In the Aesop’s Fables tale of The Oak and the Reed, a powerful storm rips through the forest where both plants reside. While the oak boasts of its might and refuses to yield to the force of the wind, it eventually succumbs and snaps, leaving the slender reed the survivor. There are various interpretations of and lessons derived from this story, but its heart — the ability to bend and not break — remains the same and is often used to describe human behaviour under pressure.
William Cheah, however, is like a slingshot. Pull him back in any way and he uses that force to launch himself further ahead than his detractors would have thought possible.
“When people tell me no, and if I think what they have dismissed as too difficult or unfeasible is entirely doable, I have to prove them wrong,” he says. “I’m driven by wastage, by inefficiency, by so-called impossibles. When we started Kembara Kitchen in 2015 many people told us we wouldn’t survive. Here we are five years later.”
Truth be told, this year would have been the end of Team Kembara as we know it but for a series of unexpected events. Cheah and partner YiLyn Chan founded Kembara Kitchen and sister entity Kembara Community Care Centre (K3C) in 2017 to offer aid in the form of cooked food and emergency supplies respectively. They had sold the organisation to an interested party in early March but the buyer subsequently suffered a stroke. The couple agreed to reverse the sale — a fortuitous decision as the Movement Control Order (MCO) came into effect a couple of weeks later. Requests for aid poured in from around the country as a nation buckled under the socioeconomic pressures of the global pandemic and the ensuing movement restrictions.
Marginalised communities, animal shelters and even the national zoo were desperate for resources to see them through the tough weeks. Among the frenzy of efforts by government agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and corporate and individual donors was that of Team Kembara, cooking food at Kembara Kitchen to feed the hungry and packing literally tonnes of essential supplies for distribution. The effort could have been cause for chaos, but the core team — comprising the co-founders and two full-time staff — and its hundred-strong army of volunteers are no strangers to unusual circumstances.
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