This story is one of the six in The Peak Singapore’s Power List. The list is an annual recognition that celebrates and acknowledges individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, influence, and impact within their respective fields and the broader community.
Our theme for this year is Quiet Power, a force that brings about transformative shifts in the lives of ordinary people through strategic collaboration and concerted efforts with like-minded individuals. Quiet leaders are dedicated to creating positive and lasting change within the community, leading to fundamental and permanent shifts in how the community functions on a day-to-day basis.
The biggest and most prevalent roadblock to progress is attitudinal barriers, offered Abhimanyau Pal, CEO of SPD, a charity that has served Singapore’s disabled community since 1964. “Negative attitudes and stereotypes about persons with disabilities can make it difficult for them to be accepted and respected by others in society.”
Of the estimated 110,000 individuals with disabilities in Singapore — or about three per cent of citizens — the SPD serves more than a tenth of them. Pal assumed the leadership mantle in 2010, but has spent almost 30 years in the organisation working quietly and tirelessly to drive positive change not only within but also outside the nonprofit.
After graduating with a degree in occupational therapy, he became an acute care clinician, working with patients recovering from illnesses and injuries. But he was drawn to the work of community care professionals, with its emphasis on long-term treatment and support. So once the opportunity presented itself, he seized it and never looked back.
This was the 1990s, and while Singapore had already developed a world-class healthcare system, long-term care, including disability services, was still distinctly lacking. Pal recognised this inadequacy. With a vision to effect more impactful changes, he took on more administrative responsibilities and joined the management team of his company.
Towards an inclusive society
Today in Singapore, great strides have been made towards being an inclusive society, especially in the last two decades. Government-led initiatives like Forward Singapore are helping to spark conversation, while the Enabling Masterplan envisions a future where people with disabilities and their caregivers are integrated into society.
On the streets, public buses and MRTs are wheelchair-accessible. Public housing estates and older commercial buildings have been retrofitted to improve accessibility. Such developments have prompted the BBC to name Singapore as one of four global cities that are the most well-equipped for disabled travellers.
But challenges remain. In a recent commentary published in TODAY, blind advocate Cassandra Chiu wrote of how she was denied the opportunity to rent an office space because the building management disallowed animals — including seeing-eye dogs — from entering the premises, owing to health concerns.
A ripple effect
Such cases, while isolated, are perhaps one of the reasons why Pal feels immense affinity for the work he does. It all started back in 1996, when he joined the SPD as a Day Activity Centre (DAC) manager, providing care and skills training to the disabled. Already, he knew that vocational training was crucial in empowering such individuals. That knowledge eventually led to a collaboration with VITAL, the corporate shared service branch of the public sector.
By deploying disabled individuals to work there (under supervision of SPD staff), the individuals not only gain the experience of working in a real work environment, but they also gain financial independence. But perhaps there is an even more important upside.
“A mindset shift happens when people can see for themselves that persons with disabilities are effective and can work if the workplace is supportive,” said Pal. “The VITAL-SPD collaboration is a successful business case study, and we hope it will have a rippling effect on encouraging other organisations to adopt inclusive employment practices.”
In his 27 years at the SPD, Pal’s efforts have considerably moved the needle. In 2000, he experimented with a new system of early intervention. That evolved to become Development Support — Learning Support (DSLS), a nation-wide programme that the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has rolled out to serve children with developmental needs.
In the late 1990s, most graduating therapists were flocking to the public or acute healthcare sectors. To offer an alternative, Pal established the SPD Therapy Hub in 2005 with the aim of building a team of therapists to support community rehabilitation services. Today, more than 110 therapists work for the Hub.
In recent years, Pal’s focus has been on expanding the SPD’s services to the heartlands. To that end, he has overseen the formation of five satellite centres in Bedok, Tampines, Jurong, Toa Payoh and at the Enabling Village in Lengkok Bahru.
His latest initiative, ESH@Tampines, the first of its kind in Singapore, opened at Tampines West Community Club in August. A joint effort with SG Enable, the ESH (Enabling Services Hub) offers support and training to the disabled and their caregivers, plus communal activities such as low-impact aerobics.
Of course, his contributions to social service have not gone unnoticed. In 2016, the MSF awarded Pal and 19 other individuals the inaugural Social Service Fellowship.
But perhaps the most meaningful accolade came from his colleague Joyce Wong, director of CEO Office and director of Centralised Services, SPD. “I’ve known Mr Pal for 20 years. I was a Social Worker when he joined SPD. He is the most approachable leader I know and always takes time to talk to and listen to staff and clients. Mr Pal is everyone’s ‘pal’.”
As for what spurs him on even after 30 years in social service, Pal said: “What keeps me going is knowing that every positive action or change from my staff, volunteers, and partners has a ripple effect that has the potential to impact lives. The opportunity to be a catalyst for change and contribute to a more inclusive and compassionate society is a privilege that keeps me motivated.”
For more stories on The Peak Power List, visit here.