Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus in his books and his speeches, constantly reminds us to reimagine the world we would like to live in. We need to write our books of fiction, he tells us, that describes a kinder world, one that would put poverty in museums. Only then, will we be able to succeed.
Of late, my faith in humanity was being attacked by our own inability to live up to our own responsibilities as human beings. It has been, at least for me, particularly depressing. So much so, that I questioned my own ability. For every move forward I take, setbacks seem to push me 3 steps backwards. Will the things I do, actually matter? What was the point if failure seemed to loom ahead at every corner? As time progressed, I had been rendered an almost cynic – the jaded, stereotypical “auntie”, angry with the world, bitterly going about her life. The kinder world was just impossible to reach!
Truthfully, when the Singapore International Foundation invited me to participate in their #sifbettertogether program, to rediscover a different side to Singapore, I was sceptical. Better together, they say? What did that truly mean? I also have relatives and friends in Singapore who are extremely dear to me, and I visit them often enough, but I felt that the country in its drive for perfection, lacked soul and identity. What could I possibly learn that was new, beyond its beautiful structures, buildings, and efficiency? Or eat what Malaysia can only offer better? (It’s a ‘sibling rivalry’ thing.)
I didn’t shy away from the prospects of being proven wrong, however, and kept an open mind despite the “auntie” tugging at the seams. After all, I would also be travelling along with 14 key opinion leaders (KoL) and changemakers from not only Malaysia but Singapore, China, India, and Indonesia. I could learn from them. I could see, perhaps what I was doing wrong, or right. I was also fascinated by the work SIF does through #ourbetterworld. What was their recipe to telling stories that touched my heart, and made me cry a tear or two? Made me feel hopeful. There is definitely something more to Singapore that meets the eye.
SIF offered me a full 3 days of discovery. I received more than a lifetime’s worth of ‘feels’.
The Model Life
The Enabling Village is housed in a used-to-be Polytechnic school, refurbished with care to consider people’s needs-Of all ages, types and of different abilities. It seemed that a chapter of the kinder world book had already been written, and emerged, tangibly before my eyes. It didn’t take more to be considerate. For example, universal design and landscaping for those on wheelchairs may perhaps take slightly more real estate but it provided just as conducive an environment to anybody else who needed space for other purposes- discussions in the courtyard or parkour if you like. The urban jungle, despite its proximity, did not roar of its presence, and gave way to chirping birds in lush greens, and meandering rivers. And while all of these were man-made and artificially integrated, it was not without spirit. The kindergarten for special needs children provided reminders of childhood and that infallible desire to make friends, laugh, run and fall, only to encourage picking each other up again, or roll if one so desires. Playgrounds were not limited to the standard colourful swings and slides but the entire space inspired to play and fun in a safe environment. People came here to heal, learn and become better, contributing individuals irrespective of ability and background.
It presented people with an alternative to the norm. Shopping was made easy for the aged, the blind, the deaf, or the wheelchair-bound – simple innovations that allow them to do what a lot of us take for granted- like printing larger fonts on displays, providing trolley baskets that can be raised at the counter, or putting buzzers that allow for shoppers to call for help when they need it. Not to mention all the businesses on site – Cafes and Clinics, the Art centre and Gym are all driven by a social mission. Rocket science? No. Impactful? Absolutely. My only wonder therefore is, why were we not doing this more pervasively.
My favourite part during our visit there has got to be my interactions, although limited, with people with special needs. Because it was a safe environment, the engagement was more candid; about life in general, their interests, how work was. The sort of conversations you’d have at the office watercooler. We had come together as peers- they were not victims of their circumstances and I did not come to be a hero.
With empathy, it is easy to integrate. Our attempt at dragon boating with Society Staples drove this point home. Society staples provides team building and school programmes through disabilities simulation and dragon boating and hopes to equip society with skills and knowledge that enables amicable and respectful interactions (www.societystaples.com). In the face of adversity, humans can rise above it, if we recognise our weaknesses and do what we do best. As a result of their efforts, there is today, a medal-winning team comprised of the differently abled, which before this, would have seemed inconceivable.
We experienced for ourselves, how, when blindfolded, we were able to row the boat better as a unit, given there is initial and adequate support – we strategised as a team, we listened more intently on the instructions and our cues. All our other senses heightened, even if temporarily. It wasn’t about looking good, because that was made irrelevant but about doing better, in the hot sun, in an unfit body (just me). I went back that day, 3 shades darker and a little wiser.
