Siti Noor Mastura Leads a New Wave of Service-Oriented Philanthropy
Siti Noor Mastura, a vision of beauty and composure, is fangirling over my bag—a leather Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club purse that is rather austere-looking. “Oh my God, you have the bag that I want to buy!” she squeals, letting out an audible gasp. “I’ve been looking at it for the past three years. Can I just take a look at it, please?” In a slight turn of events, the 2018 Straits Times Singaporean of the Year has now taken over the interview even before we've started, engaging me in the kind of spontaneous, effortless chatter usually reserved for familiar friends. For one, I am caught off-guard by her disarming demeanour. And two, I was expecting to meet a demure, restrained, hijab-wearing woman, given how intrinsic faith is to her identity. Instead, the progressive 29-year-old pescatarian tells me, contrary to popular belief, her spiritual identity isn’t tied to a piece of cloth—a sentiment that sparks outrage in the community. Unlike most Muslims, Noor, who co-founded the Interfaith Youth Circle in 2015—a platform that fuels healthy dialogues between different religions—prefers to question notions and not follow them blindly. “I’ve always been a bit rebellious and was always the black sheep in the family,” reveals the National Youth Council Member in a faint British twang. Yet, she reckons it’s also this headstrong nature that has shielded her from crumbling under the pressure of a poverty-stricken past. After her parent’s bitter divorce, she was left homeless, hungry and suicidal, with a mother who was spiralling into depression and a sister diagnosed with bipolar disorder that could leap off the ledge at any moment. “Going through what I went through, I decided then that no one should go to sleep hungry at night,” she shares, fighting off tears. “I can still remember the moment I thought of it. Just before I slept, I said, ‘God, when I get out of this situation, help me to help these people.’” Putting herself through a plethora of jobs, from teaching to real estate, Noor eventually got back on her feet and launched Back2Basics in 2013, a non-profit that delivers free halal groceries to underprivileged families and aims to get them out of the poverty cycle. Holding on to my leather bag, she quips, “When I travel, I’ll buy gifts for my family like mad, but when I’m buying for myself, I’ll think it through 1,001 times.” That’s the essence of who she is—a selfless humanitarian who lives to serve. While the de facto way of giving back to society is through monetary donations, Noor leaves her mark by feeding and helping the poor—an effortful contribution, which to some carries just as much weight, if not more, as a hefty cheque. Redefining charity with a noble heart, she represents a new wave of millennials who are giving back through service and volunteerism, and hopes to galvanise the youth of today to do the same.
ANGELA LOW: Do you think you’ll die young?
SITI NOOR MASTURA: I hope not because there’s still a whole lot of things I want to do. I don’t know if there’ll be a day when I say, 'Okay, my job is done now.' But my prayer is when it’s time for me to go, I’ll be ready for it.
ANGELA: But how could anyone be ready to die?
NOOR: I think you can. There’s a word in Arabic, redha, that means accepting something with a full heart—with no regrets or doubts. I want a death like that.
ANGELA: Do you wear a tudung?
NOOR: I used to. I made the decision to wear it when I was 18, and I made the decision to remove it at 28. People have made it a very controversial thing in Islam. When you wear it, the community celebrates you wearing it, but when you remove it, the community gives you flak. There are Muslims who claim they are progressive, but you can see that they struggle with your choice not to wear it. It’s my personal choice, my body, and I’m owning it. In order for me to do what I do, I can’t lie to myself just because I need to put on a certain front for the community. I’m not a religious preacher. My advocacy is empowering women and young girls.
ANGELA: Why did you decide to remove it?
NOOR: I felt like it was too tied to my identity. It’s hard to explain, but it had nothing to do with my faith. I’m not unsure of my religion or anything.
ANGELA: How would you define your identity?
NOOR: It depends on how you define your identity. Such a political answer, right? [laughs] But it does. I’ve always struggled with my identity in terms of where I belonged in my ethnicity. My dad is South Indian. My mom is a mixture of Indian, Bengali, and Arab. I grew up speaking Tamil. Malay was my second language in school. Because I wasn’t Malay-looking but took Malay classes, my Malay friends didn’t consider me Malay. My Indian friends took Tamil in school, but because I took Malay, they didn’t consider me Indian. There was once I was in the toilet, and there were two Indian girls and two Malay girls. They were talking about me in their respective languages, and I understood what both of them were saying.
