Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Acts of Kindness Observed or Received –At Home and Abroad

I am personally delighted that many more acts of kindness are observed and reported in Singapore. Several friends noted that in recent months there are many more notations in the Bouquet Section of the Forum Page in the Straits Times.

Recently, the owners of the cafe, Strangers’ Reunion, were met with an overwhelming response from the public when they put out a call for help to raise funds for their cancer-stricken head chef. I was asked for my opinion by the New Paper to which I replied to the effect that there is innate kindness in every one of us. We naturally reach out with a desire to help for we know that the challenges of human frailties and vulnerabilities are common to all of us.

These days, I have observed and experienced an increase in the number of people offering seats to senior people on buses and trains. At 10:00 pm one evening, I boarded a crowded train at Dhoby Ghaut station. A middle-age lady immediately offered her seat to me. Just yesterday, my wife and I boarded a crowded bus from Plaza Singapura to Bugis Junction at 5:45 pm. A lady gave up her seat to her and another seated behind her offered hers to me. We accepted their kind gestures with appreciation even though we were going to alight a few stops away.

Singapore MRT during peak hour
You may ask why we accepted the offer of the seats when we were getting off the bus very soon. The primary reason is to encourage such kind acts. To decline may be seen by those around to have rejected a kind gesture, and that may discourage others from acting kindly. I always encourage everyone to accept an offer when given, even if it is only one stop away. In fact, in the case of the lady who gave up the MRT seat to me at Dhoby Ghaut, I was able to invite her back to her seat when I alighted at Novena. By receiving and returning acts of kindness, the acts repeated are observed by fellow commuters and serve as good examples of consideration and thoughtfulness in the public space.

Kind gestures are not confined to giving up seats. I had the joy of having my train ticket paid for by a fellow commuter in the queue behind me as I attempted to purchase a ticket from the vending machine. He noticed I did not have my wallet with me and simply offered to pay for my ticket without much ado. On another occasion, I did not have parking coupons with me and when I offered to buy a coupon from a chap who had just parked his car besides mine, he simply gave me the required coupon and refused to accept payment. Just a week ago, I left my name-card holder with $50 cash and my office staff card in a cab I took to an event at a local hotel. An hour later, I received a call from the hotel concierge to say that a cabbie came by to return the card holder and its contents to me.

About 10 years ago, I was attending a law conference at Tokyo Bay area. One evening I bought a return ticket and boarded the train to the city. My objective was to spend some time walking the city alone to take in the sight and sound without having to spend any money. I took nothing with me except the return ticket. It was a pleasant evening and I thoroughly enjoyed my walk.

Time passed so rapidly and before I knew it, it was almost midnight. I rushed to the train station but alas, the train stopped running at about 11:30 pm! I had missed the last train. But I had no money with me, and I spoke no Japanese.

As I despondently walked away from the station thinking about the best way to get back to my hotel at Tokyo Bay, I saw a group of young people. They had spunky coloured hair and were very groovy-looking, to the best of my recollection. I gingerly approached them, hoping that they would understand my predicament. To my relief, at least one of them spoke English. I explained my need and asked if she could hail a cab for me and asked the cabbie to take me to my hotel and wait for me to get the money to pay him.

Tokyo Teenagers Photo
The young girl huddled with the others and I saw them passed some money around. She came back to me and said, “Please take these yens and use them for the cab. I will call one for you and tell him where to take you. Cabbies don’t wait for passengers for the money as they expect to be paid on arrival.” I was dumbfounded. I tried to say something about not being able to accept their kindness to no avail. They just smiled and she pressed the yens into my palm and shoved me into the cab. They waved good bye and one gave me the thumbs up.

On another occasion, some 20 years ago, I was driving with my wife in the State of Virginia. It was close to sunset, and we were lost. I have been driving around in some wooded areas of that vast state and could not find my way to the entrance of the beltway which will take me back to Maryland where we resided. The sun was setting fast and we were a little concerned because we had heard about “red-necks” who were not very friendly to “outsiders”.

As we were wondering what direction to take at a fork ahead of us, we spotted a heavily tattooed man with a pony tail neatly tied up changing a busted tire on his pick-up truck. To my mind, he would be a stereotype of a “southern red-neck”. I hesitated to ask him for direction but decided to ask anyway. He looked at me and mumbled almost inaudibly, “Wait for me.” My feeling of insecurity was even more intense as I was not sure what he was going to do to us.

