A gem of a do-gooder

The works of 13 photographers are on show at Myanmar's Dream, an exhibition at the Ion Art Gallery in Orchard Road.

Curated by Jose Tay, who used to manage visual art programmes at the National Museum of Singapore, the 100 images - which feature aspects of the Golden Land including its culture and people - are for sale, with proceeds going to support Myanmar's underprivileged children and youth.

Besides Singapore, the photographers hail from places such as Hong Kong, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. Most are professionals save for a handful, including Mr Ben Cheong.

Unlike the rest of the photos shot with sophisticated cameras, Mr Cheong's 10 images - including an evocative one of five little girls holding hands on a village dirt road - were taken with his iPad.

Even before the exhibition opened two days ago, all his prints had already attracted buyers. Many are friends and family who staunchly support what the 56-year-old is doing.

He is the founder of Magical Light Foundation, the first Singaporean foundation in Thailand. Set up more than two years ago, it has built 15 schools for underprivileged children in Myanmar. It also helps poor and displaced communities in Thailand and has raised funds for victims of natural disasters in the region too.

The garrulous man defies expectations of what a full-time do-gooder looks like.

Mr Cheong's sartorial tastes veer towards the flamboyant, his hair is styled like a member of a Korean boy band, and he is partial to some pretty big bling.

"This is a garnet and these are citrine," he says of the ring on his right hand, featuring a big red stone flanked by dozens of tiny yellow ones. The stones on the dramatic ring on his left hand are black and white diamonds, he adds.

He designed both rings himself. In fact, he has designed a pretty big collection for himself and his wife, the founder of a digital imaging agency.

Gemstones are his passion. For more than three decades, he made a decent living trading in precious stones and designing jewellery. It was a chance visit to Myanmar that changed his life and made him focus on charity.

Friendly, with a nice-guy vibe, he reveals candidly that he had a privileged background. He is the second of three sons. His late father founded bunker supplier Sea Rights Maritime and his late mother was a tai-tai.

"When I was young, we lived for a while with my maternal grandmother in a huge bungalow in Bukit Timah.

It was so big I could cycle inside the house. There were three bedrooms upstairs; each had its own living room and was probably bigger than a five-room flat," he says.

Life was idyllic. His father had an air rifle and would take him on trips to shoot wild boar and flying fox in Sembawang while his mother would make him tag along each time she visited her jeweller.

"I ended up knowing a lot about jewellery. The salesmen would talk to my mother and I would listen."

He developed a keen interest in curios and artefacts - such as Peranakan porcelain and jade sculpture - the same way.

"I had an uncle who was a lawyer who would take me on trips to Penang and other places in Malaysia to buy these old pieces," he explains. He has an eye-popping collection of jade sculptures in his executive flat in Woodlands.

He attended St Michael's Primary and St Joseph's Institution before his plans to further his studies abroad after the O levels were nixed when his father's business suffered a setback.

So he pursued a diploma in business at a private school instead. After national service, he joined Yamaha as an assistant location manager. After three years, he and two friends put up $50,000 each to start a cafe in Far East Plaza. By then, he had started trading in gemstones, thanks to a former girlfriend, a jeweller.

"She came into contact with a lot of high-quality, affordable gemstones. I would buy them, and because I could not afford to keep everything, I would also sell some," he says.

After six years, Mr Cheong closed the cafe because it was not very profitable. He then opened a trading company, supplying fashionable menswear made in Thailand and Malaysia to department stores here.

Although the business made money, he closed it in 1990 after about seven years. "A lot of our money was stuck in the stocks and supplies. It was getting frustrating also because stores wanted to play safe and return what they could not sell to us," he says.

He helped out occasionally at his father's maritime business but concentrated on trading gemstones.

"If I hadn't sold many of the pieces I bought then, I would have been a millionaire many times over," he says with a laugh.

"The prices and value of gems have gone up several times. Something I bought for $3,000 then could be worth about $100,000 now. The value is driven by demand from the Chinese."

His income was enough to feed his wanderlust. He got married in 1992 and has two sons. The elder, who is adopted, is 35 and a senior manager in a multinational corporation. The younger son, 20, is doing his national service.

About seven years ago, Mr Cheong decided to visit Myanmar. Getting a visa then was a difficult process, so on the suggestion of a friend, he joined a group on a pilgrimage there. The itinerary included a visit to a remote village.

"I noticed that many of the students were wearing rags for uniforms," he recalls.

Moved by what he saw, he decided to buy and distribute new sets of uniforms to the children. Their reaction floored him. "When I gave a uniform to them, they would hold it and smile at the uniform. Then they would look at me and smile so gratefully before walking away. It touched me so much.