I had always faced racism in school, and I started to distance myself from the Indian identity and culture. When I was 10, I found out that my dad wasn’t actually my dad. My biological dad was Pakistani. I said, 'Okay, I’m a Pakistani now.' He left when I was two. Only last year did I start embracing my Indian identity. For the bicentennial year, the Indian community wanted to do a book on Indians in Singapore, so they told me if I could submit a story. I had to write as an Indian, so there was a lot of soul searching.
If I’m able to influence at the level that I am now (which is not anything big), I’m not actually helping the cause if I distance myself from the issue. Also, you don’t see female Indian Muslims who are very prominent, so there’s this huge gap. Who are Indian Muslim girls looking at? They’re going to keep feeling, “This is as far as I can go. This is as much as I can do.” Growing up, I didn’t have that role model, so I should be that for the girls now.
ANGELA: Do you think there’s a difference between being religious and being spiritual?
NOOR: I think a lot of people are religious but not spiritual. One of the things that’s quite unfortunate in the Muslim world now is that we think questioning things is an act of defiance against our faith. I’ve always questioned, and it has only strengthened my faith because you understand what you’re doing. If Singapore removes the law of murder, for example, would you start killing people? You wouldn’t, because you understand the principle behind why you shouldn’t do it. You don’t do things because you’ll be punished or rewarded by God. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.
ANGELA: You also run the Interfaith Youth Circle. Tell me more about that.
NOOR: We run scriptural reasoning monthly where we pick out passages from various holy books that relate to the theme for the month. As a Christian, you’ll get to see how I as a Muslim interpret a text from the Bible, and vice versa. We encourage people to disagree better, even if they don't see eye to eye with someone completely. People walk out of this, building friendships and being ambassadors of one another’s texts.
ANGELA: Are faith and belief the same thing?
NOOR: I’ve never really thought about that. Faith is different from belief. I think it’s possible to believe but not have faith because there’s a foundation of conviction when you talk about faith. What is your faith based on? You’re talking about the unseen. With belief, it’s like I see you, therefore, I believe in you.
ANGELA: What’s your life purpose?
NOOR: It’s very simple. It’s just service. Everything is created to serve, even inanimate objects. A chair isn’t created to serve itself. Your eyes don’t serve themselves. They serve you, so you can see. I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to the world. I’ve got so much to do, but of course, I have to start with Singapore, with my community. For me, service is part of my faith. There’s a verse in the Quran that says you are created as caliphs of this earth, so you’re caretakers of this earth. If God’s primary purpose is to serve us, then we should be serving one another—not that I wouldn’t do it, if I didn’t believe in God. If you don’t have the element of service in your life, something will always be missing. You’re never going to feel complete.
ANGELA: When you were homeless and had nothing, were you also operating in this attitude of service?
NOOR: At that time, Back2Basics hadn’t started yet. I didn’t have the capacity to help at the level I’m helping now, but going through what I went through, I decided then that no one should go to sleep hungry at night. It’s the worst feeling to go through. I can still remember the moment I thought of it. Just before I slept, I said, 'God, when I get out of this situation, help me to help these people.'
"I attempted suicide twice, and both times, it was my faith in God that told me it was not my time."
ANGELA: Did you ever think that life was unfair, or hold any resentment?
NOOR: Yeah, there were many times I was angry at God. I had a diary. Some of my entries were like, 'Why God?' But no matter what, he was still my go-to. I attempted suicide twice, and both times, it was my faith in God that told me it was not my time. Despite my anger and resentment, there was always that faith.
ANGELA: How was your financial situation like back then?
NOOR: After my parents divorced, it was just one thing after another, and we fell into this financial slump, where we couldn’t even afford to buy our own house. We had to move from house to house.
ANGELA: Was your stepfather the main breadwinner?
NOOR: My parents were both in the property field, where you don’t earn monthly salaries. Money-wise, he controlled most of the finances, so when my mom left, she literally left with nothing. We all followed our mom. My mom went into a depression, and looking back, I know I also went through a depression. My sister was in and out of a hospital.
