Retired Minds chief Keh Eng Song: A surrogate father to 2,400 beneficiaries

Under Mr Keh Eng Song, Minds now operates four special schools, three employment centres, three residential homes and six day-activity centres.
Under Mr Keh Eng Song, Minds now operates four special schools, three employment centres, three residential homes and six day-activity centres.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

CEO Keh Eng Song helped those with mental disabilities become more independent

After 10 years of steering the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds), chief executive officer Keh Eng Song retired yesterday.

At 62, this is his first break without a new job in sight. "It's always last day today, first day tomorrow," said Mr Keh, referring to his moves in the corporate world.

Tomorrow, on the second day of his retirement, he will fly to Perth for a six-day driving holiday - with six Minds beneficiaries and four Minds volunteers.

That sums up the man honorary secretary Doreen Yap described as a surrogate father to Minds' 2,400 beneficiaries, in a speech at Minds' 55th anniversary last week.

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"Whenever they run into him on his visits to their facility, they would eagerly call out to him," she said. And he would respond to them by name because he got to know them whenever he ate at the canteen at the Minds headquarters in Margaret Drive.

Mr Keh joined Minds as he had grown tired of the corporate world after years of working for firms such as Hyflux, PSA and SIA Engineering.

  • Rebranding this year

  • While Minds is not keen to announce who its new chief executive is at this point, its president Jeffrey Tan said the board is "confident that the new leadership will propel the organisation forward through these challenging times".

    With the new leadership comes a rebranding exercise and a new logo that will be unveiled before the year end.

    Asked if there will be a new name, he said "the Minds name will continue to serve us well", given that the organisation has been around for 55 years and public awareness is high.

    Through the rebranding exercise, Mr Tan hopes to create more awareness of intellectual disabilities and help integrate its clients into the community.

    Top on Minds' agenda, he said, is the opening of two more day activity centres this year, and the establishment of social enterprises that can create employment for graduates of Minds' four special education schools.

    To respond to advances in technology, Minds also started the Minds Institute for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to research curriculum and teaching methods. "It is in our pipeline to ignite the potential of our clients, that they can do more than what others expect," said Mr Tan.

  • Kok Xing Hui

Joining Minds was fate, he said. "Someone told me Minds was looking for a CEO, why don't you try? I went to look at the website and I said, 'No thank you, looks quite complicated.' "

Mr Keh thought it was too big an organisation for someone without social service experience to lead. Then one day, he saw a small advertisement in the newspapers about a voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) looking for a CEO.

"I said okay, the advertisement is small enough, so maybe it was a small VWO. Then they called me for an interview, said it was Minds."

He took the job and never looked back. Today, Minds operates four special schools, three employment centres, three residential homes and six day-activity centres - something Mr Keh was instrumental in championing.

Day-activity centres take in adults and hone their independent living skills. These are students who have graduated from special education schools but cannot find jobs and would otherwise be at home.

"Knowing that they are staying at home, waiting for a place in the centre, it worried me because I know of people who stay away for six months and they lose all the skills they learnt in school," he said.

When Mr Keh joined Minds, there were three such centres. Now there are six, and two more are slated to open within the year. To open the centres, he spent weekends pounding the pavement around HDB estates. His wife did not mind and his children, now 30 and 23, were already grown up.

"If I think we need one in the east, for example, I'll walk around Pasir Ris, Marine Parade, Simei, Tampines, just looking for suitable void decks," he said. He would then approach the authorities to apply for use of the space. Mrs Yap said that was why he was fondly called "a travelling salesman".

Asked what other achievements he is proud of, Mr Keh pointed to the community group home in Jalan Bukit Merah, where HDB units house Minds clients who are independent enough to live outside of a residential home. There is also an upcoming disability clinic.

Under his leadership, two Minds day-activity centres started taking clients out for food and shopping. "You take them out and they buy things and get change, that is really practising what they learn," he said.

Despite leaving the VWO, Mr Keh still feels a sense of belonging to it. His wish for Minds going forward is to "continue to have our beneficiaries at heart no matter what we do".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2017, with the headline ''Surrogate dad to 2,400' at Minds retires'. Print Edition | Subscribe