Making Light of Things

November 2010 Archives

Pause and Give Thanks

Things happen so quickly around here it takes an act of will to put on the brakes, if only to figure out where we are.

Faith and the 2 kids have been battling a wretched cough for a while now. Just the other night, Faith was in a coughing fit. Anne went out of the bedroom and came back with a glass of hot water and handed it to her mother with a small smile. I panicked a little at the thought of the little girl lifting a heavy jug of hot water from a counter a little too high for her and pouring it into a glass. So I hastily told her not to do that by herself again.

Crestfallen, she walked to the corner and wept. Our hearts shattered in a million pieces. Compassion is such a fragile thing and is easily destroyed by cold hard pragmatism. Faith and I held the crying girl until her tears turned to laughter at one of the many jokes I had to spontaneously think up to turn the tide around. I dried her damp cheeks and marveled at the girl God had put into my life.

In the background, Caleb was still jumping up and down on the bed, going “bang bang”, pointing at everyone else with the broken toy airplane wing that passed off for a gun.

Faith and I looked at each other. No words were needed.

Only hearts of gratitude.

Anne and the Polar Bear

Feeding Time

Main Course, No Sides

When I joined the government 5 years ago it was a step taken in hope. A small step perhaps, but hope is a seed always destined to grow into a strong tree. My professional goals were to help the government build websites it could be proud of from a technical standpoint. Web standards compliant.

Though labeled as a geekhead the goal has always been larger than purely technical. The web standards movement has within it a certain set of values; values of inclusiveness and compassion, collaboration, transparency and openness, and simplicity, to name a few. There was the hope that the government that I knew from the murmurings of cab drivers and vocal internet underdog heroes as heavily bureaucratic, self-serving and ineffective could be reformed through some form of internal revolution. Or if I should fail in the revolution at least I would have at least been able to say I’ve tried.

Over this time I’ve met with bureaucracy, selfishness and ineffectiveness. I’ve pulled at my hair more than I would have liked. But I have also seen many examples of self-sacrifice, honest speech and street smarts. I’ve been privileged to have known these people, and by some extension to call them brothers and sisters. Some sit behind desks, others run ahead with guns. Many of these who have chosen the service of their fellows as their lifework continue to bear silently the brunt of online dissent. Even now as year end bonuses are announced, they are not lauded for their work, but scorned for it.

Having once been on the side hurling rocks and now on the inside getting hit, the biggest wish I have for our country is that this not be our end, but only a phase towards greater maturity as a society. I am glad that the advent of the web means more voices can be heard, but there is a need to embrace the diversity of opinions. They that mock the censor should not censor they that support him, for it would be irony indeed.

Inclusiveness. Compassion. Authenticity.

In two weeks I take a pretty drastic career shift and join the National Population Secretariat in the Prime Minister’s Office which deals with some difficult questions for our generation. There is a fear that I step too close into the heart of the issue to be an objective observer of it, but also a fear that I spend a lifetime only observing and criticising those who would dare step in while enjoying the security of standing at a distance. A job in the public service is an opportunity to make a difference, and Singapore needs people who have a heart for service.

I leave you with this movie-line mashup:

People should not fear their governments; neither should governments fear their people, for fear is the path to the dark side.

Constant Change

Old Supreme Court, New Supreme Court, Singapore

I leave my job in a few weeks for another, and joining the dots of my career I see a personal evolution. It wasn’t too long ago when the ideal was holding on to jobs for life. These days, the same philosophy is seen as extremely outdated and held steadfastly only by those who fear to tread new ground.

It was deemed as loyalty back in the day.

We live in the era of “me”, and the shift in our value-systems happen so quickly we need to consciously question fair-weather assumptions.

Why is change necessary or good? Why do we expect ourselves to continually be moving, accepting new challenges and always morphing and shifting, sometime responding to changes in the external environment (the demands of the job market for example) and sometimes out of sheer boredom. Why do we expect change to be a good thing, but complain when the food stall we’ve frequented for years disappears, nowhere to be found?

