Anthea Ong: The Woman Who Lived
It’s a bright, breezy weekday afternoon along the eastern coast of Singapore and I’m in Anthea Ong’s sea-facing flat. She’s the founder of Hush, Singapore’s first silent tea bar, which is a roving tea and meditation experience conducted entirely in silence and fully facilitated by deaf ‘TeaRistas’, as well as persons-in-recovery from mental health issues. Their objective: to elicit greater empathy and change the perception of disability. Anthea tells me, “It comes back to how your world shapes you. If you are in the hearing world, you would call someone who can’t hear in your world, 'disabled'. But that’s coming from your vantage point of hearing. If I flipped the world around and made it completely silent, then where is their disability, and who's the disabled one?” As an occasional poster girl for social entrepreneurship with initiatives such as A Good Space, Our Tree Stories, and Project Yoga-on-Wheels, Anthea is keen to flip perspectives in more ways than one. “What I have been trying to do really arises from how perturbed I am by the increasing polarisation of viewpoints. Those perspectives are not really how the world is, but just expressions of how we really are. Your history, culture, society, education, gender, experiences and even religion for that matter, shape how you see something—it doesn't actually mean that that's necessarily how the world is.” This is why she doesn’t care for the term “social entrepreneur” much, preferring instead to be called an “impact” entrepreneur.
TEO REN FENG: You refer to yourself as an impact entrepreneur and investor. What exactly is an impact business?
ANTHEA ONG: The term that might be more widely known is a social enterprise, though what I feel strongly is that every enterprise should be a social enterprise; even the likes of DBS and Singapore Airlines. Because enterprise means that you exist within a society and community, and I have an issue with how they’ve created a distinction between commercial and social enterprises. There was a regional panel with then-President Tony Tan in attendance, and the panel comprised individuals from so-called ‘commercial’ enterprises. They were speaking about social enterprises as if they were just another form of charity, saying things like, “We will support social enterprises... we will do this... we will do that.” I put up my hand and asked: Why can't all of your companies be social enterprises? After all, it's a business because it does not rely on charity dollars. The main aim is impact: social and environmental.
REN FENG: Does impact entrepreneurship extend beyond what we know as “social entrepreneurship”?
ANTHEA: People were calling me a social entrepreneur, and I feel that it is actually beyond that. I always say that Hush TeaBar is a 3 “P” business: People, Planet and Profit. Profit is important for sustainability, and for reinvesting into the project. You can be an entrepreneur even if you are working in an MNC; if my gifts and strengths, my connections and resources can help to create more impact for a cause or charity—that value is impact entrepreneurship. It’s more a quality than a functional title of sorts.
The 49-year-old recently embarked on a month-long expedition to Antarctica with a 100-strong contingent (including climate change scientists and fellow entrepreneurs) to raise awareness for climate change in the South Pole. But Anthea is also dedicating her walk to another salient local cause: self-care and mental health wellness in the workplace.
“By statistics, 90% of psychological conditions in Singapore find their root cause in workplace stress,” she says. “We should be doing more to include employers and individuals into the solution for this global mental health epidemic that we are facing.”
Anthea calls Hush’s work a “gentle ambush”. “People come to our sessions that have been paid for by their employers thinking that it's all about community empowerment and supporting the deaf with some self-care, but they never imagine how powerful and compelling the experience will be for them. There have even been tears when people start to reflect and realise.”
She shares the experience of a doctor who choked up upon realising that in silence, he was hearing his own heartbeat for the first time in a long while. “He spent all his working days listening to the heartbeats of patients and caring for others, but had forgotten to listen to and care for his own self. It was a very emotional moment, and it’s very humbling to be able to hold space for moments like this to happen.”
REN FENG: You’re a humanitarian who’s an active advocate for numerous social causes. Do you believe a utopian existence is achievable?
