“Success is a satisfying state of the mind… failure is when you stop trying”
When we first entered the premises of Dignity Kitchen, it looked just like any other food court, brightly lit with the familiar aroma of local fare. What sets Dignity Kitchen apart from normal food courts is that it is the very first hawker training school for the disabled and disadvantaged in Singapore. It aims to build and return the dignity to the disadvantaged and the disabled through vocation with passion. Within its small compound, there are seven fully functional hawker stalls, a training hawker stall, a training classroom and their office space, creating a very homely environment for the public to interact with the students of Dignity Kitchen while having their meals.
Mr Koh founded Project Dignity starting with his first social enterprise, Dignity Kitchen. Since its inception in 2010, he has expanded into other projects including Dignity Mama Stall, a secondhand bookstore managed by parents with disadvantaged children and Dignity Art Gallery.
What prompted you to start voluntary work and social projects?
I have a simple philosophy in life – for one day every month, I will participate in social and volunteer work. That was what I did when I came back to Singapore in 1994 having worked and lived in UK for 12 years. I realised that there were a lot of old people gathering at public places, such as those sitting at Spottiswoode Park and I had the idea that for one day every month I would take these old folks out to various places of interests. First, I started with 4 then 8 people and word spread that I was organizing these trips and it soon grew to a bus-load of people. We started bringing them out to factory visits, and then to places of interests in Johor and Batam. This project grew bigger, with the support from the residents’ committee.
I moved to Gillman Heights and Spottiswoode Park became too far for me to travel to frequently to meet the elderly. Thus I went to Kaki Bukit Remand Prison, which housed youths who got into trouble with the law. I started teaching there for a few months, still keeping it to one day a month. Slowly, other centers like Selarang Drug Rehabilitation Centre and Changi Prison approached me to help out at their centre too.
I have a mantra – when we are 0-25 years old, we learn and take in whatever knowledge we can, at 25-50 we use that knowledge to earn and finally when we are in our 50s, it is time to give back to the society. That is why when I turned 50, I decided to start a project to do my part and give back.
So how did Dignity Kitchen come about?
The idea for Dignity Kitchen started in 2006, when I was asked to do a project with the Restaurant Association of Singapore. In the course of the project, I met a man with a disability who wanted to be a chef. So that got me thinking – Even if I were to train him to be a chef, it would be very challenging for him to be hired at a restaurant. I did not want him to end up washing the dishes at a restaurant and so I came up with the idea of training him as a hawker instead. The difference is that a hawker typically serves a single or a smaller variety of cuisine. For example, a drink stall hawker only needs to learn how to make coffee, tea et cetera, so the process is much simpler. I felt that there must be a way to help these people, whether they are physically disabled or mentally challenged, so the idea of Dignity Kitchen was conceived.
The mission of Dignity Kitchen is to return the dignity to these people and to do that I believe not just in “giving them the fish, but teaching them how to fish” and more importantly to give them their self respect and dignity
What are some of the challenges you faced when Dignity Kitchen first started out?
I admit that when we first started out, it was quite tough because training normal people is challenging, training people with disabilities is even more challenging. We started out with 12 beneficiaries. These students either came from single parent families, are visually and hearing impaired or are mentally challenged. We also had an issue with choosing what to sell at the stalls, because we did not know what stalls the public wanted in a hawker centre and we had to change the types of the hawker to meet the demand of the public.
Another huge challenge we faced was the perception people have of our hawkers and us. People might not want to buy food from the hawkers who have disabilities. I guess it was because when we first started, each hawker had a badge pinned on him or her, indicating the type of disability they suffer from. For 2 weeks, we mulled over our poor business before deciding to remove these badges and see if there was an improvement in business. It is sad that the public has a sort of fear of buying food made by someone who is disabled.
We also had a problem with the shortage of funds, so in 2010 I made the bold decision to mortgage an office space, which I bought earlier in 1997. I got about $200,000 from it and decided to invest all the money into renting a hawker space in Balestier. However after one year, they increased their rental so we moved to Kaki Bukit View, where I borrowed another $500,000 for the renovation of the place. After two years, the landlord wanted to take back the site and had to search for another site again. Finally we moved to where we are today, Serangoon, which cost us another $300,000. To date, I had already invested close to a million dollars in Dignity Kitchen and even had a personal debt of about $700,000. We also have financially been in the red every year, losing about $1000 every day. Thankfully our efforts paid off and we finally broke even in 2013.
Being an entrepreneur, were you very disheartened at the poor financial state of your business?
Interestingly, I was not particularly stressed out by our poor finances (laughs). This could be due to the habit of sharing my problems with everyone instead of bottling everything inside; as such I do not really feel the bulk of the stress when everyone is in it together to solve the problem at hand. So basically, that was how I managed to pull through my financial crisis.
What is important is that I believed in sticking firmly to my vision. Yes, it was very depressing to see the business losing money every day, but at the same time I knew that there were a lot of people depending on me, especially the beneficiaries. Thus, failure was not an option for me and this kept me going.
“I knew that there were a lot of people depending on me, especially the beneficiaries. Thus, failure was not an option for me and this kept me going”
Why did you choose to go into the hawker business when you wanted to start a social enterprise?
When doing business, I learnt that we always have to focus on the needs and not the wants. For example, current special schools impart handicraft skills to their students, which I realized is not a particular need in our society now. According to the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, food is one of the most important things to us, so that is what I decided to focus on.
Why did you also choose to train people with so many types of disabilities instead of just focusing on a single group first?
Our approach to training is simple. We have to mix people with different disabilities and also people with different IQ, so that they can learn from each other and also to recognize the difficulties their counterparts are facing. As such, we have devised a partnership system in our hawker stalls, where for example a single mother pairs up with a boy with autism or a breast cancer patient with a physically disabled person.
