[Article has been updated on 24 October 2020, 1:30pm]
14 years ago, Anthea Indira Ong, founder of Hush TeaBar, found herself in a state of hopelessness and despair.
In an interview with Vulcan Post, Anthea described the situation she was in at that time as a “whole series of collateral damage” — her husband had cheated on her, and initiated six legal suits against the education technology company she was running at that time.
The ex-Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) shared that she was badly hit emotionally and financially, so much so that she only had S$16 left in her bank account at one point in time.
That night, I could not do anything other than lay down on the floor in my empty apartment. In that four hours, I was completely quiet.
The first two hours were very scary — I even contemplated the distance between my 18 floor apartment and the ground. But because I was so silent, something switched and I thought about: “What do I still have?” I really think that silence and switch to gratitude saved me.Anthea Indira Ong, Founder of Hush TeaBar in an interview with Vulcan Post
After that moment, the 52-year-old realised the importance of “getting into that quiet place”, and having moments of gratitude.
She was inspired to share this practice of silence with more people, which led to the birth of Hush TeaBar.
Singapore’s First Silent Tea Bar
Founded in 2014, Hush is Singapore’s first silent tea bar.
It aims to bring self care and social inclusion to every workplace and community, with a cup of tea. The team is led entirely by deaf facilitators and people who are in recovery, or have had lived experiences with mental health conditions.
Anthea shared that each Hush@Workplace session consists of four zones — the Intention, Hush, Expression and Sharing zones.
In the Intention Zone, participants learn how to sign emotions from the deaf facilitators. As sign language is very embodied, the practice makes participants feel the emotions too.
“We live in society where emotions don’t seem to have a rightful place and we want to bring emotions into the workplace,” shared Anthea.
Next, the Hush Zone is where participants sip tea in silence and reflect on a theme set by the organisation.
The Expression Zone is an artistic one. Before Covid-19 struck, participants would be asked to create art pieces out of tea by painting with it.
Now, the social enterprise’s sessions are carried online. Thus, the Expression Zone consists of participants drawing, first with their dominant hand and then their non-dominant one. This is to symbolise “letting go”.
Lastly, the Sharing Zone is the only one in which participants speak out loud and share about their feelings with each other.
According to Anthea, these conversations are extremely useful in building empathy between colleagues, and can even change team dynamics.
Several company leaders have said this experience causes the team culture to change. When you see colleagues sharing the same human challenges, a new culture of empathy and collaboration is born.Anthea Indira Ong, Founder of Hush TeaBar in an interview with Vulcan Post
Some of Hush’s workplace participants include DBS — which they piloted with — Google, Johnson and Johnson and Deutsche Bank.
Not Your Typical Startup
Since Hush started in 2014, it has had many repeat clients. For example, DBS has engaged the Hush Team seven times over the years.
This was not something Anthea expected from the get-go. When she started Hush with just a few volunteers and her sister, she meant for it to be a completely “social experience”.
They brought the experience to organisations on a project basis, and saw it as a way to create supplementary income for their deaf volunteers.
More and more organisations started catching on, and so the team decided to transform Hush into a social enterprise, bringing their employees on payroll.
Today, Hush is financially sustainable, but Anthea stresses that it does not operate like a “typical startup” with accelerated growth.
Anthea wants to ensure that the social enterprise does not grow more quickly than her team does, to prevent her employees from getting distressed.
She is also quick to admit that things are not all rainbows and butterflies.
“There are many challenges all the time internally. Sometimes the conflicts in the team could even be more than in typical work places,” she confides.
However, at the end of the day, she wants to ensure that “they can always come back to a place where they can work things out.”
Collecting Her Last Corporate Pay Check 7 Years Ago
After graduating from the National University of Singapore’s Business School, Anthea went on to pursue a “conventional” route of success.
She went into banking and by 25, she was already the director of an international company.
However, since her painful divorce and failed business, she has become a relentless advocate for mental wellbeing and mental health.
Now, she runs several ventures to champion these causes. For example, she is also the founder of A Good Space, a co-operative that brings together active citizens, community based organisations, social enterprises, companies and anyone concerned about social problems.
She was also a Nominated Member of Parliament, where her maiden speech in 2018 involved a call to make mental health a national priority.
Over the years, she went on to speak on many Bills, often emphasising the need to be inclusive.
In parliament this year, she called for Medisave and Medishield Life to be extended equally to physical and mental health treatment.
In her speech, she said that “the mental well-being of our people forms the bedrock of our psychological resilience and social cohesion.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthea and her Hush team have also been supporting healthcare and migrant workers on the frontline.
She shared that the Hush team and their volunteers gave out “self-care boxes” — Hush in a Box — to healthcare workers and migrant workers this February during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Inclusivity is her ultimate aim and she finds more meaning in the work she does now.
“I drew my last corporate pay check in December 2013 to pursue the deep aspirations I have in social entrepreneurship, volunteerism and coaching. I derived immense joy from taking the path less travelled,” she said.
Featured Image Credit: Hush Tea Bar