ANTHEA: I’m not sure that we can achieve it, but I certainly think there are plenty of spaces and opportunities for us to rebalance the cardinally sinful imbalance in our world today. Most people think that it's beyond us, and it’s true that not many of us have the power to influence issues on a systemic level. But we need to do what we can in our own capacity. Every single effort counts. For me, it is being more mindful like buying local and choosing Malaysian or Singaporean vegetables, over those from Australia to reduce my environmental footprint. I feel that there are a ton of little things that I can do. But a fish will never invent water—if we didn’t have glaring imbalances and inequality, we would not even be aware of the issues, nor be able to dig into our conscience if the current situation did not exist. It's right in our face, which creates conversation and prompts people to take action.
This pursuit of a meaning-filled life and furthering various causes with a certain born-again zeal is Anthea’s ‘rebirth’ of sorts—like a phoenix rising from the ashes—after suffering what she terms a “Colossal Collapse” of her marriage, finances, and career as a CEO and corporate highflier.
It’s not hard to imagine Anthea commanding a boardroom and holding her own in corporate negotiations. She stands at a statuesque 1.75m, and there is a particular authority to the deep, throaty quality of her voice. Rising and falling in perfect cadence with her storytelling that is interspersed with hearty laughs, it softens with surprising femininity and even motherliness, whenever she says my name, repeatedly and most entreatingly, throughout our conversation.
REN FENG: You’ve been very open about your personal ‘breakdown’ in 2008, which ultimately led you down this path of social/impact entrepreneurship. Is adversity absolutely necessary for change and development?
ANTHEA: I do sincerely hope not, which is why I coach. That said, I think only in the face of adversity, one is forced to truly dig deep into their strengths and be resilient. You must get to a point of utter barrenness, a place of such despair and brokenness that you feel propelled or compelled to make a change for yourself. Otherwise, one is just living behind many layers of conditioning. Adversity really opens up the part of you that is caught up with guarding a conditioned public identity.
REN FENG: Was it hard to ‘decondition’ yourself?
ANTHEA: To be honest, when it all “collapsed” for me, there was a perverse sense of relief. Up to that point, across all the different aspects of my life, I think I was seen to be so well put together—always collected and composed, and many told me that I had the Midas touch. There was this expectation that I was always on the upward swing, and you feel so much of that pressure. But I went along with it since others did, and you kind of feel like that should be your ‘real’ self, especially when society values and reveres someone who is strong. So even through my brokenness and unbearable suffering, I could peel off all the layers and labels... and that was very liberating.
"An epiphany came over me when I asked myself: Am I worthy of my pain? I realised that I was—and in that pain and in that complete gutting of who I thought I was, I actually found myself."
REN FENG: Sometimes we need to break ourselves in order to be whole again.
ANTHEA: My identity up till then had been defined only by labels such as being a CEO… a beloved wife… a high achiever… all of which I had lost and that was the cause of my suffering. So I was lying on the floor of my living room feeling completely bereft with just $16 in my bank account. And over the course of 4 hours, an epiphany came over me when I asked myself: Am I worthy of my pain? I realised that I was—and in that pain and in that complete gutting of who I thought I was, I actually found myself. The world today can be completely chaotic on the outside, but if you know who you are as a person, no one can take that away.
REN FENG: You've mentioned that your achievements in your ‘previous’ life, who you were, have actually helped to open doors for the work that you do today. There's a certain irony to that.
ANTHEA: There is. I always call what happened to me before my collapse, my "readiness lap". I spent 4 decades of my life finding my gifts, strengths and talents, as well as developing networks, plus gathering sources and influences. Now is when I’m able to give those gifts and strengths away; they say that the dots always connect when we look back. At the point when something is happening, we have no idea why it happens. I would not change anything that has happened to me, in spite of the pain that I've gone through since the start of my life, up till the collapse. I wouldn't wish it on anyone though.
REN FENG: What kind of pain did you experience as a child?
ANTHEA: I was born with an eye defect—a squint, and from a tender age, I was made to feel like I was different. As a child, I was referred to differently; name-calling and taunting went on and it only stopped when I came in first in class. It’s not that I didn’t have any friends, but you hold onto this psychological baggage that you're different—and you look different. But I know my very deep, innate sense of empathy is also born out of my own suffering. I've felt different my whole life, so it’s easy for me to relate to someone who might look, be or feel different. Ultimately, because of what I've gone through, I’ve learned that when something strange or inexplicable happens, I should not worry and just go along. I've built up enough faith and trust to know that it doesn't matter, and that it will all eventually make sense.
