What Is Sorry For


The Aboriginal flag painted on a brick wall.
©bigstockphoto.com/ budastock

National Sorry Day in Australia brings people together in unity towards the healing of the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. From 1788, British colonial powers arrived by boat to the shores of Australia in search for land and resources – this was the beginning of a nightmare for Indigenous Australians as countless were forcibly removed from their families and communities. Numerous massacres were committed in this time; the unimaginable atrocities became a blemished chapter in the history of the world’s longest-standing traditional cultures. The trauma, injustices and grief persist today in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who experience inequality in economic, social and health spheres amongst others.

The first National Sorry Day was in 1998; the first public and formal apology made belatedly. Everything that follows (the reports written, research done, compromises made) are attempts at turning ‘sorry’ into action and transforming reconciliation from just lip-service. As a history student since high school, I have always been appalled at the wrong-doings that we can commit against each other as human brothers and sisters over and over, as if we never learn. Time and again, we let the distracting veils of self-interest make paper-thin excuses for cruel acts against one another – we let the politics have full reign, let the media deceive. Our democracies are lies we tell ourselves, for our votes choose us (not the other way round).

We are on a broken treadmill that never stops, running away from shame and guilt. We play broken recorders that repeat ‘sorry’s in different languages. Calluses grow on our palms as we try relentlessly, to wash away stains of our past. We try to forget – there are countries that choose amnesia by erasing the stories, literally, from textbooks; we try to repent – there are others that build endless memorials for those who once lived. Patience will run out, and so will space. The most important lesson of history is to reflect on our present and consider the ongoing acts that will soon become history.  

Today, suffering of all sorts permeate society even on an individual level. A beautiful paragraph encapsulates it,

“Today 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. We have more compromises but less time. More knowledge, but less judgment. We have more medicines, but less health. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk much, love only a little and hate too much. These are the times with more liberty but less joy; more food but less nutrition. These are the days in which two salaries come home but divorces increase. We have finer houses, but broken homes.”

This is the paradox of our time. All over, humankind is facing brokenness in more ways than one. On a day dedicated to reflection of the world we live in from history to today, this is my invitation to step out of the ‘state of transparency’, where human suffering remains transparent and where crises remain ignored just because we think they do not directly affect us. For the ‘state of transparency’ to even have been a choice is a privilege that we earned no entitlement to and in this state, we fall prey to apathy, to live lives of ignorance and to run on treadmills we can never step off.


Asylum seekers signal for help while making their way across the Indian Ocean towards Australia in 2013. © Joel van Houdt / Hollandse Hoogte

Here’s my call to action. The first Indigenous Australians arrived on boats; then, in 1788, colonial masters from Britain arrived in boats. Today, ‘the boat people’ is part of everyday language to refer to refugees seeking asylum in other countries after fleeing their own. The tragedy of 59.5 million refugees in the world together struggling in-between, paying the human cost for our apathy and self-interest is a reality we can’t ignore – it is the ongoing act that will become history. There is always something you can do; start where you are and do what you can.

From today, I will be embarking on a month-long journey to lend my voice to those who go unheard, forgotten. In the lead-up to Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June 2017), I will be raising funds for the refugee support efforts in Jordan. Syria refugees will be provided with education, medical services and ration packs amongst other necessities with funds raised at bit.ly/sherms4refugees.

Hopefully, then as we each make our little efforts count, National Sorry Day wouldn’t just be a ritual where we strive towards saying “enough” ‘sorry’s. Can any number of apologies ever be enough for the lives that stop living the day the boats arrived?

I welcome thoughts, ideas and emotions at shng4630@uni.sydney.edu.au



Right Here, Right Now


“Is it not bemusing the way we go through our lives, as though we were going to live forever? It was as though we had no concept of death. Or perhaps the notion of a permanent end to our existence were so abstract, it could not possibly hold true. So we go on with our seemingly interminable lives, filling the bulk of our days with an incessant busyness. The writing of letters to our beloved ones is then forgotten, or left to one of the endless tomorrows that would patiently await us.”

–  The Desire for Elsewhere by Agnes Chew

I am right here, right now – this leather seat cool from the night’s wind and this white table no wider than my forearm. Morning sounds accompany me as I wake. Birds take different parts of the choir, the murmurs of conversation in dialect from within the house and the occasional drive-by of cars or planes passing by in the cloudless sky. All these are real. The sound and touch from every key that I press; then, the alphabets that surface on the laptop screen of moderate brightness.

