Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The ABCs of Living Beyond the Possession of Things

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” - Mahatma Gandhi.

In an internet article, The Fallen Stars: Regret or Relief?, co-authors Tan Wei Yuan and Loh Chuan Junn posed the sobering questions, “Why do celebrities choose to end their lives when it seems like they have everything in their grasp?”

They highlighted a number of young performing artistes who have chosen to make their own lives. In chronological order, these include:
  • Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962) Age: 36 
  • Kurt Cobain (1967 – 1994): Age: 27 
  • Leslie Cheung (1956 – 2003) Age: 47 
  • Heath Ledger (1979 – 2008) Age: 29 
  • Ai Iijima (1972 – 2008) Age: 36 
  • Choi Jin-sil (1968 – 2008) Age: 40 
  • Jang Ja Yun (1982 – 2009) Age: 27 
  • Park Yong Ha (1977 – 2010) Age: 33 

Each and every one of them possessed looks and talents worth dying for! All were extremely successful in every material sense. Yet not of all of them lived past 47 years of age for all committed suicide in the prime of their respective performing careers.

Marilyn Monroe personified Hollywood glamour, and long after her death in 1962, she is still remembered for her image of explosive sensuality on and off the silver screen. Lead singer and guitarist of rock band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, was ranked the 12th greatest guitarist and 45th greatest singer of all time by his peers. According to Life magazine’s Century of Change, he took his own life at 27 “fearing that he was selling out the teen spirit”, whatever that meant.

Closer to home, Leslie Cheung who had a very large fan base in Asia played a cruel joke on his followers by ending his life abruptly on April Fools’ Day, 2003. Leslie was immensely talented and was incredibly successful in his acting and singing career. But in his suicide note he exclaimed, in desperation, “In my life I did nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?” apparently referring to his private life. Heath Ledger was only 29 when he took his own life. A younger talent, he played the role of The Joker in the hugely popular The Dark Knight, for which he won the posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Within two years of her retirement from show business, glamorous Japanese star Ai Iijima was found dead in the living room of her condominium in Tokyo. According to the article, she died of “heartbreak to her wounded soul.”

South Korean actress Choi Jin-sil was found dead at her home. Though successful in her acting career, she was not as fortunate in her marriage to a professional baseball player with whom she had two children. Fellow Korean actress and model Jang Ja Yun was also found dead in her home. Police investigation appeared to have concluded that her suicide was connected to a sexual exploitation scandal. She was only 27. Another Korean actor Park Yong-ha hanged himself in his room. He was a household name having starred in the extremely successful tear-jerking TV serial Winter Sonata (2002), which I watched and was moved. According to one source, he had called a close friend hours before his suicide to say that he felt “really tired” and wanted to die. More recently we grieved over the death of one of my all-time favourite actors, Robin Williams.

“Many wonder why these celebrities with seemingly perfect lives would ever think of taking their own lives. Yet beneath all that glitz and glamour, these individuals often hid feelings of insecurity, depression and turmoil, which eventually drove them to what they did,” comment the co-authors. Indeed, as we say in Chinese, 家家有本难念的经. That is a given. I am reminded of an ancient saying “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.”

Since no one is exempt from trouble, however much one possesses, how then should I live?

I asked this question since I was a young man. In seeking an answer, I have read books and talked to many different people from all walks of life. Over time I distilled the answers given to me by more experienced friends into the ABCs of Beyond the Possession of Things. These are about seeking the immaterial values of the inner spirit.

A is for Acceptance. Robert Frost wrote a short poem with that title. His concluding lines are relevant to my first point:

Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

Acceptance is a positive emotion and act of embracing present reality as opposed to wishing for what is not. When I accept what is, however difficult the situation, I am at peace with myself and with my surroundings.

My acceptance does not mean that I do not seek change. It implies that I have some appreciation of what I can change and what I can’t. I am guided by this prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

B is for Believe. Believe is another positive attitude I choose to have. There is room for healthy scepticism but I am constantly on guard against corrosive cynicism. I choose to believe in the best of people, giving benefits of doubts to others until clearly proven otherwise. An old song sung by Tom Jones and Elvis Presley is sentimental, but it resonates with me because I choose to live in the positive world of believing rather than disbelieving:

I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows,
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows,
I believe for everyone who goes astray,
Someone will come to show the way,
I believe, I believe.

I believe above the storm, a smallest prayer
Will still be heard,
I believe that Someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word.
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry,
Or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
Then I know why I believe.

C is for Contentment. Contentment is not complacency though the two are so close that they are easily confused. I am content with who I am with all my potentials and I do not compare myself with someone else for I am happy being me. To be discontent is to be unhappy with being me because I keep comparing with others and feel that I do not have enough. Complacency is to be satisfied with the mediocrity and to do nothing to reach my potential.

I choose to be content with who I am and what I have with all its potential – and I continuously seek to reach my own potential without comparing with others. So I enjoy my present – living one day at a time; and I drive towards the future, reaching my own potential by learning something new or doing something different, however small, moment by moment.

I guess I am like a rubber band. I would be complacent if I did not stretch myself at all. But I am content because I stretch myself and know how far I can go before I stop stretching. I am content because I know I am living the best I can without having to compare with others.

My ABCs of living beyond the possession of things help me to enjoy the present as a daily gift, and welcome the future with great expectation whatever it may bring. Yesterday is gone, today is a present. Tomorrow becomes a present when it arrives but until then, carpe diem - I seize the day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Purposeful Life

Last Saturday, I attended a Thanksgiving Service to honour the work of my college mate, the Rev Dr. Kang Ho Soon. After serving continuously as a pastor for 42 years, he is due for retirement. The sanctuary was filled with more than a thousand family members, colleagues and friends, including members of the Inter-Religious Organization in their religious garbs. It speaks volumes for the man who was all things to all people who, moving forward, seeks only to be there for all and sundry who need a pair of listening ears.

In sharing his vision for life, he quoted Robert Byrne, who reputed to have said, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” The idea that life should or ought to have a purpose resonates with many. In 2002, Pastor Rick Warren wrote a devotional book The Purpose Driven Life. The book resonated with so many that it stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list a very long time. It also topped the Wall Street Journal and the Publishers Weekly best-sellers charts. By 2007, the book sold over 30 million copies. It is reputed to be the most translated book after the Bible itself!

