February 4, 2019

What is the difference between standing half-naked in the middle of a street on a dare, and standing up to a dangerously erratic assaulter in an alley on a stranger’s behalf? Both situations induce discomfort, or rather, take guts. But while one is simply a display of frivolity, the other is a moral choice.

Having courage isn’t just about being brave, but it’s also about doing the right thing in spite of how unpopular or unaccepted it is. Running into the fire, knowing you’ll emerge to a flurry of praise and awe, is nothing more than an egocentric exercise. For Yoke Pean Thye, Joe Tan and Cheryl Lee, however, their courage is founded on love and service for the less privileged.

Yoke Pean, the co-founder of WISE-WASH, uses her platform to help the millions in Southeast Asia gain access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. Joe, a former military captain, took the leap to leave a cushy job to start the Love Action Project. Initially working pro bono, the entrepreneur has grown his social enterprise to include a commercial events arm—Highlight Media International. The 35-year-old is also at the helm of local cafe The Tuckshop Assembly and Music For A Cause, a music festival that supports social causes. Conquering the environmental space is Cheryl Lee, who at 23 years old has also founded School of Something, a school where youths can learn unorthodox skills to pursue unorthodox passions.

Defying the limitations of their youth, these individuals (who participated in the 2018 Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative Summit) stepped up for the greater good and endeavoured to defeat the Goliaths of society. Here, they reflect on what they’ve achieved so far and recall their stories of courage.


Cheryl Lee, Founder of School of Something

“The time that I felt courageous was during a speech I made at the UNFCCC COP23 (United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change, Conference of the Parties) Conference in Bonn, Germany. I remember I was invited to do a small speech at the Talanoa Dialogue stage at the conference and I was shaking. I was struggling internally as I really wanted to include the importance of gender equality in my speech on climate change, but I was afraid of diluting my message or saying something wrong. I felt inferior just by looking at the audience.

I was thankful for having friends who were there for me and their support gave me the courage to pull through. They made me understand that what I feel strongly for was valid, and I should never have to hide what I stand for. In that moment, all I felt was love. Despite all the obstacles, the world challenges and daily issues, I learnt that to be human is to love, even when it gets too much. And I ended up improvising the last part of my speech with that parting note.”


Joe Tan, CEO of Highlight Media International, Director of The Tuckshop Assembly, and Founder of Music For A Cause

“I think the most courageous decision I’ve made was to choose to leave a stable paying job in the military after 11 years to embark on a social entrepreneurship journey at the age of 31. Taking a pay cut was a big challenge for me at that time because I had everything balanced. But the impetus to seek a change, and to do something purposeful was what drove me over that edge. The initial years were tough, during the first year or so, but I was finding a lot more meaning in my work.

I had control over what I wanted to do, and it was actually quite liberating. However, with every business, you need to persevere and when things started to pick up, I realised that the risk I took was worth it. Today, I can impact so many more people through giving or the other businesses I run.”


Yoke Pean Thye, Co-Founder of WISE-WASH

“I’m not sure if I was courageous or just didn’t know what I was getting into. In 2012, I started my PhD at the Bandung Institute of Technology (Institut Teknologi Bandung), Indonesia. I spoke no Indonesian, and I was the only Singaporean at the university as well as first and only foreign PhD student at my department. There were positive and fun experiences, but there were also times when I felt completely isolated, as I struggled with language, lack of social support, even discrimination and harassment. But I came out of it knowing that I could survive anything.”