I am right here, right now; just as you are there – eyes on the screen, wondering where these words are going. Right there, you’ve probably lost notice of your breath until now. If you sat or stood with your back just slightly erect, took notice of the in and out of every breath, perhaps then you would also notice the fatigue hanging at the corner of your eyes or the tightness in your chest. Allow it to diffuse with every in and out; slow down. You are right there, right now.

Our everyday gradually take familiar forms that we practice into habit. We know the first thing we do when we emerge from the snuggly comfort of the bed, the sequence of small actions that begins our every day – only one of the many routines we have built into our muscle memories. Soon enough, we are no longer experiencing this sequence of tasks but only thinking about it. It is our mind’s clever way (evolutionarily) of freeing up headspace for the other challenging tasks that we may have to perform that day, like doing that difficult assignment, or going to that unfamiliar place.

With the recent leap of faith in committing to Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff and Brene Brown, I am learning that we think about events, circumstances and moments far more often than we experience them. We draw patterns to past experiences, search through the beliefs we have formulated slowly from every stumble and fall; we so quickly think about how to respond rather than allowing the experience to settle. The extraordinary complexity that life has to offer compromised by our defenses so quickly build up to protect the illusion of perfection.

Thoughts are not fluid as the reality is. We can think about the morning routine that we commit to to begin our days and it will be exactly the same every day, but it is never the same – the toothbrush always facing a different direction and the water from washing our hands always splattering a different way on the mirror; or the coolness of the tiles against our feet and the directions in which our hair decides to take shape. Every detail characteristic for the day.

The exact nuances of every experience are only truly embraced when we allow it to be felt. When you are ready, lift this understanding from the morning routine and apply it to the interactions, struggles and activities of your every day. How familiar are we with the pre-empting of what happens next: we know how this person will respond and we know what the day is going to be like. Our lives, like palettes of blended colour, are reduced to commercial shades of red, blue and green because we think we know. 

There is no need to think constantly, about what happens later or tomorrow, about where we were yesterday or about what others could be thinking. There is no need to contemplate in an experience that can be felt with the touch of our skin, wonders of our hearing or smell and the physiological ability that we innately possess to feel. May we allow not the thoughts to cloud the reality nor the impulse of our emotions to formulate a reaction; and instead respond with the knowing that there is no place we could be but here and no other time it could be but now.

And for we will die, we must live right here, right now.


Connectedness: Why We Are Actually Related


I am on my favourite bus ride. The one with the fondest memories from the four years of taking it to school and then the three months, four years later, taking it to work. On average, it is 45 minutes long – not too long or short, just nice; brings me straight from home into the heart of town. The Bus ‘106’ is double-decker three-fifths of the time, which assures me something closer to a bird’s eye view of the changing scenes more often than not. With my eyes closed, I can draw out picture memories of the sceneries we pass by – I could do cloudy or cloudless, downpour or sunshine. I know the stops in between, with memories at each one of them; I know where the favourite busker performs on Saturday afternoons and the fork in the road where traffic slows on weekday mornings. Every traffic light, each pedestrian crossing and how one is synced with the next. The bumps on the road, even.

For me, this is connectedness. If the environment (as in the place, its people, the visible architecture and the invisible energy of it all) were a score for a musical piece, connectedness sounds like a beautiful melody with bass to soprano aligned in harmony, in every sense of the word. The pace of our footsteps and the speed of the vehicles acting as the metronome, we transition from day to night with seamless continuity just like the turning pages of the music score. Tempo established, our crescendos and decrescendos come naturally across each day. The miracle of the eventual masterpiece, then, like an ongoing rehearsal that sees every one of us a member of the orchestra.

