Home > Lifestyle > Features
Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 6:38:27 AM
by kenneth chaw
All in the family: Listed as one of Forbes Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy in 2010, Datuk Ruby Khong (centre) is a role model for her daughters Elisa (left) and Elena who joined the Kechara organisation as full-time volunteers.
Datuk Ruby Khong’s devotion to volunteerism has inspired her two daughters to follow in her footsteps.
DATUK Ruby Khong is a picture of elegance as she sinks into the plush sofa at Tsem Ladrang, the headquarters of Kechara organisation in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Clad in a flowing gold satin dress, her flawless complexion enhanced by just a trace of make-up, she tells me: “My two daughters and I just got back from Bentong last night. We were helping to oversee the construction of the Kechara Forest Retreat.”
It is hard to imagine the impeccably groomed, career-driven Khong (she is also the regional director of China Overseas Petroleum Corp) standing under the scorching sun at the dust and dirt-ridden construction site, making sure every brick and board is in place.
But there is nothing Khong wouldn’t do when it comes to volunteering and helping those in need. The mother-daughter trio have been living in the partially-completed Kechara Forest Retreat for months now – with tan lines and mosquito bites to show for it – and only come to Kuala Lumpur for events and media engagements.
The facility, located in the outskirts of Pahang, is a holistic centre built for busy city-dwellers who seek peace and solace, at a donation of any amount.
Of course, Khong, 50, is no stranger to philanthropy. In 2010, the do-gooder was listed in Forbes Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy and just recently, she picked up the Bella Award for her work in spearheading the Kechara Soup Kitchen, a non-religious community action group affiliated with the Kechara Buddhist organisation which distributes food and medical aid to the homeless.
But things weren’t always this way. For many years, Khong felt like she was just going through the motions and was frustrated with the humdrum of everyday life.
“My life at that time was more like – I wake up, get dressed, take my kids to school with the driver and the bodyguard. Wait for them to finish school, and then have lunch with them or the other tai-tais,” she says candidly.
Her daughters Elena and Elisa Khong, now 26 and 25 respectively, also open up in a separate interview on their mother.
Younger daughter Elisa recalls: “She was a typical tai-tai. She would go out for dinners with friends, party with them, play tennis, shop a lot. She would go to Chanel in Switzerland and buy six different-coloured handbags. The people in Chanel, Singapore, even knew her by name.
“Deep within her, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She is highly intelligent and extremely kind but short-tempered. When she found an avenue to channel her compassion, she was totally changed.”
That change begun in 1994 when Khong met her spiritual guide Tsem Tulku Rinpoche during an 11-day spiritual pilgrimage in India with her husband.
“I had a lot of questions in my mind, but no one could provide me with answers. He got me interested in learning more about spirituality,” she says.
The experience transformed her significantly, inspiring Khong to get involved in charity work. However, they were just one-off events and she soon found herself distracted again by mundane day-to-day tasks.
It was only much later in 2006 that Khong got involved in volunteering in a big way.
“My spiritual guide felt the need to feed the homeless. He approached me and asked if I could do it. He told me I only needed to do it once a week for two to three hours. I just needed to buy some food from a mamak stall and go down to the streets and feed them,” she says.
Today, Khong is president of Kechara Soup Kitchen which delivers food to the needy on a daily basis. On top of that, it provides counselling and training to help the homeless turn their lives around.
Khong’s two daughters were studying abroad back then but they sensed a change in their mother.
“She became more patient and calmer, and was open to the needs and feelings of others,” says Elisa.
Elena chips in: “When we returned for our summer holidays, we saw her arranging and distributing the food packets. I felt proud, seeing my mum do something she wouldn’t normally do. At that time, our family wasn’t doing so well financially. Instead of holding on to her money, she was giving it away.”
It was then that their mother’s philanthropic pursuits started to pique their interest.
“There must be some correlation between what she was doing and what she had become,” Elena reasons.
