MY PERSPECTIVES 


Is Reckless Giving an Indication of Singapore’s Glaring but Unspoken Value System?

A Facebook post by local welfare organization Keeping Hope Alivewent viral after its volunteer found a sea of unopened soya sauce bottles and instant noodles occupying an elderly’s flat. The volunteer wrote, “Are we giving what the recipients need? Or are we giving just to comfort ourselves that we have a done a ‘good’ deed? Think again.”

The volunteer is spot on. We need to think hard, too, and ask, “How does soya sauce and instant noodles, which contain high levels of sodium, help the receiver who is possibly ill and does not even cook? Surely the adage that there is more joy in giving than receiving does not apply here?

I think this post went viral because it pricks our conscience and raises moral questions on our attitudes towards helping the needy. But a more compelling question is whether this reckless act of giving is modelled behavior existing at all levels of society and indicative of a country’s glaring but unspoken values.

Are we so afraid of feeling left behind that we unthinkingly offload groceries to the needy so we can feel better about ourselves for just one day and return to our daily pursuits?

According to Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and expert on Singapore politics, society and culture, the Singapore model of development and governance is described as pragmatic. He explains that pragmatism is the fig-leaf for naked capitalism, elitism, power and status quo aimed at economic growth of a vulnerable nation, but it also dehumanises and has little patience for intangible values.In non-academic speak, we are “kiasu.” Are we so afraid of feeling left behind that we unthinkingly offload groceries to the needy so we can feel better about ourselves for just one day and return to our daily pursuits?

For guidance, perhaps we should look to educational institutions and professional bodies of help, which include government agencies, voluntary welfare organisations and independent charities.

I also cannot fathom why its chairman would choose to drive his Porsche convertible to a fund-raising gala.

Sadly, despite the best of intentions, this sector is not spared these fig leaves, either.

Back in 2005 the National Kidney Foundation was exposed for the misuse of funds. Just this July,  a strongly-worded interview with mainstream media saw Nicholas Aw, ex-president and advisor of the Disabled People Association, publicly announce his resignation. He cited dispassionate social leaders lacking empathy, courage and focus. Then there was NUS’ mishandling of student Monica Baey, who was filmed while showering.

Aw and Baey are not alone in their frustrations. My own experience working in a charity has seen board members absent from key meetings and fund-raising events. I also cannot fathom why its chairman would choose to drive his Porsche convertible to a fund-raising gala. Is he more interested picture-taking with VIPs for his Facebook page than engaging with beneficiaries?

I ask difficult questions and cite examples not to shame, but to make us feel uncomfortable in the hope that we refocus.

It’s easier to allude problems from a distance to complex government policies but much harder to look at ourselves and question our own motivations.

The Many Helping Hands Approach to addressing social issues was conceived by the government in 1997 to promote self-reliance through partnerships with concerned citizens, corporations, and community organisations. It’s been 22 years now but have these fig leaves gotten in the way of our true purpose?

Just last month the Samaritans of Singaporerevealed that the number of people taking their own lives rose across all age groups, except for the elderly. What’s more shocking is how young teenage boys taking their own lives reached a record high last year. This frightening trend does not consider the many stories told in the privacy of counselling rooms, which are not part of statistics and won’t make headlines.

It’s easier to allude problems from a distance to complex government policies but much harder to look at ourselves and question our own motivations. For example, do problems working in the social service sector have less to do with messy, slow moving and complex structural issues than how being kiasu and our values placed in elitism, power and status continue to stay with us?

The Keeping Hope Alive volunteer challenged us to think again the next time we want to help. After all, it’s less about ourselves than the people we are serving. It’s really not that complex, is it?

.This article was also published on The Online Citizen

 

How Bad is the Business of Doing Good in Singapore

The CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre calls non-profit work in Singapore tough, but is elitism, class division and status getting in the way of doing good?

As a private counsellor, I constantly prowl for kindred spirits in the helping profession. They are other social entrepreneurs like me or corporate leaders in the social service sector. I do this to network but counselling can be a lonely endeavour—you are “selling” something people need but nobody wants to admit they are “buying.” Making connections is my way of feeling a greater sense of belonging in a space few understand.

One of these kindred spirits I successfully sought was the Singapore Kindness Movement’s (SKM) Dr William Wan, but at a time when he found himself vulnerable and embroiled in the E-Pay brown face saga. He immediately recognised this loneliness and pointed to an article on Today, written by his SKM board member Melissa Kwee.

Kwee, who is also the CEO for National Volunteer Philanthropy Centre, describes how lonely and difficult it is for social leaders like her to make a difference in a non-profit environment she calls “messy, slow-moving and complex.” She lists persistence, resilience and empathy as qualities she admires in other leaders, and calls for a collaborative policy-making approach and joint ownership of problems as the way forward.

“If leaders find the going tough, what chance do social entrepreneurs and concerned citizens with no influence and access to resources have?”

Preferring to remain anonymous, a social entrepreneur immediately took issue with the article’s elitist posturing. In Kwee’s recount of the familiar tale of young bright-eyed workers entering the social service sector only to be disenchanted, the entrepreneur retorts, “Only young workers do good? What about mature workers who leave their lucrative careers to be a NGO leader?”In fairness Kwee does mention the likes of late social worker Teresa Hsu and family violence service centre, PAVE, a ground up initiative of social workers who persisted and made it work.

But the remark exposes a disconnect. Moreover, it raises the question that if leaders find the going tough, what chance do social entrepreneurs and concerned citizens with no influence and access to resources have?

The Many Helping Hands Approach to addressing social issues was conceived by the government in 1997 to promote self-reliance through partnerships with concerned citizens, corporations, community organisations religious groups and family members. It’s been 22 years now but how far have we come?

Just last month the Samaritans of Singapore revealed that the number of people taking their own lives rose across all age groups, except for the elderly. What’s more shocking is how young teenage boys taking their own lives reached a record high last year. This frightening trend does not take into account the many stories told in the privacy of counselling rooms, which are not part of statistics and won’t make headlines.

As social leaders grapple with the complexities of government funding and policy making, do they need to pay more attention to other sources of help in these concerned citizens? Their names bear no clout nor influence, which deprives them of corporate identity and access to resources, but they dare greatly and show up. Armed with a wealth of life and work experiences they bravely enter the social service as employees, or attempt to make their mark as social entrepreneurs.

“Pragmatism is the fig-leaf for naked capitalism, elitism, power and status quo aimed at economic growth of a vulnerable nation.”

One of them is my ex-classmate, a 44-year-old father and HDB dweller, who quit his IT job just so he could train full time to be a counsellor. His unhappy childhood spurred him to develop a second career as a counsellor to help others. I also know of a single mother in her 40s, who works for a major aviation company. Her bitter divorce drove her to self-fund her counselling studies and speak to her CEO about incorporating counselling as a company best practice. There’s also the 65-year old unmarried male caregiver to his dementia-stricken 99-year-old mother. For the last three years, he has hardly left his home and lives day to day just to see his mother smile and say, “sedap” when he feeds her lunch. What a treasure trove of experiences he could share with health professionals and caregivers as our society greys.

