Confronting the Refugee Reality

RAW Panel Discussion2

Earlier, I had written about unpacking the Refugee Reality – listing statistics and quoting stories in hopes of conveying how real the refugee situation is in the Southeast Asia region. Being incredibly uncomfortable with this reality has necessitated my active engagement in understanding the measures that can be taken to manage this reality. During the panel discussion by Advocates for Refugees – Singapore, Ms. Lilianne Fan (Co-Founder of Geutanyoe Foundation) reminded us to be careful in not labelling this “reality” as a “problem”. It is important because the refugees are a product of the problem rather than the problem in themselves.

This one is about confronting the reality and insights inspired by the individuals on the panel.

Political Will: Absent or Present?

The 1951 Refugee Convention forms the basis of the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Therein, the core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law. The lack of enforcement power by the UN on any of its member nations aside, the signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention sees only 3 out of 11 Southeast Asian countries. The 3 signatories (Philippines, Timor Leste and Cambodia), paradoxically, are the poorer countries of the region.

The stark absence of relatively more prosperous countries in the region committing to this protection of refugee rights raises questions about the political will (or lack thereof) of ASEAN countries in confronting the Refugee Reality.

Granted, the concern of these prosperous Southeast Asian countries lie in the probable entry of an “unlimited flow of refugees” (a phrase thrown around in discussion) that threatens the domestic stability of these countries. Considering an open-door policy to refugees also calls for a difficult question to be addressed – “how do we decide who gets to come in and who doesn’t?” On top of this, one other challenge was surfaced in our discussion with regard to governmental-level measures taken to confront this reality. Southeast Asian countries are seeing increasingly democratic electoral processes: this evolving electorate-government relationship increases the tension as the dilemma between protecting domestic needs (as promised) and meeting those of the refugees’ with exhaustive resources grows.

Pessimism was transformed into hope as our discussion shifted to focusing on the ground-up will which is within our control. It appears that we have to let go of waiting endlessly for top-down action by our governments held in a gridlock over multiple concerns – the abovementioned dilemma of meeting needs and the (in)famous principle of non-intervention of the ASEAN community. “How about we confront this Refugee Reality?” suggested Dr. Oh Su-Ann.

Continue the Conversation

The Refugee Awareness Week 2016 (Singapore) were amongst many other similar festivals around the region brought together by like-minded advocates. Highlights are centred around bringing out the lives and people behind the Refugee Reality which is so often reported as numbers, with little call for humanity as there should be. This is promising, but it can be better. While governmental discussions so often focus on this issue as an “illegal immigration problem”, the development of appropriate economic and humanitarian frameworks to support refugees is compromised. The inevitable flow of refugees will continue as a result of crises: natural disasters, a lack of development and political conflict. How prepared are we as an ASEAN community? How receptive will we be as people to refugees who come to our shores?

Continue to remind one another of the complexity of the Refugee Reality as it concerns human lives. Remember the childhoods destroyed by “running away” being made the norm and remember that no child should have to undergo this extent of trauma from a circumstance beyond their control. Keep in mind the capacity of every human being and think these refugees not as “burdens” but as “potential”. Especially with their tenacity to live and support their community, they will be assets to communities that learn to embrace them. Only if this conversation persists on all avenues possible will increasing attention be devoted to developing the necessary frameworks to support them.

Why should we care?

Absence is silent – for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware. In our comfortable lives of privilege, it requires extra caution for so many important issues are absent from our everyday lives. We fall prey of apathy, of unkindness and of a lack of understanding. The basic humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence should be reason enough to do something. Humanitarian action must be taken on the basis of need alone. In the words of Ms. Lilianne, “somebody needs help, we help them.”

Confronting a reality this complex and widespread may be daunting at first, so I propose that our individual responsibility towards the Refugee Reality is taken in three simple steps: awareness, advocacy and action.

You may consider finding out more about the panelists’ amazing work –

  • Geutamyoe Foundation is an Aceh–based organisation established by activists who pioneered the humanitarian and non-violent civic movement in Aceh since 1999. They are dedicated to cultivating and upholding values of  dignity, humanity, equality, justice, peace, democracy, and sustainability in Aceh and Southeast Asia.
  • What a Relief is started by Singaporean Wayne Abdullah, who is a full-time businessman juggling two jobs — running his enterprises Gecko Wash, a car wash company, and Firefly Horizon, a training consultancy firm. Despite his busy schedule, the entrepreneur still finds the time for charity.
  • Peumulia Jamee means “honouring your guest”. It is the title of 3 NTU student’s Final Year Project – a documentary about Aceh’s response towards the Rohingya refugee crisis.

