Give and Take

In 2 weeks from publishing this piece, 35 friends and family came together to pool 1326SGD (approximately 930USD) to be contributed to the Room to Read Girls’ Education Program. This sum can support at least 3 girls in the next year.

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The International Day of Giving is celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving in the United States and widely recognized by shopping events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Also known as #GivingTuesday, the annual affair rides on the holiday sales to encourage individuals, organisations and communities to give generously to a cause of their belief. Every year, #GivingTuesday has served as an important reminder for me to be thankful for privilege and of noblesse oblige (that privilege entails responsibility). Then, compelled by my belief in the power of influence, I share the #GivingTuesday stint with those around me whom I care about dearly in hopes that a spark will start a fire. This piece is for Giving Tuesday 2016.

#GivingTuesday (2013-2015)

My first initiative began in 2013 at Year 4, bringing #TreatsOnGivingTuesday out on the streets – this involved handing out goodies to strangers on public transport or on the streets as I went about the day, in advocacy for kindness that (contrary to popular belief) takes little time out of our days to practice. 2 years of #TreatsOnGivingTuesday saw almost a hundred Kindness Advocates join me on board; amongst whom, closest of friends to acquaintances. We actively practiced kindness and in return, forged friendships and rediscovered hope.

Last year in 2015, Giving Tuesday was a time for reflection on my Watoto Journey – in conclusion of the 3 years for which I had been rallying classmates to give monthly contributions to Sponsor a Child with Watoto Organisation. A holistic care programme initiated as a response to the overwhelming number of orphaned children and vulnerable women in Uganda. The Watoto model involves medical care, trauma counselling, education and spiritual discipleship; pursuing the dream of rebuilding Uganda by investing in the next generation of children and women.

The #GivingTuesday 2016 Cause – Education

One year exactly since my exit from formal education to the ocean of uncertainty, I hope to dedicate this Giving Week to celebrating education. What has been the most critical investment, instrumental to the individual that I am today, is completely inaccessible to at least 50 million children in the world. The quality education made compulsory and then heavily subsidized for all Singaporeans at the primary school level is only the tip of our iceberg of privilege. Then, the sturdy desks, reflective whiteboards, stationery and stationery shops, food stalls in spacious canteens, well-trained teachers and driven peers; all icing on the cake. It astounds, if not frightens, me that today, more than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school. The generation that is to take over and bring forth entire communities (even countries) further into the 21st century, large proportions of whom, illiterate. Imagine that.

Yet, the dollars and cents are enough to go around and the statistics above can change, one individual at a time. This year, my #GivingTuesday is dedicated to Room to Read Global Organisation – a global charity that believes that World Change Starts with Educated Children. Investing in education from improving infrastructure, training professionals to the keeping-children-in-school part, the organization has had an incredible track record of accountability and transparency in the past decade. The Girls’ Education Program places girls in school throughout secondary school education and keeps them there for $300/year sponsoring school fees, uniforms, textbooks and personal allowances for food and transport.

On Giving

We are too often skeptical rather than curious about donating to global charities; too often acting in silo rather than as the global citizens that we truly are; more frequently comfortable with status quo than we are willing to seek out harsh realities. The price of our inaction and oblivion is paid by fellow human beings. The paradox lies in that our fortune does not find our nation necessarily happier nor more fulfilled; we make sense of our resources against the backdrop of scarcity rather than abundance and think of our fortunes as zero-sum (if we give so another can prosper, we irrationally believe we will suffer as a result).

A teacher who attempted to teach a class about privilege had the students sit in neat rows and columns (desks in exam style seating) and placed a waste paper bin at the front of the classroom. Each student, given a crushed paper ball, was told to throw it into the waste paper bin. The students at the front of the classroom had a significantly easier time accomplishing the given task. Those at the back of the classroom though, failed in spite of committing an incredible amount of effort into the given task. Trying over and over, some students began to express unhappiness towards the “unfair disadvantage” that the students at the front enjoyed. To which, the teacher replied, “you are in the same classroom, given the same task and instructions; if there are students who can accomplish then why can’t you?” Some students at the front of the classroom, who had accomplished it almost effortlessly nodded in agreement. Soon, at the back of the classroom, infuriation and dejection emerged.

