SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEOS: Since her teens, Melissa Aratani Kwee has been helping women and youth to better their lot in life. Her generosity of spirit stems not from the size of her pocket, but from the size of her heart
The phrase “born with a silver spoon in her mouth” would be putting it mildly for Melissa Aratani Kwee. Her father Kwee Liong Tek, the chairman of Pontiac Land, owns $1billion worth of hotels in Singapore, which form just a quarter of his property portfolio.
The Ritz-Carlton Millenia, Conrad Centennial and Regent Singapore, Camden Medical Centre, several upscale residential projects and the upcoming $400-million Capella Singapore resort in Sentosa designed by world-renowned Norman Foster all bear the Kwee name.
Melissa’s Japanese-American mother Donna Naomi was born into wealth too: Melissa’s grandfather is George Aratani, the founder of Kenwood Electronics and Mikasa Chinaware empire. And home is a sprawling mansion set against lush landscaping in district 10, also designed by Foster.
Contrasted against this picture of luxury, Melissa has carved out a name for herself as a social activist championing for change in the lives of less fortunate women and youth in the region, getting her hands dirty for a cause. Among other things, she has set up the Beautiful People and Halogen Foundation to empower youths with mentoring and leadership activities.
Couple her innate noble spirit with her privileged upbringing, and it’s easy to conclude that she is one lucky girl.
But it is this very issue – her wealth – that turns her typically cheerful countenance serious. “I don’t think it has anything to do with luck. I believe that God gives everyone a different set of talents at birth. I take the gifts I have and pay it forward,” says Melissa, whose family is Christian. “To me, people are more important than things.”
The gifts that Melissa believes she’s been given? The ability to empathise with those suffering, and to inspire others to help.
Twenty years ago, when she visited rural parts of Indonesia as part of a school trip with United World College, there and then, something stirred inside of her, telling her to make something more of her life. “When you see how little so many people have compared to how much you have, it really changes things. It didn’t make me want to hoard, it made me want to share,” she says matter-of-factly, in a distinct American accent.
Moreover, “as a child, I was brought up to see everyone as the same—there was no distinction between class or colour. My mum used to say, ‘you are no better and no worse than anyone else’. And that really stuck.”
At 17, she spent nearly two years in a Nepalese village working as “an intern and English teacher”, which gave her a closer look at what small, impoverished communities had to suffer daily. She joined volunteers in raising funds for flood victims and to save the Malaysian rainforest. When she found time to return to Singapore, she’d visit teenagers at the then Woodbridge Hospital, reading to them to help lift them out of their depression. She did all this before she enrolled at Harvard University to read social anthropology.
Should anyone accuse her thus far of pulling of vanity projects simply because she can afford to, Melissa’s adult life continues to bear testimony otherwise.
When she returned to Singapore in 1996, she started Project Access, a leadership programme for girls. In 2002, at age 28, she was appointed president of Unifem Singapore. According to an award citation by the World Business journal last year, she “initiated ground-breaking projects against commercial sexual exploitation of women and for financial education for migrant women workers”.
What motivated her? The current president of Unifem Singapore, Saleemah Ismail, thinks it’s the “hope that we can all make a difference in our world”. She says: “Melissa has a deep love for the community. She is a forward thinker, always pushing for social changes, always working to improve the lives of those less fortunate.”
Melissa doesn’t believe only in giving out fish, but in teaching them to fish. In 2005, Melissa created a movement called Beautiful People, which links women professionals with troubled teen girls, offering them healthy mentors. “I noticed there was a rising trend in girl gangs and teenage pregnancies, and not many programmes focused on girls. The idea is to reach out to them not as social workers, but as people who can be their role models.”
The women, called “Big Sisters”, visit girls’ homes once a week to chat with them and to help them with their homework. They also conduct camps and workshops, inviting gynaecologists to talk about how the girls can take care of their bodies or makeup artists to show them how they can look good and boost their esteem. More importantly, it gives these girls a chance to meet women in jobs that are less known but which they might find inspiring, like aerospace engineers.
More recently, Melissa set up the Halogen Foundation in 2006, which conducts leadership education workshops and camps in local schools; it reached out to 10,000 children last year.
All these humanitarian efforts and more culminated in a Singapore Youth Award last year.
It’s easy to see that Melissa is kind, polite, easy-going, down-to-earth, eloquent and someone who would turn ideas into action—and the 36-year-old has always been that way, say her friends and family. She’s a dear friend, a filial daughter and a singleton who would be quite a hit at speed-dating events, where first impressions matter. Goodness comes easily to her, and she wants for nothing.
