As Junie Foo, Group Executive Director at Methodist Welfare Services is getting her hair and make-up done in her office at Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) for our photo shoot one afternoon, she gets several visits from her staff walking past her open door and stopping to make excited conversation about how glamorous she looks. She asks for their opinions on her make-up and laughs in amusement when they snap photos of her. “Yeah I’m not the fierce boss,” she says with a smile. “I think gentleness is strength. You don’t have to be aggressive and you don’t have to bang tables.”
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In a country as developed as ours, we find it hard to imagine a family struggling to pay for basic necessities like 3 square meals, school fees, medical care, or even rental for the roof over their heads. For some households, that is their reality, and it will take multiple generations for their family to break out of poverty, if at all. Click on the link in our bio to find out more.
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It’s clear her strength also comes in other forms. Before she took on the role of group executive director at MWS less than two years ago, she had a prolific 28-year career in banking holding several senior management positions at international financial institutions. Most recently, she was head of corporate banking and head of global subsidiary banking of Asia Oceania at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd (now known as MUFG Bank), where she was the first woman and non-Japanese in management of the corporate banking division. Then in 2018, she took a leap of faith and left it all behind without a plan.
“It was a God-led calling for me,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to help people in any way that I can, and I just knew I wanted to do something more socially impactful.”
As she tried to find her calling, she received many attractive offers from banks, private institutions and even a friend who wanted to set up a trust fund together. Of these opportunities, she found the most meaning in the position at MWS. The charity organisation has 20 centres and programmes all over Singapore that serve disadvantaged seniors, families and youth. They include two nursing homes, a welfare home, as well as a Girls’ Residence providing rehabilitation for girls aged 15 to 21.
Wearing their shoes
To better learn and understand this new landscape, she spent a lot of time visiting the MWS beneficiaries at the various centres – something she still does regularly. “I follow my home care nurses to visit the elderly living in rental flats, and I get to observe how the nurses take care of them, like packing the medication for these old folks and bathing them,” she says. “On Sundays, I also take a busload of 20 to 30 destitute out to eat KFC. They love it!”
Being on the ground with the disadvantaged gives Junie a deeper understanding of their struggles, which has led to her championing holistic poverty alleviation at MWS. “Poverty is not only just about financial poverty, but also poverty in terms of relationships, social isolation and health. We want to bring to light that the disadvantaged are often just as aspirational and as hardworking as any one of us. They just haven’t been given a break in life.”
To tackle this, MWS has launched a few initiatives and programmes – some of which address the emotional and psychological needs of beneficiaries. One of these is the MWS Family Support Programme, which is an upstream programme designed to support parents struggling with pre-teens and teens.
“We work with schools to try to identify parents who are not able to cope with parenting before the families become really distressed,” she says, explaining that the aim is to avoid cases of child abuse and the like. “We teach them parenting skills from the outset. It’s positive parenting so they will know what to do in certain situations and have somebody they can turn to.”
No one left behind
Reflecting on her journey so far, Junie adds: “Unlike in a bank, my decisions now are not about making profits but about helping people. It’s about how many more people we can help and that’s nice.”
Within MWS, Junie started an organisational learning and development initiative to create career pathways for her staff. The organisation provides opportunities for sponsorships when employees want to further their studies in their chosen field. “I notice a lot of young people also want to help people so we want to help them progress and grow here by supporting them if they, for example, want to get a diploma in social work,” she says.
In addition to her day job, Junie has long been a gender equality advocate who is particularly passionate about impacting the lives of women at both ends of the spectrum – from the highly capable executives to women who cannot fend for themselves.
As the founding chair of BoardAgender, an initiative working towards gender diversity in the workplace and having more women in leadership positions and on boards, she is working towards the target of “20 by 2020”: Having 20 per cent female directors on boards by the end of 2020. She is also the first vice-president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations where she is on the board of Star Shelter, a refuge for women who are victims of family violence.
“When people ask what business I’m in, I’m really in the business of building people,” she says. “When you empower someone, you are blessed and through this you become all the more powerful.”
Photography Micky Wong
Art direction Audrey Chan
Hair & makeup Benedict Choo