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St Regis Perspectives

‘You can change your life’, says former kampung boy who's an ex-VP of SGX

CEO of Lien Aid Koh Lian Hock. Photo: Don Wong
What Mr Koh Lian Hock had at Labrezza, the St Regis. Photo: Don Wong

‘You can change your life’, says former kampung boy who's an ex-VP of SGX

This former kampung boy is proof that circumstances need not trap you. And he gave up his SGX job to help Lien Aid spread that hope to others

Running around barefoot in a Lorong Halus kampung as a child, Koh Lian Hock (picture) was heedless of hygiene. Back in a time when people would defecate anywhere, and education was minimal, he stepped in human and animal waste while chasing friends about the village.

Left unwashed, his feet would get infected, swelling up with pockets of pus that had to be burst and cleaned at a polyclinic. But once healed, he was back to his old ways. The well water, too, was unclean and diarrhoea was common.

The young Lian Hock never made the connection between this way of life and the sickness that followed, nor realised how it contrasted with using a proper toilet at his primary school.

Until 30 years on, when those days came back to haunt him as he stared at the dismal living conditions of a village in Yunnan, China, in 2010.

Invited on the trip by a friend from his army days, Mr Lee Poh Wah — then Lien Aid’s Chief Executive Officer — Mr Koh looked at the children, gazing dully and blank-eyed back at him. “It was a sense of hopelessness,” the 45-year-old recalls. Like his younger self they were barefoot, stepping in dung and stuck in the poverty trap.

So when the offer came soon after of the CEO position at Lien Aid, and with it the chance to help many more such villagers, it took Mr Koh just a week to decide — even though he had “never given a cent to charity before”.

At Lien Aid, he oversees operations locally and at its offices in Cambodia, China and Vietnam. The NGO was set up in 2006 as a collaboration of the Lien Foundation and Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Environmental Endeavour Programme. Its stated goal is to “make water and proper sanitation more accessible and affordable for communities in need in Asia”.

FROM SCRAPING BY TO A1

Moving from the prestige of the Singapore Exchange Limited (SGX), where he was its Vice-President of Market Services, to the dirt tracks and mud huts of Lien Aid’s clients was difficult and life-changing. But Mr Koh, a firm believer that “there is opportunity (for anyone) in Singapore”, was no stranger to having to start anew or stretch himself in unexpected directions.

The Government was still in the midst of transitioning schools to being English-medium based when he entered secondary school. The form on which he had to indicate his school choices had two lists to fill in: One for English schools, one for Chinese.

His copying of his friend’s choice of English schools (he was bored, but did not want to leave the column blank, he laughs) landed him in Serangoon Technical, taking classes in a language he barely understood. He muddled through and joined the National Cadet Corps (NCC).

Then a chance conversation with NCC members from Cedar Girls in Secondary 3 changed everything. The talk had swung to how everyone was scoring. At the time, “I did well enough to aggregate pass,” somehow staying in the Express stream. The Cedar Girls, however, were regularly hitting 80 to 90 grades.

“I said, wow, you can get these kinds of marks? In my school being able to pass was already considered quite good!”

Filled with new determination, he hit the books, saving what little pocket money he got — his parents, a construction work and a factory worker, had five other children to feed and put through school. He would buy 50-cent piles of old books from second-hand bookstores in Serangoon Gardens and patronise another rental bookstore.

He went from barely passing to scoring “mostly A1s” for his GCE O-Level results, except for English.

THE MAN THE ARMY MADE

It is hard to imagine this is the same man conversing easily over lunch at The St Regis Singapore’s LaBrezza restaurant. Even in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he had to take a special class with three others who had also flunked the language (he eventually scraped by with a C6).

That could have been it for his education, as he had reasoned that with a diploma, he could start earning a living. But then another unexpected boost came — in the army.

He was posted to the commando unit and then officer school. Those six months at the Officer Cadet School put him in the company of scholars, some of the highest fliers in Singapore.

“The army stretched me, both physically and mentally,” he says. Meeting fellow officers who “all seemed to know what they were doing” convinced him that he should further his studies. Those officers had set clear goals for themselves and achieved it. “The guy who wanted to be a doctor? He now heads the orthopaedic section at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. The one who wanted to be a lawyer is in White & Case. So why not me?”

Mr Koh challenged himself to save enough money in two to three years to pay his way through university, which he did. He graduated from Queensland University of Technology with First Class Honours, nailing the Dean’s award for Excellence.

Since then, his life has been about constantly learning. He would plunge into tasks and jobs with zero knowledge and a “just try” attitude. For instance, while doing his Masters in Engineering at the National University of Singapore, he taught himself software coding. “If I wanted something done, I focused and got it done.”

Similarly, when he joined the SGX backrooms, he was given the task of enhancing its back office suite of services. Within “three to six months”, he went from not having a clue to leading workshops about the subject, even generating revenue with this service within a few years.

