In October 2011, Soo Ling looked at the 65m2 empty space she had just signed a two-year lease on in Tanglin Shopping Centre near the Botanical Gardens in Singapore. She had two weeks to turn it into a warm and welcoming environment for children to learn in a safe place, at their own rhythm. Ikea shopping list and paintbrush in hand, together with a contractor, she got to work.
Soo Ling Ong
“My dream initially was to set up a dedicated, full time school for children with any kind of learning challenge.”
Three years prior to this moment, Soo Ling was plunged into an unknown world when her 7 year old daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. “Letters and numbers make no sense to these kids. They see some letters as backwards or upside down and can struggle between letters that are similar in shape such as o, e and c; or between letters that have similar shape but different orientation, such as b and p, and d and q. Dyslexia is often combined with dyscalculia, meaning they also struggle to learn number-related concepts: bigger versus smaller, mental sums and problem solving.”
At the time, there was little support from the local education system, teachers were not equipped, nor had the time to offer alternative teaching methods. It fell to the parents and the occasional attentive educator to find specialised therapists or after-school tutoring. “These are children of normal, even high-potential intelligence, who struggle with basic words and arithmetic. Their brains learn differently. Without proper direction, they fall behind in class, and learning becomes a downward spiral of frustration, low self-esteem and despair that can continue into their teens. This was unacceptable to me.” Finding no all-encompassing solution, Soo Ling set up Stars Inc., an after-school centre that provides support to children with learning differences.
Soo Ling’s intentions were always clear: to raise awareness of learning difficulties and the centre must be self-funding and self-sufficient long term. In her daughter’s educational therapist, she also found her business partner and together they built Soo Ling’s vision. “I found, rented and renovated the space and put up the initial financial investment. My business partner created the content, wrote the curriculum and runs the day-to-day activities from logistics to recruitment and parent communication. It’s a fully self-sufficient, not-for-profit centre.”
“My dream initially was to set up a dedicated, full time school for children with any kind of learning challenge until I realised the regulation and admin involved was going to be prohibitively expensive. My pockets just aren’t deep enough!” Instead, Stars Inc is an after-school centre where children are individually coached using alternate teaching methods to engage children’s visual, kinaesthetic and tactile. “It’s as much about offering them coping mechanisms to keep up at school as about helping them overcome their fear of reading and studying. Each child sets their own pace. Ultimately our goal is to restore their faith in themselves and help them find their inner voice.”
Ten years on, Stars Inc has welcomed close to one thousand kids and has evolved from three educational therapists to 14 who address dyslexia, dyscalculia, attention deficits, auditory and visual processing difficulties, as well as helping older children with exam preparation. “We’ve seen a tremendous shift in awareness and attitude, especially within local government bodies. The international community represented about 90% of our attendees when we first opened. Today we have about 50% local school and 50% international school children referred to us.”
The centre is gently winding down as Soo Ling’s business partner will soon retire for health reasons, so Soo Ling is on the lookout for her next project. “Life is good to me and I’m very grateful that I have been so fortunate. I want to give back but not as a one-off contribution. I like to build things that have a long term, sustainable, effective impact. I have no idea what it will be yet, perhaps something around mental health and inclusiveness. It will come to me.”
When she’s not raising awareness about dyslexia and dyscalculia, Soo Ling is an avid contemporary art collector and Head of Investment Specialists at Pictet Wealth Management Asia based in Singapore.