If I ever got ‘cancelled’, I would feel relief: Former NMP Anthea Ong reflects on life as a social advocate
She has two books, boasts decades of experience as a corporate high-flier and social advocate, and recently completed a successful term as Nominated Member of Parliament. Is Anthea Ong done yet? Not even close, as CNA Women finds out.
At 54, former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong seems to have done it all. After leaving behind her jet-setting corporate life of three decades, she's now a certified yoga teacher, reiki practitioner, life coach and finance trainer.
She’s a board or committee member for several organisations including WorkWell Leaders and Hush TeaBar, a social enterprise that combines self-care with inclusivity, led by the deaf.
In the thick of the pandemic, when most people were winding down or thinking about it, Ong started work on a new book.
On Sep 9, almost exactly 32 years after the NMP scheme was first introduced in Parliament, The Nominated Member Of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary In Parliament? was launched.
I’ve fallen and most of them were epic collapses. I picked myself back up. And once you’ve been there, you realise that being vulnerable doesn’t make you less – it makes you stronger
The book is an anthology of personal reflections by 20 former and current NMPs. Edited by Ong, the book also features little-known anecdotes and NMPs’ analyses of the scheme that gave them the opportunity to take part in the legislative process.
As with almost everything she has done in the last 16 years, the book is another chance for her to give back, this time to the experience she said was “one of the biggest life-changing privileges” of her life.
“To be able to serve this way in the highest hall of the land, to be able to bring so many voices into Parliament to be heard, is a deep honour and privilege. It inspired me so much that I wanted to give something back. I’m not into partisan politics so if not for the scheme there was no way I would’ve been able to get in,” Ong told CNA Women.
BEING AUTHENTIC IN PARLIAMENT
Ong’s time in Parliament was memorable not just for her, but others who watched her speeches on the small screen.
In millennial lingo, Ong took up space, speaking at every Parliament sitting. She delivered a total of 36 speeches and raised more than 100 parliamentary questions.
On a platform that left her so open to judgement, Ong chose to be “intentionally authentic”.
“I needed to be present, to be very intentional. I was representing people from the civic sector and it’s a sector that’s very diverse and very vulnerable on so many levels.
“If I’m going in fully armed and only wanting to talk numbers, first of all, it’s not me and second of all, how would I bring these voices with me into Parliament? How would I help not just members of the House but also the whole of Singapore understand that vulnerability has a place?” she said.
“I geeked out on research and data but I also talked to members of the community so that I wasn’t just reading off the literature.
“There’s a lot of authenticity there because I’m sharing first-hand experience. In almost every one of my speeches, I would have at least one story from the ground, about real people,” she added.
Ong told CNA Women she felt like everything that had happened to her in the last few decades was “preparing” her for this particular moment in the spotlight.
She had spent 30 years in the corporate sector and held several C-suite positions. She first became a managing director at just 26 years old.
“I had a lot of training as a leader. In the 90s, in a male-dominated sector like banking and financial services, I was often the only woman. You learn to read the room. You don’t want to actually be like them but you also want to know what would make them listen to you. At the same time, you have to retain yourself because you’re representing the women who are not able to be there,” she said.
“That helped me to feel quite comfortable in Parliament. And also, I’ve fallen and most of them were epic collapses. I picked myself back up. And once you’ve been there, you realise that being vulnerable doesn’t make you less – it makes you stronger,” she added.
Ong’s life experience is widely reported.
It begins with what she describes as a “very strange, interesting childhood”.
“My dad is the eldest son and my sister was the first grandchild so when I was born, the immediate thing was ‘no more girls’. My grandfather named me Lay Theng, a way to stay ‘stop’ in Hokkien. I felt unwelcome because I was a girl,” she said.
Ong was also born with a squint, which led her family to think she was developmentally challenged and give her the nickname “sampat”, which means “halfwit”.
The name-calling stopped when she went to school and started topping her class, but only by the adults.
“The kids’ bullying didn’t stop. They’d call me ‘alien’, ‘ugly’ and ‘monster’,” she shared.
As a teen, life was “miserable”, said Ong.
“I had no boys ask me out. Society has a certain definition for beauty and I definitely didn’t fit that definition; never mind that I was so awkwardly tall and scrawny. And I was studying in a girls’ school so there definitely was a complex, a lot of insecurity,” she said.
The confident and self-driven young Ong pressed on despite the challenges, until many years later, when her “marriage broke down”.
“That was when I really had to face my insecurity as a woman. Because then everything got called up again,” she said.
After finding out about her husband’s infidelity, Ong left their Bayshore Park condo carrying just her clothes and filed for divorce. Her husband responded with six legal suits against her company, an incredibly successful tech business that had been on the verge of going public. The business folded.
