Remember Those Who Can’t Be Number One: On The Record With Dignity Kitchen’s Koh Seng Choon

It is lunch time at the Dignity Kitchen food court in Serangoon Avenue 3 and the atmosphere is almost festive.

There is a cluster of tables in a far corner where a group of elderly people is having lunch as part of Dignity Kitchen’s Lunch Treat for the Elderly programme which is sponsored by organisations or individuals. A few tables away, a cancer support group is meeting. The other tables are occupied by patrons from the neighbourhood.

In the centre of it all is 58-year-old Koh Seng Choon in a black t-shirt with the words Serve with Dignity emblazoned on it. He is talking to a regular patron about Dignity Kitchen’s Workforce Development Agency-approved hawker training programme.

Mr Koh is no ordinary entrepreneur. His award-winning social enterprise, Dignity Kitchen food court, trains and employs a mixture of people with disabilities, former inmates, single mothers, battered wives, school dropouts and essentially anyone struggling with societal acceptance to cook and run hawker stalls. Dignity Kitchen also places such individuals in other establishments looking for workers. The social enterprise has been talked about often in the last seven years, and they are constantly evolving.

Most recently he has opened Dignity Mama stores that sell pre-loved books at local hospitals. They are run by kids with Down Syndrome and their mothers.

After politely excusing himself, he walks up to me for our interview. He moves at a feverish pace as he gives me a tour of the kitchen. Who can blame him? He has a lot on his plate. From ensuring that the stalls and training programmes run smoothly to making sure that the communities that benefit from his organisation’s initiatives continue to do so.

Within the second-storey market food court, which is their third home in seven years, are an administrative area for course registration, training rooms and kitchens. He beams as he introduces me to the stallholders. He is proud of each and every one of them who, with his help, have risen above their personal challenges.

An engineer by training, Mr Koh started his career at Jurong Shipyard and later became a business officer. His career took him around the world as he managed a foundry in the United Kingdom. His business expertise took him to China, Europe and the US. After doing a master’s degree in computer integrated manufacturing at the Cranfield Institute of Technology, he joined a surveillance company in Geneva.

In the mid-90s, he returned to Singapore as a management consultant and subsequently started his own consultancy to help small and medium enterprises expand overseas.

As his career progressed, he acquired all the hallmarks of wealth – expensive watches, luxury cars and property. It was a big step up for the son of a bus conductor and seamstress who grew up in a small rented flat.

Through all this, he started to wonder about the other side of Singapore.

“In other countries, I saw poverty, homeless and disabled people. It was all in the open. When I returned to Singapore, I could not see any of these people, but I knew they were there.

“We are a society driven by the achievement to be number one in everything, but we must remember those who can’t be number one. If you don’t see such people, you will lose empathy.”

He started volunteering one day a month. He would take the elderly on bus tours, then moved on to conduct entrepreneurship classes for inmates about to be released from prison.

As executive director of the Restaurant Association of Singapore in 2005, he met a polio sufferer who expressed a wish to be a chef.

Look At The Possibilities, Not The Obstacles

Mr Koh knew it would be challenging, if not impossible. But being an engineer, he is trained to “look at possibilities, then figure out the probabilities and solutions.”

“I look at ability instead of disability.”

A hawker stall was an apt solution to help such individuals achieve their dreams.

“There were low barriers to entry. You only serve one cuisine. We just had to come up with a system for each hawker and adapt some of the equipment to accommodate their disabilities. We have a one-hand noodle cooking machine, Braille cash registers and worktops that are height-adjustable.”

He started designing a modular kitchen for the disabled and went to scrap yards in Johor to get kitchen equipment. He also sought the expertise of cooks and chefs.

Government Agencies Need To Be More Open-Minded

At a time when social enterprises were a little-known concept, he had trouble getting the money needed to set up a food court.

“Government agencies rejected me too. They were cautious. I didn’t have a track record, so it was difficult.”

