Life Is: To Love and To Be Loved

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The countdown to returning to the sunny island we call ‘home’ begins. It was just months ago that we packed our luggages, bid our farewells, (maybe) shed our tears and embraced our loved ones; vivid memories at the airport still remain. At milestones as this, the fleeting nature of time confronts us and somehow takes us by surprise each time. Shouldn’t we have arrived at enough milestones as such to realise that our lives are like fog – here for the moment and gone in the next? Shouldn’t that realization compel continuous pursuit for greater? From the earlier days in Sydney, I had been seeking ‘love’ that I knew ‘had all answers’, that ‘always makes a way’; the ‘love’ that fills us with joy and peace, ‘love’ that builds character. Preceding years of service and volunteerism, convicted me of the incomparable value of ‘love’ that I yearned to be the foundation for my life.

Months on from leaving home, I discover the truth that we all receive an incredible love that my words do little justice to. My prayer is that reading this would encourage you to, too, seek true, pure and complete love that exists instead of settling for the counterfeit love that hinders us from that which is authentic and immeasurable.

Love is not selfish

In primary school, idle afternoons would be taken by poor movie choices, consisting mostly of chick flicks. Each of which provided an inaccurate and incomplete illustration of ‘love’ –  friendships were littered with betrayal and backstabbing, while the so-called ‘love’ between the couple that eventually gets together was more often characterized by attraction and affection, nothing more (think Mean Girls, High School Musical or Easy A). As my female peers (and now myself) enter university, there has been increasing pressure to seek ‘love’ in the ways of the world that we have been taught. We hear stories of “who’s entering the upcoming pageant”, “who’s dating who” and “who’s done it already” within the first weeks of university. No one talks about it aloud but within, fear and insecurities brew – What if I don’t find someone? What if I am unlovable? What if there’s no other way to love but this? But since when did being attached and engaging in sexual activity become measuring sticks for love and ‘lovability’.

These lies compound and we so often settle for the selfish love that is not love. The opposite of love is not hate, it is selfishness. ‘Selfish love’ is an oxymoron, for true love does not demand its own way. Love is not self-seeking. Today’s relationships (both boy-girl relationships and friendships) are so often premised on how the other can meet one’s emotional and physical needs – the increasing co-habitation trends in young couples are reflective of our taking one another on ‘trial sessions’, to see one’s fit to meeting our own needs. Friendships are no longer about sticking it out with each other through the ups and downs, but about the unspoken transactions. Until we commit to learning love that is not selfish, we are nightmares to be friends with or to date; betrayals and heartbreaks waiting to happen.

How many of us truly enter the relationships in our lives seeking to serve the other person wholeheartedly, instead of considering what we can gain from the relationship? Have we chosen selfishness over love that is not selfish?

Love is complete acceptance

For some part of my life, my frizzy hair was a source of great insecurity. Growing up amongst girls with long and straight hair made me think that my curly hair was unusual rather than unique. It is rarely discussed, but I came to find out from vulnerable conversations that every person struggles with some part of their appearance or their character – it is a shared human experience. Each of us, if asked for a part of ourselves we hoped to change, could most definitely come up with a list immediately. There is a difference, though, between wanting that change from a place of love (seeking growth) and wanting that change from a place of resentment (seeding destruction).

Especially in the Asian context, we are taught to treat ourselves harshly as a form of discipline towards change and betterment. There is, though, a discipline that comes from love that begins from a place of complete acceptance. Think of someone in your life whom you are certain about his/her love for you and consider this – in your imperfection and many weaknesses, this person has chosen to love you and loves you still. Does that mean that he/she will not want you to seek development and growth? Does that mean that he/she will love you any less when you change because you pursue a better version of yourself? One who truly loves you will love you too much to let you remain the way you are and instead, compel you with that love of complete acceptance to become better and better every day.

I have lost count of the number of times my emotional vulnerability has been taken advantage of in relationships. Over time, I have come to learn that those who truly love me not only protect and cherish it, but support me in learning to harness empathy as a strength. Love rejoices in our gifts being brought to light and tramples upon injustice. Are we pursuing the best version of ourselves every day from a place of love or resentment? Are we assured that we receive unconditional love even if we are imperfect and we will change? Or is conditional love taking the guise of true love, limiting the greatness that you were made for?

