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A cause worth volunteering for: Q&A with Suwanee Dharmalingam

Every effort counts at The Song Room and especially the efforts of our volunteer supporters. Our most recent recruit is Macquarie Group’s Suwanee Dharmalingam, who volunteers her expertise as a member of The Song Room’s Fundraising Committee. We recently spoke to Suwanee about why she decided to go ‘above and beyond’ for the kids who need it most.

Macquarie Group Foundation has been a key supporter of The Song Room over the past 6 years, helping us reach more disadvantaged kids and conduct an internationally significant research project to assess the real impact of our programs. (You can read more about the Bridging the Gap in School Achievement through the Arts research and outcomes here.)

So, thanks to Macquarie Group Foundation, we now have the evidence on why our programs work. But their support goes much further than that. As part of our partnership with Macquarie, we turn to the expertise of their staff at every opportunity. ‘Financial Mentor’, Suwannee Dharmalingam, volunteers for The Song Room as a member of our Fundraising Committee. She offered her time to answer a Q&A and offer insight into her desire to help improve people’s happiness and outcomes whever possible.

What is your professional background?

I have worked as a lawyer for Blake Dawson Waldron (now Ashurst) Sydney since graduation for a number of years after majoring in Accounting, Finance and Law at the University of new South Wales. I subsequently took a policy role at the NSW Attorney-General office in its Law Reform Commission. Following my move to Melbourne, I worked in the Chairman’s office of the Australian Securities Commission as it was then called in a legal/policy role. I went back into the private sector initially as Compliances solicitor of ANZ McCaughan reviewing the advice given to clients, and then started my practice as an investment/wealth adviser on the stockbroking desk. Later I moved to Macquarie Group in a similar role. At Macquarie, I extended my practice from managing investments for high net wealth clients into assisting not-for-profits in the management of their assets and cash-flows. My experiences in both the public sector and private sector has contributed significantly to my skills in fundraising, by understanding the processes involved in shaping policy and the wealth of resources provided by government, exposure to key philanthropists and community leaders, the opportunity to access corporate partnerships through a good understanding and respect for their social governance policies and their financial sustainability and an appreciation of the cash-flow demands and suitable investment strategies of not-for-profits.

How would you describe your work to a complete stranger?

I am a financial mentor to my clients and partner with them to achieve the optimum work/life balance or retirement outcome. I work with clients at each stage of their lives, helping them to source appropriate investments for their savings at the relevant time, whether it be in term deposits, fixed interest products, higher growth shares, international investments, foreign currency and tax-effective structures which may involve borrowing. I help clients with the appropriate investment structure, and can provide assistance with wills, insurance and direct investments into property. My overall aim is to improve the cash-flow and growth of passive investments for clients to such an extent that it will free up their time for investing in other parts of their life, health, work, travel, activities and philanthropic pursuits which make them and their loved ones happy.

Can you tell us a little about your life in Melbourne?

I live in Kew, right near Studley Park. Originally, I came from Kuala Lumpur as a 10 year old child, and boarded at Wenona, a school for girls in North Sydney. I met my partner on a diving holiday in Mission Beach Queensland, and he followed me back here to Melbourne! I have two sons, Ahmaey (8 years old) who attends Kew Primary School and Eshan (3 years old).

How do you define success? What drives you and inspires you?

I believe success is achieved when we live our life to the fullest of our true abilities, but with balance that is in the happiest and healthiest way possible. I also believe success can only be completely achieved in life when we are ready to share our success with the community.

My inspiration came to me early as a child, observing how much both my parents professionally achieved as medical specialists and how much was put back into setting up a cancer facility for the marginalised communities in Malaysia, how hard they both worked, but how much wonderful fun and interesting times we had with them and their friends as children.

Now I am continually inspired by stories of disadvantaged individuals and how incredibly brave and tenacious they are in the drive for a better life.

My drive comes from within, I think it may be genetic as even I don’t understand it! The constant desire to help improve people’s happiness and outcomes wherever possible. Perhaps it came from my old school’s motto “Ut Prosim” – that I may serve.

Is music & arts important in your life?

The most wonderful sense of belonging and well being occurred when I played in the School orchestra. I was from such a totally different culture and at such a young age, personally, it was the most difficult time of my life to be separated from my parents as a child. But the ability to throw myself into producing music from an instrument took away all the pain and uplifted me. Music transcends all language and cultural barriers.

I would not have survived the tough 8 years of institutionalised living at boarding school without being able to escape to the bowels of the gym to play the piano in tiny cells, being a part of the orchestra playing trumpet in the brass section, playing the Last Post at the School Anzac Day ceremonies. Making pots with Mrs Kotze, our art teacher at age 10. Listening to Wagner with Mrs Kovacic at age 11. Going to Sydney Symphony and Chamber performances with Ms Alison Friend, my piano school teacher who treated me to such performances. Performing in Guys and Dolls at age 16, my first brush with boys from Shore school down the road!

Once working, having the financial freedom to attend Opera, concerts, poetry performances, and theatre was just wonderful! My love affair with the arts continues, my partner Brett Coelho is an artist so all our family live and breath art together.

What inspired you to volunteer for The Song Room?

I was brought up in a privileged school through parents who valued performance, art, theatre and music and could so generously give me an education which had access to arts and which helped me achieve a higher degree. Art and music more than any other subject, also became a powerful friend for me when the cultural and social divide was too great as a young child separated from parents.

Music and arts also taught me teamwork, independence in learning, concentration, discipline, practice, hard work and effort, as well as giving me a more spiritual regard for life. It improved the fabric of my society, bringing me into contact with wonderful people that I may have otherwise not met or tolerated because of our vast professional and cultural differences. Like sport, it is a leveller – making me a more rounded and grounded person.

The Song Room offers crucial programs which impact on several hthousands of Australian children in similar ways, particularly children who have cultural or social issues to deal with, or a geographic divide from parents, on top of trying to find their way through the maze towards responsible adults.

Many of our children face such high levels of stress and have little financial resources or support or skills to find outlets for their expression other than through darker activities. I think arts at a young age, is preventative, as well as curative, and should have the same place for children as good nutrition and healthy relationships.

The programs supported by The Song Room, improve the lives of our communities, the balance in work and leisure, social interaction, emotional well-being, happiness and joy of our children. The programs have shown to be responsible for significantly higher scores in academic subjects – English, mathematics, science, technology and human society and a higher attendance rate at schools.

I would like for all those children who are missing out on arts and music, to be able to choose this outcome and to be fully aware of the potential benefits of arts and music in their lives.

Why did you choose to support our charity in this way?

I like the idea applying my knowledge of corporates, my migrant experience, understanding of philanthropic and social enterprise, to help enrich our society. I would like our children to grow into happy and healthy responsible adults, surrounded and balanced by arts and music to uplift and inspire them on all their journeys in life.

What would you tell people considering supporting The Song Room?

By supporting our programs you will be influencing a young person’s happiness, inspiring them to live better lives, helping them achieve higher educational scores and hence better occupational outcomes. You will be helping them to grow into balanced, responsible, community minded adults.

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