Sharing my story and views on social issues, including #blacklivesmatter with leaders of Apple APAC on 23 July 2020.
Tell us more about yourself and what’s top of mind for you at the moment?
I derive immense joy from not just from walking a path less travelled but from plying open the thickest of undergrowth so as a coach said to me years back, I’m seduced by possibilities which is probably why I’m a madhatter. I wear multiple hats and dance between the public, people and private sectors as I busybody with deep passion what I call the 3Ms of my purpose — mental health, marginalised communities and migrant workers.
In a more conventional way, I’m often introduced as a Nominated Member of Parliament (now former since Parliament was dissolved for our recent elections and the next Parliament is yet to be formed), Social Entrepreneur and a life and leadership coach. I took my last corporate paycheck in Dec 2013 to pursue my aspirations full time in social entrepreneurship and coaching. My hat as a social entrepreneur has been such a delightful one to wear because it really plays to the joy of using a different way of thinking to solve a social challenge — whether with Hush TeaBar, A Good Space, WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, Playground of Joy, Project Yoga-on-Wheels. I recently added the hat of an author in 2018 when I published my book called 50 Shades of Love — this is a plug, the net proceeds of that go towards psychosocial support programmes for vulnerable children here and Rohingya refugees.
Top of my mind. The hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have been confined in their dorms since 7 April. Even the ones doing essential jobs who have been rehoused to old repurposed buildings are not allowed to come out on their rest days, and they are sent straight back after work. I have been doing what I can on all fronts — engaging with the Govt directly, mobilising the different community projects that I’ve been involved, co-ordinating with other groups in the sector and also initiating new initiatives such as Welcome in my Backyard to counteract the not-in-my-backyard or NIMBY sentiments amongst Singaporeans.
What was it like being a Member of Parliament and what do you think was the strongest contribution you made?
A phenomenal privilege, a deep honour to be able to serve this way — to give and amplify the voices from the vulnerable communities. This gave me the opportunity to fully understand the impact of policymaking on inequality and inclusion. Policies shape behaviours and attitudes. For example, some of our mental healthcare policies perpetuate the stigma against persons with mental health conditions including the disparity in Medisave/Medishield limits, long waiting times for mental health professionals etc. Or CareShield Life having a higher premium for women. Or Section 377A that criminalise sex between men still in our laws because we are not accepting of a minority group who live in our midst. The experience has given me further impetus to bring about change. If policies don’t enable, then there is a limit to the change that we can bring about on the ground, the two must work in tandem.
I think my strongest contribution may have been modelling that it’s ok to speak up and raise uncomfortable and even controversial issues in the hallowed chamber in a rational and authentic manner. Because look, I am still alive, I am still well — at least for now! I do know from many young Singaporeans that this means so much to them — this gives them hope that they can also speak up.
The other contribution I think may be that I brought along almost 40 community practitioners and activists in my journey through NMP so that they can learn about our parliamentary process of questions and debates, amongst others which can inform and amplify their work on the ground. We work on each debate speech and each parliamentary question together.
Any funny stories in parliament to share?
Many bloopers! But I’ll share one that’s relevant to the group here. When I stood up to speak on an adjournment motion for the first time, I wasn’t sure if I was to go down to the rostrum like we do in our main debates or I should stand at my seat. The Deputy Speaker, not knowing that I was going to make a 8 min speech and not a one or two liners replied that I should do it from my seat. So I did and because there was nowhere to place my Macbook Air 11”, I held my Mac for the entire 8 minute on national TV! Unlike all the other MPs, I don’t print out my speeches because I’m a tree hugger. That speech created a bit of stir — it was on Youth Activism and I was amplifying the frustrated voices of the youth on the little space for activism as well as their ideas of democracy. Apple got a free product endorsement. But with the safe distancing and recalibrated seating, I had been holding my Mac up during my speech in full view of the camera for the last 3 sittings to debate the 4 budgets rolled out for Covd-19 so that became my ‘look’ — many have commented on my strong left arm and the lightness of the Mac.
What got you so interested in matters affecting women, PWDs, the less fortunate and I guess the meek that you decided to champion for them?
Because I was there and I know what it feels like with every cell of mine to be on the margin.
