Filiae Melioris Aevi (Since 1879)

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Saturday morning: it is early enough for the buses to be almost empty and for elderly who came out for a breezy walk at dawn to be seen on the streets. The sky is a soothing shade of blue, and I can already feel a beautiful day coming on. Today’s agenda begins with a morning at my alma mater, Raffies Girls’ School (Secondary) advocating for filiae melioris aevi at Open House 2016. This long bus ride is for reflections on the courage to believe and commitment to service that I learned in the compounds of this school.

There is reason for many of my peers and I to refer to our alma mater as “home” – it is more than the familiar green, black and white campus or the folded sleeves we liked to call our “thing”. A house is just a building; “home”, it’s a feeling. The culture of the school championed the celebration of ourselves as people. We were characterized by our beliefs, values, convictions and the community causes we held close to our hearts. Our teachers taught us that we were more than our grades and valued us for the things we loved to do. I picked up the double bass in Chinese Orchestra and went on to partake in concerts and Singapore Youth Festival showcases with the ensemble. While those who know me well would be billionaires if they got a penny for every time I expressed wishes to be playing more than the bass line, I was taught that learning is a process and your peers are your most valuable tutors. Amongst peers, there was an expert for everything – the best part was a sense of humility that garnered respect and created a culture of exchange for the better of one another.  Much of the academic excellence I attained in my years in the Raffles Program was a feat made possible only with kind guidance from peers.

Then, another important understanding achieved was that privilege was the basis of gratitude. Noblesse oblige meant that our privilege entailed responsibility to contribute to the greater good of society. We are “daughters of a better age”. Every other day, there would be Community Problem Solving Program teams or Youth For Causes teams announcing fundraising efforts for their respective community causes. We were taught to look at circumstances of the underprivileged with empathy and meaningfully impact their lives to the best of our ability. Service starts small – I learned it while serving the school community through House Committee. We were united on the common vision to create a more vibrant learning environment and integrate new additions to our RGS family (Y1s) into the school. These causes we believed in passionately allowed us to focus on our similarities more than our differences. Consequently, from putting our self-interests aside to serve the school community, we developed empathy and selflessness. I will never forget the late nights for orientation camp that the leadership boards pulled through together, nor the countless meetings with the House Committee to improve our “House Time” with the members of the school community.

When I walk backwards in my learning journey from where I am presently, I always come back to some of the most turbulent but important days of self-improvement and character development in this school. Being involved in Youth Corps Singapore that champions service before self, Halogen Foundation Singapore that advocates “influence is leadership” and my dedication to the healthcare industry; all of which are means I keep myself a part of something larger, living and breathing what this school has taught me.

Filiae Melioris Aevi

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What Money Cannot Buy

A bumpy 1-hour ride on a straight bus to HarbourFront Centre has found me in the humble compound of Starbucks Coffee: armed with my Macbook, the thick whiff of caffeine and inspired by thoughts from my recent read, What Money Cannot Buy by Michael J. Sandel. Today, taking a break from work for family time and an intimidating interview with the scholarship board guised as a “tea session”, I am dressed in an effeminate fashion of ‘formal’. This afternoon’s thoughts encompass my preliminary thoughts in response to “what is in a ‘job’?”

Humans of Singapore’s recent post about a Singaporean’s saddest moment of his life has been shared numerous times on my feed:

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The post made me cringe a little, accompanying this tinge of sadness was a trigger of continued reflection on “what is in a ‘job’?”. Perhaps it is our increased affluence that allows for the pursuit of ‘self-actualization’ in every aspect of life, so we increasingly attempt to find meaning in our professions. And then, we become confused to believe that the converse is always true – that one’s profession is telling of his/her source of fulfillment, or the extent of ‘self-actualization’ that he/she was able to achieve. There seems, also, to be an obsession with financial security. Understandably, in this age of rising costs and our putting-a-price-on-everything, the most idiot-proof ticket towards certainty would be savings. It is our defense mechanism. Therein lies the irony – that in our age of affluence and knowledge, we have only become more unsure; in this age where we have uncovered infinite possibilities, we have only become more afraid. The uncertainty and fear have culminated in our obsession with being ‘financially secure’: a moving goalpost in itself. We don’t know what we are working so hard for. Yet, we have been mislead to believe that what we spend most of our time doing (our jobs) is representative of our identity. One would expect more empathy since we are all in this age of uncertainty together, just trying to save up for a rainy day.

