says.

“So, while we may bemoan the demise of the original global leader of such experiences, Raleigh International based in Britain, we can rejoice that the spirit of Raleigh has spread all over the world, inspiring future generations of projects run by diverse people and organisations, all containing some of the DNA of the original Raleigh, continuing to inspire youth to community service, self discovery and a life of adventure in every endeavour in their lives. I salute Col John Blashford Snell for his visionary crafting of the Raleigh experience,” Dr Tan adds.

As for Singapore Raleigh’s Annual General Meeting, scheduled for 25 June, Ms Ong says it will proceed as planned and the agenda remains unchanged. “We will update members on the past year’s activities and upcoming events such as the Let’s Take A Walk 2022 happening at the end of August. In addition, we will update members on our discussion with Raleigh International and next steps thereafter,” she says. 

Join the conversations on TheHomeGround Asia’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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