INSPIRING HOPE FOR SOMETHING BETTER

Much of his life up to then, understandably, had been focused on making his own way. It was when he joined Lien Aid that he finally understood the importance of charity work.

“I had never been a socially conscious person. I did not even give donations — I was very sceptical (of charities) as every cent I had, I had to make on my own. I always believed in Singapore, there are opportunities out there for you to make a living. So I personally did not believe in giving.”

But he came to a profound realisation. The work of Lien Aid is “not just about giving (the poor) water ... but catalysing people with hope”.

Take that Yunnan village with the children who lacked hope. He revisits now and again, and “I’m always amazed at the transformation. The first time we were there, no roads, no electricity. The second time (after the water tank was installed), more cows. The third time, electricity! And motorbikes and TVs. And now they’re building roads.

“Was it a result of our projects? I can’t (say), but I choose to believe that ... teaching them that their lives could be changed — if they wanted to — was a fundamental part.”

Coming on board as CEO, Mr Koh’s mission was to “connect the dots” between Lien Aid’s various projects, and bring greater depth and sustainability to such efforts. This meant, for example, not just building toilets but also educating the locals about proper sanitation and training local contractors.

In one instance in Cambodia, toilets that Lien Aid had built were broken and squatters were fishing out of the septic tank. Asked if they would like Lien Aid to repair the toilets, however, the village chief told Mr Koh to just give them the money. Mr Koh walked away, seeing a lost cause.

‘WE ARE NOT SANTA CLAUS’

At another village in Yunnan, Lien Aid had built a water tank to tide inhabitants through the dry months. It was soon empty after a prolonged drought, and Lien Aid topped it up — but the water ran out again “in just two months”, to Mr Koh’s shock.

It turned out the villagers had squandered the water on wedding parties and Chinese New Year celebrations. “So the concept of behaviour — that you have to manage your water supply, it is not free — how do you make them apply this?”

Mr Koh uses the analogy of Lien Aid as a condominium developer. If in the past it had simply built the condo and moved on, it is now “getting (outside) investors to fund it, and people to buy in”. This, he argues, is a better, more sustainable way forward: Villagers learn to “take ownership” of their new pipes and taps, with training on how to maintain the system and source for replacement parts.

Local builders, meanwhile, gain the know-how to sell similar projects to others at affordable rates, or become new “developers” pitching their skill-sets to other non-government organisations (NGOs).

The big example is in China, where the team is now working closely with Village Management Trainees (VMTS) — China graduates placed in rural villages to assist in their development. Lien Aid got the VMTs to submit water proposals and picked the best (five out of 100 proposals in the first batch last year) to be seeded.

“We are not Santa Claus, we will be gone one day,” he points out, which is a message hard to get across to the poor. For Lien Aid, the end-goal is to metaphorically hand over the keys of the condo to the management committee.

BEWARE ROGUE VALUES

Mr Koh jokes that working for Lien Aid is more difficult than any of his previous jobs. Commercial jobs used to be clear-cut — “you provide the service, you make money. It’s win-win, no need to talk so much”.

But the NGO’s work requires him to align many different interests which often do not meet. There is dealing with multiple levels of bureaucracy, from top-level governments down to villagers, and the perennial need for more funds, as well as manage donors’ expectations.

Finding the right staff for such work is another challenge. “In Singapore, in my experience, the people who want to do it are either socially inclined but may not have a lot of experience and need hand-holding — or are in their 50s and 60s and not so willing to get their hands dirty.” Then there’s the fact that “you’ll never get rich doing this”.

Indeed, making sure he hires people with the right moral code is critical to Lien Aid’s credibility. While scouting possible areas for projects, the team was offered gifts worth several hundred dollars. Mr Koh refused to accept them. “The guy got angry with us. Everybody does this, he said, why don’t you? We had to explain that it is not our way.”

The first thing Mr Koh did when he joined Lien Aid was to have all photos, except those of the beneficiaries or infrastructure, taken off the website. “Why? We do this work not for ourselves but for the beneficiaries. The moment you lose that context, then you have gone rogue to me. Your value system is wrong.”

NO REGRETS

Nonetheless, he is “still very excited” with the mission. He shrugs when asked what he had to give up, moving into this job. The pay was furthest from his mind, though took a 50-per-cent cut; the bigger question was whether to go into non-profit work then or later in life.

He would have to forego his “fairly prestigious” job at the SGX in his “prime economic” years. He would have to start from scratch yet again. Work-life balance would take a hit; he would be unable to grab a beer (European ones are his favourite) with friends after work.

But the words of his wife resonated with him. “She said, ‘What makes you so sure that when you are in your 50s, you will have the opportunity, let alone be around to do it? You can be gone tomorrow. If you are really keen, go for it’,” recounts the father of a boy, 14, and a girl, nine.

The self-actualisation he gets from the work helps keep him going, including every time a villager whom he meets blesses Lien Aid for helping them. “I believe in inspiring, giving exposure, stimulating (others),” he says, “because that is where you learn to fish yourself.”