Lawyer, poet and activist Amanda Chong could easily deem the challenges faced by others less fortunate than herself to be unfamiliar or irrelevant.
Instead, the 29-year-old actively strives to represent those who may not have had the chance to speak up for themselves. She focuses particularly on gender equality and women’s rights, as well as social equality.
For her contributions, Ms Chong has been awarded the Singapore Youth Award 2018.
While receiving the award motivates her to continue what she is doing, she sees herself as someone trying to make a difference — among many others who are doing just the same.
“I really do stand as just one of many. I have the pleasure of working with many like-minded young Singaporeans who also serve the community passionately,” she adds.
Working for equality
Trained at both Cambridge and Harvard, Ms Chong knew she wanted to serve the public interest from the start.
“I decided to study law because I thought that that would be a practical way to enact the ideals of justice in society,” she says.
Her day job as a State Counsel with the Attorney-General’s Chambers has seen Ms Chong specialising in the prosecution of sex crimes, in her quest to eradicate violence against women.
She is also a strong advocate of social equality, using what she calls her “privilege” to do good for others.
She considers herself blessed to have had many opportunities, especially when her father grew up in poverty in a one-room flat just a generation ago.
She says: “The fact that I was born into a stable middle-class family gave me many advantages, which I have done little to deserve. I want to see a society where everyone has a sense of agency over their lives and the chance to achieve their potential.”
One of the ways she plans to do this is by working with children to ensure that every one of them has a fighting chance at fulfilling their potential.
In 2014, Ms Chong and two fellow lawyers, Mr Jonathan Muk and Ms Michelle Yeo, started a literacy programme called ReadAble in an under-served neighbourhood near their workplace.
The trio started out by teaching just one child weekly: a little girl who lived in a two-room Jalan Kukoh flat in the Chin Swee area with her migrant single mother.
ReadAble quickly grew in popularity with families in the area, many of them learning of it through word of mouth. More children started showing up for each session, and eventually volunteers were teaching outside the flat and at the stairwell.
Entirely led and run by volunteers, the programme now runs reading and language arts classes for over 60 children aged two to 15 on Saturdays at the Jalan Kukoh Residents' Committee Centre.
A community library was also opened at the space, giving the children free access to over 1,000 books at every reading level. Some of the volunteers conduct one-on-one classes with the children in their homes during the week.
Even the parents have gotten into the action. A few of the volunteers teach functional English to the children’s predominantly single migrant mothers to help them better navigate life here.
Buoyed by its success, ReadAble is setting up a new programme called ReadyAble. It aims to empower other volunteers to set up their own reading and literacy programmes in other neighbourhoods that are similarly under-served.
ReadAble plans to help these satellite groups by training their volunteers, and sharing the resources, knowledge and expertise that they have built up over the years.
Ms Chong says: “We think it’s important to go to other neighbourhoods and build strong relationships within them. ReadAble cannot be in every single neighbourhood, so we need others to use similar methods in other places.”
One group, known as BV Stars and helmed by Yale-NUS students, is already working with children in the Buona Vista area.
Guide and friend
But ReadAble sessions are not the only time that Ms Chong plays the role of teacher.
As a poet, she strives to highlight the perspectives and voices of women by placing them in public consciousness.
This was reflected in her first collection of poetry, Professions, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018. Professions explores the power dynamics in relationships and the deeper historical inequalities that resulted in women’s exclusion from professional life.
That was also the reason she was drawn to Ms Naive Gascon, a domestic worker and fellow poet from the Philippines.
The pair first met at the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition last year, where Ms Gascon came in second.
Ms Chong, who was a judge during the competition, found that the Filipina poet's work deeply resonated with her and felt that they could be good friends, although they were from different walks of life.
Over the past year, she has been acting as a mentor to Ms Gascon, teaching her different forms of poetry, critiquing her work and guiding her on how to become a stronger writer.
Ms Chong, who grew as a writer under the mentorship of celebrated local poet Cyril Wong, felt that it was imperative for her to pay it forward and teach others the craft.
The pair meet up fairly often, and regularly keep in touch, with Ms Gascon often sending her latest works to Ms Chong via text messages.
While she has enjoyed seeing Ms Gascon grow as a writer, the process has also benefited Ms Chong.
She says: “I think it has helped me to be a better teacher and crystallise my ideas about good writing more effectively.
“Naive’s work also shows me how similar we are in terms of our concerns as humans. Despite our different backgrounds, ultimately what we crave and deem important are far more similar than they are different.