None of them are young and bright-eyed. They are driven not by wealth or status but by powerful lived experiences of personal trials and triumph to do good. But can they do more? Can they be part of bigger discussions? Or do they continue to be invisible because they have not “made it” like the late Teresa Hsu or the folks at PAVE?

According to Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and expert on Singapore politics, society and culture, the Singapore model of development and governance is described as pragmatic. He explains that pragmatism is the fig-leaf for naked capitalism, elitism, power and status quo aimed at economic growth of a vulnerable nation, but it also dehumanises and has little patience for intangible values.

“Our hang-ups on paper qualifications and stuffy corporate cultures eventually broke their spirits and killed off all motivations.”

Despite the best of intentions, the non-profit sector is not spared these fig leaves. Board members’ absence from board meetings and key activities are not uncommon. High turnovers at charities are attributed to low salaries and burnout, but how much of it is poor leadership? A HR manager of a faith-based charity once asked me just 10 minutes into an interview, “What would you do if I were to refuse your asking salary?” I also cannot fathom why a chairman of a charity would choose to drive his Porsche convertible to a fund-raising gala. He seemed more interested picture-taking with VIPs for his Facebook page than engaging with beneficiaries.

The names of those three individuals mentioned earlier will never see the light of day. Our hang-ups on paper qualifications and stuffy corporate cultures eventually broke their spirits and killed off all motivations.

Kwee counts hope, persistence, resilience, empathy as worthy qualities that keep her going, but for social entrepreneurs like us we choose just one—vulnerability.

According to social scientist Dr Brene Brown of Ted Talk fame, vulnerability is the courage to embrace uncertainty, but with the goal of engaging, sometimes through hard but honest conversations. In her New York Times best seller, “Daring Greatly,” Brown says that if leaders expect real learning and change, then we must get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, must continue to cultivate strong support networks and learn how to shut out the noise and keep daring greatly.

Can all players, both big and small, be more vulnerable and connect better to have these uncomfortable conversations for real change to happen? Connection makes us social beings but real connection gives us purpose and meaning in life, especially when we aim to help those in need. Along the way, and if we are lucky, we will feel less alone too.

 

Sparking Joy & Fearing Shame: The Irony of Singapore’s National Day Parade 

The National Day Parade is the biggest party by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, and the organizers make sure we know it. But where is the sense of belonging and acceptance the rest of the year

American writer Mark Twain once wrote, “Dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening, love like you’ve never been hurt and live like it’s Heaven on Earth.”  This free-spirited, cast-your-care attitude hardly describes Singapore, but for just one day of the year it actually does—at the National Day Parade (NDP).

Singapore loves to show the world we can host events on a global scale, but we save the best for ourselves. NDP is the biggest party by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, and the organisers make sure we know it. My ex-classmate was one of the 25,000 spectators who knows this and even towed his newly married Canadian wife to the parade so he could show Singapore off.

But there are many who don’t attend nor watch the NDP. Fear of crowds? Unimpressed by the same old, same old but enhanced story line? Or have they simply stopped believing? Nonetheless, there’s no denying the NDP hype lives on, so much so that many ballot for tickets just to watch the previews. So, all this got me thinking: “Is the NDP hype a form of patriotism we are embarrassed to admit, or is it just one big party of an excuse for family time?

I think the answer is all of the above but also in the unspoken.

I am a media consultant and counsellor, which gives me ringside seats to the thinking behind strategic messaging but also its impact. I can’t think of any other event or occasion in Singapore than the NDP, which elicits such unadulterated joy. Just listen to the lyrics of the most popular NDP theme song Home, written by Dick Lee, which captures some of this joy:

Whenever I am feeling low

I look around me and I know

There’s a place that will stay within me

Can you see how the opening line already makes this song a winner? Singer Kit Chan tells us it’s perfectly alright to feel down. It’s ok to feel you are not enough because you are not alone and can always count on Singapore.

The NDP is that one evening of the year we can truly celebrate our achievements but also feel accepted and belonged, because Singapore is home truly and it’s where I know I must be. Home and NDP celebrates our vulnerability and the courage to be imperfect.

All this is accompanied by a deep, warm voice describing our rise to economic success, set against the backdrop of military might, multimedia wizardry, and rousing songs on nation building.  Then it finally climaxes as fireworks explode into the night sky followed by gasps of awe. NDP is the birthplace of belonging and acceptance and transforms Singapore into heaven on earth.

But where is sense of belonging and acceptance the rest of the year? Are there remnants of this joy or variants of it after the music dies, the fireworks fizzle out and the realities of living in Singapore kick in? What emotions are evoked when the chips are down?

On complaints made against our unreliable national rail, we are told there is still a need to raise transport fares because it has financially burdened the operators and the Government. On fears of the expiring 99-year lease on HDB flats, we are reminded how HDB and upgrading is already heavily subsidised. On frustrations of the rising costs of living, we are told there is still a need to raise GST because there is a gap despite our reserves doubling, and we should just use public Wifi. And when we actually do well, we are reminded not to get complacent but to strive even harder. In a recent case of Singaporean Suriia, whose wife is suffering from late-stage cancer, desperate pleas for the CPF board to allow him to transfer his savings to save his wife were turned down because they are under 55. Singapore’s best hope for gold medal was dashed when runner Soh Rui Yong was excluded from the coming Philippines SEA Games, after ruffling the feathers of the Singapore National Olympic Council.

The general motivation suggests prudence and pragmatism, but it also shames. Shame specialist Dr Brene Brown from the University of Texas defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging and acceptance. Brown says it’s hard for us to even talk about shame as there is no language for it, but It’s probably even harder in the Asian context of Singapore where the pursuit of social class and keeping up with appearances are rampant. The closest term to describe shame here is “kiasu-ism” or the fear to lose. Brown says that when we experience shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished or seen as flawed. Could “kia-su-ism” really be the fear of being ridiculed and shamed?

I find out later that my ex-classmate had another motive for attending the NDP. He was planning to sing his own song at the NDP— a swan song to be precise. He chose the NDP to capture his final Kodak moments of Singapore before packing up to Vancouver for good.

I think NDP sparks joy, no questions asked, no strings attached, and everyone wants a piece of it.

This year’s NDP theme is “Our Singapore” and it celebrates the collective ownership of the country. Its theme song is “Our Singapore,” also written by Dick Lee. I think it’s going to be another hit. As in Home, you can find themes of vulnerability and acceptance in the opening line too:

It isn’t easy building something out of nothing

Especially when the road ahead’s a rocky one

But if we gather all our courage and conviction

And hold our dream up high

The challenge will be won

Despite the disconnect, the NDP will continue to endear. This song could surpass Home, the fireworks outshine last year’s, driving even more to the NDP.  How could it not when all we want is to feel belonged and accepted—even if it’s for just one evening of the year. Many will wish for Singapore to stay strong and united, but my wish is simply for NDP to show some of that love, belonging and acceptance to the rest of the year too.

Happy 54th Birthday, Singapore!