Connectedness is the practical reason for the public transport system and the essence of familiarity we enjoy while navigating through it – being able to draw the SMRT Systems map in the air with your finger and point at the vague positions of each train station on the different coloured lines. It is the reason for our ability to estimate travel times to uncanny precision and to stand at the ‘right’ cabin doors that would lead to the escalator at the next station. ‘Mind the platform gap’ brings visual images of the black, wide slit we once hopped across as children and today, it is the reason we hold our phones a little tighter when entering through the train doors. Connectedness is why I’ve told the story about the ‘secret station’ between Caldecott to Botanic Gardens a couple of hundred times to explain why the distance and duration between them is especially long. The station labels also skip a number. Each narration, with a timing so accurate that the punchline, “that’s why, in between these two stations, there is always an SMRT staff – dressed in red and black, holding a black Rover Bag across his shoulder, who would walk from one end of the train to another” is followed by a live demonstration. Our hairs stand on end and I get the last laugh, it is a story I like to tell.

This essence of familiarity plays out in more ways than one. It is due to connectedness that we know some extent of conversational dialect and a Mother Tongue besides our own; we wave at neighbours in the corridors of our heartlands and bumping into people we know at void decks come with little surprise. Each one of us would have a family member who knows a friend or a friend who knows a friend; “do you know XXX?” is a valid conversation starter with a 50% chance for agreement. What a small Singapore in which we coexist, allowing for an incredible sense of connectedness to wrap around us like a blanket of comfort and familiarity. It is in celebration of this connectedness I wish to remember as vividly as possible upon my departure, that I write this piece and that confidently, I can say: Dear Singaporean stranger, I am almost certain that you and I are connected in ways we have yet to discover.  

PS The countdown is at 11 days – 11 days before I am Sydney bound and student again.

student again.jpg


Remember Singapore


Turkey, ham and egg white sandwiched between wheat bread accompanied by a tumbler of white chocolate mocha; starting the day with breakfast in the comfort of Delfi Orchard Starbucks. Incessant traffic of vehicles, an abundance of sunshine through the full-length glass and background chattering in French, hello again. A little less than two weeks back in Singapore (after a month in America), the characteristics of this place I call home are more stark than ever. The pace of our footsteps, the daily choices that have become routine and the majority who look like me – these sights and sounds have become more pronounced given the wealth of time I have to slow down and immerse in the familiarity. This piece, written as I commence the one-month countdown in Singapore, hopes to capture the fleeting picture memories that would count more than I can imagine when I am living in Sydney. It is in my deepest hopes, that it inspires you to appreciate the subtle parts of our being we are not so mindful of.

First, on architecture. Remember the width of the roads – just enough for the cars to drive parallel to one another, with almost no room for careless shifting of the steering wheel. Remember the buildings: rectangles are popular because it is space efficient but they also make odd-shaped buildings representing an architect’s statement stand out. Remember the curves of Star Vista and the sculpted works of art in Raffles Place, the indentations of the walls in Outram Park MRT Station and the way the natural lighting brings life to Bras Basah MRT Station. I learned from a conversation with a friend doing architecture in university that the proximity of amenities in Singapore contributes to the livability of our community spaces. There is convenience and joy in everything you need in your living space being within walking distance along with an important by-product, the interactions with neighbours whom we live amongst.

Second, on nature. The fraction of our views that is the sky is usually no more than one-fifth, unless you stay in the East or go by the sea. Then, the days where you chance upon the view of the sky being anything besides one shade of blue dotted with white, remember the joy of basking in nature’s beauty and inadvertently, smiling. Remember the assortment of trees and bushes that line our streets, representative of our pioneers’ dreams of making Singapore a beautiful green space all over. Of which, approximately 95% of the greenery is imported from elsewhere, symbolic of the efforts we have made to be a hub of synergy and diversity. Remember the park connectors and the good memories associated with cycling adventures made on these trails. Some say Singaporeans too often, forget to slow down to ‘smell the roses’ and embrace nature. What little know is that our furrowing of eyebrows while we are heading to work or heading out for lunch, is not an indication of our unhappy selves but merely a response to nature shining brightly in our faces (literally). We are constantly in touch with nature, alright.

Third, on people. Remember the chapalang of languages and expressions that have become so uniquely Singaporean: our own version of English. An exquisite beauty, we rarely realise the poetic device applied when rojak is both edible and an adjective. Singaporeans are poets. There is, too, an adaptability we give ourselves little credit for, that shows in our code-switching based on fellow Singaporeans’ age and race. We know the lehs and lahs that help us connect in an instant and the jiak ba bui (‘Have you eaten?’ in Hokkien, a dialect), characteristic of a nation that appreciates food as an experience and privilege. When all else fails, we point at pictures and get creative (or impatient). Remember the conversations and what was often talked about – amongst peers, school and grades; amongst youths, the change we wanted to see and be; amongst working adults, various indications of purpose. The most precious, though, the conversations over the dining table where family is present. Remember that home is a feeling.

