Kenneth and Reuben

EP. 4 29 AUG 2020 | 36:35

Opening Our Doors to Vulnerable Communities in Singapore

This week's episode brings us into the life of Kenneth Heng, leadership expert and long-time social worker/entrepreneur.

Over the past 11 years, his travels has brought him to the most rural of communities where he's played a significant role in altering countless lives for the better. Having seen the plight that many of these vulnerable members of society were facing, he eventually decided to co-found his company - Solve n+1, in the hopes of making a greater impact on these communities.

In today's episode, we discuss the origins of Solve n+1, as well as its latest project, The Open Home Network - that aims to tackle a plethora of Covid19-related domestic issues. With the help of well thought-out stories, Kenneth shares with us how there seems to be a distinct lack of housing-based communities in modern day Singapore, whilst citing the importance of community in times of crisis.

The topic sparks a quick discussion on our 'obsession with privacy' here in Singapore as Kenneth and I try to understand the multitude of reasons behind it. Towards the tail-end, Kenneth shares with us a little more on what we can do to help these vulnerable members of society who are in desperate need of our help.

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KHKenneth Heng is the founder of Open Home Network, an initiative which encourages and supports Singaporeans to open their homes and provide a refuge for high-risk individuals.


RDReuben is the producer and talkshow host of the Stacked Podcast Series.


Reuben  0:00  

On today's episode,

Kenneth  0:03  

Prices are often non discriminate it can happen to yourself or myself. And one way to increase resilience in managing crisis is with the connections we have with people, people who had encouraged us who would be there for us.

Reuben  0:33  

You're At Home, with Stacked.

Hey guys, welcome back to a very special edition of At Home with Stacked. Growing up, some of us might have found ourselves volunteering at shelters either locally or abroad. My guest today is no different, in fact, he's been doing that for over 11 years now. His name is Kenneth Heng, and he is the founder of Solve n+1, a community outreach programme that aims to help vulnerable members of society across Southeast Asia and beyond.

In today's show, we sit down with Kenneth to discuss his latest project of the Open Home Network. Along the way, he shares the importance of community building in times of crisis, and we dive into our obsession with privacy here in Singapore. Towards the end of the show, Kenneth tells us a little bit more about what we can do to help these vulnerable members of society who are in desperate need of our help. And remember, if you like what you listen to, you can always hop on to for more of his right after the show.

Kenneth, welcome to the show.

Kenneth  1:57  

Hi, thank you for having me.

Reuben  1:59  

Hey, absolutely. In fact, it's not every day, I think they will meet someone who who dedicates all of his or her time to helping people. So you know, I'm very happy to to go ahead with this podcast, I think it's gonna bring a lot of value to our audiences. So let's get to it. Can you tell me kind of a little bit more about yourself? What brought you to where you are today?

Kenneth  2:20  

Well, I've always been somebody that enjoys travelling. And I guess for the last, what, 10 years or so I've always been exploring new places, going on adventures and, in doing so have gotten to know great friends in various communities and started to hear about their own journey.

And sometimes even the problems they face within their community. And, of course, being, you know, a Singaporean, you know, we get that there's almost this has occupational hazard to want to problem solve all the time. Right? Yeah. And I started picking up projects here and there.

And gradually, it started to gain traction. And Solve n+1. One was born as a result of really just that.

Reuben  3:14  

I see. And when you said you were travelling to countries what what kind of countries are we talking about?

Kenneth  3:18  

Mostly in a rural regions. I've been to like the mountains in China in different parts of Vietnam, Malaysia, India, even in the village in Spain, I was while they're working with some of the young people and who are struggling with drug addiction, had a chance to get chased by a bull.

Reuben  3:41  

Nice, why not? All right, which part of Spain was this?

Kenneth  3:44  

So this was in a village called Puso. It's a little bit of Valencia,

Reuben  3:50  

Right. Um, what kind of projects are we talking about here?

Kenneth  3:54  

They are usually related to the community. So an example I could give was, I was travelling in Vietnam one day, and I was in this area called the lard city, which is quite mountainous. And I was just going around on the motorcycle with a friend.

And we encountered a person who was trying to do community work within the region, getting to know people trying to help them. And because he spent his time, quite a lot of his time doing that. He also wanted to figure out a sustainable way in doing so. So we look together with him.

