Stop moaning, be pro-active: Heartware Network founder Raymond Huang to Singapore’s youth

Stop moaning, be pro-active: Heartware Network founder Raymond Huang to Singapore’s youth

He was a banker, but about 17 years ago, Raymond Huang decided he had had enough of the corporate world, and dedicated his life to youth development, encouraging them to be leaders, volunteers and entrepreneurs.

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SINGAPORE: He was a banker, but about 17 years ago, Raymond Huang decided he had had enough of the corporate world, and dedicated his life to youth development, encouraging them to be leaders, volunteers and entrepreneurs.

He set up the Heartware Network, and has seen his volunteers help out in settings from National Day Parades to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s farewell.

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(Photo courtesy of Raymond Huang)

Today, he sits on Heartware’s Board of Directors and is Chairman of Kairos Asia Consultancy which looks at green-field projects and global entrepreneurship networking that benefit Heartware’s youth.

He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about the challenges of getting people to move from hardware to “heartware” and how organisations with a cause can do better to get people behind it. They started talking about how it all got started.

Raymond Huang: I started my overseas career posting in Beijing, China. I think over the few years I enjoyed myself helping Singaporeans solve issues. So whenever Singapore Ministers come to visit China, I would always try to organise gatherings with them and during one holiday with a dear friend of ours who was formerly the head of the Economic Development Board in China, he told me, "Raymond, my observation is you don't love money enough to do banking. I find that you have greater joy helping people."

That, to me, was a revelation. I told my wife that actually it's true. I enjoy helping people. So I asked why don't we leave the banking sector for a few years and see where we can take this. There was a particular key event that sealed this decision. One year when there was a demonstration by the communist youth, we saw young Chinese people climbing over our Singapore embassy wall to take a shortcut to go to the British and American embassies and there was nothing we could do. They were protesting about the fact that because the Americans used some old maps, they bombed the Chinese embassy (in Belgrade) instead of their intended target. Four Chinese nationals were killed. The British and American embassies were down the road so they took a shortcut through the Singapore embassy.

I looked at them and I felt that we were being pillaged. Yet we couldn't do anything about it. It was a sea of 150,000 Chinese. That is a mental picture I remember till this day. At that point though, I thought, imagine if I could motivate young people in that way but for a common cause for a better Singapore beyond focusing on your car, on your house. Wouldn't that be wonderful.

Bharati: In a previous media interview, you mentioned that you were actually moved to do this by an overseas Singaporean’s remark that he would actually pull his family out of Singapore in the event of a war.

Huang: Yes, I remember this guy. It was at the National Day celebration at the Singapore embassy and we were just talking candidly and so I asked him what he would do if something like that happens in Singapore and he said: "Oh, it's very easy. I will just pack up my bags and move my family out of Singapore. I owe it to my family."

I thought, it was the Singapore brand that gave you that nice comfy MNC job. It was the Singapore education that made you who you are today. It's not like you were just born out of nowhere. In my heart I was thinking, I can’t help you anymore. You’ve made up your mind. But everybody else, maybe I can reach out to. Maybe I can reach down to our youth who are still schooling and hopefully inspire the next generation of young people who would not take Singapore as a glamorous 6-star hotel that you check in and check out of.

Bharati: Your areas of interest span quite a range – doing good for society, doing good for one’s country. Explain what “heartware” really means to you.

Huang: I think my inspiration for “heartware” was what then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said: Look beyond the material, look at the soul of the nation beyond the economic and material needs. See whether or not you can build Singapore as your home and not your hotel. That resonated with me very closely because I find that every other conversation you hear in Singapore is about car loans and housing loans.

I remembered it was different in my family in my growing-up years. We were a happy middle-class family. We grew up in a 4-room flat. Six siblings sleep on the floor. My sister had a prestigious career in the bank and at a young tender age, she gave up everything and went to India to become a missionary. My father always talked about his broken toe. This toe was broken because he was trying to run away from the Japanese in Malaysia. He said he pedaled too hard and it got caught in the bicycle chain. So we grew up with a mental picture that my family was hard-working. They almost lost their lives in the Second World War. They came to Singapore and they did good being teachers. My father always taught us integrity. He was a grassroots volunteer and from young, I would follow him around and see how he helped other people. His last act before he died was going door-to-door to ask residents whether they wanted to change their old torn and tattered Singapore flag to a new one and unfortunately while he was doing that, he caught a cold. That got worse and he was hospitalised and passed away. We buried him on National Day.

