Hubert Burda Media

Christopher Wilson: Drink to your Health

Part of WAH foundation that brings clean water and healthcare to rural Cambodia, the philanthropist shares the challenges and successes.

Christopher Wilson was held at gunpoint by a group of Bedouins. The year was 1985, and the Sandhurst-trained soldier was on secondment from the British Army to the Sultan of Oman’s army, commanding a company of Balochi soldiers to protect its border from communists in Yemen. “My soldiers had arrested one of their relatives coming over the border illegally. They were beaten up by local Bedouins and our prisoner was taken to their village camp. I took six soldiers and went round to try to get them back, but got caught in a standoff. They cocked their weapons and pointed them at us. It was very tense. There was a lot of screaming. They wanted to kill us,” he recalls. Thankfully an Omani officer arrived after some time in a helicopter from HQ, and everyone dispersed.

Wilson was traumatised, but the situation served as a wake-up call. “It made me think that life is pretty short. It can go at any time. It gave me that attitude of wanting to do as much as possible with my life, to enjoy it, to maximise it,” he says.

Switching career tracks to work for a fund management company would see him eventually moving to Singapore in 1990 to set up its presence here. He was subsequently headhunted for a leadership role in a Swiss private bank in Hong Kong. There, he met his future wife Tan Su Shan at “a commiseration party on the night that Barings (where she worked) went bankrupt”. They moved back to Singapore at the end of 1996 to marry and start a family.

In Hong Kong, Wilson also met Cambodian Khov Boun Chhay, who was at the time setting up a bank in Phnom Penh. The two became close friends and around 2006, bought land in Cambodia with the intention of setting up a business together. While they didn’t keep the business going, they kept their resolve “to give something back” to the rural communities.

In 2008, they co-founded Social Capital Venture, later re-christened Social Capital Venture Development Foundation when it eventually gained foundation status. It took a YouTuber from Belfast, who kept tripping over the mouthful, to say, “Chris, change the name”, for the endeavour to be re-billed as WAH (Water and Healthcare), which is pronounced like the Singlish exclamation.

In WAH’s nascence, Wilson “virtually stopped everything” to put his whole life into it. But it has since come far enough for him to work on it as well as run his own business, which brings in high-pedigree technologies from mainly Silicon Valley and San Diego to Singapore.

WAH focuses its efforts on keeping the population of 500,000 in the province of Kampong Chhnang healthy. “With the Tonle Sap dissecting it from northwest to southeast, there was a lot of water, but the quality was bad, which meant that there were many illnesses due to people drinking dirty water,” leading to diarrhoea, dehydration and death. The statistics were sobering. Each year, eight percent of children in some rural Cambodian areas die before their fifth birthday.

Wilson spoke with Olivia Lum, founder and group CEO of Hyflux, to design a filtration system that would help WAH’s mission of bringing clean, safe water to villages and other places — such as hospitals, health centres, orphanages and places of worship — where the community needs water.

Recalling the ceremony that celebrated the first water system installation in a school in 2010, he says: “I became quite emotional about it. I patted the headmaster, an elderly man I became close to, on the back and said, ‘You’re number one’, meaning that you are the first school, and you’re the man.” Later his head of operations cautioned him: “Chris, you better not use ‘number one’ again.” Turns out, it is the brand of the biggest condom company in Cambodia.

Putting in water systems involves months of work beforehand, from explaining to the teachers the benefits of clean water and good hygiene, to working out with them where to put it. “We treat them like partners — ‘Our responsibility is x, your responsibility is y.’ We make them contribute by buying the filters. Or, if they can’t, they have to raise money when they need a new one. If everything is free they don’t respect it. We don’t work with anyone who doesn’t contribute,” Wilson elaborates.

The systems have since been improved. A pump on a bicycle, attached to a well, extracts water, which goes through a 0.01-micron filter to eliminate water-borne bacteria. These systems are green and don’t need a generator or electricity. Using pedal power, a 10-year-old child is able to draw up to 500 litres of safe drinking water in an hour. In reality, each child only gets to pedal for a few minutes as there’s always a queue for the task.

Made at WAH’s factory in Cambodia, the bikes now come with the right-sized cogs for children, and are more robust. At the current capacity, about 50 systems are installed a year. The goal is to double that number to reach WAH’s promise of bringing fresh water to all 549 schools in Kampong Chhnang, but Wilson is conscious of factors like cost and quality control.

The other challenge is finding the right people. The “barang” (Cambodian nickname for westerner) currently has 16 dedicated staff on the ground, who come from rural areas in the province, and understand local problems well.

Complementing the provision of clean water are efforts to teach proper dental hygiene (with toothpaste and toothbrushes sponsored by Unilever), and proper handwashing techniques. Children with previously bloated tummies now run up to Wilson healthy and with flat tummies. He chuckles as he recalls one village kid in particular — a boy who wore a pan for a cap, with the handle for its peak. The numbers speak for themselves: Diarrhoea in children in Kampong Chhnang has dropped by
60-80 percent.

