Nominated Member of Parliament and social entrepreneur Anthea Ong is known for her success in the social and corporate sectors. She discusses the need to create an unprejudiced culture that provides equal opportunities for everyone.
BY Anthea Ong
hat exemplifies a truly inclusive society? The answer lies in embracing one another’s differences, as opposed to just tolerating them. This equates to not feeling afraid or embarrassed to help those who are different from us.
Such a society does not have individuals who feel left out, for whatever reason. For instance, the deaf should not feel like they need to learn how to communicate using hearing aids to be understood and accepted by mainstream society.
Instead, we should respect that their identity and culture are unique, and make accommodations around them. These would include hiring a sign interpreter for all official and community events, or making sign language a social language that people can pick up either in school or community centres.
For instance, there are currently 41 countries around the world that recognise sign language as an official language – two of which, Japan and South Korea – are in the region.
Then there is the question of providing sufficient employment opportunities for the differently abled. I had suggested – in a recent op-ed I penned for (national broadsheet) The Straits Times – that we should commit to a national target on inclusive employment. A national target galvanises the collective efforts of the public, private and people sectors, ensures adequate resources are allocated for the change to happen, and provides top-of-mind awareness across social and economic policies.
INTEGRATING ENTREPRENEURSHIP WITH IMPACT
My own practical contribution to addressing inclusiveness is as an entrepreneur. When I started Hush TeaBar as a social project five years ago, I wanted to go beyond providing employment opportunities for the differently-abled.
Underpinning the Hush TeaBar experience is the mission to connect them to the wider community, thus building a sense of empathy. Having the differently-abled lead workshops for the community and corporations validates the fact that their handicap does not hinder their sense of achievement and confidence.
To date, we have hired more than 20 people with hearing impairment and mental health issues, and worked with more than 800 executives through our programme. But these numbers hardly convey the depth of joy I experience by witnessing how our team members have blossomed and been empowered by the work they do.
As a mentor to budding social entrepreneurs – such as the participants at the Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs programme – my advice for them is to remember that they are operating a business, in order to ensure financial sustainability. This means that despite their clear social mission, they need to be aware of the market forces at play, from trends to the competition. All these practices help to keep the business financially viable.
While empathy is necessary, social entrepreneurs should also keep a healthy emotional distance themselves from those they seek to help. This gives them the clarity of mind to carry out their mission.
“ HAVING THE DIFFERENTLY ABLED LEAD WORKSHOPS FOR THE COMMUNITY AND CORPORATIONS DEMONSTRATES HOW THEIR SELFRELIANCE AND SILENCE ARE INTERTWINED RATHER THAN CONFLICTING ELEMENTS. IT VALIDATES THE FACT THAT THEIR HANDICAP DOES NOT HINDER THEIR SENSE OF CONFIDENCE.
BREAKING THE MOULD
Despite having worked in MNCs for 23 years before taking the leap into the social sector, the transition for me has been relatively smooth. While the corporate world has taught me fearlessness and assertiveness, navigating the social sector – where people may sometimes be more unwilling than their counterparts in large corporations to experiment with new ideas – presents a new set of challenges.
The sense of inertia may be heightened especially when we work with vulnerable individuals. Oftentimes, the hesitance to change stems from a fear of causing those conditions to further suffer.
While I do not doubt the good intent and service-mindedness behind this, it can sometimes impede creativity and result in the same models being replicated. This includes the typical work-integration social enterprise, which may focus solely on providing employment opportunities, rather than taking into account the social and psychological needs of the differently-abled and marginalised.
Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see more empathy-based social enterprises going on the ground to understand the needs of the people they want to help. For instance, local social enterprise Society Staples offers employer training courses on how to overcome communication barriers with people with disabilities, while equipping them with the know-how to make their workplaces more inclusive.
They also offer team-building exercises on dragon boats, led by persons with disability. Here, the participants step into the shoes of the disabled, and learn to take cues through sign language.
Indeed, we need more skill-building programmes that can prepare the disabled community to play a vital role in society, while not neglecting the challenges they need to overcome to take on such roles.
When it comes to encouraging greater social awareness, top-down intervention can be helpful, in terms of the government providing infrastructure and sharing data that reveals gaps within the system, and which can be rectified.
“ IT IS THE PEOPLE WITHIN THE COMMUNITY WHO NEED TO COME TOGETHER TO SOLVE SOCIAL CHALLENGES. WHEN WE DEPEND SOLELY ON THE GOVERNMENT AND INSTITUTIONS FOR HELP, WE BECOME CONSUMERS OF SERVICES, LOSING OUR PERSONAL AGENCY AND PROBLEM-SOLVING ABILITIES.
However, it is the people within the community who need to come together to solve social challenges that affect the quality of lives.
When we depend solely on the government and institutions for that, we become consumers of services, losing our personal agency and belief in our individual problem-solving abilities. Thus, the public, people and importantly, private sectors, need to come together to work out feasible solutions.
Why include the private sector? This is because commercial enterprises are still part of society, and therefore should all balance their profits with social good. Many multinational corporations (MNCs) have established foundations dedicated to this practice. I look forward to seeing more companies build a sense of civic mindedness and community engagement into their products and practices.
For me personally, becoming a Nominated Member of Parliament was an opportunity to act as a conduit between ground-up initiatives and policy-makers. With my experience working across the corporate and social sectors, I hope to bring broad perspectives to champion issues such as mental health, social inclusion environmentalism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, Singapore. She is the founder of Hush TeaBar, a social enterprise that employs people with hearing impairment and those recovering from mental health conditions. As a former corporate executive, she now offers innovation and strategy consulting to businesses as well as leadership coaching. She provides free yoga classes to migrant workers and domestic-abuse survivors. Ong actively campaigns for causes related to environment conservation. Having forayed into writing, she has written a book titled 50 Shades of Love, a compilation of short stories, the proceeds of which will go towards helping refugee Rohingya children.
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