An electrical engineer who trained to be a water engineer. An innovator who builds houses with rice-bags. These are just some of the ways to describe Robert Kee, and how he helps the underprivileged in Cambodia and Nepal.

Robert Kee is an energetic 70-year-old. In 2001, he founded Operation Hope Foundation which focuses on developmental aid efforts in Cambodia and Nepal. The trained engineer’s wakeup call was when he watched a TV documentary about child prostitution in Cambodia in the 1990s. It created in him a nagging need to figure out what’s going on and how to help out.

“I started as a Santa Claus,” he laughs. He began contributing as a philanthropist and an amateur magician – his way of spreading good cheer among families and children. He identified how the most underprivileged were struggling to get out of poverty, and that’s how he started running his foundation.

Above: The orphans at Operation Hope Foundation’s orphanages have since gotten jobs – and Robert still keeps in touch with them on Facebook!

Operation Hope Foundation works in Cambodia and Nepal to strengthen disadvantaged communities, be it through residential homes and education for children or community development projects that provide proper housing and sanitation. What’s striking about Robert is how he sees the foundation as just the first step to solving any social problem. It’s his innate hustle that encourages him to continuously improve the foundation’s internal processes and to scale his impact.

“Many humanitarian organisations focus on emergency relief. But I find that emergency relief only solves a temporal issue,” Robert laments. “The Nepal earthquake in 2015 gained enormous media attention, and that led to a huge pool of donations and assistance in a short amount of time. However, is the root cause solved? Did anybody stop to wonder: why so many houses collapsed during the earthquake? How long will it take for the victims to rebuild their homes?”

This is what led Robert and his team to introduce a new concept of building houses using empty rice bags. These rice-bag houses are safe and affordable. Gravel and soil are used to fill the rice bags. Alongside barbed wires and zinc sheets, the material helps to keep a house cool when it gets warm, and vice versa.

Above: Robert works with locals to build rice-bag houses.

Trained as an electrical engineer, he realised he needed to pick up new knowledge and skills to become a water engineer expert. “Nobody has built a septic tank in Singapore for the past 50 years, but other countries require us to build our own septic tank. A basic sanitation infrastructure is vital,” Robert stresses.

In 2015, Robert designed a rainwater collecting system in Cambodia which collects rainwater for OHF Children Homes and Training Centres in Cambodia and Nepal. He launched a well drilling project for poor villagers as otherwise, the only source of water for rural Cambodia would’ve been the river or well which can be half a kilometre away, which means Cambodians will have to carry heavy pails of water everyday. He has also designed and built UV Water Treatment Systems for schools so that the students have safe water to drink.

Robert explains that it’s essential to solve social problems like sanitation as not just infrastructure problems, but also community problems. “I realised that the villagers would not keep the toilet clean if it was shared between two or three houses. Yet they were highly responsible when it was one toilet per house. So it was important to make sure that our solution was sensitive to in-built social norms.”

Above: Children drink clean water from the rainwater collecting system.

Travelling around the region keeps Robert humble. “Just because our country is more prosperous, it doesn’t mean we are better. I’ve met Cambodians who I find to be better than Singaporeans. We can be good at Excel spreadsheets, but they are incredibly practical and street-smart.” Robert adds, “We can be so wasteful as well. As a society, we have a habit of wanting to buy the latest car and keep up with the latest trends. But Cambodians are used to buying second-hand cars and ensuring each item has reached its full utility. So perhaps, we have to assess how we define wealth or intelligence.”

With National Day looming, I asked Robert to reflect what it means to be Singaporean. “I think we are very blessed. Having said that, we should reframe our perspective and understanding of problems by venturing overseas. Having electricity, clean tap water and toilets may not be the norm in many developing countries. As Singaporeans, we can be less self-centered and sensitive. We can rise to help others.”