Service // Missions

How a simple ‘yes’ to God led to loving children and youth in a country in crisis

As LoveTimor marks its 20th anniversary this year, Salt&Light shines a spotlight on the Singaporeans who have answered the call to serve in the nation of Timor-Leste.

Ting Siew Lee // April 9, 2024, 5:53 pm

Ting Siew Lee (first row, right) and her co-founder, Li Shan (first row, middle), seen here with some of the first students whom they taught and befriended in 2007. Two are parents now and Frans, left, is one of the leaders of Cocoon today.

Cocoon co-founders Siew Lee (seated, in white) and Li Shan (seated, in blue) with some of the first students they taught and befriended in 2007. Two are now parents and Frans (second row, left) is one of the leaders of Cocoon today. All photos courtesy of Ting Siew Lee.

This year, 2024, marks the 20th anniversary of the LoveTimor movement, a concerted effort to unite the Singapore Church to transform Timor-Leste.

Championed by the late Ps Rick Seaward, who was the Chairman of LoveSingapore then, the movement has grown to include churches around the world, from Southeast Asia to America and Africa. 

Ting Siew Lee was on the first recce trip with the LoveSingapore Committee pastors in 2004. A few years after that visit, she went to Timor-Leste and co-founded Cocoon, a non-governmental organisation that operates a preschool and runs youth programmes to serve the children and youth of Timor-Leste.

She shares how her personal missions journey became interwoven with the birth and growth of the LoveTimor movement twenty years ago, and reflects on the mysterious ways that God uses us to accomplish His purposes.

The life of faith is a continual tango with paradox and mystery.

Why would an all-powerful God call frail and broken beings like us to labour alongside Him?

Why does a God who stands outside of time stoop down into the specifics of human history and meet us in the dramas of life and death, through all our fleeting pains and joys?

How does God’s sovereignty intersect with our human agency moment by moment, to birth things He has purposed since the beginning of time?

A heart moved 

I came to Christ at 19.

Very early on in my Christian life, I wrestled with the truth that only two things are eternal – the Word of God and the souls of men.

My intellectual search for meaning led me to the conclusion that missions was the intersection of what was eternal and, by the time I was 21, I had given my small “yes” to God to be a missionary.

I wrestled with the truth that only two things are eternal – the Word of God and the souls of men.

Did I know the implications of what my “yes” meant, or where it would lead me? Certainly not.

By God’s design, my life in missions was interwoven into LoveSingapore’s foray into Timor-Leste in 2004. I was a young broadcast journalist then, occupying the proverbial front row seat in the arena of human history.

Daily, I was immersed in tracking and covering breaking news developments from all over the world as a news producer.

Timor-Leste was constantly in the news then. On August 30, 1999, after almost 25 years of resisting Indonesian occupation, it voted overwhelmingly for independence in a historic referendum sponsored by the United Nations.

What followed was a brutal campaign in which withdrawing Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militia groups razed the territory to the ground, destroying all key infrastructure, and displacing large numbers of terrified Timorese civilians across the border into West Timor.

Amid the chaos, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established to provide an interim civil administration and a peacekeeping mission to maintain security.

After three years of UNTAET stewardship, independence was officially restored to Timor-Leste on May 20, 2002.

As the choir sang the national anthem, I cried, despite not understanding a word of what was being sung.

I remember that night like it was yesterday. I was in the newsroom, working the night shift, keeping an eye on the multiple screens of never-ending video images streaming in from all over the world.

The world’s cameras were focussed on the events unfolding in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste. The ceremony was a major world event attended by some 300 dignitaries like then US President Bill Clinton and then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. All the TV monitors in front of me were beaming live images of the ceremony.

At the stroke of midnight, the Timorese national anthem rang out in the stillness of the night and I was transfixed. I was literally watching a nation being born from the ashes, in my lifetime, at the doorstep of Singapore.

As the choir sang the national anthem, I cried, despite not understanding a word of what was being sung.

The beginnings of LoveTimor

A year later in 2003, I jumped at an opportunity to lead a youth team to Timor-Leste, where I visited Ps Selvam Muttu, his wife Evelyn, and their firstborn, in Baucau, the second largest city of the country. Thus began a friendship that has spanned decades and national boundaries.

In 2004, the late Ps Rick Seaward led the first recce trip to Timor-Leste with the LoveSingapore committee pastors. The call was clear: Singapore was to adopt Timor-Leste, love her as our neighbour and be responsible for her national transformation.

The LoveSingapore committee met then President Minister Xanana Gusmao in 2004 and had an opportunity to pray for him. This was the vision casting trip that led to the start of the LoveTimor movement.

Wong Li Shan and I tagged along as the media team to produce a vision casting video for what eventually became the LoveTimor movement. That humble production in the hands of the late Ps Rick went to places like Sri Lanka, the United States and the African continent to rally the worldwide Church to partner Singapore to love Timor-Leste together.

They encountered Jesus and became believers, despite strong opposition from their family and community.

Transformation Alliance came into being as a vehicle to operationalise the movement in Timor-Leste. It is a testament of the power of God to summon His people and galvanise united action.

Since it was founded, it has brought together missionaries from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the United States, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and others.

We arrived in the early years of the movement, during a time of national upheaval. The country had been rocked by civil violence in 2006. Large numbers of people were displaced from their homes and living in camps across the city, and gang fights turned the neighbourhoods of Dili into battle zones.