“They are sometimes too cautious even today. They really need to be more open-minded and take some risks. Being too cautious will get our country nowhere,” he says with some frustration.

He himself has taken plenty of risks in his life.

In 2010, he decided instead of buying a family car, he would use the money to set up three stalls at Balestier Market Food Centre. They served local desserts, nasi lemak and vegetarian food. The stalls were staffed by the blind, mentally ill and an ex-convict.

At one point, he was losing S$1,000 a day.

He made several mistakes, he says.

“I thought it would be a good idea to have the staff wear badges to identify their disabilities or conditions. I wanted customers to be able to understand in case something went wrong. Instead, it turned them off completely. People came, saw the words, ‘mental illness’ or ‘blind’ on the badges and walked away.”

Once the badges were removed, sales picked up. It taught him that integration has to be done gradually and in subtle ways.

“Train them for the job and make sure they can do it. Let others see their abilities before they see their disabilities.”

After about a year, the three stalls were doing well, bringing in about S$20,000 monthly. But the owners wanted them back and he had to look for a new place.

The second Dignity Kitchen was a 14,000 square foot space with 14 stalls at Kaki Bukit. But this didn’t last as the rental increased after a few years.

The rental at their current 6,000 square foot Serangoon premises is more manageable but foot traffic is low.

“We are still treated like commercial organisations in many ways and we just have to factor this into the business.”

Making A Social Enterprise Profitable

The training programmes and other charitable initiatives come under the umbrella of Project Dignity and the organisation’s loss-making days are behind it.

“For the latest audited financial year 2016, our revenue is S$1.4 million and profit is S$21,000,” he says with pride.

Donations from individuals and friends and family helped keep his cause afloat.

His sister donated S$50,000. His mother left him S$100,000 when she died.

He tears as he talks about her.

“My mother encouraged me from the start. So when she died and left me all this money, it was really bittersweet.”

Aside from donations, Mr Koh’s business acumen has helped.

The project makes money from a food delivery service, his business consultancy services, curriculum development for the food service industry which is sold to businesses in China and India, and from renting out small spaces in the food court for temporary use.

But for social enterprises there is a second measure – social impact.

“In the case of Project Dignity, the social impact is about S$800,000 every year. If we train and place one disabled or disadvantaged person into employment and he earns about S$1,000 per month as a part-time worker, that is S$12,000 per year. We average 60 to 80 beneficiaries per year for the last seven years, that is over S$6.5 million in terms of social impact and this impact can be measured,” he says.

Helping Build Lives

Up until now, Dignity Kitchen has trained and placed over 500 people in the employment in areas such as food preparation, cooking and cleaning.

“To you, 500 people in seven years may not be a big deal. But to me, it’s 500 lives that we‘ve helped over the years.”

He also employs about 60 people in Dignity Kitchen itself, about 40 of which are disabled or disadvantaged.

One of them, Leon Thian, a 24-year old diagnosed with schizophrenia, manages the hawker training programme.

“They have meltdowns sometimes, but as an employer, I know when to leave him alone and he will come back when he’s ready. You just sometimes have to give them a break.”

He describes other difficult cases – one of an autistic boy who would masturbate at work when upset.

How does he deal with it?

“I’m not an expert or social worker. But I’ve realised that you just have to make an effort to calm them down. We have built a network of medical experts and care workers we can approach.”

But there are more serious cases which involve individuals who can’t function even with help. Some of these can get somewhere given more time.

“For those we cannot place in jobs, we hire them in our premises and offer part-time work until they are ready to try somewhere else. We try again.”

Still An Uphill Task

Considering these challenging cases, convincing people to hire disabled individuals is an uphill task.

“Most employers want my people because of shortage of staff or for the purpose of meeting the Singaporean worker quota. But we make sure they know that it can’t just be about the numbers. The employment has to be real.”

This requires understanding the employers’ needs and the workers’ abilities. Those placed in jobs are monitored every other week.

