Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas is about Hope

Beyond the glittering lights on Orchard Road and the sound of carols at shopping malls, I reflect on the meaning of Christmas. Clearly, it means different things to different people. For millions of Christians from all traditions, it is a celebration of God’s kindness and love in the birth of Jesus Christ whom they acknowledge as Lord and Saviour. For others, it is the beginning of the year-end holidays – a time to give and receive, a time to party and have a good time.

For me this Christmas, the word HOPE keeps popping up. HOPE, aptly described as the little voice you hear whisper “maybe” when it seems the entire world is shouting “no”. It is a powerfully positive emotion and in many instances it is the kindest gift of all.

I found this in Unbroken, a powerful World War II story of Olympian Louie Zamperini who survived some 40 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean without food and water, and more than two years as a POW. Clearly, it was HOPE that kept him and his friends alive in the most brutal conditions.

Last Sunday night, I was a guest at a mini-concert organized by Diamonds on the Street. Crystal Goh and her friends co-created a number of songs with some of the girls at risk from a Girls Home. They shared about their journey of transformation driven by HOPE. Their family and friends who support them give them the HOPE to dream of a better life resulting in a strong drive to reach their potential. It was so inspiring hear about their new-found ambition – one wanted to be a businesswoman, another, a lawyer and so on. And you can see that they now have the HOPE to be because they received the gift of HOPE from people who care.

Last night a number of my colleagues celebrated Christmas with a former colleague and her family. She was struck down with aneurism 15 months ago and has since been in a comatose state. Her husband shared about the HOPE he has in God to answer their prayers for his wife – HOPE is keeping them going. I suddenly remembered the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope”

We held hands and formed a circle to exercise faith, each in our own way, to give him and his family the gift of HOPE. Together with the family, we do believe and HOPE that our prayers will be answered and she will get out of her comatose state soon.

This Christmas, there are many individuals and organizations sharing the gift of HOPE. Prison Fellowship Singapore, for example, extended HOPE to more than 1000 children of folks who are incarcerated with Christmas hampers of gifts sponsored by individuals and organizations, and personally delivered to their homes. The Boys Brigade “Share-A-Gift” reached out to more than 40,000 beneficiaries this year. Our partner Ripples have created a new series of slippers and are giving away a pair to the needy for every pair sold. And the list goes on.

Thomas Addison reminds us that there are three grand essentials to happiness in this life. And they are something to do, something to love and something to hope for. I often think that happiness is not something we pursue for pursuing it is like chasing after the wind – we will never catch it. Rather it is more like doing something for others, loving someone, giving the gift of hope. In so doing, we will feel the breeze of happiness chasing us from behind.

I can’t possibly express the gift of HOPE more beautifully than Emily Dickenson, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without words at never stops at all.”

Have a Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!

Dr. William Wan
Christmas Eve, 2013.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

An American Perspective on Kindness in Asia

In August this year, at the Opera Estate Street Party, I met Darrin Couch and his wife, Dominica Kim. He hails from Tallahassee, Florida in the United States and has worked in many countries in the Asia Pacific region and lived in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea over the last 20 years. He is an Account Executive looking after Global Accounts for Hewlett-Packard and is married. They have resided in Singapore since July 2011 and they love good food in Singapore, walking around the East Coast Park and learning about local customs. Here is his perspective on kindness in Asia.

I am an American who spent the last 20 years living and working in many countries in Asia. I have enjoyed my time living in Asia and met and married my wife, Dominica, while I was working in Seoul, Korea. We have lived in Singapore for the last 2 years and it feels like home. Recently, I met Dr. Wan at a Big Makan event and he asked me to share my perspective on kindness. And I am very glad to do that.

There are some cultural differences, but overall I believe the expression of kindness to be universal. Everyone everywhere appreciates kindness and this is especially true when they are in need.

My wife and I
In Singapore, my wife and I spend a lot of time taking advantage of the many walking paths and sometimes take excursions to visit local neighbourhoods. Our introduction to the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) came when we were walking around the East Coast and came across a banner advertising a street party. We noted the date and made plans to stop by. The road was blocked off and we were a bit concerned that maybe it was a meant only for the residents of this particular community. There was a gentleman at the road entrance and we asked if we could join. We were told it was open to the public and we proceeded to join the large gathering under the tent. We met various people including two gentlemen from the SKM. We chatted about the event and I found out more about SKM. Once I understood more, I realized that the organization wasn’t just about being kind to each other, but more about being part of a community that cared about each other and the environment that we live in.
Big Makan 2013 at Opera Estate
I grew up in a middle class neighbourhood in the United States. We knew most of our neighbours and many times when we celebrated events, such as Independence Day on July 4th, our neighbours would be invited. I remember when I was around 7 years old, one of our neighbours whom we didn’t know that well had a July 4th party. We weren’t invited, but I stopped by with some other neighbourhood kids and we were warmly welcomed to hamburgers, hotdogs and potato chips. I don’t even think they knew our names, maybe they had seen us in the neighbourhood. As we ate their food, these neighbours stopped by and gave us drinks as well. The only words I think we spoke to them was “Yes, please”, and we were all comfortable with that arrangement. I took this all for granted as a child, but even when we moved to other cities my family always seemed to develop good relationships with our neighbours and we always felt like part of the community.