There is a standard training program for the students but we will customize our teaching approach for each student to suit his or her learning requirements. We have also tried our best to simplify our materials so that it is more digestible for our students.
I heard you have started on many other programs under Project Dignity besides Dignity Kitchen. Please share with us more about them.
There is a new project called, Dignity Mama, where we sell secondhand books at hospitals. We paired up single mothers with kids with disabilities and allow them to manage the stall. Our first stall was at Khoo Teck Phuat Hospital with 4 kids and 2 mothers. The response we had was so good that we decided to set up another at National University Hospital where a group of 3 mothers and 5 kids managed the stall.
I am also focusing on the education of the public on understanding people with disabilities better. I realized that the reason behind their fear of the disabled lies in their lack of knowledge of how to interact with them. We decided to organize events to allow such opportunities for interaction. At these events, we set up various stations with activities for everyone to take part in, including the learning of sign language through songs with the hearing impaired, playing a braille code game with the blind, a cup stacking competition with cerebral palsy patients and making of local desserts with autistic children. We hope that by “challenging” our beneficiaries at these activities, the public can not only have a deeper understand for them but also take away a simple message – “These people might be disabled, but they are enabled in many other ways”.
We have another outreach program called, “Hawker for the day”. In this program, we invite people to Dignity Kitchen to have an authentic experience of managing a hawker stall. What makes the program unique is that these “new hawkers” have our beneficiaries attached to them for the day as their partners. Hopefully through this program, the participants are able to have an insight into the challenges of working with a disabled person. It also serves as a medium for our public outreach.
In the course of the project, was there any particular student who stood out or reaffirmed your decision for starting Dignity Kitchen?
Personally, I feel that there is more to learn from failure then successes. There is this particular case study, which I felt was my biggest failure ever since I started the project.
It involved a girl in her early 20s who failed her A-Level examinations and was so affected by it that she became mentally unsound. Thereafter, she realized that she had a bipolar disorder and had very unpredictable mood swings within a short period of time. Her mother came to me for help. At that point of time, I did not want to turn anyone away because I felt that I needed to learn since Dignity Kitchen was just starting out. The only time she was calm was when she was on medication and without it she had serious anxiety issues. We trained her and found a simple job for her at a factory. I was thankful that the boss was willing to hire her but I realized my biggest worry was not the boss but the co-workers. Her first supervisor was very understanding and treated her well, but a new one arrived and was very abusive towards her. I still remember it was a year ago, on a Monday afternoon, at around 3.30pm, the girl could not take the abuse anymore and jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her HDB block. It was particularly heartbreaking because I recall that she decided to jump at 3.30pm so that she could land right in front of her mother who was coming home from work. It was my mistake in not educating the co-workers and was only focused on getting them the job. I really learnt a lot from this particular experience. Now, I make it a point to train all my team members in handling our beneficiaries. They need not have proper qualifications because I feel that they only need one basic quality to join us – patience.
In Dignity Kitchen, I was glad that we were able to train most of the students but there were a few that we unfortunately had to turn away. To date, we have successfully trained 200 students. Many have asked me if I felt that it was a huge achievement. My answer would be – We cannot help the world, but maybe we can help one person at a time.
“We cannot help the world, but maybe we can help one person at a time.”
What do you envision Project Dignity to be in the future?
I do have a plan to scale up Dignity Kitchen. Here is an overview of our progress so far.
We have 5 versions of Dignity Kitchen. Version 1 was at Balestier Road, which was basically just to get things started and to try out the idea of opening a hawker centre run by our beneficiaries. Version 2 at Kaki Bukit, we had to start thinking about innovation. We looked into methods of teaching a blind person to recognize different money denominations or setting up a coffee machine for a one-handed hawker. At Version 3 (where we are at now), we are looking at making the project sustainable before moving to Version 4, which involves scaling up. I am actually looking at Hong Kong as the next location for Dignity Kitchen. Finally we come to Version 5 which is something quite interesting. I want to set up an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for Social Enterprise and be the first Social Enterprise to be listed. My general idea is to tap on commercial money to support social causes.
I see that there are many plans for new hawker centres to be built but there is a lack of supply of hawkers. I hope to be able to train more beneficiaries to become hawkers and send them to work at these new hawker centres.
How do you feel about Singaporeans’ attitude towards social causes?
The biggest problem our society is facing now is the lack of empathy towards the less fortunate. We hardly ever ask ourselves why we see no/very few disabled children in shopping centres and public places. There are thousands of them at home and in the special needs schools, but they are almost never seen in public! Next, we also realize that there are hardly any beggars in the streets of Singapore. There is another part of Singapore that people do not see and thus people do not see a need to support social causes.
I feel that we [Singaporeans] are not there yet. Hopefully, the world will change in the future.
Do you have any advice for budding young social entrepreneurs out there?
Have perseverance, have a vision, have a dream and to be true to yourself.
A closer look into Dignity Kitchen…
Lisa and Peter, who are managing the drink stall.
Peter is hearing impaired and Lisa is very passionate about helping the handicapped. To aid customers in ordering drinks, Peter taught Lisa the sign language gestures for the drinks and Lisa suggested making them into picture cards to be displayed.
Johar, 51 and father of 5 children together with Sharifah, 43, mother to 6 boys aged 7-21 years old.
“Johar, how old are your children?”
Johar: “Eldest I think 16 ah?”
Sharifah: “No lah, 15 years old.”
Johar: “Ya ya”
Sharifah: “See, we are very close friends”
Both of them are single parents and are managing the Indian food stall
– Profiled by Nicholas Kee