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August 2012 Archives

In Serving Each Other, We Become Free

“You came alone?”

Everyone seemed to ask as I headed into Changi General Hospital for my hernia operation. I didn’t understand why it seemed so odd to them. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up. We tried our darndest not to be more trouble. I did the necessary of course: arranged for a family member to pick me up after the op and all. But a hernia op, I was told, was pretty straight-forward stuff. I’d be in and out in a day.

The nurses showed me my bed where I’d wait to be wheeled in for the op. It was in a ward with five other patients who were all waiting for their minor surgeries. While watching movies loaded on the iPad, I made sure I smiled at them. There was a certain camaraderie; this was a shared moment in our individual journeys.

It was oddly Singaporean. I was beside a Eurasian man, who was beside a Malay man, both in their sixties. Across there were two Chinese men, one looked like he was in his eighties, and couldn’t speak English; the other was a fifty-something. Like me, he had his iPad. I noticed that I was the youngest by quite a bit.

I smiled at them as they were wheeled to the operating theatre one by one. They smiled back; like we were all headed for a tour or something. We wished each other well. When the nurses told me that my procedure would be postponed a little because they had shifted me to accommodate the more difficult cases earlier in the morning, I silently prayed for whoever it was that went ahead. It sounded serious. “You’re young and fit, you’ll recover faster than most,” I thought to myself, echoing what the surgeon told me in an earlier appointment.

It was a few hours before their wheeled me in. It felt like I was on a amusement park ride. Or more accurately, like the transit system in the old video game Half Life.

There were hospital personnel in many different coloured outfits, and I was always looking out for the “rarer” ones, like they were rare pokemon you could collect while being pushed on a bed through this maze. And then the operating theatre, where I was transferred on to this very narrow operating table. It had heated blankets underneath. I really appreciated the warmth. 80s retro music was piped in. When they asked if I had any questions, I asked, “who gets to choose the music?” “One of the nurses, probably. Sometimes we get Chinese pop songs.”

Then they did the whole just breathe this in deep, it’s just oxyge…

I woke up back in the ward, my right thigh totally numb and immobile. I look up at the clock and realise that three hours had passed. Although unable to move my leg, I felt normal and alert. I had sandwiches and hot chocolate; my first meal in 18 hours. I was ready to go home.

Until the fever hit.

Trembling uncontrollably while wearing nothing but the bareback robe from the operating theatre, they layered blankets on me as I lay in fetal position and tried hard to sleep, hoping it’d all go away. It was startling how quickly I went from a state of self-sufficiency to utter want. The minutes were hours and as the anesthesia wore off, the real pain began.

They checked me into the normal ward. My day surgery had become a sleepover.

It felt like someone had yanked hard on my internal organs, and a huge streak of pain ran down my right side. You know the pain that comes with holding your pee for way too long? That was perpetually there, and I began to worry that something went wrong.

In the middle of the night they woke me up for an x-ray. I was drenched in sweat, and took a while to push myself up to a sitting position, and even longer to slump myself into the wheelchair. The x-ray technician asked if I could stand to have the x-ray taken. I mustered what I had, and realised my body did not move an inch. I smiled weakly and told him I probably couldn’t. They took my x-ray with me sitting down. I was so grateful.

When they wheeled me back I asked to go to the bathroom. Lifting my legs out of the wheelchair was hard; walking, bent over in pain to the nearest cubicle was rather challenging. Everything that was easy became infinitely more difficult. How much difference 24 hours makes!

The fever would eventually subside. The internal pain would persist, until I realised the nurses had placed a dose of painkillers on the side table, and I had failed to notice it. I wasn’t upset - they were probably doing me a great favour by not waking me up. Sleep was the only refuge, and very hard earned. Painkillers would have been nice though. :)

As I recovered my strength, I took time to talk to the nurses; find out where they were from, and how they felt working so far away from home and family. In my time of need they were the ones I had to rely on, and they shone brilliantly.

It is truly humbling how quickly my perspective changed as I moved from perceived strength to complete brokenness. When things are going well in our lives we look upon the less fortunate in a certain way, but until we are in a position of need, it is hard to truly understand how much the small things matter. A helping hand, a smile, a warm blanket.

Even as I recover from the stitches and walk about still slightly bent over, I will slowly forget what it was like to place my well-being entirely in another person’s hands. But I hope I’ll keep some of the perspective, and more of the humility. If anything, a better grasp of how quickly the tides can change.

