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.