As soon as he had the tire mounted and screwed on, he jumped into the cab of his truck and said, more audibly, “Follow me.” I looked at my wife and decided to obey. He drove for about 20 minutes and pulled to the side of the dirt road. I followed and stopped just behind him. He alighted from his truck and walked towards me to point me to the highway. I thanked him and proceeded in the direction he pointed us to. I looked into the rearview mirror and watched him turned his truck around. Clearly the entrance to the highway was not on his way to wherever he was going. He took the trouble to go out of his way to bring us closer to the entrance of the highway.

Highway to Maryland
I learned a huge lesson that day. I will never ever stereotype anyone again!

In South Africa, I was waiting for my plane at the airport. My host was with me and we had some time to kill before the plane took off. We chatted at the airport café for a while. I excused myself to go to the washroom. In the toilet, I hanged up my jacket on the door and after relieving myself, I left the stall without my jacket. Back at the café, my friend did not notice that I was without my jacket. We sat for another hour before I realized that I had left my jacket in the stall of the toilet. In my jacket was my wallet with all my cash and credit cards. I also had my passport in one of the pockets! You can imagine the horror on my face when I discovered the cold reality of my negligence. Never mind the cash and credit cards, I could be in a great deal of trouble without my passport!

King Shaka International Airport
I immediately bounced off to the toilet and to my great dismay, the jacket was not there! On the way back to the café, a staff of the airport came up to me and asked if I was looking for a jacket. I could not believe my ears! “Yes, sir!” I blurted out. He then led me to the lost and found office and said that it was returned to me by another traveler who did not leave behind his name or any other contact details.

Streets of New York
There are many more positive experiences of kindness I have received in so many different ways. But let me share one more which I had observed in New York. As I was walking down a busy avenue, I saw at a distance, a lady walking her dog. She stopped and another younger lady dressed in business suit also stopped beside her. I saw the younger lady squatted besides her and I thought she was just stroking the dog. As I got closer, I realized that the lady with the dog was visually challenged and the lady in business suit was in fact helping her to scoop the dog’s poo into a plastic bag.

I believe that kindness is innate in all of us. I am ever thankful for the kind acts observed and received. I fully resonate with Mother Theresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Two Weeks in the Life of a General Secretary

Every now and then, I meet someone who could not hide his surprise upon receiving my business card.  “Is there that much to do in the business of kindness?” is one of the questions politely posed to me.  When I mention that there is so much to do that we need 20 fulltime staff to do it, the mild surprise turns into utter amazement.

So what do I do as General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM)? To begin with, I lead.  A movement by its very nature requires someone to lead it.  Since taking on this assignment at SKM, I have been featured in two books on leadership.  Changing Lanes, Changing Lives by Richard Hartung highlights a number of private sector senior executives who left their profit-oriented businesses to lead not-for-profit organizations.  All of us have a common passion, namely to “do good well”, to quote Willie Cheng who wrote a whole book about it, aptly titled Doing Good Well. I am convinced that leadership is even more important in not-for-profit organizations because the motivation is different and keeping the team motivated beyond monetary rewards requires a different kind of leadership.



In a recently published book, Leadership Conversations, I was asked what makes a good leader. I opined that “a good leader should love the people he leads, believe in the people he leads and enjoys being with them. You lead because you care and not just to promote yourself. You lead because you really believe in what you do, you believe that your mission is something worth investing in. A good leader must be passionate about what he does, and this passion will rub off onto others.  Your followers are more likely to follow you when you are sincere, especially when they also know you care for them and that you are not going to use them. When people realise that they are also the beneficiaries of whatever good you are going to do and that they can participate in it, people are more likely to follow you. You might be a leading boat in a fleet, but when the tide rises, you have to make sure that every other boat following you rises with you”.


But as a leader, I must lead by example.  In that regard, I have often said to the team that I will not ask them to do what I am not prepared to do.  And believe me, there is a lot to be done in fostering a kind and gracious society.  As an advocacy movement, we desire to see more people, individually and collectively, step up and help us champion kindness as a way of life.  We also encourage and affirm commercial, civic and government bodies to embrace kindness as a core value.  So I speak and write about it, and I welcome platforms to message kindness any way and everywhere. Consequently, I find myself invited to take part in radio and TV Talk Shows, speak at public events and write for newspapers and magazines. 