RAW Panel Discussion

Unpacking the Refugee Reality

RAW

Winding down the month dedicated to digital detox, I find it timely to write about the important lessons that this month of making time for myself has offered me. Importantly, with this writing and clarification of thoughts, I hope to revisit the value of awareness. Absence is silent – for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware. In our comfortable lives of privilege, it requires extra caution for so many important issues are absent from our everyday lives. We fall prey of apathy, of unkindness and of a lack of understanding. More time dedicated to reflections, reading and attending meaningful discussions this month have brought to light issues that we do not talk about enough. Hence, this is the first piece in a series of three that I have decided to write on issues I have recently been offered increased insight and awareness on.

This first one is on The Refugee Reality.

Days ago, I had the opportunity to be amidst many advocates for refugees at the Refugee Awareness Week 2016 (RAW 2016) Panel Discussion put together by Advocates for Refugees – Singapore (AFR-SG) bringing together inspired (and inspiring) individuals with their stories to tell on the refugee situation. Before then, I had been completely unaware of the gravity of the Refugee Reality today – statistics have it that 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced people worldwide in 2014 alone, and 2.7 million people come from the Southeast Asian region. The numbers are shocking and I am almost ashamed at my oblivion to this reality despite my access to information.

AFR-SG is a local volunteer-led group that aims to create constructive platforms for community dialogue on regional and global refugee and forced migration issues. AFR-SG wants to raise awareness, address misconceptions and garner support for the refugee cause through constant engagement with the public. In their brochure for RAW 2016, the illustration of how these numbers represent lives and human beings suffering gave me further affirmation that this Refugee Reality had to be made known:

“Imagine your home – the place your family has lived for decades, has been destroyed. You fear for your children’s lives, every day and every night. You and your family no longer have access to jobs, incomes, secure food supply, medical care and education. Imagine some of your friends, colleagues and relatives have lost their lives in the civil war. You have to flee the chaos and violence. Where do you go? How do you get there?”

It is happening, right at our backyards. The Rohingya-Rakhine Conflict in 2012 saw a series of conflicts between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries. This led to more than 170,000 Rohingyas undertaking risky sea journeys, hoping to disembark at neighbouring Southeast Asian countries with little success. Subsequently, our region saw the Boat People Crisis in 2015 where Rohingya refugees paid smugglers large amounts of money to undertake these arduous boat journeys from the Bay of Bengal through to Andaman Sea with the intention of arriving in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. The lack of legal frameworks to allow the disembarkation of these refugees left many refugees on these “floating concentration camps” for up to 6 months. The conditions on these boats are a far cry from liveable – the lack of sanitation allowed disease to spread, the lack of food lead to starvation and famine, the isolation saw smugglers take advantage of vulnerable refugees (especially women).

We must not turn a blind eye to this reality any longer. We have refugees*, asylum seekers*, internally displaced persons* and stateless persons* amidst us in our region – every one of them a human being with immense potential, with aspirations beyond their basic needs and they need help without a doubt. From the moment of displacement (which is of no choice nor fault of their own), they have been searching desperately for security and belonging. Here I quote members of AFR-SG:

“The Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their citizenship in Myanmar 30 years ago – they are stateless. Their status quo provides them no access to permanent residence, healthcare, education, suffrage and employment. The aforementioned are tickets to their susceptibility to abuse.”

  • A *refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
  • An *asylum seeker is one who flees his/her own country to seek sanctuary in another country and applies for the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance.
  • An *internally displaced person is one who has been forced to flee his/her home for the same reason as a refugee, but remains in his/her own country and has not crossed an international border. They are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid.
  • A *stateless person is someone who is not a citizen of any country. Citizenship is the legal bond between a government and an individual, allowing for certain political, economic, social and other rights of the individual.

As a Singaporean, I take my passport and IC as an entitlement for being given birth to within the geographical boundaries of this nation. The Refugee Reality feels distant because of the comfort that I take for granted. Our place of birth is by no means a result of our choice or effort and should not be good enough a reason to deny us a place to belong, a sanctuary for safety and access to basic necessities. These refugees pay the human price for circumstances beyond their control: political conflict, natural disasters, weak governance. It is time we rediscover the humanity within us to deem this reality as unacceptable and to recognize that this has to change.

It is disappointing that in today’s age of technology and information transfer, such realities remain under the carpet. It is time for more and better conversations about the Refugee Reality to surface.

Dear Detox Diary

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19 days into digital detox in June, I am counting.

The “social media fast” (as a good friend has decided to label it) has been one filled with questions more than answers. Questions that dig deep for the intentions behind my urges: What underlies my subconsciously looking for the social media applications on my home screen? Why do I scroll through my Whatsapp conversations occasionally tempted to reconnect with others? What makes the endless swipe through my Facebook Feed so addictive? It is easy to say that visuals are captivating and the illusion of connectivity is alluring – but the truly difficult part lies in coming to terms with what these ‘urges’ reflect about our society and the large fraction of our beings that is a product of society.

As part of the attempt to find time for myself and my thoughts, spontaneous dates with ones who are active enough to accommodate my agendas (while I remain relatively passive) has found me reuniting with a senior who has inspired me immensely for years since we first met. Nights ago, she taught me to first understand that none of these ‘urges’ are completely natural – they are natural responses to the environment we have grown up in. Our fast-paced lives have necessitated our caving into our own spaces on public transport, seemingly addicted to our devices, as it is possibly the only time we can find time to be with ourselves. The emphasis on doing things to measure self-worth has distracted us from the fact that we have inherent worth as human beings regardless of our productivity to society; hence, the social media announcements of “things we do”. We so often think of our (over-)reliance on virtual relationships as a problem posed to our real-life interactions but rarely do we consider the possibility of this reliance being a symptom of a society impoverished of time and place for meaningful real-life interactions.

At the end of last month, my sister and I had the privilege of representing Strong Mind Fit Body at the Singapore Kindness Movement Appreciation Dinner. The invitation was especially meaningful because it came personally from Dr. William Wan who sat on the judging panel for the Housing Development Board’s Good Neighbours Project 2016. I have, for a long time, admired Dr. Wan’s belief in a better ‘us’ as a society – it encourages me to know that there is a Singaporean who so genuinely and deeply believes that we can be more caring and more gracious. He inspired my exploration in the movements of kindness in Singapore – the work of The Hidden Good and embarking on my own #TreatsOnGivingTuesday Movement. Increasingly, though, I find that our actions are based on beliefs and attitudes so much more embedded than I earlier imagined. For this mindful month, as I discover how this manifests in our social media habits, I can only imagine the gargantuan extent to which social construct has influenced our way of living as a whole.

These ‘urges’ simply do not “just happen”. They were not inherent but learned. Social media is but a tool and I am beginning to recognize that how and why I use this tool the way I do is a product of society. Then, I am carefully picking and choosing those I might want to amplify to more effectively achieve balance and those I need to gradually but surely, un-learn.

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‘Healthcare’ or ‘Disease-care’?

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Still in the midst of digital detox, celebrating a month of mindfulness and time for self. The above was from the most recent Splash! Carnival by Creasionaid on a Saturday evening on my own. Tomorrow would begin the countdown of the last 20 work days left in Raffles Hospital’s Rehabilitation Centre. In my tendency to dramatize milestones as such, I hope for this piece to shine light on the insights to the healthcare industry that this 6-month commitment has offered me, albeit limited.

The Rehabilitation Centre sees patients who require long-term care. More often than not, their recovery requires their sustained commitment and frequent dedication. I observe close cooperation between the therapists and their patients in designing treatment plans and learning therapeutic exercises (only a small fraction of the amazing work that these professionals do). It is exactly the emotional support, on top of the medical assistance, ‘prescribed’ by the therapists that makes the nature of rehabilitation work by allied health professionals incredibly inspiring for me.

Thankful for the opportunity to shadow therapists and encounter patients on a personal level in treatment rooms, I hear countless stories everyday as our conversations revolve around stories of how they got injured, how they lead their day-to-day lives differently now and anything else at all that matters to them in this time. They could be stories of pain (and painkillers), of inconvenience (and public insensitivity), or of mixed feelings (sometimes, despair). From the days of the Future of Us Engagement Sessions, I have gained insight on gaps in Singapore’s healthcare system. For too long, we have turned to doctors for diagnosis and treatment regardless of where our needs lie on the spectrum of possible forms of “healthcare”. Our understanding of “healthcare” is limited to what really is “disease-care” – the Accident and Emergency hospital departments and the all-in-one General Practitioners in polyclinics. Potential in aspiring healthcare professionals and a more well-informed public should see this evolve, slowly but surely.

We all desire ‘healthcare’, not ‘disease-care’. “No time” is a common excuse for any inaction amongst the local population. The rat race for financial security in a culture like ours has (almost) necessitated long working hours as a testament of diligence. Herein lies our hidden assumption that hard work will definitely translate into results and financial gains. A large proportion of locals who visit us are the elderly. The reality that our demographic changes will create an ageing population is not as scary as the truth that our lifestyle will lead to most of our elderly ageing in sickness. Years down the road, with the urgency for answers, some may say “Singapore’s sickly, aged population today can be attributed to the lack of foresight from the young of yesterday”. For as long as we can help it, I hope that we can focus on prevention rather than cure.

Developing an individual responsibility for our own health should be top priority: the government can subsidize the cost of screening tests and medical check-ups but it would take an understanding of the importance of prevention to bring ourselves to these clinics for regular check-ups. The value of prevention is often underestimated because absence is more difficult to quantify (and hence, justify). It is easier to justify money spent on a cough syrup to cure a cough, than to justify money spent on supplements to enhance our immune system, and “prevent” a cough. Who knew if the cough would necessarily happen anyway?

Having learned the impossibility of utilitarianism and the failings of communism, I understand the need to manage my expectations in our society developing a sense of shared responsibility toward our nation’s health. Pessimism aside, we can still strive towards our ideals so we can close the gap between “what it is” and “what it could be” as effectively as possible. A question I’ve often revisited since I’ve worked in the hospital is, “how might we, as a society, decide to do away with cigarettes?” For as long as the environment we live in has substantial numbers of smokers, our common aggregate for air cleanliness and hence lung health will remain lower than possible. In that same way, we will continue to develop spinal injuries in a matter of time for as long as we propagate long working hours in front of the desk and our digital devices.

In spite of the abovementioned qualms on the limited (though growing) focus on prevention and the lack of shared responsibility, months at the hospital has only left me more hopeful. Hopeful because of the growing allied health industry and because of the clear commitment of many patients, dedicated to their recovery amidst other priorities. I appreciate the sense of commitment these patients have especially because it is a commitment that comes only with privilege – to be able to put aside other priorities and commit financially and emotionally to treatment is a decision not everyone can make. The commitment to healthcare doesn’t come from just individuals but as a consensus in a community. I am hopeful that we will find means of reconciling one another’s limitations so as to strive towards a healthier society. Not just one with less sickness, but one with more well-being.

The Transcript: Vivid Emotions, Fuzzy Details

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The first Sunday of digital detox June had me privileged to speak before this year’s participants of the Asia Student Leadership Conference (ASLC). It is organized by The Smile Mission National Student Executive Committee in partnership with the various student chapters from 9 secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. The Smile Mission is a global independent charity with activities in 19 countries working together to treat children with facial deformities such as cleft palates. To date, the charity has had 87 completed missions in 13 Asian countries, with a total of 6,843 children benefitting from its operations.

The theme for this year’s ASLC is “INSIDE OUT”, which focuses on how a leaders’ journey intrinsically begins with themselves – from their values and intentions to the strengths and weaknesses that define them. It is only from the inside that they may find their passion, purpose and drive to serve.

Hoped to share my transcript for the sharing given the thoughtful reflections I put into them so here goes – the second in a series of three (find the first here and the second here).

Transcript (continued):

“When I recount my service learning experiences today – the volunteering commitments, ad-hoc events or the advocacy initiatives – have faded into fuzzy memories, I remember little of the details of each experience. What I remember so vividly, though, are the emotions I experienced in every one of these experiences. You know the saying “People may not remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”? I find that especially true for myself. I am an “extrovert feeler”; this means that I feel more than I think logically and I respond first to my gut than to my critical analysis of the situation. I tend to be reactive rather than responsive.

I was often taught, while growing up, to think of crying as a flaw; an admission to failure. But one of my closest friends taught me that “tears are not a sign of weakness, they are a sign of alignment” – indeed, some of the most precious lessons I have learned came to me when I was crying unstoppably, and when I had asked myself “why do I feel the way I do?”.

