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Erlina (centre) with her colleagues from TikTok, where she works in child protection. "Angry with God" after a series of disappointments, Erlina came to realise that God had been with her through all the crossroads in her life. All photos courtesy of Erlina Chia.

No matter how much young Singaporean Erlina Chia tried to plan, she always seemed to just miss the mark.   

The primary school student had aimed for Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, but missed the cut-off point for selection by 1 or 2 points.  

The secondary school student then worked hard to get into Temasek Junior College, but ended up missing by 1 or 2 points again.  

Though Meridian Junior College (MJC) was not her top choice, she flourished there and became the captain of its women’s canoeing team.

Erlina (second from right) with her canoeing teammates.  

“I was really into sports and decided that I would do a degree in Sports Science and pursue a career in the sports industry after that. I thought that I would have to study overseas in Australia or in a private university because my grades were not too good and Singapore did not offer this degree back then,” said Erlina, now 32.  

“When my plan failed yet again, I was devastated and angry with God.”

In an unexpected turn of events, she found herself doing well enough in the ‘A’ levels to enrol in a local university. The icing on the cake was Nanyang Technological University (NTU) announcing that it would offer a new Sports Science degree and pilot it with a small batch of students exactly the year which she was due for matriculation.  

“With all these going in my favour, I thought God was throwing me a lifeline and opening up the way for me to do Sports Science,” said Erlina, who worships at Bethesda (Katong) Church.   

In the end, she failed to get into the new programme. She was a bundle of nerves during the interview selection process and “messed it up”, she said ruefully. 

“When my plan failed yet again, I was devastated and angry with God because I thought He had opened doors for me in this direction,” said Erlina. After she received the rejection letter from NTU, her church friends came over to comfort her. She tried to wear out her angst by going for frequent runs. 

“I gave up trying to plan for my future since none of my plans had ever materialised. I told God, ‘Do what You want and I will go with it,’” she said.  

Disappointed with God

As she wrestled with God, her heart softened.

She realised that if she had not gone to MJC to lead the canoeing team, she would not have had the opportunity to volunteer to teach the sport to persons with disabilities – something that she finds fulfilling and still does today.

Her disappointment with God melted into surrender. She still could not see where she was heading, but she trusted Him to lead her into the unknown future.  

Erlina was the vice-president and the women’s captain of the SMU dragon boat team in 2010.

With the option of studying Sport Science – the only degree she was interested in – taken away (studying overseas was too expensive), she began to select her degree course through the process of elimination.  

She applied for the field of Social Science and got a place at the Singapore Management University (SMU).  

“I didn’t know why I ended up with Social Science or what I was going to do with it, but I believed that God would lead me,” said Erlina.  

Her heart’s posture allowed her to enjoy her university experience without being stressed out about chasing grades. She did her best in her studies but also continued to pursue other interests, such as heading the SMU women’s dragon boat team. 

Protecting the children

During her second year at university in 2010, Erlina went to Siliguri, India, with a group of church friends for an exploratory mission trip.

The group wanted to visit a ministry that ran a shelter for children rescued from the red-light district to assess if they should support it in the longer-term.  

Erlina (seated, right) with her church team on their first trip to Siliguri, India, in 2010.

The children at the shelter were quite young then, so the team mostly played games with them. At that time, the children were quite guarded towards them.  

When they returned the following year, with the intention of committing to the ministry through yearly trips, the children recognised them and opened up more.  

On the last day of their two-week trip, Erlina recalled an 11-year-old girl – the oldest child there at the time – coming up to her to ask: “Why do you love me when my own parents don’t even love or care for me?” 

The question hit Erlina hard.  

Erlina befriending the children in the shelter on her first mission trip to India.

The experience of safety, love and care should be something all children have a right to, but these girls don’t. Instead, they have become familiar with abuse, prostitution, rape, poverty and death,” she said.  

Erlina purposed in her heart to return year after year to build authentic relationships with the children, instead of doing a one-off mission trip.  

During those early years of mission trips, Erlina and her church friends would run camps for the children. They sang worship songs, shared Bible stories and usually ended off with a crowd favourite – a barbeque campfire.  

Erlina and her church friends having a BBQ night with the children at the shelter.

There was one girl whom Erlina grew particularly close to because she had watched her grow up over the years. The girl had come to the shelter when she was just two to three years old.  

“When she just arrived at the shelter, I remember sitting beside her and noticing that she was guarding and protecting her food out of a survival instinct. She was also stealing food at school. I yearned for her and the others to feel safe, have their needs met and to know joy, love and laughter,” said Erlina.     