I remember my mother who, when she saw boys in school who had no pocket money, would give them 50 cents. In those days, 50 cents was a lot of money. Mental pictures of growing up and seeing a family always serving, always volunteering and always complaining why volunteers only show up when MPs are around, and why volunteers don’t show up when MPs are not expected, all this sort of stuck in my DNA because we were always taught to give back.

So to me, “heartware” means that we want to have a global perspective on things but deep down, we want to be patriotic. To us, patriotism doesn't just mean being loyal to the PAP because PAP is just one party. Patriotism is what you want your country to be. So what do I want my country to be? How can we contribute?

Bharati: How challenging was it to get people to donate to such a cause?

Huang: It was a challenge on many fronts because we had sceptics. My wife and I had very little in our bank accounts. We always joked with our friends and our staff. I would say, “look, the young people are worth so much. If I hadn’t spent my money on young people, I would have been able to buy a condo.”

It's a fair question in the sense that as a charity, we didn't look after the blind or those with cancer. Those are very emotive causes. It looks more pitiful. We are asking to raise up active citizens, to raise up volunteers, some people don't think that's valuable enough. But I think people started to see the value. We were developing people who would help others in society who needed it, volunteers with skills you can count on, people who would be great leaders. That requires investment. We were developing young people with low self-esteem and other issues to be confident to be able to take themselves and the country to the next level.

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(Photo courtesy of Raymond Huang)

Bharati: When you first set up Heartware Network, you were asked by one retired minister how you would measure “heartware”. You were taken aback then, but do you have an answer today?

Huang: You know how difficult it is for young people to do things without any incentives, no goodie bags, no lucky draws. So when the minister asked me the question, I thought if some students have difficulties finishing, in those days 6 CIP (Community Involvement Programme) hours a year, but a Heartware volunteer can finish 60 hours. To me, that's a direct measurement.

Bharati: However, surveys show that fewer people volunteer or volunteer less once they hit adulthood and the working world. So clearly you have a problem with sustaining their interest.

Huang: Today we have a focus very much on what a person can gain from volunteering. I focus on youth and not older people because I believe we need to give them the skills of leadership and helping in any scenario – at work or through volunteering. We train them well and they pick up leadership skills, develop character, develop as people and they feel valued. So they may initially come with a view to getting what is now known as Values in Action points, but that changes when they realise how they can benefit while benefiting others.

The hope is that they continue feeling that way and most of our volunteers continue doing so even in adulthood. But obviously, we can’t do it alone. So we need more synergies in the sector to manage volunteers better – adults and youth – to similarly make them feel that they can gain too by volunteering. We need to shape character and the Character and Citizenship Education in schools hopefully will help. It is getting better. There needs to be a focus away from the material and more to what value we can bring to society and this will take time to do. This is a soul-searching process. We also want to reach out to the Normal Stream students because I think that many of them can do much more. They’ve just been labelled “normal” because of their unfortunate academic results.


Bharati: We’ll talk more about what’s needed to sustain volunteerism in Singapore even in adulthood in a moment, but first, since you’ve mentioned Normal Stream students, what more do you think can be done in order to validate these students in society in general?

Huang: It is getting better. What we do to help is make sure that Heartware's programme is very integrated. For instance, I have projects with Raffles Institution students and Dunman High students together with ITE students. Nobody sees them as an ITE or a Dunman High student because they wear a common t-shirt. They are just seen as students, all the same.

I think with such interactions and community bonding, slowly things will change. My biggest concern is this, at the end of the day, whatever they learn, is it going to be applicable to what they're going to do in real life? My biggest concern now is that there is just too much conversation going on - narrative on this, narrative on that. There's so much work to be done but still a lot of talking and conversation. I think we need action.

