Anderson Selvasegaram has been advocating for the welfare and protection of children for more than two decades. He shares his personal growth journey, the importance of a holistic approach to child well-being and the lasting impact a church community had on him.
Anderson Selvasegaram’s mind doesn’t stop, or so it seems. Throughout our interview, it felt as if he was planning ahead for his next appointment, processing incoming text messages and yet, possessing the uncanny ability to answer every question thrown at him with remarkable precision.
It is perhaps a gift of divine grace bestowed upon a man who has dedicated his life to the well-being of children. Anderson is the founder and Executive Director of SUKA Society, an award-winning NGO dedicated to protecting some of the most vulnerable children in Malaysia. Since 2016, he has also been the International Detention Coalition’s Regional Advisor for South East Asia.
His story, in his own words, is not very dramatic. But it is undoubtedly a testament to how God uses seemingly ordinary lives, in this case, a PJ boy who studied agribusiness in university, for extraordinary impact.
Growing up with a messy family structure, a supportive church community helped Anderson build a normal life
“I was born and raised in Petaling Jaya. My dad was a Sri Lankan Tamil and my mother was a Cantonese Chinese. When I was 12 years old, my father passed away so my mum worked several jobs and basically did whatever it took to sustain the family,” Anderson says.
Although she wasn’t a Christian then, Anderson’s mother had a fascination with Christianity and raised her children in the faith, sending them to Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall. There, they were embraced by a loving and supportive church community that supported more than their physical well-being.
“There was care and accountability, proper guidance as we grew up and it also built a life of routine for us,” he remembers. The church community, some extended family and routines all acted as stabilising factors for the young man. And so while his family situation was volatile at times (his mother remarried and his stepfather eventually also passed away), Anderson lived a regular life.
His church life also grew in tandem with his seasons of growth, from Sunday School to youth fellowship and eventually to serve as a leader in the youth fellowship.
After university, he began leading an after-school programme in his church marking his first venture into children’s work
Anderson’s degree has little to do with children’s well-being. He studied agribusiness at Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (now Universiti Putra Malaysia), learning the ropes of business within a framework of agriculture.
“When I graduated in 1998, I knew I didn’t want to do business and definitely did not want to be working on a plantation. So when the church asked me to spearhead this latchkey programme offering after-school activities, I accepted.”
It was an interesting programme, Anderson remembers light-heartedly, as there was a mixed bag of students attending amongst other initiatives, the free tuition provided by the programme. Little ones from the orphanage down the road sat with children of the ultra-wealthy, learning and growing together.
He led the programme for four years but realised he wanted to develop and grow more in the area of social work. So, in 2002 he joined the Shelter Home for Children at the invitation of Dr James Nayagam, a well-known child rights advocate who would later become one of Anderson’s close friends.
The years opened Anderson’s eyes to the gaps and lack of solutions for children at risk
As the years rolled by, James and Anderson found themselves sharing similar interests and worked together to develop projects to advance child well-being. And slowly, they changed as individuals.
“I personally realised that while there is a place and role for children’s homes, it’s essentially an institution, with rules, routines and structured days. It’s the ‘best’ because it’s needed to provide protection for children who cannot be placed with a family, yet ‘worst’ in trying to be a family structure.”
With his eyes opened to the lack of solutions for children at risk, SUKA Society was founded in 2010. SUKA stands for Suara Kanak-Kanak (Voice of Children) and has three niche areas of work carried out with a child protection lens.
SUKA Society supports pre-schools in indigenous communities (14 schools in West Malaysia and Sabah), runs a foster care programme for unaccompanied immigrant minors (around 40-50 children a year) and works with victims of human trafficking at government shelters. “Our work is mainly centred around empowerment and justice, always for children,” Anderson says.
“When we first started the work, I made a ‘bargain’ with God.”
“I’m the worst fundraiser,” Anderson says. “So when we first started the work, I made a bargain with God. I can’t fundraise, I can’t do charity dinners and all those things. I said I would do the work, but He would have to settle the funds.”
For the first few years, SUKA Society had no corporate or major donors. Looking at your empty bank account with payday looming, says Anderson, is the worst feeling one can have. But, he says firmly, God is no man’s debtor.
And thus began a journey of faith and faithfulness. Faith in stepping out, and faithfulness in continuing the work when challenges arose.
“There were stressful moments of me in the corner, on my knees, ‘reminding’ God about the bills — as though He needed the reminder! Through every season, the money would somehow come in; not once have we ever not paid up. It’s been God.”
Today, SUKA Society has established itself in the field of children’s work. In 2015, the organisation received the United Nations Malaysia Award and in 2018, was awarded the Star Golden Hearts award for its programme training Orang Asli teachers in their respective villages.
Sometimes, we can be fixated on what we can do for those in need versus what they can do for themselves with our support
When asked how Malaysian Christians and churches can get more involved in the work he is doing, he says for starters, the focus has to be very clear. If the motivations behind the work and service are blurred, it loses its meaning and impact.
