HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 2003, Tony organized “Willing Hearts,” a fully volunteer-based, non-profit organization that distributes hot, packed meals daily to the needy. Starting with just eleven volunteers and distributing three hundred meals daily, Willing Hearts now cooks six thousand meals every day, which are delivered to forty distribution points in Singapore.
  • Willing Hearts has extended its services to optical and dental care, “So people can better enjoy their food,” Tony says, expressing a typically Singaporean love for food. But it is not just about food.
  • In electing Tony Tay to receive the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes “his quiet, abiding dedication to a simple act of kindness – sharing food with others – and his inspiring influence in enlarging this simple kindness into a collective, inclusive, vibrant volunteer movement that is nurturing the lives of many in Singapore.”

 CITATION

In Singapore, one of the world’s wealthiest economies, poverty is not as stark and visible as in much of the world, but it exists for ten percent of the country’s population of 5.7 million. It is a problem that can be statistically glossed over in ways that can dull human sympathies, foster moral complacency, and obscure the fact that in the end, poverty is not a matter of numbers but of real people needing other people’s help.

Singaporean Tony Tay was born into poverty. Abandoned by his father when he was five, homeless, his mother barely surviving on transient work, Tony and a sister were put in the care of an orphanage, while two other sisters stayed with a foster family. At twelve, Tony dropped out of school, had to find food where he could, and started working at odd jobs. By sheer grit and perseverance, he slowly pulled himself out of poverty, started a printing business; and finally had his own home, raising his own family in modest comfort.

In the Singaporean ethos of self-reliance, he could have easily put the past behind him. And he did, until he was fifty-seven when, at his mother’s funeral, he was deeply moved by the great number of people who came to give their respects to his mother. Despite her own difficulties, she had devoted herself to charity work with the Canossian Sisters. Inspired, Tony and his wife began their share of doing good for others — collecting unsold bread and vegetables from the market and bringing these to the Canossian convent to be given to the needy. Enlisting family and friends, they began to cook what they had gathered in their home kitchen, delivering packed meals to the poor and elderly.

Their “one hot meal revolution” had begun. In 2003, Tony organized “Willing Hearts,” a fully volunteer-based, non-profit organization that distributes hot, packed meals daily to the needy. Starting with just eleven volunteers and distributing three hundred meals daily, Willing Hearts now cooks six thousand meals every day, which are delivered to forty distribution points in Singapore. It operates 365 days a year and has some three hundred regular volunteers, operating out of a facility in a public community center. Their beneficiaries are neglected and abandoned elderly and persons with disabilities, the sick, children of single-parent households, low-income families, and migrant workers.

Supported with donations in cash but mostly in kind, its facility operates daily from 4:30 AM to 3:30 PM as volunteers collect, prepare, cook, pack, and deliver meals in a systematic cycle of work that respects the people they serve by seeing to the quality and quantity of the food, observing food safety, and segregating Muslim and non-Muslim meals. Willing Hearts has not missed a single day of food-giving since it started fourteen years ago.

Willing Hearts has extended its services to optical and dental care, “So people can better enjoy their food,” Tony says, expressing a typically Singaporean love for food. But it is not just about food. What gratifies Tony is how the simple sharing of food has fostered the spirit of volunteerism: taxi drivers have volunteered to deliver food packs; parents bring their children to the group’s kitchen to help; volunteers and their families are nurtured by their Willing Hearts experience in the virtues of service, empathy, and kindness.

Today, Tony participates in all aspects of the work, all day every day. He has no grand vision of what he is doing, except that people must love one another and that “God will provide.” He often speaks of Willing Hearts as a way of being part of one family, one village — a poignant statement from one who did not have much of a family growing up. He says: “We are just sharing, sharing all that we have in life to make a better society.”

In electing Tony Tay to receive the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes “his quiet, abiding dedication to a simple act of kindness – sharing food with others – and his inspiring influence in enlarging this simple kindness into a collective, inclusive, vibrant volunteer movement that is nurturing the lives of many in Singapore.”