Her mission trips became a catalyst, igniting Erlina’s passion for serving the vulnerable and at-risk groups in Singapore.  

Erlina reading a book to the children in the shelter.

When she graduated from university in 2013, she applied for a job at the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s rehabilitation and protection group.

Little did she know that the Social Science degree, which she took because she felt she had no other choice then, would prove useful in giving her the foundation needed for the social service issues that she would handle in her first job.  

Erlina with her parents and grandmother at her university graduation ceremony.

She was given the opportunity to specialise in the area of child protection and become a child protection officer.

Why do you love me when my own parents don’t even love or care for me?” 

Through interviews and site visits, she investigated cases involving the protection and welfare of children and young persons in Singapore from physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.  

She also assessed and followed up on intervention plans for families to help foster a child-safe environment, and escalated cases to the Juvenile Court to request for care and protection orders for cases where the children’s safety and welfare were at risk of being compromised.  

While she was gaining experience and expertise with child protection work in Singapore, the children at the shelter in India were also growing up.  

When Erlina took leave from work to make a trip up to India in 2017, she made it a point to catch up with the staff team and ask them how the children were doing.  

Erlina making aloo paratha with the girls in the shelter.

She was told that the little girl – the one who had hoarded food and who had grown so close to Erlina that she called her “mother” – was sexually abused during a visit back home.

As they sang the lyrics, Erlina was deeply touched by their faith despite their difficult circumstances.

Staff members noticed that she was acting out symptoms of her abuse but did not know how to help her. Many of the workers there were also burnt out from the heavy responsibilities of caring for the children.    

Erlina, calling up her experience in child protection and abuse cases, sat down with the girl to chat with her. It was not easy as she did not have the luxury of time to fully bond with the girl during her short trip there. The little girl was also reticent as she felt shame.  

Aware that the girl still needed to visit her home in future to see her mother, Erlina worked out a safe plan for her to be able to go home yet avoid situations where she might find herself alone with the perpetrator. She also coached her on how to cope with being conscious of her body and sexuality that had been awakened prematurely. 

Erlina conducting training for the staff at the shelter in India.

Erlina trained the staff on the signs to look out for in abused children, as well as taught them how to introduce  certain protective behaviours for the children, such as setting boundaries or finding trusted adults that the children can turn to.   

“Seeing the children grow physically and spiritually as a result of the love and care shown by the staff in the home have indeed been of great encouragement,” said Erlina, who has been visiting the home almost every year for the last decade. 

As the children grew older, Erlina switched from playing games to taking walks with them to spend time talking. They trusted her and would open up to her.  

Erlina with the girls during her last trip to India in 2019. She is heading back there again this year. 

One of the ways she saw spiritual growth in the children was hearing them sing their favourite song, You Say: “You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing/ You say I am strong when I think I am weak / And you say I am held when I am falling short/ And when I don’t belong, oh You say I am Yours/ And I believe.”

As they sang the lyrics, Erlina was deeply touched by their faith despite their difficult circumstances.

Back in Singapore, she would continue praying for them. Staff members from the shelter would also call her whenever they needed advice on how to handle certain situations. These workers face continual struggles and setbacks; alongside stories of rescue and restoration were also tales of girls returning to prostitution.

Serving justice internationally

Back in Singapore, Erlina noticed the stark discrepancy of resources and training, policies and laws, between her home country and other developing nations around her. She yearned to do more to contribute internationally to child protection issues.  

“While I enjoyed my job serving vulnerable children in Singapore, I felt something was still missing and I wanted to serve Him in a developing country,” she said.  

An ex-colleague told her about a non-governmental organisation called International Justice Mission (IJM) and Erlina went online to find out more.  

“I felt the powerlessness of Man and the need to wait on God’s timing.”

She was taken by its mission and mode of operation: Protecting people in poverty from violence by rescuing victims, bringing criminals to justice, and restoring survivors to safety and strength with the help of local law enforcement.

All these were being done through the united efforts of Christian attorneys, social workers, criminal investigators and support staff.  

Erlina sent off her application for its one-year fellowship programme, not expecting to be selected as she only had a few years of child protection experience under her belt.  

To her surprise, she was picked and given a posting to Cambodia.  

“Cambodia was good for me as as it was closer to home and my church had a missionary who served there, so my parents had less reservations, safety wise, about my going there compared to India,” said Erlina, whose father also took some time to warm up to the idea that she was leaving a stable civil service job to go for an unpaid fellowship.  

