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A New Sending Country

Updated: May 24, 2023

By K. Douglas Erdmann, President and CEO


What country has the world’s most widely accepted passport? If you guessed Singapore, you were close. Singapore and South Korea are just one notch behind Japan.

The coveted Singapore passport

Why is this question important to REI? Because the countries in which we work often limit access to certain nationalities. Currently, all of REI’s staff are Americans, as are most of our volunteer professionals. Unfortunately, the U.S. passport ranks a humble 7th in passport acceptance, behind 16 other countries. If REI is going to bring its unique help to all the countries that need it, a number of its staff and volunteers will need to be non-Americans.


Singapore, in particular, seems like it would be a good country to provide some of those staff and volunteers. This is not only because of its passport, but also because of its world-class educational system, its financial resources, its proximity to many developing countries and, last but not least, its citizens’ first language, English, which is valued around the world.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has fourteen programs ranked in the top 10 worldwide

But to make Singapore a “sending country” for REI, we’ve needed “boots on the ground,” in other words, a Singaporean living in Singapore working as our representative. Enter James Ong. Joyce and I knew James when we lived in Singapore. James graduated from the National University of Singapore (one of Singapore’s top universities), served with distinction in their military, and held leadership roles in several non-profits. Most recently, he has specialized in using a talent assessment tool to bring out the best in individuals and organizations. His wife, Siling, is quite gifted herself, having made timely and impactful contributions to several Singaporean non-profits as well. So, in January we asked James if he would consider being our REI Representative, assisted by Siling.

James and Siling Ong, and their four children

In response, James asked many questions. He also engaged with numerous non-profit leaders in Singapore to confirm that REI would not be duplicating the work of other organizations that send Singaporeans overseas. And finally, James asked if he could visit several of our target countries to see for himself what REI does.


Joyce and I recently took James on a trip to Vietnam, Laos and Uzbekistan. He met our staff in those countries, some of our volunteer professionals assisting there, and many of our local partners, including heads of universities and hospitals. Everyone loved James. The fact that he is both engaging and respectful certainly helped. James came back convinced that he should become our first ever Singapore Representative, opening Singapore as an official REI sending country.

James with Professor Trao, President of Hanoi University

James began his new role in April. A lot lays ahead of him: registering REI as an official Singapore non-profit, raising funds for both his personal salary needs and a Singapore office, and trips to the U.S. for REI training. But soon, because of James’ and Siling’s heart, skill and hard work, we believe that Singaporeans will be joining us by the dozen in our great mission of “building people to build nations” around the world.

James and Doug on a train in Uzbekistan sealing the deal on James becoming REI’s first ever Singapore Representative

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