The trouble with sitting at the front row and taking merit for the seating arrangement set by chance is that we forget to turn our heads around and listen closely to those who are not us.

Get Involved

It is in my deepest hopes that by 12 December 2016 (Monday), I can rally pledges (from friends and family) of any amount and raise at least $300 for the Room to Read Global Organisation Girls’ Education Program – contributing an amount enough to keep one girl in school for the next year. Any donation counts, the value lies in our acknowledgement of privilege and the moments (albeit brief) that we dedicate to compassion. Compassion, in essence, refers to the way we choose to make someone else’s problem our own and take personal agency in the affair.

You may donate on an individual basis directly to the organization here.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that “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.”

This is an invitation to be in the arena, let’s be in touch at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg. Together, we can change their story.

Photo 24-12-14 7 24 22 pm
In celebration of the schooling years that have been put on temporary pause
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Perhaps, It’s…

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Find out more about what we’ve been up to at Strong Mind Fit Body

I wonder what keeps him going: the man in the yellow helmet and fluorescent outer wear. Brown boots, expressionless and his hands in orange gloves, I wonder what he’s thinking as he drags the bulky orange barricade that lines the road across the bumpy terrain of grass and lugs it onto the pavement. He uses his entire body weight to do that; when he turns, he pivots on one foot skillfully. It is drizzling and the view beyond the window that encloses this safe space is blurred. This morning, with the taste of hot chocolate in my mouth and the bus’s air-conditioning at just the right temperature, I am curious about the stories of those I see around me. So, I wonder.

Purple polo T-shirt and khaki pants, this man looks curious as I am. Curious, and firm; he slouches over seated at the bus stop, with one hand supported by his umbrella standing before him. His makeshift hand-rest is at odds with the sunglasses resting over his cap. He was prepared for rain and shine, clearly. I wonder what he thinks as he remains seated, looking more carefully at the people boarding or alighting the buses that arrive than at the bus numbers. I wonder if he’s going to be at it all day.

Ladies with their long hair tied into a high bun always carry with them a sense of elegance in their footsteps, especially when they are in stilettos like hers. There is something about her V-neck, knee-length black dress that suggests she has an office. One with a one-way glass door and a 2-metre long desk, two chairs opposite her for people who come in for a review (by her) and a sofa nearby, that she sits on with important clients she’d like to have feel comfortable in her office. Most of her time, though, spent at her table that is marble, probably. She possibly has more people working under her supervision than I can count with my fingers and toes. I wonder what brings her out of bed and into that office every day.

There is a pregnant lady, her hair a mix of brown and blonde. Seated at this bus stop right outside Holland Village, she is texting without looking up to watch the buses come and go. Not once. I wonder if she’s heading somewhere at all. There is a blue lanyard around her neck, the only other thing she brought out of her house. My work at the Early Childhood Development Agency finds me more empathetic than before towards pregnant mothers – the physical changes they go through and the societal expectation that they continue to do things as they would in spite of the immense discomfort they sometimes experience. I wonder if this is her first child, and if she has named him/her. I imagine that the first and last thought of her every day goes something like My dear, I can’t wait to show you the world as she rubs her tummy.

He is looking at something – facing down into the condominium swimming pool, with a stick of sorts in his hand. In a light blue uniform and casual black pants, I wonder if this is what he does at 845AM every morning. He is definitely looking at something in the pool. A stain he is trying to scrub off the floor of the pool? A bracelet the last person who was swimming in the pool left behind by mistake? Or maybe he is gazing into the blue of the pool, thinking about the people that really keeps him going. His family, maybe? A girlfriend? Actually, maybe, what he is really looking at is at the future that he dreams of for his loved ones, for whom he wakes up every morning to commit to his duties at this pool.

