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It may be a bit of an understatement to call Anthea Ong an overachiever. After all, she's had enough careers - and career-changes - to last several lifetimes. The 48-year-old climbed the corporate ladder early on (but didn't like the view) and held positions as general manager of a global events company and managing director of financial training and e-learning outfits. Then she founded her own business and was firmly on the fast track in the technology industry. There were many more ups than downs until about 10 years ago, she suffered simultaneous earth-shattering calamities in her professional and personal life that would have crushed most people. Divorce, legal suits and financial meltdown followed.
After hitting rock bottom, she was compelled to re-evaluate her situation and reinvent herself. "When I had nothing more to lose, I was given everything," she writes. It's no accident that her personal website has metamorphosis as a major theme: a caterpillar turns into a butterfly on her home page. She left the corporate sector for good three-and-a-half years ago and her mission now is as a life coach, motivational speaker and social entrepreneur, especially to less privileged groups. Among other things she is founder of Hush, the Silent Teabar (tea as a means of self-reflection), Playground of Joy (teaching children values and virtues through fun and immersion), Tree of the Year (nature awareness), Project Yoga-on-Wheels (yoga for the underprivileged) and Circle of Bliss (community meditation). She practises meditation and yoga daily and is a dedicated vegan. If that isn't enough, she also writes poetry, prose and songs, all from a highly personal perspective. She is also an intrepid traveller, having visited more than 60 countries - Anthea Ong is a woman on the move, in more ways than one.
Are you the ultimate multi-tasker?
There's a common thread that strings everything together: empowerment and education - especially empowerment, across all the organisations that I've founded or been involved with. I feel strongly that the human experience is not mono-dimensional but multi-dimensional.
We're not meant to do just one thing in life: the human potential, backed by human spirit, can achieve so much more. What I've done wasn't by careful design, it was a little bit of just showing up when opportunities are presented to me and not shying away. Particularly over the last 10 to 12 years, I began to trust my intuition much more.
Your Sanskrit name Indira means 'one who gives abundance to others'. How would you describe your rebirth - was there a 'eureka' moment?
It was in 2007, when I was lying on the barren living room floor in my Marine Crescent flat, with only a fridge and a bed and nothing else, overwhelmed by despair and loss and a deep sense of displacement. It didn't seem fair to burden my parents, even though I was broken inside on so many levels. The catharsis came from not having anything, because I also realised that everything I thought defined me (material success and so on) was not 'it'. What really defines me is integrity. I had passion and purpose but mostly, I had integrity.
How do you decide on which projects to start?
Another common theme is silence. I'm not sure that if I did not find silence as a practice through meditation and yoga that I would have gotten myself out of that sense of drowning and collapse. Hush (a café staffed by deaf persons) is getting the most attention of all the 'children', but there's also Circle of Bliss, which is about weekly meditation, breathing, taking a pause. We evolved from a book club to a quote club - sharing words of encouragement or anything that moves us. And Playground of Joy ends with quiet time for the children. My 'gift' is to bring people together, using silence to develop myself, to support others and to challenge the notion of 'what they think is who they are'.
You have a physical presence (in Primary Six she was already 1.75m tall) and convey a sense of reassurance that calms people, enabling them to approach you for advice.
I live by these words: 'We rise by lifting others.' I want to be kind more than right - when I was younger, being right was more important. One of the first things I say when I wake up (after breathing exercises and meditation) is: 'I shall not intentionally harm anyone.' I want to be a catalyst for empowerment, change and growth.
Was it difficult to adapt to your current lifestyle?
I was in the corporate sector, I was also on a global responsibility board, so environmental awareness was important. I started feeling hypocritical because I was driving a car. So I gave up the car and changed to a vegan, organic and natural food diet. In my previous life I also smoked and drank alcohol. Giving up the car was probably a little tougher, but now I even meditate on the bus or train. I believe in an integrated way of living - all parts of my life are honest and truthful. I suspect that I didn't know who I was and didn't know how to bring all my scattered selves together but now, I'm more self-aware.
How do you see the next stage of your journey?
Going forward, I realise that my gift is in kick-starting things that people don't normally want to start, to challenge the status quo and pre-conceived notions about personal enrichment. I look to the community to take over the projects I start and my biggest happiness is when they become self-sustaining. My role is to distribute and galvanise. I have pared down my life to the essentials - it's not how much I have in the bank, it's how little I need.