Below is an extract of my sharing as Guest of Honour at the 59th Speech Day (April 2017) of Cedar Girls Secondary School, my alma mater, summarised into C.E.D.A.R.
This video by Straits Times was played as an introduction.
“I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone yet if I could, I still wouldn’t wish to change any of it, either. I don’t want to sound all strong and cool now — the pain was deep and the suffering was unbearable, yet they were also my best teachers.
Every setback gave me an opportunity to know myself better, to come back stronger. Every failure sucks but it also instructs and made me learn what didn’t work and presented me with an opportunity to try a new approach.
Thank you for allowing me to sharing what I have learnt from a colourful and enriching life so far that have shaped me in the way I show up in the world, especially in the area of social innovation. I have put these learnings into practice by using verbs.
I CARE about humanity and equality. I care deeply about climate change. I care deeply about how this stressful pace of life coupled with the incessant use of technology is pushing us further and further away from ourselves, and what truly matters. I care deeply about the increasing polarization of our society and our world — whether race, religion, class. I care deeply about empowerment for the differently-abled people in our society., whether the Deaf, the special needs children, elderly, the vulnerable. I think this care — this empathy, is what makes us human because we feel for others. This care is the fuel for innovation and action — wanting to bring the hearing and deaf together, and create dignified jobs for the Deaf is what inspired me to experiment with Hush, Singapore’s first silent teabar and a social movement to get people to slow down with tea and silence. Wanting special needs children and teenagers to believe in their ability in motor skills, attention control, is what motivated me to experiment Playground of Joy, another social project. Wanting more people to appreciate our trees and understand climate change is what got me to experiment with Tree of Singapore, a social movement that humanizes trees with human stories.
I EXPERIMENT. I like this word more than innovation because there’s humility — you’ve got to experiment to figure out what works. Like a beginner’s mind where there exists many possibilities, whereas an expert’s mind, there exists few. To experiment is to discover, an adventure — taps into our curiosity. Innovation is not always about making a rocket. Innovation incrementals are important stepping stones to innovation leaps, in my mind. I wanted to challenge the notion of ability — and so we created a silent tea experience where no words are spoken led by the Deaf, where’s their disability? When we experiment, we are constantly looking for ways to challenge status quos, of never settling or being complacent. When we stop being curious and become complacent, we stop imagining possibilities. Innovation is not exclusive to the few, its exclusive to those who are curious. And those who dare.
I DARE to fail is what I tell myself with each experiment, each innovation. I’m not fearless. Having the Dare spirit is not about being fearless, its about knowing the fear and still going for it because if you are not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative! But please don’t be too innovative with your studies by daring yourself to fail ok????
I remember my first experience of failure in the most literal sense was in Cedar when I was a Sec 2 student — I sewed the collar of the home dress inside out at the practical Home Economics test! We made it so ugly and bloody too by having failure denoted by red marks, almost like public shaming. I dare myself to practise being comfortable with the uncomfortable because I cannot discover new oceans unless I have the courage to lose sight of the shore. Because I dare to aspire.
I ASPIRE to be useful to the world everyday as I care, experiment and dare. I’m not always successful of course! I aspire not to have more, but to be more. Many people assume that I must have millions of dollars in my bank account to quit the corporate job and plunge myself into realising my aspirations in active volunteerism, coaching and social entrepreneurship. This is the wonderful thing about tough experiences — they transform you. Navigating myself from having only $16 in my bank account at 38 years old to where I am now made me learnt that its not about how much I have in the bank, or how big my house or job title is, but how little I need to live a useful, meaningful and joyful life by giving my gifts away. When I was not so wise, I used to think I build something to hold on to so I can have more but I now aspire for the teams I work with in the various projects to take over from me, and run with it, to I can be more. I can go be more useful elsewhere before I expire!
Last but not least, and for me, the biggest one, is I REFLECT. It’s also now a personal daily practice for the last 11 years — through daily meditations and journaling. This daily practice builds mindfulness and self-awareness. I don’t think you can know your purpose if you don’t know you. Many ideas for innovations come about from these quiet pauses that I take because when I quiet down and reflect on what I care about, there’s clarity to what I can do. We don’t learn only by doing, we learn by reflecting what we’ve done or not done. Reflection is also about accountability, including self-responsibility. It’s not about what you do or not do in front of others, its what you do or not do when you are alone. Don’t become so preoccupied with what’s happening around you, pay more attention to what’s within you. Reflection is a very useful tool to stay grounded, humble and aware. Unless we practise reflection, we risk becoming mindless robots! I am so delighted, and also really proud, that the school is introducing the Social Innovation Journal to you. Innovation, like life, is a journey — a journal helps you stay mindful of what’s around you.
So I hope some of what I have shared will stick with you but if not, I hope this acronym helps! (slide shows C.E.D.A.R). We become what we practise, because practice creates habits. So choose what you practise wisely. I hold C and R very closely to my heart, because caring makes me human, and reflecting makes me be the change I want to see in the world.
I hope my sharing shines a new light on what being Cedarian means to you. For me, practising CEDAR is what makes me come alive everyday. I sincerely wish the same for each and everyone of you. Thank you once again for having me.”
Ms Anthea Ong, a social entrepreneur and former Cedarian (as shown in programme booklet)
Ms Ong’s mantra is ‘Why start a business when you can start a movement, or two? She started Singapore’s first travelling silent teabar, Hush, to bring the disparate worlds of hearing and the deaf together. Focusing on human-centrered design, Hush opens up discourse on physical disability and encourages busy executives to pause and connect with themselves, and the community around them. Aside from Hush, Anthea is also the founder of other social movements/projects including Playground of Joy, Tree of the Year Singapore, Project Yoga-on-Wheels, Anagami Wellness and still incubating The GoodFood Org. She is also the Immediate Past President of Society for WINGS and former founding board member of Daughters of Tomorrow. She currently serves as an appointed member of the management committees of Social Service Innovation Advisory Council (National Council of Social Service), DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge, Company of Good Initiative (National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre), ACE Capstone Programme for Non-Profit Leaders (Social Service Institute) and Cedar Girls’ Secondary School.
A certified life/executive coach, yoga instructor and microfinance trainer, Ms. Ong continues to be enthralled by the expanse of our planet, often embarking on solo travels to exotic lands around the world. Like a true social innovator, she cherishes the stumbles and falls that she’s been gifted with in her life so far — without which she would never have the opportunities to discover her strengths and realise her potential.