This part of Orchard Road, slightly busier, has a mix of working professionals, retail staff and early birds of the tourists. The rain has stopped, as if finally allowing the day to begin for us all. I am occasionally brimming with curiosity, as I am today, about the thoughts and motivations that we find to do the things that we normally do in our every day. I appreciate that I have some sense of purpose that countable others yearn but cannot seem to find; I wonder what keeps us all going, I do. Perhaps, the day–to-day tasks that keep us excited. Or perhaps, the sense of love and belonging that we derive from connection to others.

Perhaps, it’s hope, where hope is not an emotion but a way of thinking. In my learning from Brene Brown, hope is a cognitive process where emotions play a supporting role. This morning, I am thinking that perhaps, it is hope, the way we make sense of our present by linearly predicting the possible future that lies ahead, that keeps us going the way we do. How timely that this morning I am heading to the Scape Ground Theatre for a Singapore Youth Conference, discussing the future of Singapore. Where shall we find hope for the years that lie ahead?

Choose Wisely: The Choice Theory

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I would like to propose that we all be in search of our quality self. This evening is one spent at home recuperating after the weekend’s adventure, rather overwhelmed by the rollercoaster ride that the beginning of August has brought. The Strong Mind Fit Body team (our family) has braved ups and downs this week coordinating this weekend’s simultaneous East and West National Day Special! As if perfectly timed, the week drew a close to my latest read, Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom by Dr. William Glasser. In which, he introduces Choice Theory, which states the following:

1 | All we do is behave

2 | Almost all behavior is chosen

3 | We are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs (survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun)

It suggests that we should frame ourselves as beings in control of every experience in life and implies personal responsibility for our circumstances. Basically, “the only person whose behavior we can control is our own”. He acknowledges the value of our past and of our stimulus but attributes any consequential emotions or our perceived circumstances to our own choice – our choice to depress or to anger, our choice to tell ourselves the story of our being the way we do and our choice to respond accordingly. He applies Choice Theory in numerous contexts, from trusting one’s family to schooling and education, proving its applicability and effectiveness. Utterly convinced about the value of this theory, I am slowly but surely inculcating the takeaways from the read into my every day.

Allow me to illustrate Choice Theory in the context of school:

Dr. Glasser writes that what many American schools are offering is the experience of schooling and not of education. This, he suggests, is the reason why high school dropout rates are soaring and capable students are not performing. He qualifies that schooling “is destructive”. It “is a false belief enforced by low grades and failure”. It involves trying to make students “acquire knowledge or memorize facts that have no value for anyone, including students in the real world”. In contrast, his definition of a ‘quality school’ is one that offers an education, which “is best defined as using knowledge”. Though acknowledging that one must be aware of the knowledge (prized in schooling) before learning to apply it (important in an education), he criticizes schools that stop at just the awareness and emphasize on rote learning. This is a symptom of external control psychology, the opposite of Choice Theory.

We live in a society of external control psychology – where we are constantly blaming others for not being a certain way or complaining about things not going the fashion we hope. We utilize our influence to impose our expectations onto others and coerce one another to do things. We use emotional blackmail or guilt-trip, we incentivize and manipulate. We have been misled to believe that external control is the only way we can achieve our valuable goals of ‘success’, ‘harmony’ or ‘happiness’; but it is more often that in doing so, we obstruct these very same things we hope to achieve. Confused about how our intentions can get so lost in translation, we arrive at what we think is a dead end. There is no agreement or consensus in external control, only oppression and forcefulness. We have grown up this way – “spare the rod, spoil the child” or the positive-negative reinforcement systems are only the tip of the iceberg. The environment of our childhood, though, is no good excuse for abandoning the choice that we can make now – that is, to consciously deconstruct the present rather than the past and then make choices to improve this present.

