“We have become a society of consumers that outsource solutions to our problems — Let’s claim back what it means to be a citizen” – Anthea Indira Ong, social entrepreneur

She tells us about her community initiatives, and how she hopes Singaporeans will become more active citizens.

“We have become a society of consumers that outsource solutions to our problems — Let’s claim back what it means to be a citizen” –  Anthea Indira Ong, social entrepreneur

A Nominated Member of Parliament from 2018 to 2020, Anthea Indira Ong has devoted herself to effecting positive change in various areas. She’s chipped in with non-profits such as UN Women, Daughters of Tomorrow and Wings, as well as national working committees that focus on social innovation and mental health. But what really gets her fired up is creating change and fostering a spirit of active citizenry among Singaporeans through community initiatives such as Welcome In My Backyard (Wimby), A Good Space and Hush TeaBar.

What’s your most Singaporean trait?

In some ways, my life story mirrors that of Singapore’s [laughs]. I was born in 1968. When my grandfather learnt I was another girl — two years after my sister was born — he gave me the Chinese name “Theng”, the character which symbolises “stop”. That, plus being born with an eye defect, often made me feel I wasn’t welcome. Singapore, which became independent just three years earlier, was also unwanted and had to fend for herself. Like Singapore, I was determined to make the most of what I had; I was driven, disciplined and pursued excellence.

How did those feelings of marginalisation lead you to give back to society?

Due to my eye defect, which I corrected only at 30, I had to deal with much name-calling when I was young. That might be why I have an innate sense of empathy; I never forgot what it was like to be on the margins. 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 success validators dictated by our society. I realised no matter how broken I was or how little I had, I could still give. In doing so, I started healing and feeling more complete.

Your empathy for the deaf led you to start Hush TeaBar in 2014.

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 determining if an environment enables or disables them. With Hush, I wanted to encourage us to shift our perspectives. Only then can we develop empathy for those who are different from us, including the differently abled. Given my own close brush 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 chiong mode for self-care. We have “hushed” over 5,000 working executives.

How does your other social experiment, A Good Space, encapsulate the spirit of diversity and inclusivity you’ve been pushing for?

I co-founded A Good Space in 2017 as a community for changemakers. I was concerned that our society was becoming polarised, so I felt it was important to have a safe space to share and embrace different views, and in doing so find ways to solve social problems together. It’d be a microcosm of what Singapore could be, where in diversity, we find our common vision and dreams. Our community comprises more than 90 changemakers from all walks of life, who are between 16 and 77 years old. We have organised 300 projects and activities to raise awareness for different social issues and attracted over 7,500 participants. These projects are innovative and experiential. For example, we had a life-sized snakes-and-ladders game where participants answered questions on mental health. A Good Space became a full-fledged cooperative in March.

Define active citizenry.

Not giving up the power to bring about change for myself and others. Let’s claim back what it means to be a citizen. We have become a society of consumers that outsource solutions to our problems to institutions and professionals, inadvertently giving up our inner agency and the power of community. If we see rubbish along our corridor, surely we can remove it ourselves instead of calling the town council?

Active citizenry is also at the heart of Wimby, a campaign that started in April to create a safe and more welcoming environment for migrant workers in local neighbourhoods.

For a long time, the migrant worker community has been invisible to us because they live far away from our living spaces. With our migrant worker friends being rehoused into our communities, it’s important to encourage Singaporeans to re-evaluate our relationship with them. Hence, Wimby aims to help dispel stereotypes, racism and even classism. Our team of volunteers collects welcome notes from residents to the migrant workers, and work with resident committees, community clubs and members of parliament to organise backyard conversations and virtual karaoke jams. We shouldn’t reject someone just because he or she is different. We must become a better Singapore, a kinder people.

So was your stint as Nominated MP (NMP) part of active citizenry?

Yes, because being an NMP gave me the opportunity to fully understand the impact of policymaking on inequality and inclusion. Polices 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 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. 

In 2018, you wrote a book, 50 Shades of Love, with sale proceeds to support psycholosocial
development programmes for vulnerable children in Singapore and Rohingya refugees.      

Life to me is about love. I didn’t mean for it to be a memoir because that would be self-aggrandising, but I wanted to share the lessons with others and encourage them to reflect on the life coaching questions after each of the 50 significant moments in my life told in a short story. The hardest chapter to write was titled Pardon where I shared about my abortion and the forgiveness that I continue to seek for myself and from the child I chose not to have.

Writing this book led me on a beautiful journey of healing, acceptance and celebration. I’m so thankful that the book has had two print runs; some companies use it for resilience and leadership programmes, or as gifts to clients. It’s not available at bookstores because we want to raise more proceeds for the vulnerable children so orders are taken online only.  We’ll have to do our 3rd run soon!  

This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of A Magazine.

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