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(Photo courtesy of Raymond Huang.)

You could say I am a product of “academic success”. I failed my “A” levels two times. I had to go to the US to get a degree. I was supposed to get to the US and transfer the credits to a better, more recognised American institution but I went to a private Christian university and came back and it was not recognised by the Public Service Division. But to me, it was what I learnt that was important. I look at all these kids and think now if I didn't have my own setbacks, I probably wouldn't be able empathise with them.

Character is paramount because I realised that many young people are street-smart, they will do and say the right things to pad their CVs, and we can see it very evidently. Sometimes you cannot blame them because that's how society is, but we have realised that there's now a great emphasis on character even in schools since Minister Heng Swee Keat was Education Minister before the last election.

I use my personal life as a testimony and it's always the character that shines more. Don’t forget, I failed “A” levels two times. But I got the job I wanted. I delivered the results. One year, I was the top salesman in the bank. It wasn’t because of my “A” levels. It was because of my character. People could trust me. I have integrity. When I promise them something, I delivered.

But I think now there are some quarters taking things to the extreme. They celebrate failure to the point where they think that it's shameful to celebrate excellence. People excel because they work hard. We should celebrate that. We shouldn’t celebrate people who fail because they are lazy. People who are lazy, in my book, ought to be kicked in the butt.

Celebrating a person doing his best is good. If he fails, we should provide a helping hand. Celebrating second chances is good but you've got to look at the root of the problem. Were they lazy or did they try their best and they failed? If you look at Singapore education, there are so many bridges to go to school. If you study hard enough and get some certifications, actually some people won’t look at the university certificate. And I agree that paper qualifications should be looked at with a pinch of salt. Heartware has hired and fired quite a few graduates who are from good universities because at the end of the day, they are only good on paper, they can’t do work.

Bharati: We need to start looking at different benchmarks of capability.

Huang: Regardless of your academic background and I don't care whether you're a scholar, you must know the ground, feel the ground, get your hands dirty, talk to the school, talk to teachers, talk to students. We've got to start preparing our young people for jobs that are not even created yet. It's the resilience, the mindset that is important.


Bharati: How to develop all that – resilience and the right mindset?

Huang: When the young people in our organization fail in any project, they are advised and they're taught how to improve further because some people don't accept failure. So we keep telling them that it's okay as long you go through service learning, you go through scenario-based learning and if something pops out and you panic and fail, don't give up. We had one student from a top school who failed in a project. She went AWOL from the whole project despite the fact that we were there to help her improve. They must understand that as long as they are teachable, they are receptive, we can train them. But the problem is that a person who has never scored a “B” in their life will never be able to understand what we are trying to do.

Bharati: This is an issue that’s been talked about many times, the ability to deal with failure. You talked about the importance of taking action. What type of action do you think is needed to change attitudes in this regard?

Huang: One, we have to be very real in the conversation and two, parents, please don't live your lives through the lives of your children. For me, I never nag my kids about their grades. I always try to talk with them about what is the purpose they want to achieve in life. I have to be very careful not to have my plan, my aspirations put into the kid’s life and tell them what’s good for them. Minimally, I want my children to grow up to be a young man and a young lady with a great sense of self-esteem, a great sense of self-worth. So I think adults should take a step back and don't just pump a child with money and resources but at the end of the day, you don’t spend the time to listen to the child, to find out what your child really wants? That's very important.


Bharati: Of course parents will tell you: we have no choice, we have to provide academic tuition, push them ahead, so that they can grow up and find jobs and be relevant and make a living.

Huang: Nothing wrong with that. I have to send my son to science tuition because I'm not good in science and to me, it's very stressful but the aim must be that they enjoy the lesson. I always say, “it's okay if you don't enjoy it. Let daddy know.” Then we have to try and make science relevant to them. They must be made to understand that everything is part of a larger scheme of interaction and not just about the grades. In my family, we never talk about the grades at all because I don’t want my children to be like me and tune out in school. Once you tune out, that's it. They grow up and become cynical.