United States Suburbia
When I moved to Asia, I noticed that my relationship with my neighbours changed. I believe that it was more related to the change from living in houses on a street with a yard in the United States versus living in an apartment in Asia. In Asia, I lived in much larger cities so we mainly stayed in apartments/flats and everyone always seems to be busy. Interestingly enough, though some of my neighbours were westerners, the connection that I had grown up with was still missing. It seems odd, but I feel that close proximity to our neighbours actually may contribute to us being less connected and friendly. Maybe when we are physically close we seek the sanctuary of solitude to enjoy some alone time. When we are more physically separated we may miss and seek out a connection with others.

The stress of a larger city may also contribute to the perceived lack of friendliness. My hometown in the United States has a rush hour that lasts about 45 minutes. In every city that I have lived in Asia rush hour can last more than 3 hours and if it rains then you have to add on at least another hour. After dealing with a stressful commute, it usually takes me a bit of time to decompress. I usually even ask my wife to give me some space when I first come home as a chance to de-stress from the day’s work and commute.

Since we have moved to Singapore, we have reached out to our neighbours and I must say that they have been great. We have shared meals together, invited each other to celebrations, and picked up gifts for each other on our travels. I have also struck up conversations in the elevators with some of the other neighbours. I find that most have been receptive and kind during our short journey. This makes me feel that most would be more receptive to becoming more neighbourly and be part of a larger community.

Overall, I am optimistic that even in large cities where populations are physically close that we can be kind and neighbourly to one another and develop a close knit community. However, I think we still need a catalyst to make things happen. I have decided to associate myself with the SKM as I believe that it acts as a catalyst. We may need to start small like greeting each other in elevators or as we stand in line (an all too common occurrence in Singapore). The opportunities for kindness are always there. It is up to us to take ownership of our social environment and just step up to make the effort.

I think that is what their tagline means when it says “A Nation of Kindness Starts with One”. I know it starts with me taking the initiative.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Who was being kind to whom?

Serendipitously following last month’s post by my friend about kindness around the world, I am indeed on holiday in Canada during this next posting, which I have asked my associate, Cesar Balota, to contribute in my absence.

In August, I volunteered for a 2-week mission to provide cheer to lonely displaced survivors still living in temporary housing (kasetsus) all along the Iwate cost. In other words, I was supposed to be a part of the kind party.

Yet, things turned out very differently. Oh sure, we did do what was requested of us – including leading sing-alongs, preparing simple Singapore-style meals at mobile caf├ęs, providing material for and guiding interesting craft activities, and even learning to do hand massages for the mostly elderly participants in our daytime programs.

But we found ourselves not just witnessing, but being on the receiving end of many kindnesses.

The local workers we were meant to be assisting, were so solicitous in making sure that we could actively interact despite our language handicap. They also trained us in skills we previously didn’t have.

Miyako City on the coast, population 60,000, is where the tsunami came in highest at 39+ meters. Miyako has 60 kasetsu communities with a total of 2,000 units. This man, our main coordinating partner on the coast, visits them so regularly (with or without us volunteers) that I could see an obvious warmth as the kasetsu residents greet him.

For that matter, even residents whose dwellings survived not just opened up to him, but offered regular help. This craftsman has hospitably made the entire upper floor of his house-cum-workshop available as sleeping quarters, and has so far hosted 300+ volunteers these last 2 years.

The residents themselves were not just appreciative, some went out of their way to tell us how much our visits meant to them and changed their outlook in life despite the spartan temporary living conditions they were in. This particular lady even boiled edamame and cooked tempura for us.

While this man invited us over – twice – for him to brew gourmet coffee for us at the end of our long working days.

The stories and images of gracious behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the 3/11 disaster 2 years ago are well known. Now, I have first-hand experience of Japanese kindness and graciousness that will stay in my heart, and which I’ll hopefully emulate.


Friday, September 27, 2013

Around the World with Strangers of Another Kind

I believe that there is innate kindness locked in the hearts of everyone of us. Recently I met Danielle Chan who is the Founder/Director of Sunshine Daughters. She confirms my belief. I appreciate her contribution below.

“When I graduated from university in Canada, I took the road less travelled. Instead of embarking on a career path, I chose to wander the world to experiment and find out the truth about the true nature of humanity. As a lone sheep entering different herds, I wondered if I would be accepted or rejected by their society and standards. I was 22 years old and for the next nine years I travelled to big cities and to the most remote parts of the world.

My experience unfolded to me that humans have an innate kindness that wants to come out and is often suppressed by fear. Since I did not have an agenda, I was open to almost anyone and anything. Carrying this attitude, I have encountered many more kind people than people who tried to take advantage of me. There were of course people whom I met with questionable characters who pushed or cheated their ways with me. But upon reflection and delving a little deeper into their situation, I realize that most people who were mean, were people who were desperate, victims of cruelty and injustice themselves. On the whole, I was lucky and privileged to directly experience the eternal law: kindness begets kindness.

