“It can be a mad scramble,” says Raymond Khoo as he sits in his parked vehicle, where he speaks to us over Zoom.
A restaurateur and founder of ground-up initiative The Saturday Movement, which has prepared weekly Saturday lunches for the elderly since 2011, he’s never been busier than in the last couple of months.
Since the nation went into lockdown in April, he’s stepped up the provision of delicious meals to beneficiaries, even as his own restaurant, The Peranakan, has taken a huge financial hit due to government implemented measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.
What was once a weekly affair — with Saturday volunteers gathering elderly Lengkok Bahru residents over a meal — has spun off into Adopt A Bento, a charity meal provision service by both The Saturday Movement and The Peranakan. Its recipients are healthcare support staff, the elderly poor, and a group of former Sungei Road vendors who have lost their means of income.
The public can pay it forward by “adopting” a $5 Nyonya bento and a $2 bubble tea, both of which are heavily subsidised by The Peranakan.
“I’ve had people telling me that I need to be saving money at this time rather than starting all these initiatives. Yes, saving is important, but people need to eat. It’s about survival,” says the livelong philanthropist and volunteer. “If we don’t step up and do more, that’s just sad.”
A fundraising campaign has also been launched on crowdfunding platform Ray of Hope.
In its first 11 weeks since early April, Adopt A Bento delivered more than 15,200 bentos, nearly 14,700 bubble teas and a further 3,260 hot meals. Since June, aided by corporate sponsor DBS in partnership with The Food Bank Singapore, the team has also been able to extend a twice-daily meal-to-door service to Saturday’s elderly beneficiaries.
Khoo, as you might expect, personally sees to the deliveries.
Tell us about the elderly The Saturday Movement reaches out to.
The majority of them [in Lengkok Bahru] receive ComCare assistance of $400 a month. With rental and utilities, that’s barely enough to survive. So they’re always thinking about how to stretch a dollar. A couple may buy one meal and add extra rice for $0.50 and share. They’re old and not abled. They feel frustrated. Helping put food on the table is crucial — so they don’t have to keep thinking about where to find food.
How does the Adopt A Bento initiative differ from Saturday’s regular work?
It started with the healthcare frontliners in mind, especially housekeeping staff in the hospitals who often go unnoticed. I spoke with some contacts at the polyclinics, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, and learnt they were going through a tough time. What made it worse during Circuit Breaker is that they had to bring food from home because very few shops were open and the queues were long. But in the last month, we’ve also started providing twice-daily meals to our other beneficiaries too.
Message to would-be donors out there.
Look out for organisations like The Saturday Movement, which is ground up and do good work with hundred percent of monies given to beneficiaries. A lot of initiatives like ours go unnoticed. The big charity funds receive more money than they will even know how to dispense. Companies will ask us if they get a tax rebate, but we’ve got nothing like that. We’re not an IPC (Institutions of a Public Character). We’re a ground up movement. We started with 25 families, now we look after 200 families and we have a waiting list. It’s not that we don’t want to take everybody in, but financially it’s a lot to manage.
What drives you?
In a nutshell we’re sharing unconditional love with all those who have been abandoned, experienced loss or going through something. We want to do something good for them. What they want to know is that somebody cares for them, that somebody is there to listen; and they’ll tell stories when we sit down one-to-one or in small groups. Seeing the joy on the faces of the elderly and our beneficiaries gives us energy and spurs us to do more.
Your grandfather, Reverend Khoo Siaw Hua, was Singapore’s first prison chaplain. Was it he who inspired your own journey in paying it forward?
Yes. I used to hangout in his house every weekend. Every Saturday we’d go to Redhill Market, which was a notorious area. You’d see butchers with tattoos everywhere, which was quite frightening. But everybody knew who he was because of the work he did in the prison. He’d support some of their businesses in the market. And I saw how he transformed lives, the way he cared for others, and his unconditional love for them. With this love, people can change.
The Saturday Movement is beneficiary of Giving HeART, A Magazine’s online charity art exhibition featuring the works of Singaporean painters Jowena Liang and Shirley Bok. All artworks are available for purchase until 16 August 2020.