Days ago, on an UberPOOL towards the airport to meet a friend stopping over in Singapore, the vehicle passed by the Bugis area and then Orchard in the wee hours of the morning. Slightly before daylight and while the fluorescent street lamps accentuated the sky line, I noticed numerous new buildings that had still been surrounded by white hoardings (as they were under construction) before I had left for America. These changes taking place gradually every day, put together in a short span of a month, can be testament of our astounding pace of development and evolving landscapes. This leaves the possibilities of this space in the time from my departure almost unimaginable.

Remember the way you know how to get around and where to get the best foods; the perfect conversation starters and the deep connection with Singaporeans that you have practiced in all the years of your life. These are the days you walk a little slower, breathe more deeply and enjoy coffee at coffeehouses that give your panoramic views; here are the moments you close your eyes and take picture memories you can refer back to once more and the times you accommodate the schedules of all whom you love, to hold comfortable space with them. Remember these, and come what may.

On Embracing Imperfection


The lights outside are beautiful; having spent hours on a high stool before a vintage-style bar table against the full-length glass window, I have fallen completely in love with the view from here. Thinking Cup is a café recommendation by a friend – the panoramic view of Boston Common, a central public park in downtown Boston, is absolutely breathtaking. The rain drizzles incessantly, but does little to blur the scene of the colourful lights outlining the silhouette of each tree. The pavilion in the distance is a work of art on its own with lights of red, blue, green and yellow dotted along its shelter. Passing cars and people taking quick, small steps bring life to what would otherwise be static. Overhead is a cylindrical wire-meshed casing that wraps around a dim, yellow lamp. There is a surreal knowing that life is beautiful and that so much lie ahead of us; all thoughts I am privileged to bask in. These thoughts, remind me of the time I shaved – with the struggles aside and dilemmas reconciled, the inner peace seated in the chair two years ago; I remember thinking then, as I am thinking now, that I want to remember this moment forever.

The current read is Grit by Angela Duckworth, another investment to the Strong Mind Fit Body Student Champion Development Programme which we have been working hard to develop during this trip to America. The Programme is designed to empower students in secondary school with project management skills and self-development techniques to be better – better at finding out the needs of community and meeting them, better at investigating themselves and who they are. It is, really, a thoughtful curation of all the skills, tools, strategies and capabilities from renowned, game-changing academic researchers, essential for the 21st century millennial. This piece is about embracing imperfection: because the hard truth to all who are awaiting perfection before trying is that we are all, truly, waiting for nothing.

Growing up, I have lost count of the talks or lessons, motivational speeches and enrichment programmes that have employed the “what is your passion?” opening strategy. An awfully open-ended question that is meant to pry into your gut for ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’, it gives a false promise that the answer to this singular question will rid our lives of uncertainty and misguides young individuals into searching for some form of a magical entity that will come to you one day. Finding one’s ‘passion’ has so often brought to mind a vivid image of a highly motivated individual doing something (anything) day and night, with a smile on his or her face and a deep sense of satisfaction. It is usually described as an end-point more than a process and the message sold, then, becomes that “all you’re doing now will become worthwhile when you’ve found your ‘passion’, that one thing you’re willing to do anything for.” In the words of Angela Duckworth, “Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming, they’d rather show you the highlight of what they’ve become.”

We are conditioned to applaud good performances, praise excellent results or nod in agreement to brilliant products of innovation. Too little attention and time is spent on reading biographies, listening to stories of lives besides our own and way too little affirmation returned for smaller victories – a job well done in a single assignment, one choice that exemplifies an invaluable core value or the absence of negativity, for example. The result is that while we are deeply inspired by those who appear extremely devoted to their line of work and dare say, “I love what I do”, we fail to appreciate that this does not happen overnight. We consciously understand that it takes hard work and effort, but intuitively we are attracted to the idea that it is divine and God-given, it just happens. We prefer a story of an accomplished pianist who “one day, just knew that music was his ‘calling’,” than a story with the same accomplished pianist who “practiced and did little but practice for his entire college life, dropping out of school and facing disapproval at home”.

