boy learns to write

Address given by OIC founder Weh Yeoh at SAS Global in Malaysia

Dec 10, 2015

Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you today. I would like to say a special thank you to Mr Andrew Tan, Managing Director of SAS Global in Malaysia for the opportunity to come over and be part of this wonderful night. A huge thank you to the SAS team, including Iriani, Nathelly, Siew Ling, Hui Yin, Jon Lue, Chun Haw, Bunny, Ernest, Patvinder, Queenie, Soo Han, Chin Chun, Chow Hong, and many others behind the scenes who have made this all possible. Let’s give them all a huge round of applause.

Thank you to everyone who has donated these wonderful items for tonight’s auction. Your generosity will make the night more memorable. Please join me in applauding these generous people.

Tonight, I want to talk to you about my own journey to starting OIC, why this is something that we should all care about, and finally what we have started and how you can be part of this journey.

I’m especially honoured to be here tonight, because of my own cultural roots in this country. My great grandparents moved from China to Malaysia, during a time where there was a food shortage in China. Like many of us here, our ancestors have sacrificed so much to give us what we have here today. My grandfather, born in Malaysia, grew up in difficult times and during the Second World War was held captive and tortured for a period of months, with soldiers probing him for information about people in his town. He was 17 years old.

My parents went to Sydney, Australia as students, primarily because they were unable to study in Malaysia. My father, who is here tonight, studied full time during the day and worked in the evenings, weekends and holidays to earn enough to survive. In his final year of university, he married his then girlfriend, my mother, so that he could lock her in for life, before she came to her senses and changed her mind.

After graduation, my parents had the choice to stay in Australia, or move back to Malaysia. If they decided to move to Malaysia, with their Western education and family contacts, they would have lived a life of extreme comfort – with maids, drivers, and gardeners. They would also have opportunities to be extremely wealthy.

As you can tell by my accent, they made a decision not to return to Malaysia, instead choosing a much humbler life in Australia. But the reason why they chose not to go back simply blows my mind.

They decided to stay in Australia because they knew that if they were to return, they would eventually have to send their children overseas to study, and that would break up the family. They stayed in Australia to keep us as family together. As a result, they lived a much humbler life. They were not only the breadwinners and parents, but also the maids, drivers, and gardeners of our house.

And so, for the first few years of their life in Sydney, they struggled. As newlyweds, they spent the first 6 months every night, ritually laying out a singular bed sheet on the carpet of their house, and spending the night together sleeping on it. After 6 months, they were able to afford their first item of furniture. It was a second hand dining set. Although they could now eat at a table, they continued to sleep on the floor for a few more months.

It’s important to reflect on these humble beginnings, especially on the backdrop of my mother’s upbringing, which was one of relative privilege in Malaysia. My father came from a poor family, so you could almost say that this kind of life was nothing new for him. But for my mum, it was a big change, and a huge sacrifice on her behalf to be with my dad. She obviously saw something in him that was worth sacrificing for. To this day, my brothers and I are still wondering what that is.

I’m the youngest of three boys, so it’s fair to say, our family became more comfortable and I had the best of it all. When my elder brothers were growing up, our family had very little. When I was the same age, we had relatively more.

Our family has endured so much to give their children, and their children’s children, a chance at a good life. And growing up in Australia, a country where the education and health systems are excellent, I was always aware of this privilege. When you get generations of pain, injustice and sacrifice, combined with extreme privilege, you get OIC Cambodia.

My story, as unlikely as it is, is something that we can all identify with. Many of you here have experienced your own struggles. Have your ancestors have experienced struggles such as mine did? And many of these struggles have been to give your children the right to the basics of education and health care. These are all things that we take for granted. Yet these are all things that we wish upon anyone, no matter who that person is, or where this child is born. We value inclusion.

The importance of inclusion was something that was drilled into me at a very young age. On my first day in school, my teacher, Mrs. Pickering, sat me next to a boy named Roger. Roger had thick, Coke-bottle glasses, and scrunched his nose to squint whenever he concentrated. I remember clearly the wrinkle lines between the two lenses of his glasses.

“Roger can’t see colours,” Mrs. Pickering told me. “But that doesn’t mean he can’t join in with the rest of the class. I need you to help him pick the correct pencils when we are colouring in. Can you do that?”

I nodded. And so, for the rest of the year, when we were colouring in the sky, I picked out the blue pencil for him. For the grass, the green.

Roger and Mrs. Pickering taught me valuable lessons. Not everyone is the same. We all do things differently. And sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of help for someone to join in.

Fast forward some 30 years later, and I arrived in Cambodia to work with a small Cambodian organisation named CABDICO. I had almost a decade of experience working as a physiotherapist, then as an advisor in Australia, Vietnam, and China. CABDICO send staff out to remote villages in Cambodia, where there are no health centres and no hospitals. Riding motorbikes for hours along dusty roads, the staff visit children with all backgrounds and abilities, to provide basic services like physiotherapy and special education.

