Making Light of Things

Remembering Uncle Bobby Sng

Dr. Bobby Sng passed away on October 14th, 2019. Many Christians in Asia knew him as the President of the Bible Society in Singapore, or one of his many pivotal roles in helping the Christian community reach out to the larger society. I knew him as Uncle Bobby Sng who spoke monthly at church. Like many others, I looked forward to his sermons because they were not overly verbose or complicated, and communicated the simplicity of a living faith in Jesus Christ.

Over the years I began to serve in church, and had the privilege of speaking to Uncle Bobby more. A lot has been shared during his memorial service, as to the person he was and the effect his words and life had on others.

If I were asked to describe Uncle Bobby, the word that first comes to mind is “translucent”.

The conversations I remember most vividly are the ones where I asked Uncle Bobby for advice.

When you ask advice from most people, they go straight into problem-solving mode, breaking down the problem into smaller components, and working on solving those. Or they’d regale you with life experiences and wisdom they have gathered over the years, and how they think the issue you have just described is similar to something they went through a long time ago.

I never got any of that with Uncle Bobby. Instead of telling you what to do, he’d always smile, and encourage you to pray, ask God and discover His will for yourself. He was very careful not to allow his own passion and expertise — which were evident — to direct the decisions and actions of younger Christians who came to him. He had a reverence for God’s work, and knew intimately that only God could accomplish what He intends.

Uncle Bobby was translucent in the sense he had this ability to fade himself away and allowed God to do the speaking to, the conviction of, and the directing of the lives of His saints.

Even as we gathered around his death it didn’t feel like we were mourning the passing of a great leader or monumental figure, much as we tried to shape the service to a format we are more accustomed to. There was a lightness in Uncle Bobby’s passing, and I suspect it is because he understood what it meant to be a modern day John the Baptist. He always deferred to the Lamb of God, and worked hard at decreasing himself in order that Christ may increase.

I found myself marvelling at how little death took away that day. “Where O death, is your sting? Where is your victory?” When Uncle Bobby passed away, it felt like little had changed. His life had always been a journey towards more of Christ and less of himself.

The time of reflecting upon Uncle Bobby’s life was a reflection of what Christ has done in Asia. And though Uncle Bobby has left us, Christ continues to work here amongst us even now, calling us all to be translucent, that He may shine through.

My Time Traveling Companion

My dearest Faith,

How quickly the years go by. The day-by-day passing of time may quietly escape our notice, but we are reminded when we see our children take their steps into teenhood, and we are left futilely holding on to the last vestiges of babyness.

It has been a while since I wrote to you, but I’ve really really enjoyed our morning breakfasts together, or the late night chats after the lights go out in our children’s rooms. We are aware of how few of these we might have left, and I’m desperately imprinting them into my heart and my mind that its taste might always be familiar to me should dementia attempt to steal these before death takes either one of us. Having you by my side has been a deep study to the manifold blessings of God. It is impossible to pen down how much these years have meant to me.

You, my beloved, are more beautiful today than you have ever been. The laughter we’ve shared over the decades has etched lines on the corners of your eyes, and the white streaks in your hair shine like shooting stars in a twilight sky.

I am so blessed to be the one beside you as we observe the sunset of our lives, and the sunrise of an eternity in Christ Jesus.

The State of Digital Health Today

The democratisation of media has been one of the largest events in recent human history. The power to speak to the masses, once available only to a privileged few, is now made commonplace in the pockets of everyone with a mobile internet connection.

We are now surrounded by the products of this reality: blogs, social media posts, tweets, YouTube videos, Instagram and Snapchat photos and stories. Many of us share almost as a force of habit.

It has become time to rethink that habit.

Don’t get me wrong, many amazing and wonderful things have come forth from being able to share our experiences and perspectives, but I have been thinking hard over the past couple of years as to where things might have gone awry. The relentless push to make content generation easier and easier has led to a proliferation of overly-simplistic and malformed ideas; which in turn has incapacitated us with infinitesimal attention spans.

We have become a society that is not only unable to produce competently crafted content, but also to appreciate its complex flavours. The ramifications of this are widespread and dire. Politics - an arena that draws power from populism - is reduced to a pandering to the emotion du jour, and less about solving real societal issues which are endeavours that outlast the lifespan of a viral post or tweet.

That is the core of the issue, isn’t it? That in our drive to make content more easily generated and shared, we have shortened the lifespan of issues ideas, but the implementation of solutions to real problems require much longer timeframes. The twitchy and fickle waves of social sentiment become counter-productive to the ones who put their noses to the grindstone. It is slowly becoming impossible to find anyone who would devote large portions of their lives to solving big problems, both because the personal cost on these individuals is too great, and it is easier to focus on short-term project-based work because the risks are lower and the rewards more immediate.

Looking at my own online evolution from frequent long-form blogging to tweeting to instagramming, this has been true. I have often neglected writing in lieu of the quick photo, and many ideas and opinions have dissipated because of a reluctance to rigour. I am appalled at the deterioration of my ability to find words or construct sentences to convey thought.

Some things have to change.

Which way is up?

A lot has been said in speculation over why Minister Tan Chuan-Jin was nominated by PM Lee to take over the role of Speaker of the House.

Well-liked by many, the general sentiment is that he has been a very down-to-earth minister, often seen with his constituents or hanging out with sportspeople representing our country in international competitions. This move came as a surprise to almost all of us, and quite a number of armchair pundits have mooted that it amounted to a demotion, and that he must have fallen out of favour at some point in time.