Bharati: What would you say overall are the challenges of building heartware among Singaporeans?

Huang: I think we really need to live each day as if it's the last day of our lives and take a step back and not build up so many 5 Cs.

Bharati: How do you cut through all that “noise”? Some might say what you’re saying sound like mere motherhood statements.

Huang: I think the message has to be more consistent. I do see a lot more young people applying for jobs even in our volunteer sector now, which 17 years ago, you don't see so much of. So there are more people now trying to find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning which is excellent because 15 years ago, you'll never have so many CVs submitted for a job application in the sector.


Bharati: Could it be because of the economy?

Huang: I don't think it's because of the economy. I think that it's just many more young people probably never grew up being hungry and decided, “I need to find a deeper purpose." I also think it starts from the top. The top needs to send the signal to encourage more bottom-up active citizenry.

We are not like China. You can’t take the top-down approach anymore. Politicians cannot say, “I want 1,000 young people so you marshal 1,000 young people and you only support those who support you.” You can’t do that anymore. I think we need to follow what Minister Chan Chun Sing did when he visited Heartware in 2011. When he sees something good, he believes in investing in building its capacity. It’s about saying: “Okay, you are doing good. Make it better.” Rather than: “Oh, you are doing good, but this one is not my work. I will replicate what you are doing and do it better than you.” Which, sad to say, is very true these years because the people in-charge keep changing. Then after your 3-year term is over, you change and then somebody else comes in who says, I need to show my bosses fresh Capex and I will start again. This is not good. I've seen so many cycles of this.

Bharati: Give me a few examples of such instances.

Huang: We have been championing the building of a youth bank volunteer management system. One year there were plans to synergise efforts, but a few years later, other bodies such as the National Youth Council and National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre started building their own volunteer portals. And with another change of leadership, the focus will be shifted again in different government agencies.

Instead, look at the players on the ground and see who does what best. Help them with what they lack. For instance, we lack deep research capability, so we don't set up a research arm. Instead, we get resources from the National Youth Council. We synergise. Singapore is too small to keep starting new things. Stop replicating. Synergise and make things bigger. We are so small.


Bharati: You've said before that the Heartware Network is not a “rah rah charity”. You actually have a development pathway which includes leadership and entrepreneurship.

Huang: Yes, it’s all integrated. For instance, in the area of entrepreneurship when we help young people with loans, a simple point of character is whether the person is able to pay the loans on time. If I find that the person spends a lot of time holidaying and going everywhere else but forgets to make payment on time, then I'd wonder what the person’s character is.

When leaders plan projects, if they cannot show up, they give reasons, they don't give excuses. So we watch all these little things because sometimes young people when they see authority, they behave differently. When they see peers, they behave differently again. To me, that's not character. That's hypocrisy. We need to eradicate all these things because we don't have a population of 30 million young people. So even if you call our young people strawberries, remember, we don't have a lot of ready stock of strawberries to replenish them, so we have to do with the bruised and damaged ones. We shape these standards from Day One. They know that if they don’t keep to their word or if they don’t show up, they’re out.

They can go to their MP and appeal to them, but it won’t work. We actually had one case like this and actually a good laugh in the office. One student got his mother to go to their MP’s Meet-the-People session to appeal for Community Involvement Programme (CIP) hours from us. We received the letter, just laughed it off and said: “No, you have not met the criteria.” We explain this to the youth from the start. At the end of the day, when they don't get involved, we will remove them. The youth planning committee will alert them, send them letters and if that doesn’t work, they’re out.

Some charities out there, they just appreciate every single volunteer that comes along. Nothing wrong with that, but no training or half-baked training. They just welcome them and this is actually very bad for the youth's development. Volunteering must benefit the cause, but also the volunteer in terms of personal development so that the volunteers come back. But the way some charities do it, it makes the youth think, “oh, Values in Action (VIA) hours are a given, so I’ll just come and show up and even if they don’t add value, some charities will just give them the hours.”