Against that backdrop of communal violence, we shared our plans to teach English to Timorese youth with a local leader, who invited us to work in his neighbourhood. Four months after arriving in Dili, we started English classes for youth and children.

The late Ps Rick Seward and the other pastors visiting a technical school in Dili as part of the vision casting trip.

As we gained familiarity with our students, we invited some to study the Bible with us. They encountered Jesus and became believers, despite strong opposition from their family and community. Some joined us as volunteers and, later on, became staff and pillars of our ministry. 

Raising up a new generation

As more Timorese of character and conviction joined us, we stepped up our work with children, and discipled our team to love and value them.

The needs amongst the next generation are tremendous. Approximately 40% of the population is under 15. Even today, nearly half of Timorese children under five are stunted due to malnutrition.

The Cocoon kindergarten was started in 2015, with just nine students. It is now operating at maximum capacity with over 80 students. In 2021, the team started after-school care operations to serve Timorese families who require childcare support.

By 2015, after some seven years of working with youth, we realised that some learning challenges we saw in young people resulted from early childhood deprivation. Hence, we decided to pivot into starting a preschool to do our small part to give Timorese children better life outcomes.

The Cocoon kindergarten started with just nine children and, after years of climbing a very steep learning curve, we are now running at maximum capacity with more than 80 children enrolled, and we are gearing up for a building project to upgrade our facility to better serve our children.

The Cocoon story is but one ripple in the vast ocean of God’s redemptive purposes for Timor-Leste.

As wave upon wave of missionaries arrived and spread out in the country, God worked through the unique trials and tribulations of each chapter of history to seek out the lost Timorese sons and daughters and draw them to Himself.

Siew Lee (in black) and her co-founder, Li Shan (left, in purple), with the Cocoon staff team during the commissioning ceremony in July 2021. Local pastors, leaders and friends witnessed the official handover of duties from the pioneer Singaporean missionaries to the Timorese team.

There were episodes of civil unrest. Cycles of political instability. Persecution would flare up and die down here, then spike somewhere else. There were years of economic boom and bust. Churches were started, churches were split. Community development took off in some places and floundered in others. Some mission teams thrived, others broke up.

Through it all, the Kingdom advanced, the Gospel was preached, and a new generation of Timorese has come to know God.

The things that remain

It has been more than three years since I returned to Singapore after ending my missionary term in Timor-Leste. In August last year, I visited my team for the first time since I left in 2021.

I was accompanied by my tribe from Singapore – people from my new home church, my current workplace and friends who have been a part of our journey.

Siew Lee and her co-founder, Li Shan, at a farewell party in July 2021, together with the Cocoon staff team then. As part of a spontaneous surprise, the youth dressed them in traditional Timorese attire.

These Singaporeans represent the new chapter of my story, and as they met and bonded with my Timorese tribe, it felt like the different seasons of my life were being united into one coherent whole. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity to have lived two lifetimes worth of adventures in one.

Jesus said in John 10:10 that He came to give us abundant life. That simple statement ignited my imagination to believe that I could live a life of adventure and purpose and not merely conform to societal norms.

In August 2023, Siew Lee was accompanied by her pastors, colleagues and friends on her first visit to Timor-Leste since she wrapped up her missionary term. Cocoon organised its annual staff dinner to coincide with the happy occasion.

Another verse that has shaped my practice of missions and attitude to life is John 15:16. Jesus declared that He has chosen us and appointed us to bear fruit that should “remain”.

At the end of a lifetime of labour and toil, what remains? Not worldly recognition or wealth, and definitely not the validation of mere man. As CT Studd puts it so eloquently: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

No one knows what the future holds and whether or not our Timorese disciples will stay faithful and steadfast till the end. But I pray the fruit of discipleship and transformation in their lives will remain as a lasting witness to the reality of God’s grace on Timor-Leste.

A simple “yes”

As the LoveTimor movement celebrates its 20th anniversary, let it be a milestone that shows how your life and mine can be swept up in plans and purposes far greater than what one individual can ever imagine.

The Cocoon team partnered with a Singapore team to run a youth camp in 2019. Called Freedom Camp, it is held annually during the Timor-Leste Independence Day holiday. The yearly event is a highlight in Cocoon’s outreach to youth.

Let it be evidence that the Good Father has His eye on the small, the weak and the despised things of this world, and that His investment of lavish love will always seem out of proportion according to the world’s cold and rational calculations of what is worthwhile.

Let it be a showcase of the strength and beauty of the worldwide Body of Christ, a community of faith that transcends ethnic, national and cultural lines.

Most of all, let it be a clarion call to the next generation to run the missionary race to the ends of the earth, and write history together with the God of the nations.

All it takes to start is a simple “yes”.

Discover your role in missions today

To explore your part in world missions, speak to your local church leaders or drop the Antioch21 team an email at [email protected]. Antioch21 is a missions movement that seeks to raise a missionary force of all generations within the next decade.


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About the author

Ting Siew Lee

Siew Lee was a missionary to Timor-Leste for 14 years, where she co-founded Cocoon, an NGO that runs a preschool and youth development programmes. She is passionate about raising up the next generation of Singaporeans to be sent out on God adventures in the nations. In her free time, she lifts heavy things at the gym and plays with community cats. She works as a consultant.