On a Baltic Sea cruise last year, Sonia Ong came across an unusual sport in Oslo, Norway known as rollerskiing. Using skis on wheels, it is the off-snow equivalent to skiing and is how professional Nordic skiers train in the summer. But it has also grown to become a competitive sport of its own, and it’s especially popular in Europe. Intrigued by the idea of summer skiing, Sonia thought it was the perfect sport to introduce to Singapore and the region.
“A friend once joked that skiing is Singapore’s new national sport,” says the 37-year-old, “because so many Singaporeans travel overseas to ski. One time I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw that five people I knew were in Niseko at the same time!”
In September this year, Sonia officially launched Urbanski, a rollerski training and travel company that offers complete day trips to resorts in neighbouring cities like Johor Bahru and Batam, but also crafts bespoke rollerski tours around the world. Developed in consultation with Olympic skiers and rollerski trainers, Urbanski’s rollerski curriculum is approved by the Singapore Rollerski Association, which Sonia also founded. She is also the director of Rollerski at the Singapore Rollersports Federation. This month, Urbanski is opening a new gym at *Scape, where it will hold a group workout class called Rollercore, where a class of 20-30 people do exercises in rollerskis to disco music.
“My BHAG [Big Hairy Audacious Goal] is to take Urbanski global, and push for rollerski to become an Olympic sport,” declares Sonia. “I want a billion people around the world to try rollerskiing. Many might not like it because it is quite challenging, but maybe 30 will go pro and we might have an Olympic sport! How exciting would that be?”
While she is pushing rollersking as a sport now, her initial idea was to make it an activity at a programme she runs, called PlaystreetsSG. Two years after founding the Singapore Wellness Association (SWA) in 2014, Sonia launched PlaystreetsSG, a series of pop-up street playgrounds around Singapore to promote an active lifestyle through inclusive games. These free pop-ups were sparked by the global epidemic of obesity, which is also becoming increasingly prevalent in Singapore. Data from the Health Promotion Board revealed that obesity rates in Singapore are set to increase from 11 percent in 2017 to 15 percent by 2024.
“Obesity leads to chronic issues like diabetes, which I think people are not taking seriously enough,” says Sonia, who graduated with a major in public health from Cornell University in New York. “But obesity is also something preventable. We want to encourage families to start incorporating exercise into their daily or weekly habits. When you develop this habit with your kids, they will be more likely to exercise as adults.”
Since May 2016, there have been more than 200 PlaystreetsSG pop- ups around Singapore. Typically, they run on a street in the enclaves of Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam and include games for “everyone, from ages three to 99”.
Last year, she also started Silverstreets, a derivative of PlaystreetsSG designed for the elderly that ran until August this year and reached 12,000 senior citizens. One of the games was Giant Goli – a modified version of the traditional game Goli, which involves flicking marbles to knock other marbles out of a prescribed boundary. Giant Goli swops the marbles out for larger plastic balls, and has a boundary marked by a hoop.
“Games like Giant Goli are great to get the elderly moving, but the most beautiful thing about it is that it’s an intergenerational bonding game,” says Sonia. “This is something that a grandparent knows from their kampung days but their grandchildren might not, so it can be a great leveller. It can start conversations and also be a tool of empowerment for the elderly at an age when their bodies are starting to fail.”
The response to PlaystreetsSG has been heartening, and Sonia plans to keep it going for as long as possible. “It’s very special to me because it’s probably the most significant contribution I feel I have personally made to Singapore. The benefits are highly intangible, but we bring pure joy to people. The interactions are genuine and the smiles on people’s faces are real.”
Weaving the social fabric
While inclusivity has always been part of PlaystreetsSG’s DNA, the programme has taken it a step further this year with a new campaign, Let’s Rojak Interculture Playstreets. Launched in August this year at the various PlaystreetsSG locations, it promotes more linguistic reciprocation and inter-faith curiosity among Singaporeans.
“I noticed that a lot of our Tamil friends have picked up Chinese, but the Chinese have not really picked up any Tamil,” says Sonia. “Sure, many people agree that Chinese is important, which leads the practical Indian or Malay to pick it up. But we are a multicultural society and we all live together. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all put in a little bit of effort to say a few words in the other languages too?”
As part of the campaign, new games have been introduced, like a matching game of common greetings in Singapore’s four official languages. Printed out on a large floor mat, it encourages people to test their knowledge and pick up new phrases in another language. At the beginning of this month, she also rolled out a travelling exhibition – which kicked off at the Central Public Library – comprising 16 panels to educate the public about the different greetings, customs and cultures in Singapore. Some panels have information about the 10 religions recognised by the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore. Called The Faith Buffet, this inter-faith component was sparked by a conversation she had with her friend, Vihari Poddar, who is Jain.
“I didn’t really know what Jainism was until she explained it to me and was so succinct about it,” says Sonia. “She said Jainism and Buddhism have many similarities, which then made it so much clearer to me.” This inspired the series of panels with explanations of the various religions by laymen. “It is just like a friend telling you what their religion is all about. It’s not overly complex, but captures the essence of their beliefs. It’s meant to make you curious.”
The Interculture Playstreets campaign is one Sonia really feels strongly about, because she believes multiculturalism is a key part of Singapore’s social fabric. Multiculturalism, she acknowledges, may not always be intuitive, because human beings have a tendency to keep to their own kind. “But this idea has been instilled in us, and we want to keep it that way.”
Sonia’s eyes well up as she continues, “We want to be with each other. We enjoy this diversity and want to stand by each other amid the noise. Sometimes there are simmering tensions, but we want to embrace this ideal and keep it going – I think it’s beautiful. We’re finding our way and who we are as Singaporeans. And I hope more of us explore that.”
Another issue Sonia is tackling through SWA is mental wellness. “It’s tragic how many 12-year-olds are committing suicide because they cannot do well in the PSLA,” she laments. “And it’s also absurd to realise high-performing professionals know very little about how to take care of their bodies. As we know now, burnout was recently recognised as a medical condition by the World Health Organisation.” She says that while there are a lot of counselling services in Singapore, there is no programme in place to help people cope with day-to-day stress and burnout. “A coping programme is timely and sorely needed.”
This December, the SWA’s Kaypoh is Kind initiative will provide burnout prevention training to 1,000 volunteer advocates, and educate them on how to look out for signs of stress and depression in those around them. It will also equip them with coping and empathy skills.
“Sometimes you cannot tell if a person is suffering because they might be hiding it,” says Sonia. “But with this training you’ll have the skills to spot it and help. Sometimes, all you need is one kaypoh person to offer encouragement or concern, and you can keep going on.”
Fashion direction: Johnny Khoo
Art direction: Audrey Chan
Photography: Joel Low
Fashion styling: Jacquie Ang
Hair: Christvian Goh using Revlon Professional
Makeup: Melissa Yeo using Clé De Peau Beauté
Photography assistance: Rigg Dennis Ngo
Fashion assistance: Shannahlette Jenn Lim