Some charities tell volunteers if you raise more money for my charity, I will give you bonus Values in Action hours. We are not raising a generation of monkeys. You cannot offer incentives like that for volunteering. So for us, I keep telling my young people that they are young men and women who will take Singapore to SG100. If I want to raise a generation of monkeys, I might as well close shop and send everybody off.


Bharati: What exactly is preventing organisations from doing better when it comes to volunteer development? A lack of resources?

Huang: The sad thing is when an organization has resources, they’d rather channel the resources to fund-raising instead of channeling the resources to developing human capital. We should focus on human capital first because when we build up good young people, we always feel that the money will come. This has happened for us. We are living proof. 80-90% of our funding comes from the corporate sector.

I think the last flag day that Heartware did was in 2003. Charities need to understand that building people is very important. We are in the business of transforming lives and you need to transform the lives of your volunteers as well. People need to be properly trained, engaged, documented. You cannot just use them as a warm body. Tell the youths what they will learn by volunteering with you. People skills, public speaking skills, safety and security skills, etc.

Bharati: Your volunteers get VIA hours too though.

Huang: But that too is something we don't communicate. We always talk about your passion, your personal development goals. We talk about what you’re going to learn at the end of the day. And by the way, you also get VIA hours. So we take away goodie bags. Some organisations send me letters saying please send two busloads of youths. Why? Because the Prime Minister is coming. The poor Prime Minister. Does he know his name is being dangled like that? We look at the developmental aspect. Don't ask us for two busloads just because the VVIP is here. This is not for show. Things like that get trashed into the dustbin within a minute.

Bharati: Another issue that’s been in the spotlight off and on over the years is getting more people to take jobs in the social services sector. Remuneration has been seen as an issue and improvements are being made in that regard. What else is needed?

Huang: You really cannot have people living by faith especially since it's not a religious organization. Even some churches pay the pastors and staff reasonably well. Social workers are the same. If they are good at what they do, I think you need to pay them a good salary. Don’t ask them to go hungry. Recognise them as professionals. It’s not easy because in social work, you're dealing with a lot of issues. It's very draining both physically and mentally.

I think the social service sector needs to be championed more. There’s already a President’s Award for social workers but I think more of the success stories need to be highlighted in the media. Have more Singaporeans put through a stint in the family service sector and let them have exposure. No matter how short-term the exposure, let them understand what social workers have to go through. My sister is a social worker so we have a great pride in social workers. Also we need to recognise that in the sector, we shouldn’t use the words loosely - social worker, counsellor, mentor - we are very careful with such terminology because they are all real professionals.


Bharati: You also look into developing entrepreneurs. What’s preventing this from happening more organically in society?

Huang: It is not about the business about being a millionaire. It's about innovation. It's about resilience, independence. When I give you a sheet of white paper, you don't ask 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 questions. You are immediately able to move with it. These are the skillsets that we need to train (in) our young people. When I started, it was a social enterprise because there was no funding so we had to fund ourselves. We had to make sure we stood out among 2,000 other charities. I started and the journey was satisfying even though it was tough.

But I realised that this is the journey that many young people need to go through. The pro-activeness, the tenacity when things don't go well. How are you going to sell? The problem now I think is a lot of young people are comfortable. That's why in a sense, I’m happy for this small economic recession, because while our government is going to do a great job in restructuring, young people now, instead of moaning and groaning, need to do more. When I first came back from the US, I didn't ask for a salary. I went to a bank and told them straight: “You have no budget, never mind. Hire me for 4 months. I work for you for free. If I do well, maybe 4 months later when you have the budget, you can hire me. If I don't do well, at least for 4 months you’ll have a volunteer.

Bharati: Did they take up the offer?

Huang: They actually offered me the job with full pay from Day One, but I was fortunate enough to get another job so I turned them down. But the point is I was willing to do it for free for 4 months. So I feel if you cannot find a job and if you don't have a business idea, go and volunteer at organisations that are aligned with your thinking. Learn from them, who knows? That's what our young people can do instead of going to social media and complaining and moaning. There are a lot of opportunities.


Bharati: To what extent do you feel the schools could be doing more to effect attitudinal change though education?