One day, Ong found herself lying on the floor of her three-bedroom HDB flat in Marine Crescent, wearing only her underwear. There was nothing in the apartment except a fridge and a bed – the only things she could afford.
She thought about the S$16 in her bank account and the six-figure overdraft she had taken to invest in her business. And she contemplated suicide.
“Stripped of all these wonderful labels, a series of toxic thoughts kept playing in my mind, like a broken tape recorder: ‘You’re such a failure. You’re no longer a wife, you’re no longer a CEO. You have no money’,” she said.
“I was so overwhelmed. I thought of ending it all. But that was a pivotal moment. I asked myself: Without all these wonderful labels, who was I?
“Surprisingly, what I saw as my core did not make me more depressed – it lifted me up. It gave me peace and even joy to finally just be me. I didn’t reject my core – I accepted it,” Ong added.
I asked where she thought that came from. After all, epiphanies are, by their very nature, rare and elusive.
She thanks her parents.
Despite the challenges of her childhood, it was a good one. Her great grandfather had come to Singapore from China and made a fortune here; for a while in her early childhood, Ong's family lived in privilege, with “big pieces of land” in Bukit Timah. Ong’s father later lost his construction business but no matter – Ong had had a good education.
“I was always among the top in class, I went to good schools. When I started working, I was promoted every year. It was a trajectory that would make people say ‘wow’.
“I could’ve become a really terrible person because of my success but I didn’t. I’m not saying I was perfect but I still wasn’t a bitch. I was still very much invested in my family and my community.
“I thank my parents for that. Even though I sometimes heard them wondering aloud what it would be like if their smart, successful daughter had been a son, they mostly gave me room to be myself,” she said.
And so, that was how it came to be, that when she laid alone in her flat at the age of 38, feeling empty and pondering the distance between her 18th floor apartment and the ground below, she decided she was worth living for.
Ong pointed out that despite the revelation, she didn’t immediately feel okay.
“Healing took several forms and evolved over the last 16 years but that moment saved me from going further into the abyss,” she said.
From that day on, Ong became “very open because I was so barren anyway”.
Nothing that happens to a person is singularly, utterly all his doing. It cannot be
She began to ask why the way she used to live her life just didn’t work anymore. She “explored every single modality, every faith”. She also saw a psychiatrist – an eye-opening experience.
“I went to a mental health hospital and then there were no private rooms – everything was out in the open. Due to the stigma and my own social conditioning, my first reaction when I sat there and saw these people around me was to think ‘wow, I had thoroughly failed if I was among them’. Obviously that is not a fact, but at the time I thought it was beneath me to be there,” said Ong.
She was not clinically diagnosed and her doctor did not want to give her a prescription.
“He just said: ‘Anthea, you’ve just gone through some of the worst possible life events and you’re wondering why you feel this way. You’re not depressed, at least not clinically. Just get some help with counselling or therapy,” Ong said.
It was around this time that Ong threw herself into championing for mental health.
“All of my community projects – they all relate to the human condition of wellness. This is the main part of my NMP cause. How do we live well? How do we develop an awareness and acceptance of who we are? And how do we help others?” she said.
Ong insists that while we all have agency over our lives, a lot of the lived experience is influenced by external circumstances.
“Nothing that happens to a person is singularly, utterly all his doing. It cannot be. Unless you are a hermit, there’s always something to do with someone or something around you – your home, school or workplace. Everything has a part to play in how you feel about yourself.
“The world needs to become more empathetic, to become more about love and support, instead of fear. When you live in a world where you feel like what you’re going through is a personal failing and not because it has something to do with the ecosystem, the society, the conditioning, you will think it is all your fault.
“It’s not. And if you’re able to realise that you’re not alone in this and that all that you’re feeling is not all because of you, you can come out of it,” she said.
I pointed out that being so vulnerable and so out in the open puts one at risk of being “cancelled”.
Ong said she suffered episodes of online abuse during her time in Parliament, particularly when she spoke about the state of migrant workers.
But even then, she had people on social media who supported her. Many of them spoke up against her detractors when she chose not to.
But what happens when that support is taken away?
“I’m sure I will feel something (if I ever get cancelled). But I think most of all, I will again feel relief. I cannot tell you how many hundreds and thousands of strangers write to me, asking for support and advice. I never not reply.
“So if I get cancelled, I will feel perhaps an initial sense of displacement and emptiness, but I will also feel a deep sense of relief because now I can take a break,” she said.
But Ong has a sense that the time for that has not yet come.
“I keep feeling that I still have a good momentum going because I’ve not used up my gifts yet. I haven’t given enough. Once I’ve used them up, there will be a new season.
“I may live in a hut in the Himalayas, and be growing my own vegetables and writing. I may be with a partner. I would be so happy and ready to embrace it then,” she said.
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