Cover Koh Seng Choon is leaving no one behind with his Hong Kong and Singapore based social enterprise, Dignity Kitchen (Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow)

Koh Seng Choon is the founder of Dignity Kitchen, a social enterprise providing culinary training for people with disabilities in Singapore and in Hong Kong

What were you doing before launching Dignity Kitchen?

I started my career as a shipyard worker in Singapore. I went to the UK to study and lived there for 12 years. I obtained a degree in engineering and an MSc in computer integrated manufacturing. Then I came back to Singapore in 1994 and worked for [what is now] PricewaterhouseCoopers. Later, I started my own management consultancy to develop businesses in China and India. I ran this business until 2006.

What inspired you to launch Dignity Kitchen in Singapore in 2010?

In Singapore, you don’t see beggars, homeless people or disabled people on the streets or in shopping malls. I realised there is another side of Singapore that people don’t want to know about. I started something called Dignity Day. I spent one day a month doing something good. I started by hiring a bus and taking the homeless and elderly out for a day of shopping. My parents always said to me: “Nought to 25 years is for learning, 25 to 50 years is for earning and after 50 years is for giving back.”

In 2006, I built a hawker training centre for those that are disabled or disadvantaged. In two years, I developed a curriculum to train street food operators. The curriculum covers how to operate, manage and cook food in a hawker stall. The Singapore government approved the concept right away because nobody had ever done it before. People open culinary schools all the time, but no one did this for hawkers. Dignity Kitchen is like a Hong Kong cooked food centre but all the stalls are manned by differently abled people. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor: you just come to enjoy the food.

What is Dignity Kitchen’s mission?

The goal is to not only teach our members valuable skills, but to find them jobs afterwards and help integrate them [into society], and then make sure society accepts them. I can’t cook and I’m not a social worker either; I just want to give disadvantaged people their dignity back.

Why is this project so close to your heart?

This project is based on kindness. Kindness is not about politics, religion, race or the nature of your disability. I’m not a charity, so I don’t qualify for donation or government grants. I was very successful in my previous career; now I’m in debt [laughs]. People always ask why I do this. They ask if I do this because my children are challenged. They aren’t. My answer is always the same: why not do this?

Who is eligible to learn at Dignity Kitchen and who are some of your employment partners in Hong Kong?

The people we have employed full-time in our centres in Singapore and Hong Kong total 170, 70 per cent of whom are disabled and disadvantaged. Major hotels like the Hyatt Regency, Cordis and RitzCarlton work with us and people of all races with physical, mental, social and intellectual challenges aged 17 to 87 are welcome. As of this year, we have trained 2,900 disabled and disadvantaged people and have placed 2,500 of them. 

What made you think that working within the food and beverage industry was the best way to help?

If you are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [a psychological theory of human needs based on priority], the biggest necessity is food. Everybody needs to eat, and cooking skills will always be in demand. We were the first food court in the world to attain the ISO 22000 certificate for food safety management.

Tell us about your other ventures under the Dignity Kitchen umbrella.

If I cannot get my workers a job after training, then I create small businesses. Dignity Mama is a pre-loved book stall run by mothers and their children with disabilities; Dignity AI creates jobs for homebound people with paraplegia by having them operate robots; Dignity Farm helps children with autism through gardening; Dignity Kitchenette is a cafe run by mental health patients; Dignity Wheel is a wheelchair food delivery concept; Dignity Learn is our training centre; and Dignity Outreach is for our social events.

How did you initially receive the funding for Dignity Kitchen?

When I first started, people thought my idea was good, but no one would support me. I went to all the banks and government support agencies but eventually had to remortgage my office to raise funds. It wasn’t enough. I quickly learnt that money and friendship do not always go together when asking for a loan. When my mother died, she left me money to carry on the project so that I could continue to help more people. I remember the day I signed the cheque to give to the landlord—I cried like hell. Today, I have sponsors who help.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

Empathy. It was difficult when I first started because nobody wanted to come to a place that was run by people with disabilities. We must look at people’s abilities, not their disabilities. People would often say: “Aren’t you worried about what a disabled person will put in your food?” [I’d say] the food is only HK$10. If you don’t want to buy it, don’t. There’s no need to comment on it. It was hard to educate the public at first, but now people are more receptive. Now corporate social governance is a normal term.

Why did you decide to open in Hong Kong in 2019?

Hong Kong is a food paradise, but the [business] risk is very high. People have a certain expectation. Bloggers, influencers and newspapers are very critical. In the F&B business, people don’t care if you’re a social enterprise or not: your food has to be good. Our laksa and pandan cake in Hong Kong are very good. Our space on Shanghai Street [in Mong Kok] is halal-certified too. We also have a Dignity Mama at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. This is a challenging market, but if you can succeed in Hong Kong, you can succeed anywhere.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope to inspire people to work with Dignity Kitchen, because in the process of giving back, you learn a lot about yourself. I would love to take our social enterprise public as, in 2021, our revenue in Hong Kong was over HK$9 million and HK$17 million in Singapore. It’s not a small amount, and together they are profitable. Can it be done? I don’t know, but it’s my hope.

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