I was born in 1968, a different time, a different Singapore. When my grandfather learnt I was another girl — two years after my sister — he gave me the Chinese name Theng, the character which symbolises ‘stop’. That, plus being born with an eye defect and being called slow, often made me feel I wasn’t welcome in this world — and none of the reasons for that lukewarm welcome were any of my doing either.
Due to my eye defect, which I corrected only at 30, I remember having to deal with much name-calling when I was young. I suspect that might be the reason for my innate sense of empathy because I could never forget what it was like to be on the margin. In 2004, while trying to recover from a very difficult divorce and failed business venture, I reassessed my life. By focusing on what I still had instead of what I’d lost, I began to accept myself fully for who I am, not according to the success validators dictated by our society. I realised that no matter how broken I was or how little I had, I could still give and in doing so, I started healing and feeling more complete.
I figured out that I am made different so I can speak up and give voice to the different, the less resourced, the broken, the meek.
Black Lives Matter can seem far away in the US, what are your thoughts around how this is still relevant in Singapore? What then can we do more to bring about balance?
Oh, how much time do we have to talk about this?? I think the parallel here with Singapore is that we are seeing the ground coming alive, a kind of active citizenry that goes beyond conventional volunteerism and community projects to sensitive and uncomfortable issues like race and religion. This is a huge growth leap for Singapore as a people, given our short history and the political makeup of a supermajority Parliament. Which is unlike the US which had the civil rights movement that pivoted its collective soul definitively, yet that soul may have been lost again in recent times.
Unlike the US, Singapore came into being as a country because of a deep racial divide of the Malayan Federation. So the sacredness of multiracialism and multiculturalism has been designed into the DNA of governance and policy making, of our nationhood. I think this is a good thing. I’m grateful that we live in a country that is committed to celebrating our multiculturalism. It is my favourite part of being a Singaporean, and living here after those years abroad — my group of besties are made up of Indian-Catholic, Indian-Hindu, Malay-Muslim (Sunni), Chinese-Christian and Indian-Muslim (Shia). Apparently, I once famously said to an executive search consultant that I would not be interested in career opportunities in Hong Kong, China or Taiwan because there are just too many people like me there!
Yet we are constantly reminded of how majoritarianism fuels unconscious biases and discrimination against cultural minorities for having different values and beliefs. This discrimination can take many different forms, institutionalised or through casual interactions, and is not an uncommon sight around us. There are so many examples from the brownface ad last year, to the brownface photo of a group of students in an elite school celebrating the birthday of one of Indian classmate to the recent racial discussion with
I think to bring about balance, we need to get away from what’s conventionally logical and intellectual sensible. I think we have to redesign our DNA to have the intentional lenses of minoritism? Cultural minorities go beyond just race and religion as we know. And in fact I I called for us to redefine multiculturalism as interculturalism in a commentary in The Straits Times last year on precisely this issue as someone who has what I would call the ‘Chinese heterosexual privilege’. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Chinese privilege but there is if we don’t do something good with this privilege.
Someone once said, “diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice at the table, and belonging is being heard at the table.”
Instead of merely having a seat at the table or having a voice, our cultural minorities must believe and feel that they are being heard. Beyond education on the importance of racial and religious harmony, we must prioritise the ability to understand and communicate with each other across all kinds of cultural divisions as a fundamental prerequisite for our society to remain cohesive and robust. This ability is called intercultural competence. I would personally like to see us dedicate resources to such competence-building as a society instead of promoting racial harmony as passive tolerance of and co-existing with each other. This is an existential pivot I think we have to take as a teenage nation going into adulthood.
We cannot use the same way of thinking to solve a problem that created it in the first place. I think instead of trying to design policies neatly along the proportional racial representation of the population, we should intentionally give more seats to the minorities at the table so that their voices are truly amplified given that the risk of majoritarianism hiding behind multiculturalism is clear and present danger.
Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, yet perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without. Our most important lessons in life come from recognising how others from different cultures view things, We must therefore be intentional and systematic in the development of this intercultural competence as a national vision, a priority that to my mind is more if not as important as interfaith efforts.