Love is life

Let’s ask ourselves, “What in this life is worth dying for?” because that same thing would then, be worth living for. Our futile pursuits that lead us deeper into emptiness assure us of the many things that are not worthwhile – our grades, achievements, travels and even memories will fade away in the matter of time. This strategy of elimination, though, is not quite time effective especially considering the fog-like nature of our lives. The dissipation is already happening; with every moment we draw closer to the end of this life.

We are all on our own journeys towards the truth of what this time on earth is meant for: for a long time, I had been lost in the roundabout busyness that our world draws us into. Today, I feel more alive every day and the turning point started in the moment I decided to make love my one calling. Throwing aside the things that were hollow of meaning, so that I had two hands empty to embrace the calling to love. I challenge you to do the same – reject the counterfeit love of this world and seek love, truly – then watch your life be radically changed as was mine. One that is not selfish and accepts completely, truly. I look forward to your testimony of life change, write to me at shng4630@uni.sydney.edu.au.

“Many of us live with incredible tension and anxiety because we think that our dreams will come true if we just get the right degree, if we just meet the right people, if we just get the right job. We assume our happiness is tied to our success, and our success depends on our performance. So we sweat and struggle and scheme and strategize, and we wonder why we aren’t enjoying life.” 
 Judah Smith, Author of Life Is ­­­­­­_______

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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.

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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.

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Dreamcatcher: From Your Camp Captain

dreamcatcherThe Starbucks Coffee outlet in Delfi Orchard has been a space for comfort for years now – the go-to abode for time to myself and quiet rejuvenation. I often tell those dear to me who accompany me to this space, that I love this place for the spot along Orchard Road at which it sits. The humble coffee place resides in the heart of town, at the start of the road that is every tourist’s favourite with a panoramic view of the forgotten fraction along the entire stretch of shops and malls. Relatively distant and hence, empty, I am in the company of other individuals sitting in comfortable silence with the whiff of caffeine in the air and an invisible blanket of protection seems to surround us.

This afternoon, over a coffee fix not because I need caffeine for energy nor a sugar rush, but just because I appreciate the taste of coffee. The Spotify playlist that has accompanied myself and other campers through the Dreamcatcher camp experience, playing through my earpieces instead of the loudspeakers in the Dining Hall of Hwa Chong Institution Boarding School (HCIBS). Before me, the cars speed past entering Orchard Road – mindfully enjoying the contrast, time for me comes to a standstill. This piece is dedicated to the recently concluded Dreamcatcher camp experience with Creasionaid, for the Dreamcatcher Champions who have given me immense strength and to the incredible learning taken away from the little Dreamers.

Dreamcatcher is an experience designed for creativity, passion and virtues exploration in children. The 2D1N camp first experimented on Yew Tee Primary School Primary 6 students in the past week saw the students problem solving and problem finding, communicating dreams and exchanging ideas. In the first day, students were lead through a Film Trail (with Dream Stations designed to impart values-based lessons) to accumulate Dream Dollars that could be exchanged for materials to build their personal Dreamcatchers. Truly a physical manifestation of the day’s learning and students’ imagination, the Dreamcatchers were the vehicle for inspiration in the Dreamcatcher experience. In the second day, the Day of Play Cardboard Challenge brought the Space in HCIBS to life with the students’ imagination and creativity. Exactly what Creasionaid stands for, the camp was testament to our belief in the potential of children’s ability to create, inspire and imagine.

If the Dreamcatcher experience was the masterpiece then the Dreamcatcher Champions, the artists. The backstage crew to the show and the unsung heroes to the good work done, I cannot do justice to the incredible amount of dedication and commitment that I have been given strength by from these champions. Just as in every volunteer management experience, the pullouts and lack of ‘trying’ remind me never to take the accountability, patience and effort for granted. Every action, every bit of encouragement and every presence, represents a value that the champions pride themselves by and it is this responsibility and passion that result in their immense strength. From these inspiring individuals, I want to remember the lessons of gratitude and of trust. Time and again in the Dreamcatcher experience, they have reaffirmed my belief that many people with good hearts, together, can do great work.

