It’s barely 8AM and Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal is already swarming with people. We’re there to catch the second earliest boat to Sekupang, Batam, where we’ll be visiting a community house in the slums called Noah’s Ark.
The youth director of Emmanuel AOG, who recently sang with S.H.E’s Hebe Tien on China’s Come Sing With Me, is no stranger to social media influence – he often speaks in various church circles and leads the FOPx worship team.
Isaac also happens to have bought the community house – which he refers to as an eco-learning shelter for the children who live in the slum – as part of his humanitarian work through Colours Global, a company he set up at just 23 years of age.
“I was in Batam with Habitat for Humanity, and one day when we were driving around we passed by all these schools that were not painted, and I thought to myself, it’ll be so easy to paint them – I could do that!” he tells this story with trademark candour.
“And I felt God speak to me then from The Message version of Matthew 5:14, that I was going to start a company to bring out the God-colours in the world.
“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.” (Matthew 5:14)
“The second thing He told me was: ‘You’re going to buy a house’ – which I definitely didn’t have money for!
“So I asked for a sign if any of this was really from Him, and when I got into a cab on the way home a few days later, the song on the radio was ‘True Colours’! And that’s how I started Colours Global.”
Although there was no sign of “the house” for the next 5 years, Isaac wasted no time furthering his love for helping the less fortunate, partnering organisations such as the Singapore Girls’ Home and a non-profit in Batam that serves the children in over 40 slums.
From the outside, Isaac, who turns 30 this year, is easily a wonder boy of sorts with an unattainable track record for the regular Singaporean. But this assumption is quickly fading just an hour into our trip.
“When I say we, I often mean me!” Isaac confesses with a laugh when I ask him who’s the ‘we’ he keeps referring to with regards to all the work he’s been involved with.
“I went on a mission trip to the borders of Thailand and Myanmar at 17 years old and that’s where my eyes were opened and my love for the poor started.”
And it’s been one person’s show of love and kindness ever since. Mission trips across the poorest parts of Asia in between school terms, self-funded social movements to care for the marginalised in Singapore … Nothing extravagant – just simple acts of seeing beyond oneself.
When we arrive at the port, he suddenly slips out of sight and returns with Rotiboy buns for all of us.
That’s where I realise that Colours Global is Isaac Ong.
Just one boy who’s made caring his career, be it caring for those in the media space where he’s also called to, caring for the hundreds of young people under his care in church, or caring for the child who runs up to him in a slum.
The good news is: Anybody can care. And for Singaporeans, all it might take is a 45-minute ferry ride.
“Noah’s Ark is just a small part of a bigger project to bring education to the slum children in Batam,” Isaac explains as we travel to the slum district. “The organisation Colours Global partners with has efforts in over 40 slums, where volunteer teachers get on bikes and ride into these villages to give tuition to the kids there.
“Most of the children who are born in these conditions don’t usually go to school – their parents expect them to help support the family. So they’ll grow up fishing, farming … But in more dire circumstances it’ll be illegal activities such as prostitution.”
It was 2 years ago, during one of his trips to Batam that Isaac was invited to view a slum house that his friends from the partner organisation were interested in buying.
“They didn’t know what God had told me about buying a house 5 years before that,” he recounts. “And they weren’t trying to get me to invest in it either, because they knew I barely had any money!”
Buying the house would have given them space to set up a permanent learning space in that slum, where children from that community and neighbouring ones could gather daily for enrichment lessons.
But for Isaac, this stirred something in him from the first time God had spoken about Colours Global: “You’re going to buy a house.”
The slum house, barely the size of a studio apartment, cost about SGD$3,500. That would mean sacrificing a majority of Colours Global’s funds – that is, Isaac’s main livelihood.
“But I knew in my heart that it was the house,” Isaac says, conviction in his voice. “So when I got back to Singapore I immediately called them to say I was going to write a cheque to buy it – because if I took any longer, I might’ve changed my mind!”
So at the age of 28, just as God had said, Isaac Ong bought a house.
The moment we arrive at Noah’s Ark, the children start to trickle in. It’s Saturday morning, so there aren’t any programmes on, but they’re clearly used to gathering there with Rudy, one of the two Bible school students who lives there to serve the community full-time.
“We call it Noah’s Ark because it’s the last house on the edge of the slum that’s by the water,” Isaac shares as we toured the little house that had been thoughtfully painted with animals walking two-by-two.
“It’s also a place where the children can find refuge when they are in trouble.”
Setting up Noah’s Ark is just a start on taking the education initiative in the slums to the next level. Since late last year, Isaac has been assembling teams from Singapore to come over to Batam to hold 2-3 hour children’s programmes – also called Noah’s Ark – at the 40 other villages.
“It’s like a travelling circus where the kids can come down and learn music, drama, arts and craft, play games, which exposes them to English and math … And the parents get to see how their children respond to learning.”
“Many used to be quite unwilling to send their children to school, so in turn the children think that school is boring and go out to work instead.
“But with this Noah’s Ark programme that we bring into their community, the children have so much fun and when their parents see that, they realise that education is important and good for their kids.”
That’s how he hopes to be part of a larger move of God to save these children off the streets, and one day out of the slums – into a greater hope and future.
It’s an invitation open to all Singaporeans, Isaac tells us. And as usual, he’s keeping it simple: Follow him on Instagram (@isaacong) and he’ll be posting details on participating in the Noah’s Ark tour very soon.
“What’s one ferry ticket and 45 minutes to come to Batam, right?”
As we say goodbye, the children take our hands in theirs, placing the back of our hands on their foreheads as a sign of respect.
Moved by all that I’ve heard from him today, I find myself returning the action, which startles the little girl who’s greeting me. “This is usually done to someone senior,” Rudy explains. Someone of a higher status. But that’s not who I am, or what I want to be seen as: In God’s Kingdom, I am no higher than anyone.
And this is the spirit Isaac walks in, whether he’s on stage or in the slums, which makes him the true voice of a generation: He’s always serving, always loving.
Always bringing out the God-colours in the world.