This unhelpful message creates a cloud of confusion around the idea of passion and of the more important purpose that we are truly in search of for fulfilment. Did you know that the root word of “passion” is the Latin word “passio”, which means “suffering”? Analysis of the etymology of passion has it that at the core of what we today know as ‘passion’ is ‘suffering’ and the willingness to be in the state of suffering. The starting point of discovering passion – that thing you’re willing to suffer for – is not an easy on either. It takes a whole lot of exploration and experimenting to find out what it is that you’re interested in, and then, what you’re so interested in to transform into passion. If we truly acknowledge the value of ‘passion’ and the importance of it for dedicated and sustained (possibly life-long) good work, then we have to start inspiring passion, truly.

Perhaps, where we might start is by embracing imperfection. The fear of rejection and disconnection is found everywhere, even in the classroom which is meant to be a safe space to learn. Given that failure is a necessary part of learning, the implications have it that the classroom is also meant to be a safe space for failing. Yet, it is in these classrooms that we have learned to be afraid of failure. The sniggers from classmates that are left unaddressed, the subtle social hints we give one another and the different messages that are sent about grades; we implicitly learn to not fail. The irony lies in that while it is common sense that perfection is impossible, we expect from others (and ourselves) perfection. We cringe at shortcomings and reject flaws. This is unhelpful to the necessary process of finding passion – it is through the route of discovering interests that we find this so-called ‘passion’.

So I think, perhaps, where we might start is by embracing imperfection and this piece is dedicated to the incredible dutch uncles who have embraced mine.


Celebrate 2016


Culture Espresso sits at the junction of 38th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, New York City. Seated at a high stool before a marble table facing the full-length glass panels that surround this café, I’d like to think I’ve found the New York equivalent to the Delfi Orchard Starbucks where I have incredible memories I hold dear – the pace of footsteps has significantly decreased at this junction, population density even more so. The fireplace exits of the residential bricked-buildings create uncanny symmetry across the street and most of the remaining stores remain closed. This is the street that awakens naturally; as opposed to the ever-awake Broadway Avenue where lights and sounds are no less than a sensory overload. This is the morning of the last day of 2016 for me, there is a playful sense of victory as if I’ve ‘bought an extra day’ by spending countdown in America. That aside, this piece is in reflection and celebration of the year that has come and gone.

I guess you can say this was my gap year. If you’ve heard this story before, please skip this paragraph completely and go to the compartmentalized lessons I have attempted to draw from the countless, precious experiences and people from the year. Awaiting to read Occupational Therapy in the University Sydney, I only commence studies in March 2017 (departing for Australia in February). A vastly different new normal from the one I have imagined while I was studying for ‘A’ Levels, I never expected to take anything more than an 8-month break nor leave this country that I feel deeply connected with. In my family, we don’t call this a gap year, the word is almost taboo – it comes with connotation of too much uncertainty, even a ‘waste of time’. There is a slippery slope projection into the future that comes with the idea of a gap year that ends with my retirement alone and failing in my career. Of course, I respond to the ridiculous ‘timeline of life’ that we too often subject ourselves to with more laughter than pressure. (For now, at least.)

There is immense importance in the stories we tell ourselves: they reflect certain principles and beliefs we hold dear and sometimes act as reinforcements to our character; other times they can mislead us or contribute to a narrow-minded conviction that it’s ‘our way or the highway’. The only antidote is non-stop learning. My WordPress pieces have often attempted to achieve that balance in separate pieces, but for my series of ‘Celebrate (insert year)’ pieces (see Celebrate 2013Celebrate 2014 and Celebrate 2015), they have more often been about the former.

Uncertainty and Learning

slide01slide02slide03The ‘A’ Levels, in theory, is a series of exams that lasts no more than a month and a half. It is widely accepted that the implications are felt even before the month of exams commences – they say ‘It is not about the outcome, it’s the process.’ Now though, I can vouch for the anxiety that persists even after the series of examinations. Like a knot in our hearts, the tendency to place the worth of the years of hard work in a single result transcript is tempting; the social construct has it so. The first important lesson from the beginning of the year, then, was to forgive ourselves and unlearn what we have learnt about self-worth growing up in education characterized by paper chase and portfolio-driven assessments.