Many churches, he adds, are actively involved in serving various populations of concern (communities with specific needs or circumstances e.g. refugees, the stateless, single mothers), and all of us have our own part to play.
“Social concern and evangelism go hand in hand. How can we represent God in my own thinking, choices and actions? We have to ensure that our motivations are clear: we serve others because that’s who God is. He loved and served everyone.”
Anderson also reiterates how important it is to see those in need through their own lenses, and not through ours. “We can get fixated on what we can do…versus what they can do for themselves. At times, we end up doing a lot through our own lens rather than their lenses, values and how they live.”
At the heart of holistic community transformation is the determination to do no harm
Anderson’s approach to social change combines business principles with empowerment, justice and emphasis on holistic community transformation. For instance, the Orang Asli pre-schools supported by Anderson are fully owned, managed and run by local community members.
“For any work to be sustainable, there must be an economy of scale otherwise it’s hard to justify the costs, time and effort put in. For our pre-schools, all of which are owned by the respective villages (SUKA Society does not own anything), as long as there are willing students and willing teachers, we will fund and support it,” he explains.
It is also a never-ending journey of learning for Anderson. As the landscape changes and focus groups reveal cultural shifts, the work evolves as well. But one thing that never changes is the goal of holistic transformation.
“We cannot just look at one track when we think about the well-being of children. When we do quick fixes, we often assume there is no harm done. For instance, we may be focused on providing children with education, and so we ‘sponsor’ them to live in a city boarding school. The absolute is met, but perhaps harm has also been done to the child’s emotional, social and psychological well-being by separating them from their family and community. That’s also why unaccompanied immigrant minors who enter our foster care programme are placed in families of similar background and culture. It gets dangerous when we apply our own value systems. Everything takes time, and independence empowers sustainable development.”
The conversation then segues briefly into Akar Umbi Society, a non-profit founded in 2021 by Anderson and former SUKA Society staff member Sarah Teo that focuses on empowering grassroots communities to end marginalisation and create equal opportunities. “We realised there’s so much going on that we need another organisation focusing on building communities,” he says.
Now a father himself, Anderson takes lessons from his life and work as he raises his son
Anderson is married to Joanna, a PR consultant with a global public relations firm and together they have a son. “We dated for six years and were married for 10 years before God gave us a surprise gift of a son, who’s five years old now,” he shares with a laugh.
His childhood and work with children have influenced the way he parents, he reflects. He remembers the struggles of a single-parent household following his father’s passing but acknowledges that having a child at a later stage in life has provided him the opportunity to be more involved.
“The idea of mortality really comes into play, now that I’m a parent. But it’s also been about dealing with sin, the sin of selfishness and not seeing God’s picture, not realising that if God gives you a gift [of a child], He’ll be there in the journey with you all the way. Some things, you don’t have to overthink.”
Having his son at 43 years old has also played a part. He sees the benefits of being an “older parent”: much of life has already settled into a comfortable routine and career paths have been established. This has given him the ability to prioritise his son, he says, and raise him up in a godly manner.
From Sunday School to youth fellowship, cell group leader and deaconship, Anderson remains planted in the church that grew with him
Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall is where Anderson found Jesus over four decades ago, and where he and his family still worship today. “Same church, same church. I’ve never left,” he says with a laugh.
He is currently serving as a deacon for the church and care group leader, and up until recently served in the youth fellowship for many years. It is evident that church life has and continues to play an integral part in his personal growth as a person, husband, father and leader.
“My earliest memory of church was around the time I was in kindergarten, so it’s been many years. Growing up, church aunties and uncles would help to keep me in line, and when I was at a crossroads after graduating, unsure what to do with my life, it was my mentor and elder who advised me to take on the after-school programme. That was my first step into children’s work.”
It was also in the church that Anderson met Joanna, who was part of the youth fellowship together with him. Looking back, God saw the needs of a young boy growing up amid volatile family circumstances and gently brought him into His fold, preparing him for a life of purpose and meaning.
As Christians, are we living out the true fast as explained in Isaiah 58?
Anderson quotes Isaiah 58 (the entire chapter) as a foundational passage for his personal approach to life, work and ministry. Its 14 verses spell out in detail the type of fasting that pleases God.
He hones in on verses 6 and 7: Is this not the fast I have chosen; to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him and not hide yourself from your own flesh?
“The true fast is about getting to the point of who God really is. In this passage, He’s saying, “Obviously you don’t know me. If you know me, you would care about what I care about and be consistent in who you are, just as I am consistent in who I am.”
And that in a nutshell sums up Anderson’s approach to living this earthly life with heaven in mind, a Christ-follower seeking to serve the most vulnerable children in Malaysia by standing in their corner, protecting them and empowering them to pursue their own lives of purpose and meaning.
All photos provided by Anderson Selvasegaram.