My life is especially full because I believe in the principle of reciprocity.  This is found in the Golden Rule, namely, to do to others as you want others to do to you.  I would apply that to my work in partnership with so many by reminding myself that I need to support others as they support me. This results in spending a great deal of time at events of partners which could be in the evenings or weekends.

I looked at my calendar of events between the 19th and 31st October.  And this is what I found on my Facebook.

19th October 2015. 5:30-8:00 pm. 
I was honoured to be with Elson Soh and his friends at Project Awareness – Project Smile Music Concert.  Elson and his friends have been blessing many seniors with the acts of kindness.  At this concert, many seniors were special guests. I made an attempt to sing 月亮代表我的心 with Hayden from Taiwan.  We also had a great time singing the Young Ones.  Being kind is fun!



Elson’s Project Awareness is one of our more than 40 Ground-up Movements helping to foster kindness and graciousness as a lifestyle.



21 October 2015.  6:00-8:00 pm.
NUS Graduate student Teo Kah Ming and I were guests of 狮城有约 (Hello Singapore) on Channel 8. She is Pulau Ubin zone captain of the International Coastal Clean-Up Singapore. She is an outstanding example of a young person who is passionate about kindness to the environment and to living creatures sharing our water space. It was a privilege to be on the same programme with her, and did she inspire me!

As a member of the Public Hygiene Council (PHC) we are co-founders of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement.  I was on the panel on behalf of PHC.  We believe that kindness to the environment is ultimately kindness to humanity because when we destroy the environment, we are on the way to self-destruction.



22 October 2015. 4:00-6:00 pm.
Interviewed at T3 by Changi  Airport Group(CAG) to appreciate SG50 Celebration.  The video will be part of the history of Changi airport.  A 4m Topiary of Singa stands proudly surrounded by Singa lenterns.  Singa is iconic and represents the aspirations of all Singaporeans for a kinder and more gracious society.

The CAG is a valued supporter of kindness values.  The Topiary of Singa was on display for 6 months from  May to October in celebration of SG50.  We were told that it was a very popular photo-op backdrop for tourists and locals during that period.



24 October 2015. 4:00-6:00 pm.
National Kidney Foundation has grown its volunteer capital from 80 to 2,000 passionate caring individuals under the capable leadership of my fellow board member Johnny Heng.  We celebrated their kindness today with tokens of appreciation.  Patients and Staff has a great time entertaining and affirming each other.

Volunteerism is an express of personal kindness to others in need.  We encouraged volunteerism at all levels and the Kindness Team members are also encouraged to be volunteers in our stakeholders program as much as possible.



28 October 2015. 10:00-1:00 pm.
More than 400 public transport staff recognized for amplifying kindness in performing beyond the call of duty at the Transport Gold Kindness Awards today.  I am inspired by staff like Tina, who proactively offered a wheelchair to an elderly commuter who looked unwell, accompanied him on the train to his destination, and wheeled him to his home.  That is truly spontaneous kindness at its best.  Thanks to Minister Khaw for gracing the event as Guest of Honour.



We are partners in this annual award programme with Land Transport Authorities and public transport companies including SMRT, SBC, Comfort Delgro Group, Transitlink and others since 2000.  This is an important event for the public transport workers who are often our unsung heroes.  It means a lot to them to know that their acts of kindness are not taken for granted.  In fact, they are very much appreciated.



30 October 2015.  11:00-6:00pm
I was at the Singapore Patient Conference 2015 at TTSH celebrating caregivers. The event honoured patient caregivers, advocates, engage initiative teams and support groups. Journalist Basu gave an informative and inspiring talk on caregivers. Behind the “silver surge” (aging population) are more than 210,000 caregivers. More will be needed as the population ages. It is important to affirm these unsung heroes.

Last year, I was the Guest Speaker at their inaugural conference.  I spoke about the kindness business and the business of kindness.  Providing healthcare is a kindness business, but being kind to one another at the workplace and being kind in the way we deliver health services is the business of kindness. It includes affirming kindness wherever found.  I was delighted that they affirmed volunteers this year.



31 October 2015. 8:30-11:30 am.
I was at the Clean and Green Carnival with Public Hygiene Council colleagues and the Prime Minister this morning.  We also launched our jingle by local composer Dezz, “Clean, green and blue; we can’t do it without you!”  incorporating the message “Be Kind, Keep Clean.”  Keeping Singapore clean and green is possible when everyone owns it.


