Ben The Builder

Singaporean Ben Cheong has made it his mission in life to provide educational opportunities for underprivileged children in Myanmar and Northern Thailand by building schools.

BY LOW SHI PING
PHOTO ALECIA NEO
 

I

t was a village chief in a remote part of Myanmar who made Ben Cheong cry.

“We have waited for you for 30 years,” said the chief, expressing his gratitude to a bewildered Cheong during the opening of the village’s first ever school in 2010. Cheong, a Singaporean, had decided to raise funds to build the school in central Myanmar’s Magway Region after witnessing the poverty there during a holiday in 2008.

“Education is compulsory in Singapore but in this village, they could only hope and pray that somebody would come and help them build a school,” recalls Cheong.

“Something so simple for us, is so difficult for them. That’s why I decided I will continue helping.”

He hasn’t stopped since. To date, he has funded the construction of 16 more schools within the same region in Myanmar – chosen because it is one of the poorest in the country – with the help of a team of locals on the ground.

He is only involved in building the infrastructure. The Myanmar government provides the teachers while each village is responsible for the running of its school.

On this approach, he explains: “For children to chart their own lives, it is very important that they have an education and a conducive space to learn. It’s a first step. I’m not there to change the system for them.”

Two years ago, he formalised his charitable endeavours by founding and registering the Magical Light Foundation in Thailand, basing its office in Chiang Mai for its proximity to its beneficiaries. Running it is a full-time job for the 56-year-old former entrepreneur.

“I am motivated by empathy and compassion. This is a calling, something I have to do,” the father-of-two says matter-of-factly. He lives with his wife and children in Singapore but spends three-quarters of his time in Myanmar and Thailand for the foundation’s work.

In addition to building schools in Myanmar, Cheong has steered Magical Light to do the same for children in the refugee and migrant camps of Northern Thailand, with four currently operational.

This translates to providing the facilities for educating more than 3,000 kids in Myanmar and approximately 200 in Thailand a year.

Distribution of winter clothes and snacks for children at a refugee camp in Northern Thailand.


LIFELONG COMMITMENT

It costs more than S$20,000 to build a school in Myanmar today, says Cheong, compared to about S$14,000 when he first started. Fortunately for him, raising funds has not been an issue so far.

Magical Light does not have an endowment fund, and donations are on an ad hoc basis. When a need arises, Cheong appeals to his more than 1,000 friends on Facebook. He also works the phone line, calling his network of donor friends. From there, he lets the power of word-of-mouth take over. Aside from individual donors, Cheong also receives help from corporate partners that provide volunteers as well as donations to support his cause.

His charity model is also unique in that it has evolved. When he first started, he actively sourced for new locations to build schools. Today, he gets the local communities to contact him when they need help. He ensures that each community has a vested interest in the school’s upkeep once construction is completed by getting the locals to help with some of the construction work. This also helps to save on construction costs. He says: “I always tell potential donors these schools will be around for many years. Just imagine how many kids you can help.”

Some 50 students from the schools in Myanmar are now enrolled in universities in Pakokku, also in Magway Region. This is in addition to the hundreds – he has lost count of the actual number – who have gone on to high school. One has even returned to his own village in Magway Region to become a teacher.

Beyond schools, Magical Light has built a medical centre in Pakokku, and provided the hardware for computer classrooms and libraries in various children’s homes, refugee and migrant camps and schools in Northern Thailand. It also runs six-month-long English language workshops, taught by qualified volunteer-teachers from the West, for refugee children of primary school age in the same region.

Every November, Cheong and volunteers from Singapore also trek to schools in the hill-tribe villages of Northern Thailand, to distribute winter clothing and blankets to the poor.

Magical Light is also involved in disaster relief work around the region, such as during the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and, most recently, after the earthquake in Nepal in April this year.

Together with nongovernmental organisation Future Village, it raised funds and collected rice and basic necessities for the village of Katunje in central Nepal.

Inhabited by some 5,000 people, Katunje used to have 1,677 houses, all of which collapsed during the earthquake.

Cheong says: “Although Magical Light’s agenda is to provide education to children, when disaster strikes and I know I have the ability to help, I will go and help.”

There are currently no plans to expand Magical Light’s operations to other countries in the region. Cheong says that he wants to stay focused on improving lives in Myanmar because he feels most strongly for the people there.

He adds: “I am targeting to build 50 schools in the country in my lifetime – I believe it’s not impossible. This is going to be my lifetime job.”

 


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