We each have a quality world – an image in our heads of the world we would like to live in. It is an imagined future that is plausible but never guaranteed. Our everyday actions, thoughts and interpretations of happenings are shaped by this quality world that we are subconsciously (or sometimes, consciously) working towards. It is what shapes our choices. If a person exists within our quality world, we make decisions in hopes of keeping the person in our lives. Indeed for the majority, the quality world would involve important people in our lives and depict strong relationships with these people. The key then, as asserted by Dr. Glasser, is to practice Choice Theory with these people whom we want to keep so much; to constantly remind ourselves that “the only person whose behavior we can control is our own” and then choose. Choose not to force. I would like to propose that we all be in search of our quality self, where we apply Choice Theory and recognize what Dr. Glasser calls “personal freedom”. It seems ironic that in the privileged lives that we lead, we still find ourselves feeling as if we “have no choice”. There are societal norms, peer pressure; you can easily find manipulative information or advertisements and it is tempting to succumb to laziness. Let the environment decide. Choose to allow external factors determine our internal limits. Truly, though, these influencers are but influences. There is nothing more decisive than our personal freedom as individuals. The freedom to choose.

I dream of one day, living in a ‘quality community’ that Dr. Glasser describes. A community where we ask ourselves “Would this be helpful for the community?” before we act upon our thoughts instead of demanding for the reason the community is as such. We will no longer try to control one another to abide by what we believe to be right and instead, model the way with our actions that speak louder than our words. We will prioritize conflict resolution and relationship preservation above choosing to lose our temper. I would love to one day inspire a ‘quality community’, but for a start, I think I would strive to be my quality self.

PS Amongst the many adventures that August has already brought, one has been a reconnection with a friend of 5 years. It is difficult to describe how we met, but I would like to attribute some of the optimism I am having in the quality community I dream of to our recent reconnection. Here’s to hopes and dreams.

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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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Time for a Digital Detox

being on my ownReminder to self:

I declare (for myself) that June be dedicated to self-discovery and self-care. This one is inspired very much by the feeling I miss from our month-long holiday in a different space: the ability to experience meaningfully and introspect comfortably has slowly been faded by our local obsession with busyness.

Half a year after the exit from the safe haven of Junior College, this new normal has been as intentions-based as possible. In the attempt to be more grounded to my values and to achieve greater emotional clarity, the concept of an “intentions-based 2016” was to associate intentions to every month rather than goals – unlike the ‘A’ level preparation days where goals were milestones and time was measured relative to exam dates; the crux is to “stop doing and just be”.

January was about bringing comfort to close friends from Junior College through the certainty of our mutual support amidst the new uncertain reality.

February, for the primary school and secondary school friendships forged that have stood the test of time.

March was critical for self-development as it found me reconnecting with platforms for growth (ie community service commitments and picking up skills like driving or leadership).

April and May were months for connecting and reconnecting; celebrating the friendships that prevailed albeit shifting realities and priorities. The spirit of give-and-take in a relationship.

June is a month for self – for time alone and for introspection.

The privilege of holding on to numerous important relationships (especially that of a complete family) and being a part of many movements larger than myself have guaranteed that everyday is different. Ordinary moments made extraordinary. In this break, I have been blessed with the wealth of trust from many others to give back purposefully, pay forward kindness and advocate beautiful possibilities. Some may think it selfish, but at this point I find it important to step back and do a timely check of “what is important to me?” and “why do I want to do this/these?” Given the opportunity to deliver a 45-minute sharing at the Asia Student Leadership Conference 2016 this Sunday, many nights like this have been devoted to asking meaningful questions and being completely honest with myself. I do this in hopes of aligning my actions with my intentions and values, to be a truer person.

For a conducive environment that promotes this conscious reflection and mindfulness, here’s to a (selective) digital detox: no Instagram, massive cut on Whatsapp conversations (I have recently archived 234 chats), a break from my Facebook photo diary and no online distractions that I scroll through incessantly.  To disconnect digitally in our world that is as much connected on the virtual realm just as we are physically is a true challenge. Especially so, because of the reliance we have on external affirmation of decisions that are otherwise completely personal. The intention this month is the amplify the inner voice while turning down the external one(s). May the quiet, truer values that I stand by prevail.