To expand its reach, WAH currently requires funding for a soap business it is developing with Angella Cheng (of social enterprise ChaCha Cottage), who recently travelled up to Cambodia to train 15 women to make soap from natural ingredients. One idea is for these soaps to be sold packaged with pottery the province is famous for.

While installing water systems at hospitals and health centres, Wilson also noticed a high proportion of mothers dying during childbirth. He recalls seeing one such woman with her newborn beside her. “She was grey. She lost a lot of blood. I’ve never seen anyone so near death.” He adds, “There are hundreds every day. The midwives are fantastic, but there is just too much to do. They don’t have the facilities.”

He reached out to KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) to train midwives in basic emergency procedures, subsequently training the best to train their peers. In three years, they cut the mortality rate of mothers dying at birth by 75 percent. “We can’t say 100 percent that it is down due to the training, because it could be new road systems or this or that,” he says, continuing with pride, “Kampong Chhnang’s numbers are even better than Phnom Penh’s.” KKH extended the training to include emergency paediatric medicine to address the high number of children dying of dehydration and respiratory issues.

Expanding on the training established by KKH is Mt Alvernia, which will train trainers in pre- and post-natal health, such as nutrition during pregnancy and latching while breastfeeding. The two hospitals are providing scholarships to bring in medical personnel to Singapore. “Imagine a nurse who has never been out of her province. And suddenly she is in Singapore, in a world-class hospital. It blows her mind. We are very passionate about empowering people,” he says.

In addition to major financial supporters The Silent Foundation established by the Teng family, and shipping company Berge Bulk’s Marshall Foundation, WAH is attracting possible contributors like YMCA of Singapore. They are currently in talks to see if the organisation can send youths to help with tasks such as cleaning and painting health centres to keep them fresh and hygienic, and teaching English in schools. “WAH is like a platform; you just plug in, plug in, plug in when you find people that can help you in some area that’s synergistic with what we do,” he states.

Another area that’s synergistic is education, and interestingly, WAH has tapped into new media to raise awareness and funds for it. New York make-up vlogger Carli Bybel, who has more than five million subscribers on YouTube, raised US$100,000 in three days from the sale of bracelets she designed. They were the first items to hit her newly launched e-store Pranava Beauty. She has since pledged another US$100,000. “I don’t need to organise a charity dinner,” quips Wilson. 

The scholarship in her name currently funds 32 girls for four years at Bright Hope Institute, a college that runs a range of practical degree courses that range from admin to ecotourism. It also pays for expenses like books and dorm accommodation. It is supporting two girls who secured places in university but were unable to afford them; one is now studying towards her dream of becoming a banker, and another, an architect. “She was a huge hit. She did their makeup. The girls were crying as they hugged her,” Wilson says of Bybel’s recent visit and her meeting with 15 girls at Bright Hope.

Each girl on the scholarship was also given a device by one of the world’s largest tablet manufacturers (it prefers not to be named). The same company also donated tablets to every health centre to enable electronic record-keeping and reordering of supplies.

There’s a reason WAH focuses on one province. “I want to have a showcase. I want to show that it can be done really well and take it nationally.” Come November, KKH and WAH will present their medical programme to Cambodia’s Ministry of Health, to explore if the latter can introduce their model to other provinces. At the time of interview, an impact assessment of the programme was being done by a French team at some 40 schools.

Wilson is also in talks to export his experience to countries like Thailand, Indonesia, India and Nepal. “We can’t take it ourselves because we are not big enough.”

He’s not alone in his philanthropic journey. Wife Su Shan, managing director and group head of consumer banking and wealth management at DBS, has been involved since the get-go. A few of WAH contacts were introduced through her own far-reaching network. Both she and their children have been to Kampong Chhnang, and last year, Su Shan’s team at work also helped assemble a water system.  

Daughter Talisa, 18, helped WAH pen an education booklet on the benefits of drinking clean water. Son Kai, 16, helped design the foundation’s previous website, and has tried his hand at making drone videos of the province. Since the children were young, the family has been involved in charity, such as visits to homes of the less fortunate. More recently, the youngsters have been raising funds and performing at charity events. Talisa recently had her long hair lobbed off to make wigs for cancer patients. Describing them as having big hearts, Wilson adds that he hasn’t pushed them to do anything.

Wilson’s advice for parents with children? “Just show them and let them go which way they want to go. Give them a choice. But lead by example. Let them make their minds up.”

A newly minted Singapore citizen (as of late April), Wilson believes that the island is in a “brilliant position to be a top philanthropic centre” locally and regionally, saying “the soft diplomacy is good for our security and friendship”. Unsurprisingly, he was named one of Southeast Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy by Forbes in 2012.

Singapore needs to do more, Wilson says, “though there are unbelievable people doing great work”. He takes a zen approach to philanthropy. “It must be done with a heart, without a motive except to help. Otherwise people are going to see through it straightaway,” insists Wilson. As seen from the way his foundation “has grown like crazy”, this believer in karma testifies, “It comes back to you in spades.”