If anything, a stronger devotion to serving those for whom the tides have not been as kind.

The Search for Singapore's Semangat

It’s been a week since the government officially opened its doors for public feedback on population issues via population.sg, and I can’t even begin to describe how encouraging it has been to see how so many Singaporeans put in considerable effort and contributed many creative ideas and suggestions.

Many things could be made better: public transport, the availability of housing, flexibility in the workplace for better work-life balance, education…the list goes on. But I cannot help but sense a deeper need that we find hard to define, because we seem to have lost the vocabulary for these things when we pursued math and science at the cost of the arts and humanities so many years ago.

Truth be told, most Singaporeans would agree that we’re doing better than most other countries in the world. We enjoy a relatively reliable infrastructure, and I’m personally comforted by the recent push towards more green spaces.

I guess the question, when asked bluntly: why aren’t we happy?

If Maslow’s pyramid applies, it would appear we’ve maxed out on the eating, drinking, shelter layers, and are looking to fulfill the higher-order needs. There’s been a lot of talk about the Singapore identity, finding what it is, or preserving what we had. We’ve made huge sculptured chunks of the pledge and placed them in various parts of town, where people can hit a huge “Like” button to show their appreciation for the phrase. I often ride my skate-scooter to work, passing by a few of these and hitting the button whenever I can.

But it feels empty.

I’m looking for something greater, something more important than economics. I’m looking for something I can believe in - a Singapore I can believe in. It is more than her resilience to overcome financial recessions, or her shiny new coat of paint as she wows the world by hosting the F1. I’m looking for an articulated set of beliefs and values that would transcend the basic need for survival.

I don’t think we really have that yet.

When I was much younger, Singapore took an almost militant stand against gambling. I remember jumping on the bandwagon a little when people said Singapore was boring, and would be more vibrant if it opened up a little on this; and that the old man was just being an anal-retentive puritan who was out of touch with the times. But deep down I was proud that we stood up for something, and that LKY defended these beliefs in the face of criticism and the lure of monetary opportunity. I miss that feeling so much.

Just today, it was announced that Asia Pacific Breweries, the makers of Singapore’s own Tiger beer, would be sold to Dutch brewery Heineken. The reason given was that the economic incentive was too good to pass, and they were doing what was right by their shareholders.

I can empathise, especially when we live in an era where cashing out seems to be the end game plan for new corporations these days. Yahoo! should have sold while they were up, Facebook cashed out at the right time, and my beloved Digg is now touted as the cautionary tale of not selling out at the right time.

So I can understand the pressure on Hsien Yang to roll the company over for a good profit, and his explanation that they had their shareholders in mind. But I can’t help the general feeling of despair, that the shadow of Mammon — sheer, the unadulterated love of money — looms over everything we have. Tiger Beer was a brand we grew up with, and one of the few global brands that belonged to us; and it no longer belongs to Singapore. We have lost another part of ourselves.

Every now and then we are asked the question: what will you die for? The model answer, as everyone knows, is “family”. Without being as dramatic, I’d post the question, what would we fight for? More compassion for the poor, the handicapped, the underprivileged. An end to senseless discrimination, in its many shapes, forms and guises. For home.

Because home is more than a place family gathers. Home embodies a set of beliefs, protected from the harsh Darwinian forces of nature. I imagine my children running down sunny halls filled with Singaporean poetry and song. Dare we dream these things, or do we continue the push and pull of train timings and square footage of HDB flats?

As Gilbert wrote,

These are things I know I may never learn
to say. So we speak of smaller daily things,
and soon this brief connection will
unmake itself, and expire.

Disclosure: I work at the National Population and Talent Division, but the views I share here are my own…you know the drill.

Update: There have been quite a number of citizen-initiated efforts, especially since National Day is round the corner. Thought I’d try to capture the ones that I come across. If you found any notable ones not here, drop me an email at lucian@tribolum.com.

Stand Up For Our Singapore:

By the folks at RedSports:

A pretty awesome music video, composed by Galvin Sng, and performed by a great bunch of fellow Singaporeans:

FTW.sg, an aggregation of video clips of Singapore by Nick Pan

Love is Home, by mrbrown:

We are Singapore, by SteadiProductions:

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