I declare (for myself) that June be dedicated to self-discovery and self-care. This is one that will see more writing than talking, thinking than doing and surrounding myself with those who bring out the best and truest in me.

P/S I apologise in advance for the attempts to connect going unreciprocated and the appointments being turned down.

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Misplaced Apologies: Sorry because of Nothing

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This morning smells of coffee as I resist to urge to get a second coffee fix from Starbucks. It is exciting to be starting work at 9A.M. (rather than the usual half or quarter past 8A.M.) – allows me a relaxing morning seated at my favourite high seat in Starbucks, writing. The coffee house is empty, except for its diligent staff, and the sun illuminates this space from the back, shining in through the full-length glass panels that enclose this space. Today’s thoughts are on the apologies we misplace: the pretense in the “I’m sorry” that we don’t mean or the empty pleas for forgiveness when we have done nothing we deem to be wrong.

Years ago, as an active volunteer of UPstars tutoring program, I had the privilege of leading a team in the repainting and packing of the space we used for class. We transformed the blood red walls that induced anger and distress into an azure blue, donning the walls with images of nature accompanied by quotes about “kindness”, “courage”, “perseverance” and “forgiveness”. I vividly remember the one for “forgiveness” – “Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them,” we painted. Often within the space of the classroom, we preached to the young ones about the importance of apologizing for whatever they had done wrong. It was the key to conflict resolution. Stationery taken without permission, drawing on someone’s work, being disrespectful: “What must you say?” “Sorry.”

The magic to an apology that resolves countless conflicts is the idea that at the heart of an apology is the acknowledgement that what has been done shouldn’t have been. It is an expression of hope to be forgiven and to be treated no differently for something done: an expression of regret. When I was younger, I recall how “sorry” might have been the most difficult word to say exactly because of the inner feelings we were exemplifying while expressing our apology with sincerity – in saying “I’m sorry”, I often felt like I was placing myself in a vulnerable position in face of the person I was apologizing to.  The hesitation and the difficulty in expressing the apology was exactly because “I’m sorry” carried significant weight.

I have always felt that lessons we learn about how to treat one another lose clarity as we grow up, and unnecessarily so. The one on when to say “sorry” is one of them. Increasingly, the complications we associate to an apology potentially undermine the value of the plea for forgiveness. Allow me to clarify that in this case, I am not referring to the apologies we express to those we care for dearly even when we haven’t done anything wrong. Such apologies, I deem to be relatively justified and similarly weighted as they involve putting ourselves in a vulnerable position because what is at stake (the relationship) is something we are concerned about deeply. The sincerity in the apology is derived from the desire to preserve the relationship. Rather, I am hoping to revisit how professions that involve customer service, for example, often induce an environment where we apologize excessively – the instances where we amplify our sense of entitlement to induce a meaningless apology. (I once wrote about this earlier when I was working in Macdonalds’ Fast Food Restaurant)

It seems we have an innate desire to feed our esteem at the expense of others who are made to feel inferior. In the context of customer service, “the customer is always right” is our safety net and our sense of entitlement, our weapon. Attack. The “I’m sorry” that follows is nothing short of fear that we misunderstand for submission and respect. This is breeding ground for a culture of excessive apologies – the value of our apologies shall proceed in a never-ending downward fashion every time we abuse “I’m sorry” for instances where we have little (or nothing) to be expressing remorse for.

To all those who have induced these apologies from me, I’m so sorry that I’m not.

This Giving Tuesday

1st December is the International Day of Giving- a day dedicated to social responsibility of giving back through Voluntary Welfare Organisations amongst other charities and causes. For 2 years (2013/14), #TreatsOnGivingTuesday has been a tiny dream come true for me in hopes of spreading the spirit of kindness based on the belief in the ripple effect. The idea is simple- to buy an affordable packet of snacks and give it to a stranger as you go about your day, encouraging the kind act to be further paid forward. What began as a “personal goal” on this special day, became a movement of 60 odd people with the creation of a Facebook page and rallying of others who shared the dream of spreading kindness with the power of many. 