Those who have braved the hustle of both camps, especially, know the blood, sweat and tears (almost literally) that I have put into the operations and back-end preparation for the Dreamcatcher experience. To these individuals, I only have overwhelming gratitude to express. My favourite poem, Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, composes into a literary piece the reality of isolation. She writes that one by one, we must all file on through the narrow aisles of pain. It is a personal conviction that our spheres of influence can alleviate this reality for those around us. For this arduous camp preparation, it was these individuals who gave me hope.

It is in my deepest hopes that the days to come will see us all internalize what we have learned and gathered from one another and from our little Dreamers; that the shared encounters memorialized by photos and social media will remain reminders of the values that we so admired in the children. May the friendships last and be strengthened, may the conversations continue and deepen. May the authenticity, kindness, compassion and trust that we prized in ourselves and each other during the experience continue to be held at high regard in our everyday lives regardless of where we move onto in our endeavours.

Dear Dreamers, may we forgive ourselves for the flaws that we so embraced in our imperfect little Dreamers and feel worthy just as we wanted our little Dreamers to. They are our mirrors and in their absence, we have to be our own (or one another’s). Thank you for a hell of a ride and an incredible adventure. I wish you all the best, and never doubt that I will still care about you in time.

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Strong Mind Fit Body: Our Beginning

This reflection piece was intended as a script for the School of the Arts Gotong Royong Day Sharing on 20 October 2016 – the actual presentation was a rather candid version of this piece albeit delivered with the same intentions and outline.

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Allow me to begin with one of my favourite poems, titled Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you

Weep, and you weep alone;

For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,

But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;

Sigh, it is lost on the air;

The echoes bound to a joyful sound,

But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;

Grieve, and they turn and go;

They want full measure of your pleasure,

But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;

Be sad, and you lose them all,—

There are none to decline your nectared wine,

But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;

Fast, and the world goes by.

Succeed and give, and it helps you live,

But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure

For a large and lordly train,

But one by one we must all file on

Through the narrow aisles of pain.

This solitude and the sense of isolation, is one of the most pressing challenges that we face as Singaporeans in terms of good health and well-being. A disease of a nation, when we experience disconnect from those around us it takes a toll on our mental and physical well-being. When my sister and I first founded STRONG MIND FIT BODY at the beginning of this year, it all began from a simple dream – to find an antidote to this sense of loneliness that the greying population experiences along with their physical deterioration.

The process is one that you and I are familiar with in any problem-solving context:

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First, we began with the Needs Assessment. I recall the fear that engulfed us we made rounds around the Firefly Park pavement, too afraid to approach anyone walking our way. The initial plan was to talk to at least ten people every evening for a week and gather an initial sensing of how residents might feel about a community exercise ground-up initiative. We spent a lot more time holding onto each other and avoiding eye contact; our cold and sweaty hands were testament to our anxiety. On these evenings we shared ‘first conversations’ with neighbours who had stayed in our midst for years. We learned about the young sisters living downstairs who were two years apart, had similar haircuts and a flair for playing pranks; we met, for the first time, the active young mom of two staying in the block diagonally across ours who enjoyed morning jogs and evening walks. Every conversation was followed by a celebration and every celebration, was motivation.

Then, we designed the solution. My sister, the expert in fitness and myself in community service. We called our first Engagement Session the ‘Dynamo Series’. Every participant, equipped with makeshift weights (water bottles or actual detergent bottles), stood in a semi-circle and attempted the workouts. After less than an hour of exercising, we sat ourselves in a circle and asked questions like What could we have done better? What did you like? Is this helpful? We had cake then, but we decided it wasn’t such a great idea since we are, you know… STRONG MIND FIT BODY. Nowadays, we have fruits.

