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Tong Yee

Become – High Profiles
July 5, 2019

I'm standing in front of Tong Yee’s family home, a three-storey dwelling first built by his late grandmother. The house is open when I arrive, but so is the partition between the living room and the garden, giving me a complete, unobstructed view into the empty residence. I call out, but no one answers. I wonder if it’s always this quiet. After an awkward wait, a young man—one of Tong Yee’s students who has requested to sit in on the interview—emerges from one of the inner rooms, and leads me into a private study, where the man, who co-founded The Thought Collective in 2002 (then School of Thought), is still busy working on his laptop.

Tong Yee wears a preposterous number of hats, as an educator, mentor, relationship therapist, coach, trainer, entrepreneur and societal leader. The 45-year-old always finds himself doing multiple things at once, such as giving an interview while attending to his children and a former student seeking mentorship. Even in his business, he’s killing two birds with one stone, cracking the code on the art of making social impact while balancing the books.

“When we think about the idea of balancing, we run this metaphor of the see-saw in our head—social impact vs. money. If one goes up, the other goes down. These days, I’ve stopped thinking ‘either/or’. I think ‘and’. How do you create meaningful social impact and also make money?” he explains. The Thought Collective is a strange beast. It’s not quite a non-profit organisation, yet neither is it a strictly profit-driven business.

While School of Thought is one of the better-known entities among the collective—a tuition centre that specialises in the General Paper elective—it has a handful of sister businesses in F&B and editorial & publishing (Food for Thought, Think Tank, Thinkscape, and Common Ground) that ultimately strive to build social and emotional capital through multiple strategies. While it seems impossible to accomplish seemingly opposite goals, Tong Yee believes it’s about reframing the problem and waiting for the win-win eventuality.

Half-way through our conversation, his daughter cuts in. “She’s making that noise because she wants my attention,” he says, offering commentary as if he were David Attenborough, analysing and decoding the antics of his children. It’s obvious the veteran therapist is not just self-aware and socially conscious, but also exceptionally adept at reading others. I, on the other hand, can’t seem to read him as easily. If anything, first impressions are decidedly unreliable.

For one, I had pegged this residence as a lifeless, often vacant one at first blush, only to be sorely mistaken when I re-enter the common room to find a three-year-old boy with blue eyes and blonde curls (the son of one of Tong Yee’s tenants) running around the kitchen, a half-naked guest preparing for a swim, and Tong Yee’s 19-year-old student-turned-personal assistant tutoring Rui En, his eldest daughter, on the couch. Likewise, the fact that the entire house is dense with art had me thinking he must be an art connoisseur, when it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tong Yee on The Importance of Self-Work, and Being Financially Sustainable While Creating Social Impact

Co-Founder & Director, The Thought Collective
Text by Angela Low
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

ANGELA LOW: Do you collect art?

TONG YEE: No, these are my grandfather’s. I think they’re hideous [laughs]. We still have two or three warehouses all filled with art.

ANGELA: I heard that you don’t like reading about yourself in news and interview articles.

TONG YEE: It’s gross. My perception is that people who have things written about them need to be successful, but my personal identity isn’t tied to success. I don’t like to associate myself with the elite or the successful. I don’t watch or read things about me. When people say they’ve read a lot about me, I go, “Really? What did you read?” I have no idea what they’ve read. I don’t even know what’s been written out there.

ANGELA: You don’t consider yourself successful? 

TONG YEE: I can’t ignore it. I know that if I truly believe that something should happen, I have the resources to make that vision happen. If I believe that there’s a problem that Singapore is facing, I’m fortunate enough to have the means to make a call and at least something will start to move. I can’t say that I’m not successful in that respect.

ANGELA: How do you see yourself then? What defines your personal identity?

TONG YEE: Cheesy things like doing my best… I respect trust a lot—what trust is about, how we can continue to be a society that inspires trust. If I’m a citizen of this country, my belief is that I’m a contributing member. At the end of the day, it’s about the kind of trust that we create.

