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: www.kindness.sg/letsmakan. 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.