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The feedback loop is an important part of what we do – the relationships we build are a microcosm of our sessions; two-way and consultative. We want to be informed by the thoughts and habits of those we hope to serve, so every conversation is precious and every suggestion valuable. Our earlier Circles of Trust (over cake) have now transformed into Breakout Sessions and candid conversations (over fruits). Neighbours are familiar to the call to stand in a circle where they take turns introducing self-designed moves to the rest of the circle. Empowered by demonstrations earlier during the mass exercise, we prize creativity in these Breakout Sessions and every strength training workout performed with appropriate form and informed practice is celebrated.

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The ongoing work is interesting because we never know where exactly our work will take us. We keep learning and we keep improving the ‘solution’ we have designed – as our programme changes and evolves, so do our participants. In the beginning, we found participants more inclined to just follow the “teacher” on stage, taking a more passive stance in the sessions. As sessions go by, we see more and more participants taking on an active role – consulting our Champions (volunteers) for better exercises, proactively giving feedback and having a stake in the process that has been one of co-creation. The STRONG MIND FIT BODY team is growing because every participant also becomes a team player in his or her own right.

I would now like to tell you about the moments filled with fear. Those peppered with regret or anxiety, the times when we wanted to find a U-Turn sign or remain in bed on an early Sunday morning. I want to tell you the story where we hustle.  

The hustle is the emotional turmoil we experience when we fear non-acceptance, disengagement, or judgment for our efforts. It is where we hold reservations and make up stories about the negative sentiments we may be faced with.

The most nerve-wracking of moments have remained consistent – the last 5 minutes before the beginning of each session. The irrational thoughts flash through our minds most rapidly. What if nobody comes? What if they don’t have fun? What if we are not good enough? The countless ‘What if’s almost immobilized us in the first few sessions. It would take an incredible amount of self-talk to take our positions and begin the session regardless of how many residents were present. In time, it gets better because we learn that the people who will love us and reaffirm our efforts regardless of the outcome are within arm’s reach. Our SMFB Champions have each embarked on various initiatives within STRONG MIND FIT BODY, finding purpose and challenge within their capacities, encouraging us immensely with their heart for the residents.

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Today, as we continue to do our good work, we continue to believe in the dream of a nation where individuals take responsibility for their health and remain empowered and confident through old age. STRONG MIND FIT BODY does this in three ways – Neighbourhoods, Academy and Focus. In neighbourhoods, we bring the gotong royong spirit back through community exercise. The accessibility and unity in our sessions are key: we go to the heart of the neighbourhoods, spot suitable venues in parks and Community Centres, acquaint ourselves with the grassroots and the people, build up a strong pool of volunteers who share the heart for our cause and commit. In Academy, the idea is to foster interdependence (the true essence of the kampung spirit). We teach Champions in our midst to take over Workout Leadership under a structured training programme. This element is crucial in deepening our impact and creating lasting change in culture; it is also the key to sustainability.  Finally, in Focus, we specialize. We have begun reaching out to silver zones in the heartlands and eldercare centres to bring STRONG MIND FIT BODY to those we believe need it the most.

And I’ll have you know that the idea of give and take always applies if you enter the arena with an open mind and the attitude of a learner – ready to make mistakes, to be better and to try over and over.

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One of the most valuable takeaways for me has been the avenue for relationship-building with my family members. With everyone’s busy schedules and everyday busyness, STRONG MIND FIT BODY has seen compromise and sacrifice for a community cause that slowly evolved into a family cause. I often evaluate the consistency in my service outwards and compare it with my inward treatment of my family, because we have not truly grasped the unconditional spirit of giving, until we have learned to love ourselves and the people closest to us, in our everyday midst. Service is not just a situation or a circumstance, it is a state of mind that becomes a part of who we are with practice.

In this day, locally, we have more medicine but less ‘health’. Health and wellness, for us, has transcended beyond ‘survival’ and increasingly, we are searching for ways to ‘live’ and not just to ‘exist’. I would like to emphasize the privilege with which we are able to consider healthcare-related issues in this way for as we worry about the elderly to working adult support ratio 20 years down the road, the people across the globe, worry about having their children live past 5 years of age. It is in my deepest hopes that we transform this sense of privilege into gratitude and seek to  protect the health and wellness of one another and ourselves in the future we will create together.

Incredibly thankful for the opportunity to be in the arena and for the trust that has given me hope time and again. It isn’t about what it is, it is about what it can become.