As Chairman of the Communication subcommittee of the Public Hygiene Council (PHC), it was my privilege to facilitate the crafting of the tagline “Be Kind, Keep Clean” and the jingle “Clean, green and blue; we can’t do it without you!”  It is very satisfying that the members of the PHC shares the same ethos that kindness and public ownership of a kindness lifestyle is the only way to a sustainable clean and green environment.

There you have it.  There is much to do in the business of kindness.  The truth is, many individuals and organizations are promoting kindness.  Our job is to be there to encourage and support them.  Just as it takes a village to educate a child, it also takes a whole nation to sustain a kind and gracious society.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Charisma of Singa, the Kindness Lion

Many of you must have received a Singa figurine in your National Day Parade (NDP) funpack.  1.6 million from the new series of 15 figurines were distributed nation-wide in celebration of SG50.  Soon after National Day (9th, August), 1,000 serially numbered limited edition sets as well as individual figurines of 14 designs were made available to collectors and others.  This is the second series of Singa figurines.  The first series was created in 2010.  As the Straits Times reported on 12th August 2015 the new series proved to be very popular. 


Singa,​ ​the Lion, ​ ​was introduced to the public in 1982 as the official mascot for Singapore’s National Courtesy Campaign (NCC). He was a mascot used for various public education campaigns ​ ​to message the need for courtesy.   In 2001, Singa became the mascot of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) after the NCC was subsumed into the movement.​

​In his role as mascot, Singa has appeared in numerous publicity materials, souvenirs and events related to the movement.  These include badges, stickers, posters and banners, puzzles, plush toys, magnets, erasers, pens and pencils, T-shirts, bags, pamphlets etc. In addition,​ ​Singa  was made into a popular board game of the 80’s, ‘Courtesy Snakes And Ladders’.​ ​In the game, courteous behaviour would send a player up a ladder while rude behaviour would send the person down the ranks.​  There was also a series of stamps featuring Singa.  We have benches and statuettes of Singa in many public spaces. Recently, at Terminal 3 of our Changi International Airport, a 4m high topiary of Singa stands proudly to welcome visitors.  And in Chinatown, Singa lanterns help celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. 



Not surprisingly, Singa became a familiar face with regular appearances in community events and advertisement campaigns.​ ​He is also the most recognizable according to some surveys.

On 15 May 2013, Singa resigned from his role as the mascot for kindness because he believed that it was time for Singaporeans to bring out the Singa within them. His resignation was an invitation for all of us to be the change we want to see, and called for Singaporeans to take responsibility for their own actions. News of Singa’s resignation went viral and provoked a wide range of responses from the public. Some people expressed their sadness and said that they would miss Singa. Others felt that the resignation did not make a difference as they believed that mascots such as Singa had become irrelevant in today’s society.

The charisma of Singa was such that he generated over 100 articles ​ in various media within a month​. ​In addition to mainstream media such as daily newspapers and online news websites, the public wrote in to the forum sections of the newspapers and posted their thoughts on blogs and social media.  The conversation regarding Singa - and more importantly, kindness and graciousness - went through the roof.


Singa’s appeal cuts across the generations.  When we created an animated series of Kindsville where a young Singa and his friends live and play, for pre-schoolers and primary school children, it attracted a great deal of interest.  For instance, the monthly average viewership from Jan - Aug 2015 per episode is more than 13,000.  Its website total pageviews in 2015 to-date is more than 44,000.  Many children write to Singa.  In the first half of 2015, Singa received  almost 300 letters. 



Singa is still busy inspiring kindness and graciousness.  He reminds us that there is kindness in all of us and we should just go and show it by our speech and deeds.  In a creative way, the 15th design of the current Singa figurines has become the canvas for the public to paint their pictures of kindness on. Some schools and community groups have organised events for this. These painting events are effective in bringing people together. Let me share what our Minister of Education wrote to us:




We are very proud of Singa.  To check out the latest 'Singa and the Kindness Cubbies' animation series produced by SKM, visit http://kindness.sg/kindsville/.  If you are interested in the Limited Edition of the NDP Singa, please visit our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/kindnesssg) for the latest updates. If you are interested in any other merchandise related to Singa and SKM, please contact us via kindness@kindness.sg

Monday, September 7, 2015

My Day In Court


Interior of the main dome of the former Supreme Court building Photo: Supreme Court of Singapore
I was called to the bar in 1973, and in the same year, I had the opportunity to appear before the late Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin in the High Court on a contentious matter involving four members of a family. It was a rather unfortunate case because I was representing the mother and sister against two other siblings who were disputing over a settlement of the family estate upon the death of the patriarch of the family. The case was heard in the Old Supreme Court Building which is now the National Gallery.   As a rookie lawyer, still wet behind my ears, I was awed by the very ornate court room and chamber of the Chief Justice. 