When I was nominated for the Active Ager Award of the Council for the Third Age in 2011, I was asked at an interview what drives me to be and do. I told them that I believe in God and I live to love God and love my neighbour as I love myself. That sums up my spirituality. That spirituality gives me a sense of purpose and purposefulness.

Life is a gift and is meant to be lived with a purpose. That purpose for me, was, is and will always be, a life of service. The shape of a purposeful life varied from pastoring to lawyering; from administration to lecturing; from writing to managing. In most of the chapters of my life, I found myself concurrently expending in multi-vocational ways, as I am now. Through them all, I was focused on serving God by seeking “to be a blessing to someone” everyday.

When I crossed the half century mark almost 2 decades ago, I realized afresh what Linda Ellis’ famous The Dash is about. The dash is the little line between the dates of one’s birth and death. It is one simple poem that had inspired millions since it was first published in 1996. It is worth reading again and again to rediscover the purpose of life:

The Dash 

​I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the the end. 

He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years. 

For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
know what that little line is worth. 

For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars...the house...the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash. 

So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged. 

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
​the way other people feel. 

And be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before. 

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while. ​

So, when your eulogy is being read,
with your life’s actions to rehash...
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent YOUR dash?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lessons from Ants

“And real talk, like, seeing these ants and studying them and respecting them, it’s like, man, they’re in their own community too. They’re trying to survive. They love. They fight. They’re telling themselves something. We can’t understand, but one day we will.” Brandon McCartney 

“Go to the ants, you sluggard, learn how to be wise.” A Proverb.

A well-known proverb commends the ants for their prudence, cooperation and industry. These social characteristics of ants are often used in fables and children’s stories as in Aesop’s The Ant and the Grasshopper. No less than Mark Twain wrote about them in his A Tramp Abroad. 

The social nature of ants has also led other famous literati to use them as a commentary on the relationship between society and the individual. Among this genre are American poet Robert Frost’s Departmental and novelist T H White’s The Once and Future King.

More recently, computer-animated cartoons and 3D movies feature these fascinating insects in very entertaining and educational ways. These include Antz, A Bug’s Life, The Ant Bully, The Ant and the Aardvark and Atom Ant. My all-time favourite is Antz which is about Z the worker ant who constantly strives for individuality in a colony of millions. He falls in love with a beautiful female ant at a dance who turns out to be a princess. Because he wants to see her again, he convinces his friend, Weaver, a warrior ant, to switch places with him for a day. This simple exchange leads Z into a wonderful and frightening adventure bigger than anything he ever dreamed possible.

Antz Movie Poster

Scientific studies of ants have also revealed the extraordinary learning behaviour of ants. Animals do learn behaviours by imitation but scientists have observed that ants learn in an interactive manner. Apart from mammals, they may be the only group where interactive teaching has been observed. For instance, a knowledgeable forager species is observed to lead a naïve nest-mate to newly discovered food by the process of tandem running. Knowledge is obtained by the follower through its leading tutor. Apparently the leader is acutely sensitive to the follower’s learning process. It would slow down whenever the follower lags and speed up when the follower gets too close!

Other studies have shown that individual ants may choose nest roles based on their previous experience. In one such study, an entire colony of identical workers was divided into two groups whose outcome in food foraging was controlled. It was an incentive experiment where one group was continually rewarded with food for their efforts while it was ensured that the other failed. It was soon observed that the successful group intensified their foraging attempts while the unsuccessful group ventured out less and less. Over a 30-day period, the successful foragers continued in their role while the others moved to specialize in brood care!

No wonder humans are fascinated by the behaviour of ants. Indeed ants are considered wise because they behave appropriately. Their name in Chinese 蟻 / 蚁 is a combination of the logogram 虫 which means “insect” and 義 / 义 which means “righteous” or “appropriate”. But as wise as they are, it dawned on me recently that they are not wise in every way.

I was golfing the other day when I felt a tiny ant crawling up my leg. I did nothing to threaten it and it could have wisely turned around, minded its own business, and walked away. Instead, it started to bite me. At that point, my reflexes kicked in as I had to deal with it. And, of course, that was the end of it.

There is a lesson here for me. However wise and intelligent I may think I am, I am not as wise as I think. This should lead me to cultivate the virtue of humility because like the poor little ant, I am certainly not wise in every way and it does not take much to make a decision that leads to my own self-destruction.

I am also reminded that I am like an ant in an existential way too. There was this ant that was dragging a leave many times its size across the wooden cross-beam when it encountered a hole in the beam. It appeared to have stopped to consider how to cross it. The solution was simple indeed. The ant simply dragged the leaf across the hole and walked over it. Once it crossed over, it then dragged leaf in the direction it was going. Soon it came to its abode only to find that the leaf was too large to push through the entrance of its nest. After struggling with the leaf for a while, it gave up, left it at the entrance and walked into its nest empty-handed.

I thought to myself, “Isn’t that a parable of human existence? We struggle so hard only to return “home” empty-handed, materially, that is.” Perhaps, there is a another way to live so as not to return “home” empty-handed, if in fact there is a “home” at all, wherever and whatever that is.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Humour : A Saving Grace

"A good laugh overcomes more difficulties and dissipates more dark clouds than any other one thing." - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Recently, I texted a friend to forward an email address to me. She promptly replied that her PC crashed. “I am sorry,” I responded, tongue-in-cheek. “I hope you are not hurt!” In a jiffy, she replied, “You misunderstood me; there is no physical crash. I mean to say that I cannot email you because the system is not functioning.”

Some of us are very intense. We take everything rather too seriously and we often miss a jocular moment. We can be very hard on ourselves and we go about life with a perpetual frown as we struggle along with an albatross around our neck.

The good book says, “Laughter is good medicine.” In fact, there is enough evidence to suggest that to bolster immunity, relieve stress, and alleviate pain, we need to laugh a little. As Laura Wilder says, "A good laugh overcomes more difficulties and dissipates more dark clouds than any other one thing."

It is true that every cloud has a silver lining. It is a matter of having a positive mindset. I believe we will feel so much better about life if we can see the humorous side of every situation we find ourselves in. There is always a lighter side to any problem.