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Home, Truly

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This morning, donned in our Lift Stronger, Live Longer T-shirts, my siblings and I represented Strong Mind Fit Body at the Jurong Spring CC National Day Celebrations. To see throngs of people dressed in red and many others waving their Singapore flags in one hand, holding onto their children in the other, I was reminded of why I love this country. Timely, given the National Day Celebrations, this piece is in memory of Singapore’s 51st birthday:

Most thankful: For safety and security

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I strongly believe that we find value in the present not only with our memory of the past but also because of the potential that the present holds for the future. We treasure today not only for its connection with yesterday, but even more for the tomorrow that it makes possible. We are in an age of even more opportunities than ever before, even more possibilities – the trend of start-ups and of social enterprises, the increasing interest in volunteerism and the message we sell of “pursuing passion”; all of which, are about dreams becoming reality.

This deeply empowering possibility for many of us come as a privilege thanks to the backdrop of security. Granted, there is an overwhelming invasion of new threats that know little boundaries (think computer science developments allowing hacking or the latent weapon in ideology). Let’s be careful, though, not to crowd out appreciation for the safety that we otherwise enjoy from our day-to-day lives regardless of socio-economic backgrounds (which is rare elsewhere in the world).

Personal freedom, thanks to some extent of assured security and safety, frees us from the less important decisions like what you can wear, what time you can stay out till on the streets, how to get home late in the night and which parts of Singapore you’d feel comfortable in. The time we save from making these menial decisions, then, can be spent on these more empowering considerations like “what kind of difference do I want to make?” and “where do I see myself in ten years?”

Most concerned: For harmonious diversity

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Visits to the National Museum of Singapore have etched our illustrious history (in spite of being a young nation) dating back to the 18th century, in my mind. With the power of context, I am even more appreciative of the diversity and identity that we build on in present day. Consider the friction that comes in everyday interaction with people we consider ‘different’ and multiply that many times as you play out Singapore’s stories of natives coming together to build the Majulah Singpura mantra that we believe in today.

This afternoon, I watched the film The Provision Shop by Royston Tan. Set against the backdrop of an old provision shop, the show explores social interactions and relationships in our local community through a microcosm. It unpacks the tensions that are arising in Singapore as a result of increasing diversity – with the influx of foreign workers and international students. It reminds me of my understanding earlier that our choice to anger against these people, who ultimately came to Singapore for purposes in their lives not so different from our own, is because it is always easier to vent frustration to a human face (the tangible results) rather than an intangible policy. It is simpler to cumulate group-hate for a character that is symbolic of a threat rather than critically analyse the words in the policy paper that has opened up these possibilities.

I had earlier written about race in Singapore and our pioneer’s hopes for the crux of the Singapore spirit to lie in maintaining harmony regardless of differences. These principles of harmonious diversity and embracing differences can be applied to all if we learn to see one another simply, as human beings. It is silly to make individuals’ lives worse off when they are but innocent responders to opportunity. The domestic workers who are increasingly the guardians of our old or the labourers who work under the Singapore heat for the buildings that become our offices; the expatriates developing companies that bring in incredible revenue for our economic development and the international students bringing diversity to the classroom that we so often complain about the lack of (diversity)– are they not as much a part of the Singapore Story as we are?

We say it in the pledge (“Regardless of race, religion and language”) and we sing it in our favourite National Day songs (“There is comfort in the knowledge, that home about its people too.”); but where is the consistency if we have yet to learn to regard all who are found on this land family and to make them feel as at home as possible.

Amidst the celebrations in this time, perhaps it’s time we ask – “What kind of Singapore might we want to be?”

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This month, I am counting my blessings in this very space – thankful for the people, the place and the spirit of this nation. I have so much optimism for what lies ahead and hope in the people of this place. This is home, truly.

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KICKSTART with Strong Mind Fit Body

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This evening, I am seated by Bukit Gombak MRT – this adjacent carpark sees an incessant flow of “L-plate” drivers inching in and out of the carpark; once in a while, a manual car stalls and a queue forms quickly. The upward slope into the carpark is a tricky one, I would know. There is a quiet breeze that makes this spot particularly comfortable and today’s reflections are about a community project that has recently gained traction. The adrenaline from our three-hour back-to-back functional exercise sessions remains pumping in our veins though two days have already passed.