More than ever, I miss dearly the structured environment for learning that I have been blessed with. The unchartered terrains of internships in Raffles Hospital then in Early Childhood Development Authority have been space for self-discovery and continued learning, a legacy left behind by being in the Raffles Programme for 6 years. Persisting from July, is the space of Healthcare Scholarship and a Giving Week Stint raising funds for the Room to Read Global Organisation at the end of this year was very much dedicated to the appreciation for quality education that was an immense privilege. As I exit through the Rafflesian gates, I find myself in spaces where learning opportunities are abundant but must be actively sought after. I continue to craft the questions and revisit them out of habit but answers are no longer found in a single conversation with an inspired educator and knowledge-hungry peers, they are found in the processing of numerous sources and days of research. A newfound appreciation for the community of learning and excellence has found me visiting my alma mater and Junior College countless times across the year, each time rejuvenated by the unconditional love and desire to inspire of the teaching and non-teaching staff.

In face of the uncertainty post-Junior College that people don’t talk about enough, there has been necessary reading and reflection on solitude and being my own person, an idea not unfamiliar but necessitated only in this year.

Gratitude and Giving Back

slide10slide11In Junior College, I was always reminded that grades matter, but who you are matters more. The privilege of crossing paths with Halogen Foundation Singapore and Youth Corps Singapore was the constant source of this important reminder. Built on a foundation of educators and of family, who believed that I was worth a whole lot more than my achievements and that my achievements were simply reflections of more important values that I possessed, I owe my resilience today to these people. I used to negotiate for a gap year to devote time to not only the abovementioned learning, but also to the service I hoped to give back to these people and communities.

I am incredibly thankful for these spaces that have continued to embrace me in spite of my formal departure and regardless of my absence while I was a full-time student. The opportunities I’ve had to represent teams or causes larger than myself have continued to reaffirm my belief that nothing important gets done alone, and together, we can do great things.

In one of my favourite reads in the world, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, I have learned of the ‘culture of scarcity’ that has plagued us. We never find anything or anyone enough, including ourselves. The time never enough to accomplish our tasks, the resources never enough to go around (so we ‘must compete’), the recognition never enough to feel worthy. In the past, shame was a two-person affair, at least. Today, we learn to do it all by ourselves – we convince ourselves we are not enough (not skinny enough, not smart enough, not capable enough). In a lifestyle of service, I have learned to be more empathetic, mindful and compassionate – these practices central to the person I want to be. This keeps me focused on personal development and being thankful. This is the antidote I have found for scarcity. Remember this: the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is not abundance (because abundance suggests excess); the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is enough.

Still learning from each volunteer I work with and still immersing with every partner in service, my perspective of the world is constantly recalibrated in a way that reminds me that we are all global citizens in a place so much larger (both physically and metaphorically) than ourselves. Only when we engage with the world around us from a place where we believe in enough, will we find joy.


slide04slide05slide06slide07slide08slide09I mention in my earlier piece on Wholehearted Living about the concept’s principles. The idea, in a nutshell, has it that we find peace with the earlier mentioned culture of scarcity so that we can meaningfully engage with those around us. This has been a struggle that surfaced in this year relatively distant from the tight-knit communities I have found strength from. In having to actively reach out and be a part, there has been self-doubt and no short of self-assessment about the person that I am.

The challenge to living with wholeheartedness is that we often lack courage to be who we are bravely. It makes us vulnerable to a point of discomfort. In the month where I investigated the issue of suicide prevalence and the roots of depression, it was painful to find that we have created a society where so many cannot feel okay being the person that they are and even more so to have these thoughts of self-doubt find resonance within me. I am still practicing. On this road of self-compassion and mastering vulnerability, I owe thanks to the closest of friends who truly, truly love me not regardless of my flaws but because of them. It is because of the genuine company of people like you that I am slowly learning to believe that people, in general, are always trying their best (and so am I).

