A lawyer, a poet, and Co-Founder of Readable; we sit down with Amanda Chong to unveil her motivations, experiences and future goals.
What motivates you/keeps it going? Why did you start writing and
ReadAble and why have you kept at it?
I make sure I do the things I am passionate about. While I enjoy the academic rigour of law, I’ve always loved literature. I wrote a lot as a teen but stopped
when I went to law school. After moving back from four years in US and UK,
I found Singapore was at an interesting inflection point. So much had changed within the four years - Marina Bay Sands and several MRT lines had sprouted
up. Writing was a way of making sense of those changes and to keep my soul
alive, so to speak.
ReadAble was started in 2014 and was also a response to the changes that
were happening in Singapore. It was apparent that there was growing income disparity. I remember a conversation with an expatriate friend who said that it
is easy for expatriates like herself to have the impression of Singapore as a playground of comforts. But I know there are many who feel excluded from that picture of progress and prosperity, which breeds a sense of alienation. We started ReadAble in a neighbourhood close to the central business district, which happens to be one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Singapore. We saw there was a literacy gap - many children went to primary school without being able
to read. We wanted to bridge that gap by bringing the resources of the city
into the community.
In 2014, we started by just teaching just one child how to read in a one-room
flat. Our commitment was that we were going to visit every single week no matter how many children showed up. We had no idea how big it was going to get, but now we run a program which serves over 60 children from ages 3-15.
Our first student was a bright 6-year old boy who didn’t even know the
alphabet, now he’s topping his year in school!
Tell us more about yourself and what you do.
I’m a lawyer and a poet. My book “Professions” is a collection of confessional
love poetry which also comments on gender dynamics in society. It was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018. I also run a non-profit
called ReadAble, a literacy programme for children and migrant mothers
in a low-income neighbourhood in Chinatown.
It sounds like you have a lot on your plate.
What does a day usually look like for you?
I have a demanding job as a lawyer and usually end work around 9 pm. Weekends are spent running ReadAble and on writing-related activities
such as preparing for workshops or mentoring other writers. I try to use
any blank spaces in my days, including lunch breaks to run meetings for ReadAble or to read and write. I also don’t sleep that much! I usually go
to bed past 2 am on most nights.
"But I know there are many who feel excluded
from that picture of progress and prosperity,
which breeds a sense of alienation."
"All my experiences of vulnerability help me to respond with
greater empathy and advocate more powerfully for the vulnerable."
What are your plans for the rest of 2018 or the future?
ReadAble is going to start a programme called ReadyAble to empower other groups of volunteers to set up their own reading programs in under-served neighbourhoods, just like how we did in Chinatown. We’ve already helped
to train up several groups, and we’ve had lots of interest from others too.
We thought we’d find a formal way to share the knowledge and expertise
we’ve built up over five years, and to advocate for more people to make
a difference throughout Singapore.
I’m sure you have faced setbacks on your path to where you are today. Are there any incidents which you can share - whether a moment of growth or self-doubt that you overcame?
The poet part of me is very reflective - my entire book is about heartbreak and making sense of all the missteps I took in love, as well as the death of loved ones. We always carry a piece of the people we have loved, and there is great pain in heartbreak. But experiencing grief has allowed me to be more vulnerable and tender-hearted to the world and to feel the suffering of others more acutely.
This has served me well as I walk alongside some of the ReadAble moms
through situations of domestic violence or marital breakdown. All my
experiences of vulnerability help me to respond with greater empathy
and advocate more powerfully for the vulnerable.
Is there a specific incident which is etched in your mind? Out of the
people whom you have helped were there any striking stories?
When we first started ReadAble, we relied a lot on the community. The woman who first opened up her one-room flat for our use as a classroom will always
have a special place in my heart. We taught her daughter along with other kids.
As our students grew in numbers, we ended up teaching outside her home,
in the void decks and stairwells.
Through the years we’ve walked alongside her through moments of difficulty,
one of my co-founders even became her child’s official legal guardian when she wasn’t in a position to care for her. She says that even though she doesn't have any friends or family in Singapore (as her husband is incarcerated), ReadAble is her family. Even now, she always tells me that she misses the days we used to have classes in her house. We are still very close and she would cook for us on festive occasions.
Tell us more about this space that we’re in.
Straits Clan is a club for entrepreneurs, creatives and social change makers, and I’ve had the opportunity to be on the membership committee. What I like about this community is that everyone is a multi-hyphenate with side-hustles - that’s something I identify with. They also have refreshing events which encourage deep conversations about ideas. The space is gorgeous and there are amazing sugar cane rum coolers at the bar and rice bowls at Clan Cafe (which is open to the public). It’s run by the same people behind The Warehouse Hotel and Odette, so you know their food and service is on point.
Are there any other gaps or issues in society which you feel strongly about?
I feel very strongly about social inequality, which is a disease in our society that many Singaporeans are awakening to. Singapore has gone through the transition from third world to first, and that has been our narrative for 50 years. Moving forward, the way we handle social equality as a nation is going to be defining of the rest of our narrative as a country, and our nation’s values. I will continue to advocate that we leave no one behind.
Let’s take it back in time a little bit. Did you always know that this was what you always wanted to do? How did you find your way here?
I’ve always wanted to help make society more fair and equal. I decided to study law because I thought that that would be a practical way to enact ideals of justice in society. This also what motivated me to become a prosecutor specializing in sex crimes.
I consider myself very blessed to have had many opportunities in life, and I believe the very least I can do is to serve others with the gifts I have been given. My father grew up in a one room flat without even having a bed. In a single generation, I ended up growing up in Bukit Timah, so the gulf was
always very palpable for me. This is why I work through ReadAble to ensure every child can fulfil their potential and advocate for improved social mobility.
"I’ve always wanted to help make society more fair
and equal. I decided to study law because I thought that that would be a practical way to enact ideals
of justice in society."
What is one piece of advice that you would give to other women?
It hinges on a quote from one of my favourite poets who is called
Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the
questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now
written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which
cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you
will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into
Young women are at a stage where we have endless questions about why
life is a certain way or who we are as people. I believe every heartbreak
or joy we experience happens for a purpose, which in time will become
apparent to us. We just need to be patient till God reveals the answers.
"Young women are at a stage where we have endless questions about why life is a certain way or who we are as people. I believe every heartbreak or joy we experience happens for a purpose, which
in time will become apparent to us."