Many famous cases were heard in this magnificent building, and perhaps the most historic of all is the war crime trials of members of the Japanese military in 1946. In my view the most professionally meaningful symbol in the building is the tympanum sculptures on the pediment visible below the cupola. They are the work by Florentine sculptor Augusto Martelli, a Milanese sculptor. The centre figure in the tympanum, holding a sword in the left hand and scales in the right, is Justice. The figure immediately to its left represents Lost Soul begging for protection from it. Next to this figure are two legislators with books in hand, representing the Law. To the left of Justice is Gratitude. A man holding a bull, representing Prosperity is on his left. And at the extreme left are two young children holding a sheaf of wheat representing Abundance resulting from law and justice. They constitute an eloquent allegory of justice which, as an officer of the court, I was exhorted to uphold.

Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin was Singapore's longest-serving Chief Justice Image from The Straits Times

The late Chief Justice had presided for 27 years as the first non-British Chief Justice, making him the longest-serving chief justice not only in Singapore, but also in the Commonwealth. I was also awed by his reputation and presence.
 
After our opening statements, he glared at us and promptly adjourned the trial and called us into his imposing chamber.  “Learned counsels,” he softly queried, “do you know what you are doing?”  He reminded us that these litigants were members of the same family who were being divided by quibbling over the way the estate was being distributed.  He made it clear to us that the matter is one that ought to have been amicably settled out of court for the unity and wellbeing of the family as a whole.  We got the message and within a matter of weeks, both parties arrived at an amicable settlement and the case was withdrawn.



It was my first high court hearing that did not quite happen because the late Chief Justice was a kind and compassionate judge who believed that justice sometimes is best done outside the court.  In a matter of minutes in his chamber, he instilled in me the notion that justice in that matter was to be found in the spirit of the law not in the letter of the law. I learnt very early in my practice that family relations and unity is far more important than each member insisting on his own right under the law. By insisting on a settlement out of court, he got me to start my practice on the right footing with the right values.  Justice is best served with the best outcome for all.
Part of tympanum sculpture fronting the former Supreme Court building. Photo: Supreme Court of Singapore

Needless to say, the family remained intact and was full of gratitude. And whenever I think of the Old Supreme Court Building, the allegory of justice symbolized by the tympanum sculptures below the cupola is projected in my mind. If I were to practice law again, I would like the outcome to be on the left of Justice represented by Gratitude, Prosperity and Abundance.
 
My memory of the Old Supreme Court Building is not the building in and of itself, magnificent as it is.  My true memory is that first encounter with the late Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin who practiced what he preached.  I cherish his words as I walk down this memory lane:  “The qualities that one should look for in a judge are a burning desire to be fair and impartial; the courage to uphold the law and strike down injustice; compassion, coupled with an understanding of human frailties; and lastly, love for the law.”



[This article is adapted from Down Memory Lane: Memories of the Old Supreme Court published in the August 2015 issue of the  Singapore Law Gazette, an official publication of the Law Society of Singapore, Adapted with permission]

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Make Every Day Forgiveness Day


According to the latest National Values Assessment, conducted between March and June this year, family, friendship and compassion are among the top values that Singaporean residents feel best describe themselves.

The survey provides some preliminary insights into what matters to Singapore residents, and generates a meaningful discussion about the society and workplace environment they desire.

"We have left the idea of community and family so far behind, and focused much more on what policy can do, laws can do, and what we have to earn in order to survive. So you have to re-ignite that sense of family and community, which people want to express more of," said Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

It is very encouraging to compare the results of this second survey with the first done in 2012.  Then, elitism and deteriorating values were listed as common traits in society. That these traits were not among the top 10 in the current ranking indicates a positive change.

At the Singapore Kindness Movement, we celebrate the growth of positive values in our collective consciousness.  In my view, family, friendship and compassion are values that must be associated with the mindset of forgiveness to make them sustainable. 

