I had an interesting conversation with Asian Australian WEH YEOH, who has forged an awesome career in the international charity space. This space is one where we do not speak enough about because it is not a space Asian parents would encourage their children to get into – well especially those of us with first generation migrant parents. Many of us don’t think about the charitable needs in Asia and how the space is full of awesome people but also dominated by white privilege and white supremacy. We talk a lot about Western/Australia TV/film/media and how it wreaks of white privilege and supremacy, but what about other areas which are not spoken enough on? Well, I had the opportunity to raise these issues with Weh Yeoh, founder of OIC Cambodia which aims to starting the profession of speech therapy, and then embedding it within every level of Cambodian society ( Weh Yeoh). But before we get into these serious questions, who is Weh Yeoh and what is he all about?
I’m Australian born, though my parents came from Malaysia and my great grand parents from China. Growing up in Australia, I was always aware of the immense amount of privilege I’ve had, and the sacrifice that has been made to get me here. I studied physiotherapy initially but it wasn’t until I volunteered in Vietnam, at the age of 24, that I started to understand more about the international charity space, and the problems surrounding it.
I went to Vietnam in the middle of a two year backpacking trip, and found myself volunteering in an orphanage. It was only when a typhoon came through the town, and ripped the roof off the orphanage did I realise that I had no place being there. I had no child protection check, no formal training in social work, and couldn’t speak the language.
What is awesome about Weh is how he realised that indeed as an Australian in Asia he had certain privileges others didn’t have and that is why he ensured OIC was staffed with Cambodians who understand the culture, language, society and the people. But Weh also talked about the issues of white privilege and supremacy happening within the Asian charity space and that the problematic idea of the “white saviour” is indeed alive and kicking.
There’s an underlying attitude that pervades a lot of international charity work, and that is – “well, it’s better than nothing”. It explains why I was able to walk into an orphanage in Vietnam where I couldn’t walk into an institution with children in Australia.
Similarly, when I arrived in Cambodia in 2012, I discovered that there was not one single Cambodian speech therapist, despite the fact that over half a million people needed it. Yet, there had been a lot of effort and a lot funding poured into addressing the problem. Well-meaning volunteers had flown across from the other side of the world to either provide speech therapy or train local people to do so.
When I was in Cambodia and founding OIC Cambodia, I sometimes wondered if I could be perceived as a “white saviour” myself! The white saviour complex is alive and well in countries in Asia, and it’s highly problematic, because it sets up a dynamic which is ultimately harmful to people in Asia. It creates dependency and doesn’t allow people to be in charge of their own fate. The reality is that it is the hard work of Cambodian people that drives change in countries like Cambodia.
As an Asian Australian, I guess I was more aware of the power dynamics between Asians and non-Asians, and was very keen from the beginning for OIC to have local Cambodian leadership. And so, after only 4 years of starting the organisation, I handed off leadership to Chenda Net, a Cambodian woman who is now running the charity in Cambodia. I’m now proud to say that OIC Cambodia is entirely Cambodian staffed, with the exception of the therapists who are yet to develop at university.
In the spirit of “Being Asian Australian” I asked Weh about the diversity of Asians/Asian Australians in leadership roles within the Asian charity space. We talk about the bamboo ceiling in the media, corporate sector, politics etc, but the charity/NGO space usually gets overlooked and rarely discussed.
Even in countries like Cambodia, having Cambodian leaders in international charities is by far less common than the other way around. It’s very common with particularly larger charities to see mostly Cambodian faces, except at management level. Then in Australia, in the social sector, this also a huge trend. We haven’t embraced cultural diversity as much as we have gender diversity, which of course has a long way to go in itself.
I think I would like to see more culturally diverse panels in the social sector, and more culturally diverse leaders promoted internally – as opposed to those who are founders and CEOs themselves.
Finally, what’s next with Weh, what is his next project?
OIC Cambodia is starting the profession of speech therapy, and then embedding it within every level of Cambodian society. This is so that the profession is owned and led by Cambodian people. We also do this so as a charity, we don’t perpetuate ourselves. We want to solve the problem, not address the symptoms.
Key to doing this is by having a clear exit strategy, which says we will dissolve OIC Cambodia when we have 200 Cambodian University qualified speech therapists integrated into Cambodia’s public sector by 2030.
It was really important for us to have Cambodian leadership in getting towards this goal for a number of reasons. From a moral point of view, it’s not up to us foreigners to tell Cambodians how to solve their own problems. From a pragmatic point of view, I can’t navigate the Cambodian politics and cultural space in the way a local person can.
This was proven when in 2018, the team in Cambodia signed a historic MOU with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to start the first ever course in speech therapy in Cambodia.
Finally, I’m in the midst of co-founding Umbo, which is a social enterprise that helps connect children in rural communities with allied health professionals, to perform therapy online. I was amazed when I returned to Australia to hear of families waiting up to 18 months to see local therapists, simply because of where they lived. Though we are currently working in Australia, we absolutely have plans to roll out through Asia.
It is important that we continue to highlight the awesome things Asian Australians are doing in ALL areas and it is admirable to see Weh forging ahead in South East Asia and doing so well in addition to respecting the culture, people and societies he is working in. I have always been a huge advocate for Asian Australians to create projects and forge careers in Asia and Weh has demonstrated how he has done so! Will definitely follow up with Weh on his new project!
Images provided and via Weh Yeoh Facebook page