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ANGELA: Is your identity defined by your work?

TONG YEE: Unfortunately. I had a personal coaching session recently where I was working with my therapist… I don’t know how much is online but I was suicidal by 29. Those were some of my most challenging years—from the time I was 25 to about 30. When the success started to come, it came because of the work I was doing. I believe there was a psychological link I made then, as if people only valued me because of my work. If I stopped working, no one would care about me. That was quite startlingly for me when it was revealed to me. My coach nailed it.

"The concern for all leaders is that the more you rise in your level of influence, if you don’t take care of yourself, somewhere down the road you’ll end up in some massage parlour or some personal drama and not know how you got there."

ANGELA: Do you still carry the mind-set that people wouldn’t care about you if you weren’t working? 

TONG YEE: Yeah, the narrative was, “If I do not work, no one will love me.” The coaching session was about six weeks ago. Because my level of influence is growing in Singapore, many of my peers and mentors have recommended me to get a coach and therapist—one for the purpose of success and making sure the systems I build are rigorous and resilient, and one for the purpose of working through my personal shit. The concern for all leaders is that the more you rise in your level of influence, if you don’t take care of yourself, somewhere down the road you’ll end up in some massage parlour or some personal drama and not know how you got there [laughs].

ANGELA: Have you tried therapy in the past?

TONG YEE: I’ve done a lot of group therapy for the purpose of organisational development. Most of my work today is in building healthy systems. Let’s say there’s a certain industry in Singapore that’s going through a lot of transitions, and the people within the affected company no longer trust each other. My job is to go in and restore that trust or organisational health. It takes about two years. In order to get to a point where I’m able to do that, I’ve got to clean my stuff up.

ANGELA: This is the first time you’re doing one-on-one psychotherapy?

TONG YEE: That’s right.

ANGELA: How many sessions have you attended?

TONG YEE: Three.

ANGELA: How has it been?

TONG YEE: Powerful. Helpful. We don’t always find the space to do our self-cleaning work, so it’s been very healing. It gives me more clarity as to why I do what I do. Because I do so much therapy work myself, meaning that I’m a therapist and coach for other people, when another therapist is coaching me, I can often see what is going on or where my coach is taking me. Thankfully, I do not resist much.

ANGELA: But the therapy work that you do, which is focused on organisational development, is rather different from psychotherapy, isn’t it?

TONG YEE: I do both. I do one-on-one coaching, a lot more mediation, organisational work, and if I am mad, I also take on a therapy cases. But I have stopped working on trauma cases. Given my work load, it is no longer wise and I cannot offer my client the best of me as I do get tired. And my family does pay that price of me helping others a lot.

ANGELA: And all these years, you never thought about doing therapy sessions for yourself?

TONG YEE: No one likes to look within themselves. I self-reflect but it only goes so far. I bullshit myself a lot! We’ll always have blind spots.

ANGELA: You mentioned being suicidal in your late 20s. Do you still struggle with issues that debilitate the way you lead your life? 

TONG YEE: Not anymore. A lot of the work I did in my 30s was about that—the debilitating beliefs, the self-flagellation and self-hatred. These days, it’s not about debilitation because typically in therapy and coaching conversations, it’s about going from “bad to good” or “good to great”. The conversations these days are more about going from good to great. A lot of it is more preventive. For most people, from the outside, it doesn’t look like there’s anything dysfunctional going on. Everything is fine, you’re successful, and your family is great.

That’s why it’s about catching the stories that have yet to take hold and start to crush you. One feedback that’s been coming to me is, “Why do I work myself to the bone?” On the outside, it looks as if I’m just working very hard, but I never knew there was a psychological backing behind it. I just thought I had no time, so I’ll try to squeeze people in, kill two birds with one stone and work harder [laughs]. 

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"Until we do our self-work, we won’t be self-aware."

