Simone Heng has grown up in Australia, studied in Switzerland, and worked in Dubai, but her life journey has circled right back to her country of origin – Singapore. She explains the sheer joy of earning her Singaporean permanent residency (PR), how it granted her a sense of belonging, and why human connection is so precious in the post-pandemic age.
17 Jan 2022 / By SGN
Simone is used to being gazed upon as an outsider.
Because of her accent, most Singaporeans think of her as Australian. Because of her looks, most Australians think of her as Asian.
The truth is that her roots are as Singaporean as they come, a reflection of the country’s complex multiculturalism. Through a DNA test, she found her heritage to be a colourful cocktail of ethnicities, including all of Singapore’s major races: 44% Chinese, 14% Vietnamese, 9% French, 8% Thai, 6% Malay, 5% Telugu, 5% Punjabi, 3% Dai, 1% Bengali, and 1% Cambodian.
With an identity that is difficult for others to pinpoint, it’s no wonder that she has faced teasing, exclusion and xenophobia in many parts of the world, even in places she is meant to call home – setting her on a constant search for a true sense of belonging.
Never fully embraced
Born to Singaporean parents – her Chinese father ran a newsagent’s and her Eurasian mother used to be a teacher – Simone was three when the family decided to migrate to Perth to join relatives on her mother’s side.
Looking back, Simone says her childhood in Australia shaped who she is today. A holistic education encouraged her strong opinions and fostered a love of the arts; growing up among Greek, Chinese Malaysian and Indian Singaporean families taught her empathy and the ability to culturally code-switch.
Yet she never felt that she was fully embraced or that she truly belonged. Like other migrant children of the Asian diaspora, she experienced a lingering sense of alienation in her adopted country.
“We lived quite a Singaporean life,” she muses. “I don’t recall ever doing Aussie things like going to football games or camping.” Instead, she spent Saturdays at Chinese class and was brought up to imbibe the strong work ethic of her father, who toiled seven days a week for nearly 20 years at his shop to provide his daughters with a good education.
Experiencing the world
After university, Simone set out to explore the world. With $500 to her name, she moved to Singapore and worked at HBO Asia for a couple of years, before she was poached by Virgin Radio Dubai.
The work at Virgin was creatively fulfilling. Simone enjoyed connecting to a global audience, and she was part of the team behind the World’s Tallest Radio Broadcast at the top of the Burj Khalifa. Life in the city brought her much joy, but it all came to an end after five good years.
“In 2013, my mother had a terrible stroke that landed her in a wheelchair,” she recalls. “I went back to support her and started working in radio in Perth.” Trouble was, she had difficulty readjusting to her previous lifestyle.
“After living away for so many years as an expat, I realised I would never be able to assimilate to suburban life again. I really struggled.”
A year later, she decided that the best solution was to move to Singapore again, where she could reconnect with friends, continue building her career in media, yet be close enough to visit her mother every three months (spending every last day of annual leave in the process).
Despite spending over a decade in TV and radio, Simone had been holding back on a different dream altogether. “I had wanted to be a speaker for a very long time,” she says, “but when you are very young, you just don’t have as much credibility.”
The stars finally aligned in 2019. Now that she had stashed up enough savings and accrued significant life experience, she left broadcasting behind, pushed past the niggling doubts – Does she look too young? Should she stick to stable employment? What if she loses everything? – and took the plunge into setting up her own business: Simone Heng Speaking Pte Ltd.
Her first year as an independent speaker was fraught with fear and uncertainty; every piece of work felt like it could be her last. But being an entrepreneur was also thrilling and liberating, and she relished the discipline, motivation and creativity the role demanded.
Gradually, she built up her clientele, figured out the art of online marketing, and created an online subscription to supplement her business, offering training in presentation skills to the general public.
A place to call home
Since returning to Singapore in 2015, Simone had to reapply for her Employment Pass (EP) annually while facing the possibility of it not being renewed.
Tensions rose during the pandemic in 2020, when pass requirements became more stringent, and more foreigners were being sent home. “I was working myself into the ground taking every gig I could, to make sure the company did well enough for my EP to get renewed. The stress was so high,” she says.
In the end, Simone decided to apply for permanent residency (PR) – not only to allow her business to continue operating here, but also to formalise her connection to the country her parents were from, the country she was born in, and the country she wanted to build a life in. After an 11-month wait, a letter came in the mail.
Her application was approved.
Simone was overcome with emotion. Receiving the PR was “like getting an engagement ring from the government”, she says. It granted her – finally – the deep sense of belonging she had been searching for, and the permission to put down roots here and create a home.
The PR status has also brought stability to her business, lifting a huge weight off her shoulders. “I can be much more selective about the clients I take on and build my business with a long-term view,” she adds.
The power of human connection
Through her journey, Simone has come to realise that our need to belong is closely tied to our universal thirst for human connection.
“In order to live our most fulfilled life, we must have a sense of belonging and connection,” she says. “For me, finding a sense of belonging means really living my message of human connection.”
For over two years now, Simone has been delivering keynote presentations on human connection, a topic that has become especially pertinent given the increased social isolation during the pandemic.
Technology, she observes, has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has been incredibly heartening to see devices used meaningfully to connect loved ones kept apart by the virus. On the other, digital communication tends to be shallow and detached.
“Technology surrounds us with surface-level connections,” she explains, “as if we were standing at a party looking at all the guests yet feeling hauntingly alone. It’s the junk food equivalent of human connection.”
Gathering these reflections, she has written her first book, Secret Pandemic, which is set to be launched in March. Part memoir and part thought leadership, it helps readers find authentic human connection – which is essential to our well-being – through strategies such as serving the community beyond ourselves and focusing on common ground in a highly polarised world.
Closest to heart
At the heart of it all, there are a few connections that Simone cherishes the most.
“My mother is still in Perth in the nursing home and she is very important to me,” she reveals. “Doing video calls with her every week reminds me of how good I have it in Singapore. She is now almost non-verbal, so sometimes we just sit looking at each other on video and I play some Patsy Cline for her on my laptop.”
It is this strong self-connection that empowers her to connect better with others and guide them on the path to seek their own human connection.
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Simone Heng is a keynote speaker and human connection specialist based in Singapore. Her clients include TEDx, Google, ByteDance, Salesforce, HP, L’Oréal, Visa, Manulife, and the United Nations. She has over 15 years’ experience in broadcasting, working with Virgin Radio Dubai, Mediacorp, HBO Asia, CNN and CNBC.