Every Singaporean should leave Singapore

“Modern”
“Clean”
“Efficient”
“Safe”

These are just some of the responses you will get if you ask someone what they think about Singapore. Someone who is not from the country. Au contraire, speak to someone who has lived in the country and they will tell you how Singaporeans are, oddly,  generally dissatisfied with their country, having gripes about almost anything you can find under the sky that spans the 710 km² of land.

National identity or pride in the country is a fuzzy concept, with no one clear identity for the citizens to hold on to. In some countries, it is excellence in a certain sport that makes the citizens wear the colours of their flag with pride; in some, the music gels the people; in some, it is the age-old culture. What about in Singapore, where the official founding of the city-nation is less than 200 years ago and the immigrants arrive with diverse backgrounds? What is it that will make the people wear their country’s name with pride? I believe the answer can be found outside of the country.

Singapore’s uniqueness shines through when you put the country in the context of the world. Having lived away from my home country for a while by now, I am growing more appreciative of it by the day. In particular, three ‘privileges’ of being a citizen which were once-upon-a-time taken for granted have surfaced to my attention and zone of gratitude since the day that I left Singapore.

1. The political and international convenience from holding the red passport

The keyword here is convenience. You will not be able to fully appreciate what it means to be a citizen of Singapore until you step out of the country, breeze through legislative red tape and international immigration limitations, and realize that this is not something that happens to most travelers. The country has earned its trust from the world, and much work has been done for you to be able to receive these privileges and convenience.

2. Passing through the snake of social prejudice unscathed

“Where are you from?” – A common question that you will be asked when you will travel and meet people. Observe their reactions when you reply. Many a time, my reply would be met with appreciative raised brows and a smile as my audience exclaim ‘Oh, Singapore!’ Instantly, there is an interest to make conversation, to build rapport, or to share their positive impression of the country. As much as this interest is out of politeness, there are the undeniable subtle hints of approval that would not have been there had I mention the name of some other countries. All because of the reputation and foot-hold that the country has secured in the eyes of the world.

3.  A melting pot of culture to share

Culture? Yes, we indeed have one! What used to be one of our weakest links has turned out to be a strength and unique selling point – Diversity. The scattered identity of different backgrounds has somehow found its reason to be celebrated for. Because of the diversity that I grew up in, I am able to enrich my stories and sharing with my international friends. This has also been useful in developing a greater capacity to hold differences in communication styles and in the ability to create variety in the kitchen. For example, I have found great pleasure in sharing with friends about Chinese names, Indian food, or the Muslim faith.

I don’t usually use the word ‘should’ to impose my ideals on people or situations, and the article title is a strong statement that I am making. The fish does not see the water that it is in, and this is something that is true for many who have never left the country. Step out, even if just for a while, and you will return, a different citizen.

Photo taken at Design Factory, Espoo, Finland. 2012.

What a woman truly wants – 3 simple truths

“Oh… women!”

This powerful exclamation (insert tonality) is one of the shortest universal communications that unites all the men on this planet with a common understanding. A man just needs to say this to another and they would suddenly both be tuned in to the same frequency.

Many of my friends who, in John Gray’s words, hail from Mars, have shared their exasperation and helplessness in figuring out or pleasing the women in their lives. On the other side, my Venusian friends have expressed similar frustrations about the men in their lives. So what are the missing pieces that would bridge these two species? The unfortunate news is that there are many. The good news is that some of these have significantly more impact than others, and they are really not that complicated. Here are three for you to work on – small changes can make a big difference!

In this article, I will use “their women” to refer to the women who are in an intimate relationship with a man, and vice versa. While this is in reflection of the common perspective of many couples involving ownership and claim, it is mainly used for ease of reference. It does not represent the view of the author (I), nor does it disregard the fact that we are all independent individuals, men or women alike.

***

To be accepted

There is a reason why this is top on the list. Over a dinner with some female friends, we marveled at how so many men seem to be trying to ‘fix’ their women, that what is is never good enough. Regardless of whether a woman has a physique of a supermodel or not, it is often either “you’re too thin, I can’t feel you when I hug you” or “have you put on weight?” When was the last time you heard someone say “Oh, she’s perfect the way she is! I like her just as she is”? I took this example because the topic of weight is an intimate friend of almost every woman. There are many other ways in which the non-acceptance is subtly expressed. The moment you try to fix something about your woman, you are sending across the message that there is something wrong with her.

There is a fine line between being honest with a woman, and accepting her for who she is even if nothing changes. In this world where we take pride in improving things, we have subconsciously exchanged sufficiency and satisfaction for a critical eye and dissatisfaction. There is nothing wrong with this, it has brought about major evolutions and it is how the world runs. What is important is recognizing that relationships and people are more delicate than things and need to be handled differently.

A woman comes alive when she is appreciated and accepted for who she is today, not who she will be. Recently, a friend was deeply touched by a man who saw her beauty, both on the inner and physical, and who was not shy about expressing that to her, “My boyfriend has never looked at me with eyes of admiration like that! It made me feel so special and beautiful, for the first time ever”. A woman blossoms like a hibernating flower when she feels and believes that she is beautiful, and many men don’t realize the influence that they have on this matter.

The words that you say can have the effect of ripples on a still lake, and your actions can move mountains. However, if you want to know the key to making that stubborn lock click into place, it is in the way that you look at her. So, how have you been looking at your woman?

To be heard and understood

There is at least something that both parties in many relationships share in common – a mutual perception that the man doesn’t understand the woman. Or maybe the man thinks that he does and the woman thinks otherwise, in which case it reinforces the point that he doesn’t.

To many man, this is a behemoth quest that does not seem like there is light at the end of the tunnel. For the blessed ones who have truly figured your woman out, know how to treat her right and give her happiness, you have my utmost respect. If you don’t happen to belong to that category, worry not, I have a piece of good news for you. While many women think that what they want is for the man to understand her, what they truly want is something that is a lot easier to achieve – feeling that her man is interested in understanding her and is making efforts to understand her better day by day. Phew! What a big sigh of relief to know this, isn’t it!

Much of the process of understanding a woman involves listening to her with your undivided attention. Ever had a woman exclaim that you are not listening to her, when you think that you apparently are? Chances are that while doing so, you also have your eyes on some other task, or the TV, or have your mind a few thousand miles away.

Hearing is different from listening. You just need a pair of ears to listen, but you need a whole different set of skills to hear. When she is telling you about a problem that she is facing, do you jump in with solutions or try to console her by dismissing it as something insignificant? Often, she just wants you to be there to provide a listening ear and to be a companion. When she is emotional, do you move away or react just as emotionally? Listen to what she is saying verbally and what she is expressing non-verbally, it is likely that she is trying to express some unmet needs.

To be loved

It is not enough that you love her; she needs to know that and to be able to receive your love for her. It is the same as with all communication – it matters not what you say but what the recipient actually gets from your message. We are all guilty of assuming that the other person is getting the same message which we are transmitting, and then getting upset over the fact that they are not responding in the way that we expect. Assumptions, expectations, interpretations.

Are you sure that she knows that you love her, or is she receiving mixed messages from you? Dr. Gary Chapman’s groundbreaking work on The 5 Love Languages describes the different ways that we express and interpret love, and how we can leverage on this to get our messages of love across. Check this out if you haven’t already done so. It may just be that the both of you are speaking different languages, which can be easily addressed.

***

To all the frustrated men out there, please be patient, we are learning about ourselves just as you are. Some of us are just a little more special and needs a little more time and attention. Not to mention that we are juggling two different roles at the same time – a student in learning about ourselves; and a teacher in educating the men in our lives about us and how to interact with us.

I know that your woman is not perfect. Shape her not with your criticisms and opinions; shape her with your love, acceptance and patience. It will not be easy, but it will be a worthy journey filled with priceless trophies.

Picture source: eatliver.com 😉

Dreams – A personal story

What do you do with those childhood dreams of yours?

For most of us, it is likely that they had vaporized into thin air as we ‘wake up’ to reality. I never went on to become an astronaut, for example, even though I still fantasize about that now and then. I express that fascination with the outer space through trying to understand the greatness of this world that we live in, one that stretches beyond the physical Earth, perhaps.

One dream did materialize, however. I had a dream of living in Europe, and now I’m here. That’s not what I am going to share about though. There is this other dream that is being realized because I am here. One that stretches way back into my childhood, a dormant longing and thirst that never got quenched – the dream to be able to play the piano masterfully.

I remember asking my mum for piano lessons and a piano, but our family couldn’t afford either, so my parents bought me a little keyboard. I was excited about receiving it, but got disheartened soon when I realized that it was just a toy and couldn’t do what a piano does. I would sometimes tear when I watch others play the piano as the music was so beautiful and I wished that I could be the one creating that.

That dream remained buried as I grew up, with other things taking priority. Education, work, personal projects, money, relationships, stuff. I never forgot about it though. When I created my vision board last August, I even put up a really nice picture of a woman playing the piano. However, it remained as an unrealized hope and wish. Education, work, personal projects, money, relationships, stuff.

Things started to change when one Friday morning this January as I was walking to work, I suddenly thought about my life. I feel pretty satisfied with the way things turn out, even though there have been misfortunes and I have also made mistakes. I asked myself, ‘if tomorrow the world will end, is there anything that I will regret?’ Not learning the piano, came the answer.

I told this to my new housemate Martina that night. ‘Then you have to do something about it, and soon’, she said very firmly. Fueled by her encouragement, I got the crazy idea to check out the local second-hand websites to see if they might have a piano. I joked to myself that if there is one under 300 euros, I will buy it, only half-believing that it will happen. ‘Yeah right, like you’re going to find one for that amount’, says a skeptical voice inside of me. My curiosity got the better of me and a few minutes later, I didn’t find one that was within my budget. I found five. The following Saturday morning, we made a few calls to the sellers, visited two of them that weekend, made arrangements for professional transportation and by the end of January, we had a foreign-looking wooden thing sitting in our kitchen. Well, it was the only place in this apartment that could fit it. It looked oddly out of place, but it was awesomely unbelievable and inspiring just to see it there.

And guess what the most amazing thing is? Martina happens to be passionate about playing the piano and she’s willing to teach me! Imagine having a live-in piano teacher! On the first of February, I stood clumsily in front of the piano. I didn’t know how to get started and asked, ‘now what do I do with this?’ She laughed, and that began our first piano lesson.

Now, two months later, I finally have the courage to share with you a video of myself at the piano, mistakes and all. I wish for this to also inspire you to pursue the dreams that you have forgotten and that still matter to you. Many things that looked impossible at first can in fact be just a few steps away. You will be amazed at what you can make happen.

Video taken on 01 April 2012. Copyright 2012

Oh, and did I mention that the universe rewards us when there is momentum, action and passion? Aside from sending an angel into my life to give me a [compassionate] kick to get this to happen, the seller of the piano also ended up giving it to us as a gift. Free.

How is your artist today?

Would you describe yourself as creative?

In the past, if someone had asked me that question, I would have been the last in the queue to say yes.  I never saw myself as being creative, as I associated creativity with the ability to self-generate new ideas out of nothing. It did not help that I was also comparing myself to other peers who seemed to be able to churn out unique and fun ideas at whim.

It thus came as a surprise during breakfast one morning as I was writing my gratitude journal, to realize that I had actually written “the opportunity and context to exercise my creativity each day”. I wrote so because I was grateful for having a piano readily accessible to me to work on that childhood dream of learning to play the piano (there, the secret is out!), and for having a safe context where my basic needs are taken care of, I did not need to worry about daily survival, and I could have the inner space and peace to explore my creativity.

When those words came out, I stared at my journal and blinked. Me… creative… each day?! I started to list down the different ways in which that creativity has been expressed on a regular basis, and the list came out as such:

  • Playing the piano (why, of course :))
  • Cooking (I have fun experimenting with different food and ingredients)
  • Designing trainings (I love being able to create transformative learning experiences for people)
  • Writing (that’s what you’re looking at now)

It seemed to make perfect sense then. My creativity has found its own way to be expressed even when I have not been consciously taking care of it! So many spiritual teachings tell us that there is an artist in all of us, and that our life’s work is related to the expression of our unique gifts and talents. It is in exercising that creativity where we find joy; and that is something special and unique which we have to offer to this world. I used to know it mentally and now, I think I understand it a little more.

I have not been paying much attention to my creative side. Much of my adult life has been spent chasing personal and professional success; my gifts and creative genius have been ignored, suppressed by pursuits of what I had been conditioned to believe is important. In those deliberate pursuits, it feels as if I am swimming against the currents and the act of achieving is a struggle, a fight. However, on occasions when I am not attached to outcomes and I am just enjoying the process, I find that doors open for me out of the blue and I am in flow. I don’t need to try, I just need to be.

This is not to say that we should abandon all challenges and stay in our comfort zones. This is for us to know the distinction between holding a creative tension and fighting against nature.

In case you still find it hard to accept that you hold a powerful creative genius within you, allow me to stretch the discussion a little bigger. How are we created? There are many different religious, cultural and scientific responses to that question, and I do not intend to go into them. One thing is for sure though – we were created out of particles that were found on Earth and that created all other life… our Earth was created out of the same particles as the galaxy… our galaxy was created from what is found in the universe… and our universe was created from… nothing?! We hold within us the same ingredients that created our world, and if these ingredients can create that, just imagine what we are all capable of!

So, what can you do today to take care of your artist?

Living with Integrity – Are you choosing what’s important to you?

Have you ever done or not done something and then felt upset with yourself about it? Did you make a note to yourself that you will choose differently the next time round, only to repeat the same pattern, feel lousy about yourself… entering into a cycle of feeling bad and making choices that you know you will feel bad about later on?

I definitely have. If that sounds familiar, welcome to the world of Integrity.

Integrity as a word has been in my vocabulary since I was young, and I knew it to be in the family of words like honesty and truthfulness. It was only in the last 2 years that I began to experience and understand the essence of the word. As much as it is related to our interactions with other people and the world, it is really about our relationship with ourselves. The word stems from the Latin word integer (whole, complete) and refers to the inner sense of “wholeness” that results from acting in consistency and congruency with our highest values and principles.

For many of us, however, we find it challenging to ascertain whether we are living with integrity as we don’t even know what we truly value, to begin with. That’s why we have these wonderful things called feelings and emotions. They are like the signals on your car dashboard to tell you that something is wrong inside.  Each time you compromise on what is truly important to you, e.g. in a moment of mis-choice or in an attempt to fit in with your environment, you feel a sense of dissatisfaction nagging at you. For some, it shows up as frustration and anger toward self. Feelings are essentially a call for action, and the more you ignore or snuff them out, the stronger they show up later, in different ways.

***
I thought I knew my values, until an insight yesterday which gave me a deeper distinction.

I have consistently been working on incorporating habits and making changes that I believe will make me a better person mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Some of these include

  • Fulfilling a childhood dream (which I will write about in a later post)
  • Starting a project that involves marrying my strengths and passion to design a work and career that I love (this, I may possibly write about too)
  • Doing my yoga practice every morning upon waking up

In the last few days, I have also started to make changes to my diet in response to research findings on a skin allergic reaction that involves cutting down on dairy and wheat products. These changes have reflected positive impacts for my skin and body – skin acne recover, I feel lighter, less sluggish, have more energy and get better sleep. Of course, this is complemented by a few other lifestyle changes.

There were some sandwiches and candies available in the office kitchen yesterday from an event in the morning, and I found myself eating the cheese-filled wheat bread for lunch, with a grand finale of a piece of milk chocolate for dessert (Think dairy + wheat combo). Later, I wondered what made me choose to eat that, and to save for dinner the food which I had initially prepared for lunch.

I then realized that this is just one small incident that reflects something else that has been consistently playing out in my life – the war between 3 dominant resources: Energy, time and money. In this particular example, as with many other decisions I have made before, I have compromised on my health and energy in an attempt to ‘save’ time and money. For example,

  • Working till late and going to bed later than I had wished to, not getting enough rest
  • Skipping yoga on some mornings in exchange for extra time in the office
  • Buying processed food, some of are cheaper than the whole foods

Consciously, I would place health and energy as the top of these priorities, but subconsciously, I have been acting in ways that are incongruent with that value and ideal. It was so liberating to lay these 3 resources out in front of me and to see how I have been relating to them my whole life!

Today, in my moment-to-moment decisions, I am making a conscious effort to choose Energy.

***

Each of us has quite a few things that we value, some of them potentially in conflict with each other. For example, I value interpersonal relationships, and I also need a decent amount of personal time and space. I have said ‘yes’ to gatherings after gatherings, and ended up regretting it when I realize that I do not have enough time for my personal well-being or to complete some projects that I have promised myself. I have also readily given up me-time so as to fit in with others, only to feel upset about it later on.

Of course, this does not mean that you should expect the whole world to accede to your demands. It means to know your boundaries – which are the ones that you can compromise on, and which are the ones that you absolutely need to stand by? I have learnt that integrity, boundaries and assertiveness are good friends. Add in an elegant sense of balance, and you’re ready to surf the waves of your internal world and external environment!

How do we, on a moment to moment basis, make choices that bring us happiness, peace and satisfaction?

P.S. Check out Brian Johnson’s great video +1 or -1? (3mins)

The means to an end, or an end for the means?

“10”
“9”
“8”
“7”
“6”
“5”
“4”
“3”
“2”
“1”
“Hyvää uutta vuotta!!!”

Cheers filled the air as bursts of colours lit up the dark midnight. Standing in the middle of the senate square with 30 000 other people, we were busy turning our heads to follow the fireworks that were shooting up from the buildings surrounding us. After the spectacular display had ended, we hugged, toasted over a shared bottle of wine, and then got busy again trying to make our way out of the crowd along with the packs of people.

“That’s it?” I thought. It felt kind of weird, having looked forward to this turn of the year which will signify the conclusion of a very special year for me and the beginning of a second chance, and in the blink of an eye, the moment is over. The joyous atmosphere has amazingly taken an immediate dip, and it suddenly seemed to be just like any other day, or night.

I thought about the days of intense reflection and perturbations leading up to this day, and it occurred to me that those carried so much more significance, and was in itself an experience that I now look back on with gratitude for having gone through. Like many others, this personal audit was fuelled by the realisation of an impending destination – the end of the year. Imagine, if there never were year-ends, and time stretches itself on endlessly with no milestones, would we have looked at it in the same way?

This experience of reaching a much-awaited destination and finding that the moment is brief and passing, and even disappointing to those who had glorified it in their minds, is just like every other pursuit that fills our days. If you consider how we spend most of our time engaged in the journey of becoming/ achieving/ arriving, and the actual moments when we reach our destinations and achieve our goals are but fleeting, you will realize that Life is in the journey.

This perspective somehow shed an ironically different light on the phrase “means to an end”. Between the relationship of a destination and its journey, which is the means, and which is the end? We kept moving along the journey so as to arrive at our destination, and then find that the gold actually lies in the yellow brick road. However, without that destination, we would never have begun the journey in the first place. Which is the purpose of which?

So, how is your yellow brick road? Are you paying any attention to it?

 

Boxing Day special 2/2: Lessons from the CTO of a top Finnish company

[Continued from Boxing Day special 1/2: A soulful afternoon]

It seemed like a long time had passed that I sat there indulging in my fantasies. I suddenly caught a movement from the corner of my eye and turned to see a man on ski skates zipping across the submerged path, determinedly pushing his way along with his ski poles. It looked like he was gliding on water. He reached dry land, slowed down and walked towards me. Awed, I exclaimed, “That was cool!” He smiled and replied that is was only 5 centimetres deep. He climbed onto the lawn behind me, headed for the house, and started taking off his gear. So this is the owner of the house! I mused as I realize that just a moment ago, I was fantasizing about the house, and in the next moment, I had met and spoken to the owner. Isn’t that a powerful manifestation or what?

I watched as he stayed there washing his gear. He was suitably-dressed for sports in the cold winter, and had a lean and well-built physique. This observation led to thoughts about other successful people like Da Vinci, Tony Robbins, Bill Clinton, etc., and I realized that they all share something in common – exercise. They don’t just exercise occasionally like most of us do. They are ruthless about observing their exercise routines and keeping their energy levels in check. They know that to be able to do the work that they do, live the life that they live, and sustain it, their physical health and energy comes first.

He was still around after a while, and a curious thought flashed into my mind. What if I asked him…? Inspired by Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happiness who asked the owner of a stunning car how he did what he did, I mustered enough courage to shout across his lawn, “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure”, half-amused and curious, he walked over.
“You have a really beautiful house, what do you do?”
“You mean, professionally?”
“Yeah”
“I am the CTO of Company X”, he replied humbly. I have censored the company here for confidentiality purposes.

He has been working there for 5 years, and before that, he was a consultant. The details of which, I did not probe. I asked if he was happy, to which he smiled and said yes. He shared about living by the sea, and how it suited their (his family, I presume) lifestyle. In winter when the sea freezes, one can go ice skating on the sea (imagine!), and in summer, canoeing.

Before leaving, I threw him a final question – I asked for his advice to someone who desires to live a lifestyle like this. By ‘this’, I was referring to a lifestyle of abundance and happiness. His interpretation, after a moment of deliberation, came across differently though.

“You need to have the suitable attire for this kind of weather in Finland. You can’t just stay indoors and wait for the perfect day, like today.”

This unexpected response surprised me, and yet it was very true. I bided him a merry Christmas and hopped onto my bicycle, half-delirious over the bold move. Sometimes, we run crazy little stories and fears in our minds, when all it takes is to just ask! He had politely stood there and chatted with me, when he could have gotten irritated by the unexpected intrusion, or he could have easily excused himself and left this stranger to entertain herself by his lawn. Either way, I wouldn’t have known unless I try.

As I cycled back home, his words swam in my mind. In essence, the message I had gotten out of it, is to be prepared for our environment and the unexpected, and not sit around waiting for the stars and moon to align for us. In our lives, how many times have we succumbed to excuses, taken the easy way out, and then justified our inaction with those excuses? This is definitely nothing new to me. In case you might doubt the relevance of that reply, be reminded of the saying that “how you do anything is how you do everything”. If this is happening in one area of your life (e.g. exercise), chances are, it is also playing out in a greater part of your life, and it is affecting the kind of lifestyle that you have. What can we do to get ourselves into a state and habit of being ready?

Lessons:

  1. There are no perfect conditions. Use what you have, go out into the world and play.
  2. There are many who would love to share or teach, if you would only ask.
  3. There is a lesson in everything and a teacher in everyone, as long as you are ready to learn and to be a student.

Back in the apartment, hungry and cold, I thought about making myself a cup of hot chocolate. I remembered the lessons on taking care of our body, and ended up preparing a refreshingly simple (or simply refreshing) tea break of wildforest fruits tea and juicy apples drizzled with honey and cinnamon. Sweet.