Through this organisation, I met Ling, a 10-year-old boy who lives in one of the poorest parts of Cambodia. Ling slurred his speech due to cerebral palsy that occurred when he was born, and people had problems understanding him. Because of his inability to communicate, he had no friends, could barely talk to his own family, and members of his community assumed that he was stupid.

Ling’s parents loved him dearly, but they were at a loss as to what to do. When asked about their wish for Ling’s future, they said “We want him to go to school, but the teachers won’t let him join in; they all think he’s stupid.”

Were he born in Australia, Ling would have received speech therapy from any of the over 7,000 speech therapists in Australia, but Ling was born in Cambodia, where some people have been left behind. From my experience as a five year old in Australia, it took very little to help Roger live a normal life. And yet, Ling didn’t have the same opportunity.

My colleagues at CABDICO told me that Cambodia did not have any university trained Cambodian speech therapists. Learning of this, I was stunned. How could there be not a single speech therapist? Not one! I simply could not afford not to act. What if someone locally could provide basic speech therapy? What if we could improve his speech and prove that perhaps he isn’t stupid?

We decided to train Phearom, a Cambodian woman who works with CABDICO, in basic speech therapy techniques. Bit by bit, word by word, Ling’s communication improved to the point that he could string sentences together. Not only that, Phearom encouraged the teachers at Ling’s school to be more patient with him.

All our hard work paid off. At the age of 12, Ling started going to school for the first time. Now, he’s not just participating, he’s excelling. He is coming second in his class. Due to speech therapy, Ling also quickly became popular among his circle of peers. From once living in isolation, unable to communicate with those around him, Ling now jokes that he has “too many friends”.

Through our work, we have already helped over 100 children like Ling communicate for the first time, with their families, friends or peers. But we still have a long way to go. Really, the work has just begun.

In Cambodia there are over 600,000, or one in 25 people, who need speech therapy, and with not a single Cambodian speech therapist, there’s very little in the way of help. This statistic may seem high, but it corresponds with normal population data in most countries.

This means that there are hundreds and thousands of children, like Ling, who, without our help cannot access schools, cannot eventually get jobs, and be contributing members of society. These people may be of average intelligence, but their difficulties communicating mean that they are often written off on appearance alone.

When we compare the cost of treatment, with the productivity that we expect these people to deliver in the workforce, Cambodia loses over 1.6 billion ringgit in gross national product every year. For a poor country, that is significant amount of money.

And finally, because speech therapists also work with people who have difficulty swallowing, tens and thousands of people are dying every year as food enters the lungs instead of the stomach, and then they contract pneumonia and die.

As daunting as all of this sounds, there is hope. Collectively we can change this situation through strategic, unified action. We can not only get thousands of children to go school, we can not only save thousands of lives from people who cannot swallow, and we can also do it in the most sustainable way.

OIC’s mission is to establish speech therapy as a universally accessible, locally led profession in Cambodia. It’s worth pausing for just a moment to think about the meaning of those words.

Universally accessible, everyone who needs it can receive it. Locally led, led by Cambodian government. Our aim is to establish speech therapy in Cambodia and then leave. We have planned our exit strategy from day one.

Funds that are raised tonight will go towards our program in education. We will raise awareness of over 180 teachers in six provinces in Cambodia, on the need for speech therapy. With this training, we will encourage teachers to include children, just like Ling, into the classroom. We’ll give them access to education, the most fundamental of human rights.

We’ll also begin work in setting up a university course in Cambodia, to train local speech therapists so that they don’t need foreign experts to come in and out of the country again and again.

The good news is that your donations in Malaysia go a long way in Cambodia. For as little as 170 ringgit, we can reach one child in Cambodia. That’s about the price of a cocktail at Marini on 57.

Now the question you’re all asking yourself is why Cambodia? Why not Australia? Why not Malaysia? For those who have visited Cambodia before, you will know that basic infrastructure is lacking. Roads, hospitals, and education systems.

In Malaysia, you have many problems worthy of addressing. But along the path of including everyone, you are miles ahead of where Cambodia is at. Malaysia has over 300 speech therapists, since you started your first course in 1995. Twenty years later, Cambodia still does not have one speech therapist, and without OIC and your support, there is no pathway for these speech therapists to appear. With no university course, no awareness and no policy, Cambodia is literally twenty years behind you.

Through the lives of my ancestors, to my experiences growing up in Australia, to my chance meeting with Ling, I have learnt that it takes individuals like us, small groups of people who believe in creating significant change, to make incredible things happen. People like you and I, who have had access to education and health care and believe that everyone else should too. If you believe that every child, no matter where he or she is born, no matter how he or she appears to others, deserves an education, then please support the work that we do.

For all of you here tonight, I thank you for your presence, and I hope you bid loud and clear for these great items. Please come and talk to me and ask as many questions as you wish, I’m really looking forward to speaking with each and every one of you.

Thank you so much for your support.