By day, Amanda Chong practises public international law. By night, she keeps busy with a host of activities – holding writing and poetry workshops, mentoring migrant poets – all geared towards one purpose: “As someone who comes from privilege, I consider it my duty to make space for other people’s voices and to empower others to share their stories.”
Amanda was a 2018 recipient of the Singapore Youth Award (SYA), in part for her work in co-founding Readable (www.readablesg.com), a non-profit that runs weekly English literacy classes in a low-income neighbourhood for children and migrant women. And being awarded Singapore’s highest accolade for young people is just one of her many kudos.
A huge honour to be given the Singapore Youth Award 2018, for my work “as an advocate for social justice and equality” through co-founding ReadAble and as a writer “who brings the perspectives of women into public consciousness” by running workshops on gender and teaching poetry to domestic workers. . . In all this work, I stand as one of many others, who constantly inspire me with their own kindness. In particular, my ReadAble co-founders @thebookofmomo and @leavingmymuk, as well as my writing community #PulauB. . My full acceptance speech on inequality is on @mothershipsg but here’s a snippet: . “But there are others who have been left out from this narrative of progress and prosperity. Their stories matter too. Many feel hopeless—that the choices they make do not seem to make a dent in their circumstances. In this way, the problem of inequality is a crisis of story. It says both “I am not part of Singapore’s story” and “I am not able to write my own story.” .... Here is my vision for Singapore—that we would be a nation that listens to the stories of all its people and not just those with the loudest voices, and that we will build an inclusive narrative that welcomes everyone as equals to the table.” . . . . @nycsg #singapore #inequality #youth #womenwhowrite #singlit @singlitstation
Her poem, Lion Heart (written when she was 16), is engraved on the Marina Bay Helix Bridge, while Professions, her 2016 collection of love poetry commenting on gender relations, was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018.
This year, together with her two Readable co-founders Jonathan Muk and Michelle Yeo as well as a team of volunteers, she’ll be rolling out Readyable, the next evolution of Readable that will empower volunteers to set up their own literacy programmes in underserved neighbourhoods, “because we think that to be effective in a community, it’s important to build deep relationships and partner with families”.
Accolades aside, Amanda’s self-awareness and commitment to advocating for social justice is perhaps her most impressive trait. This ethos was what inspired her to pick up writing again when she returned home from studying law at Harvard and Cambridge, and she’s spoken on a number of occasions about Singapore having a “crisis of story”.
“I felt Singapore was very different from before. There was Marina Bay Sands, there were new MRT lines, and I really felt that Singapore was diverging into two different worlds. My expat friends viewed it as a playground without a real view of the social problems, but I know the Singapore of my father’s childhood still exists – where it is hard for some to make ends meet,” she says.
“There was so much tension between these two worlds, and it made me feel that I wanted to do something about it, to make sense of Singapore from a Singaporean perspective, where these two worlds are not set apart but belong equally as one and part of one community – and that’s how Readable came about.”
Hung out with some of my ReadAble kiddos before class and always happy to smash some gender stereotypes along the way. “Teacher Amanda, I thought only boys can drive cars! You are the first girl I know who drives a car!” . . Also, the first time my driving has been complimented so effusively, “Teacher Amanda, you are so good at driving! Did you have to study hard to be good?” (The irony will be appreciated by anyone who has had the pleasure of being my passenger...)
This advocate for the marginalised views the local arts scene as “a valuable way to build empathy and have a role in crafting the Singapore identity”.
“In my SYA speech, I spoke about how some Singaporeans don’t feel like protagonists in their own story because their choices do not seem to change the circumstances in their lives. There have to be concrete changes in government policies to better support people from lower-income backgrounds and to achieve social equality. But as citizens, we can also do something to heal these rifts,” she says.
“The most dangerous thing (to me, at least) is for people to live insular lives and not engage in a wider understanding of community. We need to be more invested in the community and understand there are structures of inequality which we benefit from. As we benefit, other people are disadvantaged by it, and we have to think more critically about whether we deserve these benefits.”
Will she be taking it upon herself to effect change at a policy level? For now, she says it will be from her current position as she has “no political ambitions” but is determined to “keep advocating for issues I feel are important and to find more ways to amplify other voices with whatever public profile I have as a writer”.