Compassion is a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.  I believe it was Plato who said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  


Every now and then, we are likely to be hurt by someone.  Kindness leads to forgiveness because we choose to be compassionate, giving the benefit of doubt to that person by being reminded that she is likely to be fighting a hard battle of her own.  In the same way, we also hurt others sometime.  And it is likely because we are stressed or unhappy.  We sort of “take it out” on someone.  If that person we hurt is compassionate, we will be forgiven by his kindness..

To forgive is “to grant free pardon and to give up all claims on account of an offence or debt”.  Forgiveness is the renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. It is to let passing things pass.

My late friend, Prof. Lewis B. Smedes, has written, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

To me, forgiveness sustains family and friends because the closer we are in our relationship the more likely we will step on the feelings of the other.  Unless there is forgiveness, family will break up and friendship broken.

Studies show that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments. A study of the relationship between two communities in Northern Ireland whose family members were murdered in the political violence, found that people who are taught how to forgive become less angry, feel less hurt, are more optimistic, become more forgiving in a variety of situations, and become more compassionate and self-confident. There is a clear reduction of the experience of stress and the manifestations of stress.  Instead, there is an increase in vitality.

Marianne Williamson, who mediated peace in Northern Ireland observed, “Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness.”

The late Alan Paton, a South Afrikaner who fought for the rights of black people made the same observation, “When a deep injury is done us, we never recover until we forgive.”


About 6 years ago, Sokreaksa Himm was looking for me. He was my student in the late 80s in Toronto, Canada when I was Vice-President of a University College.  He was a refugee from Cambodia, having survived the “Killing Fields” where all his family members, saved his sister and him, were massacred. In his first book, Tears of my Soul, he chronicled his miraculous escape from the Khmer Rouge. They thought he was dead and threw him with members of his family in the pit. He crawled out of that pit and survived to tell the story.


First Book: The Tears of my Soul                       Second Book: After the Heavy Rain

When he found me, he said, “I am writing a second book on forgiveness, and I would like you to write the Foreword. And write, I did, more than that, I learned from him what true forgiveness is when you are able to forgive your family’s murderers.  He went on to raise funds to set up a school for the children of these killers in the town of Siem Reap. His story of forgiveness is found in After the Heavy Rain.

No wonder Mahatma Gandhi insisted that “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”


Though for Reaksa, it was not an easy journey to get to that place of forgiveness, he said when he got there, he felt completely liberated.  He felt he was able to love again.  Forgiveness was to set the prisoner free and he discovered that the prisoner was himself – incarcerated by hatred and thoughts of revenge. It was the greatest gift he gave to himself – the gift of forgiving others.

Indeed, he is the picture of what Mark Twain had in mind when he wrote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

Forgiveness is such a fundamental value that there are more than one Forgiveness Days in the global calendar.  They include Forgiveness Day, Global Forgiveness Day, International Forgiveness Day and Debt Forgiveness Day.

I have another idea.  Since Forgiveness Day is a chance to set things right, put aside old differences, move beyond grievances and hurts and start afresh, why not make every day a Forgiveness Day?

Monday, June 22, 2015

On Being A Father

Yesterday was Father’s Day. Many of us, no doubt, seize the occasion to reflect on the challenges and joy of fatherhood. I posted on my Facebook that I am a proud and happy father and I thank God for all my three children. On my Instagram I posted a picture with my three children, Li-Ann (42), Li-Lynn (39) and my son (35) with these words, “Only yesterday, we were huddled on one couch…”


Li-Ann posted on her Facebook a set of my pictures with the following remarks, “Happy Father’s Day to a real Renaissance man, though you will always be “Dad” to me. xoxo”.


Li-Lynn posted on hers:


My son and I talked on our facetime.

42 years have passed since I became a dad for the first time. How did I manage as a father? I guess, their messages answered my questions in part. Strange that none of us went to school to learn how to be a father, but somehow we managed.

I grew up with an absentee father for the most part. He was, from my recollection, a friendly sort of chap, but I cannot recall being hugged or embraced by him growing up as his son. I do not recall having any meaningful conversation or seeing much of him. He left parenting to my mother.

When I decided to have children, I was determined to be what my father was not. Hugging and cuddling our children when they were young became a ritual. It was my fatherly duty to put them to bed and to read and pray with them in the evenings, unless I was not in town or had late night meetings. I believe that in their formative years, these “presence” time with them would lay the foundation for stronger bonding between us.

I became aware that all of them are alike and yet different because I was able to spend time with them individually and collectively. It was tempting to treat them as if they were identical because they are siblings, but I resisted that convenient approach. Each has a different temperament and personality and I learned to respect them for who they are and not for what I wish they were.

