How Lawyer And Poet Amanda Chong Is Tackling Illiteracy In Singapore
Amanda Chong has one hell of a CV. A graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, the 29-year-old was the top candidate at the Singapore Bar in 2013, has served as a member of the United Nations Expert Group on the International Legal Definition of Trafficking in Persons, and currently practices public international law. Perhaps most impressive, however, is her life outside the courtroom.
Chong is a poet—her 2016 poetry collection Professions was shortlisted for the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. Last year, she received the Singapore Youth Award, the nation’s highest accolade for young people, for co-founding ReadAble, a non-profit that runs English literacy classes for children from low-income families in a Chinatown neighbourhood.
“I was born into a middle-class family, and I never lacked anything," says Chong, explaining her motivation for founding the charity. "So I feel I have a lot of privilege, because the education system is designed for someone like me to thrive in it. Children who come from less materially privileged households don’t have the luxury of just being able to focus on their education, and I don’t think that’s fair. I just wanted to be part of the solution.”
For Chong, the repeated invocation of privilege isn't just just a recitation of trending social justice vocabulary; it's personal. Chong’s father grew up in a one-room flat, and while they both attended the same school, the reputable Hwa Chong Junior College, it was under very different circumstances.
“He asked for permission to live in the school because he couldn’t afford the bus fare to go home to [eastern Singapore's] Geylang Serai every day,” she tells us. “And he used to look out from the school at the landed properties nearby and wonder what it would be like to live in one of those houses.” Her father became the first person in his family to graduate from university, and went into law.
By the time she started at Hwa Chong, “we were living in one of those houses, and I could walk to school. And it was always impressed upon me that whatever we had in life was really by God’s grace, and we are given gifts so we can steward them for the benefit of others”.
Loving stories, wanting to tell stories, and helping people tell their own stories is basically the running theme in my life that has informed everything that I do
— Amanda Chong
Her own family is living proof of how education can engender a great leap forward in just one generation, but Chong is less optimistic about the opportunities that future generations will receive. “I feel that this cycle of meritocracy and social mobility has really slowed down a lot”, says Chong. “Privilege entrenches itself, right? So it’s something that has to be solved by government policies, but private citizens also have to play a part."
And Chong is doing just that. This year, besides working on her second collection of poetry—inspired by famous criminal trials in Singapore involving women—she will also be working with ReadAble co-founders Jonathan Muk and Michelle Yeo to launch ReadyAble, a training platform for those who want to set up their own literacy programmes.
“The bigger goal for me is to really work towards Singapore becoming a country where all voices matter," says Chong. "Loving stories, wanting to tell stories, and helping people tell their own stories is basically the running theme in my life that has informed everything that I do.”