From Model To Role Model
Eunice Olsen bares her heart and soul, and shares her vision of Singaporeans as architects of their country’s future.
By Kim Lee
unice Olsen continues to surprise. The Chinese-Swedish Eurasian first caught the attention of Singaporeans as Miss Singapore Universe in 2000 before becoming an actress and television host. But this advocate for volunteerism doesn’t exude beauty queen glamour as a matter of course. She’s proven herself much more when she showed her mettle as the nation’s youngest Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) in 2004 before taking a different kind of crown as an inspirational role model for youth with her enduring commitment to volunteer work.
At 37, she’s returned to acting, steering some of her own projects, and is bent on using her media and political savvy to make a difference in the world.
SG: Your life has been quite a colourful journey. What has been your compass?
Eunice Olsen: My parents — they didn’t have much money but they were always there to guide me. They taught me responsibility and encouraged me not to be afraid to try things. At the same time, they also said, “If things don’t work out, don’t blame anybody else for your choices”.
Back in 2000, after I won the title of Miss Singapore Universe, I was sent to Cyprus to represent Singapore in the Miss Universe Pageant. My dad was the driver for the US ambassador to Singapore. The ambassador was very supportive of what I was doing. When I came back from Cyprus, I said to the ambassador that I didn’t want to waste my year as Miss Singapore Universe, so he put me in touch with the then National Volunteer Centre, which got me volunteering with the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home (a home for delinquent girls in suburban Singapore) and that really changed the course of my life.
Volunteering is very addictive. It has impacted me to a point where I have made it a priority in my life. After my stint with Toa Payoh Girls’ Home, I went on to champion volunteerism when I became an NMP. Looking for more challenges after my term was over, I started womentalk tv in October 2013. This social enterprise is an online portal which celebrates ordinary women doing extraordinary things.
SG: With everything you do, do you sometimes feel you’re a Jill of all trades and mistress of none?
Olsen: I used to. When I was in Parliament and still hosting, acting and being an ambassador for this and that, people would ask, “Why must you do so many things?” I realised, over the past three years, that sticking to one or just a few things wasn’t me. I love to do different things, and while they may seem diverse, everything seemed to flow seamlessly together — like being an NMP allowed me to reach out and be the middleman for getting things done through my volunteer work, and acting and the media gave me another platform to raise awareness of issues. I could always see that thread and it made complete sense to me.
I love what I do and don’t regret any decision I have made because the entire experience has been a learning journey for me.
SG: What are you currently working on, and how do you measure success?
Olsen: Three projects run my life right now — womentalk tv, the movie 3.50, and Project Precious.
womentalk tv has become a really huge anchor in my life. It was born from a comment from a lady on a variety show I was hosting. She said her husband didn’t want to take her out anymore because he was embarrassed she was overweight; and when she lost weight, he was happy to take her out again. That really affected me. I was aware of such things, but did not realise the extent of it. These are issues we need to explore — not to judge, but to do something about.
I can’t quantify womentalk’s effectiveness or success, but cosmetic brands like SKII have approached us to work on an empowerment campaign. We were nominated for the 2014 International Digital Emmys, and we also have the Singapore Committee for UN Women (formerly UNIFEM) as our partner. Recognition and endorsements like these keep us going.
The movie 3.50, (a reference to the price of paid sex in Cambodia), is a thriller documenting human trafficking and the sex trade there. It premiered at Golden Village cinema in VivoCity in October 2013. It is starting to fulfil its mission in spreading anti-trafficking messages through the many schools that have expressed an interest in screening the film. We engage students in discussions to plant questions in their heads about human supply chains, fair labour practices, and related issues.
Lastly, Project Precious, a social initiative to provide feminine hygiene education and low-cost sanitary napkins to women in rural communities, began when I was in Cambodia researching for 3.50. I visited the Sihanouk Centre for Hope to find out more about their work. They work specifically with people affected with HIV, and some were patients who had been evicted from their homes. It started off as a gap project — something that didn’t require a lot of time, money or planning. The first project was to provide bicycles to families with members afflicted by HIV so that they could go for regular medical treatments. Then, through some generous donors, we started building toilets for the 120 evicted families living in that area. That made me wonder if there was any feminine hygiene education or anything like that. The team said there was none. That was how Project Precious came about, to fill a gap within that community.
