Bigger Hearts, Smaller World: Air Amber’s Beginnings

By the SMU Social Media Team

Millennials may be caricatured as a generation trapped in an age of apathy. However, one SMU graduate is set to crush this cliché. Driven by the belief that every individual deserves an opportunity to realise his or her potential, SMU School of Social Sciences graduate Muhammad Shahril Hassan established Air Amber in 2008 to involve youths in community projects, and spur his peers on to transform lives and make a difference.

The team first began focusing on human trafficking, and the work primarily revolved around the prevention and rehabilitation of child sex trafficking. Gradually, their focus gravitated towards the broader theme of protecting and restoring human dignity.

They ran projects regionally in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia. Locally, they have organised experiential conferences and workshops with partners such as MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking).


Air Amber and Butterfly Books Team in Kathmandu

On a visit to Kathmandu, the team created Butterfly Books, a project to publish books illustrated and written by children rescued from life in Nepalese prisons.


In addition, they often host informal get-togethers at their homes, such as the “Bumbong Sunsets”, where they invite marginalised migrant workers and local youths every Saturday, with the purpose of building friendships.


Lighting the way for others

One person’s belief in another can leave a huge impact, as Shahril — Air Amber’s chief operating officer and co-founder — is well aware of. At the lowest point of his life, his rugby coach at Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC) gave him a second chance in life through boundless care and compassion and reinstilling confidence in him.

He shares, “Inspired by those around me, I now seek to inspire others in unleashing their inherent potential. I strongly believe that the greatest discovery is realising that change is within us and that each of us has something unique to offer. All we need is an opportunity to shine!”


Shahril and Tiziana from Air Amber

Air Amber Co-founder and SMU alumnus, Shahril, with Air Amber CMO and SMU undergrad, Tiziana


Hence, Shahril, together with co-founders of Air Amber Suraj Upadhiah and SMU Business final year student, Tiziana Tan, collaborated to kick start Air Amber in 2008.

“I saw the Amber vision as a meaningful and life-changing opportunity that would not only develop others, but also constantly motivate me to push my boundaries,” says Tiziana, on what prompted her to join the team.


Striking a balance

One of the biggest challenges the team faced was balancing the numerous commitments they each had to juggle with. Upon graduating, Shahril worked at a management consulting firm, together with Suraj, where they were still able to spend a portion of their time running Air Amber.

However, they struggled with the issue of consistency in their work. They were convinced that the only way for Air Amber to grow was to dedicate themselves to the cause wholeheartedly. This led to the transition of Air Amber from being a non-profit organisation to a social enterprise.


Rallying the community

Today, Air Amber seeks to co-develop communities and co-create social impact through the transformation of youths. Such a strategy centering on community involvement is one that involves patience and a small degree of risk. “We have envisioned a future of ‘Bigger Hearts’ in a ‘Smaller World’ and we strive to nurture a generation with a HEART of Compassion, a MIND harnessed in Creativity, and HANDS immersed in Action,” said Shahril.


Air Amber and Pushpa Basnet

Air Amber team with CNN Heroes Awardee and social worker, Pushpa Basnet


As rallying the community is an integral part of their work, they are constantly developing innovative ways to get people excited about the idea of social enterprise, and climb on board to work together.

Shahril adds, “We often describe Amber as a dancefloor. We will set the stage, there will be strobe lights, a smoke machine, and the best music, but we will never make you dance, neither will we teach you how to dance. You have to dance your own dance.”

With Air Amber, the stage is set to push youths out of their comfort zones, realise their passions, and own their convictions to make a difference.



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