For many in India and South-East Asia, Koh Seng Choon is probably a well-known name. For those who are yet to be acquainted with his incredible achievements, his own quote can be used to define the man – “I look at the ability instead of disability.” Yes, Koh Seng Choon is the man behind Singapore’s remarkable venture ‘Project Dignity’ which generates employment for differently-abled individuals. Started in 2010, Project Dignity has changed the lives of hundreds of specially-abled people in Singapore, who otherwise found little professional or even social acceptance.
His father was a bus conductor, mother a seamstress
Born to a family of eight, Koh was the youngest of six children, who grew up together in the confines of a small government flat. “My father was a bus conductor, and my mother was a seamstress. Ours was not a rich family, but we managed with what we had,” he shares with The Logical Indian.
He feels fortunate to have parents who provided him with a good education despite their financial constraints. After graduating First Class Double Honours from Sheffield University, UK in Engineering and Business Studies, he found work in a steel factory during the historic coal miner’s strike in the UK. Later, after pursuing his Masters, he worked for a Swiss corporate before deciding to relocate to his motherland permanently. In 1994, Koh returned to Singapore and joined a firm there. He had no shortage of luxury in his lifestyle, be it owning deluxe properties in the urban heartlands of Singapore or driving multiple luxury cars.
No differently-abled people in Singapore streets
Despite being exclusively engaged in the corporate sector, a few oddities about the public places of Singapore did not evade Koh’s eyes. “Why don’t we see many beggars or homeless people on the streets? Why are there no differently-abled individuals in our shopping centres or restaurants?” he wondered. He found it difficult to believe that a country with a population of nearly six million had no disabled or underprivileged people.
Looking for an answer, Koh discovered that no public place in his country had been made accessible for the less advantaged people. It is near impossible for a person with a disability to find employment in any sector. Similar were the woes of the poor, the single mothers or battered wives, former prisoners and school dropouts who have drifted into poverty – all of whom were outcast by a society obsessed with a strange puritanism.
The start of ‘Project Dignity’
Koh Seng Choon was not a person to feel sad for them for a day and forget the next. He started with a small step – doing some volunteer work one day a month. Be it taking seniors on city tours or coaching prisoners on parole to start new businesses, he conducted all activities with efficiency.
Soon, with an elaborate future plan in mind, he decided to create employment opportunities for the specially-abled people, which in turn, would provide them with societal acceptance as well. ‘Project Dignity’ was conceptualized in 2006 and in 2007, Koh set out to build his workforce comprising of differently-abled individuals.
Dignity Kitchen has differently-abled employees
The very first and perhaps the most popular initiative of Project Dignity is Dignity Kitchen, a public restaurant where differently-abled people are trained and employed as workers, and the elderly and the homeless are served free lunch every day.
Koh and his team went door to door, encouraging families to send their specially-abled member(s) for working there. Non-profits also recommended their specially-abled members to work with Koh’s project. It took him time, but slowly his project earned the faith of the people due to its success.
No help from Government agencies
Training them was no easy task. It took time, relentless efforts and untiring enthusiasm from Koh as well as the participants, to have the outreach they are enjoying today with stalls in different parts of Singapore. Funds were another big concern as Koh received no help from Government agencies, despite repeated appeals, mainly since he lacked a background in social entrepreneurship. “I remortgaged my entire property and raised $200,000 to do the startup,” he reveals. Later, he received considerable contributions from his family, notably his sister and mother.
“We have employees from 17 to 87 years of age”
At present, Dignity Kitchen provides gainful employment to the differently-abled (physically or intellectually), former inmates and the helpless. “We foster their inclusion and integration in the society as all other human beings, just like us,” Koh explains. “We have employees of all age groups, ranging from 17 to 87,” he adds.
A typical day at any Dignity Kitchen stall begins with hard work by the employers. While one may find someone engaged with a one-hand noodle-maker, another person may be found calculating the bill at the Braille cash register. The whole environment exuberates inclusiveness at its best.
At around 11 or 12 AM, the stalls welcome the elderly and homeless from all around Singapore for a warm, hearty lunch for free. Evening time it is again open to the public.
The challenges on the way
It took quite some time for Koh’s initiative to gain popularity through word of mouth. “People were not very empathetic at first to buy food from a mentally unstable person or a cancer survivor, due to social taboo,” Koh shares. He admits that there had been mistakes on his part as well, which had slowed down the growth of Project Dignity at times. At one point, he thought it would be a good idea to introduce badges for the workers, highlighting their ‘illness’, so that the customers do not get annoyed at slow or clumsy service. But the idea backfired. People took one look at their badges that said ‘mental illness’ or ‘blindness’ and stopped buying food from them.
Other initiatives under Project Dignity
However, Project Dignity can be deemed as a successful venture as their social impact is about $800,000 every year, considering the inclusion of these marginalized people in the core workforce. Koh Seng Choon has also started quite a handful of branch ventures on similar lines such as Dignity Mama, Dignity Cottage, Dignity Kitchenette, Dignity Learn, Dignity Angel and Dignity Event. Dignity Mama is another notable project which is a pre-owned bookshop operated by mothers with differently-abled kids.
Association with Singapore International Foundation
Koh Seng Choon has been one of the many prominent faces closely associated with Singapore International Foundation. “SIF beneficiaries from different parts of the world paid visits to our Dignity Kitchen to understand our unique entrepreneurship model,” he shares. He has shared his experience and expertise on social innovation with young SIF volunteers. In fact, he has served as a mentor, and principal speaker at the latest edition of Young Social Entrepreneurs (YSE) programme by SIF organised in Mumbai, India in 2018.
“I have plans to expand Project Dignity in Hong Kong and Malaysia, and who knows, maybe even India someday,” Koh shares happily.
Message for our readers
Koh Seng Choon has some important message for our readers. “We all die. We come with nothing, and we go we nothing,” he says. So all of us should try to do something for the disadvantaged. “Do at least one dignity day per month,” he urges. He elaborates his philosophy by dividing life into three phases – “Age 0 to 25 you learn, age 25 to 50 you earn, age 50 onward must give back.”
The Logical Indian applauds this incredible personality and hopes Koh Seng Choon continues to inspire generations to come.