Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly gives prominence to 18 distinguished and powerful women who are successful in their own right as part of the Great Women of Our Time Awards. Meet one of 2020’s three Honorary Award Winners, MP Denise Phua, President of the Autism Resource Centre; and Co-Founder of Pathlight School.
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Meet MP Denise Phua – Great Women Of Our Time Awards 2020, Honorary Award Winner
Denise Phua’s journey started 20 years ago. “I was a busy executive, a typical Singaporean who wanted a good job, family, and kids who are smart and go into good schools. Both my husband and I were travelling for work in regional roles, so we started our family late,” she shares. “When my second child, JY, was three, he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. He has moderate autism, not mild, and it’s an impairment that affects his social and communication skills.”
“I started researching therapy options for him, and we considered migrating to Australia, where my husband studied. Fortunately, we were blessed to find good therapy support provided by experts here, and so we decided to stay,” she explains.
“However, as I got to know more families who were in the same plight, I just felt that something was not right. Many of them were in a worse state than I was – some of them could not read English or had no access to the Internet, others were unable to afford the treatment their children needed,” she adds.
“I felt a sense of injustice,” says Denise, “It didn’t feel right that only those with access to resources could get help for their kids. I felt that we needed to do something before we gave up and migrated.”
Denise started extending the knowledge she had, not just to the families and children who were impacted by the learning disorder, but to many more we were also disadvantaged, due to a lack of resources or knowledge.
“During that era, Singapore boasted excellence in many areas – housing, education, transport, and healthcare, but not much was known in the education needs of our nation’s differently-abled sons and daughters,” recounts the devoted mother, who says she prefers to “roll sleeves rather than roll eyes”. “I decided to stop criticising what was lacking and instead, started to volunteer actively from 1998. I finally gave up my corporate job in 2005 and became a full-time volunteer.”
The formation of Pathlight School had its challenges as it was neither a mainstream school nor a special school – beginning with just 41 students, Pathlight was an institution that offered mainstream academics and life skills for students with autism and other related disorders, but many parents were hesitant to enrol their children because of the social stigma.
Together with the Pathlight team, Denise organised regular roadshows to raise funds and to get the word out. Over the years, through word-of-mouth, more people heard about the quality of Pathlight School’s curriculum and enrolment numbers started increasing steadily. Fast forward 15 years, and Pathlight School is now a household name amongst the special needs community in Singapore, with more than 1600 students (which surpasses other mainstream schools).
Although Denise studied political science in university, she had no inclination to join politics. “When I first entered politics in 2006, I just wanted to be myself – I never started with ‘wanting’ to join politics. I was not your typical candidate, I didn’t know any politicians, nor know about grassroots work,” she recounts.
“Some of my friends also advised me against it and said that I don’t toe the line enough. But I finally decided to give it a shot and try, because I have no personal ambition in the political arena. I was considered an ‘old’ MP because I was already in my mid-40s then, but I decided to use my platform to help the disadvantaged and champion the causes that I felt strongly about. When I was made the Mayor of Central Singapore CDC in 2014, I vowed to use whatever resources I have to support the gaps in society.”
Today, Denise is the Mayor of Central Singapore CDC, and the Jalan Besar GRC MP. True to her word, this big-hearted mum-of-two has been fully committed to the advancement of many initiatives which raise disability awareness and services. She founded The Purple Parade (which celebrates the abilities of special-needs persons), and was instrumental in developing the three five-year Enabling Masterplans for the disabled in Singapore. She also oversees the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore) and the Autism Association.
“Things have improved over the last two decades, and there’s a lot more support now, especially for the younger ones who require early intervention,” Denise says, then highlights, “But these is still a dearth of services at the adult level, and more needs to be done in education support for higher learning, employment, and care for severe cases who are unable to work.
“I wish to see a future where all of society embraces inclusion of persons with disabilities, in all key aspects of life in Singapore – be it in terms of schools, healthcare, or employment. We, as a society, will be for the weaker if we leave them behind. In short, everyone should have equal access to living, learning, and playing.
“I would like to encourage everyone to think a bit deeper about the kind of society, schools, and work environment that we want to build,” shares Denise. “Don’t settle for worldly success,” she advises, “Go for significance, and take what you are blessed with – your time, talents, skills, and resources – to bless others!”
The Great Women of Our Time Awards 2020 is brought to you by the presenter, Lancôme.