When Amanda Chong was in school, her friends and teachers would call her “motormouth Mandy”, because “I used to talk so much and I had an opinion about everything,” she says with a laugh.
Amanda went to an all-girls’ school, where she was nurtured by teachers who saw her potential early on and encouraged her to dream big. She recounts that being dubbed a “motormouth” meant that she would often get into trouble because of her strong opinions, picking fights with those who would disagree with her.
“Another teacher would have just told me off,” Amanda says. “But my teacher told me, ‘You actually have leadership skills, but you need to learn how to listen to others’. You know, there’s a whole narrative about when girls demonstrate leadership, they are termed as bossy. She never called me bossy, and instead told me that I needed to learn how to care for people and communicate with them.”
Today, the 33-year-old is a lawyer, poet, playwright, and the co-founder of a non-profit organisation called ReadAble, which empowers underserved children aged two to 15 with literacy skills through a phonics-based curriculum.
One thing that stands out about the Deputy Senior State Counsel? She’s determined to use her voice to fight for equality, and to vocalise the struggles that women and children around the world face. In 2016, she served on the United Nations Expert Group on the International Legal Definition of Trafficking in Persons.
It’s a calling that she’s had since she was 14, inspired by a talk in school by social activist Melissa Kwee, who is also Her World’s 2007 Young Woman Achiever winner. “She spoke about human trafficking in Batam, and how men from Singapore travel to have sex with young girls. [I was inspired] by hearing her speak so passionately, and how she uses her influence to advocate for change,” recalls Amanda.
She continues, with her characteristic, dimpled smile: “You know, when I was in Secondary 3, we were asked to write about our goals and what we wanted our lives to be 10 years from now. We had to list four things, and mine were: writing poetry and plays, empowering people, walking in love, and changing the world by working at the United Nations – those were the things that were important to me.”
Rebuilding social constructs
When she was younger, Amanda had always wanted to be a writer, and was “addicted” to theatre. Her love for theatre started in school, where she wrote, directed and performed in various productions. Her most memorable production was a 2005 staging of Alfian Sa’at’s Yesterday My Classmate Died for the Raffles Girls’ School drama club. She asked permission from the playwright to extend his one-hour long drama to two hours, and ended up writing, directing and even performing in the play.
However, the President’s Scholar chose to pursue a Masters of Arts (MA) Law degree at Cambridge University, and then a Masters of Laws (LLM) degree at Harvard Law School in 2011.
Amanda’s decision was informed by a greater sense of purpose: that of affecting change in the world, and giving a voice to the marginalised. “My interest in law is completely related to the public interest, how law functions in society and on an international plane,” she says. “So I was always very concerned about women’s rights and how women are treated in society.”
“I have many ideals that I would like to see realised in society, and I feel that law is the practical language in which ideals are realised, meaning they have to come through law. So if you want to make social change, you must understand how social change can happen. A lot of that happens through law.”
She recalls an article that she wrote for the Harvard Journal of Law in 2014, which was focused on the rights of lower-income foreign women on long-term visit passes in Singapore, who move here for marriage. Often, they are stuck on this permit for a long time, unable to chart their lives as they don’t “fit in the citizenship calculus”.
Through her research and interviews with these women, Amanda says she learned about their struggles and reshaped her narrative about how we tend to “victimise” such women. “My project was to interview these women and hear their stories, to hear how they interact with the law in Singapore, and how they negotiate power and relations within their own families. What I discovered through these interviews was that they were like active agents who will use whatever kinds of bargaining [tools] they had within the existing rules, in order to change their circumstances.”
This served as an important turning point for Amanda, who once again was taught a valuable lesson about the power of listening and having empathy. It is this strong sense of social justice that motivated her to set up literacy charity ReadAble in 2014, along with co-founders and fellow lawyers Jonathan Muk and Michelle Yeo.
From teaching a single child in a one-room flat at the beginning, the volunteer-run non-profit organisation now organises weekly language sessions for over one hundred underprivileged children, as well as programmes teaching English to caregivers and mums. In 2018, after realising that these students were also lagging behind in mathematics, ReadAble initiated a new programme called CountAble, which teaches fundamental numeracy skills.
Earlier this year, Amanda was awarded the 212th Commonwealth Point of Light by Queen Elizabeth II, as a result of her exceptional voluntary service in improving literacy rates in Singapore. The award “thanks inspirational volunteers across the 54 Commonwealth nations for the difference they are making in their communities and beyond”.
Says Amanda: “For me, I do not consider this sort of work as ‘charity’, but a matter of justice. I believe that everyone is created with equal dignity and deserves a fair chance at success. Over the years, as the wheels of meritocracy have slowed and education is increasingly based on socio- economic lines, these factors will cement social inequality if not disrupted.”