In reviewing John Lancaster’s book, IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, Garner referred to the enormous cost of the financial bailouts – a whopping US$4.6 trillion. That number is bigger than the Marshall Plan, the Louisiana Purchase, the Apollo moon landings, 1980s savings and loans crisis, the Korean War and the total cost of NASA’s space flights added together! There is a great deal to cry about. But Lancaster, Garner pointed out, is able to find so much to laugh at ourselves even in such a mega-financial crisis. “Before you cry,” Gardner advised, “Pick up IOU. Great humour and good company will be the things that’ll get us through.” Humour is the saving grace if we know how to laugh at ourselves.

That is why books on humour are so popular and there is a constant stream of humorous stuff circulating in the cyber world. In my personal library, I have a collection of joke books, and I do enjoy reading them when I needed a little lift. For many years, I was a subscriber of Readers’ Digest and without fail I would devour the humour pages. I also enjoy comic strips from Peanuts to Blondie and Hagar the Horrible. I used to collect Lat and Sun Tan in the good old days was my favourite Asian humour.

Yes, I do like humour especially if they enable me to laugh at myself and help me to take myself less seriously. But there is one category of humour that I do not enjoy or wish to participate in. It is called disparagement humour or humour that puts people down or makes a marginalized group look silly. These include jokes that disrespect religious beliefs, stereotype people groups, and are racist or sexist in nature.

Sexist jokes are not just offensive for some studies have shown that they induce unacceptable sexist behaviour. Apparently, there is a link between the enjoyment of sexist humour and physical, emotional, sexual and relationship aggression in men. Similarly, racist jokes also induce those who participate in them to have in a racist manner.

So what has humour and laughter to do with an examined life?

Well, for one thing, when we laugh, our eyes sparkled and there is a wave of liveliness that sweeps over our senses. I have had the joy of laughing till I teared uncontrollably and it left me feeling very much alive. It helps me get in touch with my “fun-self” and gives me permission to let my hair down. I feel so very human for genuine laughter does not care about superficial dignity and releases me from my “uptightness.” Hugh Sidey expressed it well when he notes that “Joy in one's heart and some laughter on one's lips is a sign that the person down deep has a pretty good grasp of life."

More importantly, laughter is an indication that I am able to discern the important and serious from the frivolous and funny. As Christopher Morley said, "Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs."

At a deeper level, “Humor is the contemplation of the finite from the point of view of the infinite” writes Morgenstern. To be able to laugh it off, in one sense, is to be able to let “passing things pass.” It is the blessed ability to see all things in perspective so that one does not get clawed too deeply in finite issues that have no ultimate or infinite implications.

So, I say, with American black poet, Maya Angelou, “laugh as much as possible, always laugh. It’s the sweetest thing one can do for oneself and one’s fellow human beings.” And, if I may add, don’t forget the old adage, which is mostly true: “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Examined Life

I am privileged to chair an ethics committee of a hospital and it reinforced in me that in order to determine what is or is not ethical we do have to do some critical thinking. In watching TV documentaries about animals, I am constantly made aware that there are certain intrinsic similarities between humans and the rest of living things. A good example is found in the way motherly instincts are expressed in both worlds. That said, however, there are many behavioural differences that transcend the power of instincts. I can’t imagine a pack of hungry lions deciding not to attack a stray buffalo simply because they feel sorry for the off-springs of its prospective prey.

In our effort to think ethically, I am reminded of the statement “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The claim that an unexamined life is not worth living, often attributed to Socrates, a critical philosopher of the 5th Century, is subject to many varied interpretations. Whatever the interpretation, it assumes that we are capable of examining our life by means of logical deduction and making choices among options generated by our minds. It is this capability that distinguishes us from the animal world.

The unexamined life is therefore life without critical and analytical thought, or simply a thoughtless life. And that kind of life is driven only by instincts for survival at all cost and reduces it to the same level as an animal life. It is therefore not worth living in that is it not true to its humanity or humanness. An unexamined life is therefore incapable of experiencing a fully meaningful life driven by discernment and wisdom. An examined life, on the other hand, is simply a “thoughtful” life in that minimally, we give some thoughts to whatever actions we choose to take before we take them.

At another level, the idea of a examined life drives me to live reflectively. To reflect is to fix my thoughts on something. The result of that process is self-generating in that it in turn produces a thought or two of its own as a result. I started to do that as a matter of habit and soon I collected enough thoughts to write a number of short essays of my reflections. These were eventually published into two books titled Pastoral Reflections and More Pastoral Reflections.

 Pastoral Reflections contains 31 essays and was published in 2010. The proceeds of the first edition was dedicated to support the work of an early intervention centre for children with intellectual challenges in Malaysia. Because it was well-received, I published another 40 essays in 2012 which I simply titled More Pastoral Reflections. A significant portion of the proceeds was also given to support the work of Prison Fellowship Singapore which I chair.

I must confess that writing these reflections is more an act of enlightened self-interest in the first instance. I derived great benefit for myself in seeking to live an examined life by reflecting on everyday ordinary things I experienced. There is great pleasure in being able to generate useful thoughts and lessons from simple observations and reflections on the things I hear, see, touch or feel. These include my thoughts on the life of an ant on a golf course to my encounter with a large hairy camel in the Gobi desert. Natural phenomenon like lightning and sunrise fascinate me and they provide me food for thought. Some things I read in the papers or books jump up at me and cause me to think a little more about the meaning of life, suffering and death. Above all, these reflections reinforce in me the importance of faith in moral values and the intangibles - in God and humanity.

By recording my thoughts, I experience the truth that an examined life is truly worth living. One of my friends wrote in the introduction to my second volume that I have written these to “light up the mind, strengthen the heart, and refresh the soul of the reader.” I am grateful for his lofty assessment and I will simply say that the very act of reflecting on these things, light up my own mind, strengthen my own heart and refresh my own soul. These reflections did something wonderful to me before I dare hope that it will do something equally wonderful for my readers.

Going forward, I will be sharing an abridged version of these reflections with you on this blog with the hope that you will be blessed by them.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Facebook as a Platform for Positive Messaging

When Cheryl Faith Wee of the Sunday Times interviewed me in February this year to celebrate Facebook’s 10th anniversary, I had to admit that my posts were erratic, though I had opened an account since 2008. Since then, I had rediscovered the Facebook as a platform for positive messaging. I am now a much more avid user of the social network and am quite enjoying it.

