What You Teach is What You Get

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Half past noon on a sunny Tuesday morning, we are on an internal flight headed to Washington D.C. – we have been on many airplanes over the course of the past two weeks. The past three days back in Illinois (after Colorado), we went downtown to do mandatory “souvenir shopping for family”. Seated on high chairs along the counter of an ice-cream parlour, my brother suddenly expressed his admiration for the American culture of acceptance and friendliness. “They treat everyone equally,” he said, “whether you are a cleaner or a security guard.” I nodded in agreement with a tight smile. I’ve had this conversation with others many times before: about what might have gone wrong with the Singapore system that we have an inflated sense of self based on privilege perceived as entitlement. This one’s on how we are the producers and the products in this society.

I vividly recall my Southeast Asian history teacher sharing at the end of her lesson an experience that had left her perturbed – she was in the lift of her HDB estate that evening along with a father and his two children. In the short span of the lift ride, the father had chided the little girl (no more than 8 years of age) for her 75% spelling test score result. The little girl who had been beaming with pride when sharing her result at the start of the lift ride quickly transformed her smile into tears of dejection. Her shoulders slumped and her eyes looking only downward. Then, while scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I caught sight of an article about a Singaporean father teaching his version of “how to treat hawkers” to his two children in a hawker centre. When the children had forgotten to take utensils for their food, he had instructed them to take a set of utensils for themselves from any stall. The stall owners had asked for them to return the utensils because every stall only has a limited number of utensils meant for their own customers. Rather than having his children go to the correct stall to obtain utensils, the father declared that he would take a photo of the stall and report their “unhygienic practices” to the authorities, starting a commotion. In a nutshell, he had decided to pin a false accusation upon the stall.

Volunteering with children, I have always seen a clean slate of immense potential. I have often witnessed for myself how influential the ‘teachers’ in the lives of children are in shaping their every value and belief. Also, I have always been fascinated by how these ‘teachers’ in their lives include every grown adult they cross paths with even before the time they start remembering things. It is as if every child is a blank canvas and all of us who chance upon them are artists. My new read is The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. The first chapter is titled “How we can be possessed by a story we cannot tell”. In which, psychologist Dr. Grosz describes his experience with patients who have been haunted by one of the youngest childhood memories even when they are in their late sixties. The trauma from childhood memories – things seen being said or done to others or unto them, can unknowingly create the greatest impact on the way they grow up and live. In the days of A level anxiety, a relaxation technique attempted included meditation classes. The instructor, then, had encouraged us to dig deep into our earlier childhood memories to uncover the source of pain and sorrow so as to alleviate the suffering we experience now. I guess the early painters of our lives took up more space on our canvas than we would have expected.

With reference to this belief in the potential of children to be shaped by adults, I am incredibly disappointed to hear these anecdotal examples I have chanced upon. It disappoints me that there exists this paradox – where society blames the younger generation for all sorts of things (‘Strawberry generation’, the inconsiderate, selfish, entitled generation, etc.) that actually came from the very generation dishing out these complaints. Worse, the cycle persists. A common accusation is “Singaporeans are selfish”: we rank 64 out of 144 countries on the World Giving Index by measure of attitudes despite our growing philanthropy scene. I sometimes ponder about whether we are creating a selfish generation by believing so fervently in the meritocracy that shapes our entire society. In some senses, our belief in working for credit and reward has lead to the attitude that attributes (relative) poverty or failure to the lack of hard work subsequently giving less because “you deserve to be where you have landed yourself”. We have also (sub)consciously begun to associate one’s worth to the amount that he or she earns, i.e. one’s profession: this story about learning not to belittle people who work at MacDonald’s resonates with me because it was the first part-time job I’d ever taken when I was 14.

I do not deny the successes that Singapore enjoys because of our faithful belief in meritocracy, but my growing awareness of the social effect from this same system leads me to believe that more can be done to mitigate these unintended negative consequences. I, too, admire the equal respect and friendliness with which Americans treat their fellow and aspire that one day, we will rid of the (sub)conscious association of value of a person with their personal income. Read the other hopes I have for Singapore in the years to come here, we have to work towards these dreams from now. What we teach is what we get, so perhaps it is a good idea to start teaching right, now.

Here’s to the ones who taught me everything I know:

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In 2065: We Ourselves

Written two days ago:

Today we’re on the roads. We are exactly midway in our retreat to the United States and by tonight, we will be in Colorado Springs resting before our flight back to Chicago tomorrow. Moments away from my siblings have been time for myself to read, watch films online and write. Sometimes, I think about the impending 2016 and the exciting (or scary, uncertain) things ahead. Other times, I immerse myself in the thoughts of authors I have come to respect greatly. Kishore Mahbubani has been one such author, his Can Singapore Survive was thought provoking to say the least.