Some things have changed from the days where every Singaporean child had to grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, or architect (we all know the architect was a reluctant compromise for our parents). The education system offers many more pathways than before, but change that needs to happen within us has clearly not taken place.

We are obsessed with status ladders and assume that climbing it is the universal purpose of life. We don’t understand why DPM Tharman isn’t the next Prime Minister and conjure conjectures of conspiracy theories. It could very well be that he doesn’t want the job and reckons he serves better in his more specialised role.

We’ve applied the same lens to Minister Tan. It’s amazing how we try to figure out where the rungs on our imaginary ladder are. People have pulled out the salary scale to compare if the Speaker of the House makes as much as a full cabinet minister in a bid to determine if this move was lateral or downward.

This is something I too grapple with in my own life. Am I moving up? Am I stagnating? Where is my career headed? Faith, who has spent the last few years of her life as a homemaker has it even tougher because the ladder as we know it doesn’t exist in her world. Well-meaning friends and relatives often coax her to go back to work because corporate work gives one a “sense of value”.

How sad our lives must be, that we are so easily taken in by this race that causes us to perpetually feel inadequate, to continually assess our own worth against that of others, and to push others down in order that we may hold our own heads high. We place these cares of the world on our shoulders, and a lot of it ultimately amounts to nothing. The admiration (or jealously, really) of our peers means nothing at the end of the day when we dial it in and meet God.

I’m still learning how to step back from this all-consuming tunnel vision and allow God to show me a glimpse of the larger picture. His plans for us often seems counter-intuitive, and His paths aren’t the ones we would choose. I’m discovering that He is more interested in what we are than where we are, and to take the time to reflect on how I can spend the little time I have left to serve something more tangible and lasting than the satiation of my own ego.

Chuan-Jin’s move might not make sense to us if we only look at it as “up, good, down, bad”. But I believe this is a man who will serve with his utmost wherever he is. I thank God for the person that God has made him, and pray that we all will find the path that leads to eternal value.

The Golden Age of the Internet

The internet is always changing, its complexion the nexus of technological leaps and cultural fickleness, each affecting each other in an endless spiral. Arguments could be made about whether the spiral has generally led upward or downward.

It’s been twenty-something years since I first connected my external USR 28.8 to my computer’s LPT port and scoured for numbers of neighbourhood bulletin boards. The internet of today is such a different place, and I can’t help but reflect nostalgically on the past, what was beautiful about those times, and perhaps how we can recreate that magic for this new generation of digital natives.

The late 1990’s to early 2000’s was perhaps my favourite era of the internet. In terms of tech markers, we saw the arrival of the 33.6 and subsequently 56k modems; IRC was at its height; and Napster was the staple of all college networks.

Culturally, it was a vastly different place from the internet of today. For starters, it was a much smaller place. Large IRC networks like DalNet and EfNet brought together tens of thousands of users on really busy days, but smaller networks we frequented like GalaxyNet numbered in the thousands. You mostly stuck to the same few channels, much like how the characters in Friends would gather at Central Perk all the time.

The bandwidth speeds at that time were conducive to text-only interfaces and afforded the occasional image file. This meant people went by their chosen internet nicknames and not graphical avatars. Everyone started out anonymous, and it was only after many deep conversations where you’d learn the other person’s name, where they were from, or even their gender. I can’t even begin to tell you how liberating that was for a scrawny dark-skinned introvert like me.

The more I think about it, the more I am led to believe that what was special about that era of the internet was that it was populated by introverts. We invented blogging because we wanted a way to speak to the world without having to make eye contact with others. We had so much pent up inside of ourselves, and the ecstasy of finding others who underwent the same journey we did and understood was indescribable.

We understood how fragile all this was; how quickly it could be lost. Even when we organised the next inevitable step of actually meeting up with each other we did it so cautiously. We pondered over and over whether meeting face to face would change the relationships we had. If others would judge us by our outward appearance or social standing, or if our views would be discounted because they found out how young we really were.

Enter the internet of today, a confluence of broadband speeds, ubiquitous high-quality video cameras, and the possibility of fame made sustainable by online advertising. Enter the extroverts. Enter selfies - a million of them a day. Enter personal video channels where everybody can be their own talkshow host. Enter heavily photoshopped avatars.

We all love what continuous innovation in technology brings us. That Mandy Harvey could overcome her hearing disability to put on a stirring audition at America’s Got Talent is the tip of the iceberg of new possibilities we have today that weren’t there yesterday. We celebrate when anyone overcomes personal disabilities and gains acceptance.

The internet of today is a vastly more crowded space, and it often seems only those who are savvy self-promoters stand a chance of being found and appreciated. The bright lights and glitzy glamour is attractive to many, but the introverts have all but slinked away. In all the noise, we wonder if it’s worth speaking up to be heard. It has become that much harder to find each other.

I am thankful for the people I’ve met in my early years, and if you’ve been here reading I hope you know how much you mean to me. But I’m constantly thinking of how we can make this internet a more inclusive place with halls filled with bright lights, and also more intimate spaces where whispers can be heard. I’d like us to regain that sense of reverence and awe, to relearn how fragile great communities really are: how beautiful and precious each individual, and how we cannot go about our blustering ways expecting everyone to grow thicker skin.

I miss you and the times we could share the real things that matter. I miss the times we sat down and thought carefully about how we could make everything better for everyone.