Social entrepreneur and corporate finance manager Rebekah Yeoh is passionate about moulding a sustainable future for less fortunate children. Emmilyn Yeoh discovers her philanthropic routine. Photographed by Soon Lau.
With a jam-packed work itinerary—Vietnam to Zurich, Gstaad to Paris—Rebekah Yeoh is quite the seasoned world traveller. In spite of her busy schedule, the young social entrepreneur still finds time to shoot with BAZAAR at The Majestic Malacca early on a Sunday morning, bringing along a fragment of her gorgeous wardrobe, and the most unexpected companion: boxes of Nanoblocks in shapes of landmarks and anime characters.
“I’m obsessed with building these micro buildings at the moment,” she explains as she fishes out a miniature Big Ben. “Don’t let their small appearances fool you. It requires concentration and a couple of weeks to master the art of careful execution, and it fits right into your palm.” Rebekah’s meticulous nature comes as no surprise, as she is number 16 in the third-generation line-up of the eminent Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay family line. Following in the footsteps of her siblings and cousins by working as a corporate finance manager at YTL Corporation Berhad, Rebekah differs a little from them by venturing beyond the family business to pursue philanthropic work in her spare time. Her knack for building relationships have resulted in the birth of charitable organisations including Nimble Fingers Cambodia and Recyclothes, which she founded two years ago. A steely woman of resolve, Rebekah has proven that there can never be too many hats a person can wear.
Dividing her timetable between her day job at YTL Corporation Berhad and her other charitable units, as well as actively contributing support to Dignity for Children Foundation and the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community, Rebekah is also truly committed to her passion of travelling, and has called it her guilty pleasure. “When my siblings and I were younger, my parents used to bring us to the best musicals, like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Bombay Dreams,” she recalls. “These musicals used to make me googly-eyed. The grandeur of the set designs, burning passion from the cast, mesmerising music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and AR Rahman spiked my curiosity. It was almost like opening my mind and entering another world.”
Rebekah is equally adventurous and curious when it comes to dining experiences. As a true nomad, restaurant hopping is one of her favourite hobbies while abroad. “Getting a sense of what the true locals enjoy is extremely important to me. The mission is to strike up a friendly conversation with the locals, and find out where they would bring their families to dinner. That’s the true essence of what the local community enjoys, and I want to integrate myself into that wherever I go!” she muses. So what was the most absurd edible experience she’s had? “Spiders in Cambodia,” she answers, attempting to keep a straight face, before bursting into fits of giggles.
Rebekah’s bubbly personality makes it easy to be around her, but one wonders what is it like to be under close scrutiny of the public all the time? “No pressure at all, really!” Rebekah jokes before adding, “Funnily enough, since the age of 13, I always knew that I wanted to join the corporate finance force in the family business. I read numbers better than words.”
That’s not a problem at all in this digital era of fintech, blockchains, and tech start-ups. “Working with so many different industries and jurisdictions in the company has given me a wholesome and holistic learning experience that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else,” she muses.
Blessed with this strong foundation of family values, Rebekah honed her leadership skills in no time and elevated her belief in collective community work. In 2015, she started Nimble Fingers, a sustainable empowerment programme to help children develop talent and entrepreneurial drive in Cambodia; and more recently, Recyclothes, an online boutique that embraces sustainable fashion, with 90 percent of its proceeds channelled towards helping other charities in Malaysia. “I love fashion, and I was affected when I looked at how much waste is generated from fast fashion. Recyclothes is encouraging people to take a step back, and consider the future of fashion by changing their mindset. I always believe in moving towards the future, and sustainable fashion is trending. We need more people to be part of this revolution,” she stresses.
Using a mere 10 percent of the profits to sustain its online operations, Rebekah and three other co-founders are super hands-on, handling everything from curating the items online to the dissemination of the proceeds. “This project is a personal passion of ours, and we made a decision to ride the digital wave. The next big things are made possible by taking small steps, right?” she enthused.
With high hopes that the act of integrating charity into businesses will one day be a norm in Malaysia, Rebekah is continuously inspired by other movers and shakers who are bringing change in their respective countries. “I am inspired by Zambrero, an Australian restaurant/social enterprise that donates meals to the developing world through its distribution partner, Stop Hunger Now.” she says. Closer to home, Rebekah feels the need to raise greater awareness of social-help programmes such as Project B at Sentul, a modern eatery founded by The Big Group and the Berjaya Cares Foundation. Aimed to help children break the cycle of poverty, this food and beverage initiative by Dignity For Children is staffed with teenagers from underprivileged families and only two adults.
A walk on the historic grounds of The Majestic Malacca mansion continues as we have our tête-à-tête with Rebekah, where she also shows us her prized possession: a vintage Lomography camera. “Film photography is one of my hobbies. I’m a big fan of documenting memories. Lomo cameras are great for sunny holidays where the sun imposes light leaks on your film so you get these beautiful saturated, vintage-looking photos when you print them,” she shares. “With disposable and lomo cameras, people tend to be more candid and silly with their poses, it really captures the art of being present, at this place, right now. Everything becomes less curated and more real. It truly is an example of living in the moment!”
We end the tour at the beautiful dining room to appreciate its distinctive Peranakan ceramics before Rebekah takes a seat at the grand piano to play a quick tune—a treat for our ears, that’s for sure. In the spirit of the atmospheric moment, Rebekah fondly adds, “My grandfather had a strong penchant for buying heritage buildings and restoring them to their glory. 53 years on, we still seek to pay tribute to all these places that has played an important role in shaping our culture.”
So, where is life taking this young, zealous socialpreneur to next? “A run, of course!” Rebekah muses. “You know that feeling after a workout, when your heart is beating out of your chest and you’re trying to catch your breath? It’s just so cathartic. After that, it’s straight into PJs, with a bag of Calbee’s Jaga Pokkuru potato chips in one hand, almond-milk-soaked Cinnamon Toast Crunch in another, and Modern Family playing in the background. This is my little secret to staying sane!” she laughs. And with that, Rebekah runs off into the unknown …