Singapore's Tony Tay: More than a decade of food giving and volunteerism


MANILA, Philippines – For the last 14 years, Tony Tay has been living life a day at a time.

This is how he sustained a movement in Singapore that grew from 11 volunteers in 2003 to some 300 volunteers at present. They have one vision: to provide the underprivileged and marginalized with hot, packed meals every day – even during Christmas and New Year. 

Tay is the founder of Willing Hearts, described as a secular, non-affiliated charity that operates a soup kitchen where volunteers prepare and cook thousands of daily meals to be distributed to over 40 locations in Singapore.

This everyday act of feeding the hungry has earned Tay the prestigious Ramon Magysasay Award – considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize – which he happily shares with his hundreds of volunteers back home.

"Our volunteers will be very, very happy, and they are recognized not only back home but also in Southeast Asia. We feel that they will be happier, and they will come more often [to volunteer]," Tay told Rappler in an interview.

There's a personal story behind Willing Hearts. After his mother's death, Tay started collecting bread and vegetables and bringing these to the Canossian convent, as inspired by his mother's own charity work with the Canossian Sisters.

"One day, my wife asked one of the needy, 'Why you don't take...the vegetable, you only take bread?' He said, 'I don't cook.' So my wife said, 'Can I bring you a meal?'" Tay said.

"And then my wife brought two meals. [Another] one saw it, so he asked, 'Can you give one meal to him?' And then people asked more, and then they keep on going."

From 300 daily meals when it started, Willing Hearts now serves about 6,000 daily meals to those in need: neglected and abandoned elderly, persons with disabilities, the sick, children of single parents, low-income families, and migrant workers.

'Food unites people'

"When I see the hungry people, I reflect back on my life.... I was deprived of food," said Tay, who was born to poverty. The charity has been operating daily for the last 14 years, even during Christmas and New Year, when a lot of places and organizations are closed.

But more than a basic need, food is a means to unite people, Tay says.

"Food keeps families together, and it gives strength, it gives energy, and without food, it will be a big problem. So food comes to unite people because when you bring the food, you see the people together, you unite them," he said.

If there's food, Tay added, people can concentrate on what they want to do in life instead of worrying about what to eat next.

"Food is the most important thing. Without food I don't think [anybody] can live," he said.

Tay said about 200 volunteers of Willing Hearts distribute food on the ground, while the rest are cooks and drivers, who volunteer to deliver food packs, as well as parents who bring their children to the center every day.

"That is why we run this organization, to make sure that children understand that when they come to serve in Willing Hearts, they will understand how hard their mother works," he said, sharing one of the many lessons learned through volunteer work.

The way the volunteers work also reflects Tay's personal approach to helping others through food.

"We don't tell them what they're gonna do. Just come like you are going to your mother-in-law's house, or your father-in-law's house, or your boyfriend's house, or your girlfriend's house. Just go there, see what you can do," he added.

'God's will'

Tay said nothing much has changed at Willing Hearts in the last decade, except that, now, they have more volunteers serving, and they have more meals to distribute.

"Our vision is very simple: God's vision. What He decides, we do. We can plan, we can look for ways, we will do this, we will do that. [But] planning without His help, you can't plan. You can put everything in writing, you can buy all the food, but one morning, something happens…so leave it to Him. One day at a time," he said.

He also advises people to "live day to day" if they want to start volunteer work that involves food-giving.

"Are [you] willing to serve? Now, are [you] willing to sacrifice? And before [you] do it, is your partner ready to follow you? If not, then you will do a hard way. You cannot do it alone…. There will be hard time, there's good time, there's happy time, there will be sad time. You must live day to day. Don't worry about tomorrow. Then you'll be able to start," Tay said.

It's this "quiet, abiding dedication" that the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation recognizes in Tay as they bestow him the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award. He joins two other Singaporeans in the roster of Ramon Magsaysay awardees since 1958.

When asked until when he sees himself doing what he does, Tay said: "How long more can I do? I don't know. When I will stop, I don't know. It's God's will. He decides our life." –

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.