My renewed interest in active participation coincided with my discovery of the PhotoGrid Apps. By putting together a number of photos into a single frame with some variations, I found that I could make my Facebook posts a lot more visually interesting. I also found that my text becomes more interesting when I have something positive to say.

In the months since the interview, I have increased the number of Facebook friends though I am still rather selective. In February the highest number of likes was 49 and that has increased several fold to some 200 in some of my posts. I thought it is instructive to find out what made my friends like my posts.

One of the reasons is the positive messages my posts always carry. No matter how sad or tragic, I do have a positive message to convey, even in the worst of times. Recently, I lost a friend of 50 years in a tragic fall. We were to have dinner at his home on Thursday but he fell at his home on Monday. He passed away within a week of his fall without gaining consciousness. In my post, I mentioned that “Life is like a morning dew, stays ever so briefly and disappears with the morning sun. I will always remember his kindness to me.” I added that I was reminded afresh: “Whatever good I can do today, don’t wait till tomorrow”.

 I also found that anything I share in regard to family love and joy appears to have some appeal. My posts on our three generation at the National Day Parade, the art and writings of my granddaughters and the pleasure I had by just spending time with my teenage grandson one afternoon at my club were well received.

A recent post on wishing our nation “A Happy Birthday” was also much liked. Perhaps it is because I mentioned that I belong to the pioneer generation “who went through 3 stages of national identity in one lifetime. In primary school we sang God saves the Queen. In secondary school, Negara-ku, and in college Majulah Singapura. I am glad it is Majulah Singapura forever!”

I also used the network to inform my friends of my whereabouts, and the things I do, the events I participate in and such likes. These are also much liked, it appears.

It also appears that my friends do like them when I am candid and personal with my posting. On my birthday in June, I posted a poem and that garnered one of the highest number of likes. I would like to share that with you.

Memories are Made of These 

It was my first day in school,
That’s when I first learned to write;
In that class photo I was pretty cool,
Though it’s fuzzy black and white.
I was only six, maybe seven.

The bicycle was too heavy,
And the seat was meant for the tall;
I rode it anyway because I was crazy,
And am surprised I did not fall.
I was only six, maybe seven.

Living in a kampung, we had a well,
An attap house with cemented floor.
When I hear the school bell,
In a flash I spring through the door.
I was only six, maybe seven.

My memories are mostly fond,
Though I grew up without much;
I swam and fished in the muddy pond,
And boasted not about such and such.
I was only six, maybe seven.

I played hard and grew up fast,
Read law, practised and studied further,
Married my love and life flew past,
Today, I am father and grandfather,
I am only sixty and seven.

Well, if you would like to read more of my Facebook posts, you are welcome to be my Facebook friends.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Kampung Spirit and Racial Harmony

I grew up in a kampung in the 50s when I started school. In our community we had Chinese, Malays and Indians for neighbours. We had no running water and our homes were lighted up by a common generator. Kerosene lamps were quite common. We shared a common kitchen for several households, a common well and common toilet facilities. We were a ‘commonwealth’ for we share some common wealth of simple necessities of life.

One of our neighbours was a Malay teacher. He was single and he lived alone. I used to visit him and he taught me Malay and Jawi. I learned to write Jawi script which is constructed from right to left. It was much later in life that I learnt Hebrew and Arabic at college level, and realized how these languages are inter-related.

My Malay neighbour was very kind to me. Not only did he teach me bahasa he also taught me Malay folk songs and stories, some of which I still remember. Songs like Chan Mali Chan and Ikan Kekek still ring in my ears. My favourite stories were about the kancil which is ‘mouse-deer” in Malay. It serves as a respected noble character in the stories. My teacher-friend told me that the Malay people accord this humble creature the highest esteem due to its intelligence and survival skills. I can still recall stories like Sang Kancil dengan Buaya and Sang Kancil dengan Harimau. “Sang” is used to accord respect to this noble creature.

My other neighbour was an Indian family and they attempted to teach me Tamil. I can still count one to ten in Tamil because I created a song to help me to remember. It is based on the old American children’s song, “Little Indians” which goes “One little, two little Indian…” I inserted the Tamil words ondru, irandu, moondru pillaikal etc and sang it to remember it.

Growing up among people of different races and religion made me “colour blind”. Even today, my best friends are numbered among people of different races and religions. I am very comfortable with them and they with me. I was recently the guest speaker at the Metta Convention organized by the Singapore Buddhist Federation and will be a Guest of Honour at the 2014 Human Values Drama Festival (HVDF) on 4 Aug. It is organized by the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation of Singapore.

Now, if I may say a word about good neighbour makan kecil for which we are looking for connectors to help us: About twenty years ago, I moved back from the United States and moved into an apartment building. Within a few months, I was involved in the management committee. The members of the committee were a microcosm of the Singapore society. We had a Tamil who is Hindu, a Malay Muslim, a Chinese Christian and a Chinese Buddhist. We gathered regularly for meals on a monthly basis. I had moved on for 10 years now and we are still meeting once a year where they gather at my home lohei celebrate the Chinese New Year. We also visit each other during the festive seasons of our respective faiths. Their kids who are now teenagers and adults still remember this old Chinese uncle with fondness!

Recently, I went to an Iftar (breaking fast), as a friend of Dr. Radiah Salim, the founder of Club Heal, a social service center offering assistance to people with mental illness. Prof. Fatimah Lateef was also there as a Guest of Honour. I was asked to share the difference between a Christian fast and an Islamic fast. More than the differences in terms of duration and intensity, is the commonalities, one of which is for spiritual reasons, namely to focus on God and the inner life. I was warmly welcomed and I felt a sense of inclusion even though I am a Christian.

This led me to a series of conversation on my facebook with two Muslim friends whom I shall call Mariam and Nur. I posted it on my facebook and there were many who expressed resonance with it.

Mariam: I am sadden by the oppression in Gaza. When will it stop?

William: I am too. There are Christians among the Palestinians. It is political. It is complex. There are many helpless and powerless on both sides. There is just too much suffering and death.