My uncle and his wife swooped in and got us a house. Slowly, we picked ourselves up from there. My sister is now a mental health advocate. She sits on the board of Club Heal. She’s an artist as well, so she does her advocacy through her paintings. My mom is one hell of a woman to go through all that and still be our pillar of strength. I come from a background where I know how shitty things can be, but the fact that I didn’t kill myself (and I’m glad I didn’t), gives me the capacity to speak to people who are also in similar situations and say, it’s not the end of the world, no matter how bad it is. If you can find even that one bit of strength, then don’t do it today.
ANGELA: What was your childhood like?
NOOR: For the first four years of my life, I can only remember being happy. When I was two, my mom divorced my biological dad, but I don’t have any memories of that. We lived with my grandmother. When she married my stepdad, everything changed. The way my mom brought us up was so different from my stepdad. With him, it was dysfunctional. We were not allowed to watch TV. There was nothing I could do in that house, as a four-year-old, that was right. It was really tough.
My mom would usually explain why we shouldn’t do certain things, whereas with my stepdad, he’d beat you up first, or make you stand in front of a wall as punishment. Being an Asian-Indian family, that’s the norm. My mom would also beat us, but only when we really screwed up. With my stepdad, he would beat us with a belt for spilling a bowl of soup on the table. But looking back, I wouldn't change a single thing. If I had it easy, I probably would not be the woman I am today.
ANGELA: How did the divorce affect you?
NOOR: We were put in positions where we had to take sides. It was traumatic for us as kids. My eldest sister took the hardest hits because she was the eldest, which was not fair. I’ve always been a bit rebellious and was always the black sheep in the family, especially where my stepdad was concerned. If you said no, I would still do it. Because my mom was out so often, we were always alone at home with the maids. My stepdad wouldn’t hit me as much. Mentally and emotionally, if he fights with me, I would fight back. I was that kind of child.
Maybe that rebellious streak protected my mental and emotional health, so that I didn’t suffer what my sisters suffered. My sister went through a major depression, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When the divorce happened, I said, 'Okay, I’m going to take care of the family now. I’ll protect everybody.' I didn’t have the emotional capacity to wallow in whatever I was going through personally, and I was always very protective of my mom and sisters. I needed to step up—I didn’t have time to cry.
ANGELA: In terms of finances, how did you cope?
NOOR: We lived a really comfortable life before the divorce. Then, the next day, you’re out. We couldn’t do a lot of things anymore. What my mom did, which I don’t think was right, was buy a lot of things with her credit card, so that the kids won’t feel the difference. She got into debt as a result, which was worse. In her defence, she was trying to shelter us, but eventually, I had to start working. That was also when I started wearing my hijab. When I wanted to work as a waitress, my mom didn’t allow it because I was wearing the hijab. I also wanted to fly, but she said no.
I only had my O-Level certificate. There are only a few jobs an O-Level graduate can do, but my mom was very orthodox and controlling. We had to depend on her most times, so she was making it harder for herself. Then, I went into real estate, which I didn’t really like, but my mom’s been in real estate for 20 years. After that, I convinced her to let me fly, so I’ll at least get CPF. By then, Back2Basics had been running for two years, and I’d also started Interfaith Youth Circle.
ANGELA: What was it like living with a mother with depression and a sister with bipolar disorder?
NOOR: It was hell. It was when I attempted suicide. It’s the caregiver fatigue. We didn’t understand what we were going through emotionally, therefore, we didn’t get the right help we needed. When we got a stable place, that was when everything started to improve. But yeah, there were so many issues—the instability at home, the financial issues, depression. Being in that environment, you just have to put up with it. After a while, you get used to the moods, the crying, and you think this is how your life will be. What got us through everything was praying together as a family. That’s very important. All we had was a sense of hope. I’m getting a bit emotional now.
My mom has a really supportive family. Her siblings were really helpful, and I don’t think many families are lucky like that. But when you ask someone for help, there’s only so many times you can do it before you feel embarrassed. My mom felt that strongly. She would think she couldn’t ask for help anymore because they’ve already done so much for us.
ANGELA: What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to go through, when you were taking care of your mother and sister?
NOOR: There were moments when I thought: Is this our life? Will we ever get out of this situation? Imagine if you have to keep your eye on someone all the time. I literally couldn’t take my eyes off my sister because she could do anything, whether it’s to herself or the house. She could jump down the window. How do we deal with this? It was so new for us. My sister is actually really interesting because she’s aware of her bipolar episodes. She can talk you through them after it has happened. Not that she has an out-of-body experience, but the clarity she has of her condition is amazing. Doctors actually go to her to understand what bipolar patients go through. Now, she’s in a great place. She’s not even on medication.