Strong Mind Fit Body is the brain child of my sister – passionate about exercise, her dedication to fitness as a means of empowerment could inspire anybody who carefully observes her lifestyle that amplifies her convictions. She has taught me to view exercise as a tool for empowerment. In her words, “anyone, with a strong heart and a healthy body, could lead a happy life”. With the privilege of our month-long holiday after graduating from Junior College, she made sure to have us all hit the gym at least every alternate day and to make smart food choices in the supermarket. My story with consciously leading a healthy lifestyle after I’ve left school really began from there and I am so so thankful to have learnt these lessons from her. Today, I alternate between running and working out in the gym (with the convenient ActiveSG FREE Membership) three times a week. The increased strength and fitness, indeed, gives me confidence to commit to other commitments I find meaningful.

The Strong Mind Fit Body project is currently funded by the Housing Development Board’s “Good Neighbour Project” that awards projects that fulfils the criteria of fostering neighbourliness in the community with a $1000 grant. Additionally, the project receives strong financial and moral support from our Residents’ Committee at Bukit Timah Zone 4. In promoting the adoption of functional exercises as a means of cultivating a healthy lifestyle, it has also been important to us that we use it as a means of bringing the Clementi neighbourhood in which we grew up, together. The movement is one that is inclusive exactly because of the accessibility of the type of exercise that is promoted – functional exercise rides on the idea that anything found in our daily lives can be converted into effective and safe exercise. In the future developments of the community project, we have hopes of reaching out to the MINDS community and the St. Luke’s Eldercare: both of which are within our neighbourhood. It is exciting to think of the possibilities we can achieve when driven by good intentions, big dreams and support from people who believe in our cause enough to invest in it.

From the proposal writing meetings of February and late night discussions at home since March, we have come a long way. In no more than a month, we conducted two engagement sessions to introduce the concept of functional exercise to neighbours, volunteers and our own family – one titled ‘The Dynamo Series’ and another titled ‘The Chair Series’. As their names suggest, each made use of a simple household item that was converted into a tool for exercise. Thanks to the valuable feedback accumulated from these engagement sessions, we were able to put together a decent anchor event last Sunday, titled ‘KICKSTART with Strong Mind Fit Body‘. This event saw a little more than 25 sign ups from neighbours who were inspired by the idea of a ground-up initiative by neighbours, for neighbours and from May, we expect to gather every two weeks for regular functional exercise sessions.

The execution of this project, though, has been no less than turbulent. The countless liaisons in order to obtain sufficient funding, meet with the Residents’ Committee members for more resources, or to pitch to suppliers to obtain partial sponsorships wherever possible only constitute the rollercoaster ride in the financial aspect of the project. I vividly remember the night my sister and I sat down for our first ever “team talk” – then, we had been at two-person team for a while, both cracking under the weight of our countless responsibilities. And memory of the morning my family came together in front of a whiteboard in the kitchen to list out responsibilities will remain clear as crystal for a long time.

Our dreams remain big, fire burning in the belly and the execution of the ground-up initiative remains an uphill battle. Cheers to the challenges that lay ahead, we’re ready!

Find out more about our project at bit.lyl/strongmindfitbody or email me at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg.

You’re Special, but You’re Not

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This Saturday follows a similar timetable I have committed to religiously ever since March began: half a day at work is short (albeit sufficient) and it ends with a trip from the hospital to the MRT station carrying a box of our weeks’ worth of recycled paper and cardboard boxes (part of a simple recycling system at our workplace I am immensely proud of and thankful for) to be recycled at the nearest recycling bin. What follows is but an adventure – volunteering at the Little Coders Program with UPstars tutors bringing coding to young children as a means of teaching logic, inspiring learning and inciting curiosity – every lesson introduces to tutors different challenges and accompanying insight. Then, a project recently initiated by my sister and I titled Strong Mind Fit Body has also found its way into my Saturday evenings, now dedicated to project discussion, engagement session or on-the-ground outreach. Saturdays pass quickly until dusk falls upon us and the family is together, that is my favourite part. These exciting moments that make up a single day can easily have different permutations; varying combinations of these very different days make up a month, then a year, then a decade. Keep counting up, it makes an entire life.