Li-Ann, the eldest is more like her mother. Li-Lynn is more like me and my son is a hybrid of both his parents.

In being a father, I grew in my understanding of fatherhood and its onerous responsibilities. There were counselling moments when Li-Ann wanted to quit university more than once. I happened to be a visiting professor at her university and was able to spend time affirming her. She completed her school with an excellent result in her final year, and went on to graduate school at Hahnemann Medical School in Philadelphia.

There were anxious moments when Li-Lynn rebelled and dropped out of school at 16. Her mom and I were so helpless we could only pray and love her unconditionally. She went on to earn her PhD from Dalhousie University in Halifax (read her story here).

And we left my son, who was only 14, in a boarding school because of my work. In retrospect, it was not the wisest thing to do in the circumstances. We were uncertain how he was going to fare in a school where he was only one of two Asians. Thankfully, he more than survived it, became a valedictorian and eventually earned both his PhD and MD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Looking back, I am grateful for the way all the kids turned out. I am no tiger-father and their mom was no tiger-mother. As a dad, I did what I thought was best for them. I made my share of mistakes, and what they are today is truly by the grace of God.

Being a father is not at all easy as this unknown author seeks to express in What Makes a DAD”:


Today as a father, I enjoy our adult children in a relationship much akin to being good friends. I am, of course, their father, and nothing will ever change that. But we communicate things of mutual interest – from books to movies, from philosophy to faith and from careers to major decisions. And we do not always agree with each other. This is also the joy of fatherhood at a different level.

If you asked me what I expect or hope to hear from my children, it will simply be an affirmation that I have not failed in doing my best to be a responsible and kind dad, and that I am loved for just doing that. And I believe they have done that in so many ways over the years – not in the exact words expressed in this letter from an adult son, but in spirit and substance very much like them:

A Letter of Thanks from a Son. 

There are so many things I’d like
To tell you face to face;
I either lack the words or fail
To find the time and place.

But in this special letter, Dad,
You’ll find, at least in part,
The feelings that the passing years
Have left within my heart.

The memories of childhood days
And all that you have done,
To make our home a happy place
And growing up such fun!

I still recall the walks we took,
The games we often played;
Those confidential chats we had
While resting in the shade.

This letter comes to thank you, and,
For needed words of praise;
The counsel and the guidance, too,
That shaped my grown-up days.

No words of mine can tell you, Dad,
The things I really feel;
But you must know my love for you
Is lasting, warm and real.

You made my world a better place,
And through the coming years;
I’ll keep these memories of you
As cherished souvenirs.”

Friday, June 5, 2015

Kindness on the Roads


There is no doubt that our roads and highways are getting more congested even though ERP gantries are more ubiquitous than ever before. There appears to be more vehicles sharing limited space which makes kindness on the roads even more relevant.

By kindness on the roads I am thinking about being careful not to inconvenience or harm fellow road­users. Being considerate is an important value of kindness, and very often being kind and considerate is often spoken in the same breath as in “She is unfailingly kind and considerate.” Not to inconvenience or harm others is to be unfailingly kind and considerate. Applying this attitude to driving, it implies attentiveness and thoughtfulness, co­operation and patience. In sum, it implies a degree of civility in our relationship to others.

Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, a PhD candidate and a President’s Fellow at the University of Maryland told the Huffington Post, "We like simple definitions. Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well­being of communities... You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil."

Allow me to unpack the ABCs of kindness on the roads.

Attentiveness

I have always said that we are innately kind but we do not often show it because we are too absorbed in our own thoughts. If you are like me, you will sometimes find yourself day­dreaming while driving, which is a very dangerous thing to do! Have you ever been jolted with a sense that you are lost because even as you drive, the surrounding seems alien to you? I have, and that is because I was awakened from being self­-absorbed in my own world while driving that I momentarily lost my sense of direction as I was being brought back to the present reality.

Many times, we do not pay full attention to our surrounding as we drive. We are not aware that others are trying to enter the main stream from the feeder road, and we thoughtlessly fill the gap before us. If we are attentive, the correct way is to let the person enter in front of us, and we then follow behind her. The one behind us should then slow down and let the next on the side road enter in front of him, and he then, like us, should follow and so on. In other words, the best system of ensuring a smooth flow of traffic is not to close all the gaps and jam up everyone in a solid immovable mass, but to allow each other the right of way in an alternative pattern.