And that was probably one of the first few projects of microlending that I did, where I loaned him a sum of money to start a small chicken farm. Right. And it gave me the chance to, you know, be his friend to connect and, and to to build a relationship over a couple of years.

Reuben  4:54  

Sure. And how did that benefit the people around because you mentioned above community? What was it just for him solely, or were there other people that were impacted by this kind of funds that you you gave to him.

Kenneth  5:06  

So for him specifically, it was to ensure that he's able to support his family and find micro financing that chicken farm, enable him to have some form of sustainability to do that, on his own time, he works with the local community. So he connects with the poor, bring them together to look at, you know, problems, to hear their problems, and to try and support them in whatever means and ways he can.

Reuben  5:35  

Very nice, lovely. All right, so let's move on to your actual company today. Or whether your organisation Solve n+1, it's a very interesting name. Tell us a bit more about how you started it and why why the name,

Kenneth  5:53  

I guess I kind of stumbled into this idea, I gradually got the chance to do more projects. So I had the privilege to work in a hospital in Myanmar, I got to work with villagers that suffered from flats. And I needed an entity to ensure that there's proper governance over the funds that I caught.

Most of my friends love the work and the help to commission these projects. So I wanted to think of a good name, a friend of mine came in and say, why don't you keep it simple, and you call yourself Solve? And I was like, Oh, that's fascinating. And he went on to think and say, how about n+1.

And the idea was pretty simple. If you know, your math, and often represents the unknown, and for me, it was always about stepping into the unknown, and just taking one step at a time. And, and really just trying to add value, no matter how small no matter how simple, so that the community can benefit at the end.

Reuben  6:57  

Right. So that's where the plus one comes in. plus one is kind of the value that you're adding to these communities.

Kenneth  7:02  

Yeah, so that that kind of made it quite a memorable name. For us.

Reuben  7:07  

It's quite a hit, to be honest, say, it seems a lot like mathematical equation of sorts. In the end, I can totally believe it. So it's pretty cool. So that is kind of your big umbrella organisation under which you have a couple of projects, one of which is the Open Home Network.

Also, the kind of the gist of our show today, a key share for listeners a little bit more about what the open home network is all about,

Kenneth  7:35  

Right. The Open Home Network is a community initiative that we started in Singapore in response to the COVID crisis that has surfaced many people who no longer find that their homes are safe place. So we are talking about, you know, a family violence issues, possibly sex abuse, you young person having their parents incarcerated, a middle-aged man who has lost his job and kind of fought rent anymore, and it's, you know, at risk of being homeless.

And we were privileged to work with a network of families to prepare them to extend hospitality to those in need, particularly those who just need temporary support, but more importantly, a relationship, you know, a friendship that they can rely on.

Reuben  8:30  

Right. So all these issues you mentioned, the middle-aged guy, for example, who has lost his job, increased sexual abuse, for example. Is there really an urgency here that we're seeing based on the COVID situation is very bad?

Kenneth  8:45  

Well, if you look at the statistics that and us research has shown, I think there has been a sharp increase during the circuit breaker in and of itself, there were within four weeks, I think there were 3000 calls being made to a care hotline that was launched within four weeks.

All in, you know suffered struggling from, you know, anxiety attacks, suicidal tendencies, struggles at home, aware reported about 400 cases of family violence during the circuit breaker in and of itself. So, depends on how you define urgency. But in our case, we felt like many of these people in our encounters with them don't really have a place to go to.

Normally the amount of shelters that space, the more shelter spaces that you have only within the thousands, but at the rate that these crises are surfacing, we anticipated that there will be a huge gap in suitable spaces, as well as support meaningful support For those people who are struggling from crisis,

Reuben  10:03  

Right, especially since a lot of Singapore's current resources have been pulled towards helping out with the current COVID situation as well, I think there's there's some impact from that. So, maybe tell us a little bit more about how you help these people, how does Open Home Network, reach out to them in this sense.

Kenneth  10:23  

So the Open Home Network is structured, purely volunteer -based, we use 95% of our manpower from volunteers. And we ensure that there is a strong collaboration between NGOs as well as government agencies, I think the gist of it is, it's a community of people that advocates hospitality, and the government refers cases to us.

