Advocates: Benedict Cheong

He believes that poverty should never impede access to education.

Advocates: Benedict Cheong

Nearly 7 million children of primary and lower-secondary school age in Southeast Asia have dropped out of or never been to school due to factors like poverty. Magical Light Foundation sets up social development programmes, such as education for disadvantaged communities, to empower them to become independent.

“I have been doing charity work full-time for 15 years, during which I have helped build more than 80 schools in countries such as Thailand, Laos, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. I’m driven by the knowledge that education empowers the tens of thousands of underprivileged kids in the region and allows them to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and rewrite their own destiny.

“The first school I helped build more than a decade ago was in a remote village in Myanmar. When I arrived, I learnt that the locals had planned a huge welcome celebration for me. When my liaison saw my perplexed look, he quickly explained how the community believed the school could improve the children’s lives and that the celebration was a reminder of this hope. What struck me even more was my conversation with the village chief — he told me he’d been waiting for someone to build a school for 30 years!

“My charity endeavours focus on education because I feel it is an important survival tool in society today. The school can help guide you to develop intellectual freedom, encourage imagination and establish moral ethics and communal responsibility. Education allows you to aspire beyond boundaries and overcome challenges so you can continue with the learning journey.

“On many occasions, I’ve had to work my way around areas affected by civil war, religious tension and domestic conflict. I was in Shan State in Myanmar to help the victims of a Muslim orphanage that had been burnt down by Buddhists. I lost track of time and forgot there was a curfew at 7pm. I had only 5 minutes to reach my hotel, which was 1km away! But I managed to avoid the soldiers and made it back in time!

“I believe it was always in me to do charity. I was a gemstone trader before I decided to devote myself to helping the needy. In 2013, I set up Magical Light Foundation. I’d registered it in Thailand initially, but I brought it back to Singapore since our donors are based here. I still don’t have any corporate donors because our beneficiaries are overseas and tax reliefs are not applicable for donations going out of Singapore.

“I have been very blessed because I never had to deal with any major rejection when asking for donations. In many large organisations, a significant portion of funds raised goes to administrative costs and salaries. At Magical Light Foundation, we make sure every cent goes to the needy. Our board and management committee members are volunteers so they don’t receive any pay or allowance.

“My approach is to teach people to fish, not hand them the fish. For example, if a village asks me to help build a school, I present three conditions. Firstly, the land is provided; that way, it belongs to the community and not me. Then, the men in the village must help in the construction of the building. Finally, the materials required for the building, such as gravel, are provided by the village. The villagers must feel proud that they are helping to build a school for their kids.

“My biggest challenge is having to constantly remind myself that I was not born to save the world and that I shouldn’t feel disappointed if I can’t do so. I learnt when to say ‘no’ and not to impose any unrealistic expectations. I’m already 60 and don’t know how long I can continue doing this. But as long as there are people willing to contribute, I will continue to help build as many schools as possible.”

This story first appeared in the August issue of A.

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