It started with free guitars and English lessons.

But it has since grown into a movement that spans multiple cities across Southeast Asia and has touched the lives of more than 6,000 children in the past six years.

Little did Singaporean PR Hiew Hong Teck know, when he first helped set up Songkids as part of the work he was doing at his church, that it would grow into something as far-reaching as this.

SongKids Festival 2019. Image Source: We Are SongKids/Facebook

Hong Teck tells The Pride: “Serving as a pastor of a children’s ministry in church was very intense, I never thought I would have the capacity to work with children beyond that, let alone work with orphanages overseas.”

And it all started with a request from his church leadership to visit an orphanage in Batam. “We went with an obligation but it turned out to be a passion,” he says.

There was no fixed agenda – volunteers would run English lessons, handicraft workshops, but also give away free guitars, so that the children could learn the instrument, and discover their musical talents.

It was both a literal and metaphorical symbol of their tagline ‒ “Making space for kids to find their song”, a belief that everyone has a song in them, that each person is meant to live to his fullest potential by walking his own unique path.

“We want to help children discover their potential, and empower them to make better choices for their future employment,” Hong Teck, 50, says.

That was how Songkids started in 2015 ‒ as an outreach to orphanages, but as it grew, Hong Teck, an IT professional turned full-time pastor, had to set it up as a separate entity from the church.

Thus, Songkids was born, with Hong Teck as president and founder, joined by other like-minded individuals who wanted to volunteer with orphans. It became a registered society this year.

Hong Teck, who doesn’t take a salary from Songkids, says: “It was a leap of faith. I started an IT social enterprise despite not having any business experience, yet it was able to sustain my family and provided enough funds to keep SongKids going.”

Growing and connecting

SongKids festivals
The children from the participating orphanages put up musical performances and take part in workshops at SongKids festivals. Image Source: We Are SongKids

Very quickly, from donating guitars and giving English lessons, SongKids grew to become synonymous with its flagship event– a city-wide music fest called SongKids Festivals.

It went beyond working with just one orphanage, but instead invited all the orphanages in the city wherever the event was held. The team would link up with local businesses to sponsor food and venues and even recruited youths from local polytechnics and tertiary institutions to give them a chance to take on leadership roles in running the event.

To date, eight SongKids festivals have been held – across Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar – with three in Batam, three in Yangon and one in Penang and Surabaya each.

At each festival, the number of participants from orphanages or childcare centres ranged from 300 to as many as 2,200. By 2019, the total number of participants over 5 years surpassed 6,000.

Covid meant that Songkids had to move its events online as volunteers were unable to travel from Singapore to the other counties. But this wasn’t as much of a disruption as the team had already decided to go digital with some of its outreach events.

Explains Hong Teck: “We had discussed how to fund a computer lab, but coincidentally, the orphanage we were working with in Yangon already had a whole computer lab donated to them by another foreign donor. We couldn’t believe that the hardware was all ready for us to come in and provide instruction for computer skills and mentoring.”

A Christmas edition of the festival was even conducted online in December last year in Yangon, in the midst of Covid-19 travel restrictions. “The kids were so excited, they kept unmuting their mic to sing!” laughs Hong Teck.

Through the Festivals, SongKids have been able to establish strong ties between the orphanages, city businesses and industry captains, which allows the team to get local leaders to help mentor the orphans.

“The recruitment for mentors is not so structured right now,” Hong Teck says. “Our criteria for mentors is persons of character who are excellent in their field, and who want to be role models for the children and lead them to their desired profession.”

Focusing on education for sustainable impact

Orphans in Surabaya
The first SongKids Festival in Surabaya in 2019 saw 300 children from 14 orphanages gather, and involved a team of youth volunteers to lead the event. Image Source: We Are Songkids / Facebook

During the 2019 trip to Myanmar, the SongKids team decided to take its engagement with the children to the next level, which involved setting up an education arm.

“We recognised that our annual trips were not enough to make a sustainable difference in the lives of the orphans there. We decided to take the learning online, so that they could learn at a more consistent pace,” says Deborah Ng, an early childhood special education teacher who volunteers with SongKids.

That group is led by 31-year-old tech entrepreneur Charmain Tan, who was inspired to volunteer after joining the group on the Myanmar trip.