This is the last in a series of three pieces (find the first here and the second here) on my hopes and dreams for Singapore by 2065. Inspired very much by the ideas of Mahbubani, we discuss 2065 at this point as we will soon welcome a new year, which begins the chapter that tells the story of the next fifty years for Singapore. I believe in the power of individuals and that of our influence. So to secure these dreams of 2065, it depends on me as much as it depends on you. This is exactly what this last piece is about – individual responsibility.

It is undeniable that good governance has brought us a long way in the last 50 years. We learn in history that Singapore’s economic miracle can be attributed largely to the judiciousness and principles of governance in our early years. I read over and over in Can Singapore Survive about the standard of excellence that Singapore’s public service upholds and I begin to develop a new level of appreciation for the good governance that we enjoy to today. Mahbubani argues that this is abnormal – societies similar to ours tend to experience political instability or a decline in standards of governance (or both) over time. Then, it is only a matter of time that statistical probability kicks in and Singapore suffers from this similar decline. I am not saying it will happen, I am saying it might.

Relevant to the previous piece on the importance of foreseeing failure, we must be prepared for the unthinkable to brace ourselves for any downturn as effectively as possible. This is one. The ‘preparation’ against this would be individual responsibility. A simple way to begin is to start picking litter for ourselves in public spaces. We are notorious for the army (literally) of cleaners we employ to keep our Garden City clean. I hope to propose to you how beneficial it might be for us to take individual responsibility and pick litter up for ourselves. This simple move will not only benefit us economically by reducing the amount spent on employing these cleaners, but also feed our Singapore soul. This act of taking personal responsibility for problems of the nation will bind Singaporeans together in a way that exists only minimally today – the solidarity from the knowledge that we, Singaporeans, care for one another and our shared problems, will be food to our Singapore soul. Imagine that.

We’ve had enough nation building in the past 50 years in the literal sense. The physical infrastructure will suffice for now as our pioneers have, with foresight, created a generation of Singaporeans leading these institutions that will pursue improvement endlessly. It’s time to build the nation’s heart and soul, and it begins with us Singaporeans. I finished the inspiring read last night and it ended with a rhetorical question: Do Singaporeans know what the national anthem means by heart? Why or why not? A question well asked – if we are to take individual responsibility for the nation and its future, then perhaps we could start from the fundamental virtues our pioneers built this nation upon.

Majulah Singapura, here’s to a great 2016!

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Head Fake

Thunderstorm in Dallas not too long ago has left the Colorado Springs Airport slightly more crowded than it was hours earlier because of the numerous flights that got delayed (including ours). We surrendered the car we had rented earlier this noon so as not to incur extra day charges and have been camping out in the airport ever since. A far cry from the International Airport we have back at home that I now miss dearly, this one’s smaller – you can walk from one end of the Departure Hall to the other within a minute. Perhaps ten at most, if you crawled by your steps at snail’s pace. Armed with my handy-dandy (version super-old) MacBook and time for reflection, I sit facing the glass panels that stretch from the floor to the ceiling revealing the stellar night view of the runway.

This one is about “head fakes”. In my recent read while in Colorado titled The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, he described how “head fake” (a term used by athletes), to him could refer to indirect learning from an experience, akin to an actual head fake. He used “head fake” as a term that refers to a situation where you think you’re learning about something, but actually turn out to be learning something different. For example, when you learn sports, it is a “head fake” because what you’re truly learning is not the sport in itself – not the kicking, throwing and dribbling. It is the sportsmanship, the stamina in face of rigour and the perseverance in picking oneself up from failure. The latter are the lessons that will shape the people we become from having learned sports, arguably more valuable in the long run.

Midway through my luxury of a month-long traveling retreat (which my friend Desmond kindly summarizes as “traveling around the world in one month”), I think I might conclude that this holiday is a “head fake” in itself. The assets on this trip are not quite the airplane rides, not the experience in snow or the sledding and snowshoeing. The exhilaration from being in a new environment to witness alternative lifestyles (especially the pace of living), cultures and weather is real but it wouldn’t be enduring through time. Instead, the true gain comes from my learning to slow down and the time away from familiarity. [1] Away from the hustle and bustle of Singapore, I can fully, deeply experience the quality time with my siblings and appreciate their perks to the very smallest ones – I am increasingly reminded of how blessed I am to have siblings I would choose to be friends with any day. [2] The unfamiliarity here has me opening my eyes a little wider, looking a little harder and paying attention to the every detail in the people I meet and places I go. And as my favourite literature teacher once taught us: you learn the most when you are observant of the stories of strangers around you everyday. [3] There is also an enhanced sense of mindfulness because I hope to think deeply about how I feel whenever I can, with my limited time detached from the obligations of being a “post-A level graduate”. The time for reflection and relaxation is truly rewarding.