One memorable incident took place when I was trekking around Mt. Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. As we were climbing a tricky icy path, I slipped and fell into a small ravine. A fellow trekker from Switzerland immediately took off his outer pants and handed it over to me knowing that if I did not change, I would easily get frost bite. Touched by his grand gesture, I said “This is the first time a man has taken his pants off for me at 4000 meters above sea level and at minus 20 degrees.” To my greater surprise, a month after we returned to our homeland, I received a letter from a fellow Irish trekker who wrote a comical poem to me describing the situation.

Another unforgettable moment occurred when I was in Florence. I was walking around the Piazza Della Signoria, when a street artist approached me. He asked, “You look very interesting, may I draw you?” I replied “Do you mean I look weird or beautiful?” He laughed and gestured me to sit down. When he finished his pencil sketch, I handed him some money, he refused to accept it and said it is a gift from Florence.

Kindness struck again at the most amazing time when I was in Hong Kong. I finished visiting a friend and was heading towards the Kowloon Tong MTR. After 2 minutes of walking, rain suddenly came pouring down, a voice behind me asked in Cantonese “Can I cover you?” I turned around and said “I certainly won’t reject you”. The lady laughed and we both walked in silence without asking each other any questions. When we reached the station, I slightly bowed to the lady and she smiled than walked away.

In my early years in Singapore, I was strolling around the HDB block around Marine Parade. After I returned home, I received a call from my credit card company to inform me a man has found my wallet and to get in touch with him. I called and the man told me his address. When I rung the bell, a little boy and girl was standing at he doorway with their father. He revealed to me that it was his children who found the wallet. I looked at the children and praised them “you are my heroes; you saved me from a disaster.” I was about to give them a small award money but the father stopped me and declared, “I want to teach my children that they are required to be kind and not awarded for such acts”. I was touched and told the father, “You are a man of great ethics, and your children will grow up to be exceptional individuals to society”.

When I finally settled down in Singapore and made it my home, I started to investigate further into this innate kindness through reading eastern philosophy, religion and psychology. Psychologist Paul Gilbert in his book “Mindful Compassion” sums it all up: “it’s so important that we pay attention to the kindness and compassion coming towards us because the news media constantly pulls our attention to the tragic and destructive stories…but the fact of the matter is that we have evolved as a species to be emotionally oriented towards cooperating and helping each other, and a large part of our happiness comes from these relationships of love and care.”

I staunchly believe that as humans we not only need to strive for material comfort and advancements but also to be better humans, to be kinder to ourselves and others so that one day we can live in a world of peace and love.”


Friday, August 30, 2013

Foreign Green Bird in Little India

On a recent Sunday afternoon, my friend Teng Lit and I joined up with a group of Japanese residents who called themselves the Green Bird.  Green Bird, according to their website, is a Non-Profit Organization founded in Harajku and Omote-sando.  Their motto is “A clean town also makes people’s hearts and minds cleaned.”  Their primary activity is trash-picking “to clean the towns we live and love.”

Junko, a young Japanese businesswoman, is the leader of the group. Norie, a Japanese volunteer at our Kindness Gallery, introduced us.  There were 6 other Green Birds all ready to don on the green vest and gloves.  Armed with a litter-picker and litterbags, we fanned out into Little India for 90 minutes. We returned with our bags full of litter.

Along the way, we were looked upon with curiosity and amazement.  A few stopped to find out who we are, and I never failed to tell them that foreigners are helping us to keep Singapore clean, ending with a question, “Will you join us?”  Some said, “Thanks!” and walked away.  I take that to mean “Thanks, and no thanks!”

A couple of them came to show appreciation and admiration.  They said they will certainly participate and make a difference.  I thanked them and trust that they will do so.

We passed LAGNAA, “...the barefoot dinning.”  I had a chat with Shanti who is an associate there.  She expressed appreciation for our efforts and said that she is doing her part.  I thanked her.  As I left to continue my litter-picking, I heard someone calling after me.  I turned around and there was Kaesavan, also from LAGNAA.  He invited us to have a cool drink with his compliments.  I thanked him and said we will take that up after our rounds.

When we returned, Shanti was there, welcoming us with a broad smile.  We were sweaty and clearly in need of a long cool drink. We were about to take a seat on the ground floor when she said, “Please come upstairs.  I have turned on the air-conditioning. It is more comfortable up there.”  This is kindness in action, very thoughtful hospitality.   We enjoyed the lassi and the coke.  Feeling very refreshed and encouraged, we took our leave with much gratitude.  My friend Teng Lit offered a tip for the waiter but Shanti said, “No need to, if you insist, I will give it to charity.”

What did I take away from this experience?

First, we cannot stereotype foreigners and play the blame-game. The state of cleanliness in our city is not caused by foreigners – it is the result of litter-bugs who have no sense of pride and civic responsibility – and it has little to do with being a foreigner or local.

Second, every trip we make to do our rounds of litter-picking reiterates the reality that we are not a clean city.  We are not even a cleaned city.  Is cleanliness an issue in Singapore??  You must be kidding!
Is Cleanliness an Issue in Singapore?

Third, most people appreciate what we do.  They resonate with our action.  But when will they stop appreciating on the sideline, and start getting involved and do their part to make the difference?  We can only hope that our example will inspire them – one at a time.

