Channelling Adversity into Action
Multi-hyphenate Ms Anthea Ong (Business ‘90) has turned her own struggles into powerful catalysts to empower members of different Singapore communities.
WHO SHE IS
Ms Anthea Ong, 54, is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, leadership coach and social entrepreneur who has founded a string of initiatives such as Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders and A Good Space.
Depression, bullying, an acrimonious divorce – Ms Anthea Ong has weathered all these storms. But the former corporate high-flier-turned-social entrepreneur has not only risen above these setbacks, she has also been empowered by them.
Ms Ong is no stranger to adversity. An otherwise happy childhood spent climbing trees and catching grasshoppers with her brother and cousins was marred by an eye defect that caused her to squint. She developed a deep insecurity after the condition led her to be called sampat (“slow” in Hokkien dialect). The subject of much taunting and teasing from other kids, she was not asked out on many dates as a teenager. However, she aced her studies, read Business at the National University of Singapore, and later excelled in the fast-paced world of corporate banking and e-learning.
She went on to chart several career highs as a leader with multinational organisations including the New York Institute of Finance and Pearson/Financial Times Group, before things went downhill from 2006. Ms Ong dealt with a series of events: a venture that fell apart, marriage troubles, an educational consultancy business that became collateral damage in a bitter divorce, and a series of legal suits filed by her ex-husband. As she hit rock-bottom, she realised the only way was up. Pure grit, along with the healing benefits of ashtanga yoga and meditation, turned her life around. “My colossal collapse made me realise that even at my most broken, I still had so much,” she recalls. “Offering myself to vulnerable communities, where I could be useful, also helped me feel less broken.”
Picking up the pieces
Newly inspired, Ms Ong embarked on a journey to rediscover herself, volunteering actively at organisations such as Very Special Arts, Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS) and Unifem (now UN Women). She also started donning different hats: as an impact investor, a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) from 2018 to 2020, an author, a podcaster, a life and executive coach, and certified yoga instructor. Her acts of volunteerism have empowered others and her learnings are expressions of gratitude for having been lifted by others when she needed help at her most vulnerable. She also conceived several community-driven initiatives, such as Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders, SG Mental Health Matters and A Good Space, to nurture the next generation of civic leaders. These endeavours, she adds, leveraged her C-suite and entrepreneurial experience, earmarking and approaching young leaders passionate for the cause to be part of the leadership. She ensured the right systems and structures were put in place, so she would not play an executive role.
Her book, 50 Shades of Love: Unearthing Who We Are, was written as an ode to “five decades of an ordinary life made extraordinary by people, pain and passion”. It shifted 2,000 copies without any promotional or marketing efforts — not bad for what she calls “an audacious creative project that was part memoir, part self-help, and partly about trees and the environment”. Its net proceeds have since supported several projects for children in Singapore, and Rohingya refugees in Malaysia and Bangladesh. It also spun off a weekly podcast on Spotify featuring guests such as playwright Mr Alfian Sa’at and Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Ms Corinna Lim (Law ’87).
Ms Ong adds that her time at NUS has played a role in shaping her to be the person she is today. She elaborates: “It was most instrumental in preparing me for the world. My dad lost his construction business as a casualty of the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash of 1987. Throughout my schooling years, I gave tuition to lighten his burden. He took on odd jobs to make ends meet, including sewing factory gloves and fitting the plastic strings on plastic coffee bags — teaching me that no job is beneath us,” she says. “I think my time at NUS also shaped my relationship with work — I always show up completely and have loads of fun with it too. I can fully relate to Kahlil Gibran’s Work Is Love Made Visible. I’ve always been like that — whether in the corporate sector and/or community work.”
Having to navigate that deep dark hole has helped me reframe how I see life, how little I need to live on, and how joyfully and meaningfully I can give. As a result, I have gained so much freedom.
Writing a new chapter
For Ms Ong, a typical week involves hosting and facilitating the Circle of Bliss community meditation group every Monday evening at her three-room HDB flat, (almost) daily yoga and meditation practice, beach runs and long walks, and Sundays with her parents – whom she credits as her first teachers about the power of giving. “Looking back, it amazes me how wise my parents were, and how this wisdom included compassion. They showed me from a young age that the way they are is the way they treat others.” This, in her view, was true role-modelling. “Mum would look after the neighbours’ kids, cook and distribute food to them, and sew clothes as gifts. Dad would look after his migrant construction workers, even helping neighbours sweep floors and clean common areas.”
When not busy with coaching sessions and other commitments, you will find Ms Ong cooking vegan meals, and tending to her edible garden along the corridor. “Life, right now, (for me), is a privilege and I am so grateful,” she adds. “Having to navigate that deep, dark hole has helped me reframe how I see life, how little I need to live on, and how joyfully and meaningfully I can give. As a result, I have gained so much freedom.”
In the next five to ten years, Ms Ong hopes to learn more about herself — “the good, the bad and the ugly” — and continue giving more of herself to society. She hopes Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders and A Good Space will expand in quality and quantity as communities, to achieve far-reaching, positive impact. Having just completed an upcoming book project about NMPs, she can see herself writing more books “to make better use of the ideas that keep getting downloaded into my head”. She also aspires to move to the regional and global stage for the work on mental health because “it’s time to share how mental health is in the national consciousness in Singapore, and also increase awareness of mental health issues in other parts of the world”. Also on the horizon: lobbying for a permanent Mental Health and Sustainable Development Office under the Prime Minister’s Office, which she shared in a recent Rice Media article following the announcement of Budget 2022. “In view of the intersectionality and social determinants of mental health, this is the only way to truly address this existential threat as a whole-of-government and society priority,” she emphasises.
More people can embrace the meaningful pursuit of community work, she adds, by starting simply. Ms Ong suggests picking an activity you can consistently carry out, so that the benefits to you and those you support are sustainable. “The only way to know your sense of place in this world is to know you have been useful and have made a difference to someone’s life, no matter how small that difference might be,” she ruminates. “I think the purpose of the first half of my life was to learn about my gifts and strengths through an illustrious professional career and quality relationships, while that of the second half is to give these gifts away.”
Her goal, as such, is to make the world — especially Singapore — a better place by the time she leaves it. “We are here on earth to do two things: achieve self-realisation, and serve humanity,” she explains. “I possess this deep strength because I emerged better as a human after my soul-breaking experiences. These gave me wisdom to tell the difference when I need to have courage, to change what I can and must change, and the grace to accept what cannot be changed.”
Text by Tina Wang. Main visual courtesy of Kelvin Lim Photography. All other photos courtesy of Ms Anthea Ong.