The room for exploration with our countless moments easily leads us to believe that we are special. People say “it is what we make of our moments that make us” – that our actions, attitude and the choices that we make in the small happenings determine our person. When we consider the almost infinite possibilities in what we can do and if every tweak in a small moment can result in our becoming someone different, it is only logical that we are as different from one another as possible. We are different. We are special. And with the passing of time, the culmination of experiences, it seems, we can only become more different from one another and more special in our own way. That is true, but only partially so. I would like to propose that we are more similar than different and it is helpful to remind ourselves once in a while that ‘no, you’re not special’.

Where I work today, I encounter people with an unjustified sense of entitlement often. This is perhaps due to the culture of excessive apologies that the service industry perpetuates, compounded with the tendency to assume that we are so special. Ideas like “you can never understand me” and “you have no idea” convey assumptions that we are too special to be understood completely. We underestimate one another’s capacity for compassion, then create a society that undermines the application of empathy – our ‘Feeling Special Complex’ builds barriers around the bridge to connection even before we try to step foot on it. Our stories that we are so special focus too much on our differences, it crowds out our overwhelming similarities.

Two nights ago, I was privileged to be in the midst of other passionate volunteers at Youth Corps Singapore’s monthly Teh Tarik Sessions. The networking night brings together Youth Corps Members, Aspirants, Aspirant Leaders and staff to a common space to explore possibilities of doing good together in a variety of areas. This month’s Teh Tarik Session brought founder of Geylang Adventures, Cai Yinzhou to the spotlight where he shared the inspiring story of his creating trails in a community that is all too often misunderstood and masked by our negative connotations. The crux of his experience assimilating migrant workers in his neighbourhood lay in focusing on the similarities rather than differences. It was in acknowledging their ‘special’ for their culture and backgrounds, and at the same time, finding the similarities with the local community hidden within this same ‘special’.

In truth, we can have very different stories to tell about our being but when we go back to basics, there are convictions we hold close to heart that are similar to one another. Convictions about equality, integrity, justice; about how to treat each other with respect and how to work hard for what you hope to achieve – these convictions, though derived from very different experiences, reveal our similarities in intentions and understandings. We are not that special.

As we were growing up, our family’s love for us can sometimes convey themselves as subtle reminders that we are special – the “you’re a smart child”, “you are different, you can do it” and the ‘adult conversations’ about their children making competitive comparisons while we sit by the sidelines as exhibits. The intention is assurance, some form of affirmation. Unintentionally, though, it teaches us to see ourselves as different from the rest and to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to be different. This plays out in a circumstance I find myself in presently. A month on from our ‘A’ Level Results Release, we face the paying the cost of opportunity: opportunity cost. With every decision made to accept, there are decisions made to reject. To pick a leap of faith is to forgo a ‘golden opportunity’ and to make time for one experience is to compromise time for another. The idea that ‘you are special’ makes those choices more difficult because of the looming responsibility to “do justice” to our capacity to be extraordinary. We are lured to be part of the competition that nobody wins, to be “outstanding”, to be special. It is trying to grow into a pair of shoes you don’t know the size of as it changes constantly based on expectations. The idea of ‘special’ is created then validated externally, beyond our own control.

I am not saying there is no place for ‘special’.

Let’s reframe: you’re special for the moments that have made you, but it doesn’t mean we are different. (We are same same but different). Rather than overrate being special, let’s be comfortable that regardless, we are going to be one of the many – the many who study overseas (or locally), the many who decide to study a certain course, the many who land up in certain a career path. Perhaps we can redefine ‘special’: because in the end we may make very similar choices and have very similar moments, the true magic of special will lie in the spirit with which we do what we do, the purpose-driven and passionate disposition we choose to lead our everyday and the intentions we perpetuate. If we may be special, let us be special in that way.

May our verve make us special.