In Cambodia, she worked with the investigation team and legal team to analyse and manage cases by gathering evidence to determine if there were incidents of domestic or cross-border labour trafficking.  

Erlina having ice cream after work with her IJM colleagues.

She also volunteered with a local non-governmental group there to reach out to and befriend street women and children.  

“In Cambodia, I saw the immense work needed because there were so many gaps in the system and constraints in resources. I felt the powerlessness of Man and the need to wait on God’s timing,” said Erlina.  

Every morning, she and her team members would take time to do their individual quiet time and gather for corporate devotion and prayer in the afternoon.  

Erlina (extreme right) with her IJM colleagues at their quarterly prayer retreat.

“The work is so complex and prolonged that we need to wait on the Lord for Him to move and for our own refreshing,” said Erlina.  

The dangers of doing such work are real. Her colleague, an IJM human rights lawyer in Kenya, together with his client and driver, were killed six years ago when battling police abuse of power in Africa.  

For Erlina, the Lord protected her as she rode a motorbike every day to get around. She did not have the common occurrences of accidents or of being pickpocketed.  

Erlina working out with her colleagues after work in Cambodia.

When her fellowship was nearing its end, she was often asked about her plans.  

She was leaning towards international work, as she felt that there was still so much to be done. Yet when she applied for international positions, no satisfactory doors opened.  

So, she decided to return to Singapore to continue doing child protection work. Her friends in the sector discouraged her from doing so, warning her about the “crazy” workload and long working hours.  

“I didn’t think it was possible to dream about such things. Then this opportunity came.”

As Erlina prayed for His guidance over yet another crossroad decision in her life, a paragraph from her daily devotion book resonated with her: “Leave outcomes up to Me. Follow Me wherever I lead, without worrying about how it will all turn out … When our paths leads to a cliff, be willing to climb it with My help. When we come to a resting place, take time to be refreshed in My Presence.” 

Erlina felt the peace to head back home to do child protection work with the Ministry of Social and Family Development once again.  

With her international experience, she developed a newfound appreciation for the legal system in Singapore when it came to protecting the vulnerable. This protected her against burnout, especially when the cases took time to be resolved.  

She also became more involved in child sexual abuse cases by managing the cases as well as training new officers in the work.

A LinkedIn message

In July last year, Erlina came upon a random message that a TikTok recruiter sent her on LinkedIn.  

“The digital space is an important area for child protection efforts as technology provides a new and faster way of exploitation.”

The recruiter asked if she was interested in the position of Law Enforcement Response Team – Child Safety Operations Lead, APAC for the social media platform TikTok.  

Erlina had not known that such a position existed. Yet the position ticked all the boxes for her.

Ever since the team at IJM Philippines began work in child trafficking cases in the digital space, it had been her secret desire to delve into the online space as well.  

“But I had no idea how, since I had no experience in that area. I didn’t think it was possible to dream about such things. Then this opportunity came,” said Erlina with wonder. 

Erlina at one of her mission trips to India.

The position also met her criteria for having an international focus, as it was to lead child safety operations in the larger Asia-Pacific region for TikTok. 

She got the job and started work in December last year. The work of her team revolves around detection and removal of content relating to online child sexual abuse and exploitation. They work closely with other teams, such as the Legal and Policy teams, to manage global time-sensitive cases and streamline operational processes to protect minors on TikTok.  

“This job is a provision from God. The digital space is an important area to focus on for child protection efforts as technology provides a new and faster way of exploitation. It is the kids’ new playground, where more children are exposed to strangers and potential sextortion, grooming and blackmail,” said Erlina.  

“I experience Him the most in the crossroads of my life … When I let go, I realised He had a bigger plan all along.”

Through the many educational and career decisions and transitions, and the perceived detours and delays she faced, Erlina has learnt to trust God in leading her in the crossroads of life.  

“I experience Him the most in the crossroads of my life.

“I tried to plan my life but things did not go as planned. When I let go, I realised He had a bigger plan all along. Looking back at the times when I was disappointed or angry that things did not go as envisioned, He was there with me,” she said.  

“The doors He closes no man can open, and the doors He opens no man can shut.

“I would not have been able to imagine, back then, at the path I would be on today.”

To those who are at their own crossroads, Erlina has this encouragement: “Trust Him in the process, enjoy the journey and act when He calls.” 


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About the author

Janice Tai

Salt&Light senior writer Janice is a former correspondent who enjoys immersing herself in: 1) stories of the unseen, unheard and marginalised, 2) the River of Life, and 3) a refreshing pool in the midday heat of Singapore.

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