Nur: It is not about religion. It is about power and greed.

William: Agreed, but some co-religionists can be misled and become oppressive as in Northern Iraq where helpless Christians are being oppressed.

Mariam: I am praying every day for peace.

Nur: We need peace with justice.

William: May God have mercy on us all and may we give His peace and love to one another even as we pray for the oppressed and the helpless everywhere.

All: Amen.

This is an abridged version of a conversation that took place. It is similar to a conversation I had with a Muslim cab driver who had an Arabic Script hanging from his rear-view mirror. It read “Allahu akbar” and when I read it aloud, he was very surprised. We started talking about our respective faiths. At the end of the journey, the meter recorded $8.00 plus change. I handed him a $10 note and he gave me back $5. I said, “You gave me back too much” and he replied, “We are friends. It is ok!”

Who says we cannot be friends and talk about religion? It is not religion that divides because religion teaches kindness to all and it should not be divisive. I believe that we can be passionate about our faith and yet be compassionate to all regardless of faith.

In our nation, race and religion often go together. Racial harmony is about the acceptance of our differences. It is about the respect we choose to accord to one another. In this regard, friendship plays a huge role. In the Greek language there are several words for love. One of which is the word “phileo” which refers to the love between friends. It suggests that friends treat each other with affection and kindness. True friendship transcends race and religion. It is respectful of the differences because love is kind.

That is why we need to revive the kampung spirit of friendship. It will help to strengthen the cords of religious harmony.

May I wish all my Muslim friends and their families a blessed Eid Mubarak!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Grandson, Our Intern

Today, Lucas, my grandson started his internship with the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM). I am very glad that he chose to come all the way from Canada to intern here. And it leads me to reflect on the notion of internship.

Internship is an effective programme for anyone interested in learning hands-on what a particular job entails. It can be a temporary position with an emphasis on on-the-job training, similar to an apprenticeship. For people who are not sure about what they want to do, and it serves as a trial. It can also be for students who are looking at the prospect of entering a course of study in a particular discipline and wants to know what it is like to be in that industry. Or it can be a time for students to be exposed to the working world in a realistic environment.

From the employers’ perspective, internship can provide them with cheap or free labour for low-level tasks. Stereotypically, interns had been treated no better than “tea and office boys” in the past. More long-term looking employers invest in the prospect of interns returning to the company after completing their education, in that situation requiring little or no training.

I see internship a little differently. I see it as a great way to give back to community by investing in promising young people by giving them the career guidance they need before they embark on their course of education. It is an opportunity to mentor them, and to give them a real-life education that is practical and relevant to what they would have to face in the working world.

In my years of law practice, I know of at least five students who decided to study law after spending a brief period during their vacation at my law firm as my interns. These bright students learn more about what law practice is about during their internship than in any other situation I know of. They are given a well-rounded experience of what being a lawyer entails, and that experience enables them to know what they want in their subsequent law studies to prepare them for a career in law. These students told me that their experience of observing, learning and doing some of the work of a lawyer help them to make an informed decision in respect of the aspects of law they choose to study and the area of practice they would like to focus on.

Since coming SKM, I have the privilege of observing a number of interns who passed through our system here. Almost every one of them have had a positive experience. In one case, the student came back and interned with us on two occasions. This student, Farhan, who started as an ITE student is now graduating soon from the Singapore Management University. He has also started an NGO of his own while still an undergraduate. We also have two sisters, Jacinta and Juvina, who interned with us at different times. Some of our interns were recommended by other interns before them. Many of them are still in touch with us and serve as our volunteers.

Farhan (Ex-Intern) and Voluntarius Exco
Photo Credit: Voluntarius

I do believe that no matter what a young person chooses to do with his life and vocation, a stint with SKM as an intern will be most profitable. At SKM we treat an intern as an integral member of the team. We expect the interns to participate in discussions, strategizing, and planning. Interns are expected to contribute ideas, to make decisions and to lead. They are inculcated with our core values of synergy, kinship and positive mindset, and they are challenged to believe that whatever they do will make a difference in helping to foster a kinder and more gracious society.

Hence when my grandson decided to study engineering in September at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia with a couple of months to spare before he starts his life as an undergraduate, I suggested that he spends his time here as an intern without pay. I believe it will be good for him. Here are the reasons why I think it is good for him.
  1. It will be a cross-cultural experience for him. He was born in Canada and though he has been here several times to spend time with his grandparents, this is a maturing time in his life when he can absorb and make what he learn here meaningful and relevant. 
  2. He will learn all the cognate values of kindness and see how they are actually applied in everyday living. He will see the effects of the practice of kindness and graciousness on the social environment. 
  3. He will learn to work with adults from a culture different from his, have his EQ tested and his ability to hold his own ground tried. He will appreciate what it takes to be able to initiate and yet at the same time function as a team player because TEAM KINDNESS is a tight ship. 
  4. He will be challenged to use his gifts to bear on identifying issues, articulating them, overcoming obstacles and finding solutions to problems. 
  5. He will learn more about the ethos of Singapore. This is good for him for part of his roots is in Singapore. In today’s globalized context, it is good for him not to forget his ancestry and where his forefathers came from.

And for me, I get to watch him grow under the tutelage of his supervisor Michelle. I will have quality time with him at home and outside of the work environment as his grand father. But at work, he is an intern, and I expect him to learn and grow like any other intern, to the end that he will be better prepared for the real world that lies ahead of him. And most important of all, I trust he will inculcate the values of a kind and gracious gentleman.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Try a little kindness for a safer workplace

There have been much emphasis and focus on the importance of safety in the workplace. A safe working environment not only protects employees, but also increases productivity when workers are happy and healthy. A strong WHS culture means that there is lower frequency of accidents and injuries, reducing interruptions, which allows the company to complete their projects on time. Research from The Academy of Management Perspectives has shown that employee well-being has a significant impact on the performance and survival of organisations by affecting costs related to illness and healthcare, absenteeism, turnover and discretionary effort.

