A Christmas gift for Punjab's children - renovated schools

Satwant Singh founded the Young Sikh Association in 2003 and started Project Khwaish, a community service project to hel...

The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year seeks to honour Singaporeans whose extraordinary acts of goodwill have improved their community and the lives of others. Today, ST announces the latest batch of finalists for the third edition of the award.

December means a festive-season slowdown for many people but it signals a time when lawyer Satwant Singh goes well out of his way to help people far less fortunate.

Every December for the past 14 years, Mr Singh and a team of volunteers have lent a hand to schools in Punjab, India.

He told The Straits Times by phone from the village of Ratokke in the state's Sangrur district: "At the end of the day, we see a different society at play here: What sort of lives do they have in the village, and what are their concerns?"

Mr Singh, 53, is there with a team of 20 young Singaporeans from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, who are living among the villagers as part of a fortnight-long project. Their goal is to paint and renovate the village's rundown school, build a library and stock it with 3,000 books, install a water filtration system and rebuild the school's dilapidated toilets - all in time for Christmas.

The school will be the 17th Mr Singh has rebuilt and repaired with groups of young volunteers. Their efforts are part of Project Khwaish, which he set up with the Young Sikh Association - an organisation he started with some pals in 2003.

The National Youth Council supplies some of Project Khwaish's funding with Mr Singh and his volunteers raising the rest. Before every December expedition, Mr Singh takes an exploratory trip to India, paid for out of his own pocket, to scout out schools that need upgrading.

His community work has also made him