Daring Greatly


If you’ve heard my quote the Man in the Arena Speech by Theodore Roosevelt before, you’re welcome to skip this paragraph. Here goes – it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Ever since I’ve fallen in love with this quote so telling of true bravery, I have newfound courage to pursue feats, tread untrodden paths and take calculated risks. If I played word association with the phrase ‘Daring Greatly’, the outcome would be: Strong Mind Fit Body, Empathy Taskforce, Dreamcatcher and newspapers.

  • Born from a dream to bring neighbours together for functional fitness, Strong Mind Fit Body is today, a budding social enterprise that works extremely hard to create meaningful experiences to impart strength training awareness and promote inter-generational bonding. We believe that together, we can build a nation that is unafraid to age. With Champions and Fit Elves, like those who helped us pull off the biggest event of the year hitting at headcount of more than 200 at SMFB Christmas Special, we believe so more than ever. If you’d like in on our better tomorrow that we commit time and energy to work towards, please let us know at SMFBgeneral@gmail.com or apply to be a Champion (regular volunteer) at bit.ly/SMFBchampapply
  • Before Youth Corps Singapore’s first Empathy Taskforce was formed, we pulled off a Human Library surrounding the theme of service and giving. Today, we explore various issues of concern by curating programmes that bring life to the Red Box and inculcate empathy in our fellow peers and Youth Corps members. There are immense opportunities that lie ahead in what we can do. This year, peppered with uncertainty and surprises for us, I am thankful for how whenever I look at these teammates that I’ve only gotten to know for less than a year, I always always know that we can do it.
  • Dreamcatcher, a camp for a Primary 6 cohort on imagination, creativity and problem-finding/solving was an opportunity that I stumbled upon. Setting the record for one of the most enjoyable camps I’ve experienced (along with the Youth Corps Induction Camp), being Camp Captain was no less than a privilege. Reflecting upon this experience, I owe immense thanks to the 56 strangers-turned-friends who earned my trust from giving their best to create an experience that we can today, call our collective masterpiece. Thank you for reigniting hope for me in a time that was trying. They say house is a building and home is a feeling; the way we lead the camp shoulder-to-shoulder felt like home.
  • Finally, newspapers. I started a record of social and traditional features of my face, story or reflection pieces I have once written – when you have your opinions and thoughts rewritten that many times or quoted (sometimes out of context), you start to learn the diverse standpoints that each site has and these features are about anything but you. As an individual, I have found to represent something other than myself in these media features. Still undecided about some of these articles, I am certain of the gratitude I have towards those who have stood by me and kept me grounded to the person that I am amidst razzle dazzle. Thank you, also, for appreciating my WordPress pieces as I articulate my thoughts and self in pursuit of clarity and authenticity.

My cup of latte is three-quarter full and the latte art on the surface is long gone, whatever remains is bittersweet. The espresso stronger than the milk, the aftertaste of caffeine lingers. Here’s to a beautiful last day of 2016; where we aren’t closing a chapter, and the adventures are truly only just beginning. Happy New Year, may this (actually arbitrary) time for celebration and rejuvenation also be one of reflection for us all; where we ask important questions like What have I learned about myself and the world around me in this year? How does that change who I want to be in 2017? and How do I get there, what kind of choices can I make? It is a pity if we live in constant inconsistency with who we hope to be and what we hope to be doing, where we “claim to believe in something but constantly act otherwise” – let’s live in a mindful way so we can never say this about ourselves. Carpe diem.

No Choice

The HIV/AIDS Simulation Experience at Crossroads Village was one of the most memorable experiences from the Youth Corps Singapore Hong Kong Learning Journey – a 5-day experience I was privileged to have been a part of; to have immersed myself in a city that, in comparison to ours, is same but different. With the purpose of exposing Aspirant Leaders to the service-learning and social service landscape in Hong Kong, the Learning Journey included visits to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social enterprises and universities. Exchanges came in the form of formal paper presentations and conference-style panel discussions, candid conversations over the dinner table and cultural immersion every other time in between. This piece is a reflection zoomed into the HIV/AIDS Simulation Experience that, for me, raised questions about my consistency between what I claim to believe in and what I truly practice.

