People

Singapore Children's Society chairman a champion for troubled kids

Mr Koh Choon Hui joined Singapore Children's Society in 1976 and took up the post of chairman two years later. His love for children and his belief in continuing to do the right thing despite the challenges has kept him going for 40 years.
Mr Koh Choon Hui joined Singapore Children's Society in 1976 and took up the post of chairman two years later. His love for children and his belief in continuing to do the right thing despite the challenges has kept him going for 40 years.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Singapore Children's Society chair gets Outstanding Lifetime Volunteer Award

When Singapore Children's Society (SCS) chairman Koh Choon Hui's third child was born in 1976, the country's Stop At Two policy was in full swing.

People would look askance at him and his wife for flouting the policy introduced in 1972 to curb population growth from overwhelming the social infrastructure of a fledgling state. It ended officially in 1987.

Some even chided them for being "antisocial", recounted Mr Koh, now 76, but the couple never questioned their decision. They later had a fourth child in 1979 and now have six grandchildren.

"Now, people say I did the right thing. You must have a conviction about what you believe in and what you do. We should never compromise on that," Mr Koh told The Straits Times in an interview.

His love for children and his belief in continuing to do the right thing despite the challenges led him to take up the mantle in SCS and hold on to it for 40 years.

Last week, Mr Koh was presented with the Outstanding Lifetime Volunteer Award at the Ministry of Social and Family Development's Volunteer Awards - the highest accolade that can be given there.

SUCCESS REDEFINED

In my generation, all we wanted children to do is to do well in school, graduate and get a good job. There's nothing wrong with that, but you can encourage them to look at success differently.

SINGAPORE CHILDREN'S SOCIETY CHAIRMAN KOH CHOON HUI, on values to impart to children.

At SCS, he has overseen a variety of programmes that help children going through difficult times - from juvenile offenders to abuse survivors and even latchkey kids.

He also spent eight years at the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), where he pushed for pay scales in the sector to be aligned with those of the civil service, and has sat on the boards of various organisations.

Mr Koh joined SCS in 1976 when its former chairman, Dr Koh Eng Kheng, asked him to step up as appeals chairman to help with fund raising. The two are not related, but became friends when Mr Koh was managing director of pharmaceutical firm Roche Singapore.

His first tasks as appeals chairman were to revamp fund-raising efforts at SCS and make processes more efficient, including donation draws, flag day events and the sending out of appeal letters.

Mr Koh recalled one incident when he went to the Singapore Council of Social Service - now NCSS - to declare the prizes for his very first donation draw. There, he was asked: "Is this your first time organising a donation draw? With these kinds of prizes, who will buy your tickets?"

In comparison to what others were offering at that time - such as $10,000 in cash - the society's prizes were modest: A pair of return air tickets to Taipei, a washing machine and a deep freezer.

"I told them that people who want to buy, will buy to support us - not because of the prizes," Mr Koh said.

Two years after joining SCS, he was asked to take up the post of chairman. He agreed, thinking it would last at most 10 years.

"As I became more involved, I found that there was just so much to do," he recalled. "The work was never done; it was always a work in progress."

His belief in the worthiness of his cause was matched by a shrewd business sense. Rather than selling only to individuals, he got companies to buy stacks of lucky draw ticket books to sell to their staff. He also raised the price of tickets, so that each sold for $1, rather than $0.50. That first draw under his charge raised around $70,000. Previous iterations had amassed around $10,000 each.

"A social service must make business sense," he said. "It means we must be very sharp in our calculations and maximise the donation dollar for our beneficiaries."

Mr Koh grew up in a kampung where Toa Payoh is today. His was a large family of eight children who "learnt to share and look after one another at a very young age".

"My parents instilled in us a strong sense of self-confidence, respect and kindness towards others, and dignity in working hard."

These are convictions he imparts to his children - both the biological ones and the ones under his care.

"In my generation, all we wanted children to do is to do well in school, graduate and get a good job," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but you can encourage them to look at success differently. We cannot narrow ourselves to just academic qualifications or how much you earn."

Mr Koh said the 65-year-old SCS is constantly looking to reinvent itself in changing times.

These days, it is more difficult to secure funding from donations - especially corporate donors. Doing so is critical as government funds account for only a quarter of the society's expenses, Mr Koh said.

A strategic planning exercise is carried out every three years, and members of the standing committee are rotated on a regular basis to give them experience in different leadership roles.

Looking back, Mr Koh said his role at SCS has given him immense satisfaction. "You cannot get that kind of satisfaction from your job. It's different altogether," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline '40 years a champion for troubled kids '. Print Edition | Subscribe