Light of hope for the poor and displaced

Mr Ben Cheong founded Magical Light Foundation in Thailand more than two years ago. It supports many causes in South-east Asia.
Mr Ben Cheong founded Magical Light Foundation in Thailand more than two years ago. It supports many causes in South-east Asia.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Some call Mr Ben Cheong a "living Buddha". Others call him a "godsend". The 56-year-old brushes off these compliments, saying: "It doesn't make a difference to me. But whatever it is, it's an encouragement."

The former businessman and gemstone trader founded Magical Light Foundation in Thailand more than two years ago to help the poor and displaced there, as well as in other Asian countries.

His foundation supports many causes throughout South-east Asia - education in Thai refugee camps and children's homes, libraries for village schools in Laos, help for poor villagers and kids with HIV in Cambodia.

For the past seven years, he has also been building schools in remote areas of Myanmar. These schools - 16 built to date, with four more being constructed - will give 3,500 to 4,000 village children a shot at primary and early secondary education.

When he first started building these schools, some of the villages were so remote it took him four days of travelling - by plane, sampan, four-wheel drive, motorcycle and finally foot - to reach the sites.

His goal is to reach at least 50 schools in the next few years - a goal reinforced earlier this year when, as part of a Channel NewsAsia documentary, he met 16 former students of his schools who have since gone on to university.

His next major project is a medical mission next January to a medical centre he built in the Myanmar village of Daung Oo Gyi. Forty volunteers, including dentists, a gynaecologist and optometrists, will take $300,000 worth of medical equipment to the village to conduct screenings and treatment for more than 6,000 villagers.

It has been a busy year for Mr Cheong. Last month, he dropped everything to fly to Bangladesh, where he helped raise $12,000 to save a hill tribe girl. She needed an operation for frontoethmoidal encephalocele, a birth defect in which her brain had started to protrude out of her face.

While in Bangladesh, he noted how impoverished children there lack access to computers, and decided to set up a computer room in an orphanage there next month.

Two weeks after an earthquake struck Nepal in April, he was on the ground as part of a relief team with non-governmental organisation Future Village, getting aid to survivors despite aftershocks, some almost as severe as the original earthquake.

"Many people called me up to ask me not to go," he said. "But I had made a promise to the villagers. They had so little food left, they were killing their livestock because they could not feed them."

Mr Cheong recalled being struck by the fortitude of the Nepalese survivors. "This little boy invited me to come to his house, but as we were walking, he turned around and said with a smile, 'Actually I have no house now'.

"He lived in a makeshift shed. As his mother prepared black tea and biscuits for me, he played games on my iPad. I remember thinking, if this happened in Singapore, people would be devastated and they would not know how to continue. But here, life goes on."

Tragedy struck closer to home for Mr Cheong last week. On Wednesday, his brother Cecil died aged 51 after battling liver cancer.

His brother, a businessman, had been one of Mr Cheong's most fervent supporters. A few days before his death, he had donated to yet another of Mr Cheong's Myanmar schools. All donations from his wake are to be channelled towards children's education under Magical Light Foundation.

Speaking in a voice full of emotion, Mr Cheong said: "We had the same belief in helping others whenever we could, no questions asked. He has always been an important pillar in my life."

"His last message to me was 'Don't worry Ben, I'm fighting. I won't give up so easily.'

"I won't give up either."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Light of hope for the poor and displaced'. Print Edition | Subscribe