The HIV/AIDS Simulation immersed Aspirant Leaders into the stories of 3 different characters who eventually meet with the probability of being diagnosed HIV positive. The stories were experienced through static displays of physical settings (e.g. character’s bedroom, the clinic, the hospital) and an audio recording that is being played throughout the short trail from one display to another. The simulation lasted for about 45 minutes, with 15 minutes dedicated to each story and the stories were chosen out of 4 excerpts given in the beginning of the Simulation. Here are brief descriptions of the stories I had chosen with my partner (simulations were experienced in pairs):

  • Story 1 – A Hong Kong University student headed for Medicine studies in university faces peer pressure in his younger days and submits to vices, engaging prostitutes and taking drugs. The drug intake came in the form of needle insertion and the engagement of prostitutes sometimes did not come with the necessary contraceptive measures. Later in his life, he meets a female partner whom he falls in love with and hopes to marry. The story ends with her finding out about her pregnancy and her HIV positive diagnosis.
  • Story 2 – The main character is an East European lady who is working hard to earn a livelihood with her husband. Their daughter had earlier passed away from Leukemia and in a car accident after which, the East European lady is hospitalized in a run-down healthcare facility. In her stay, she receives a blood transfusion. In weeks, she is discharged because there is a lack of bed space at the hospital. Her slow recovery necessitates a visit from the nurse, who upon examination of the lady, informs her that she might have contracted HIV due to inadequate sterilization at the hospital.
  • Story 3 – An Asian teenager from an impoverished family gets tricked into being a prostitute in another country. Her father had recently passed away and her grandmother is gravely ill, incurring high healthcare costs. She is told there is an opportunity to serve as a waitress overseas for a high pay but ends up working in a brothel. There is a surprise visit from some journalists from the United Kingdom – they ask her questions about her story and decide to “buy her over” from the owner of the brothel. Just as they are about to bring her away, they receive a call asking them to run an important errand for their boss. They are unable to bring the teenager away from the brothel and leave her with some cash. At the same time, she receives a call from her family – her grandmother’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and her mother has signed a longer contract with her boss to have her continue working there because they need the money urgently. By the end of the story, her health begins to worsen and she is sent for a HIV assessment.

Rather than the myriad of coincidences that culminated in the eventual contracting of HIV/AIDS, what was more appalling to me was my subconscious judgment of the choices made by the above-mentioned characters during the course of the simulation. The fleeting questions I posed in the immersion – What was he thinking? Why couldn’t she choose differently? How did she not see this coming?  As a fervent believer of choice theory, it appears counter-intuitive to explore the limitations upon which our choices are based, but here’s where I’ll start. The gap between my reality and theirs was where the questions emerged – the only bridge to the gap, empathy. My judgment of their choices assumed that the context against which their choices were made were similar to that I’m familiar with – the privilege of having money just be a number, family support rid of vices ever being an option and of having healthcare facilities of high quality. The momentary shame experienced was born from the realization that my blanket of comfort had also blinded me from the possible reality that others face (vastly different from my own). The blanket, a shield of oblivion and an excuse for apathy.

Earlier this year, in my reads by storyteller and shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, I learned about the power of operating on the basis that everybody, in general, is always trying their best (refer to Note at the end) Therein lies the crux to empathy, where we are ready to assume the best and then plough through the realities, priorities and hence perspectives that may differ; seeking to understand rather than to judge, in search of connection instead of contempt. This is the process where we reconcile social injustice, transform shame (about privilege) into gratitude and allow empathy to take action. The simulation came as timely reminder to judge what appears to be choices less than I seek to find the driving forces upon which they are based.


Note: On Believing We Are Always Trying Our Best

Storyteller and shame researcher, Brene Brown, once asked a large sample size of test subjects if they believed that, in general, people were “always trying their best”. The yes/no question quickly divided the sample into two large groups – those who believed that people were, in general, “always trying their best” and those who did not believe this was possible. Those with the latter response often elaborated with confessions that they themselves were not always trying their best and explained that they did not expect from others what they could not achieve. The crux to her analysis, though, lie in that those with the former response often displayed “Wholeheartedness” to a greater extent.

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It is about cultivating compassion and connection, to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” It is about carrying a sense of worthiness, belonging and authenticity within rather than finding it outside of us. It requires that we believe that we are “always trying our best” and that our best is enough. That there is sufficiency in our being and to function against a landscape of ‘enough’ rather than ‘scarcity’.

I am striving for a mastery in wholeheartedness and this is but one of the internal challenges I will choose to battle.