For Joni Ong, chairperson of the Methodist Schools’ Foundation (MSF), the circuit breaker was a blessing. Three of her five adult children live at home, and Joni was thankful for the increased opportunities for close interactions over meals and experimenting in the kitchen. They tried new recipes and cooked together, and even volunteered as a family at Willing Hearts, packing food for the homeless, elderly and needy.
Joni has always known that motherhood would be her calling. When she was 29 years old, conception difficulties led her and her husband, Kian Min, to assisted reproduction procedures with the blessing of their then-pastor, the Rev Dr Isaac Lim, of Wesley Methodist Church (MC), which they still attend. Through in-vitro fertilisation, identical twins Kristi and Kathi were gifts that God blessed them with. Elisabeth, Emmeliene and Jonathan, naturally conceived, followed soon after. She became a mother of five within six years! Her children are now 30, 29, 27 and 24.
“It was a lot of fun!” Joni laughs, recollecting her tiring early days of parenthood. “It was hard work, but they looked after each other, played with each other, and didn’t need mummy all the time. I did spend much time and effort with the first two—the rest learnt from their sisters, and ended up taking care of each other!”
Joni’s love for children led to her to spearhead I Love Children (ILC), a movement of the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (now known as the Ministry of Social and Family Development) to advocate for parenthood. Besides her volunteer work with ILC and MSF, Joni serves as the chairperson of the board of management of Fairfield Methodist Schools and the vice-chairperson of the Films Appeal Committee (FAC). As if she is not busy enough, she was recently sworn in as a Justice of the Peace!
In her day job, Joni is the managing director of Great Place to Work Institute, a culture transformation consulting organisation. She also owns and manages the Michelin-starred Shinji at Carlton Hotel and St Regis, and Oshino at Raffles Hotel.
No matter where God has placed her, Joni believes that for each of her secular roles, she serves a purpose. Thus, she does her best to live out her values as a worker, a mother and a Christian. “Many years ago,” she recalls, “there was a sermon series at Wesley MC called ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ that really resonates with me. Within my sphere of influence, I have made decisions and lived my life always asking that WWJD question. My prayer has always been that I do not shame my God and that others may see glimpses of Jesus in me.”
Despite her many responsibilities, which she took on to give back to the community, Joni has so far been able to avoid burnout. “We have a choice as to what we want to take up and what we want to let go,” she explains. “[All my roles and responsibilities] have their season.” She attributes her ability to juggle work, community and family to the many angels that God sends her way; parents-in-law and siblings who helped raise her children, capable colleagues who lessen her workload and wonderful friends who continue to make her laugh and love life. But most of all, Joni admits that she wouldn’t have been able to do what she does if not for her supportive husband of 33 years. “I thank God for His gift of Kian Min to me – my cheerleader, the ‘wind beneath my wings’ and my best friend!”
Her philosophy behind raising her children, all of whom attended Methodist schools, was to be firm and loving: “There are certain things that are non-negotiable, but others that are not, even when they are young.” For example, when her children were teenagers, she decided that their attire, not all of which met her approval, was negotiable. But other things, such as going to church on Sunday whether they wanted to or not, were non-negotiable. Even today, her family still worships together. “And when church doors reopen,” Joni says hopefully, “we will still go to church together.”
As Joni points out, “You have to live out the values you want to pass to your children, such as going to church, working hard, using your talents, giving back to society—they will imbibe your values in action, and hopefully live them out in their own lives.”
Encouraging Singaporeans to have more children is Joni’s passion. She asserts: “I believe that children bring a lot of joy to our lives. We [at ILC] are very cognisant that having children is a very personal decision.” While Singapore’s total fertility rate is falling, studies have shown that for every 10 married couples, eight want children. However, with couples getting married later, more will face age-related fertility issues. Fertility treatment could also be an added financial burden. That is why she encourages couples to start families at a younger age and hopes to cancel the myth that having children in Singapore is too expensive.
But aren’t children costly to raise? “Children don’t know or care if you’re giving them a Prada shirt or a $5 shirt from the market. When my twins were born, my friends and family members gave me lots of hand-me-down clothes, and they were passed from one child to the next. What your children want are your time and your love, not material things,” she advises.
Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message. / Photos courtesy of Joni Ong.