Workshop in Yangon
Charmain Tan (left) and Burmese facilitator, Emerald, running a workshop in Yangon. Image Source: We Are SongKids

“We wanted to design a ‘passion-based education’ so that these kids could identify their goals and dreams, and be led to accomplish them,” Charmain, who is also vice-president of Songkids, tells The Pride.

Going online

The team embarked on a pilot programme in Yangon in August 2020, working with Fullmoon Learning Centre Foundation, targeting 13 and 14 year olds.

Deciding to take the classes online was timely because it meant that the team was already prepared to roll out online classes when Covid-19 travel restrictions were imposed in March 2020. So when school closures in Myanmar affected millions of children, Songkids was able to give some lessons for those in the orphanages.

During the online lessons, there were challenges such as Myanmar’s patchy Internet connection and power outages, but the inconveniences were worth it.

“The children are excited to learn, always willing to participate with smiles on their faces,” says Deborah.

The classes focused on equipping youths with practical life skills that would help them choose a career path and apply for tertiary education.

Fullmoon Learning Centre Foundation
Fullmoon Learning Centre Foundation was kitted out with a computer lab by a foreign donor, and poised for SongKids to roll out its online classes in 2020. Image Source: We Are SongKids

“We noted that many youths were making career goals based on persons they met, like teachers and pastors, or books they read, which highlights only traditional vocations like doctors and nurses. Their decisions were not based on their interests or talents,” Deborah, 33, says.

The curriculum, planned by Deborah and another team member, David Hoe, an MOE-trained educator, included English lessons and basic digital skills, like setting up an email account, using Zoom and Google Workplace apps like Google Slides, Google Docs, and Google Sheets.

“Their English skills and computer skills are very basic. We wanted to bridge this gap and prepare them for university learning. Without computer skills, it would limit their learning opportunities,” Deborah says.

The team conducted hour-long lessons once a week for three groups with five to eight youths each, grouped according to their abilities. During the classes, a mentor from Singapore would partner a Myanmese facilitator, who also acted as a translator.

Storytelling for orphans
Christine Chean, author of a children’s picture book, You Are Special, Boy, reads her story during an online class with Fullmoon Learning Foundation Centre. Image Source : We Are SongKids

During English lessons, the children practice listening, speaking and writing via Google Workspace lessons. Children’s picture books are used as teaching materials, with titles like Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival and You Are Special, Boy by local author Christine Chean (who also volunteered for the online classes when her book was used as lesson material).

“They haven’t read many books, so they are okay that we are using children’s books. We purchase the e-books and share the resources with them, so that they can read it at their own time. We’re slowly building a mobile library resource for them,” says Deborah.

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Dealing with naysayers

Hong Teck says that working with overseas orphanages has raised some eyebrows as there are those who suggest that they are engaging in orphanage tourism.

He says: “Yes, there are systemic problems in the system. But whether orphanages exist or not, it doesn’t change the fact that poverty exists and there are kids in the system that need our help.”

“We don’t support orphanage tourism. We are selective about who we work with, and build partnerships through regular trips. All the people who work with us are committed to this work for the long term. There are so many genuinely dedicated people caring for children; it’s unfortunate that there are a handful of rogue operators who create all this bad press.”

Future plans

The recent military coup in Myanmar has thrown a spanner in the works for the online classes. On Feb 7, the team posted a Facebook update that they had one last session with the children before the Internet was cut.

While this put a pause on its plan to help the Myanmar children, this has not stopped SongKids from looking for other opportunities to help the marginalised.

Hong Teck, who is married with three children aged 21, 19 and 17, recently moved to Klang, and is working with the Elshaddai Refugee Learning Centre, which offers support to refugees and asylum seekers from other countries.

Hong Teck, Charmain and Raymond running a workshop with Elshaddai Refugee Learning Centre on entrepreneurship. Image Source : We Are Songkids

He says that there are plans to replicate SongKids’ online English and computer classes at the refugee learning centre.

In April, Hong Teck held an online career talk called, “Who wants to be an entrepreneur?” with refugee children at the centre, with Charmain and Raymond Chou, a Malaysian IT entrepreneur.

The purpose for that talk is to “identify dreams” so that the children could be placed in different groups for mentoring.

“We hope to encourage them to think beyond education, and think about starting a new business or a social enterprise in the future,” he says.