"Never mind if the uniform was one size too big or too small. Their expression said, 'I now have a uniform. I'll be so proud to go to school now.' It made me realise how a small gesture could mean so much."

The poverty moved him then, as it does now.

"Many of the villages feel as though they are lost in time, stuck in another dimension. You still see bullock carts, there's no running water and electricity," he says. "There are many villages with no schools."

A monk he met on the trip asked if he and his friend would like to donate a school which would cost US$12,000 to build.

He had already been doing good in Singapore, visiting old folks' homes and helping out at pet shelters. Now he decided to do more for children in Myanmar.

"I said yes. My friend, who agreed initially, pulled out but I told the monk I would honour my promise. I told myself if I saved $1,000 a month, I could build a school in one year. But the monk asked me to share the good deed with more people, which was what I did," he says.

In just three weeks, he had raised enough to build three schools.

"I decided to be cautious and start with one first."

Eight months later, the school was ready and he flew to Myanmar for the opening.

"The person who was liaising with me met me at the airport and told me the village would be throwing a big celebration. I was a bit disappointed. Why were they wasting money throwing a celebration when they were already so poor?

"But he told me that it was not about me arriving. It was about the village finally having a school, and it was a big deal."

It took a few days to reach the remote village from Yangon, and something the village chief told him made him cry.

"He told me, 'I have been waiting for you for 30 years.' It took me three weeks to raise the funds, but they had waited 30 years for a school."

There was no stopping Mr Cheong after that.

Two and a half years ago, two good friends who had quit their advertising jobs asked him to invest in a cafe, and wanted to divert some of their profits to charity.

A hunt for a suitable location took them to Chiang Mai in Thailand, where they met one of Mr Cheong's friends, an artist who helps underprivileged children express themselves through painting.

"She showed us around, and there were so many children needing help. Since we had difficulty finding a location for our cafe, and since our intention was to help and do good, I told my two friends, 'Why don't we forget the business part and just concentrate on doing good?'"

And that's how he ended up spending more than $50,000 and hiring a top Thai lawyer to register and set up the Magical Light Foundation in Chiang Mai. By then, he had already built more than half a dozen schools in Myanmar.

Each month, he and his wife, with whom he is launching an online jewellery store soon, fund the approximately $5,000 administrative costs from their own pockets. He has an active Facebook account where he rallies friends to contribute towards his charity projects.

Besides building schools, he also collects winter clothes and spearheads annual trips to distribute them to poor communities in Thailand and along the Thai-Myanmar border.

"Every year, many people die from the cold," says Mr Cheong, who distributed winter clothes to students from nearly 30 villages last year.

His work is motivated by compassion, not religion, says the man who was baptised a Catholic at birth but describes his beliefs as Buddhist.

"I'm very emphatic that religion should not play a part because charity should come from the heart. You don't do this because a church or temple tells you you should do it," he says, adding that he has refused money from religious groups wanting to spread their faith.

His foundation has helped Buddhist, Muslim as well as Catholic communities in Myanmar, and Christian refugees in Thailand. He is now planning his first dental mission with 12 dentists at the end of this year.

There is another reason he feels compelled to help.

"I'm very blessed. I'm one of those people who can go to a garage sale or auction, find a ring with a big ruby or something I pick up for a few dollars and sell for a good price," he says with a big laugh.

That is how he came to be in possession of two paintings by the late Cheong Soo Pieng, a pioneer of the Nanyang art style. One hangs in an art gallery, the other in his bedroom, which also boasts a stunning painting of a Balinese dancer by acclaimed Indonesian artist Affandi.

One of Cheong's paintings fetched more than US$90,000 (S$121,000) at a New York auction last year; while an Affandi piece fetched more than US$700,000 in Hong Kong two years ago.

"There has to be a reason why such things happen to me so I believe I have to give back."

He has no plans to grow his foundation into a big entity.

"One of the main reasons I started the foundation is that I want to make sure every cent goes where it is supposed to. Many foundations start with good intentions, but when they grow, problems will creep in. I don't want that to happen."


The big picture

"Some people have accused me of being hao lian by posting pictures of my projects on Facebook. It doesn't bother me. It's not about me, it's about raising awareness and getting people in. If at least one person gets involved, it's good."

- MR BEN CHEONG, on his detractors. (Hao lian means show-off in Hokkien)

Their season in the sun

"A lot of people do good so that they can feel good about themselves. It happens a lot during Christmas and New Year, then they forget about it for the rest of the year."

- MR CHEONG, on what motivates some people to do good 

This article was first published on Feb 01, 2015.
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