ANGELA: What do you do to maintain your mental health? 

TONG YEE: I’m much more careful about the stories that I run. I make an effort to sleep and eat regular meals. I breathe. And yes, I have started regular pilates with a wonderful instructor. I have a clear understanding of what leads me into that dark space.

ANGELA: You’re very self-aware.

TONG YEE: I hope so. In our field, we always say, “What’s your shit? What’s my shit?” I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a classroom before where sometimes the teacher will scold you, but in your head you’re thinking, “That’s not my shit. That’s your shit.” It’s like they’re just projecting all their shit on you. It’s their issues, but they make it about you. Likewise, when working in systems, you have to be careful about this. If not, we’ll end up projecting all our anxieties or resentment onto other people. Until we do our self-work, we won’t be self-aware. I’m not being self-aware for the sake of being self-aware. I’m being self-aware because we need to preserve the integrity of our work. I have to remain clean. 

ANGELA: Do you think there’s a difference between being self-aware and being socially conscious? 

TONG YEE: I think self-awareness will bring us to a point where we realise that we’re completely constituted of other people. This means that my identity is shaped by how my wife sees me, how she is a part of me, and how our identities are intimately linked with the people in and out of our lives. Because I’m constituted of my nation, my work and my friends, I’ve found that I’ve become highly aware of the health of all these people around me. Each person is a part of me, and I believe I have come to care for their emotional health, their shared prosperity and their sustainability. Honestly, I do think that is what being socially conscious is.

ANGELA: Do you think empathy can be cultivated? 

TONG YEE: Empathy is a skill, so yes. It is the capacity to see and acknowledge the suffering of others and say, “I will make your suffering mine”. It’s quite a big question because there are quite a few elements that go into a person being empathetic. If a person is not self-aware or does not handle their own trauma, their chance of taking on someone else’s is slim. Being in a good, healthy space yourself allows you to have a much broader range of empathy. Most people’s empathy is tied to their own suffering. Say, I can empathise with you because my suffering and your suffering are the same. That’s very situational empathy.

But beyond the circumstances of your life, can you empathise with someone whose suffering you haven’t experienced? Until you reach a strong level of emotional health, our own level of empathy will tend to be lower. It takes a lot of self-work, which means naming your pain, understanding what the resistance is, and building the trust to start to lower and work on those resistances.

ANGELA: You’ve talked about personal mastery in past interviews. What is it and how does one achieve it?

TONG YEE: There’s this girl—she was just complaining yesterday that the people at at her university hate her. I’m thinking to myself, “No shit, Sherlock.” She would come across as how we describe being needy, or insecure, princessy and having a bad temper; and she refuses to do her self-work. When she doesn’t do her self-work, I think people naturally just flow away from her. Why should anybody work harder on preserving a relationship when the owner of that relationship does not want to do their own work? I’m concerned because the effect of that is her network will shrink, and so will her ability to find solutions to work through life’s problems. 

A lot of time when you’re working on poverty alleviation, it’s not about giving you opportunities and jobs. It’s about increasing your trust network. The larger the group of people that trust you and are willing to work with you, the more perspectives and opportunities you’ll have, the more informed you’ll become, and the more effective you’ll troubleshoot. Personal mastery is just about having you become a reliable, trustworthy person. The bottom line is, do I experience you as someone I’d want to be associated with? 

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ANGELA: When was the last time you felt most broken?

TONG YEE: Hmmm… this is difficult for me. There was a time when I was nominated for the Eisenhower Fellowship. It doesn’t offer any money, other than flights and opportunities. Each country selects one candidate and they get to meet any 10 people of their choice in the US, other than the President. Eisenhower did this shortly after World War Two as a belief that US must preserve its ties with each country and do its part to keep world peace. I’d never won anything in my life. I came out among the top two candidates, but the selection committee believed I was going to join politics at that time and Eisenhower Fellowship recipients aren’t allowed to have any political affiliations. They ended up giving the fellowship to the other person. 