Mark Twain said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Indeed, the privilege of being in the majority of any cultural identity comes with that commensurate responsibility to listen, understand and respect — not merely to tolerate or worse, to ‘mainstream’
At A Good Space which I co-founded in 2017, we promote active intercultural understanding and participation by encouraging our 90-odd social changemakers to collaborate across issues and communities, including majority/minority conversations as well as privilege and responsibility workshops.
Multiculturalism may be a given fact, but interculturalism is not. Unless we open our eyes, minds and hearts to the minority groups in our midst, we are just multicultural not intercultural.
When it comes to mental wellness in Singapore, what can we do more to improve and enhance?
Wearing the policy hat, I’ve been advocating for mental health to be made a whole of government priority because we still have much work to do in affordability, accessibility and quality of mental healthcare. Thankfully, all that hustling may have helped — was assured by the Minister of Health that a whole of government review of mental health policy shall be done within these months. Some of our mental healthcare policies perpetuate the stigma against persons with mental health conditions including the disparity in Medisave/Medishield limits, long waiting times for mental health professionals etc.
Then there’s the upstream work. We must also mandate mental health education more meaningfully in schools especially to go upstream to younger children because research has shown that the onset of mental illness can start as early as 8. I’ve called for physical health education to become total health education that includes mental health. Because there is no health without mental health.
We are also one of the few developed countries without a clear national suicide prevention strategy which I argued for in Parliament.
I am 100% convinced that the one place we need to change attitudes quickly which will have a significant impact on society is the workplace. Because every employee is a member of our society. A study in Singapore some years back amongst psychologists and psychiatrists found that 90% of mental health conditions have their root cause in workplace stress. The same study by NCSS on public attitudes found that close to 1 in 2 Singaporeans were not willing to work with persons with mental health issues.
So in May 2018, 25 C-suite leaders and I came together in Singapore to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, a groundup leaders’ initiative to champion workplace mental wellness as a leadership priority. We meet quarterly to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices.
We also started the first ever CEO Breakfast Dialogue on mental health last October with World Mental Health Day. We are in fact having our 2nd dialogue tomorrow morning — with CEOs from the likes of Dell, PWC, Pfizer, 3M, Otis, Deutsche Bank, Dow Chemical, National University Hospital, National Council of Social Service, etc.
As a yoga and meditation practitioner, mental wellness sits at the heart of everything I do including all the projects that I’ve created. It’s personal given my own brush with depression 14 years ago, it’s a spiritual calling because mental health is a human condition and I’m called to serve humanity through doing all I can to support human flourishing.
Tell us about Hushbar and is there a way to scale it in this COVID19 WFH time?
In an environment filled with spoken words, the Deaf are called disabled because they can’t hear and speak. But when the environment turns silent, ask yourself, who becomes the disabled? We play a part in whether an environment is enabling or disabling for them. With Hush TeaBar, I wanted to encourage us to shift our perspectives. Only then can we develop a sense of empathy for those who are different to us, including the differently-abled. Given my own close shave with depression, I also wanted to bring Hush into companies where our Deaf facilitators conduct silent tea empathy sessions, during which participants learn to slow down and take time out from the rush to hush, for self-care.
The entire team is made up of two groups of differently-abled persons, Deaf or hard of hearing persons and persons who live with mental health conditions. We have now ‘Hushed’ over 5000 working executives, our corporate partners read like a Fortune-500 list, am very grateful.
At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Hush had to adapt our well-acclaimed Hush@Workplace silent tea experience to Hush+anywhere because all our onsite corporate projects were cancelled or postponed. JNJ saw Hush+anywhere as a one-of-a-kind type of experience. The Hush Deaf facilitators teach sign language of different emotions to employees before guiding them through activities to share their emotions with art, over Zoom. We are thriving more now than pre-Covid SO this virus may have given us the push we need to scale.
I know you’ve been around the world as part of Fulbright and even had a trip to the Antarctic, tell us a bit of that crazy journey and what it did for you
I was selected as one of 90 social changemakers to be part of this 2-week expedition to Antarctica in 2018 with the global climate NGOs, 2040 and ClimateForce. 2040 was founded by Sir Robert Swan who was the first to walk both poles. We were there to learn about the impact of climate change but mostly, Rob wanted to build a community of Antarctica advocates and protectors so that come 2040 when the Antarctica Treaty is up for negotiation, we will be there in UN to ensure this longest peace treaty to protect our last frontier from resource exploitation and human resettlement does not happen. I’ll be in my 70s by then but you can bet that I will be there playing my part to keep Antarctica for peace and science.
