Hubert Burda Media

International Women’s Day Special: Amanda Chong (4of4)

Our final personality in the series has a love for books and wants to improve access to literacy in our island nation.

AMANDA CHONG

Lawyer by day, poet by night, she is a picture of hope for a more creative Singapore

How did you first discover poetry?

I was introduced to it by my parents. When I was a little girl, they would often take me and my three siblings to the Queenstown Public Library to read. I particularly enjoyed the ones by Dr Seuss, Roald Dahl and the poet Shel Silverstine. Influenced by their writing, I started writing my own funny poems.

At 10, you published a book as part of a school project. Tell us more.

I wanted to write about children with cancer because of an encounter I had when I was visiting NUH. I met a boy who didn’t have any hair in the lift and was very curious about him. My mum explained that it was because he had cancer and had to go through chemotherapy. In a nutshell, the book was about how we should make friends with people who may look different from us and reach out to them.

Sounds like your parents are a big influence.

My dad used to tell us lots of stories in the car while we were driving. Some were fiction and some were stories from the newspaper. I remember him sharing excerpts from The Lord of the Rings, albeit a child-friendly version. These sessions gave me the instinct to tell stories and I found it fun. This naturally translated to writing. In fact, I wrote a lot even before I could spell properly (laughs).

Would you say you are obsessed with literature?

I really love the study of it and enjoy writing literary criticism on books and poems. I was fortunate to have had good teachers, who exposed me to the scales of practical criticism and that helped me to win the Angus Ross prize, a recognition for the top A-level candidate in literature outside of Britain.

Why study law then?

I’m a very idealistic person who cares a lot about justice and I wanted a job that would enable me to enact that. Being a lawyer was one. I could always go back to literature by reading books that interested me, whereas it’d be hard to pick up law if I chose to study literature.

Your poem, Lion Heart, written at 16, is immortalised on the Helix Bridge. How was the experience?

It was a competition by the National Arts Council where they wanted a young writer to talk about Singapore’s past and a veteran poet to write about Singapore’s future. So you will see two different poems there, Lion Heart and one by Edwin Thumboo, a veteran poet in his 80s. He was my mentor in that project and it was a memorable experience to have worked with him.

What inspired you to start non-profit literacy programme ReadAble?

Years ago, my colleagues and I visited a neighbourhood on a food distribution programme and found that many children living there didn’t know how to read, despite being of primary school age. To me, it was a question of social justice — the inability to read may lead to huge inequalities in the future. We wanted to change that, so we started weekly literacy classes on the weekends. Today, we have a volunteer pool of 50 people.