That was a bad day because I had allowed myself to hope again. At that point of time, the way that I would cope in life was not to hope. As long as you don’t hope, you won’t get disappointed. I could hope for other people and I could inspire on behalf of the country. I just wouldn’t hope for myself. When I fell, I fell quite badly and I stayed there in my dark space for about three or four months. That was about two years ago.

ANGELA: I see. Let’s rewind for a bit. What was your childhood like?

TONG YEE: I was born in 1974. I was born in Singapore. But I left for England at age 1 or 2 as my father was going overseas to study, and came back to Singapore when I was 10. At that time, my grandfather was among the wealthier men in Singapore. My mother was from Taiwan and from more humble origins so she was always quite uncomfortable for us to grow up in wealth. At the same time, I do believe that the wealth in the family contributed to having some good values come under strain. There was, like most families, quite a bit of drama; but I think the wealth made it far worse. So even from a young age, we grew up in a simple HDB, and I think that was the right choice my parents made. There were many good memories in England though. I remember Lisa Tillyard was the first person I fell in love with. She was 7. I was 5. [laughs] I remember catching spiders for her. London was great. The British education system was highly formative for me. I don’t remember a single test for one. I don’t remember any trauma.

ANGELA: Did you experience a culture shock when you returned?

TONG YEE: Yeah, I’d never seen corporal punishment in my life until then. There was this boy who didn’t bring his textbook, and he was made to stand in a corner with his arms outstretched, balancing a ruler on them. If the ruler dropped, he would get a caning. I made an early decision, even though I was 10, that this was not a system I enjoyed. I did okay for PSLE, but my grades began to slide in secondary school. No one explained to me why we learn what we learnt. We just had to do it. In the British system, we were always taught why. Here, there wasn’t a similar sense of aspiration or purpose. It’s something I try to do for my children—create an aspiration first, hope for internal purpose later, and I believe the studies will follow. I want to say though that try is the operative word.

ANGELA: When did you realise that the assessment-led model didn’t work?

TONG YEE: I don’t think I’ve reached that conclusion yet. It’s all pros, cons and trade-0ffs, isn’t it? I speak to education specialists in the UK, and they have much envy for our system. I guess now that I understand more, it really is how we craft our economy and experience our society. Because we were assessment-driven, we could make some predictable promises as a nation. This many workers by this time with this kind of qualification. You can plan, pivot and be future-oriented. You can say you have systems for everything. In relation to Singapore’s early economy, assessments, horrible as they were, served that system. But when other educational systems extend choice to their students, they can't go back to their schools and say, "Handpick 30 kids for this particular sector!” I mean how do you even get that kind of precision when each child has a choice. Pros and cons. Capitalist. Socialist. It really is about us expressing as citizens what we want.

ANGELA: Recently, it’s been announced that streaming in secondary schools will be abolished by 2024. Do you think this is a good step forward?

TONG YEE: My perspective may not necessarily resonate because my understanding of the system is different due to the work I do. I recently learnt that when Singapore first established the O-Level system, it was in the late 1970s when everyone was graduating with a PSLE certificate, but only 30% of those graduates went to secondary schools. Everyone else went out to work at 13. They needed a way to incentivise people to get their secondary school education, but also convey that we had to move a lot faster as an economy because we don’t have a workforce to feed all the foreign companies we were bringing in at that time.

The O-Level programme was a 5-year programme at that time across the world, but we needed it to be an express programme. So we named our 4-year programme Express. And we named our 5-year programme Normal; because it was just like the other programmes across the world. I had no clue! It had nothing to do with differentiating the “normal” kids from the smarter ones in the express stream. They just had to get people out into the workforce faster, and they were apologetic about it. To make sure the dropout rates weren’t so high, they also created the Normal (Technical) stream. The Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) programmes are the same as the ones in the UK—just that the latter includes more vocational work. Yet, we’ve made it a cultural understanding that if you can’t get into the express stream, your whole life is gone. [laughs]

Also, subject-based banding is only possible now because there are currently so many more specialty schools further downstream in the Singapore system. It’s the result of the maturity of our education system, rather than an attempt to fix the stigmatisation issue. I am not so sure the system created the stigma in the first place. Our culture did! 