So we spend a lot of time meeting with them connecting with them, developing the process, usually, how a referral comes through us is a social worker will always represent the persons in crisis so that there is enough policy support, there's enough structural support that can be provided to them.

And they will refer by sharing their stories of the person in crisis with us. So we are kind of like a dating agency of sorts, where we, we try to exchange these profiles between the families and the person in crisis, to see whether there's a strong suitability for connection. And if we can establish a healthy or a good relationship at the start, it's a lot easier to facility, temporary respite for these people. And I think in essence, that's what we try to do.

There is quite an elaborate structure, where we ensure that it's enough support, you know, given to everybody within the system. So we have volunteers that are set aside specifically to support and prepare families, we have volunteers that are set aside to take care of the social workers to encourage them, to have them look for alternatives if families are not suitable. And of course, we utilise social media quite a bit because we wanted Singaporeans to, to hear more of these stories and to hopefully be encouraged and emboldened to think about hospitality themselves.

And, and also in Singapore, we have something called the Kampong spirit, to look at expressions of what the 21st century version of the Kampong spirit can look like.

Reuben  12:38  

Right. So to kind of paint a picture. The government actually has this group of kind of vulnerable people who have reached out to them. And based on what you have been doing on your end, which is getting volunteers to open up their homes, you then collaborate with the government, right?

So it's kind of you're linking the homes and the volunteers, together with the government side where you have the the vulnerable people?

Kenneth  13:06  

Yes, yes, that's right. So yeah, that's right.

Reuben  13:09  

Well, what are some of the bigger issues that you tend to face? When you try and bring these two people together? Both the people in need and the people who have their homes available for for these guys?

Kenneth  13:25  

Well, I guess there are, the human imagination is quite wonderful in many ways. And as a result of that, when you think about bringing two strangers together, how the imagination unfolds can be quite scary. So of course, you have your host family side that they're concerned about, you know, you being in crisis in making decisions that might put my security or my privacy at risk. So those are certainly concerning.

And of course, not to mention, the lower level concerns of I'm afraid that you come into my house and mess up my place. Sure, or we have a different house practice and, and things like that. The converse is equally true. So if I'm a lady who has a baby, a young baby and I'm homeless, to live in a stranger's home can be quite disconcerting as well.

So there will be concerns about whether it is safe, whether the house is appropriate, you know, if you are a young mother, you know, staying on living on a futon may not necessarily be the best for you, and you of course need, you know, stuff that would enable you to care for your baby well. So these are some of the many complex components that that almost you know, causes a little bit of, you know, difficulties or tensions. When it comes to facilitating a match,

Reuben  15:02  

Right. Okay, well, speaking of people who open up their homes in this sense, or I guess, in another in another word, volunteers, how do they come to you? How do you get these volunteers to open their homes in that sense.

Kenneth  15:20  

Right. The the start of the Open Home Network was quite an accident. As always, a friend of mine who runs Homeless Hearts of Singapore, we were having a conversation about how the community is just an untapped potential resource that could, could enhance and enrich social care in such a beautiful way.

And from the excitement of our conversation, my friend decided to post on the Homeless Hearts Facebook page, for the needs of households during the COVID crisis, and within two weeks, we had 160 families signed up, which was quite beyond expectation. And, and he essentially looked at me and said, okay, you have your families, let's do it.

And that's really how we started. To be honest, it was, it was quite unexpected, because according to a study that was done by the Singapore kindness movement in 2017, with 3000 Singaporeans, they discovered that what 50% of Singaporeans polled actually have one to less, you know, saying hi to their neighbour, which means 50% of them or less, actually don't even say hi to their neighbours on a day to day basis. 70% of them, you know, have conversations one or less times a week, you know, for all of them. So we know that Singaporeans are quite shy in general. And privacy is quite important for them.

Reuben  16:59  

Very Yeah, that actually, it's quite a surprise. I mean, I grew up in an HDB. And my neighbours were nice, but there's always that kind of barrier, right? Like, you wouldn't really cross in the lift, you would kind of be like looking down the floor, looking at the the numbers of the floors going up.

And you just really try to avoid even making like, they will just be like, Hello, hi, how are you? And then you know, you look at the floor.

