Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly shines a spotlight on inspiring women shaping our world. We call them the Great Women of Our Time. The list for 2022 includes Amanda Chong, who’s a playwright, poet and lawyer. She’s also co-founder of ReadAble, a charity that helps children and women from low-income families learn to read.
Not many people can say they love their work; even less can say that they have three different careers they love. But Amanda Chong is a lawyer, plus she co-founded ReadAble, a charity that helps children and women from low-income families learn to read.
On top of that, she’s also a published poet and playwright. Amanda’s latest play, called #WomenSupportingWomen, was recently performed in February 2022 in Singapore, to a live and online audience simultaneously. This innovative play was written in a burst of inspiration during a 24-Hour playwriting competition. Drawing on her background as a sex crimes prosecutor, Amanda’s play examines the often contradictory ways women are viewed in society.
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Amanda explains more, “On one hand, we have the pressures on women to perform a sort of toxic masculinity to excel as corporate leaders. We are not allowed to show our emotions, so no one sees that crack in our armour. On the other hand, when women are in the courtroom as sexual assault victims, we have to become a damsel in distress in order to meet society’s expectations of trauma.”
Amanda, 32, hopes her play will start conversations about social change. As she says, “I hope to be a woman who not only professes her principles but acts on them, and builds her life around advancing them, whether it is supporting gender equality or social justice.”
Amanda’s strength doesn’t just lie in her poetry and playwriting. As a lawyer, she has strong interests in international law, criminal justice and public policy. She has developed an expertise in human trafficking and gender justice, and has had her academic writing published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender.
In 2016 she served as an expert at the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on the international legal definition of trafficking in persons. She’s also on the Panel of Advisors to the Youth Court, which is an appointment by the President of Singapore. Amanda and her fellow advisors sit with judges to help advise the court in matters relating to the protection and rehabilitation of young people involved in legal cases. She sees it as supporting the best interests of the child.
Again to support children, in 2014 she co-founded the non-profit organisation ReadAble. With the aim of “beating poverty one word at a time”, it runs weekly reading and language arts classes for children, youths and women in low-income communities in Singapore.
So what motivates Amanda to do so much? She answers simply: “My goal is to expand the space of compassion in society by telling stories and empowering others to write their own stories.”
Her love for telling stories that empower also led her to write the musical “The Feelings Farm” with composer Julian Wong, which was produced by the Esplanade in 2021. As part of the creation process, Amanda and the team of artists conducted workshops with children of different abilities and socio-economic statuses, including children from ReadAble and Down Syndrome Association. The children shared real-life experiences – like feeling like they do not belong in school, or riding on the back of their daddy’s motorcycle. These experiences were woven into the play.
Amanda was motivated to create “The Feelings Farm” to help children and adults understand their own feelings better, and develop empathy for others. In her words, “These are crucial life skills that help us to build stronger relationships and foster greater compassion in our communities. Art can be a powerful way for children to learn. I wanted the play to provide a safe space for children to grapple with difficult issues like social inequality, marital conflict, and grief.”
Amanda is convinced literacy skills help level the education playing field. She says, “My father grew up in a one-room flat. His love for words helped him climb out of poverty. The moment a child is disadvantaged at preschool, and they enter primary school not knowing how to read, their first experience in a classroom is feeling like a failure, which starts a cycle of disillusionment.”
“I was able to succeed in school because I had middle-class parents who were university graduates. There is no reason why I am better than the children at ReadAble. I do what I can to work alongside others to level that playing field, so every child can succeed.”
Amanda says she learns so much from the children and women in the ReadAble community. “One woman from Indonesia told me that while she has no family in Singapore, she sees ReadAble as her family. Because our community of volunteers has always been present for her. This same woman gave me the keys to her one-room flat so we would always have a place for meetings in her neighbourhood. She wanted to contribute to our work. I was so touched by her generosity.”
For those curious about whether Amanda has any time for hobbies, she says simply, “I’ve made a career out of my hobbies.” She describes herself on her Instagram profile as, “Lawyer lady, late-night poet & playwright. Championing social justice.” Amanda says she is rejuvenated by any act of creation – whether that’s writing poetry or plays, or by reading books and researching topics that will ultimately inform her writing.
She adds that she is also inspired by engaging with the work of other Singapore artists in theatre, music and the visual arts, and the many ways they re-imagine the Singapore identity.