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"My teaching bone will never leave. It’s the skill set I practise the most. Even if I’m doing systems-based work, I’m still teaching."

ANGELA: That’s fascinating. Do you consider yourself more of an entrepreneur or an educator?

TONG YEE: My teaching bone will never leave. It’s the skill set I practise the most. Even if I’m doing systems-based work, I’m still teaching. Sometimes preaching also. Job hazard.

ANGELA: When was the last time you taught a proper class? 

TONG YEE: You mean a General Paper class? About two years ago. And I really miss it.

ANGELA: What’s your teaching style? And how do you run a class? 

TONG YEE: Authentic, slightly provocative. There must be movement in a class, movement in your mental frame (insight), emotional movement (inspiration), movement in your identity (conviction). Good lessons are designed to create movement. Very early in my career, I would come into a class, sit in front of a table, and say nothing for 35 minutes. Then, we’ll spend the next 20 minutes debriefing the 35 minutes of silence. What were you experiencing? Why were you complicit in that ridiculous waste of 35 minutes? Why didn’t anyone do anything? Did you believe that you had done something wrong?

Once they understood that exercise, I’d put up a slide and introduce Rwanda and what happened during the genocide. When people understand why no one stands up to a system, they empathise with why things happen the way they do. My classes tend to go a particular way where I’ll throw a curveball, everyone gets it experientially, and then I’ll teach.

ANGELA: What do you think about the system of meritocracy? Is it a paradox?

TONG YEE: I think it’s a pointless argument.

ANGELA: Why’s that? 

TONG YEE: It’s not meritocracy or socialism. It’s meritocracy and socialism. Both meritocracy and socialism have their misgivings. Socialism is a highly expensive and inefficient system. Meritocracy is perceivably fairer, but it really punishes the weak. The question is not “A or B”, but, “Is there a third way?” The third way is essentially what entrepreneurship and social enterprises are about. If you look at the term, “social enterprise”, it’s actually on two ends of the spectrum. There’s a way to balance these two things. I spend time creating that third way.

ANGELA: And on that note, how successful has The Thought Collective been in striking a balance between making a social impact and making money as a business? 

TONG YEE: Not too bad, I hope. When we think about the idea of balancing, we run this metaphor of the seesaw in our head—social impact vs money. If one goes up, the other goes down. We kept playing that game in the first 15 years of social impact work we did. It was a constant balance. These days, I’ve stopped thinking 'either/or'. I think 'and'. How do you create meaningful social impact and also make money?

Philosophically, work exists because of suffering. If there wasn’t suffering, people wouldn’t pay for things to be resolved. People pay to alleviate their suffering in all parts of their life. Whether it be plumbing, or coffee, or cancer, or sexual desire. When there is a gap between expectation and reality, there will be work. Once I understood this, I started to become a lot more strategic in identifying the suffering and pain that really mattered to our nation. What were people really complaining about? What are the pain points in my country that are critical to the health of its people? Are organisations trusting one another? Were elderly really being abandoned? Do our youth really care so little? Till today, there are companies who don’t have a vision for their corporate social responsibility. It saddens me that they do not think more deeply about what gaps they can close, as opposed to what margins they can make. They’re spending CSR money on a token level, but they don’t have a vision of how they can grow as well as make a social impact.

ANGELA: That is a lot to think about. Aren’t you tired thinking about all these things? 

TONG YEE: It is just 20 years of thinking about these things. We took about an hour to talk about some of them and I hope my story will be insightful to your readers.