"I’m now fuelled by a longing to give all my gifts away, and no longer beat myself up for not being the best, even if it is something as small as not being able to complete a headstand in yoga."
REN FENG: Even out of the corporate sector, you’re a bit of a high achiever who’s constantly starting new initiatives and embarking on personal and public projects. Do you still feel a strong need to prove yourself?
ANTHEA: If you ask me why I was and am still so driven in whatever I do, it's probably from my formative years. If you are called “retarded” and then come in first in class every time, which leads to the name-calling waning, you pick up signals as a child. It’s reinforcement that you just have to do well so the name-calling stops, and acceptance comes. So I think how driven I am, stems from that, except now I know how to be more intentional about rest and slowing down. I’m now fuelled by a longing to give all my gifts away, and no longer beat myself up for not being the best, even if it is something as small as not being able to complete a headstand in yoga. This trip to Antarctica is an expression of trying my very best to give out as much of what is in me, in whatever medium or form available.
Anthea pulls out her guitar to share with me a couple of songs that she’s written over the years. Almost as if in reflexive response to my probing, she strums the strings across the dark indigo gloss of her guitar, diving straight into the meditative lyrics of “I Ask”: Why do I live the way I do? … Where did I learn to be the way I am? … I ask, not to know… I ask, to know my soul.
As she finishes with an emotive rendition of another of her songs, “I Have a Dream”, I’d like to think I’ve found the real answer to one of my first questions to her—on creating Utopia on earth—and the reason for her unfailing determination.
I dream of a world
Where there’s no crumbling rubble
Where there’s no terror falling
From the sky above.
I dream of a world
Where no child suffers … I can’t just dream, I have to be
The change that I want to see in the world.
REN FENG: What does being successful mean to you now?
ANTHEA: I think success for me now is when I feel that I've given all that I can, and also be useful and of use. In doing that, it would validate my own self-worth... I don't want to sound like I'm Mother Teresa. There’s a symbiotic relationship that what I give actually comes back to me to affirm my existence. I see that I'm here to do two things really—to serve, and to discover myself, because I think that is part of the meaning and purpose of life, hopefully within a single lifetime.
REN FENG: Are we all ultimately journeying to one universal purpose?
ANTHEA: Not necessarily. I think you may be offering a different part of you at different stages of your life, so that might give each of us a different meaning.
REN FENG: Do you believe that some have to struggle more than others? Are all journeys equal?
ANTHEA: No, definitely not equal. But I'm obviously saying that with the vantage point of relativity. Pain is still pain and suffering is still suffering. I personally believe that each person's journey is very much your own to walk, and that the journey is unique and personal. At the same time, I also feel that when we think that we are having it hard, there is always someone who—by our own scale of suffering—is having it worse than us, or better than us. So it comes back down to how the world is not as it really is, but as we are. It's less about the comparison or the relative value of one's journey or pain, but the personal value or measure of that pain and suffering that we bring to the experiences that we go through.
REN FENG: So, basically everything happens for a reason.
ANTHEA: I was recently asked by someone why I'm doing what I do with Hush Teabar, which is hiring not only the deaf but also persons who are in recovery from mental health issues, or are still undergoing treatment for it. They asked if I'd gone into depression before myself, and I guess I was depressed even though I was not clinically diagnosed. But I also feel that I did not go into a downward spiral because of a very strong belief in myself at the time—that what I'd gone through up to that point, meant something. Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor who wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, said that freedom is really a choice. He'd noted how there were people who still managed to remain upbeat in the most despairing situations: when they were all malnourished and dying in camp. His later studies concluded that it was because these people were the ones who had a meaning to keep them going. His own was to write a book and to become an author. I think this is what we talk about when we speak about Purpose. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap