Hooray for Saturdays

Hooray for Saturdays

Four years ago, Mr Raymond Khoo merrily agreed to help distribute food to needy residents of Lengkok Bahru in an initiative organised by his church and the Boys' Brigade.

Neither he nor his wife and young son were prepared for the poverty which greeted them in the one-room rental units of Block 55 in one of Singapore's poorest neighbourhoods.

He says: "Some of the residents only had tables and chairs, no beds. Some had mattresses, others none. My wife was really shocked and couldn't sleep for two nights. She asked, 'Why is this happening in Singapore?' "

When he discovered that the poor in the area were not getting regular help from charitable organisations, he decided he had to do something.

The 52-year-old founder of Solutions 17 - a boutique hospitality consultancy - started making deliveries of bread and fruit to more than 100 households every Saturday.

Not long after, he began hosting tea parties too. The idea was not only to dish out warm meals but also to link up residents so that they could look out for one another.

Next came weekly tuition sessions for about 30 primary schoolchildren in the area, conducted by Mr Khoo's small team of Saturdays@Lengkok Bahru volunteers.

Although there are occasional donors, he has been funding these initiatives himself for the past four years.

He breaks into a sheepish grin when asked why he does what he does. "The joy on some of their faces come Saturday afternoons... it is very fulfilling," he says.

The congenial businessman had an early start in doing good.

His late grandfather Khoo Siaw Hua was the first prison chaplain of Singapore.

"When I was a child, I would follow him to prison every Easter and Christmas. For Easter, we would boil thousands of Easter eggs, and for Christmas, we would put wafer biscuits, sweets and a piece of cake into bags to distribute to the prisoners," says Mr Khoo, who made these yearly forays into Changi Prison until he was called up for national service.

Hanging out with his grandfather on weekends, and watching what he did, taught him not to be judgmental.

"My grandfather lived in this double-storey house in King's Road and it was always filled with notorious-looking strangers who had just come out of prison. There were no halfway homes in Singapore then.

"I once went with him to the wet market in Bukit Merah, and this big burly butcher with tattoos and no shirt on came running when he saw us. My heart was racing, but he embraced my grandfather instead," he adds with a grin.

Mr Khoo's father - who ran a bowling business - wanted him to further his studies after he completed his O levels at Anglo-Chinese Secondary School.

"But I was not interested," says the youngest of four children. "I wanted to help him in the business."

That was how he ended up in Malacca after completing his national service, working in the bowling alley his father operated.

He started out selling bowling accessories, but after a few years, asked to move out to the bowling alley's cafe.

"My dad said no, but when he was not around, I would go and kacau in the kitchen," he says, using the Malay word for interfere.

"My mother was a good cook, and I like to cook too. My sambal and babi pongteh are pretty good," he adds, referring to the Peranakan dish of stewed pork and fermented beans.

He would invite relatives and his father's friends over to sample his dishes, and when it became clear he was a more accomplished cook than the one his father hired, Mr Khoo took over the running of the cafe.

"It was super hard work and there was no extra pay, but I really enjoyed cooking and creating parties."

After three years, he plonked his savings of about RM100,000 into opening a restaurant with a friend.

The Western restaurant called Bay View Club was a big failure.

"It was a club restaurant, and it was too fancy. I guess people were not ready for the concept," says Mr Khoo, who left after two years.

Empty-handed, he returned to Singapore and found a job as a buyer-cum-coordinator for Littlewoods, a UK mail-order retailing business with offices in Singapore and the region.

His job was to help its buyers make business contacts, trade and do quality checks in the region.

"I did that for two years and made very good money," he says.

With his earnings, he hightailed it back to Malaysia, which was enjoying rapid economic growth in the mid-1990s.

With another Singaporean, he started an entertainment consultancy company. Among other things, he helped to set up clubs for many major hotels, including the Mutiara in Penang, as well as the Istana and Pan Pacific in Kuala Lumpur.

Although lucrative, the business was short-circuited by his partner, who absconded with their earnings. The blow was made more brutal because the company was about to ink a deal to open a big club - one which recouped its investment in six months - with a major player.

In the late 1990s, he returned to Singapore, where he found a job as food and beverage director for the Tung Lok Group.

He left less than two years later, and went on to establish a solid footing in the food and beverage industry. Among other things, he set up a string of Tong Shui Cafes, and mooted the idea for the dining destination Dempsey Hill.

He also started Solutions 17 in 2000 to provide lifestyle consultancy services for hotels, clubs and food and beverage outlets.

His clients include the Park Regis Hotel, Singapore Turf Club and the Galaxy Hotel in Macau.

Married to a former executive with Visa, with whom he has an eight-year-old son, Justin, Mr Khoo has made good and owns several properties here and in Malaysia.

But, like his father and grandfather, he has a soft spot for the underdog. "My father sponsored the studies of several of his staff," he says. "I guess it has rubbed off on me."

Eight years ago, when he was asked to start a prison ministry for his church, he readily agreed.

For five years, he would go to Changi Prison every week to counsel inmates. He taught Mr Benny Se Teo - the former convict who set up restaurant chain 18 Chefs - the ropes of the F&B business, and gave jobs to several former offenders in the hospitality industry.

Four years ago, Mr Khoo started channelling his energies into Saturdays@Lengkok Bahru.

The families he has chosen to help are from the six blocks of one-room rental units in the area. Most of them are on social assistance.

"After deducting rent and utilities, they have almost nothing left," he says.

There are also many elderly residents, some of whom have been abandoned by their children.

Right from the start, Mr Khoo was determined that help for these folks has to be regular, not ad-hoc.

"I decided to distribute bread and fruit because bread is something they can eat any time. Fruit, for many of them, is a luxury because they have so little money," he says.

Two weeks after he began distributing food, he started organising Saturday tea parties at the void deck of Block 55 for these needy residents.

"We have table cloths for every table and try to do something special. Last week, it was mee siam. For special occasions, we serve special food like turkey during Christmas. Every first Saturday of the month, we also have several cakes with candles to celebrate birthdays."

It took nearly three months before he got a regular crowd. Now, between 60 and 80 people attend each week's session.

"In the beginning, everyone was a bit apprehensive, they sat apart. But they have since got to know each other, and now it is like a party. For those who cannot come, like those in wheelchairs, we do home deliveries. We also have an attendance sheet so that we can check on those who don't make an appearance," says Mr Khoo, who has a team of six full-time volunteers and several other ad hoc ones.

The food packs and the parties set him back nearly $2,000 each month, but he feels it is money well spent.

"Some people have offered money, said they wanted to do CSR (corporate social responsibility) and asked to put our pictures on their website. But I told them I couldn't take their money. They said I was arrogant, but I told them, 'But this is not CSR. You and your staff don't even come'."

His son Justin goes along, helping to not only distribute food but also to befriend and entertain the residents.

"His classmates also come to help once a year. Recently, one of his classmates told his mother that he wanted cash instead of presents for his birthday so that he could donate to the needy folks here. He raised $1,700 and asked me what he should buy. I told him Brand's Essence of Chicken would be a real treat," he says, with a big beam.

Mr Khoo swings by Lengkok Bahru two or three times a week to check on those who are especially vulnerable.

"One of them has a godson who always takes his bread and leaves him with nothing to eat," he says.

The businessman hopes to one day find a shophouse in the area which he can turn into a food kitchen.

"Then I can cook and feed the needy here every day."


This article was first published on November 22, 2015.
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