In JC 1, 2 years ago about this time in the year, I had embarked on my first overseas service learning trip to Cambodia with my school’s Interact Club. We had visited the slums for a food distribution exercise along with a non-governmental organization and that was my first time witnessing true, true poverty, in almost its ugliest form and yet, the people were some of the most beautiful. There wasn’t the cement ground that I was familiar with, only drenched rags and trash piled into what they stepped barefoot on to get around. We had to tread carefully, eyes glued to our feet, to make sure we didn’t get our entire feet soaked in the murky rainwater. When we finally came to a halt, I had lifted my head up, away from my feet, to take a look at my surroundings for the first time. I remember so clearly, in that moment my heart skipped a beat. It was a mess. There were children walking around naked and barefoot in the trash and some bathing with dirty rainwater in the open. The houses were no more than scrap pieces of metal piled together to make shelters – ones that allowed rainwater to leak through.

I asked myself “what makes them so different from me, that I deserve to live such a comfortable life?” and “how?”, “how can we make this reality different for them?” After distributing all the food, we headed back into the bus. The whole time I thought carefully for the answers to those questions… and I spent the rest of the half an hour on the bus ride crying uncontrollably. By the time I alighted from the bus, my eyes were red and swollen. At that time, when a friend beside me asked “why?”, I had no answer. I could not explain the tears. It is only in hindsight and my asking myself “why did I feel the way I did?” that I understood – the sight of the slums was a trigger; helplessness, the feeling.

Helplessness has been an important emotion that I have experienced time and again in service. Often, the emotional breakdown represents the alignment of the complexities in their problems and the realization of the gap between “the way it could be” and “the way it is” – this gap is wherein lies the suffering. An important mentor from my Junior College days told me once, to remember the feeling of helplessness as vividly as possible, just so I can continue to try over and over to bring this gap closer together with my future acts of service.

For the past two years, I have volunteered regularly at the Sunlove Home Dementia Daycare Centre. As the name suggests, this is home to many dementia patients. Everyday is the same, but different (because they forget). Helplessness visited us time and again – we could do little to influence their medical condition and the value of the moments we shared with them depleted with every mood swing, every time they forgot who we were. Some days, it felt like our efforts went nowhere.

The helplessness is a double-edged sword: it could cripple us from doing whatever we can or it could fuel a search for hope. To harness this effectively, an important skill would be to practice self care – that means allowing your emotions to have a healthy outlet for circulation. It could be a friend, your family, fellow volunteers. An essential part of this practice that we often leave out, though, is the part where we forgive ourselves. Forgive ourselves for the problems we couldn’t solve, the solutions were delivered imperfectly and for saying “no”.

The reality of today is a paradox: we have higher buildings and wider highways, but shorter temperaments and narrower points of view. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We reached the moon and came back, but we find it troublesome to cross our own street and meet our neighbours. We have conquered the outer space, but not our inner space.

An axiom that has remained for long is the presence of personal influence in each and every one of us – some realize through introspection, others subconsciously exercise it. I challenge you today to live life mindfully, aware of the way you’re exercising your influence already and give thought to the values you hope to exemplify through your influence. With consistent checks to your emotions and values, I promise, you will go far.”

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The Transcript: The Consistency Challenge

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The first Sunday of digital detox June had me privileged to speak before this year’s participants of the Asia Student Leadership Conference (ASLC). It is organized by The Smile Mission National Student Executive Committee in partnership with the various student chapters from 9 secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. The Smile Mission is a global independent charity with activities in 19 countries working together to treat children with facial deformities such as cleft palates. To date, the charity has had 87 completed missions in 13 Asian countries, with a total of 6,843 children benefitting from its operations.

The theme for this year’s ASLC is “INSIDE OUT”, which focuses on how a leaders’ journey intrinsically begins with themselves – from their values and intentions to the strengths and weaknesses that define them. It is only from the inside that they may find their passion, purpose and drive to serve.

Hoped to share my transcript for the sharing given the thoughtful reflections I put into them so here goes – the second in a series of three (find the first here), this one is a lesson I thank Room to Read Global Organisation for teaching me –

Transcript (continued):

“While we are all influencers, just as everything else, there are ones who are more effective than others. I have observed carefully the one skill that make “more effective” influencers so. That one skill is consistency.

More challenging than it sounds, “consistency” here refers not to the achievement of excellent results, but to the consistency of our actions. This is difficult because you can only be truly consistent in your actions if you’re the same person at home and in school, at work or out with friends. These actions are built on beliefs that are based on the values we find close to our heart. To act with consistency means to stand by the same convictions and values regardless of environment and company.