We are on the right track to a safer working environment in Singapore having introduced safety regulations, awards and training programmes in recent years. However, transformation of an organisation’s culture has to happen from the inside out rather than the outside in. Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Transforming an organization effectively to create a safety culture from within begins with the transformation of individuals. Research from Applied Futures and Cultural Dynamics, which has been conducted for more than 30 years, suggests that the best way to change individual and group behaviour is through values inculcation. Here’s where kindness comes into the picture.
Kindness expresses itself when we practise consideration, respect and compassion for the people around us. Ensuring safety is kindness in action. When we look out for another colleague, we are showing kindness to them by protecting their lives, and also the lives of their loved ones. When employers treat their workers with fairness and respect, they do not overwork or put them in dangerous situations, ensuring their well-being and safety.

Here are three ways how kindness can contribute to a safer workplace.

Firstly, the essence of kindness is to be other-centered. Kindness is defined as “any voluntary action with an unselfish intention to benefit others that comes from the heart, and does not expect anything in return.” It is about caring for the interests of others and not merely oneself. In today’s fast-paced and competitive society, many of us often fail to exercise kindness and recognize others' acts of kindness at work. However, when we think about others, we will look out for one another and remind each other to be safe. With such an attitude, we are also less likely to be agitated and make hasty decisions that could lead co-workers to be caught in risky situations.

Look out for one another

Kindness in the workplace also creates greater synergy and lasting friendship within the team. Martin Luther King once said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” We spend more than half our waking hours in our workplace and perhaps even see our colleagues more than our families. Therefore, it is important to have bonds of friendship to support each other through the pressures of work, and make the workplace more pleasant and caring. We can start by greeting and smiling at colleagues in common spaces. After a period of time, this can transform into longer conversations and spark a friendship. Too often we underestimate the power of a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or a helping hand, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. At the Singapore Kindness Movement, we believe in synergy, which is about teamwork. We are convinced that Together Each Achieves More (TEAM). Though we have sectors and each has a primary focus, we give permission to call on one another to help in our respective sectors when there is a need.

Together Each Achieves More (TEAM)

Lastly, being kind to others has profound and measurable physical and mental benefits. Studies have shown that when we do a kind act, our body stimulates certain chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins that reduce stress. Dopamine is associated with positive thinking and endorphins are known as our body’s natural painkilling heroine. Physically, the body also produces oxytocin, which dilates our blood vessels and results in a reduction of blood pressure. The hustle and bustle of the Singaporean lifestyle has led us to feel stressed out most of the time. Being kind calms our mind and helps us to think more clearly when we are stressed or anxious. A clear mind is extremely important in ensuring that decisions made in the workplace are safe for workers to carry out.

Kindness Chemicals

Kindness is a simple concept to practice. Perhaps it is too simple, one might think, to provide a solution to the complex challenges we face in the workplace. Creating a kind, healthy and safe workplace starts with just a “MITE” of effort by ordinary Singaporeans to make a difference through kind acts of their own:

Model kindness in our speech and actions
Inspire others who notice it
Transmit kindness by spreading the message
Empower others when we celebrate acts of kindness

Challenge yourself to start, show and share kindness at work, and see what difference it makes!

First published in Safety Matters Issue 1/2014, a publication of the Singapore Institution of Safety Officers.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Words, Words, Words…Watch Your Words

Recently, my friend, a well-known socio-political commentator posted on her Facebook a verse from the good book. “My Dear brothers, take note of this: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” She added, “I really ought to remember this.”

Another friend asked, “Why only brothers?” I replied, “because 'brothers' is made up of Bro + Others”.

Jokes aside, it reminds me of Shakespeare, who was fascinated by the power and the frailty of words. This is so true with the spoken word. “Words are like wind”, he wrote. But we also know that it can breathe life into rousing oratory or kill the best of us with bitter curses.

Last night my friends brought my wife and me to a Teochew restaurant for dinner. While waiting for a table, I chanced upon this framed verses in Chinese. I was fascinated by the trove of Chinese wisdom in those words. 

Like my friend, I really ought to remember this. It will help me to be more gracious not only in deeds but also in the way I speak about matters.

Dr. William Wan
9 June 2014.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A time to be silent and a time to speak...

The Nominated MP scheme was launched in 1990 to increase the number of non-government MPs to enable "alternative views to be expressed and dissenting voices to be heard.” Usually, candidates are nominated for their distinguished services in the fields of arts and letters, culture, the sciences, business, industry, the professions, social or community service, and the labour movement. Some have rendered distinguished public service or who have brought honour to Singapore. The Constitution provides for 9 such NMPs who will serve for two and a half years (half the term of a regular MP). They are not elected but are recommended by a Committee of MPs for appointment by the President.

About 10 years ago, I was approached by a senior friend to consider participating in the process for selection as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP). At that time I declined because I did not think it was a good idea to be in Parliament without being elected by a constituency.

But when I was again approached by several friends recently, I reconsidered and allowed my name to be submitted. That is how I ended up being a candidate today. I would like to share the reasons for the change of heart on my part.

Although I was involved in community work, my focus ten years ago was on my law practice. Because it was an international practice, I was committed to much travelling. Besides, I was not championing any particular cause in an intensive way.

But since assuming my role as the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, just over three years ago, most of my waking hours are passionately focused on fostering a kinder and more gracious society. The more time and energy I spent in this work, the more I am persuaded that kindness must be a lifestyle that permeates every sector and strata of our society. A kind and gracious society can only come about with a mindset change involving the whole of government and the governed working together to make it happen. It calls for a political will to make achieving a culture of graciousness an integral part of our collective ethos a national priority. I believe that having a voice in parliament to champion this will help.

As an active-ager, I believe that I can champion the needs of the ageing population. The government has put together a generous package to appreciate and benefit the pioneers. I applaud that. But there must be a mindset change among the pioneer generation to keep fit and remain active. Employers too must not allow the subtle influence of ageism to prejudice them from employing seniors who are still highly productive and capable. I believe that besides financial support, government can provide better infrastructures and social and emotional support to enable all seniors to live out their winter years with pride and dignity. I believe that having a voice from one of their own in parliament will help.