Since when, was “What do you do (as a job)?” synonymous to “Who are you as a person?”. At which point in our lives exactly, are we slowly taught to believe that our value as a person is proportional to the pay we receive? Why is salary taboo?

At this point, I wish to apply lessons from What Money Cannot Buy by Michael J. Sandel and present two main arguments to make sense of why we have to fight against the societal norm of confusing identity with profession: (1) The Corruption Objection and (2) The Fairness Objection.

Because it Corrupts our Values

I quote an alarming example from the read – “In Dallas, they pay second graders $2 for each book they read. To collet the cash, students have to take a computerized quiz to prove they’ve read the book”. The economic sense herein would be that the students benefit from the monetary profit if they accomplish a task and do not incur additional punishment for not accomplishing the task; they are in no disadvantage compared to before. Then, the school also succeeds in encouraging students to read more. A “win-win”, if and only if the moral good (in this case, the habit of reading) is not “corrupted” by the added monetary incentive. One might object to this practice based on the Corruption Objection because of how the reading habit is believed to be an intrinsic inclination – we read because there is joy in learning and acquiring knowledge or in imagining a story conveyed in prose.

In that same way, the association of a person’s value to their ‘job’ inevitably takes into account the salary one is paid. Then, we run the risk of corrupting the judgment of a person with the ‘economic value of a worker’.

Another alarming example quoted was that of a Utah woman who auctioned commercial access to her forehead. (I quote) “As a single mother of an eleven-year-old boy who was struggling in school, Kari Smith needed money for her son’s education. In an online auction, she offered to install a permanent tattoo advertisement on her forehead for a commercial sponsor willing to pay $10, 000.” There is something demeaning about this process of objectification (of the woman) by regarding her forehead as a billboard for commercialization. I would venture to propose that our judgment of one another as human beings based solely on one’s ‘economic value’ can be likened to this anecdote of the Utah woman. It corrupts.

Because it is not fair

One might defend the idea of ‘body billboards’ like in the case of the abovementioned Utah woman based on the argument that “she chose to auction her forehead”. Applying oneself to her situation of dire economic necessity would make us rethink whether or not she truly “chose” to do so.

In that same way, we cannot and must not regard one’s profession as an absolute free choice. The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton suggests that we will increasingly be picky about our professions in our search for meaning and fulfillment in our lives. This, however, is a luxury enjoyed only by some. The reality of economic uncertainty and technology replacing commonplace professions creates a real possibility for many to fall through the cracks. If you had chosen a job not for meaning but for financial survival, how then, would it necessarily be representative of your beliefs, values and who you are as a person. Sometimes, a job is only a job: “we are all here to make money and support ourselves,” I remember a Macdonald’s colleague sharing with me earlier on.

So maybe, until we have found a way to create a more level playing field where jobs are representative of our identity, let’s hold judgment about each other’s professions and let our salaries just be a number.

P/S Happy birthday Daddy!

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My Superhero is My Mommy

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As we welcome the afternoon after family morning, I feel liberated to be in the most casual of ‘smart casual’ and my hair in a ponytail (instead of the newly-required company protocol to pin everything up). Seated on the marbled seats in Tanjong Pagar station, the familiar “Please mind the platform gap” and incessant beeps that precede the clumsy closing of doors remain clear despite the Chinese oriental music playing in my earpieces. Today’s thoughts, fit for the occasion, are about how blessed I’ve had to have won the Parent Lottery.

From March, the efforts and commitment dedicated to Strong Mind Fit Body have culminated in no less than a rollercoaster ride of emotions and challenges. None of which, though, would have been possible without our superhero mommy. From the endless list of logistics that gets ‘refreshed’ periodically to our uncontrollable mood swings, my mom has had to deal with all of it, no discounts. This uphill battle that we so often brand as a “pursuit of passion” has been a microcosm of the story of our lives – a story we are blessed to live and breathe.

Opportunities and leaps of faith come hand-in-hand with fear. At times, we forget that behind the pat on the back for courage or the word of praise for affirmation, is also fear in our mother who loves us too dearly to watch us get hurt. I like to tell the story of the many chances I have taken to make ‘unconventional’ choices: that I worked part-time while studying to pull weight in the family, that I volunteer fervently and that I pursued my interest in fashion bravely. So often, I leave out the difficulty in being the mother of a child with so much she wants. In retrospect, it is an unimaginable level of challenge to have said “yes” to all my pleas – to trust a ditsy 18-year-old’s choices over and over, to let me make my own mistakes or to watch me cry from learning difficult lessons, resisting perfect timings for “I told you so”s.

My mom has picked up infinite new skills in order to support the family – from a bubble tea concoctionist to a beautician, to an office administrator. On top of that, her full-time job is keeping the household in place. At home, she is the mediator, the peace-maker, conflict manager, the housework queen and our source of joy. Volunteering with underprivileged children from difficult backgrounds has so often reminded me that this beauty of a mother is truly a lottery that I have done nothing to be entitled. Yet, so much of who I’ve become (the capacity to love and the courage to be) has come from my mom’s nurturing disposition from as early as I started to remember things.

On this special day, I quote a 4-year-old who bravely spoke in a mic during the 2015 Superhero Me Festival – when asked “Who is your superhero?”, she said shyly, “My superhero is my mommy”.

Thanks mommy, you’re who I want to be when I grow up!

Labour Day: A Celebration of Collective Action

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This late afternoon, ‘family day’ is spent in the comfort of home. Beyond the windows that enclose my room, the environment exists as a paradox – the cloudless sky inviting us to play outdoors but the familiar whiff of humidity keeping us in. Memories from yesterday’s Augmentum Dance Showcase 2016 remain fresh. The collaboration amongst Raffles Institution’s Indian Dance, Modern Dance and Street Dance CCAs brought together a refreshing fusion of the different genres on stage to the audience who were engaged in awe. Comfortable in the red cushioned seats of the Performing Arts Centre, I am reminded of the Raffles Runway Rproject Showcase that I had been heavily involved in just a year before this. Similarly, we had braved through collaborations with guest designers, the Film Society and Photographic Society to put together a fashion show, hopefully feast to our audience’s senses. In both cases, it was collaboration for a common cause that had resulted in an adventure for fresh perspectives, creative nuances to a single product.

Labour Day also known as May Day is celebrated on the 1st of May each year as a mark of solidarity amongst workers. It serves to remind us what collective strength has achieved for workers. In light of the occasion, this one is about collective action and the value of working together (rather than apart).

An Economist article, titled Team Spirit, is one of the most memorable for me in my 12-week subscription since the year began. The criticized businesses for promoting group-work excessively. It asserted that (here I quote) “teams are not always the answer—teams may provide insight, creativity and knowledge in a way that a person working independently cannot; but teamwork may also lead to confusion, delay and poor decision-making.” It makes good economic sense, then, to avoid group-work (possibly associated with groupthink, “dead weights” and disproportionate contributions) unless truly appropriate. My favourite read, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, quotes numerous irrational outcomes as a result of action done collectively – these amplify the danger of having many people join hands in making decisions and having their stakes in an outcome intertwined.

Even with these potential pitfalls introduced by collective action, today we celebrate that “many hands make light work”. I have seen over and over from my Odyssey of the Mind team building experience and Youth Corps Singapore volunteering opportunities, how teammates can easily ride on one another’s enthusiasm to swim against currents of challenges. And the power of collective action have been amplified with every General Paper lesson that advocated for the importance of the ‘Public’, ‘People’ and ‘Private’ to be aligned in their hopes for society. All these that amplify the case for collective action is old news. Our continuous search to be part of something larger than ourselves – a community cause, an organization or a faith, is acknowledgement of the value in collective action.

And yet, there remains many other facets of life where we continue to adopt a monolithic view of a zero-sum game in play. We continue to shun cooperation in some areas where collective action is the most critical.  Bringing forth our economy or protecting our environment, just to name examples, remain areas we believe strongly in “every man for himself”; our selfishness triumphs. (Perhaps, it is our defense mechanism acting up… there is something we think we are protecting.) Where we can, though, let’s fight this intuitive defense and look harder for the case for collective action for maybe there is more reason to believe in the possibility of a positive outcome in our cooperation compared to our division. There may be greater strength in our unity.

On this note, I echo the Uruguay President’s dream that in face of our countless global challenges, we one day learn to think “as a species” rather than “as people and countries”. Happy Labour Day! And for the collective action that has earned us this public holiday, may we continue to become more adept at working collectively.

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