Kenneth  17:22  

Yeah, sometimes it can be the most awkward.

Reuben  17:25  

Yeah, lifts in Singapore, one of the most awkward things that it's it's very interesting, but why do you think we're a society that values privacy so much, and there's a little bit of a tangent, but you know, if we could just go on that tangent for for quick while.

Kenneth  17:42  

Well, this is just my opinion, but I feel like communities to maintain strong community connection takes quite a lot of effort. And it may not necessarily you the kind of results you want, because there's always a risk to be vulnerable. When I connect with my neighbours, there's no telling whether my neighbours will be good neighbours, or bad neighbours.

And, you know, being good at what we do in Singapore, we tend to strive for lower risk choices. And Singapore in general is very reliable I can live every single day in this Circuit Breaker has shown that we can stay at home all day with no issues, like finding an entity but and I can go to Netflix, in play games. If I need food, I can just you know, deliver great food all the time. So it's it's very easy to to continue to survive without necessarily having to tap on the community.

But I think if we see beyond and we are able to look at the value that a community bring, there is unspoken, an intangible value that can only come through in really either times of crisis, or times where you have you can never expect you know it to happen. So the story I often tell people is like, my wife and I moved into our home about three years ago, when we when we started we were quite quickly, you know, sucked into this idea of wanting to build the best kind of households for ourselves.

So we put in a lot of effort to the decisions we make from the dining table, we choose to the cutleries, to you know, all these different little things. And I've never made so many decisions in my life before. It came to a point where we were deciding on whether to get a can opener. And I was quite convinced that we didn't need to have a can opener now because typical house only use a can opener maybe one to two times a month. And I was like okay, when we get there, you know, we'll figure it out. Sure. Enough, I think within two weeks, you needed a can opener. So I went over to my neighbour's house being the thick-skinned person that I am.

And I say, Hey, can I borrow your can opener? It was quite awkward. They looked at me very confused and say, how come this family has no can opener. They had three. And they loaned me one. And that was how it started. It was really through just having an excuse to talk and we got to know each other over time, just really constantly boring a can opener. I got to learn about my neighbours their work, you know.

Reuben  20:35  

Right. You know, I think it's, it also stems a lot from the cultural mindset, right? I mean, growing up, you know, you're always told by your parents, that, hey, you know, don't don't speak to strangers be Be careful strangers, you know, they're gonna adopt you, they're gonna put you somewhere, you know. So maybe that kind of leads up to, you know, we growing up a little bit more sheltered. And really, there's that there isn't that need to go into the community.

And perhaps people just haven't really seen the joy of going to the community just yet. They haven't had that experience of, especially in this day and age where, you know, technology is you, as you mentioned, you know, you can go online, you can surf the web, you can play games, it's an all time high, where you can get all your entertainment online, why should I go out and and feel uncomfortable with someone else to try and break the ice, for example? So I think that's, that's a huge barrier as well, technology. Right?

Kenneth  21:33  

But then in and of itself, is that in and of itself is quite a paradox, isn't it? Because I remember growing up, loving, going, loving to visit my friends home should know sitting together, having moms, you know, pour out food over the table for us? Yeah. And even today, like when we game we, we yearn for the connection with people as well.

Reuben  22:00  

Right, so maybe it could be kind of the self conscious nature? Do you think that's that's an issue? Like, you know, you're very conscious about yourself? Yeah. Because, you know, I think our society is very, in a very intelligent society, we tend to react very quickly. In other words, very gan chiong, in a sense.

So you know, when you're speaking to someone, you can really tell that the other person is thinking maybe two minutes ahead of a conversation that the person is ready to pounce on, on any words that you say. So you're a lot more careful. And because of that, you're a lot more self conscious, which kind of contributes to that fear of going out and speaking to other people. Do you think this is affected as well?

Kenneth  22:38  

Yeah, definitely. Singa-, well, in in many of the families we've connected with, we often have to manage expectations. So when a family comes in, thinking that they're going to be a host, they get really excited, they go out trying to invest in a mattress, try to make sure they buy cups and toothbrush in everything to be the best possible host. And that's great.