This story also appeared in Rappler on 6 Aug 2019.

The Power of Pinkdot Lies in its Rejection

I get Pinkdot but it did not resonate with me, but action does speak louder than words and Pinkdot is in its 11th year. That’s more than a decade’s worth of action, so they must be doing something right.  I suspended all beliefs and decided to brave the crowds for the first time.

My first impression was the volunteers’ genuine exuberance, raising their palms to invite high fives from attendees moving through the queue. Drag queens and muscle Marys were posing for pictures and others were just posing, but Singapore youths made up the majority. I felt like that cool Uncle lending support to their niece or nephew when their parents didn’t approve, but the energy was palpable and nothing like I have experienced before in Singapore.

I think the power of Pinkdot is not in the solidarity it produces, but in its rejection.

I stood still at one spot to make sense of this energy. Clearly everyone from the volunteers, organisers and attendees wanted to be there, but there was more. This wasn’t just a pink-themed picnic or a “peaceful” protest.

I didn’t have to look very far.

Amid the crowds of revelers, I spotted a rather morbid-looking young teen holding up a sign that read, “I was called a she-male and faggot”. I honestly cannot fathom the teen’s gender, but I was taken aback by how young he was. No more than 15? He was giving a video interview to the Pinkdot crew about his brush with discrimination in school.  But the interview looked more like a desperate plea as his innocent childlike voice competed with the thumping music and cheers of “Welcome to Pinkdot!”  No one was by his side. I think he was alone.

I hope we get to hear his full story because such courage doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It must come from a place of intense hurt and betrayal.

Then I bumped into an old friend recruiting singers at his booth. Our 20-year friendship is founded on our love for music and food, but I saw a new side to him that day. It didn’t feel awkward because just a month ago I told him how unfulfilled he looked in his day job. Instead I couldn’t help but notice how Pinkdot made him feel alive and happy. Our friendship reached a new level of awareness and understanding that evening.

I think the power of Pinkdot is not in the solidarity it produces, but in its rejection. The stoic rejection by the church, conservatives, friends, families and colleagues, and, yes, the authorities’ refusal to repeal S377a. Whether intended or not, this rejection has propelled Pinkdot to push for change, but it has also allowed for the stories of this young teen and many others to be told.

Dr Brene Brown of Tedtalk fame defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

In this respect, rejection births connection. For just one day of the year, the LBGT community and their loved ones can be brave and vulnerable. They know that as scary as it is to tell their stories, there are hundreds of others out here at Hong Lim Park to make them feel less alone. But what happens after the music dies and the lights go out on Pinkdot? Where do people go then to re-connect in their day to day grind of living and discrimination?

I don’t really know but as long as the LBGT community faces rejection more stories will be told and even more will come along the way to lend their support, even if it’s just one day of the year.

I get it now. Pinkdot isn’t just about the repealing S377A. It is really about the persistent rejection and the power of connection that comes from that rejection.

Pinkdot IS connection.

This article was also published in the Philippines’ Rappler and Singapore’s The Online Citizen.

When Kindness Isn’t Contagious

According to the folks at Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), one in four young people hold back from showing kindness in public because they are afraid of being embarrassed. Looking stupid or being mocked on social media was cited as deterrents to lending a hand by respondents aged 15 to 24.

I can see how netizens were quick to pounce on these 15 to 24-year-olds for being overly self-conscious when they should be selfless. Others even pointed fingers at those being helped, like the elderly for being stubborn and entitled.

You see, we Singaporeans love numbers because they are the antidote to uncertainty and the balm to the “kia-su-ness” in us all. In fact, they act as near-absolutes and are instrumental in driving policies, which affect us. Hence, it’s only natural that even feel-good surveys like SKM’s Graciousness Survey will be met with some discomfort, and this means blaming or coming up with our own theories to make sense of it all.

There was no sizing up of social classes, and nothing to suggest feelings of embarrassment, stupidity or mockery.

I, for one, am guilty as charged. I scrutinised SKM’s survey methodology and spotted a loophole. Why are the races of those polled missing?  What about their household incomes?  What are their educational qualifications? I even wrote to SKF’s Dr William Wan to account for this lapse because it could indicate the  unspoken but disparate social class divide of our country. “This missing info could reveal how this shame is really about the discomfort of our own privilege when helping others who have less,” I thought.

Then just two days later I saw something simple yet so powerful that would make any survey result, counselling theories, or economic and societal trends look superfluous.

It was a stormy Wednesday afternoon when I saw an elderly man without his umbrella walking along Jalan Besar. He was struggling to stay dry as he hobbled to the Jalan Berseh Food Centre for lunch.  Walking next to him was a South Asian worker with an umbrella in one hand and construction materials in the other. The elderly man simply nodded to him and the worker instinctively shot his arm out to share his umbrella until they both reached covered ground and each went their own way.

No words were exchanged because none were needed. There was no sizing up of social classes, and nothing to suggest feelings of embarrassment, stupidity or mockery.  The South Asian worker saw a need and he simply responded to it—no questions asked.

Perhaps my question to SKF’s William Wan should be redirected to us all and that is, “What are we truly afraid of? What is it that scares us that we don’t want others to see? What does the existence of a Singapore Kindness Movement Campaign even say about us?

Nobel prize winner Marie Curie once said, “Each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity.”

This article was also published on The Online Citizen

What Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsien Yang Could be Telling us This Father’s Day

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE

Singapore’s netizens went into a frenzy after this family portrait surfaced on social media and went viral in late May. It is the late Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsien Yang (LHY). His brother is Lee Hsien Loong, the PM of Singapore. In this portrait, LHY’s family has reunited from different parts of the world in Cape Town to celebrate his son Li Huanwu’s wedding to his male partner.

I cannot begin to tell you how this family portrait has captured my imagination.

In 2013, I co-hosted a three-starred Michelin Chef dinner for Singapore’s upper crust. LHY and wife Suet Fern were among just 20 selected to dine at the SGD2K per head table.  The power couple looked immaculate.

I was at the opposite end quietly doing my job. We didn’t speak, and we didn’t have to. I knew my place in the worlds of the haves and the have nots.

Since then Singapore’s skyline has changed rapidly, in particular the Marina Bay precinct which hosts Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands. Singapore has also become the world’s most expensive city where regular wages have not caught up with its new-found reputation as Southeast Asia’s playground for the rich. In late 2018 UK-based charity Oxfam ranked Singapore among the bottom 10 countries for tackling inequality as the old and lower income cleaning tables and pushing cardboards on streets have grown to become a common sight.

I wondered what possessed LHY, a member of Singapore most powerful family, to seek solace and support from nameless have nots?

As Singapore’s inequality and class divide continued to grow, it became our turn to be invited into their personal world—but only four years later. In 2017 the country’s elite, as we know it, connected on Facebook after LHY crossed swords with his own brother, the PM of Singapore, over their father’s Oxley Road house and will. No ringside seats needed. The rarefied air of the elite had been exposed to reveal sibling rivalries and power struggles for their father’s approval—just like any other family in Singapore. The only difference is how their status and access to resources saw their battle grow to involve lawyers, Parliament, the courts, senior politicians and even his wife and other son Li Shengwu.