“Oh, how I would love to bring Society Staples to Malaysia!” and considered its prospect. I could, couldn’t I? Dreaming about a kinder world can only go so far. Pieces of the puzzle were coming together and what seemed rather impossible at times, just needed prodding,doing, experimenting. Singapore did feel different already.
Getting to know Singapore
Over those few days, I understood more about Singapore than ever before. I was able to see through the surface and dig deeper because, in part, she was laid bare to us, uninhibited and unapologetic of her imperfections.
I particularly enjoyed our visit to The Intan Singapore, a living museum of the bygone era when Chinese Traders decided to assimilate into the local culture and marry the local Malay women. I have always been a fan of its rich heritage, but had limited knowledge of anything beyond their food and eating it, mostly the latter. Our host, Alvin Yapp, was of Baba Nyonya descent and had collected over 30 years, many artifacts and works of art and transformed his own house into a cultural wonder : The famous Nyonya beaded shoes, furniture, combs, sarongs and their kebayas. It was a joy to be immersed in a culture I knew about, but never really got to understand.
Again, it wasn’t things that fascinated me the most. It was the stories behind the vase, the motifs of the carving on cupboards or drawers and how they depicted more flora than fauna. It was more so, the conversations that I had with my peers, the team behind the scene, the host and his family and how we munched over the kuihs, picking our favourite ones. We also had an impromptu singing session accompanied by the host himself, on the piano. We sang together songs from 5 countries that I may not have known the lyrics to, but knew to hum to all of them. We were more alike than we were different.
We toured little India and walked through parts of Kampung Glam. Its legacy in my opinion is slowly being chipped away by development and modernity, as also witnessed in Malaysia. I only pray that we will have the courage to preserve not only the architectural facades or be selective in our desire to keep and maintain our cultural heritage. The once upon a time Malay kampung, is now mostly rows of hipster bars and indie restaurants – pretty and trendy, but it could have been any other row of shops in Singapore aside from the nearby mosque and the Malay museum. Nevertheless, it proved a useful time for self-reflection, as I considered my own Malayness: The songket, batik, crafts, dances like the Ulit Mayang– Are we doing enough back home to conserve these national treasures?
My new family
It is this legion of incredible people who were around me those 3 precious days that reaffirmed my sense of purpose. From the 14 KoLs whom I now consider as part of my extended family, to the wonderful SIF team, their volunteers and social entrepreneurs, and the Agency ,who took care of us.
I have learnt so much from every single one of them. They were as willing to share their experience as they were willing to listen to mine, wholeheartedly and with no judgement. Most of us were facing the same challenges of navigating the third sector: stakeholder management and lack of social funding or investments, succession planning to name a few. We may have been from 5 different countries, but we were up against the same things!
All of them were social media rockstars by my books, and knew how to manipulate the tools for the greater good. I was an absolute novice and to be honest, was fearful of it, not because I was technically inept, but because I feared potentially turning into the very superficial online monsters I myself despised.
But, good stories through any medium, needed to be told more so these days than ever before. I loved the story of Angel Hearts, for example. To help bereaved families in Singapore manage grief from the loss of their babies (or Angels), they repurpose wedding dresses into gowns to dress their angel babies with dignity for their final journey. From the story of one grieving mother, many others came forward, with theirs. These stories while painful were that of hope and of knowing that you are not alone. It’s about being grateful because of our vulnerabilities and celebrating what is beautiful.
Discovering Singapore culminated as I buzzed around the Island on a motorcycle in my baju kurung, understanding it through a different lens – the City centre, the Financial Hub, schools and colleges, the best eating spots, Geylang and the red light district. That story however, I will leave it for another day. Suffice to say, that I returned from Singapore with a Cheshire cat smile on my face because of 2 delightful Wans.:)
I will continue to have my fair share of failures but this kinder world, is possible, one person at a time. I won’t be able to do everything and it would be unrealistic to even try. I have my part to play and the things that I do will matter, maybe not to everyone, but at least to some. I am ok with that. At the end of the day, we can only do better together.
I am glad to have been proven wrong. Singapore was exactly what I needed.