Cover Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran (Photo: Imran Sulaiman/Tatler Malaysia)

What creates lasting impact in underprivileged communities? Philanthropist Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran believes education is the key to social reform and that everyone has a part to play

Above Video: Tatler Malaysia

“People think that you have to be rich in order to make a difference in someone’s life,” muses Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran. “But they forget that giving back doesn’t only come in grand gestures or monetary support. It can happen in simple acts of kindness, like feeding a hungry person or lending our time and skills to social causes.”

As the chairperson of QI Group’s award-winning social impact arm, RYTHM Foundation, Umayal lives this belief every day as she spearheads strategic programmes in line with the foundation’s three pillars of education for all, female empowerment and gender quality, and sustainable community development. Partnering with NGOs and grassroots organisations, RYTHM Foundation has uplifted communities in the Southeast Asian region and around the world through its holistic educational programmes, grant-making and volunteer engagement projects. Many of RYTHM Foundation’s programmes have won awards abroad in Indonesia, India and Ghana, as well as here in Malaysia.

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“I believe that change begins with no one else but you,” Umayal adds. “Living life to the fullest means rising above and beyond who you are and your circumstances. If you can’t raise yourself, you can’t expect to help someone else.

"The acronym RYTHM itself stands for ‘Raise yourself to help mankind’, a phrase coined by my husband Dato' Sri Vijay Eswaran. RYTHM is our guiding light and the philosophy behind everything we do at the foundation." 

Convinced that every child has the right to an education, Umayal is a passionate advocate of bringing holistic education to underserved communities to empower and uplift them towards improved livelihoods.

“Unlike mass educational systems which heavily emphasise academic abilities, holistic education also focuses on the personal development of children’s emotional, social, psychological, creative and spiritual growth,” she says. “In the context of the underserved communities that we work with, a quality and holistic education that plays towards the strengths of the individual or the overall community is a game-changer, as we have seen through the impact of our programmes.”

RYTHM Foundation’s Community Adoption Programme, for example, was a collaboration with Good Shepherd Society in Kiulu, an area in Sabah that relies heavily on agriculture and tourism to sustain itself. The programme was designed to benefit the community as a whole, delivering academic support for students as well as vocational training, life skills and personal development programmes to empower youths and adults start eco-tourism businesses.

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The adoption of RYTHM's flagship Maharani programme into five national secondary schools in Malaysia is another major milestone for the foundation. Endorsed by the Ministry of Education, the Maharani programme empowers adolescent girls from underserved communities with the skills and knowledge to become confident, well-rounded individuals. The programme covers areas of gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, ethnicity and culture, and the importance of physical and spiritual wellness.

“It’s always been a dream of mine for Maharani to become an independent programme that goes to schools at a national level,” Umayal says. “We’re so proud to have partnered with PINTAR Foundation to do just this. Right now we’re testing it in five schools and if it’s successful, we plan to roll it out at more schools across the country.”

Change begins with us. If we all wait for someone else to do something about a problem that’s staring us in the face, then nothing will ever change.
Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran

Success did not come easily for Umayal and her RYTHM Foundation team and each milestone serves as a reminder of the substantial work that is yet to be done.

“Problems and challenges will always be there,” she admits. “The future is not going to be easy, as the pandemic has shown us. But one thing I always tell myself is that it’s ok. We’re human. Sometimes we fail and we fall. What’s important is that we don’t stay there.”


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