ANGELA: What’s your current relationship with mental health?
NOOR: Like my sister, I’m a huge advocate of it. In the Malay and Indian communities, mental health awareness is still very low. A lot more needs to be done, especially for depression. People don’t even know they have depression. There’s also the added layer of religion. They call it spiritual bypassing, which is when someone is going through a depressive phase, and you’re like, “Be patient. God will heal you.” It’s not about God. It’s depression. You need to address the depression.
"A lot of my work involves holding space for people, whether it’s in the interfaith realm or people going through poverty. It takes a lot out of you emotionally."
ANGELA: Do you still struggle with mental health personally?
NOOR: No. A lot of my work involves holding space for people, whether it’s in the interfaith realm or people going through poverty. It takes a lot out of you emotionally. If I don’t practice self-care, I must take time out. I’m very quick to suggest a time out for myself and my family members.
ANGELA: How do you recharge and recover?
NOOR: By switching off. Even just going for a drive with music helps. I need brain-dead activities, so I don’t have to think. Reading helps. The only problem with my reading is I need to pick up books that are not intellectually stimulating. I love reading books on science. I have the Usborne’s Dictionary of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. At night, I’ll just read a page of it, and there’ll be super fun facts like how muscles work. It has nothing to do with my life or my job. It’s just fun facts. Even on Netflix, I’ll watch Planet Earth. Then, there are times when I need to feed my soul. That’s different. For that, I pray and talk to God in my own way. I write as well and used to have a blog.
"There are people who’ve struggled in the past, but because they don’t own it, it still affects them. When you come to terms with it, you help others to own it as well."
ANGELA: What was the biggest lesson you learnt from the struggles you’ve faced, and how do you perceive them now?
NOOR: I don’t regret them. I’m grateful for the experience. It has shaped my worldview and the kind of woman I am today. To have gone through it all and survived, and owning it is very important. There are people who’ve struggled in the past, but because they don’t own it, it still affects them. When you come to terms with it, you help others to own it as well. It’s what I had to go through to serve the way I serve now.
ANGELA: What would you consider your greatest accomplishment in life so far?
NOOR: That’s hard. I don’t think I have one. But I’ll tell you when I was most satisfied. There was once I gave a talk at a girl’s home. It was career week. My friend was a staff there, and she knew I was flying for SQ. I came down in my uniform, and after talking about SQ, I touched on Back2Basics. This girl raised her hand even though I wasn’t taking any questions. She stood up and thanked me, and said, “Back2Basics helped my family when we had difficulties.” Even now, when I talk about it, I can cry. This is why I do what I do. We hold a drive every last Saturday of the month. You get used to it that it’s no longer a big deal. You don’t know the extent of the work you’re doing, until the recipients themselves say, “Thanks for doing this.” It’s not just packing groceries. You’re helping families not go hungry.
ANGELA: You no longer go house-to-house personally anymore, right? What do you do now?
NOOR: No, not anymore. I handle the development side of things now, making sure we get projects and scale up. My team manages the different departments, whether it’s taking care of the recipients or the volunteers. None of them goes out to deliver groceries anymore either. We leave that to the volunteers because that’s what we want. We want the community to get involved and meet these families. Our role is to make sure they have families to deliver to, and those families are taken care of. Now, we’re more focused on getting those families out of the poverty cycle. When was the last time I gave out groceries? Maybe two years ago.
ANGELA: Finally, how would you like to be remembered?
NOOR: When people think of me, I’d like them to be inspired and think, “If she can, I can too”. With Mother Teresa, for example, people will say, “Oh, she’s such a selfless soul.” But the story ends there. I don’t want that. I want people to do something from that story, to feel that they are enough to do something for the world, and not think the world is too big and they’re only one person. As a minister, you’re responsible to your people. You are given a role where you’re actually paid to do it. No one’s given me that, but I hold equal accountability for the people. I have to serve them and speak for the defenceless and voiceless. If I die, it ends with me. If I’m able to pass that on, even to 10 other youths, they will train 10 other youths themselves. That’s going to keep building and empowering different communities.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap