Jerry Lewis Ong (BSocSc, 2013) is not your average SMU graduate. Armed with multiple overseas conference and internship stints with global humanitarian organizations, such as United Nations agencies, it is evident that Jerry has been a man on a mission since his SMU undergrad days to improve the lives of those in need. Eschewing the typical path trodden by his peers, Jerry has instead pursued development work based on myriad social causes he holds dear. So much so, he has cofounded an alumni group, International Development & Community Action (IDCA), that encompasses a broad range of disciplines to improve people’s quality of life around the world. The IDCA Alumni Group is concerned with issues such as poverty alleviation, disaster preparedness, community resilience, education, food and water security, conflict resolution, and women's and children’s rights. With such a big heart, we at OAR are proud to feature him as one of our Inspiring Alumni; we wish him and IDCA the very best in effecting change in the world, one step at a time!
Hi Jerry! You graduated with a Bachelors in Social Science (Political Science) in 2013. How was your SMU experience?
My time at SMU was transformational! Apart from the rigorous academic work, I was exposed to a variety of programmes and activities internationally. With the support from SMU, I had the opportunity to travel to Germany to participate in a Model United Nations Conference as well as to Colombia for an International Conference on Volunteerism. For my internships, I worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Bangkok. In my final year, I wrote a dissertation on Singapore’s refugee policy which subsequently appeared in Harvard Kennedy School’s Singapore Policy Journal. All these invaluable experiences prepared me very well for my chosen career.
(Jerry at his previous job at INTERPOL)
With your internationalization and humanitarian background, it does not surprise us that you have co-founded OAR’s newest alumni group called International Development & Community Action (IDCA). Tell us more about IDCA.
While many SMU alumni have gone on to build successful careers in a variety of industries ranging from banking to logistics and public service, there is also a small but growing number of SMU alumni who are doing well in humanitarian and development organisations where they respond to humanitarian crises, protect the rights of vulnerable groups and implement programmes to improve the lives of those in need.
With the increasing number of SMU alumni in this space and given SMU’s academic excellence in the areas of management, law and social sciences, the SMU community as a whole is well-positioned to contribute tremendously to the development and community service sector. SMU IDCA Alumni Group thus aims to maximise this potential through the promotion of meaningful discussions on emerging development trends and practices, while fostering strong collaboration and linkages with partners to deepen community impact.
IDCA welcomes graduating students and alumni of all background to join our activities and it does not matter which industry one comes from. One of our activities is the official launch of the group on 16 March 2018 featuring a panel discussion on “Without a Home: How can we leverage Tech for Good?”. Fireside chats and dialogues are certainly on our list and would cover a range of themes such as poverty alleviation, refugee protection, women’s and children’s rights, education, hygiene and sanitation, governance and disaster preparedness. We are also exploring opportunities with relevant SMU internal and external stakeholders to strengthen support for students too.
What inspired you to start IDCA? Does it have any connection to what you do at your day job?
The idea of setting up IDCA first came up over casual drinks with fellow SMU alumni in the development sector. We shared how exciting it is to be in this space, and yet how we all have struggled to get a foot into the door due to limited opportunities in Singapore and high competition for international roles. We also faced similar experiences at the start of our careers where we lacked the network to turn to for guidance and direction. For many of us, it was mainly through multiple failures and discouragement that we found our first job in the sector. Through these experiences, we felt that a support network for SMU students and graduates who aspire to go down the same path would be of some help. With this as a starting point, IDCA has since evolved to also provide a platform for conversations and collaboration to work towards a just and sustainable world.
IDCA is very much connected to my current job and previous roles. Currently I work as a Project Coordinator with Save the Children in Thailand. Save the Children is the world's largest independent child rights development organisation, making a difference to children's lives in more than 120 countries. Based in Mae Sot, I manage refugee education projects which support access to basic education for children in refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. Previously I worked with INTERPOL where I supported the implementation of activities that combat human trafficking, people smuggling and child exploitation.
(Jerry at Save The Children organization in Thailand)
How can IDCA contribute/impact the community at large? Why should alumni join IDCA?
Broadly, IDCA aims to contribute in three ways. First, understanding development trends as well as the successes and failures of development practices is key to finding more effective solutions. As such, IDCA would be providing platforms for exchanges among practitioners, researchers, experts and the wider SMU community. Second, every year SMU students are undertaking local and overseas community service projects to impact communities at large. IDCA plans to work with these student initiatives to provide guidance and mentoring in areas such as child protection and child safeguarding practices. Third, SMU alumni have strong skillsets that the development sector could be looking for. The alumni group has plans to facilitate networking sessions for alumni, students, faculty members and industry partners to allow opportunities for collaborations and job exploration.
There are many reasons why SMU alumni across all sectors should be part of IDCA. One of the key reasons is that we can co-create solutions together to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues. The development sector alone cannot solve all problems. Regardless of the industry you are in, whether in public or private sector, you bring different set of skills, experience and expertise which can contribute towards a better world.
Singaporeans are known to be apathetic. Do you personally find advocacy challenging to promote?
In my view, Singaporeans are not as apathetic as portrayed to be. Many are actually concerned about the world around them and would like to do something within their means. Take the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis for example, Singaporeans have expressed great concerns over the atrocities that happened in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In terms of finding solutions, I find that many tend to adopt a more pragmatic approach instead of rights-based framework where the rights of every being is placed at the very centre of policies and practices. With this understanding, advocating for change from a pragmatic perspective can potentially see more success.
What is your advice to juniors who are keen to embark on a similar path to you?
Going down the path of international development may not always be easy. Keep persevering and hold on to that passion of yours, and you will eventually get to where you hope to be. Also at times, the problems we are trying to solve may seem too big and out of our control. Don’t lose hope. Focus on small successes and do what we can within our limits to deliver our best to the communities we work with.
(Jerry with his Save The Children colleagues celebrating 2018 Thai National Children's Day)
Last updated on 12 Mar 2018 .