And finally, there are kind people everywhere.  Kaesavan and Shanti are but two of them.  I want them to know that their act of hospitality to total strangers like us make a great difference.  They encouraged us by their thoughtfulness and generosity.  Because of people like them, we press on in what we do and trust that our kindness to the environment will continue to inspire acts of kindness in others.  Each act of kindness when conjoined will be like trees planted on both sides of a wide boulevard, providing shade and safety for all to enjoy.

This is the vision of a Singapore we want to see.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Resonating with Kindness

One of my goals when I first took on this role a little more than 2 years ago is to raise public awareness of kindness and the need to be kinder. I had this vision that if we could implant kindness in the public consciousness, we will create a destiny where kindness becomes a way of life.

In thinking this way, I am influenced by Mahatma Gandhi who said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

Today I am gratified to note that we are more aware of kindness and graciousness than ever before. More people are talking and writing about it in various media. I take it that more people resonate with it because they believe in it, and are thinking about it.

Take the last 3 days (August 5-7) for instance. The following are just a sampling of the buzz about Kindness and Graciousness in our newspapers. Most are positive. It does not matter that they are not 100% positive – the point is the public is aware and concerned enough to write about it, and the media interested enough to report it.

1. (Letter) Youth Forum – Small Acts, Huge Impact – The Straits Times, 7 Aug 2013, Page A38 
16-year old Sabrina’s letter was published in which she shared her two experiences with kind strangers who left an impact on her through their gracious acts. She felt that acts of kindness need not always be overt and that the smallest gestures can truly make a difference.

2. (Letter) Youth Forum – Appreciate unsung heroes – The Straits Times, 7 Aug 2013, Page A38
Student Rachel Tan shared her shocking experience of having witnessed a woman verbally abuse an MRT staff who was doing his job and politely requesting for passengers to move further into the carriage. While the MRT was initially taken aback, he responded by apologising profusely to the woman who continued complaining aloud to her friend even after the train had departed the station. She urged everyone to appreciate the unsung heroes in our everyday lives, including but not limited to service staff, and thank them for their kindness and effort.

3. Durian MOB 2013 – My Paper, 6 Aug 2013, Page B8 
Dr Leslie Tay, a popular food critic and blogger, has organised durian gatherings since 2008 that serve as a platform for bringing people together to learn more about the kind of fruits. This year, with the support of SKM, the 12 will see participants sampling a large variety of durians.

Image via www.kindness.sg/durianmob2013

4. (Letter) Towards a city-state of happiness – TODAY, 6 Aug 2013, Page 20 
Reader Sun Xi shared the view that Singapore already enjoys prosperity and progress and it is time to move on to the third component touched upon in the National Pledge – happiness. He cites two outstanding social issues, namely income inequality and social compassion, where Singaporeans are found wanting. He felt that it is difficult for people to live happily in a society where the pressures of competition and comparisons prevail. He felt that the key to a happy society lies more in the solidarity among its members and we should strive to create a Singapore where individuals enjoy quality life while also caring for others.

5. Youths doing charity during the lunar seventh month – Lianhe Zaobao, 5 Aug 2013, Page 12
Youths are taking the opportunity to do charity work while celebrating the lunar seventh month. Their aim is to raise a total of fifty thousand dollars to build a tuition centre for children from underprivileged families. In addition, one of the interviewees highlighted that the participating youths come from all walks of life and that initiatives like this can help to foster the kampong spirit among youths.

6. New Twitter rules to check abusive users – My Paper, 5 Aug 2013, Page A18 
Twitter is handing down new rules to control abusive language, the company said Saturday, a move which follows a barrage of nasty, harassing, and threatening messages directed at high-profile female users of the microblogging site. It is introducing a one-click button to report abuse and updating its rules to clarify that it will not tolerate abusive behaviour. The company also promised to devote more staff to weed out offending messages. The relative anonymity of the Internet means it has long been hard to police abusive or threatening speech, but the issue recently received attention in Britain after several women went public about the sexually explicit and often luridly violent abuse they receive from online bullies, often called trolls. Many argue that trolls are an annoyance which should just be ignored, but the catalogue of graphic threats made public by the women involved have ignited a national debate over the impunity of those spewing the hatred online. Twitter’s new anti-abuse policy will apply worldwide.

7. Yahoo News - Social MP3 experiment draws 1,000 to Sentosa – 5 Aug 2013 
Close to a 1,000 people turned for a social experiment at Resorts World Sentosa on Saturday evening. Organised by social collective The Hidden Good and supported by the Singapore Kindness Movement, the experiment involved random strangers turning up at a pre-determined public location and time, downloading an MP3 file and follow the instructions delivered to their headphones via a narrator called “Ah Meng”. The Hidden Good said the experiment helped participants break barriers and redefine society. "Singapore, this is what a warmer, friendlier society could look like," it said on its Facebook page, which has over 2,500 likes. A video of the event can be viewed on Youtube.

The team behind The MP3 Experiment: Singapore's Soundtrack
Image via The Hidden Good Facebook

What is even more encouraging to me is that in the last 30 days, I was interviewed by several groups of students from Junior Colleges and Polytechnics. They were doing group projects on kindness and graciousness. The topic is entirely their own choosing and they asked pertinent questions like how can we foster a kinder society? Many answered their questions with suggestions of their own. They offered ideas like better interior design for the buses and trains, special retrievable seats for those in need, etc. I found them very refreshing and am very encouraged by their initiatives.