They seldom see first-time success.

I express some concerns about employers who are in it for the wrong reasons – those who only hire disabled or disadvantaged individuals to meet their headcounts.

Mr Koh assures me that there is a screening process that ensures only those who are serious and take measures to accommodate the needs of his trainees are allowed to hire them.

“Once we explain to the employer that they need to adapt in terms of arranging shorter hours, or help the employee get a routine job for which they must be trained as well, the insincere companies drop out. Those who are sincere will work with us.”

The Suicide That Haunts Him

The screening and monitoring process has been intensified in the last few years partly because one case still haunts him.

I sense a mixture of despair and regret as he tells me about a 20-year old woman with bipolar disorder who he placed in a job. He had trained her personally.

“Her condition was being managed with medication and therapy and we placed her in a sticker-making factory. The employer was very kind but it was her immediate supervisor who shouted at her over the smallest things.”

Mr Koh only found this out upon watching CCTV footage of the factory floor after the woman’s death.

“She had kept it all inside. She went home one day and at about 3.30pm jumped from the seventh floor of her block.”

The lesson he learnt from this was to place only a small number of five employees at any one time so that he and his team can focus on supporting each one better.

Fair Treatment

Fair salaries are an issue too. He has to make sure that they are being paid commensurate to the job and what other employees in the company are being paid for similar jobs.

“There is an organisation which I found out doesn’t pay the individual directly. They told the parents of an autistic boy working for them that the money is donated to the social services sector and that he won’t be paid for his work.

“We need to fight against this. Donations are good, but they should be separate. This should be like any employer-employee relationship. They work for you. You pay them directly. That’s dignity.”

A Lack Of Acceptance

Acceptance of individuals who have obvious physical disabilities or condition has been hard in Singapore.

One of his trainees with severe eczema was hired to work at a drink stall at a tertiary institute here, but was asked to leave after a few weeks because “the students found her skin scary.”

“I told the school, come on. The whole point of teaching kids is to expose them to diverse people. How can you do this?”

The school wouldn’t listen.

Things are improving in some quarters though.

Schools in the area come in for experiential learning and to learn acceptance but he feels some of them do it only as a requirement for Values in Action programmes.

“It’s okay. At least they are exposed and even if I can convert one student to start doing more to contribute to their community, it’s progress.”

However, he is bothered by the way media coverage sometimes sets the agenda for what we prioritise as a society.

“When we, a social enterprise, won the President’s Challenge Award in 2015, there was only a small column in the newspaper. But the Entrepreneur of the Year Award had full-page coverage. We have our priorities all wrong.”

He also feels more needs to be done within society to encourage helpful behaviour.

“When I was in the UK, if an autistic boy had a meltdown in public, people would try to help. They would ask the adults with him how they can help. Here, most people either stare or look away. Some actually whip out their phones to film the meltdown and then share it on social media.”

He also remarks that more can be done to streamline the functions of non-governmental and voluntary welfare organisations to maximise limited resources.

“There are too many help organisations with overlapping functions. For instance, there are so many organisations that cook for the elderly. One of my friends told me he gets offered four breakfasts from four different organisations each day. More needs to be done to pool resources.“

He tries to do so in his own sphere by collaborating with others.

I can see that the challenges of his job get to him though.

“I want to give up every single day and I am often discouraged when we have problems.”

These moments don’t last very long.

“Once I started the project, I thought of it as my duty to carry on as long as I am capable. I have successors lined up who are already very involved, but I want to help as long as I can.”

So he inspires himself with the success stories of the individuals who work for him.

In the next few years he aims to set up a Dignity Kitchen elsewhere the region, possibly in Hong Kong.

He looks especially inspired as he talks about the future, but when I ask what he would like to be remembered for, he says “nothing in particular.”

“I want to be able to inspire others to do one good thing, help a community, at least one day a month. That’s how I started and it inspired me to do this project and even though I want to give up every day, I don’t regret it one bit.”

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