Forty years ago as a young lawyer, I helped found a non-profit organization to support ex-offenders. It was a seminal version of the Yellow Ribbon Fund. Even in the early years, we have seen many ex-offenders who made good and became law-abiding citizens and who contribute back to society in many positive ways. Some as working in non-profit community sector. Some like Benny Se Teo of Eighteen Chefs are successful social entrepreneurs. When I look at offenders, I always say to myself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Instead of judgment, I feel a sense of compassion for them. I believe that when they have served their time and realize the need for change, our society should always give them a second chance. I believe that someone should advocate for giving them all the help they need to re-integrate into society as positive law-abiding citizens. A voice in parliament will help light a candle of hope for ex-offenders instead of cursing the darkness of crime and destruction.

With Benny Se Teo and friends at Eighteen Chefs

And finally, I believe in racial and religious harmony. We are a unique little “Red Dot” that is built on the values of multiculturalism. We have always embraced and celebrated racial and religious diversity. All religions teach kindness and kindness is the golden thread that runs through the fabric of diversity weaved by our multiracial society. Clearly immigration and employment policies can create huge stress on this fabric. There is constant danger that the stress may tear our national fabric if we do not pay enough attention to the social impact of good-intentioned policies. I believe that a voice is needed in parliament to remind us of our origins as an immigrant nation and how the old kampung spirit of trust and acceptance bonded us together. We need to go beyond mere racial and religious tolerance to proactively working together on the common platform of the shared value of kindness.

For these reasons, I have now come to believe that one can serve in parliament without a physical constituency. In my case, I believe that the causes and values I espouse are embraced by the great majority of our people. I welcome the constitutional opportunity to speak to the issues connected to these causes and values. My only ambition is to contribute to the common good – to foster a kinder and more gracious Singapore.

There are many worthy and worthier candidates, and it is now up to the Select Committee. As I have said in my facebook, I am humbled to be nominated and I will be honoured if selected to serve as an NMP.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

All I needed to know about Kindness, I learned from my Mother

“You look like Grandma,” exclaimed my niece. We were visiting mother’s niche at the columbarium. My sister and I and members of our family make it an annual ritual to do so around this time – between Easter and Mother’s Day.

Yes, I do look like my mother, and I hope I am as kind and gracious as she was. May I share with you some of the lessons on kindness and graciousness I learnt from her.

“Always be respectful – know your place,” I can hear her saying in Teochew. Recently, Prof Tommy Koh, who taught me Criminal Justice when I was a final year law student, introduced me at a university forum as his friend. I felt very complimented but I could never bring myself to call him by his first name. “Once a teacher, always a teacher,” my mother would say. My mother’s idea of respect is to address your senior respectfully, so “Prof Koh” he is and will always be to me.

My children are no longer children, of course. They are professionals in their chosen fields, and two of the three have teenage children of their own. But when they are introduced to my peers, my friends are still “uncles” and “aunties” to them. Maybe it is old-fashioned. If to be respectful is old- fashioned, I am happy to be old-fashioned.

My mother also taught me to be grateful for all good things, and even for the not-so-good, for we can always learn something from that too, she would say. “Take nothing for granted,” she often reminded me. Even on my facebook, I make it a point to say “Thanks” when my request to befriend me is accepted. “Thanks for what?” I was asked now and then. “For just being my friend!” I would say. I know that facebook friends are often only virtual friends. But truth be told, some have become real friends too. In any case, nobody needs to be my friend and I want to be grateful for the gift of friendship, virtual or otherwise, because my mother has successfully inculcated in me the attitude of gratitude, and I am all the better for it, I feel.

Gratitude helps me to lower my expectations because it helps me to avoid an entitlement mindset. Because I do not feel entitled, I am more likely to feel grateful. If I do not expect too much, what I do receive is the unexpected. Because it is not expected, it is a bonus; and because it is a bonus, I naturally feel grateful.

And yes, my mother taught me by example what it means to be considerate. About 25 years ago I was working in the United States. My mom was taken ill and I was told that she was in a rather critical stage of her illness. I flew back immediately and to my great joy, she pulled through. A couple of years later, she fell ill again, but this time I did not hear from my sister at all. It was only after she passed on that I was told, and I took the first plane out from Washington DC.

I was naturally furious, wondering why I was kept in the dark. Soon enough, I found out the reason behind it. Apparently my mother had told them not to let me know because I would be worried for her. Furthermore, she had said that I am a busy person and that I should be told only after she passed on. She even left instructions for me to conduct her funeral service. That was my mother – ever thoughtful, ever considerate even during the last days of her life on earth.

As I approach Mother’s Day, I cherish fond memories of my mother who taught me everything I need to know about respect, gratitude, consideration and much more. My hope is that all mothers will be cherished, loved, respected and be thanked every day, and not just on Mother’s Day.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Thank you Mom

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Kindness in Literature

Kindness is a virtue valued by almost all people across all generations and cultures. These days, when I read books of interest, be it novels or biographies, I almost always make a note of kindness that is mentioned in the works, and I find them rather instructive. Let me share some of my recent readings.

My friend’s daughter Laura Hillenbrand, an award-winning author, has written another blockbuster. Unbroken is a World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption. The mind, body and spirit of Olympian Louie Zamperini were tested to the extreme limits when he was a Japanese prisoner-of-war. In the midst of cruelties and atrocities, Louie found brief relief in one of the few happy encounters in the POW camps.

Kawamura was a new guard who slipped two pieces of hard candy into Louie’s hand. He then moved down the hall and gave two pieces to his fellow POW, Phil. “A friendship was born,” writes Hillenbrand.

“Kawamura brought a pencil and paper and began making drawings to illustrate things he wished to talk about. Walking back and forth between cells, he’d draw picture of something – a car, a plane, an ice cream cone – and say and write its Japanese name. Louie and Phil would then write and say the English name. The prisoners understood almost nothing of what Kawamura said, but his goodwill needed no translation. Kawamura could do nothing to improve the physical conditions in which the captives lived, but his kindness was lifesaving.” 

One of my inspirations for reading law 45 years ago was the late David Marshall, defence counsel extraordinaire. In Kevin Tan’s biography, Marshall’s legendary kindness was spontaneously manifested throughout his illustrious life.

Marshall never forgot kindness shown to him. While studying in London, he was a beneficiary of the generosity of the Solomons. In appreciation for the kindness shown to him by Rose (who was his first love and who remained single) and her widowed mother, Marshall bought them a house in London in later years.

