Stories > The Butterfly Effect

2016 • Issue 2

The Butterfly Effect

Timor Leste’s struggle for self-determination inspired former journalist Ting Siew Lee to set up a non-governmental organisation to educate the country’s youth and create positive change.




imor Leste first caught former TV journalist Ting Siew Lee’s attention in the early 2000s when it was making its transition to independence.

She recalls: “I was very fascinated by the birth pangs of this new nation, right at Singapore’s doorstep. Everything that I had studied and read about in textbooks - the mission of the United Nations, the struggle for self-determination – was unfolding before my eyes.”

In 2003, she visited the country for the first time with a church youth group, and was struck by the hand that fate had dealt the Timorese youth.

“They had only known violence, trauma and deprivation, whereas I had grown up in peaceful and prosperous Singapore with opportunities to study overseas even when my family couldn’t afford it,” she says.

The trip made such a deep impression on her that she felt a personal responsibility to do something. She quit her job and relocated to the country’s capital, Dili, in 2007 with another Singaporean friend, Wong Lishan.

They established Cocoon Dili, a non-governmental organisation that teaches underprivileged Timorese children English. The name Cocoon references the life cycle of a butterfly, and reflects the organisation’s hope of starting a “butterfly effect”, in which small actions can set off a chain of events that changes the future.

While the organisation was initiated by Singaporeans, it would not have been successful without the close ties and collaborations forged with the local community.

Ting, the executive director of Cocoon Dili, says they moved to Dili with the aim of sparking transformation through education, knowing this would be a long-term commitment. She says: “You could say our belief that education can transform the fate of individuals and families and break the cycle of poverty stems from our Singaporean DNA. As an overseas scholarship recipient myself, I had first-hand experience of that."

Cocoon started by launching English courses for the youth of a Dili neighbourhood marked by gang violence. English was chosen as it is an international language that can unlock educational and employment opportunities.

From just two teachers – Ting and Wong – the organisation has expanded to include eight local part-time and full-time staff. Student volunteers who have finished their English courses are recruited and trained to teach others in turn. Cocoon has since taught several hundred Timorese students.

In 2010, another Singaporean, Dawn Tay, moved to Dili to serve full-time at Cocoon. Today, it also runs a Montessori-based kindergarten and nursery for about 35 children.

Cocoon charges a nominal fee for its programmes, which are subsidised by donations from well-wishers and some churches in Singapore. At any given time, there are about 100 teens and young adults enrolled in its three-month English language programmes, where they complete a curriculum designed by Ting. Cocoon also provides bursaries to needy students so they can continue their studies at the high school and university levels.

Cocoon’s butterfly effect can now be observed in the organisation’s ninth year. Since 2009, Cocoon has hired Timorese staff who work alongside Singaporeans, running the organisation and teaching its programmes. Two of its staff have become university graduates and fathers, with another two slated to complete their tertiary education this year on Cocoon scholarships. Says Ting: “These examples of transformed lives are our pride and joy. The local staff members are like my family.”

Francisco Pereira de Jesus, 28, is one of these success stories. Now a teacher at Cocoon, the father of a one-year-old boy first joined its English classes in 2008 as a secondary school student. He says: “Cocoon is a safe place for the children here as they know their lives are important. It is our second home and every day, my wife and I come here to serve the children together.”

While the organisation was initiated by Singaporeans, it would not have been successful without the close ties and collaborations forged with the local community. For instance, the team works with parents who support their work when they run mobile classes for children in various neighbourhoods.

“As foreigners, we are guests in someone else’s nation. Hence, we work hard to win the support of local leaders and parents,” says Ting.


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