Tong Yee (centre) with family and friends. All photos by Joshua Pwee.

“Still other seed fell on good soil, where it sprouted, grew up, and produced a crop – one bearing thirtyfold, another sixtyfold, and another a hundredfold.” – Mark 4:8

Getting young people to ask: “Why?”

This is the singular mission driving Tong Yee, who co-founded social enterprise The Thought Collective (TTC).

During class discussions, he wants to compel his students to ask: “Why should I forgive?” or “Why should I trust again?”

“I do not see my role as planting the seed,” said Tong, 44, who pointed out that TTC operates as a secular enterprise open to people of all faiths. “Rather, I will always be asking myself, ‘How do I prepare the soil?’”

His two other partners at TTC are former Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-yin and Elizabeth Kon – all of them friends since their university days.

Likening the Gospel to the seed, Tong sees his work as “loosening the soil” which provides a possible platform for the Gospel to be planted and sown in young people’s lives.

One way of doing this is through the TTC’s School of Thought classes aiming to equip junior college students with skills to tackle the General Paper subject.

During class discussions, he wants to compel his students to ask: “Why?” This could then inspire deep introspection, spurring them to explore questions like “Why should I forgive?” or “Why should I trust again?”

Engaging partners to pursue innovation.

For Tong, the answer to these questions is pretty clear and he knows that it all starts with love – specifically, God’s love.

But for his students, he knows that the answers to these questions are not always obvious and, at times, there are no solutions.

“But what I want to do is to get them to start asking questions about their life, about their purpose … my role is to create these tensions,” he said. The eventual conclusion is still up to them, he added. 

Pivotal moments

During the one-and-a-half hour long interview, he shared about his current endeavours through TTC which includes ventures such as the Food for Thought cafe and the Think Tank publishing arm.  

The former General Paper teacher at Nanyang Junior College also candidly spoke about his concerns for the younger generation as well as his personal struggles as a parent of three children.

One thing evident though, is that faith and work are closely intertwined in his life. He effortlessly expounded on Kingdom principles which guide his daily life and work in the marketplace, and did not attempt to draw boundaries between the two.

Tong Yee (at the white board) working with alumni from the School of Thought to design better community interventions.

Tong counts himself fortunate to have the opportunity to meet people from all strata of society through his work, which in turn allows him to reflect on his own beliefs and behaviour. His clients range from students from less affluent backgrounds to C-suite executives who have climbed to the top echelons of the corporate world. 

During his coaching sessions with C-suite individuals, one common question was: “How do I become more flexible?”

Drilling deeper into what was hindering them from embracing uncertainty, Tong found that the issue eventually boiled down to one childhood incident which remained locked in the deep recesses of their minds. It could be a particular time when the child was told off by the teacher and this shaped his or her future behaviour and response to always conform and obey.

The early years, from one to ten years old, are “pivotal moments”, said Tong who noted that these are the most impactful years for a child.

From a Kingdom perspective, he then wonders if the current education system, which is based on a modular system with emphasis on high-stake examinations, is snuffing out the diversity of skills of talents given to each child.

Tong Yee sees his work at The Thought Collective as “preparing the soil” for an opportunity for the Gospel to be planted and getting youths to reflect and ask the question, “Why?”

For instance, when considering the gifts of languages and arts and other talents – some children are apparently better in one area than the other. This has its basis in the Bible, which says that everyone has different giftings, he added.

The early years, from one to ten years old, are “pivotal moments” and the most impactful years for a child.

This understanding has influenced his own parenting beliefs. Tong acknowledged his personal worries, such as having one child who excels in Mandarin and another who cries in fear every night due to difficulties in coping with Mandarin classes. But he always tell his children that he only wants them to try their best and the outcome matters less to him.

“You are constantly being bombarded with the narrative that ‘you are not good enough’,” he said. “This is much stronger than the narrative of ‘you are good enough’”.

But Tong also wistfully noted that he has the ability to seek alternative arrangements for his child to be exposed to a more English-speaking learning environment. He is not sure, though, if this is always possible for other families who are facing similar struggles.

This concern for those who come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds is one that continuously stirs his heart.

In his view, the future of education is about giving the younger generation tools, especially those who started off from a lower social-economic status, to build and access the personal networks they need, he said.

Tong Yee (in white) and his daughter (in pink) conducting one of his discussion sessions. He believes the future of education is about providing youths with the tools to build their own personal networks and being able to problem solve when issues arise.

He cited the explosion of information in today’s digital age. Paradoxically, formal people-to-people networks are also increasingly important as these platforms are less likely to be replaced by technology.

Tong and his partners are always pondering ways that TTC can evolve and continue to value-add to society and the next generation.

God’s purpose

But at the end of the day, Tong said that he sees everything he does in and out of the marketplace as fitting into the larger narrative of God’s purpose: To preserve souls and afford them an opportunity of receiving the Gospel before the Second Coming of Christ Jesus.

With his family. Anti-clockwise: Wife Cynthia Lee, daughters Ruien, 9, Ruirui, 5, and Ruixin, 7.

He declined to give any parting advice to those who might wish to follow in his footsteps, acknowledging that everyone has different amounts of resources at their disposal.

But he added: “I hope to see more social entrepreneurs who might themselves have started out from lower or middle-class backgrounds. I am sure that there are more of them out there and we have to capture and hear more of these stories”.

Catch Tong Yee at LuminoCity Asia 2018, a three-day forum from November 2 to 4, featuring thought leaders and disciples in the marketplace. He will be speaking on The Future of Education.

About the author

Ng Jing Yng

Ng Jing Yng was a former journalist with MediaCorp's Today newspaper. She has written on a wide range of topics ranging from politics to labour, but writing about education and social issues remains her chief interest.