As a continuity to my hopes of having a small part to play on this special day, today I write in reflection of what the 3-year long Watoto Sponsor-a-Child experience has meant for me:

My story with Watoto began at Halogen’s National Young Leaders’ Award ceremony in 2012, with a thought-provoking sharing by  Mr Chris Varney, the National Co-director of World Vision’s Youth Movement. Sights of social injustice had become harrowing memories that necessitated action and his long service for World Vision has become testament to his heart of giving. Perhaps overwhelmed with guilt from my inaction despite being in a privileged position, embarking on sponsoring a child began as a selfish desire to dose the uncomfortable feeling of guilt. From there, the meaning of this Sponsor-A-Child project has continuously evolved over the past 3 years.

The beginning was the most challenging- it took over half a year to decide which organisation to sponsor a child through. The fear of pooling money together monthly only to land it in the pockets of selfish “charities” taking advantage of our desire to give, was real. It was only with months of research, countless email correspondences and corroboration with trusted seniors who had once donated through Watoto that the basis of trust was found. And ever since, the organisation has never once betrayed my trust- only reinforcing it with punctual half-yearly receipts, efficient email correspondence and heartfelt sincerity in maintaining their donors’ trust. When I tell people about sponsoring a child, the most common response is “Wow, how do you know your money is really going to the kid?” The truth is: I don’t, and I never really will. But what’s important is I am as sure as I can be, and I trust the organisation.

I learned somewhere of our temptation to be instantly gratified when giving to charities- we want tangible, efficient results and we want to know that we are doing something. In his TED Talk, David Demberger describes it as ‘wanting to do something that “sounds sexy”‘. We’d rather know that our money is going to “build a well for a village” than to “fund maintenance workers that will upkeep the functionality of water systems”. Or in other cases, we’d rather say our money went to “building a school” than to “paying the teachers working at a school”. Our subconscious hopes of instant gratification in return for monetary donations, compounded by our feeling of entitlement to our privileged position, become reason for hesitation to do whatever is within our capacity to make however small a difference. Sadly, till the day comes that we subdue our illusion of entitlement with regard to our privilege and invest in organisations we trust to assess needs and invest wisely; until we are ready to allow NGOs to make mistakes with our money and trust them to make good mistakes, our “we’ve got to do something about it” will always remain as talk, not action.

Sponsoring a child for me has taught me the power of many and that of little all at the same time: with a mere $1-2 contribution per person every month from a group of sponsors that started with my Y4 classmates, we have sustained our share of donor contribution for 3 years. With the monthly forking out of a small amount and occasional letters exchanged with our Watoto Child, I have time and again been reminded to put my problems in perspective and refreshed the uncomfortable feeling from social injustice. The most magical of this experience has been the emotional connection: a realisation that our Watoto Child, though worlds apart in circumstance, geography and fortune, share a great deal of similarities with me (from ambitions and dreams, to the desire for excellence when given opportunity).

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In December 2013, the brainchild of a friend at Halogen Foundation was translated into action with just a few of us who shared her dream. Together on the eve of Christmas Day, we brought bags of edibles carefully chosen and sponsored by volunteers to the doors of elderlies living in one-room flats. There was hesitation, translated into frequently asked questions: Is that what they really want? Do they need this? Are we doing more harm than good? It was only with the perseverance of translating the idea into action that our genuine hopes of giving invoked outpouring of heartfelt gratitude. And only then did we gain assurance. In hindsight, what a waste it would have been if we had let uncertainty impede acts of genuine kindness.

This Giving Tuesday, I write this in awareness of the uncertainty that comes with giving and in reminder of the importance of trust and belief that will succumb the emotional blocks at the root of our hesitation. Let’s give wisely and cautiously, but always, generously.

PS You can find out more about Watoto here or email me at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg