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.

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Design – the heart of effective and sustainable solutions

I grew up with a very narrow understanding of the word ‘design’. To me, design was something distant and related to fashion or the arts. It was only after coming to Helsinki that I begin to understand its power. Design is not just an industry or a field of study; it is a lifestyle and a way of thinking.

In her TEDx talk ‘What nature can teach us about design’, Jane Fulton Suri reminded me about some of the lessons that I have observed at different parts of my life, and I realized that at the heart of it all lies just one word – design.

 

Design and environment

I was privileged to have spent some time with the passionate team of Kampung Temasek in the initial stages of the project’s development. In gathering inspirations for the school’s building and for potential programs, we were invited to spend the weekend at Mawai Eco Camp where we were introduced to the underground sewage system and structure of the buildings. It was actually more fun than work! We spent the day having lessons from the forests and tackling the pond’s obstacle challenge course; the night, rowing in the river beside fireflies and chatting in the open-air canteen over a cup of hot milo and a guitar.

It was during this weekend that I first realized how nature has all the answers to our design of buildings and activities for team-building or conflict resolution etc., if we would only look and listen hard enough.

Design and learning

Halfway through my professional career in the field of training and facilitating, it became evident that the design of programs and learning experiences was more important than the skills of the trainer himself. A program that is heavily reliant on the trainer is often empty or motivational at best. The age of the ‘guru’ is over, much of today’s learning seem to point to a more dynamic structure of exchange and collaboration.

How can we design for learning experiences that provide deep and sustainable transformations, and is not dependent on a single teacher?

Design and social systems

In the video, Jane pointed out some lessons on restructuring organisations and leadership gained from a project with a large US council. Through observing the success of nature, the team designed a new system that replaces top-down directive orders with bottom-up cohesive actions.

I am reminded of leaders who display characteristics of the higher stages in the Tribal Leadership model (get your free audiobook if you haven’t already done so!). Both point to similar things – the need to move away from a controlling style in leading and communicating, towards a more facilitative style of encouraging networks and connections.

Why design?

Because to design is to leverage. It is setting the context and system for success to happen. Dr. Edwards Deming pointed out that 94 percent of all problems and improvements could be attributed to the system, not to the incompetence of a worker or person. If we don’t know leverage and system, we work too hard. We will be spending our lives filling and refilling a jug which has a leaking crack.

By the way, Helsinki is World Design Capital 2012. Tervetuloa!

Now that we know all these in theory, how can we apply it in our daily lives?

What do Men and the Rich have in common?

In today’s world where global issues are being identified, labeled and elevated to center stage, we are entering into another dangerous pursuit. Violence, hunger, pollution, oppression… the list goes on.

In our eagerness to fight for the causes that we believe in, we start defining who or what deserves our energy and attention, drawing boundaries to shape these groups. As we become more emotionally engaged with them, we unwittingly exclude those that fall outside of the predefined boundaries from our field of compassion. To a certain extent, prejudice and blame towards these outliers even start to sneak into the subconscious of many of us.

Who are the new outliers in our reshaped world and minds?
Who are we rendering unworthy of our compassion?

The Hungry Rich

Filthy-rich.

Just one out of the many stereotypes that we grew up hearing about people who possess great financial wealth. We were taught that it is wrong to covet the riches, and this served as a decent bedrock for the accumulation of anti-rich sentiments. The global compassion towards the poor and the hungry made it even more convenient to justify this prejudice.

In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist outlined lessons from her decades of experience fundraising hundreds of millions of dollars as she served in leadership positions of global initiatives, including The Hunger Project. It was in a specific incident during an afternoon with Mother Teresa that she uncovered her own prejudice and resentment towards the rich. Recounting Mother Teresa’s reply to her, Lynne said:

“In her reply she admonished me, saying that while I had expressed compassion for the poor, the sick, the faint, and the weak all my life, that would always be a place where my self-expression and service would easily flourish. The vicious cycle of poverty, she said, has been clearly articulated and is widely known. What is less obvious and goes almost completely unacknowledged is the vicious cycle of wealth. There is no recognition of the trap that wealth so often is, and of the suffering of the wealthy: the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth. She said that I had extended little or no compassion to the strong, the powerful, and the wealthy, while they need as much compassion as anyone else on earth.”

The Oppressed Men

As the collective voice and power of women rises in our world, stories unfold about how women have suffered for centuries at the wrongdoings of men and the patriarchal society. The topic of women oppression has triggered very varied responses in both men and women alike – anger, guilt, sadness, indifference, etc. In our desire to ‘right the wrong’, we, as a society, turned our fingers towards men or engaged with them in a close-hearted way.

Have we ever entertained the thought that men have also, in another way, been suffering and oppressed?

Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of The Center for Self Leadership, described the lonely stoic prison that has kept men caged from life-giving connections with themselves and others:

“For men, vulnerability means instant humiliation. In our culture, being a man means being able to quickly cut off from hurt feelings without a whimper. In a study of college students, researchers found that when females disclose feeling depressed to their roommates, they receive nurturance. But in response to the same kind of disclosure, the roommates of men were isolating or hostile. It seems that at least for men, the fear of looking vulnerable is well-founded. Remember Thoreau’s famous quote, ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. It’s no wonder that men keep their desperation quiet.

As family therapist Terrence Real observes, boys and men are granted privilege and special status, but only on the condition that they turn their backs on vulnerability and connection, to join the fray. Those who resist, like unconventional men or gay men, are punished for it. Those who lose or cannot compete, like boys and men with disabilities, or are the wrong class or colour, are marginalized, rendered all but invisible. Boys and men live each day with the kind of fear that can only rarely be assuaged. Straight is the game, and narrow is the path. One false step and it’s a long drop down. If a man is not a winner, he is a loser. And the cost of losing is more than just the game at hand. It is abandonment.”

What now?

Concluding with Mother Teresa once again:

“Open your compassion and include them. This is an important part of your life’s work. Do not shut them out. They also are your work.”

How can you develop the wisdom to see your own prejudices, and cultivate the compassion for those whom you have closed your heart to?

By the way, what were the first answers/ thoughts that came to mind when you read the title of this article?

What will get you smiling through the day?

The first word that came out of my mouth today was “sh*t”.

It was one of those days when you wake up to the light coming through the window and realise that you are late for an important event at work. Not a very good start. I spent much of the day swinging between berating myself internally for this, and trying to move on from the mistake to be fully present to my work and the people I interact with. The event finally ended successfully to a toast of champagne, and I took the chance to reach closure with my team mates about the morning’s incident. Everything was fine after all.

source: Kelley Bard Photography

As I made my way home, I passed an elderly lady who was sitting alone on a bench. A smile and a greeting were exchanged and I continued on my way. A few metres away, I stopped. I looked at the colourful bunch of flowers (and leaves) which I had brought from the event and a thought came to me. Pulling out an orange stalk of flower, I walked back to the lady, handed it to her and simply said “for you”.

Her face burst into a myriad of expressions! It went from surprise, to realisation, to joy, and a whole lot more unidentified ones. The most beautiful and youthful smile lit up her face, and she started speaking excitedly in Finnish, to which I could only smile and reply in English that I do not know the language. She hugged the flower close to her heart, and continued with what sounded like a selection of key words. All I could pick out was “kiitos… kiitos…” and “rakas”. She was in so much joy she looked close to tears. I walked away with a huge grin that couldn’t be contained, and suddenly, it seemed that the day has only just begun, for real.

The one thing that got me smiling even until now, is a simple act of kindness.

I do not know how the lady is feeling now, but as a giver of that act, and a recipient of that pure joy and radiance, I have definitely been deeply touched and inspired.

Somehow, it is seeding another thought in me – how possible is it, that we can inspire ourselves? That we can spontaneously create situations which fuel us and give us energy?

Finally, thank you, Iunia, Boca, and Silviu for having been an inspiration with your story The lady with the flowers and the rainbow train. You are creating ripples!