Rojak Man

As designers we often talk about iterative design, agile methodologies, continual improvement, but we forget the importance of familiarity. We forget the importance of anchors, markers, grids - the co-ordinates from which we gain reference. The 0, 0, 0s in our lives.

In a world where constant change is touted as universal truth, it is around these anchors we cluster our most treasured possessions. We build memories around places and buildings we interact with over time. The saying goes “make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver, the other is gold”. The most important things in life have a constancy, even at a personal level: character, integrity, punctuality, faithfulness, loyalty. One wonders if we have traded those character traits for adaptability and resourcefulness. We can’t help but wonder if we’ve thrown trust out the window.

When people ask me for career advice, I always go back to “find your passion”. In my own rather limited experience, it is fool’s gold to chase after economic trends because the winds are too fickle and change too quickly. It is ok to switch jobs if circumstances aren’t ideal, but one’s career, nay, one’s life, should reflect an honest, faithful stewardship of a passion God has placed within him. Though change be inevitable, change occurs on the micro level; we should keep our eye on the macro. The waves that slap against the side of the boat may distract us, but we ought to point the nose of the boat at the specified point in the horizon.

We need to keep steadfast for a great many reasons. Because a lifetime is already too short a time to create real, lasting social good, much less an internship stint of 3 months. Because while it takes a short time to learn something, it takes a much longer time to master it. Because when opportunity seeks after the prepared, not the ones who are merely dabbling, and your mother has always told you to stay in one spot if you ever get lost so it’s easier to find you.

But ultimately, because these days, more than ever, people need things they can depend on, even if for a little bit. They need that food stall to be there, for their own sanity’s sake.

What are you defending?

A whole lot has been said and written about National Serviceman Lim Zi Rui’s comment that he didn’t know what he was defending anymore. He was referring to how to huge influx of foreigners into Singapore has led him to a state of being lost; that he couldn’t identify with the Singapore he was fighting for and defending.

First things first: it is perfectly normal to ask this question. The question “What am I defending?” is applicable to all citizens of Singapore, not just National Servicemen, and it comes in a myriad of different forms.

“Why am I staying in Singapore? Why haven’t I migrated?” At the root of it, it is a question of investment. We are putting something in - our time, our toil, our lives - and we want to know what it is we’re doing all of this for. It’s probably the most fundamental question of life if we expand it to a more macro, existentialist level.

In the information age we live in, the notion of a country, like many other age-old paradigms, is undergoing change. Countries used to be about geographical boundaries and physical territory. While a geography teacher came up to me the other day reminding me that these things do matter because humans are intrinsically tied to where they are physically located, I think citizenship has evolved to become more intangible, and it would be disastrous if we continued to define it as a one dimensional concept.

Ivan Lalic’s poem Places we love came over me with such clarity, that the places we love are more than physical spaces. “Space is only time visible in a different way”, goes the poem. I love Arizona because of my time as an undergraduate there, and I’ve made it a point to revisit her, but it’s not the same Arizona I remember. The people I know have moved to different cities, we’re all older and at different points in our lives. The mountains and sunset remain, but little else. I love her still, for what she was to me in that stage in my life.

In the same way I love Singapore. For what she means to me. For the memories I’ve made here, and for the memories I hope to create for my children in the relative safety of this place. She is a half-written story we all find ourselves thrown into, and are responsible for how she will be remembered in the annals of time.

I would that she be remembered for her multi-cultural beauty, a collection of dreams by various peoples who have come from all over the world. I would that she be remembered for her compassion for the less fortunate, for her coming-of-age as she realises that not all that glitters is gold, and the celebration of life is more valuable than the pursuit of money.

More than just defending Singapore, we need to actively take part in the writing of her next chapter.

May it be one for the ages, and Singapore - us - a force for good in the world.

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