About a year ago, I had been tutoring in a program called “Ulu Pandan Stars Program” (UPstars for short) – what happens is students from Junior Colleges or Secondary Schools are paired up one-to-one to low income children from the Buona Vista neighbourhood, and we provide tuition and social-emotional learning sessions for them based on cognitive ability. The mentor responsible for this elaborate ground-up initiative would bring us on fortnightly home visits to understand their family backgrounds and situations. Every week for one day, I would carry my tired self from school: take the train, then bus and then walk for a couple of minutes to arrive at the study centre. I would hurry myself to have dinner in 15 minutes before the tuition starts – the time that follows is completely dedicated to the child I’ve been assigned to. I listened to her stories about her day, watch her cry away her exhaustion and a fraction of the time would go to brushing up her almost non-existent English literacy. She was 14 years old and we were listening to “ABC songs” on Youtube for a long time.

Many times in the 8 months I was there, I had wanted to give up. Her progress was incredibly slow because we spent so much time releasing her emotional baggage rather than focusing on the academic improvement. I remember nights when I would be tempted to take the straight bus home rather than getting off. Every time I chose to turn up for the tuition class instead, I learned patience.

And yet, at home, I can be the one with the shortest of temperaments to my family members. There was little consistency. I would ask myself, “how is it that I can be so patient in teaching this girl, but not spare a fraction of this patience at home, with the family members who love me most.”

I am still learning, to be consistent. Over the years, just as anyone’s, my identity has been in flux – ever-changing. The values that I hold close to my heart evolve over time, some more lasting than others. To maintain this consistency then, I have learned to practice frequent introspection.

One of the most powerful forms of service from which I find this alignment of values is through advocacy, because one is as convincing advocating for a cause as one believes in it. That requires frequent introspection. Two years ago, I started an RGS Room to Read Chapter, a student interest group that advocates for the Room to Read Global Organisation. “World change starts with educated children,” was our mantra. My courage to advocate was inspired by my gratitude towards the privilege of a quality education that I was so blessed to receive. I wanted to talk to people and spread this awareness of our privilege, easily taken for granted. I wanted them to spend even a minute just thinking about that and appreciating. This is why as a Chapter, our first movement was called the Whiteboard Movement – where we shared our cause and provoked reflection.

This courage to advocate, mustered up over half a year, had to wait till I had aligned the value of gratitude to everything that I did – from showing appreciation for my teachers, taking my work and school attendance seriously, to developing a genuine love for the art of learning. Only then, was I ready to be speaking before anyone about Room to Read Global Organisation. Only then, was there alignment.

So often, the service that I have committed to has only left me only more aligned in my values and actions than before. When people ask me about why I serve, I would answer with the values that service amplifies for me – they are gratitude, humility and empathy. I have been very privileged to have grown up in an intact family, walk the path of a middle class citizen in a beautiful country and have access to opportunities some imagine not of. In my hopes of remaining grounded despite this privilege, these values have become the most important to me.

If you dig deep and think carefully – it may be difficult – but you should be able to come up with the 3 “most important values” for you in the way you lead your life. It could be family, friendship, love or courage; maybe determination, imagination, ambition or celebration. Decide that and then make the intention of every action, every behaviour to amplify these values.

Trust me, that will make any decision easier to make (deciding for yourself which values to live by would be the hardest part). So there, the second critical question is, “What kind of person do I want to be?”

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The Transcript: Influence is Key

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The first Sunday of digital detox June had me privileged to speak before this year’s participants of the Asia Student Leadership Conference (ASLC). It is organized by The Smile Mission National Student Executive Committee in partnership with the various student chapters from 9 secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. The Smile Mission is a global independent charity with activities in 19 countries working together to treat children with facial deformities such as cleft palates. To date, the charity has had 87 completed missions in 13 Asian countries, with a total of 6,843 children benefitting from its operations.

The theme for this year’s ASLC is “INSIDE OUT”, which focuses on how a leaders’ journey intrinsically begins with themselves – from their values and intentions to the strengths and weaknesses that define them. It is only from the inside that they may find their passion, purpose and drive to serve.

Hoped to share my transcript for the sharing given the thoughtful reflections I put into them so here goes – the first in a series of three, this one is a lesson I thank Halogen Foundation Singapore for teaching me:

“Hi everyone, I am Shermaine and I am so thankful to be standing before you today.

The reality of today is a paradox: we have higher buildings and wider highways, but shorter temperaments and narrower points of view. We spend more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses, but smaller families. More knowledge, less judgment. We have discovered more medicines, but we are observing a decline in general health. Most importantly, we have explored the possibilities of our external environment so immensely, but left much of our inner selves undiscovered. Today, I hope to share with you the story of my search of self and the critical questions I am constantly looking for answers to, even to today.

The first is on influence.

As you are seated in this space, attending the “Asia Student Leadership Conference”, the concept of “leadership” has surely been propagated to you in many forms – as a prestigious position to be awarded or as a practice for self-improvement.

This picture was taken at a campaign called “Imagining Possibilities: Cats in Hats”. I lead a team of juniors, inspired by the idea of emotional management through language to conduct a social-emotional learning workshop for students in Seng Kang Primary School. The vision was simple: for students to be equipped with words and phrases to express adequately their emotions at a young age so that they can choose expression and management instead of aggression and violence.

I remember: when I first had this idea, I wrote a blog post on my WordPress about it. It was a very, very rough idea – I hadn’t expected any individuals, much less an entire team of juniors to respond positively, indicating interest in carrying out this project that felt like only a dream. All together we roped in over 50 volunteer leaders and as a core team of 10 members, we covered the social-emotional learning curriculum with 10 Primary 4 classes across the level.

We have been brought up in societies that only consider leaders in name or position, “leaders”. We put these people on podiums, place a mic in their hands to amplify their voices and we glorify them by framing up pictures of them in institutions. We are taught that leadership requires position and official recognition. This practice has not done justice to the rest of us, who without position are leaders. In our own capacity, we are all “influencers” even without us realizing. Try sending a message that says “I love you” to your mother tonight and you would’ve influenced her to have a great night. Be a mediator when your two good friends are in the midst of an argument and you would’ve influenced them to preserve friendship. At a dining table, encourage everyone to stack up their phones in the middle of the table, influence them all to be present.

We, too often, associate leadership to big, spectacular feats like “saving a country” or “sacrificing one’s life”; all because we look only to role models like Mahatma Gandhi or President Obama as “legitimate leaders”. I would like to propose that leaders, fundamentally are “influencers” – so long as you influence those around you to follow you.

That makes each and every one of us here leaders.

It is only when I realized the gravity of possessing this power of influence, that I consciously exercised it positively. Compare using one’s influence to encourage peers to smoke together or, on the other hand, exercising it to create a culture of students helping students in school so everyone can achieve academic excellence together. Can you imagine? How different our world might be if we were all aware of this influence we each have, and if we then chose carefully how we hoped to exercise it.

I have chosen to use my influence to inspire acts of service, because I believe in the beautiful society we can create if we all gave generously. Your influence is present, if you just try. Start with the people whom you know – share your thoughts and your hopes. You’ll be surprised: they may think the same and you might discover possibilities in translating these dreams into action.

In my last year in secondary school, I started a movement called #TreatsonGivingTuesday. Every year, Singapore celebrates the International Day of Giving, encouraging corporates and individuals to stand up for the causes they believe in. I had a cause I believed in, it was a vision that we would internalize kindness as a way of life. I wanted to show that making someone’s day doesn’t take too much time, it doesn’t require you going out of the way nor spending too much money. The idea was to buy a snack of some sort, bring it along with you over the course of the day and hand it out to strangers you meet along the way. I was nervous (approaching strangers always comes with a million psychological barriers we imagine for ourselves) – so I created a Facebook event and invited all of my closest friends. Within a night, over 70 people had pledged to be part of the #TreatsonGivingTuesday Movement and I received messages the next day about how the kindness they shared with strangers gave them immense joy. I had turned an idea into reality and compounded the efforts by influencing others to partake in the realization of this dream.

In the past we had to hold a mic for many people to be listening to us. Today, the countless social media platforms are easily accessible to all – they are mics that shout out to more than just your friends around you. Whatever you say through social media can cross geographical boundaries, from your neighbourhood to your country, to the region and to everywhere else. This introduces immense potential, for now we all have mics of our own at any time, any place. Imagine now that you have a mic that allows what you have to say to all of Southeast Asia – everyone is listening – what would you want to tell everyone? Surely not what you’ve had for lunch today, or what you’re wearing tomorrow…

We all have influence; we are all leaders. Now more than ever, the rise of social media has introduced immense possibilities for us to maximize that influence. The critical question to ask is “how do we want to exercise that influence”. “