We worked with doctors in Singapore and Cambodia on this programme. Now it’s grown into building toilets for girls in rural schools. Schoolgirls often have to share toilets with boys, so they don’t have privacy. And because it is not enough to just build toilets, we educate them on feminine hygiene at the same time. Other non-governmental organisations and individuals who are looking to help disadvantaged communities now want to be part of the programme. The Singapore International Foundation got me involved in their Feminine Hygiene Programme, which was launched during the Water for Life project in Lamongan in East Java, Indonesia, in June 2014. I conduct training sessions for volunteers during their pre-departure orientation and write the scripts that volunteers use to train young girls and women in the community on feminine hygiene.
There are really a lot of unsung heroes in society that we need to look for and hold up as roles models.
Currenty we are working to get the video Becoming A Woman — a comingof- age educational video on feminine hygiene — translated into different languages. I first taught the programme in 2012 to about 1,000 girls and women in Cambodia. We interviewed them after that and they said things like “now I know that I can have this conversation with my younger sister”.
All three projects seem to have taken on a life of their own but they still have a long way to grow.
SG: Which of your many hats doyou value the most?
Olsen: I really can’t say which is more important. From volunteering to working in youth organisations to being an NMP, what a great journey it has been. I miss being an NMP but I am glad to be doing other things now because all these experiences have led me to where I am today. Politics was a bigger part of my career than the hosting, acting and music I did before. I graduated in 2001 and became an NMP in 2005, so I had been working for only about four years. I was an NMP for over four-and-a-half years, and was relatively young. When I stopped being an NMP, in 2009, I was in a state of flux for the next year.
I went back to hosting and acting but I needed to find my next challenge. I needed more. For me, it is about what I can do now and in the future.
SG: Do you think being a Singaporean has an impact on the way you view life?
Olsen: Yes, it does. All my life, I’ve never thought or acted along racial lines. I went to a neighbourhood primary school, so I had Chinese, Malay and Indian friends, and I really liked that. It is so nice to be in a place where this is normal because I am a minority. If I were a minority somewhere else, I’m not sure if I would be accepted and treated so well. At the same time, I think there is so much more we need to do for other minorities, like people with low incomes or disabilities.
I come from a very small family and we struggle too. If I find it t ough, what about people out there who earn just $300 a month? There is so much more that Singapore needs to improve on.
SG: Do you think Singaporeans are generally socially responsible? How can we do better?
Olsen: I think CIP (the school-based Community Involvement Programme), which gets students involved in volunteer work and exposed to social responsibility, is good but I feel we can still do more.
There are Singaporeans doing amazing work improving the lives of others, and we could do better to identify them, see how we can assist them, and be more like them. There are really a lot of unsung heroes in society that we need to look for and hold up as role models.
SG: Have you noticed a shift in the ways Singaporeans seek to do good?
Olsen: When I was a student, there was no CIP, but now there are CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programmes. I do see the younger generation getting involved, and I do hope they continue when they graduate and become young working adults.
What I also see changing in Singapore and around the world is a global phenomenon of looking beyond CSR. CSR started to get popular 10 years ago but now companies are looking at full sustainability of their organisations. When I was in Davos for the World Economic Forum this year, I remember Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, saying that we must ask ourselves not what we do with the money but how we make the money. And that ties back to fair practices and fair labour. That people are starting to look at businesses differently is really important because that starts the ball rolling. Companies are realising they are dealing with a new generation that’s asking questions like “how sustainable are your practices?”, “what kind of a workforce am I entering?” or “what kind of workplace environment am I entering?”.
I’m not afraid of failure. I think you always learn something from it. When it happens, it is tough. You feel horrible and you question youself. But when you look back on it, you can see it made you think in a different way, and made you more resilient.
This global phenomenon is propelling businesses to start thinking more forcefully and thoughtfully about sustainability, and making it the core philosophy of their businesses.
SG: What do you see as the heart and soul of Singapore?
Olsen: Our people. If you think of Singapore as a person, a person has struggles, — ups and downs. Within every Singaporean, there is a story of struggle, triumph, strength and success. The future of Singapore is not just up to a group of individuals, but to every one of us.
SG: What are your hopes and dreams for Singapore?
Olsen: That Singaporeans, young and old, will feel that this is a country they belong to, and that they are all architects of the country, and the future.
SG: What do you make of failure?
Olsen: I’m not afraid of failure. I think you always learn something from it. When it happens, it is tough. You feel horrible and you question youself. But when you look back on it, you can see it made you think in a different way, and made you more resilient. I think it builds your stamina and heart for life. If you don’t fail at something or have little failures along the way, I don’t think you will learn to become a better person.
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