Those are the “head fakes” of my month-long retreat, of which I’m only halfway through and looking forward to more. Here’s to being mindful for the actual treasures of the moments we experience. Embrace the “head fakes”.

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In 2065: Foreseeing Failure

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Written days ago on the plane:

For this morning, we are on an internal flight headed for Wyoming from Denver. With the window seat, I have the luxury of admiring the beautiful view below us. Everything is white. The snow has covered roofs of houses, roads and what used to be pedestrian pavements. I imagine most locals are indoors keeping warm from the negative temperatures outdoors, preparing for Christmas coming in less than a week. For this hour-long flight, I am thinking about the possibility of failure for this country, for any country. In History, we learn of the strength and dominance of the US economy against the backdrop of the global economy. In light of the economic world order developed from the post-World War II period shaped with the US economy at its crux, any recent speculation of the possible diminishing dominance of the US economy along with the rising Asian economies would have come as absolutely absurd just decades ago. Now, it is plausible. This leads me to think that there is little certainty for the success of any country, including Singapore’s “Third World to First” success story.

Second in a series of three pieces (find the first here), I hope to break down the insights I have gained from my holiday read – Can Singapore Survive by Kishore Mahbubani. In this book, Mahbubani advises that Singaporeans should always be “on our toes in foreseeing failure”. He quotes the example of the 1981 elections, where PAP suffered its first defeat at the polls in many years. In that time, Dr Goh Keng Swee had said, “we (the PAP) failed because we did not even conceive of the possibility of failure”. Scary is our future if generations of Singaporeans like us cannot prepare ourselves for failure. Our pioneers themselves had fought hard to succeed only with numerous failures, the key was the willpower to make good mistakes and learn from them.

On an individual level, it has hence become part of who I hope to become- someone able to embrace the possibility of failure and failure in itself, whatever the circumstance might be. It is only if we can foresee failure that we can prevent them as far as possible and give it our best shot at achieving the ideal. I hope to strive towards making good mistakes and making better mistakes every subsequent time. In a piece I wrote weeks ago for PostScript Stories titled “The Tyranny of Expectations”, I find the risk aversion and fear of failure embedded in my attitude very much related to these expectations that I revolve my actions around. For the year ahead, here’s to being one who foresees failure comfortably.

Let’s begin from the individual level and “pray let us not give any future historian occasion to say of Singapore: ‘They failed because they did not even conceive of the possibility of failure.’ “

In 2065: Less Car Singapore

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Written days before today:

On board the plane bound to the US, this 16-hour flight is ending in another 5 hours and I have lost track of time. It is dark and cold. This is the first in a series of three pieces I have decided to write to document the insight gained from my read this holiday – Can Singapore Survive by Kishore Mahbubani. This December as we rejuvenate ourselves for yet another exciting year ahead, I thought it might be appropriate to also consider these possibilities for the country we call our home and where we might find ourselves contributing to the national narrative ahead.

In his book, Mahbubani illustrates his hopes of having car ownership be a “nightmare and not a dream” in 2065. The current reality that cars are an important social status symbol in the ‘Singapore Dream’ is not only unhelpful towards our unique dilemma with land scarcity but also an exacerbating factor compounding Singapore’s already great contribution to environmental damage. Mahbubani refers to the trend of luxury, branded cars attracting much more sales (than relatively cheap but still functional models) as a sign that the appeal of private car ownership is one related to social status beyond convenience. He warns against falling into the trap of massive traffic jams observed in Jakarta and Bangkok. If the appeal of private car ownership (in terms of social status rather than something purely functional) remains, then the demand is likely to bring us to follow the footsteps of these cities. (It’s already happening: Think MCE)

From the privilege of collaborating with Hemispheres Foundation on an environmental service project last year (Office Go Green by Team Washington), the extent of environmental damage Singapore contributes to with our carbon emissions, for me, is reason enough to commit to this cultural change that will fundamentally change the transport system of our nation. It is exciting for me to imagine a reality where Singaporeans get from place to place by carpool (through taxi sharing phone applications), bike sharing (maximizing our park connector routes already in place) and with effective reliance (and not overreliance) on our public transport system. Somewhere in his book, Mahbubani also envisions a rental area for electric cars at every MRT station so that working adults could choose to complete the last leg of their journey by car after taking public transport. I think it would be a pleasant dream to work toward. Size can be our greatest weakness and our biggest strength. Weakness it will be if we lack the foresight to work against the possible development into an overly congested city as Mahbubani suggests, allowing congestion to immbolise us (literally). Strength it could be if we ride on our small size to develop a public transport system made up of not only buses and MRT stations.

(From the book) The former mayor of Colombian capital Bogota said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Then, as Mahbubani convincingly puts forth in his book, let’s work to replace the Singapore dream to the Bogota Dream. In Vauban, a suburb in Germany, 70% of residents choose to live without private cars due to excellent city planning and a car sharing system. Taking inspiration from this dream made into reality elsewhere, I have confidence in our miracle of a First World country (from Third Word in five decades) that we, too, can achieve a “less-car Singapore”.

For those who get the reference, this is for your viewing pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Slpz0D35oRI

Christmas: 10 Things

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Christmas eve morning, I’m in our cozy apartment at the heart of Estes Park, Colorado in the United States. The air outside is still and the snow has settled, covering everything with layers of white. Hot chocolate is our morning go-to in this chilly weather nowadays – it brings a warm tingling to the heart. In Singapore time, it is less than an hour in Christmas. This triggers my annual reflection about what ‘Merry Christmas’ means to me:

Not particularly religious or inquisitive in this area, I have failed to formulate a take on the origins of Christmas. Instead, I am more aware of how we are experiencing Christmas today – the Christmas stockings, Christmas trees and their accompanying ornaments, the caroling and the reunion of families around a table of good food. Back in Singapore when I closed my eyes and imagined ‘Christmas’, I would think snow, Christmas lights, snowball fights, building snowmen and the exchange of greetings with every eye contact made with even strangers. For Christmas this year, I am experiencing exactly that in the U.S. and it feels like a dream. This is magical and I do feel so very blessed.

Christmas remains a season of giving for me: a time to be thankful for the miracles we have experienced in our lives and to pay it forward to those around us with presence. This morning I lay in bed, just awake. In one hand, I was hugging my new soft toy Frosty. I decided to think of 10 miracles I have been given to be thankful for this Christmas:

1 For my one of a kind family and siblings

2 For meals that are so full and nourishing

3 For the quality education (and literacy) I have received in the past year

4 For the friends who love me so that I have crossed paths with

5 For everyone else who have came by and gone, but left their valuable footprints

6 For the privilege of serving time and again

7 For the people who have believed in me and invested in me

8 For the chance to travel through countries

9 For my greatest worry at any point being “Which university will I get to?” instead of anything else

10 For living past my fifth birthday

My only regret this Christmas is to be apart from parents and my extended family.

Merry Christmas everyone! It is my pleasure to have you meet Frosty:

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The Truth Will Set Us Free

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I had a theory. Had.

I had a theory that it was okay to lie. I believed in white lies: the sort that you tell to “make life easier for everyone” (but really I told them, I realize, because it would be easier for myself). My theory had it that if we were to strive continuously to maximize happiness for ourselves and for those around us and if telling lies sometimes did the trick, then telling lies was okay. On some days, to prevent a conflict or to prevent unnecessary emotionally charged conversations lies would roll of my tongue. “It’s better for everyone,” I would justify. But nowadays, I am starting to think otherwise. I am starting to tell myself the truth.

In my recent read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, under the section “VI: How to live your life”, he illustrates how the truth may set us free literally. He tells the story of how he had been pulled over while speeding on an expressway by a police officer once. In that time, it was telling the truth of his circumstance and his intentions that had set him free (literally), much to his surprise. Underlying this story, I concluded that his intentions were to teach the lesson of having faith in the consequences when you tell the truth. The truth may set us free in more ways than one – maybe both physically and mentally (from the turmoil that keeping a secret may cause). One big stumbling block to telling the truth when I don’t is the idea that the consequences of lying would be far more desirable than that of doing otherwise. Often, the disparity in consequences is exaggerated and often, unnecessarily so. It’s similar to the exaggerated negative consequences we imagine before helping a stranger- redundant, irrational and usually, inaccurate.

I am beginning to think that surrounding myself with as much truth as possible might surprise me and I would like to try. This reminds me a little of the Truman Show – where Jim Carrey plays a man living a lie from birth. The town in which he lives was constructed from scratch by movie directors and script writers, his ‘neighbours’ all actors and his job merely a role he was unknowingly assigned by the production crew. He thought he was living a life of his own but everyone else was acting. In short, the movie was about a man who lived a lie. I recall the devastation he experienced in learning that none of what he had known to be his life was true. I never want to realize that I had been living a lie that I had created for myself and I can only start by being truthful to myself and to others as far as possible. Perhaps, the truth will set me free.

At this point, I want to acknowledge the difficulty in telling black from white in a world that is very much grey. The line between truth and lie is not always clear, and it is often simpler to mix a little more lie than truth. It is in my hopes that I will abandon “a grey world” and “white lies” as shields in my defense against having to fight for truth. We already live in a world where these excuses have been abused time and again so we should at least be truthful in our own capacity. May the intentions be to earn the trust of others by being a person that stands for more truth than lie, every time.

Perhaps, the truth will set us free.