The family feud shook Singapore to the core because the leader and moral compass of one of the longest-running political parties in the world had family problems of his own.

While many reacted with disdain at the airing of dirty laundry in public and shook their heads for soiling the LKY legacy, I wondered what possessed LHY, a member of Singapore most powerful family, to seek solace and support from nameless have nots?

LHY’s Facebook postings scream anger and betrayal. It’s been sporadic but lasting a good two to three years now, with his last post just this April. But a month later, he appears on FB again and it is via his son’s gay wedding portrait.

I don’t see a disgruntled scion but a man rallying his family under intense persecution to support his gay son’s wedding in a display of family solidarity and gender equality

My imagination suddenly takes over and I cannot take my eyes off it.  It is as the worlds of the haves and have nots finally meet. Online chatter crescendos from congratulatory messages for the couple to LHY himself and wife for being exemplary and supportive parents.

I don’t see a disgruntled scion but a man rallying his family under intense persecution to support his gay son’s wedding in a display of family solidarity and gender equality. Consider this—his brother the PM continues to retain a law that criminalises sex between men, and this portrait appears just one month before Singapore’s largest and only LBGT event Pink Dot 2019 happening on 29th June.

Did this one portrait succeed in demonstrating the freedom to love what 10 Pink Dot events are still trying to achieve? Did the same portrait speak to his brother’s stubborn refusal to decriminalise sex between men because traditional love reigns supreme in conservative Singapore?

I don’t really know but I can imagine LHY wasn’t just seeking solace and support in his FB postings. He was making real connections.

Connection is what makes us social beings, but real connection gives us purpose and meaning in life. American sociologist Brene Brown of Ted Talk fame discovered the magic ingredient amongst people whom she calls “whole-hearted” and possessing self-worth—they embrace vulnerability in their connections to the world. Brown explains that vulnerability is emotional exposure to the uncertain, but it is also the need to be kind to yourself and the courage to be imperfect. It is to let go of the hustle of being someone else and living up to expectations. It is the decision to be authentic and say, “I’m sorry, I’m enough.”

Have you noticed how LHY, whose hair has now turned completely grey, is the only one in the portrait not smiling from ear to ear? Instead he is sitting upright, back straight and leaning forward with confidence to face the camera. His head is tilted, and with softness in his eyes he manages a forlorn smile as if to say, “It hasn’t been easy but today it’s not about me.”

For all the money, power and status the Lees enjoy, they are not spared the ego and unreconciled hurts that tear families apart. I think Singaporeans now know this but are too afraid to admit it.

Nonetheless the man did choose real connection over stoic solitude. And LHY couldn’t have chosen a better platform to connect than via his son’s wedding.

In this one portrait I see vulnerability, kindness, the courage to be imperfect. Not as an elite, but a father, husband and son, warts and all, just like any one of us. I bet if my eyes were to linger on that portrait another minute longer, I might just hear him say, “I am sorry. I am enough.”

I can only imagine. Happy Father’s Day.

This article also appeared in The Philippines’ Rappler.

 

The Curious Case of Empathy and its Glaring Absence in Singapore

What do the Monica Baey saga, Aloysius Pang’s death and a Japanese restaurant in Singapore have in common? None of them know empathy.

I don’t like fussing over birthdays, particularly mine, but I do like Japanese food and found a restaurant inviting birthday peeps to eat for free on their birthday month —provided they dine with a paying guest.  The thought of inviting friends out of their busy work lunch schedules did not excite me after a friend turned me down because she is travelling.  Nonetheless I decided to dine alone because it’s my birthday and I can cry if I want to. Please see correspondence with restaurant:

My birthday is May 20 and I have signed up for your birthday voucher. However I understand for me to enjoy this free voucher I have to dine with 1 other paying customer. Sadly I cant find anyone to join me on my birthday. I have visited your restaurant with my family on previous occasions and enjoy the food.

And crying if I want to could also mean getting get creative with gains for the celebrant, the restaurant owner and one lucky stranger.

I was wondering whether you can help me enjoy my birthday. If you receive any reservations from other guests, can you please let me know so I can enjoy my birthday with this other paying guest? I will be happy to offset this guests bill by $10.

However, it was not to be.

So sorry, this free birthday lunch tray has be accompanied with a paying adult buffet lunch. I am afraid I cannot ask or offer other diners to dine with stranger as is not appropriate.

My birthday is only once a year. You can’t help me?

He has to dine with you in same bill / table. Apology, it is beyond me.

Stunned by their inability to grasp a business opportunity and free PR at no cost, I decide to push the envelope and turned cryptically morbid:

I guess it depends on whether you want to help? Surely u can ask first? If its a solo guest? We can eat at the bar. Can you at least ask your boss? It’s my birthday, and i dont know if I can celebrate it again.

If the restaurant had agreed, they would have made me a regular for life and perhaps the paying guest too, who gets $10 off his bill because of this “stranger’s” birthday the restaurant deemed as inappropriate to be seated next to. The same request was made via their official email but either way it was “beyond them”.

The restaurant was not wrong to deny me my request. In fact, the only “crime” committed was their inability to see a business opportunity beyond its birthday promo terms and conditions.

However, I was more curious whether they truly understood the implications of my reply when I said, “I don’t know if I can celebrate my birthday again” which was greeted with silence and effectively ended the exchange.

It got me thinking about the value of empathy in Singapore. Does it exist? Do people even know what it is?  Does it have a role to play in society?

Then it got me thinking, too, about the anger surrounding the responses to the Monica Baey saga and actor Aloysius Pang’s death. Beneath the anger was really the injustice of it all, but I suspect on a deeper level the anger was directed at the glaring absence of empathy shown by the authorities.

Empathy is not sympathy but it’s the ability to enter a person’s world with focused intention to understand how another sees himself and the world around him.

For all the economic success that Singapore touts itself to enjoy, I wonder whether empathy belongs in any its narratives? The narrative that Singapore is small, lacking in natural resources and surrounded by nations bigger than us. Yet we have achieved against the odds and must and will continue to achieve.  Is it resilience and determination or plain “kiasu-ism”?

Either way is empathy relevant? Does it belong in the Singapore success story?

In the grander scheme of things, the restaurant cannot be faulted for denying the “dying” wish of a customer. It must continue to achieve and make more profits in a competitive F & B industry. NUS must continue to be seen as one of the top tertiary institutions of the region and the world, and the SAF must continue to be strong and safeguard resource-scarce Singapore.

I’m inclined to believe it’s less about Singapore being heartless and insensitive, as it is about her being clueless about empathy and caring with authenticity. Perhaps we just don’t know how to show empathy because it was never part of our value system.

Or is it because showing empathy is seen as a sign of vulnerability and weakness? Could it not be a sign of courage instead? Just look to New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern. She demonstrated empathy best in her responses and wearing of the scarf in the recent Christchurch attacks. Her empathy and authenticity earned the respect and trust of her own people and the world.

I will be celebrating my birthday with that same friend when she returns from her holiday. You see, she is a cancer patient living on borrowed time. She knows empathy and it will be a birthday to be remembered. It just won’t be at that Japanese restaurant.

This story was also featured in The Online Citizen

What has Happened to our Helping Profession?

The Monica Baey saga disturbs me on many levels, especially how the university’s counsellors responded to their students’ cries for help.

According to a Yahoo report, a student said a counsellor told her not to speak up in public after she was interrogated by two male staff and one female staff. No psychologist was brought in and she was accused of being inconsistent. In a separate case, a woman who fell victim to voyeurism was given a rape whistle by the campus security, and counsellors attending to the incident had told her not to report the offender in order to give him a chance to be rehabilitated.

“NUS leadership does not understand the trauma that victims face,” according to a tweet posted by Kellynn Wee, research associate of NUS’ Asia Research Institute, who attended a NUS townhall meeting to address the saga.

What’s disturbing is how individuals and organisations trained in the business of “understanding” trauma to help others are doing just the opposite—whether intended or not. What’s even more disturbing is how this phenomenon is not new. In Jan 2016, Benjamin Lim 14, fell to his death from his Yishun flat after being questioned by police about allegations he had molested an 11-year-old girl. Although the coroner’s report did not find anything that was not in accordance with police or school processes, it did highlight how the school counsellor Karry Lung did not accompany Lim to the police station.Nor did Lung exercise discretion when he “uninvited” him to a school camp via a phone call instead of a personal visit.

How could its counsellors not learn from this episode which occurred three years ago? How many more Benjamin Lim-type cases do we need before things change? Or god forbid should there already be cases which have gone unreported?

The Monica Baey saga has exposed the ugly behaviour of prestigious Singapore institutions, which hide behind fancy mission and noble value statements. The anger is really the loss of trust and the betrayal of an educational institution tasked to shape young hearts and minds. Apparently, our young are astute enough to spot this contradiction and recognise it as a systemic failure of the university instead.

But this systemic failure has already happened at all levels of society, and it is driven by fear. The fear of losing your job, not belonging, feeling accepted and affirmed. The fear of, “I’m not enough”. Sadly, this fear I speak of has now seeped into the helping profession as well—the counsellors, police and administrators–the very same people we turn to for help.

This story was also featured in The Online Citizen

 

8 Statements of Empathy by NZ’s Jacinda Ardern on Christchurh Attacks

Empathy is not sympathy but a focused intention to understand how another person sees himself and the world around him. No quick solutions, no judgement and no excuses

  1. I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them.
  2. We cannot know your grief, but we can walk with you at every stage.
  3. What words express the grief of a city that has already known so much pain?
  4. One of the roles I never anticipated having, and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation. At this time, it has been second only to securing the care of those affected and the safety of everyone.”
  5. I asked if she had something I could borrow, because for me it was just a mark of respect. It was naturally what you would do (Wearing a scarf). So, no, I didn’t really think about that, either.
  6. People have remarked upon the way we’ve responded, but to me there was no question. You need to remove some of the politics sometimes and just think about humanity. That’s all.
  7. We may have left flowers, performed the haka, sung songs or simply embraced. But even when we had no words, we still heard yours, and they have left us humbled and they have left us united.
  8. We cannot confront these issues alone, none of us can. But the answer to them lies in a simple concept that is not bound by domestic borders, that isn’t based on ethnicity, power base or even forms of governance. The answer lies in our humanity.

 Still #notmyAhGong & a Nation Wounded

Love her or loathe her there’s no denying MP Lee Bee Wah provokes a reaction. The mere mention of her name rolls eyes and scrunches faces, eliciting feelings from disdain to disgust. Her recent exploits in Parliament have unleashed wrath and ridicule worth a hundred Facebook shares, a #notmyAhGong hashtag and even a video to boot.

At post-budget 2019, the MP-turned-trilingual storyteller-turned thespian, showed off her acting chops when she narrated the give and take relationship between ingrate Ah Seng (citizen) and grandfather Ah Kong (government). After ending her “Si Gui Kia” (ingrate in Hokkien) story, Lee slipped into the character of Ah Kong, looked right at speaker Tan Chuan-Jin with pain and anguish in her eyes and said, “Mr Speaker, my residents do understand we have a very good government – very carefully and cautiously manages our finances so that we can have budget and finance surpluses, and Pioneer and Merdeka Generation Packages.”

Singaporeans were not amused.  Insinuations that Singaporeans are ingrates had netizens like playwright Otto Fong write on FB: “Lee Bee Wah has taken the paternalistic tone of LKY and our previous colonial masters to new heights. Madam Lee, you are not my grandmother. PAP is not my father not my mother. Don’t pretend you cared for us as our grandparents and parents had – you are not worthy. You don’t get to scold us, you ungrateful, undeserving ‘public servant’.” Even state-media The Straits Times weighed in to remind Lee that paternalism is a dangerously complacent attitude for those in power.

Lee Bee Wah is not new to controversy. She is best remembered as the president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) but also for her unpopular endorsement and “purchase” of China-born players and Olympic medals. Singaporeans remained unmoved as murmurs of sell-out and traitor dampened the table tennis team’s win at the Olympics. Yet when she announced her decision to step down from STTA, she broke down in full view of reporters and sporting officials, as Singaporeans continued to remain unmoved.

Just what drives Lee to provoke such reactions and what does it say about us on the receiving end? A 2018 The Straits Times’ interview provides a clue.

“Si Bui Gia” story is not directed at the ungrateful Singaporean but her grateful self. However, she doesn’t know it.”

A Road Well Travelled

Lee is the first born of eight children who grew up in a Johor rubber plantation with no power and water. Her family later moved to Melaka town for her secondary and pre-university education. But here’s the snag—her father and the entire village idolised Lee Kuan Yew, which prompted him to send her daughter to Singapore for her tertiary education with just RM30 in her wallet. In spectacular fashion, she eventually found her way to the hallowed halls of Singapore’s Parliament working for the man her family and people worship, and the rest is history.

I have never met Lee, but I know gratitude when I see it. I suspect Lee’s “Si Bui Gia” story is not directed at the ungrateful Singaporean but her grateful self. However, she doesn’t know it. On a subconscious level, she is reminding herself how grateful and loyal she is to her employer. On a conscious level and as MP in parliament, this gratitude morphs into national pride but with a paternal subtext that screams—”We have a very good government and you should be grateful for it.”

So where did Lee go wrong? How did virtues like gratitude and loyalty get the veteran MP of 13 years on the receiving end of social media vitriol and ridicule?

“In one fell swoop, “Si But Gia” has flung open the gates of hell, belittling our life journeys and values”

Gratitude Misdirected

As a counsellor I sometimes guide my clients to a place of gratitude which helps them focus on the present to reduce anxiety, but this gratitude is never cajoled, influenced or god forbid, imposed onto them. It must come out of their own volition and timing. However, gratitude can also morph into unwavering loyalty/national pride and develop into behaviour that borders on feeling beholden to the benefactor. Whichever path gratitude takes you, it is deeply personal and derived from YOUR own journeys, and YOUR lived experiences, which develop into YOUR belief system for YOUR application.

I believe Lee’s “crime” lies less in her crass delivery than her audacious imposition of her story of gratitude and loyalty onto the rest of Singapore. It is in this imposition done in the most disparaging manner as a MP that Lee has failed to recognise and respect the different journeys, lived experiences and belief systems of others outside her own.

“Are our lives absent of aspirations, gratitude, sacrifice and hard work just because they don’t lead to positions of power and influence?”

A Nation Wounded

Beneath the public fury is really an outpouring of hurt, rejection and betrayal felt against a paternalistic government at its worst, widening the divide between government and people, and the haves and have nots. Singaporeans must be asking, “Do our life journeys matter less just because they don’t start without electricity in a JB rubber plantation?Are our lives absent of aspirations, gratitude, sacrifice and hard work just because they don’t lead to positions of power and influence? In one fell swoop, “Si But Gia” has flung open the gates of hell, belittling our life journeys and values and ignoring the day to day grind of Singaporeans competing for jobs, paying for rising healthcare costs, making ends meet and feeling like an alien in their own country? It’s not that gratitude is unimportant but struggling to make a decent living is a priority.

Perhaps Lee simply got carried away in national pride and found herself on the wrong side of the tracks over some emotional and sensitive Singaporeans? Perhaps I’m completely wrong in my take on Lee and I am emotional and sensitive?

Let’s be clear—Lee story was offensive and hurtful. In no uncertain terms must leaders recognise and respect the life journeys, struggles and values of the people they serve. In no uncertain terms must we remember our roots and remain grateful and humble, so we can relate to others from that same space of gratitude but with a big dollop of empathy.

Nonetheless I find Lee strangely endearing. She is crass but seriously true to herself. She tells ST she is friends with everyone except those from Workers’ Party, and that she doesn’t know how to wear makeup. Her HDB-auntie demeanour stacks up quite nicely next her stiff neck ex-army and scholar-tracked colleagues, and I bet she knows it. Theatrics aside Lee would do well to know the difference between show and substance.

Singaporeans are obedient and tame, and we don’t cause trouble compared to our neighbours. We certainly don’t expect our leaders to be a New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, but I just wish they would pause to ask themselves why they entered political office? I also wish they would take three deep breaths, close their eyes and for another three seconds imagine what it’s like to be on the other side—and then speak.

 

What I Learned from the Singapore Democratic Party at its Campaign Launch

In what’s starting to look like a trend of venue organisers pulling the rug from under a Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) event, about 200 people showed up at a hotel ballroom last weekend. Expecting an undercurrent of tension, I felt something different in the air that afternoon. I wondered whether it was the rare use of professional props, slides and videos, which was quite uncharacteristic of a resource-poor opposition party? Or did the party stick to their guns to address hot-button issues in a month-by-month format that injected calm and hope into the room?

SDP’s Secretary General Dr Chee Soon Juan’s opener came in the form of a simple question, “Why are you here today?”  As he spoke about the party’s values of wisdom over wealth, rights before riches and people before profits, I looked to the corner of my eye and noticed a well-dressed woman in her 40s next to me. She was sitting upright, leaning forward and clinging onto his every word. With every picture flashed of a suffering Singaporean left behind, she let out an audible “yes,” nodded her head and fought back tears.

You could tell right away that a connection was made. It was if she experienced an epiphany on what Singapore truly is and what it needs to be.

“Fear cripples and robs even the most educated of logic, reasoning and rationale”

Notwithstanding fiery speeches, growing resentment and even tears shed, I asked myself whether Singapore is truly ready for change? Didn’t the Reform Party’s Kenneth Jeyaretnam infamously tell us at the last General Election not to complain because we got the government we deserve? It’s an open secret that Singaporeans complain incessantly about the government but still vote for them at the polls. Elections in Singapore, no matter how it is played, will always be reduced to the fear of the electorate and the vote it produces. Fear cripples and robs even the most educated of logic, reasoning and rationale, and it rears its ugliest head during election season. The best thought-through policies and reasoned arguments are no match for this fear.

I approached one of the SDP volunteers to share my concerns. He admitted he had no answer, but what he did say led to my own epiphany. “You see that woman over there?” he said, pointing across the room. “She’s my wife and she’s here today but it wasn’t always like that.”  He revealed that party work affected his marriage and caused many close to him to keep their distance. Dr Chee also shared how in the past people would literally choose a different path when they spotted him selling books from across the road. Today, he has people queuing to buy his books just so they can be autographed. When a member of the media questioned whether Dr Chee could be trusted, he responded by simply reiterating how he has been fighting for Singapore all this time and nothing has changed.

“Human values of kindness, compassion and equality became the party’s clarion call to unite”

If there were just one message the party was sending out that afternoon it was, “Like it or not, we are here to stay.”

Human values of kindness, compassion and equality became the party’s clarion call to unite, but more understated and resoundingly clear was the display of human resilience set against the mightiest of odds. Perhaps it is this indefatigable spirit to press on in the face of crippling law suits, bankruptcy, loss of income, and dignity that courage lives, breathes and speaks truth into the hearts and minds to those who choose to listen.

I see the woman in her 40s but now with her young daughter in tow. Our eyes meet and we exchange smiles. Her tears are now dry and there is a sense of awakening and clarity in her gaze. I’d like to think she is afraid no more, and I wish the same for the rest for Singapore.

 

A Missed Opportunity by OCBC Bank

In Nov 2018, I walked past an OCBC ATM machine in Fortune Centre, Singapore and heard an alarm bell go off & realised that it was coming from the machine. I saw a bunch of notes lying on the open tray but nobody was paying any attention to it. I made the quick decision to keep the cash to prevent theft but with the intention to return it to the rightful owner.

A week later I walk into the doors of an OCBC branch to return the money, but made it clear to the bank that I wanted to be informed when the money is returned to the rightful owner, and what they would do if this owner did not come forward. The bank officer thanked me and agreed to my requests.

I don’t hear from them for a few weeks but finally get a reply (see pic) after I email them a chaser. They found the owner but did not update me.

The bank was sloppy here but has done no wrong – professionally – but as a PR practitioner I believe OCBC missed out on a great opportunity to capitalise on this simple act of civic mindedness to win customers.

Banks already spend thousands on creative agencies to roll out glitzy campaigns and manufacture stories for social media to tug at heartstrings, but sitting under their nose was an authentic, honest-to-god story of a civic-minded citizen who is not an OCBC customer but wants the best for another. Perhaps OCBC could have easily contacted the rightful owner and me to film a simple video or/and write a Facebook post of this real-life exchange. What a wonderfully authentic but cost-effective way to win marketshare! If this is deemed too bothersome or time-consuming, I wonder why the lovely bank manager Florence did not offer to perhaps give me a $10 gift voucher or get a senior staff to write me a letter of appreciation? Any simple gesture of acknowledgement would have won me over and many more after my sharing with friends, family and colleagues is done.

In this age of corporate distrust, dismal bank interest rates and fierce competition, any chance to demonstrate authenticity and honesty is gold.

As a counsellor, this episode makes me question the emotional state of our workforce the country is producing. We are trained and equipped with the hardware to achieve optimum growth and healthy GDP figures, but where is our heartware and sense of creativity? Would things have been different if Florence loved and cared for her job so much so that she would want the best for her employer and think out of the box? Or are our workers so stressed and unhappy that when they witness a random act of “kindness” they offer the customary “thank you” and get on with their day?

Why Friendships “Fade”

They don’t fade but become clearer when we realise how our values and beliefs affect relationships

Have you ever had a friend you’ve known for eons suddenly drop off the face of the earth? She just stopped texting, face booking or calling and you don’t get it. Wasn’t it just last week that she was singing at your birthday celebration? And the week before you were both sharing a hotpot? So you text her but one-word answers are all you get. You even check your Facebook to see whether she has unfriended you.

Then a few months later you run into her. You wonder whether to be elated or anxious but she looks visibly disinterested and manages a weak “hi.” For the first time you feel the disconnect then the awkwardness, and it becomes too much to bear. You walk away flabbergasted with only more questions in your head—is it something you did or did not do?  Or was it something you said? You give up and tell yourself that the friendship just “faded,” and you know there’s more but she’s not telling.

“Values and beliefs can change the dynamics of friendships & even end it.”

Values & Beliefs

It’s likely to be none of the above and your friendship certainly didn’t fade, but it’s more about how our values and beliefs can change the dynamics of the friendship or even end it. According to Schhwatz’s theory of basic human values, values are our beliefs which drives our decisions to achieve our goals. They are important to us because they make up a big part of our belief system. We subconsciously learn or inherit our values from family, culture, work, social and religious settings. Respecting the elderly, seeking status and approval or plain honesty are just some examples.  Values also evolve over time and change when we reach different life cycles, but they can also become more pronounced and emotionally charged when met with a significant incident.

A Tale of Two Friends & Two Values

The following is a true incident which exposed the conflicting values of two friends and ended their friendship.

Tom, 44,  and Hady, 46 belong to the IT industry. Tom is a service provider and Hadi the client. Tom is introspective in nature and Hady enjoys being popular and liked. They worked well together and common friends and interests made them fast friends. Tom was grateful for the work and Hady was just happy to add another friend to join his circle. This went on for another three years as holidays, dinners, and attending concerts filled their time.

Tom started questioning the friendship after a client referred by Hady ran away with $16,000 in owed fees. Hady didn’t seem to care and Tom felt betrayed. To Tom’s horror, Hady even invited that same client to his birthday party. Tom accepted the invite only because the client could not come but he knew that that get-together would be their last. As angry and hurt Tom felt, the incident made him identify his own values to help him cope with his feelings.

Tom believes strongly in honesty and authenticity and cares little about what others think of him. Hadi, on the other hand, is driven by the need to feel approved by the right crowd. Referring clients to Tom, unfortunately at his expense, was Hadi’s way of feeling connected and staying popular. With the benefit of hindsight Tom does not blame Hady for the $16,000 loss, but it did take him $16,000 to make him see how their values are vastly different. It’s not what he did but who he is. Tom knew it would not be possible stay friends with Hady.

“Friendships don’t fade. They just become clearer.”

Life Stages

The process of identifying our values and beliefs doesn’t need to be dramatic or end friendships.  Values and beliefs naturally change when we reach different life cycles and stages in our lives. For instance, don’t we have friends we hardly see anymore after they marry and start families? Their conversations now revolve around their children and it’s just not the same anymore. Or how about that friend you travelled the world with but didn’t invite you to his gay wedding when it matters because of your religious beliefs? Then there’s that friend you shared tears over a broken heart 10 years ago but he’s now happily married in China and wants little to do with anything and anyone in Singapore. It’s not what we did or said but how our values have made us who we are or into what we have become.

Friendships don’t fade. They just become clearer.

7 Tips to Better Support your Friend with Cancer

A friend announces she has cancer on Facebook but I resist the urge to message her back. Instead we meet for lunch and here’s what I learned

1. Facebook posts, WhatsApp messages and happy, clappy emojis are nice and sweet but can be seen as inauthentic and too convenient. There’s nothing like lunch to say you care enough to offer your time and listening ear

2. Just because they choose to meet you on a good day doesn’t mean all is well. Never say, “But you don’t look sick!” It trivialises their struggle and denies the existence of their illness.

3. Putting up a strong front is not just about courage but necessity.  They are not just cancer patients but spouses, parents and children to others too.

4. They won’t ask for help because they are overly considerate. But when they do the love and support is overwhelming and goes a long way. Offer to help, anyway,

5. Staying strong is exhausting and incredibly lonely. Behind every Facebook post on seizing the day is another day battling uncertainty, fear and pain, which you won’t get to see.

6. Be happy for them they have a select group of friends to turn to on a bad day. Yes, even if you are not part of that group.

7. Resist their offer to talk about your struggles. Today is not about you but them.

6 Simple Truths on Happiness

The T-Project will open the Singapore’s first-ever community centre for transgender youth on 20 November. Founder June Chua has no formula for success but to trust her inner voice

On fronting T-Project, which provides a safe space for transgender people who have faced rejection or persecution.

“I actually feel uncomfortable representing the entire transgender community because there is so much diversity amongst us but there is only one me

On giving advice to her community

“I just tell them to do what makes them happy.”

On discrimination against transgenders

“I don’t know why people keep asking me about this because I’m actually happy being a transgender.”

On what drives her

“Happiness. Maybe I’m selfish but seeing smiles on the faces of the people I help is so powerful.”

On staying happy

“I have no expectations on anyone. That way I’m never disappointed.

On her future

“I don’t have any 5 or 10-year plans for T-project. I just do what makes me happy.

7 Job Interviews from Hell

(Based on true encounters in Singapore)

Work can be a major source of  anger, anxiety and depression because it determines our livelihood but also our identity and self worth. But even in an employer’s market like Singapore, jobseekers must uphold their dignity and recognise poor HR practices and inexperienced interviewers, too.

  1. Their opening question is, “Tell me about yourself” then they flip open to read your resume for the very first time as they search for your name.
  1. No less than three junior HR executives interview you for a senior position but are suddenly  struck dumb when they can’t answer any of your job-related  questions.
  1. He suddenly offers you the job for $x (usually a low figure) just to gauge your reaction but with no intention to hire you.
  1. They grill you for no less than 45 minutes but when it’s your turn to ask they limit you to just three questions because they have other candidates to see.
  1. You wonder whether you are at a job interview or press conference because it sounds like they lifted motherhood statements from their press release to answer your questions on company growth and career trajectory.
  1. The senior manager decides not to show up leaving her junior executive who has not read your resume to interview you. She works fast and needs just 10 minutes to decide that you are not right for the job and tells you that in your face.
  1. The HR staff interrupts to ask, “What if I don’t give you your asking salary?” When he detects your displeasure he adds, “Just because you are here doesn’t mean we will give you the job.”

10 Signs That It’s Time To Stop Confiding In Friends/Family &  Find a Counsellor 

(Based on true encounters)

Confiding with friends and family can hurt more than heal. Despite their best intentions, the absence of empathy, listening intently and attending behaviour can cause more anxiety, depression and even anger. 

  1. They pepper the conversation with “I understand, I understand, I understand” when they really don’t. 
  1. They struggle to maintain eye contact with you and not their handphone. Then an incoming message appears and you completely lose them.
  1. They hijack the conversation and tell you how they had it worse but survived. 
  1. You call but there’s no pick up or call back, so you text to say you desperately need to talk. He texts back to say, “What’s up?”  
  1. They magically become experts of your life and tell you in great detail how to run it.
  1. They offer at least 10 creative theories why it’s really not that bad.
  1. You can’t decide which is worse to hear: “Get over it” or “move on.”
  1. They see you at your most vulnerable and hit you when you are down. 
  1. They tell you not to think too much, have a good shower, pray and go to  bed.
  1. When it’s all over you wonder why you feel even more anxious and lonely.

 

What Whitney Houston & a Singapore Divorcee Have in Common? 

So I caught up with an old friend “Geraldine” over lunch. Now divorced with two  daughters after 10 years of marriage,  she disclosed why she called it quits.

Was it adultery, gambling, physical abuse or alcoholism? It was none of these reasons but just three words her ex husband said to her:  “You are weak”.  I immediately recalled late singer Whitney Houston revealing to Oprah Winfrey that she called it quits after her husband spat in her face, but what’s the connection?

Both Houston and Geraldine put up with lack of support and marital issues, but one thing they could not tolerate was being humiliated and losing their dignity. I’m guessing Geraldine finally awoke to the idea that she was more than what her Husband made her out to be—an incompetent wife and mother. She decided to reclaim her dignity and self respect.

How well do couples know of themselves when they marry or enter into relationships? Loyalty, commitment and responsibility are well and good but where does self respect, individualism and dignity fit in?

Marriage, Family & Asian Values Feel The Heat

May 2018-An op-ed written by a NUS sociologist and published in The Straits Times this May caused quite a stir. It called for unmarried couples to cohabit and the relaxation of  divorce laws to reverse the country’s low fertility rate. Apart from its rather controversial but bold recommendations, the piece was spot on in addressing the systemic causes of stress Singapore families are facing.

 

Why Criminalise & Censor Suicides

World Suicide Prevention Day was commemorated on 10 Sept to raise awareness that suicide can be prevented. For a country that still criminalises suicide how has Singapore fared?

I personally know of 4 suicide cases in the last 3 months alone and all went unreported. 

According to the  The Straits Times, the 2016 Report on Registration of Births and Deaths found that after a downward trend over three years, the number of people who killed themselves went up slightly in 2016. A total of 429 people took their own lives last year, up from 409 in 2015, 415 in 2014 , and 422 in 2013. The newspaper also reported that these figures are “in line” with those of most developed countries, which range between eight and 10 suicides per 100,000 people.

Our national media has an unwritten rule to underreport suicides so as to discourage copycats, but  I wish they would rethink this because it is clearly not working. Suicide is still misunderstood by many. Not talking about it and “downplaying” it does not help.

There are now discussions to decriminalise suicide and AWARE has been quite vocal asking for more compassion instead of enforcement in dealing with suicidal people.

Why Are Celebrity Suicides Making Headlines 

In just one week during themonth of June 2018, the suicides of American designer Kate Spade & Chef Anthony Bourdain hit the headlines and shocked the world.

My heart goes out to their family and friends, but should we pause and ask whether fame and success is “everything?” People who have a lot less do end their lives too .It was reported that Bourdain’s Mother  could not understand her son’s suicide because he had “everything” in life.

Do these headlines and the shocked reactions imply fame and fortune are everything?

In a fathering conference I attended in June,  speaker Cassie Carstens from South Africa describes values as things that are important to us, and how they guide our decisions, actions and behaviours. So as much as Bourdain and Spade deserve their “success” in the eyes of the world,  it says little about their values.

Here at home, our mainstream media don’t appear that different. Daughter of The Hour Glass founder and socialite Jannie Tay was reported by mainstream media to have pleaded guilty to drug consumption. But aren’t there others who are less wealthy or lesser known who plead guilty to the same charges every other day, but why did TODAY single Audrey Tay out? Does the newspaper think that the rich live more  important lives, so when they slip  up they deserve to make the news?

Confronting Singapore’s Poor & other Biases

Aug 4, 2018—Does a flatscreen TV make a poor family undeserving of government assistance?  NUS Sociologist Teo You Yenn’s argues in her bestselling book “This is What Inequality Looks Like” that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

The overwhelming response to this book is remarkable in how it has made us question measures of success in Singapore and whether Singapore is truly meritocratic. So are Singaporeans starting to tire from the pursuit of status and wealth?

I met the affable author at a jam-packed dialogue session and asked her thoughts on Senior Minister Maliki’s (Senior Minister of State for the Minister of Defence) rebuttal to her book after publishing her findings based on three years of conversations, observations and in-depth interviews with the low income.

Did the minister even read the book before penning his reply? What is he afraid of?

The Cleaner & his Cat

Sept 5, 2018—So I took a picture of a Bangladeshi cleaner cradling a fat ginger cat like a baby outside Toa Payoh library, and it quickly went viral on social media. Mothership published it then Class95FM came to interview the cleaner and me then they posted it on their Facebook.

Every one swooned over the unlikely relationship between Sajeep and Ah Wang the cuddly cat, but I had other plans when I captured the moment.

How do we treat service staff, toilet aunties, uncles and cleaners? They take on jobs we shun but do we shun them to the extent that we don’t even look at them? 

Do we need another cat to get past our prejudices or can we see people for who they are regardless of their jobs they do?

I’m Good Enough-Medal or No Medal

Aug 27, 2018—Joseph Schooling might have won gold but a bigger winner to me is Asian Games silver medalist Roanne Ho.  Her Facebook reveals the panic attacks, insomnia and anxiety behind her win but says her biggest prize is finding her self worth-regardless of medals…more.   

 

Millenials Get Creative Battling Anxiety

July 9, 2018– IMH reported  that the number of teens seeking mental health treatment jumped by 190 per cent, but i recently met a bunch of young adults who are using art to address their anxiety.

My curiosity drove me visit two Singapore-based artistes in their 20s who staged an exhibition titled Head Spinning, Loop Creating at the Gillman Barracks, based on the theme of mental health.

A pile of paper shredded from the pages of a Chinese calendar laid in the corner of the gallery found me talking to artist Kheyton Lim.  Lim shared he experienced domestic violence in his life and his work was aimed at challenging his mother’s cultural norms of staring at the calendar for a good 10 seconds before tearing it off at the end of each day.  I  also saw topics addressing sexual orientation and resistance to authority in his other works.

I asked Lim and  artists about their source of inspiration and the process of producing their art, I saw relief, comfort and appreciation in their sharing. Art as a form of expression can be cathartic when it is shared in a public space, so the pain is better managed and the journey less lonely.