SINGAPORE: Barely two months in and already Sally May Tan is under no illusions about her new job as CEO of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS).
“Let’s be honest. There are lots of people who just don’t care,” said the 54-year-old, whose career spans management roles in a diverse range of industries, including advertising, consumer goods, oil and energy, wellness and private education.
She can now add to her portfolio one of Singapore’s oldest and largest voluntary welfare organisations, founded in 1962 and now boasting 17 facilities and more than 700 staff to serve close to 2,400 beneficiaries.
This is but a fraction of what MINDS estimates as up to 150,000 persons with intellectual disabilities (PWIDs) in Singapore. So in a bid to "bring the organisation forward and to a different level", the non-profit plumped for a fresh approach via the corporate smarts of Ms Tan.
Her predecessor Mr Keh Eng Song left a decade-long legacy of setting up multiple day-activity centres (DACs) before retiring in 2017. Former NTUC Link chief Tony Tan See-Boon then took over briefly but had to leave due to family circumstances. Enter Ms Tan, who sees herself carrying out “not so much revolution than evolution”.
“Our beneficiaries are facing a world that’s changing all the time,” she told Channel NewsAsia. “The families who care for them are very concerned, wondering how their children are going to cope in, say, a cashless society.
“We take a lot of things for granted, like topping up a cashcard - but for PWIDs, they have to understand how to do it step-by-step, using repetition, and we must also create a safe environment for them to learn this.”
SO “PEOPLE WON’T FIND THEM ‘WEIRD’”
Fortunately, the Singapore government has been forward-looking in discussing policies for PWIDs and “putting money where its mouth is”, said Ms Tan, pointing to the Enabling Masterplan - a national initiative for developing the disability sector, now in its third iteration since kicking off in 2007.
Instead it is at the micro, everyday level where a “huge challenge” exists. She explained: “Some years ago, a survey of people on the street asked how they view PWIDs. The results were quite shocking - people either avoid or are scared of them.
“Yes, you will have people who think they’re crazy. In a way I don’t blame them, but you have to break down those walls. Sometimes it’s nothing more than just ignorance and lack of awareness.”
Added Ms Tan: “For instance, a lot of kids intrinsically like to help others, unless I tell them ‘don’t go near that PWID, in case he hurts you’ - then I start to imprint that fear in my child.
“So it’s very, very clear that the more we hide PWIDs from society, how will everyone learn? But the more we try to integrate them by encouraging interaction, bringing them to do activities outside etc. ... then people won’t find them ‘weird’.”
She acknowledged that “for any social cause, no matter how hard you try, there will always be a percentage of the population” remaining indifferent.
But at the same time there are more than 700 MINDS volunteers - some “who’ve been here for decades, are still passionate and not even paid” - to be thankful for and, going forward, Ms Tan will be “hanging her hopes” on the millennials.
“From all the surveys I’ve read, there’s a large part of them who don’t want to behave like my generation and only worry about the ‘4Cs’. There are a lot who really want to do social work,” she said.
“So we have to be out there on social media and challenge ourselves to be more relevant, because the responsibility is on us to do better and to talk to these people.”
“OPEN YOUR HEART"
Ms Tan’s priority for now is to see through a slew of initiatives already in the pipeline before she joined.
These include a pioneering “integrated lifespan curriculum” in collaboration with the University of Sydney, to offer lifelong learning to PWIDs above 18 years old. “It gives them purpose and measurable outcomes rather than just learning skills which is what most do at the DACs,” said Ms Tan. “PWIDs must continue to be stimulated otherwise they might regress, and we’ve seen cases of that.”
Another first: Starting in October, “customised respite care” for caregivers to have time off while trained volunteers help look after the PWIDs inside their own homes. This frees up the caregivers to leave the house for a few hours - whether to attend a learning course, have exercise time or run errands.
MINDS is also looking to launch six books next year in a novel project to teach primary school kids about PWIDs.
“At the end of the day, the Government funds us so we have to be good stewards of this public money and make sure that our beneficiaries really, really benefit from what we give to them," said Ms Tan.
The difficulty behind achieving this goal lies in how “you cannot lump everyone with intellectual disability into one big group”.
“Every beneficiary is very unique, and they change over time, so that’s why we have so many allied health professionals working on each case. It takes a village, literally," she outlined.
“But one of our biggest joys is when we have a beneficiary going into open employment, and their families are also very happy to see their child be able to take transport to work, buy food, have good work ethic, not be isolated, and then come home safely - all by themselves.”
How can the public help? By taking the first step to recognise the simple fact that “there are a lot of people in need in our society”, Ms Tan replied.
“Carve out some time in your busy lives to do something. Whether at the school or workplace, many organisations have CSR (corporate social responsibility) programmes - make good use of that. By taking action, that’s when the heart opens up more.
“And after all, being able to relate to the needy is the humane thing to do.”