So many things came up for me on that trip. I was strangely unsettled all throughout and I finally figured out that I was feeling like I was committing the very act of transgression to this continent. I asked many questions about the conquering beyond exploring nature of humans.
I hollowed out completely to Antarctica — like I was turned inside out so I can peer as deeply in as I could. Inch Chua was looking for sounds and she knew. I didn’t know but I was seeking that deep deafening silence that transcends the millenia that is also my humanity beyond my current form, where and what I came from. When time stood still, so my mind too. That timelessness in the stillness threw me off the edge of this mortal existence — and yet that was the moment I knew I was part of Antarctica. And why I meditated and yoga-ed with the ice bergs and sea ice every morning after. Because unless I connect viscerally at this level of commons with Antarctica, how could I love her and this planet completely? Unless I am reduced to this insignificance, how can I truly come to my power or greatness to do what’s needed of me?
Yet the cold — the harsh even if stunning environment — slowly heightened the state of misfit, that this land is not where we humans belong. I found myself intruding, that we were being intrusive because expedition or not to fight climate change, we were tresspassing — like we have trespassed so many of the unexplored on our planet in the past, and that we will continue to do beyond this planet in the future. The moral dilemma was now unmistakable — no wonder this inexplicable unease. Because whether this is called a cruise or an expedition (‘a journey with a purpose’), am I not perpetuating this paradoxical play of progress (for us) and destruction (for planet, for native tribes…)? A new territory of learning opened up and asked I did of myself — “I want to be here/I have to be here’ versus ‘I shouldn’t be here/I needn’t be here’.
That polar plunge… Of the idea of self, of mortal death. Fear is dear for its gift in the now and here. In being the seer of what is. Going deep to soar high and free in spirit. That plunge, and all the metaphorical ones before, did. And now I will always have access to this wisdom of transience that transcends the fear of not being good enough, the fear of failure, the fear of death.
What’s your wish list for what tech can or will be able to do for mankind?
I had this dream when I started my own educational technology company called Knowledge Director back in 2002. I had a clear idea for what tech could and must do to bring out the vision of education for all. I invented a content creation tool — with game-based learning and web services. No, I’m not trained in programming but the vision of the product was so clear that I knew how to map it out and get others to programme. That was such a different time but we went far with the tool — working closely with Microsoft Education and also leading the blueprint for the FutureSchools@Singapore project.
So you see, I’ve gone from high tech to low tech with Hush, A Good Space, Welcome in my Backyard. I have gone back to the basics of truly deep human connections. Then Covid-19 hits and I’m now back to looking at tech to help us stay human. The more tech we have in our life, the more human we must remain — and that’s what my wish is. I want tech to bring us more inwards into ourselves and the deep interconnectedness of humanity. In silence, we remember who we are and who we are to each other, I wish that in tech, we can do that too.
How lucky are you and why?
I’m scales-busting lucky! Because I’ve fallen so many times, I’ve had so many opportunities to keep shed more layers that stopped me from knowing who I truly am. And what I am here to do which then allows the multidimensional gifts and strengths to see the light that I would not otherwise know I have. I’m lucky because I no longer have the fear of failure which allows me to see possibilities and not limitations, especially finding solutions to social problems. I’m lucky because after having only $16 in the bank at the age of 38 in the biggest collapse ever, I know how little I need to live and give joyfully. I’m lucky because the failure of my marriage and having my heart broken into a million cracks by my ex-husband’s infidelity made me claim responsibility for the most important work in the healing — to love myself in the deepest possible way and be complete in my own company. Really useful in these times! I’ve never felt more complete as a single woman, never felt more alive and joyful and more human. That’s why I’m lucky.
I’m also lucky that by some cosmic lottery, I am born into a family that gives me so much and expects so little. “Love in a way that the other person feels free”.
If you could only choose one song to play every time you walked into a room for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A song I wrote on my blue guitar that remains my favourite — Lily and the Moon. The other would have to be One Love by Bob Marley.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament (2018–2020).
(A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).
Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng