Keynote Speech, 16 March 2021, Organised by Singapore Chinese Girls’ School
Good morning, everyone. Let me state for the record how excited I was back in 2015, when under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, all the member states of the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. So I’m delighted to be here with you for the 1st virtual Singapore Model United Nations Conference 2021, many thanks to the organisers at SCGS for inviting me.
I’d like to start my sharing with a simple act of acknowledging each other’s presence here by taking 3 deep breaths together. Would you care to join me?
I was holding deep gratitude in my daily morning meditation earlier. Because I would not, in a million years, have thought that that deep dark place that I was in 15 years ago from a broken heart, a broken marriage and a broken business that left me with only $16 would set me off on an unexpected trajectory that would lead me to be here with you today.
Including being given the deep honour and privilege by the President of Singapore to be in the 13th Parliament of Singapore as a Nominated Member of Parliament for two years from 2018 to 2020 championing relentlessly for what I call the 3Ms of my heart: mental health, marginalised communities and Mother Earth. I still don’t know how I did it but according to CNA and Mothership, I spoke at every parliamentary sitting, delivered 23 speeches and raised 95 parliamentary questions on youth activism, sex worker exploitation, mental healthcare accesibility and affordability, protection for migrant workers and economic decarbonisation!
We are still in the month of March when, every year on 8th of March, the United Nations and the world remember the contribution of women through history and across geography. I know that you will be discussing the issue of gender equality in Asia.
Covid 19 has widened the gender gap in our region — the pandemic has devastating social and economic consequences on girls and women. The retail, hospitality and tourism sectors were some of the first industries to be disrupted by the pandemic which have a high proportion of female employees. Women are also more likely to be employed in informal sectors where they rely on daily wages to meet their daily needs and are not protected by employment laws. Domestic violence on women also spiked last year across the world.
Yet women have played an outsize role responding to this crisis, including as frontline healthcare and social workers, caregivers at home for the young and elderly, and as mobilizers in their communities.
I hope that you will include in your discussion women-in-need, whether migrant spouses, elderly caregivers, single mothers, foreign domestic workers or those affected by family violence. What will our social support policies and community initiatives look like if we don’t see these vulnerable women as ‘problems’ but as pillars of strengths of their communities? Because when women rise, we all rise. (By the way, men who support women, including sexual minorities, to realise their potential are very wise and incredibly special human beings in my view!)
In case you are wondering why I spent the first part of today’s sharing on women empowerment and gender equality, here’s why:
When I was born in a different time, a different Singapore, I was given the name ‘Theng’ which means ‘stop’ in Hokkien because my grandfather was desperate for my dad who is the eldest son of the family to ‘stop’ having more girls. So in some way, I was shaped by my gender from the moment I came into this world! I was also called ‘slow’ and ‘retarded’ as an endearing pet name because of an eye defect that got the adults thinking I was developmentally-challenged. The name-calling from adults waned when I consistently came in tops in school but the taunting didn’t stop with the kids including names like monster, ugly etc. I only corrected this defect at 30.
I now know that the negative judgement I received from those around me regarding my gender and my appearance may have helped me focus on what I can control — what I call my 3Ds: drive, determination, discipline so as to be the best version of who I can be.
My experience also gave me a deep innate well of empathy because I know what it feels like to be marginalised, in a visceral way.
I wouldn’t wish what had happened to me on anyone yet if I could, I still wouldn’t change any of it. Every setback gave me an opportunity to know myself better, to come back stronger. Every failure sucks but it also instructs and makes me learn what didn’t work and presents me with an opportunity to try a new approach. I have also been really fortunate to be able to make worthy my suffering and wounds by putting these experiences to a purpose larger than myself. What I thought were my shortcomings and curse are actually my gifts, my special powers!
My experience as a child being bullied because of my defect and physical appearance, and wanting so desperately to be accepted, to feel belonged prompted me to start Playground of Joy that supports psychosocial development of vulnerable and special needs children, including for the Rohingya refugee children. It’s also why I initiated Welcome in My Backyard to counter the not in my backyard sentiments against our low wage migrant workers at the height of the Covid outbreak. My brush with depression 15 years ago and how I managed to climb out of the deep dark hole was due to a strong support system I had, I still have — not everyone has that, but everybody deserves that. So I have been relentless in championing for changes to the mental healthcare system, as well as creating community initiatives like Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders and SG Mental Health Matters to promote mental wellbeing and empathy at workplaces and communities. They are touted as first of its kind in changing the narrative of mental health from reactive to preventive in our society.
I know you have a couple of sessions together in these two days to examine the effects of artificial intelligence, the relationship between technology and terrorism and also how the Dark Web affects youths like yourselves. These are really pertinent issues of our time. The increasing polarization that has come about from an ironically more digitally connected world was why I was called to start A Good Space, Singapore’s first co-operative of changemakers across a diverse range of social issues. How should we remain open to divergent views when the algorithms are leading us deeper into our echo chambers? We don’t need to be afraid to be of this world but we must know how to return to who we are, and what truly matters. A Good Space is a safe and third space where we can co-create a shared vision of Singapore. And in this co-creation and cooperation, we remember our personal agency as citizens and our common humanity as a people.
Yet, as much as we must remember who we are, and who we are to each other, there is no us if we do not remember and understand that we are but a small part of this beautiful blue planet we call home. The greatest threat to our planet is when we think someone else will save it. We must do what we can with what we have from where we are.
I gave up my car and became a full time vegan 10 years ago but it doesn’t mean I expect others should do the same. We must find what we can commit to because this change must come from inside out if we want our contribution to make a difference, so it’s a deeply personal and active choice that we must make. My 2018 ClimateForce expedition to Antarctica with the 90 other selected global changemakers was deeply transformational. In fact, I felt like I was committing an act of transgression by being there. It was obvious to me that the place was inhospitable for humans (I was wearing 6 layers and my fingers froze even for that few mins to snap a picture, yet how happy the whales, penguins and seals were swooshing, waddling and dancing around!). I’m committed to doing what I can to make sure that the Antarctic Treaty which ends in 2041 will be renewed so our last pristine continent does not become another extractive playground. Yes I do plan to be there at the UN HQ, even if I would be 73 by then! So I am happy to know that you will also be discussing the ecological impact and environmental threats of Covid-19, I’m sure the discussions will be vibrant.
I apologise if I have rambled on longer than I should — you can tell that these issues energise me, being able to contribute to a small part of the solution, of making a better future for all of us, makes me come alive. I hope you will feel the same way in the next two days.
Let me wrap up so you can get on with your conference. I am still in awe and gratitude at how an ordinary person like me has been given such extraordinary experiences. I’ve also seen many changemakers who are no Mother Theresa nor Elon Musk but they are making such a difference in their own way, and they keep going. How do we do it? I think I might be able to sum it up in one word, CARE. I think this care — this empathy, is what makes us human because we feel for others. This care has been the fuel for my innovation and actions, including taking my last corporate paycheck in 2013 to be a full time social entrepreneur so I can be part of the solution to the problems we are trying to solve. Oh, a little secret to share: CARE is also my little mantra to keep going: C for Creativity, A for Adaptability, R for Resilience and E for Empathy!
So here’s my invitation to you as you embark on your stimulating discussions: What do you care about? How can you care more? What will you do about your care? How will you take care of each other?
Never believe that a few young people full of care cannot change the world. For indeed, that’s all who ever have. Because as Einstein said, we can’t solve a problem with the same way of thinking that created it in the first place. You are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
May you bring bold ideas to the discussions. May you make new friendships that will help you take care of your care. I wish you a fruitful conference. Thank you for listening, and thank you again to SCGS for having me. May you all be well.
Anthea Ong was a Nominated Member of Parliament for the 13th Parliament of Singapore. In her term as NMP between 2018–2020, she spoke at every parliamentary sitting delivering 23 speeches and raised 95 parliamentary questions including championing on behalf of youth activists and sex workers, proposed a national suicide prevention strategy, conducted a public consultation on the mental health landscape, made recommendations for closing our digital divide and advocated for greater work injury compensation and other forms of support for migrant workers (you can find all her speeches on her Medium account and the Wikipedia that her supporters set up for her).
She quit an illustrious corporate career in Dec 2013 to pursue her calling in what she calls the 3Ms of her heart: Mental Health, Marginalised Communities (including migrant workers) and Mother Earth (climate crisis, sustainability and environment).
Anthea is a full-time social entrepreneur, having founded and co-created several ground-up initiatives/impact businesses, including Welcome in My Backyard, Hush TeaBar, the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, A Good Space, Playground of Joy, and Project Yoga-on-Wheels. She also served as the president of the Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS) from 2010 to 2017, which helps women embrace ageing with confidence, and was the Founding Board Member of Daughters of Tomorrow, a registered charity that provides individualized coaching to vulnerable women.
Prior to social entrepreneurship, Anthea held leadership roles with multinational organisations including Pearson Plc, New York Institute of Finance, The Terrapinn Group and United Overseas Bank, where she expanded and solidified market leadership positions. She founded the Singapore-based education and technology consultancy, Knowledge Director Group, which advised governments in developed Asian economies on education transformation and innovation strategies in addition to being an inventor for an award-winning educational technology application. Most recently, she was the regional Managing Director with Omega Performance Inc., a strategy consulting group for banks & financial institutions based in Washington DC, where she double-hatted as the Asian Lead of the Global Corporate Responsibility Board for its parent company, Informa Plc.
She is a published author for the anthology “My Story. My Life” by National Library Singapore, and author of 50 Shades of Love, a unique wood-cover book memoir with life coaching questions and trees.
Anthea is a professional certified coach with the International Coach Federation, and has served over 50 leaders and executives from all around the world. She is also a certified yoga instructor and reiki practitioner, and an avid traveller to off beaten tracks like Antarctica, Mt Everest Base Camp and Siberia.