It Changed My Life: She gives up high-flying career and five-figure salary to pursue mindfulness

In a four-part series brought to you by AXA, Insight features people who rewrite the rules. In this second instalment, meet charity founder Angie Chew, who helps others lead more meaningful lives.

When Ms Angie Chew suffered breathing difficulties about 10 years ago, she thought she had lung cancer.

"My chest was always tight and painful, and I found it difficult to breathe for days on end," she recalls.

Worried, she got her chest X-rayed and even went for an electrocardiogram.

There was, however, nothing wrong with her lungs or heart. A doctor later told her she was suffering from anxiety attacks.

The preceding couple of years had been rough.

Caring for a mother who had dementia, and later coping with her death, took a big toll emotionally. Her marriage collapsed. Years of emotional bullying and work stress brought on by difficult bosses made matters worse.

"Many PMETs suffer in silence," the 55-year-old says, referring to professionals, managers, executives and technicians. "Because I was high-functioning, people didn't know I was depressed."

Her instincts kicked in after her diagnosis. Instead of relying on medication, she turned to mindfulness to get out of her funk.

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Techniques to train the mind and strengthen the brain to focus in this manner include breath awareness and movement exercises.

When she recovered, she took stock of her life. "Instead of condemning the darkness, why not light a candle?" she says.

In 2012, she set up Brahm Centre, a secular outfit where people can go for health education as well as emotional and mental support.

A couple of years later, she gave up her $20,000 monthly salary and took a 60 per cent pay cut to grow the charity. Today, there are three Brahm Centres, in Novena, Simei and MacPherson. A new 8,000 sq ft centre is scheduled to open in Tampines in December.

From just three in the first year, it now employs 36 staff. The centre has also expanded its range of services to include helping, befriending, counselling and providing dementia screenings for the elderly who are frail and lonely.

Besides grants and donations, the centre also conducts mindfulness courses for companies as well as agencies such as SingHealth, the Institute of Mental Health and the Ministry of Health.

"Many clinicians also refer their patients to us for mindfulness as the skill helps them to be much more aware of their emotions and thoughts, taking more responsibility for their physical and mental health, thus resulting in more effective treatments subsequently."

The mother of two children in their early 20s, Ms Chew speaks well with a calm, soothing voice. Although petite, she is more than capable of taking care of herself: She is a two-dan karate black-belter.

Her late father is Chew Choo Soot, a grand master who founded Karate Budokan International in Malaysia and turned it into a worldwide organisation.

Ms Chew, the youngest of four children, started karate training when she was five, and used to accompany him when he travelled the world to conduct training and grading for exponents.

She remembers conducting a karate training session for 300 men when she was 15 in Tiruchi in India. "With just one command, I moved 300 men," she recalls with a laugh.

The exposure was tremendous.

"Dad never said, 'You're a girl. You can't do this or that'," says Ms Chew. "He taught me independence. My mother never worked a single day in her life and was totally dependent on him, and I told myself that unlike her, I must be financially independent."

Upon completing the Malaysian equivalent of the O levels in 1981, she left her home in Petaling Jaya in Selangor for the University of Iowa to do a pre-medicine programme.

Her plans for medical school flew out the window when she signed up for a computer science module and found it exciting.

"I guess most of my life is accidental," says Ms Chew, who taught karate to earn credits and worked at several part-time jobs to help finance her degree.

After graduating, she married a Singaporean student. Halfway through her master's in computer science in 1986, she returned with him to Singapore when they landed a contract to build a computer system to process claims and policies for an insurance company.

They then started a successful software consulting company, Cognitive Design Systems; their clients included Citibank and Standard Chartered.

The marriage did not work out, but the couple remained friends and continued working together until they sold their business to the EDS Group in the early 1990s.

She then worked at some of the world's best-known organisations, including Accenture, Visa International, Singapore Airlines and Hewlett-Packard.

Climbing the corporate ladder and raising two children from a new marriage did not stop her from doing volunteer work.

Many Sundays were spent at Toa Payoh Girls' Home, where she counselled young girls from tumultuous backgrounds. "I would also go to the Tai Pei Old People's Home, where I adopted my own elderly folks who didn't get many visits. I'd cut their nails and we'd talk about the same things every week. I didn't know about dementia then."

Life hummed along until her mother - who was living with her - was diagnosed with dementia in the late 2000s.

The sickness changed her mother's personality. "She was quite hurtful in her words and lost all her friends. Nobody knew at that time it was a disease in her brain."

Ms Chew put her mother in a home but was riddled with so much guilt she took her home not long after and cared for her until she died a year later in 2011.

By then, her second marriage had collapsed and things were unravelling around her.

Setting up Brahm Centre with $20,000 that she raised was her way of rewriting her life and how it should be lived.

"Looking after my mother made me realise how we often relied on other people to create happiness. We have to be responsible for our own happiness," she says.

Although she was making $1,000 a day as a computer professional, she decided to fully devote her time to Brahm Centre after she met a 37-year-old woman whose cancer had relapsed.

 

"Before she died, I helped her and her parents to reconcile and forgive each other. I helped the parents accept that their daughter was going to die. The daughter wanted forgiveness from them for not being around in their old age and for not doing enough for them."

It was a turning point, she says.

"What if one day I was told that I would not have much time left? What would I regret most? And I decided it was not committing enough to the charity I founded," says Ms Chew, who qualified as a University of Massachusetts Medical School mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher in 2017.

Besides conducting courses for corporations, she also teaches a graded module on mindfulness for students at the National University of Singapore. She donates her fees for the oversubscribed course to the charity.

The Brahm Centre will be spearheading this year's Singapore Mindfulness Conference in August. It is expected to attract 1,000 participants.

What Ms Chew does now involves long hours, even during weekends, but she is happy.

"I could use my energy, passion and time to make a lot more money. But contentment is not defined by how much you earn. It's more important to spend time doing things which are meaningful."

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