But sometimes that leads to a lot of stress and a lot of tension, because the person, the guests that is coming in doesn't necessarily expect, you know, a five star service, they just really need a friend, they really need a place that's safe, that's not on the streets. And I think that mismatch of expectation can also cause a bit of the tension there. I see. So yeah, you're right. I think because of the expectation, sometimes they were worried they might not want to commit because they think that what's demanded is a lot higher than, than usual.

Reuben  23:37  

Right? I see. Well, I mean, speaking of volunteers, could you share a little bit more of what your demographics of your volunteers? Like? Are they mostly families with kids or, you know, singles? How is it like?

Kenneth  23:49  

So our youngest volunteer is probably 20 years old, and our older volunteers about 50 plus maybe even 60? Right? We utilise everybody. So of course, the older ones genuinely have a home to offer. And we get the younger ones to participate in other areas that are equally meaningful as well.

So the younger ones take charge of connecting, managing the cases, the reference that we get, they be friends. They have to understand their issues, and they help to bridge the gap for the families.

Reuben  24:25  

Very nice. How do you actually get in touch with them? So before you mentioned you had 160 volunteers right at the start, right? Has it been them reaching out to you via your social media posts? Or how do they get in touch with you.

Kenneth  24:41  

So when we started the open home network, we had to be a little bit more methodical to it. We had 160 families that signed up willing to offer their home. One of the first few things we prioritised was to raise a volunteer community managers essentially so We spend quite a bit of time just reaching out to our friends, our families, and getting people to step forward to hear about this idea. And once they start getting interested, we got them to reach out to our family.

So they they make calls and connected with their families. And it was quite, it was quite an experience because most people volunteered, but we don't know them. So we don't know whether the families are, you know, where do they come from? We don't know how we can support them. We don't know their fears. And it took time for us to build that relationship with them.

And so it's really kind of like starting up a brand new community from the beginning with using digital mediums like What's that, you know, Zoom calls, we had, over what 200 Zoom calls in three months? Yeah, and I guess that's where the volunteers are kind of, like separated that way. So we call all of them volunteers. But they have the very unique roles, a little bit like instruments in an orchestra where they still play one song or one Symphony. But the role it plays a little bit different.

Reuben  26:18  

Right, but they are all needed there. They have to come together to make the entire rhythm tick. So we I think we've explored a little bit of current of the fears, or maybe the mismatch of expectations, you know, volunteers are not to show how their their guests will be like guests are not to show what their volunteers are like, but for the volunteers who actually go through with it, who who just, you know, take the plunge and decide that, hey, you know, this is my time to give back to the community, this is my time to help these people in need. How does it impact them? What what are some of the benefits that these people are beginning to reap from this experience?

Kenneth  26:58  

I think first and foremost, they are able to see the point behind a community. One of the first few things we teach with our community is the crisis are often non discriminate, it can happen to yourself or myself. And one way to increase resilience in managing crisis is with the connections we have with people, people who had encouraged us who will be there for us. So they have a real life example of it. And of course, being a whose family they encounter. They see problems in a much more human fashion. So for instance, if you know you had it, we had a case where a 22 year old had many issues. You know, growing up, you know, coming from a broken family.

From a public perspective, there's a lot of concern because a 22 year old adult, and I expect you to behave in a certain way. And because I don't know you, personally is very easy to just say, you are going to be a threat to my community, and you're going to cause trouble for me. But as they spend time in they connect with these people, they start to humanise their issues and appreciate that they genuinely come from difficult backgrounds, and having the privilege and the chance to see another family in action gives them new hope and encouragement to know that things actually has a chance of getting better for themselves.

Reuben  28:37  

Sure, I think one of something that a lot of therapists actually talk about is your childhood, right? As a childhood, a lot of your experiences a lot of the people around you in your community, they shape your your future habits, your future fears, your future drives your future aspirations.

And I think it's it's very important for people to understand as well that adults in their 20s and 30s in their 40s they have issues as well, they they have problems that they might not really show on the surface, but deep inside its present and all this is usually a ganache from their childhood.

And it really the host can be contented in knowing that they have been able to step forward to to shape these young men and young women's lives early on, and probably even put a barrier to any potential bad fall of communism might happen in post. Yeah, definitely. Alright, so assuming that I want to volunteer my home, what is the process so I reached out to you on social media like he can have I have my home available, I kind of want to share it. How does the process happen from there?

