Tribal Hero

The dire social conditions of an ethnic minority group in Thailand prompted Singaporean Eugene Wee to give up everything he had to give them a better life.

BY ALY WIN CHEW
PHOTOS EUGENE WEE, SPH LIBRARY

Radion International runs community education programmes for underprivileged Hmong children in northern Thailand.

B

y the time Eugene Wee was 26, he had a job he loved and was drawing a good salary. He had built up a very healthy bank balance and good stock portfolio, and had grand plans to buy a sports car. He had it made.

In 2007, he found himself with 41 days of leave, an accummulation of his current year’s leave and the previous year’s leave entitlement that had been carried over. He decided to spend three weeks of his leave in Thailand, volunteering at a home for individuals with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

During that trip, he delivered aid supplies to the Laotian Hmong living in a refugee camp in Phetchabun in northern Thailand. There, he witnessed first-hand the plight of the Laotian Hmong, an ethnic minority group from the mountainous regions of China and South-east Asia. They have, for generations, been regarded as criminals by the Laotian government for aiding American forces during the Indochina wars in the 1960s.

The grim situation in the camp affected Wee so deeply, it forced him to reconsider his life’s priorities, which at the time revolved around pursuing wealth and material gains. To help the Hmong refugees, he sold all his shares and emptied his bank account, a move which shocked and angered his family.

Wee, now 35, says: “In a traditional Chinese family, where the son is expected to support the family, the path I took was seen as an irrational decision and interpreted as a lack of filial piety. My relationship with my family became so strained, I had to move out of the family home. It was just too difficult for my parents to understand why I would give up a good career for something that seemed so illogical.”

“Singapore is now not just known for its efficiency and cleanliness, but also for its people who have built lasting friendships beyond our shores.”

Eugene Wee, Radion International founder and executive director

But he had resolved to improve the lives of the Hmong. With the help of a Singaporean friend, Wee founded a non-profit charity organisation, Radion International, in a small shophouse in northern Thailand’s Khek Noi village near the Laotian Hmong camp. In order to ensure that most of the aid money and resources went to the Hmong, Wee consumed rudimentary meals of just rice and vegetables, and slept in the homes of local villagers.

In 2008, an elderly villager told Wee that Khek Noi village, home to about 17,000 Thai Hmong people, was also plagued by poverty, drug abuse and violence. Wee wanted to help but did not have enough funds to help both groups of Hmong people. So, he started blogging to raise awareness about the situation, attracting a slew of Singaporean donors whose contributions he used to expand his operations.

With the additional funds, Wee launched Streetkids!, a rehabilitation shelter for children with a history of drug abuse or criminal activity. Apart from providing counselling, the shelter also offers skills training and tuition classes for free. To address the poverty in the village, he rolled out the Community Development Program to create jobs and teach the locals skills for running their own businesses, like basic accounting.

THE SINGAPORE CONNECTION

Eugene Wee displaying some marketing posters for Radion International, which runs micro-enterprises and anti-drug programmes, as well as shelters for battered women and vulnerable children in Thailand.

Today, Radion International has a total of 45 staff members in Singapore and Thailand. It is registered in Singapore as a non-governmental organisation, and continues to be supported mainly by Singaporean donors. It also receives a steady stream of volunteers from Singapore, who play pivotal roles in averting suicides within the community.

According to Wee, the rate of clinical depression is particularly high in the village, especially among the elderly who feel that they are liabilities to their families. Volunteers visit these high-risk individuals frequently, forging strong bonds with them and making them feel cared for.

Wee is proud of the fact that his homeland is now viewed as a country that cares, and not just a wealthy and successful Asian state. "Singapore is now not just known for its efficiency and cleanliness, but also for its people who have built lasting friendships beyond our shores," says Wee.

Radion International’s head of field operations, Kanokrat Suebsakwong, can personally attest to the impact that Wee has made. “Eugene has helped the local community learn more about healthcare and provided practical aid, including shelter for many needy Hmong women when they were at the lowest points of their lives. Many elderly people in the community even look upon him as a family member,” says Kanokrat, who adds that Hmong women are particularly disadvantaged because of the gender bias against females that is typical within the community.

“Two years ago, when a young Hmong girl was kidnapped to be a bride, Eugene took it upon himself to lead the rescue mission. He put his own life at risk to negotiate with gun-toting people for the release of the child.”

Wee, who has now lived in Khek Noi for nine years, admits that the thought of heading home for good has never left his mind. Despite this, his commitment to helping the Hmong is still as strong as when he first started. He says: “Before I started Radion International, it was all about doing better for myself, climbing the corporate ladder and relentlessly pursuing material wealth. Now, it’s still about doing better, but for others. It’s about living a life that holds more meaning than just enjoying fast cars and fine wine.”

 


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