The girls are quick to point out that their mother never once forced them into volunteer work. They joined the Kechara organisation as full-time volunteers on their own accord.
Elena, a psychology graduate, had worked at the London Probation Service where she discovered that 70% of ex-convicts who were rehabilitated returned to a life of crime.
“If you don’t take care of someone at their lowest point, don’t even talk about rehabilitating them. We have to help them before they commit any crime,” she shares, explaining her decision to join the non-profit organisation.
As for Elisa, after interning at a top accounting firm for two months, she felt she needed to give her life to a bigger cause.
“I can’t wake up to a job where I work for someone else and make money for someone else. Then I get a paycheck and pay my bills, and the cycle goes on and on,” she says. She tried out a few departments at Kechara and was satisfied with her renewed sense of purpose.
One may assume it is easy for the sisters to devote their lives completely to volunteer work as they come from an affluent family. But Elena says it’s actually harder as the temptations are greater and expectations, higher.
“When we meet up for reunions, we ask our friends what they’re doing and they’ll tell us about their new car or yacht. When they ask us what we’re up to, we tell them we’re volunteering!” she says with a laugh.
Elisa shares that her friends had initially thought she was crazy to give up a lucrative career for volunteer work, but warmed up to the idea after seeing the fruits of their labour in reports in the newspapers and magazines.
Though they grew up in a privileged environment, Elisa believes that their family wealth is not an advantage for them. “We were told from a young age that we would not be getting an inheritance. With or without financial wealth, we will still do what we’re doing now,” says Elisa, who went from driving a Mercedes to a Kancil now.
The girls are so preoccupied with their volunteer work that they rarely hang out with friends, and aren’t interested in hitting the clubs either. Elisa even admits she does not watch TV or go online, unless it is for work.
But perhaps the biggest sacrifice of all has got to be their decision to stay single. Elena recalls what Tsem Rinpoche once said to them: “If Mother Teresa had gotten married and had children, all her energy would have been focused on bringing up her kids, and all the thousands of people who benefited from her work would have been deprived of it.”
The sisters were inspired by the thought and agreed that they can be more effective in carrying out their altruistic pursuits if they do not start a family. However, the two clarify that though they do not actively go on dates and seek out potential suitors, they would not rule out having a life partner if one comes along, and can respect their commitment to volunteerism.
Khong reveals that her passion for helping the needy was something she caught from her late mother. Growing up, she used to watch her mother counsel cancer patients. “Although I never joined her, it remained in my mind and when the time was right, I volunteered in my own way. I’m also glad to have a very supportive hubby,” she shares.
Khong adds that it is important for parents to explain the reason behind volunteerism and the need for it: “As parents, we tend to tell our children what to do without explaining why, and we expect them to follow. If they ask you why you’re always going out to volunteer, take the chance to explain why volunteering is good.”
Meanwhile, Elena emphasises the need to get children exposed to volunteerism while they are young.
“When you’re in your 20s, it’s harder to start because you’ve lived for 20 years ignoring the needs of others, putting up barriers between yourself and people you don’t find attractive or who do not fit your perception of what success is. When you start out as a child, you get the sense that the needy are human beings like you, too, except that they are down on their luck,” she opines.
Still, it isn’t too late for those in their 20s who want to volunteer. Elisa encourages youths to broaden their definition of “having a career” to include volunteerism: “Don’t limit yourself to thinking a career must mean a career in medicine, engineering or accounting. Consider other avenues like social enterprise where you can make a career out of helping others. It’s a misconception that career means money.”
Elena chimes in, saying: “Recently, we organised a haze mask distribution project. All we had to do was ask for donations, get the supplies, and go out and distribute them. Something like this is manageable for anyone.”
Khong adds that no matter how busy people are, volunteerism can easily be incorporated into their daily lives, without having to be part of an organisation.
“We have to start thinking outside the box. If your colleague’s car breaks down, offer to fetch her. Or if you meet some strays on your way to work, give them food,” she says. “We’ve to make time (to help others).”
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)