Marshall’s kindness towards children is well known. He often arranged and paid for special shows for the benefit of children. When Devan Nair was detained as a union activist, Marshall offered $100 a month to Mrs Nair help look after his family even though he did not know him very well. The Nairs repaid him but never forgot his kindness.

If kindness breeds kindness, Marshall’s influence in this regard is most remarkable. Kong Seng Kwong, one of his many eminent pupils, referring to many incidents of kindness shown by his master on the latter’s induction as an honorary fellow for life of the Singapore Academy of Law, has written,

“It helped me find a niche in my heart for such a precious thing called humanity and care and concern for fellow human beings…For these reasons, I will always remember you as a great lawyer of charity and humanity. A legend for showing kindness and humane concern for the common folks.” 
David Marshall

Indeed, the former criminal lawyer, Chief Minister and ambassador, was known for his service to humanity and his biographer attributed this noble trait to “his wartime experience and his innate kindness and generosity…”

In The Notebook, novelist Nicholas Sparks painted a poignant and deeply moving portrait of two people in love. It is based on the true story of the lives of his wife’s grandparents. At the end of their journey, Allie was suffering from dementia and slipped in and out of lucidity. In one of her best moments, she wrote about her husband Noah in such endearing terms – something that we who are married should be writing about our partners at the end of our long journey together:

“You are my best friend as well as my lover…You have something inside you, Noah, something beautiful and strong. Kindness, that’s what I see when I look at you now, that’s what everyone sees. Kindness. You are the most forgiving and peaceful man I know. God is with you, He must be, for you are the closest thing to an angel that I’ve ever met.” 

May the power of kindness be with you in everything that you say and do.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Olympian Acts of Kindness

The 2014 Winter Olympics was held in Sochi, Russia, from 7–23 February 2014. A total of 98 events in 15 winter sport disciplines were held during the Games. I received several emails from a Canadian friend about acts of kindness that took place at the games.

In the men’s 1,000-metre race, Canada’s top long-track speed skater Denny Morrison had forfeited his chance to race in the finals when he failed during the qualifier. His younger and less experienced team-mate Gilmore Junio had qualified.

In a gracious and generous act of sportsmanship and team-spirit, Junio decided to yield his rightful place to Morrison. He said, “How Denny is skating now, I believe it’s in the best interest of the team if he races…” 

“This is an amazing gesture and I’m ready to make the most of this opportunity”, said Morrison, who promptly twitted publicly to thank his team mate.

Long track speedskaters Denny Morrison, right, and Gilmore Junio arrive
home from the Sochi Olympics in Calgary.

In another event, the Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth, a three-time Olympian, was crestfallen as he wandered over to the finish line to watch the end of the. semifinal in the men’s free sprint. The Canadians were all eliminated early. As he stood there, surrounded by other officials, he spotted Russian Anton Gafarov, an early medal favourite, coming over a rise. Gafarov.

He had crashed on a quick downhill corner and broken a ski. Then he had crashed again. A long, thin layer of P-Tex had been skinned off his ski and he was struggling miserably, ignominiously dragging himself to the finish.

The officials, including some Russian coaches just stood there and stared. “It was like watching an animal stuck in a trap. You can’t just sit there and do nothing about it,” Wadsworth said to himself.

Grabbing a spare ski he had brought for a Canadian racer, Wadsworth ran onto the track where Gafarov was dragging himself along. Kneeling beside him, Wadsworth pulled off the broken equipment and quickly replaced it. No words passed between them. Gafarov only nodded and promptly set off again to ski across the finishing line as a skier should.

Candian ski coach, Justin Wadsworth, came to the rescue of Russian skier,
Anton Gafarov

“I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line,” Wadsworth later said.

These two incidents poignantly illustrate what the Olympic spirit is about. It is about friendship. And friendship is nothing if not kind and gracious.

Renewed friendship: Australia’s Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton put their
rivalry aside as Pendleton retires from the sport at London 2012 Olympics

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Power of Kindness

On Saturday March 15, a small group of avid readers will gather at the Central Public Library from 3-6 pm*.

Sharing a common love for books, they will read parts of The Power of Kindness by Piero Ferrucci. Ferrucci is an Italian psychotherapist and philosopher whose highly-acclaimed book delves into the profound benefits of leading lives of compassion. The Dalai Lama endorses it as “a book after my own heart” in the preface.

The book makes the striking argument that kindness is actually at the heart of all the values we hold dear, including honesty, warmth, forgiveness, contact, sense of belonging, trust, mindfulness, empathy, humility, patience, generosity, respect, flexibility, memory, gratitude, service, and joy.

As it happens, the idea of empathy has certainly been grabbing some news headlines recently. Ferrucci defined empathy as “the expansion of consciousness” and has very definite views about the importance of having it. “Empathy”, he writes, “is an ingredient of the emotional intelligence necessary for acting competently and efficiently in today’s world.” For him, it is “a prerequisite for communication, collaboration, and social cohesion”. He goes even further to say that “if we annul it, we return to savagery – or cease to exist”.

A story of empathy that was told to me recently concerned a wealthy tycoon from Thailand who took time out to be a monk. During his short pilgrimage, he discovered the meaning of empathy when he was led to witness the cremation of a deceased person. As required by his faith tradition, he was to reflect and imagine that the body was his. In his deep meditation , he identified with the pain and suffering of the deceased and in the process, learnt what empathy is about. Emerging from his pilgrimage, he returned to the business world as a completely transformed person.

Three years ago, when I first started to drive this movement, someone responded to one of my published letters. He was critical of my views on a certain issue and offered a few ideas of his own in an email to me. I responded by inviting him to have tea with me. He did. After about 10 minutes, he said,
“I must confess I told my wife that if I sensed that you were not open to listen and seek to understand my views, I would walk out of this meeting. But I am not going to because I can see that you are listening.”

Whatever empathy is, it certainly includes the willingness to listen and not jump to judgments or conclusions. That is the power of kindness. It disarms and builds relationships.

*If you would like to attend the reading of The Power of Kindness, the details are as follows. I will be leading the discussion and look forward to connecting with you there.

Saturday, 15 Mar 2014, 3.00 – 6.00pm
Multi-Purpose Room (Basement 1), Central Public Library
100 Victoria Street, Singapore 188064