Kenneth  29:54  

So it will begin with a series of modules that we will share with you, conversations. rather, that we will encourage you to have with your spouse or children or family members. And we will use that to help you think about your expectation as a host and how it realistically can look like for you.

Once there is enough support network, there is an application process. So we use application form as a way for us to share your story. So that there is a bridge almost for us to be able to connect you with the person in crisis. And in that application process, we also look at suitability. So we will try to match you with somebody that you'll be both suitable to support. And I think that's something that we try to be as deliberate as possible. And even though it is an administrative process, we focus a lot on the relationships, as well.

Reuben  30:55  

Very nice. And then, of course, once the we come together, I mean, my guests for the first time, and then how, how long is the duration? Like? Is it like, one year? How many months? Do they stay with us? And what happens in post after that? Do they still keep in touch?

Kenneth  31:10  

Oh, certainly. So it can be as short as three months. And as long as a year. Right? We meet, we like to take a wait and see approach. So we we will always let you know, you stay for a couple of if a match occurs. We'll follow up with the folks every every few weeks to check in to see if they're okay, if there's any issues, can we connect you with organisations that are they have professionals that can support your person in crisis.

And the matching process takes any time between two weeks and even up to six weeks. So it depends on your comfort level, if you feel like you need to beat up this person more, to get to know them a little bit more. And once once both parties consent to a match or leave, then you know we will, we will administrate the rest of the processes.

Reuben  32:06  

Very lovely. All right. So for the benefit of our listeners who, after listening to this podcast today might not be interested in opening up their homes or maybe to contribute in other avenues. Where can they go to learn more about the current movements.

Kenneth  32:25  

So for the Open Home Network, I would encourage listeners to check out our Facebook page. We post stories very regularly, stories of families were posted. And we encourage a lot of volunteerism. Right now we are in need of families.

So if you have a space and you feel like there's something you'd like to explore, sign up via our Facebook page, we often share volunteer links. We do a lot of preparation for families before the families are ready to host and we ensure that there's enough support for you.

And of course, joining our Facebook page allows you to keep stay on top of news updates, like what is the future plan for the Open Home Network? What are some things that you know, we will look at and if we have any fundraising needs, we will be announcing, you know on that page as well. So you can stay tuned there for solving data.

And we we look at projects that benefits communities directly. So we don't receive public funding. But if you are if you have a community in mining and you want to collaborate with us, you can check out our website, send us an email. And we're more than happy to look into some of these issues and to destruct your projects that we think are going to be meaningful for these communities. Awesome.

Reuben  33:51  

All right. Final question. What are the future plans for both Solve n+1 and the Open Home Network?

Kenneth  34:02  

Right now I think COVID has really put the brakes on many of our projects. Majority of source projects are overseas. So we work with one flat in Penang. I had a team leader that was stuck in North Iraq for six months. And you're working with the refugee camps there. And as a result of us not being able to travel.

We we have to innovate the way we operate. So we are exploiting some project that allows us to use digital mediums to facility so things like mentoring coaching, even some form of charitable microlending we did a refugee camps to look at projects that enhances the community as a whole and creates more sustainability for them in the long haul.

Reuben  34:58  

Awesome. Well Kenneth, I think what you're doing is really an incredible thing and you know, we can all learn a lot from you. Thank you so much for your time today.

Kenneth  35:08  

Thank you so much for having me once again.

Reuben  35:14  

This has been an episode with an incredibly selfless individual Mr. Kenneth Heng of Solve n+1. Now on behalf of our team here at Stacked out like to take the opportunity to wish him and his team of the very, very best as they continue to improve lives across Southeast Asia and beyond.

Now, if you're interested in learning a little bit more about real estate online, you can always hop on to And as always, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions, feel free to drop us an email at once again.

Thank you for joining me as always, my name is Reuben Dhanaraj, and I'll see you in the next podcast.

Kenneth  36:07  

I think food brings people together so a lot of the communities that I visit the enjoy kind of feeding me these kind of food and just watching my expressions and maybe see that I have placed it in my mouth. They instantly trust you with everything.

Reuben  36:23  

Well, there you go if you're ever in the Amazon jungle area surrounded by a tonne of tribes, you know what to do. 

Kenneth  36:29  

It's true, just eat what they what they offer.

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