Her humble spirit comes from her maternal grandfather, she says, recalling how she use to watch him work a room full of business and political leaders and how he was exactly the same man when he spoke with clerks or cleaners. In 1994, he created the Aratani Foundation in Los Angeles to help non-profit organisations that serve the Asian-American community. “One of the best lessons I took away from my grandfather was how he never treated anyone with disrespect. He used to say that every human being deserves the same kindness.”
Her youngest sister, Stephanie, 31, vice-president of the Kwee’s West Paces Hotel group, thinks Melissa is a gift herself. “Melissa is God’s gift to my family!” she gushes. “Recently, I watched her deliver one of her many graduation speeches and sat in awe of how my amazing sister exemplifies integrity. This witty, intelligent and inspirational keynote speaker on stage was the same Mel whom I was chilling out with on the sofa the night before! She is kind, compassionate and funny, regardless of where she is or who she is with.”
Raising funds and encouraging volunteerism are a big part of this social entrepreneur’s daily routine, because the organisations she runs are not for profit. “Sometimes my family makes donations but they don’t ‘fund’ me per se. My youngest sister Allison, for her last birthday, took a collection from her friends and gave it to Beautiful People. I followed her example and did the same for my last birthday,” she adds.
No, she doesn’t get an allowance from her family either; her income comes from business corporations who consult her on community engagement strategies.
Clearly, the matter of her wealth threatens constantly to overshadow what she does, but she is unfazed. “Having access to influential people and encouraging them to find an area where they feel they can positively contribute is a win-win for everyone.”
As children, Melissa, her two sisters and brother Evan learned the value of money through sensible parenting—she worked as a drugstore cashier during the summer holidays and her sisters worked as waitresses. “Money has great power to help others, invest in lives, and alleviate suffering to an extent. That is to me a more important application of money than acquiring ‘stuff’—which you can’t take with you anyway.”
She also comes up with programmes that can be self-funded too, say through government grants for school workshops.
In March, she visited India to meet the youth alumni of Halogen’s regional programme, One Degree Asia, which she also initiated, to bring together regional social innovators from different sectors to “share ideas and sow seeds for future collaboration” to solve social problems.
In April, “a few friends and I will start The Kindness Exchange online, to create an online marketplace to find and match professional pro bono skills. It will allow charities and social causes to find skilled volunteers and vice versa.”
This infinite string of duties are a world away from the chic lifestyle that her family can easily afford her: Her brown leather organiser is not peppered with entries on parties and balls to attend but meetings with social workers, troubled teens and of late, foreign workers at construction sites. The amount of property development her family is involved in calls for a compassionate touch on the ground, she feels, including treating workers with mini celebrations, such as one held in Sentosa recently.
“More than anything, I am a mobiliser and a catalyst,” she surmises of her life’s work so far. “I tap on talent, passion and energy to make things happen,” she says. It comes as no surprise then, that in her resume, alongside wandering in parks and listening to the cello, she lists among her interests: “Dreaming the impossible.” HW
ON HER IDEAL LIFE PARTNER
“Someone who is wise and faithful. Many people can be smart but very few are wise. And, someone generous and compassionate.”
ON FALSE HUMILITY
“I believe there is not glory in being falsely humble, like those who give money because they feel superior. That is irresponsible. If you have the opportunity to bless others, you should, but never with a superior attitude.”
ON WHAT MAKES HER ANGRY
“When injustice is met with apathy. To come up against people who can do so much with their time, money or their will but simply refuse to risk the responsibility. Once, I was involved in helping a young woman who was brought into Singapore through Malaysia to sexually service construction workers. She was locked in a room and let out once at night to these jumbo forested construction sites. She ran away and we tried to get her home. But because she did not have papers, she was stuck—no embassy wanted to deal with her. It can be very frustrating.”
ON HER FAVOURITE PLACE IN THE WORLD
“Right now, I’d have to say Africa. It is so beautiful yet so complex. You can go to a place like Africa and choose to see the poverty and the violence. But I see its beauty and history and the enormous potential it has.”
“I’m too old for anyone to nag me (about getting married)! Seriously, I am very happy; my work gives me a lot of joy and if it (marriage and kids) happens, good, if not I’m not too worried about it.”
ON WHAT SHE WISHES SHE COULD DO MORE OF