Huang: Like what the famous John Maxwell says: You cannot teach what you do not know.

If the teachers come from the standard polytechnics and JCs and are nicely-minted from the National Institute of Education and are going into schools with no external experience, how are they going to inspire the charges under them to think out of the box? So that's why I'm a strong advocate of getting more mid-career teachers and outsiders to come in and inspire students.

Bharati: You’re saying that trained teachers for whom this could be a calling may not make as much of an impact?

Huang: I think they need to be inspired as well. That’s the issue. School teachers are very busy. You should see the long hours they clock. No joke. That's why I keep telling people not to join the teaching service if you just want a secure job and a salary because you owe it to the kids to do more. The kids will know when they look at you if it's just a job for you or whether you have the passion to touch their lives. That’s why every time we engage our students, we also try to inspire the teachers. We have an iconic programme where we get children, the youths to give the teachers handwritten notes to thank the teachers for being a great teacher.

Bharati: There’s now a Character and Citizenship Education module in schools as well, but you acknowledge that teachers tend to be very busy. Do you think more room should be made in our syllabus for these sorts of activities rather than just focusing on academics

Huang: I think there is more room now already. There are white spaces. But I think the balance is always how much white space is needed between the core subjects and this. But I'm sure it's getting better. Over the last 17 years, I've seen a lot of improvements.

Bharati: When you talk about active citizenry, how much of it has to do with advocacy work which can sometimes be confrontational even towards the government?

Huang: To me, you must put your hand to the heart and know that what you do is real and sincere. I look at it, not so much from the government’s point of view. I look at it in terms of a person truly believing in the cause. If he or she is passionate about it, I think there's nothing to fear. That's why I always tell my friends: “You think the police so free, ah? You think they will go and bug your place and track you down?”

If you truly and sincerely believe in something that you want for Singapore, fine. But if you are being used by somebody, you are being funded by foreigners with an agenda to destabilize society, then you better watch out. But I think the authorities can engage relationally. I sometimes don't like what our government does, but I don't put it on social media. I don't blast them because you can gently lobby them and find common ground. I think of it this way: At end of the day, I must bring a better Singapore. A win-win is more important than just getting my point right.

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Bharati: Going forward, how do you think we can evolve to leading more self-actualised lives amid the demands of making a living and the stresses that come with that? This, of course, is related to what we talked about earlier – getting the young to continue with volunteerism even when they hit adulthood.

Huang: I can't help the adults now-

Bharati: You think it's too late for them?

Huang: Those who already locked in a 30-year housing loan and a 10-year car loan need to re-evaluate. I came from a banking career so when I started giving out loans, I refused to give out loans to people who have to leverage every dollar they make. I refused to lend them money because I felt they were asking for trouble.

What I've learnt is really try to live below your means and try to minimize a deficit position. I’ve stayed in the same HDB for the last 15 years.

What hit me real early was that I lost my precious niece when she turned 4 years old and a dear friend of mine from India. He just graduated with two masters, and suddenly, he had a brain aneurysm and passed away at age 25.

So the morbidity of death struck home. I thought, I'm not God, better balance life out. What if I were to die tomorrow? What legacy would I be leaving? So from that time, in my early 20s, I really tried to balance life out. So today I tell young people that you may look good. You may have all these trappings, but deep down there's a lot of stress, there's a lot of arguments and what's going to happen? At the end of the day, you’ll just be living for yourself. That’s why I try to share with young people and tell them to try to have executive freedom, try and live below your means and not live month-by-month by credit card to impress people. I found out who my real friends are when I switched from banking to charity work. When I was in banking, every Chinese New Year, you would see so many hampers in my house. When I joined the charity sector, some people shook my hands as if I had leprosy. They touch you for two seconds and then go.

Bharati: Afraid you’ll ask them for money.

Huang: A lot of people are very practical so I think whether the economy is good or bad, we have to do some soul-searching and really go deep down. I encourage this among the young and hope that will carry this into adulthood. If you're not here tomorrow, what legacy do you want to leave?

Source: CNA/mn