... says founder of Willing Hearts who recently received the Magsaysay award

Mr Tony Tay receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award from Philippine vice president Leni Robredo at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in Manila on Aug 31. Photo: RAMON MAGSAYSAY AWARD FOUNDATION 

By Jared Ng

When he first received phone calls telling him he was one of the winners of the Philippines’ Ramon Magsaysay Award, Mr Tony Tay thought it was a “scam”.

Mr Tay, 70, founder of the charity organisation Willing Hearts, recalled that he hung up the phone when he received calls from what he later found out was the award committee.

He was convinced only when he received official documents about the award.

The award is Asia’s highest honour and is often regarded as the region’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

In electing Mr Tay to receive the award, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation cited his “abiding dedication to a simple act of kindness – sharing food with others – and his inspiring influence in enlarging this simple kindness into a collective, inclusive, vibrant volunteer movement.”

Mr Tay, seen here wearing a hairnet for food preparation, said he started Willing Hearts because of a desire to serve the poor and needy.

Willing Hearts, founded in 2003 and located at Kembangan Chai Chee Community Hub, has a soup kitchen run by about six staff and 300 volunteers a day. It prepares, cooks and distributes meals to the poor and needy seven days a week.

Mr Tay is the third Singaporean to win the award after pioneer ministers Lim Kim San and Goh Keng Swee in 1965 and 1972 respectively.

Mr Tay said that he was encouraged by his volunteers and staff to “go on behalf of Willing Hearts” to the award ceremony at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in Manila on Aug 31.

“The award for me recognises the effort of the volunteers,” said Mr Tay, who received a US$30,000 (S$40,000) cash prize, a certificate and a medallion.

Mr Tay working in the Willing Hearts soup kitchen located at Kembangan Chai Chee Community Hub.

Mr Tay, a parishioner of the Church of St Michael, said he lives out his faith through serving the less fortunate.

“I believe in action, and I feel my faith grows through my actions,” he said, adding that he thanks God “for always watching over him.”

When asked whether he worries about not having enough food supplies to prepare for beneficiaries, Mr Tay told Catholic News that he also “believes in providence.”

Willing Hearts relies on donors for its food supplies.

He shared an experience one day when he was planning to buy rice because there was not enough to go around.

That morning before he left home, a woman came and donated “bags worth” of rice.

Mr Tay also highlighted the important role that the organisation’s “family of volunteers” play and said that “what we do everyday would not be possible without their energy, strength and support.”

“They can be from any religion, race or background. Here we don’t judge,” said Mr Tay.

Volunteers help to pack food for beneficiaries.

Abandoned by their father, Mr Tay and his three sisters were raised by their mother.

From the age of five to 10, he stayed at a Church-run home.

He took on odd jobs when he was 12 and later worked in a printing company.

What made him decide to start Willing Hearts was a desire to serve the poor and less fortunate and also unite a community through food.

“The easiest way of uniting people is food and talking,” Mr Tay said with a smile.

He arrives at his soup kitchen at about 4.30 am to begin cooking with volunteers. Packing and deliveries start at about 7 am and end by 2 pm. After that, Mr Tay and the volunteers collect food donations and prepare for the next day’s food deliveries.

He shared that he usually reaches home around 6 pm.

Today, Willing Hearts serves about 6,000 beneficiaries. These include the elderly, people with disabilities, the homeless and jobless.

The organisation’s eight vehicles travel to about 50 locations a day to distribute the packed meals.

The charity also provides dental, spectacle and TCM services on selected days, said Mr Tay.

On what has kept him going, Mr Tay said, “I keep going because the poor keep coming. I enjoy what I do and in life that is important.”

Nevertheless, he shared that he plans to step down from Willing Hearts at the end of this year but will continue to serve as a volunteer. 

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