“Are we a kind society after all these efforts?” I am often asked. My answer is similar to that offered by Professor Tommy Koh at our Kindness Conference last year. We are kind, but can be kinder. A kinder society is always under construction. We are arriving but never fully arrived. Since we are interested in a sustainable lifestyle (habit/culture) of kindness, it will take time. We can only win one at a time. But I am positive and optimistic. Mindset change will come in its time. I take comfort in my Malay friend’s reminder, “Sedikit sedikit, lama jadi bukit.”

Wishing our Muslim friends Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri and everyone Happy National Day.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Quasi-diary: Kindness Seen from the Perspective of a Teen

by Guest blogger Sabrina Ma, 16, a senior high student from San Jose, California

I came to Singapore expecting to be surrounded by uptight conservatives, arrested for chewing gum, and walking on sterilized sidewalks doused in antiseptic. But, as I stepped into the SKM office for the first time, with kindness paraphernalia littering the floor and embellishing the walls, and gregarious members of the SKM team greeting me, all of my stereotypes were shattered.

Hi! I’m Sabrina Ma. I am 16 a year old senior from San Jose, California. As a high school student, I’ve faced my share of Goliaths, ranging from intense stress induced by academics competitiveness to self-consciousness induced by the societal depiction of beauty. Desiring to make high school a bit more bearable, I established a club at my school called the Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) Club, which has become pretty impactful in my (and surrounding) communities. Desiring to spread kindness utilizing social media, my friend and I later launched the Independence High School Admiration Wall, a page on which users submit anonymous messages, posted as “statuses,” that venerate fellow students and faculty. Displaying everything from sincere praise to quirky poems, the IHS Admiration Wall, with over 1,300 "Likes" and counting, has not only boosted morale at Independence but also but sparked similar movements at many other high schools.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to intern for SKM, whose mission and values correlate with mine ever-so-fluidly. No, I’m not a coffee girl! Rather, I have been spreading the message of kindness in Singapore’s highly competitive, academics-oriented secondary schools, where one’s test scores play a gargantuan role in determining one’s identity. Although I’ve only spent 2 ½ weeks in this vibrant city-state, I’ve fallen deeply in love with its cultures, people, and institutions. I’ve made myriad memories of my time here, and I would like to share some reflections from my quasi-diary.

11 July 2013

“You're going to come up with me during the Q&A and help me answer a few questions,” Dr. Wan declared in the taxi. I feigned excitement, but inside, I was terrified. We were on our way to Raffles Girls School, one of Singapore’s top 3 secondary schools, to speak about our endeavours regarding kindness.

Presenting on stage

While on stage, I gazed at the sea of teenage girls, hundreds of eyes staring back at me. Breathe Sabrina, breathe. Notwithstanding my initial stumbling over a question or two, I answered most by stating my opinion, sharing a short anecdote, and tying up my response with a motivational bow. Considering that, having never been thrown impromptu questions, it was an unprecedented experience for me, I believe I did fairly well – mainly because of Dr. Wan's encouragement.

Throughout the Q&A session, I was not only impressed with their impeccable manners and insightful inquiries, but delighted by their constant giggles and cheers. The girls’ hospitality and attentiveness were acts of kindness in themselves and I have the utmost gratitude for the young ladies at RGS! Do not be surprised when the tabloids announce that Dr. Wan’s long-lost granddaughter has reappeared; the emcee announced to the crowd that I was Dr. Wan’s granddaughter, inducing lots of “AWWWW”s and cheering. Hehehe!

Raffles Girls School 

After the event, I wondered how I improved my public speaking skills in such a short time, but in retrospect, I’ve unearthed the most prominent factor. While on stage, I was actually speaking to myself. Looking at the crowd was like looking into a mirror; it consisted of ambitious Asian teenagers only a few years younger than me (and many my age) who were juggling teenage angst, adversity, rigorous academics, extracurriculars, happiness, and expectations – but not always successfully. Sharing with my peers at RGS lessons I had learned about failure, resilience, and kindness was just great.

I’ve clicked over 40 “Confirm Friend Request” Buttons from RGS gals on FB and Instagram. I’ve also found myself close to tears as I read the heartfelt, appreciative messages some students sent me. Some girls also took the initiative and created an RGS Admiration Wall, enthralling me that they were inspired enough to join me in the crusade for kindness via social media. All in all, an unforgettable morning.

12 July 2013

I spent my morning at Northland Secondary School, spreading awareness about SKM’s Seed Kindness Fund with Ting Wei and Wei Wen. As the morning droned on, I became tired of waiting for students to come to our booth. Finally, I garnered my courage and started to approach tables of students. It was quite fun to watch girls widen their eyes when I said I was from California and boys giggle and divert their eyes when I smiled at them. Lots of students seemed intrigued by the project, some even asking to take a picture with me.

With students at the Seed Kindness Fund Booth

I have had a grand time speaking to large audiences of students, but interacting with them face-to-face is much more exciting! I did have my low points and nadirs, however. A handful of groups simply ignored me or shooed me away. As I walked into the bathroom, I saw two green pamphlets in the trash can – pamphlets I had handed out. I'll admit, that stung a little, but I quickly shook it off.

Throughout my high school journey, especially regarding ARK and my aspirations, I’ve received lots of criticisms and rejections, ranging from ARK being called a “stupid club” to my career goals denounced as “unpractical” and “soul-sucking”. Just as bodybuilders utilize resistance exercises to increase their strength and metabolism, I have learned to internalize negativity and transform it into character and resilience building. One mustn't take rejection and failure personally. As Mark Zuckerberg once said, “When you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress..” Since failure induces learning, I find it just as, if not more, pertinent than success.

14 July 2013

Tropical rain kissing the concrete and foliage outside, sultry jazz waltzing in my ears, I sat on the couch, pounding away at my laptop. I lift my arms up, indulging in a stretch – and knocked over one of Dr. Wan’s crystal trophies. At that moment, lots of things ran through my mind. Devastation. Embarrassment. Fear. We cleaned it up, Dr. Wan remaining optimistic and cheerful, vacuuming the area to make sure there are no remnants of sharp crystal fragments.

The flat soon became quiet, everyone stealing away to their room... except me. 10 minutes after the incident, Dr. Wan came back outside and gave me a bear hug, urging me not to think about it, because “people are so much more important than things”, he announced. I cried a little later that night, not because of my guilt, but because I was so happy about Dr. Wan’s unwavering magnanimity. He proves that acts of kindness need not always be overt. Some of the most impactful gestures are done subconsciously through one’s disposition and manners.

18 July 2013

After work, I went to Little India and ran a few errands. I stopped by the nearest shopping complex and purchased a flower as a gesture of apology for Aunty Ruth, for I felt awful for stressing her out that morning (I had overslept). Giddy about the flower, I grinned like an idiot on the MRT, flashing huge smiles at every wayfarer. One passenger, a young professional in his 20's, may have taken my elation the wrong way. I beamed at him a few times, inducing him to perpetually stare at and eventually follow me... all the way home. Perhaps he lived in the area. But the walk from the MRT station is rather lengthy and winding, and he trod the exact same path I did. Luckily, I arrived home safe and sound.

In The Prince, Machiavelli states, ”I say that every prince ought to wish to be considered kind rather than cruel. Nevertheless, he must take care to avoid misusing his kindness.” Given certain circumstances and instances, deeds that seem inherently good (i.e., smiling at strangers) may not go as planned. This is why it is pertinent to be alert and aware while partaking in acts of kindness, especially towards strangers. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop smiling at strangers. Juxtaposing the number of individuals who have smiled back at me with the number of individuals who have followed me home, I think it’s safe to say that smiling is a relatively harmless gesture. As Dr. Wan has said, “It is not quite right to conclude that kindness is useless because of such a context. Exceptions do not define the real thing.”

Singapore may only be a “little red dot” on the world map, but it has made a massive impact on my life. I have come to love the “lahs” sprinkled throughout conversations, the bipolar, one-minute-its-storming-and-one-minute-later-its-sunny weather, the fresh fruit juice stands, the delicious food (chilli crab... stingray... chicken rice... mmm!), the vibrant, multifaceted culture, and so much more... I am returning to the States tomorrow, but Singapore has definitely not seen the last of Sabrina Ma, lah!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Kindness By Any Other Name

Last weekend, I was kept busy with the kindness business. I was privileged to have been one of the speakers at two inaugural conferences. On Sat morning, I was at the Keep Singapore Clean Conference organized by the Public Hygiene Council, and I spoke on “Keeping Clean: The Japanese Experience”. In the afternoon, I attended the Singapore Scouts Association’s Annual General meeting as a member of its Council. And on Sunday afternoon, I spoke at the Metta Convention organized by Singapore Buddhist Federation. “Metta” means loving kindness and I spoke on “Hearts Reach Out” in line with their theme “Meeting of Hearts.”

What have these events in common?

The simple answer is that kindness is the common element in all of them. Keeping the environment clean is about kindness to the environment and to one another. Kindness is essentially “other-centredness” or selflessness. It is about consideration for others by giving careful thought and attention to the needs of others.

In sharing the Japanese experience, I mentioned a cultural saying dating back to the 8th century. kokoro zukai is a poetic expression which may be translated “living by considering others from the heart.” This ethos, reinforced by the Shinto and Buddhist commitment to the ideal of cleanliness, provides a moral basis for environmental protection.

Keep Singapore Clean Conference 2013

One of the leaders of the Small Kindness Movement of Japan said, “When the environment is clean, one’s heart would also be clean and clutter free.” Hence, it would be natural for them to want to keep public spaces clean and litter-free even as they seek to be spiritually clean and clutter free.

At the Metta Convention, I learned that metta signifies friendship and non-violence. It also holds a strong wish for the happiness of others. Its meditative practices seek to increase qualities such as showing patience, receptivity, and appreciation in the practitioners. The end goal is to promote loving-kindness, a caring for the well-being of another living being, independent of approving or disapproving of them, or expecting anything in return.

In short, metta is about being other-centred, described as “selfless love…when one person surrenders his or her whole being for the good of another.”
With the venerables at Metta Convention 2013

I was an active scout more than 50 years ago and I can still remember the Scout Promise which includes a promise to help other people and to keep the Scout Law. One of the laws states that a scout is disciplined and considerate.

The Singapore Scout Emblem

After the business of the Annual General Meeting was transacted, the President of the Scout Movement, the Deputy Chief Commissioner and I were having a chat over a cup of coffee. We recalled with nostalgia the practice of tying knots on our scarves to help us remember to do kind or good deeds. I suggested that we should bring that practice back by creating a scout handkerchief. We should start the day by tying the four corners of the handkerchief and untying each as we accomplish a kind deed. In this way, we would be reminded to do at least four kind deeds a day.

In one of the responses to my last blog, Bingy wrote, “Your job is a unique one. We need more people who are willing to work on something which is right, even though it may not be easily well received all the time. Keep doing what you do best.” I am grateful for his affirmation. In one sense it is a unique job. But in another sense, it is a job that a great majority of us are already doing in different forms. Every time we help keep Singapore clean we are practicing kindness. Every time, a Buddhist practices metta, she is sending kindness to herself and others. And when a scout keeps the Scout Promise, kindness is acted out.

It is my experience most people believe in and practice kindness; and I have been more than well-received by many. Nobody gets up in the morning and decides that he is going to be unkind. In fact, everyday, I find kindness everywhere, often under another name. Kindness by any other name is still kindness, and I rejoice and celebrate it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Unleash the Singa in You

After more than 30 years of service, first as the Courtesy Lion and then as the Kindness Lion, Singa has stepped aside.

As Singapore’s mascot for kindness, Singa’s letter calling on real people to step up brought an unprecedented depth of discussion on the topic of kindness. Whether on social media or through letters to the press, Singaporeans were eager to share why they felt Singa should stay or go. There were also serious questions asked of the state of graciousness in Singapore.

Press and blogs on Singa's resignation

It is evident that kindness still matters to people and that is an encouraging sign of our potential for pro-social change as a nation. The conversations that took place were important in helping us to take stock as a people, and set the tone for how we can move forward in our quest for a kinder society.

In his 30 years of faithful service, Singa served as a reminder of the positive values we should constantly strive for. But it is so easy to take what he represents for granted. Business as usual will not do. It is more important that we stop to consider how we can each play our part in filling this lion-shaped void.

Already, we see youths heeding the call for real people to step up to the plate. At the launching of Kindness Day SG on 31 May 2012, we recognized more than 20 individuals and groups for many initiatives of kindness driven by their youthful passions. One of them is the freshly minted group who called themselves The 101 Hard Things Challenge. They were inspired directly by the call of Singa for real people to step up to the plate.

The 101 Hard Things Challenge

On 26 May, some 70 participants took to the streets of Orchard Road to carry out a scavenger hunt for kind acts. To touch the hearts of others, they were tasked with acts such as holding the door for others, handing out small gifts to children and doing nice things for unsuspecting people.

Dedicating time to being thoughtful and caring for others helped the youths to pause and reflect further on the topic of kindness.

Participant Sia Lim observed that the effect of kindness did not end with the act itself. In fact, kindness and graciousness are the catalyst for further goodwill and friendliness. She said, “Even if you are only saying hello to a random person, it helps to shorten the barrier between yourself and the person that you are greeting.”

For organiser Narasimman Narash, acts of kindness are meaningful not only to the recipient. “Each time I choose to reach out in doing something kind for others, I do something for myself that others cannot. Constantly doing kind deeds nurtures in me a heart of compassion,” he shared.

Ironically, the 101 Hard Things Challenge reminds us that showing and spreading kindness really isn’t that hard. And for the recipients and witnesses of their kind acts, the message that there are still many empathetic and helpful Singaporeans around rang loud and clear.

Narasimman is not alone in thinking that kindness is a choice that we can and should make. There are many other ground-up movements championing kindness, empathy, helpfulness and other positive values in Singapore that have sprung up and gained great support from others who believe in their cause.

The Hidden Good is one such initiative. It was started by Rovik and Leon, two NS men who believe that there is a lot of good in our society that often goes unnoticed. They had a hunch that unearthing the good and sharing it with others will affirm do-gooders and inspire more kind behaviour.

Rovik and Leon taking part in CNA Talking Point with
Asst. Prof. Michelle See, Dr. William Wan and host Daniel Martin

As such, the team sets up scenarios in public spaces that present opportunities for people to lend a helping hand to a stranger in need. Their videos have generated great interest on social media and they have successfully shown that by and large, Singaporeans do have it in us to care for one another. For a public that has grown accustomed to seeing high-profile cases of bad behaviour on STOMP and other platforms, these videos serve as an inspiring reminder that pro-social behaviour is still prevalent and appreciated in Singapore.

Unleash the Singa in you!

Of course, all this is not to say that we are only ambassadors for kindness when we look to do these group initiatives. The beauty of kindness and graciousness lies in the power of simplicity. Through our own small, everyday acts of kindness, we can also bring out the Singa in each other and play our part in making Singapore a more gracious society. Peter Png is one of those individuals who takes the initiative to create a simple card reminding fellow road users to be considerate. He simply gives it away, one at a time.

Stay Cool Card

Friday, April 12, 2013

A deficit of graciousness: Whose fault is it?

“Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” James Lane Allen.