The importance of empathy
Amanda’s desire to do good is rooted in personal experience. She had to grapple with feelings of loss and grief during the pandemic, when she lost a dear friend, who was only 28 years old, to cancer.
“When I lost her, it was something I felt very deeply and acutely about because we were very close. And I think that the loss also ended up working its way into some poems that I’m working on for my next collection,” says Amanda.
The loss taught her how to confront her emotions, and to have the courage to experience the full heartache of it. “Sitting with your feelings is very uncomfortable, and we’re not used to sitting with discomfort. That’s why we don’t like going through grief. But letting them work their way can bring you to a place of greater insight,” she says.
The Feelings Farm, a 2021 musical that she wrote for the Esplanade with her friend of two years, composer Julian Wong, is an exploration of embracing these very human emotions.
“The whole idea of creating a work specifically for Singapore children was very important to me. And as part of the process, we worked together with children. We had creation workshops with children, where we integrated their experiences into the fabric of the show. We worked with kids with Down’s syndrome, and those from lower income backgrounds, and we asked them a lot of questions: ‘What does sadness feel like in your body? What does sadness sound like?’ Their ideas were woven into the play, and into the production design as well. Some of the elements of the kids’ drawings became part of the multimedia projected on stage.”
“I really wanted to be able to speak about difficult themes like socioeconomic inequality, grief and parental conflict, that many kids have to deal with. So we were very, very delighted by the reception to the play when it really resonated with both adults and children,” she shares.
Following The Feelings Farm, Amanda took part in a 24-hour playwright competition by home-grown theatre group T:>Works, where participants were tasked to write a play within one day, based on prompts that the theatre company would send every few hours.
Her play #Womensupportingwomen was the winner, and it was staged featuring local theatre actress Jo Tan earlier this year. It tells the story of two women from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and explores how one’s perception of gender is informed by their individual experiences and backgrounds.
“I wanted to explore what’s inclusive feminism, one that involves not just professional women, but also women of lower socio-economic status, across different intersections of race and class. The girl-boss type of feminism can be very reductionist in how it turns substance into slogans. “Rather, I wanted to explore this idea of women in the workplace, and the certain kind of image that we have to project in order to succeed, which is almost like a toxic masculinity and bravado. Ultimately, women are always having to play a role in every context based on fixed scripts, because of the gender stereotypes that bind us,” she explains.
Passion and purpose
While Singapore boasts a rich literary scene, few writers and poets can say that their work has been engraved on the Marina Bay Helix Bridge. Amanda’s poem Lion Heart was etched in steel and concrete in 2010. A patriotic ode to Singapore’s progress, the poem won a national contest when she was 16, and is now studied as part of the Cambridge International GCSE syllabus.
Ever the tireless creative, Amanda is also founding web editor of Poetry.sg, the first online database of Singapore poetry. She also hopes to encourage people to think outside the realm of their self-beliefs, and realise that humans are complex beings through her art.
She adds that she wishes society can learn how to give people enough grace to be wrong. “I just don’t like the culture of self-righteousness where we’re so confident that we’re right, instead of being flexible and humble enough to admit that we could be wrong. We need to [learn how to] listen to engage, and not listen to confront.” It’s an ethos that enables her to initiate dialogues and conversations that can challenge the status quo, and encourage people to go beyond their belief system.
This is why Amanda believes that art plays a powerful role in creating a civil and safe space for dialogue. “I think the power of art is in removing that kind of polarised construct. Art enables us to explore different viewpoints through the medium of empathy because it also gives us the safety of aesthetic distance,” she says.
By now, it’s clear that this whole-hearted approach is what fuels this passionate – and highly accomplished – multi-hyphenate. When we speak to her loved ones, a recurring theme in our conversations is how she gives everything her all, whether it’s her law career, her literary and charity pursuits, or even her role as a daughter, friend, and sister.
In fact, Amanda asks me as many questions about my life pre- and post-interview, and remembers minor details when I meet her two weeks later. She’s genuinely interested in others, and emanates compassion, empathy and kindness. She’s gracious to a fault, penning me a thank-you note when I lend her my notebook as a prop for this shoot.
Says Amanda: “If I want to be remembered, my goal is to be remembered as someone who’s good at listening and bringing my full presence to someone’s story. I think it is such a precious thing to be trusted [with a person’s story], because that is a way of understanding someone and how that person sees themselves.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Veronica Tay
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay
STYLING Lauren Alexa
HAIR/MAKEUP Benedict Choo, using Cle De Peau & Aung, using Estee Lauder & Kevin Murphy