By now, most of you would have read about the 2013 Graciousness Index dropping 8 points to an all-time low of 53. The Index serves as a reflection of the state of graciousness in Singapore, but the survey does not ask for the reasons behind the Index’s movements.

However, it is only human for us to want to know who or what is responsible.

The bulk of the response to the story, as seen in online comments, has been to apportion blame. Here’s a smattering of some comments.

“It is difficult to be gracious and to be kind when there are so much stress and frustrations out there in our daily lives. And people are crying out in pain when the leaders hear not. When people don’t have hope, or are in despair due to inequality and injustice, the society will disintegrate from within.”

“Cannot be too friendly with people who come to steal our PMET jobs, depress our pay and discriminate us with their fake degrees.”

“How to smile when snide (vulgarity) around us are always not being gracious? And yet the Government expects us to be more gracious? Reflect on yourselves please.”

Blame the Government, blame the foreigners, blame the stress … basically, many comments rationalise that it is somebody else’s fault that we have become less gracious.

It isn’t my place to comment on Government policies, but I’d like to believe that this drop in the Index would give them a better feel of where people in general are at in social graces.

After all, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally last year, said, “We have also got to be a caring, a generous, a decent people; people who are gracious and warm towards one another as well as towards others and that is the best way to ensure that tomorrow Singapore will have a bigger heart.”

That we haven’t acted on that as a nation should be a wake-up call for the Government, you, and me to reflect on what we have done, or not done, to bring about this situation.

In other words, I do not think playing the blame game gets us anywhere. If there is any fault at all, it lies with all of us. We are collectively responsible for this deficit in graciousness. How so?

Granted, our MRT trains are crowded, and the rising cost of living is making it harder for us to make ends meet. Rightly or wrongly, we feel like we are in a pressure cooker environment. And we can add to the litany of problems and challenges we face every day.

But regardless of the pressure one is under, we are still at liberty to choose to be kind or unkind in the circumstances.

How we choose to respond to our environment speaks volumes of who we are as a people.

Many of you are probably too young to remember the Japanese Occupation, but for those of you who even have the vaguest knowledge of what Singapore was like then, you would agree that our forefathers were probably living in a worse situation than we are now.

Yet, there were so many stories of extraordinary kindness coming from ordinary Singaporeans in those dreadful times. Who can forget the late Mrs. Mary Seah, the Angel of Changi, who risked death to bring food and medicine to prisoners in Changi and Bidadari?

I did have the privilege of meeting the late Elizabeth Choy a long time ago. She was tortured by the Japanese during the Occupation and when asked by the post-Occupation war tribunal if she wanted her torturers executed, she said no. She reminded everyone that had it not been for the war, her torturers would have been just like her, at home with their families and doing ordinary things.

How many of us today can show that kind of forgiving compassion, that sort of spontaneous kindness?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t express our unhappiness to our leaders, if we feel that they are not doing the job that we voted them to do. Fair enough, speak our mind, do something about it, make a difference – that is our right as a citizen.

But if we are become less kind or less gracious due to the pressures we are facing, we need to reflect and ask why we allow circumstances to make us so. If our forefathers could be kind to one another in the harshest of living conditions, do we forego graciousness just because of the angst and anxieties of urban living?

What does that say about us?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Many Signs – One Message

I am known for not having a sense of direction, and have been found lost even in my own office and on the plane! Signs play a very important role in my life.

Having travelled quite extensively, especially in my lawyering days, I am fascinated by the different signs in different countries messaging the need to be gracious.

In Taiwan for instance, there are signs for keeping to the right (we keep to the left) for people using escalators. There are also signs for “Reserved Seats” in the public transport system and for queuing. Clearly they work, for to the best of my observations at several Taipei Metro stations and trains, commuters clearly practice the norms.

 But the Taiwanese go further than us in that they have signs for “Female Waiting Zones” and for “Breast-feeding Stations”.

There are signs for customer service for the handicapped and “free Wifi” and “Mobile Phone Charging Counters”. They encourage the use of stairs in public places “to burn calories”.

Hong Kong public transport carries loud signs you cannot miss!

In Japan, in addition to the signs for “Priority Seats” and “Keeping to the Left”, Japanese public behavioural norms include the courtesy of keeping the mobile phone on silent mode and not using it at all on the public transport systems.

On Keio Trains they even allocate a “Caring Zone”.

Koreans display their signs prominently.

They reserve their seats for not only pregnant women but women with babies in arms as well. The Malaysians, Brazilians and Viennese are of the same view in this regard.

The signs in the London Tube System are unambiguous and ubiquitous.

The Czech Republic advises commuters on how to use the escalator when you are pushing a perambulator.

In the US, priority seating is given to persons with disabilities.

In Singapore, we have apparently embraced the norms of queuing. Anecdotal evidence points to a gradual acceptance of keeping to the left on escalators and giving up seats to those who need them more. In other aspects including not rushing onto the exit path as the train doors open or the use of mobile phones, we are still not quite there yet.

Different countries may have different messaging but they all convey one main message – the need to be considerate / gracious on public transport. To make life more pleasant for everyone, especially in crowded conditions, consideration for the needs of others is more pressing if we care to make our daily journeys more pleasant for ourselves and for others.