A good practical example of this overseas is how each gives way to the other in a four-way crossroad. There are no lights to control traffic, only STOP signs at each junction. Everyone who arrives at the junction must stop and whoever gets there first gets to go first. It works because drivers are attentive and aware of who gets there first and act accordingly. If nobody gives way and everybody is trying to go first, the net result will be an immovable mess of cars stuck in the middle of the four-­way junction. Attentiveness is the key to the success of this system. It is the attentiveness that implies consideration in that one gives way to the first to arrive at the junction and take one’s turn accordingly.

We are often told that in Singapore the best way to move from a side road to the main road is not to signal because when you signal, the car on the main road will rev up and fill the gap. That is a most unfortunate negative example of attentiveness without consideration! Trying to get into the mainstream surreptitiously without signalling is a recipe for an accident in the making.

Benevolence

Benevolence is a disposition to do the good, an act of kindness. Everywhere we go there is an opportunity to do the good­ and to do an act of random kindness. I know of people who would do that as a matter of course. The other day, I passed a traditional cobbler and a locksmith who pry their respective trades on the pavement across from the Treasury Building, shaded by their own large beach umbrellas. One of my colleagues was paying for her shoes repaired by the cobbler. She told me that it was a hot day and she just bought a drink for each of the “uncles”. That is benevolence – a random act of kindness.

Our highways and byways offer many opportunities to do the good. One of the good we can do is to give way to emergency vehicles. In many countries, it is a norm for drivers to pull to the side of the road or shoulders for emergency vehicles to pass. Drivers often stop at traffic junction even when the lights are in their favour to let these vehicles pass.

Why do we need to do this? The way I look at it is very simple. These vehicles, especially ambulances, are conveying people who need to get to the hospital or to fetch needy people in time to give them the medical assistance they need. Time is of essence to them. It can mean the difference between life and death. I cannot help but ponder, “Could that person be someone I know? Perhaps even a relative? Perhaps, she is my wife or child?” In any case, if I had known that it is someone I know and love, would I not make way for the vehicle to get to the destination quickly? What if I were in that vehicle struggling for my life, or with someone I love struggling for her life, what would I want other drivers to do in the circumstance?

The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you want others to do to you” is most applicable here. Translated, it means that whatever good we expect others to do to us in the circumstances; we should do the same to others. If we put this into practice, we will be multiplying benevolence on the road.

We can do a great deal of good to ensure the safety of other road-users by doing small acts of kindness like
  • not speeding, 
  • being patient enough to let pedestrian completely and safely cross over even when the lights changed in our favour, before moving our vehicle forward, 
  • not using the extreme right lane of the highways unless overtaking, 
  • not hogging the extreme right lane on highways, 
  • allowing other vehicles to enter our lanes when they signal their intention to do so, 
  • not tailgating, 
  • not beating traffic lights and 
  • many more acts of thoughtfulness. 
Civility

Civility is the habit of the heart. It is defined as well­-mannered behaviour toward others. It is about putting a little effort toward being more considerate to our fellow road-users. Recently, TODAY published a piece by me on online civility. You can access it at kindness.sg. Even though I was talking about civility in the context of online conversation, the point about restraining our anger is relevant here.

Road rage is a function of getting angry when overtaken, or when rudeness is directed at the driver who feels that he has not done anything to deserve it. It is very tempting to throw civility out the window and respond in kind when we feel we are right, or when we feel unjustly treated. We feel angry and justly so. And that is the crux of the problem precisely because anger only breeds anger and it spirals downwards into extreme incivility of revenge and retaliation. I am reminded of a saying attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.

Gandhi has also made famous the powerful idea that “you must be the change you want to see in the world.” To be the change we want to see in the world, we have to master our thoughts and control our actions. The spirit of retaliation is a negative spirit which abdicates the mastery of our own thoughts and actions.

We can begin to spur that change by recognizing that as fellow road-users, our actions have a great impact on other drivers. Bad and angry driving can cause injury and death. This is why we need to be slow to anger and avoid knee­jerk reactions, and be more reflective and conscious about our actions. I believe we can drive change just by extending civility, kindness, graciousness and constructiveness to the common driving space.

A biker and a driver stopped their vehicles to help an elderly man cross the street at a traffic junction in Singapore.

The best way to become civil in our conduct is to put others before ourselves. Kindness is indeed other-­centredness. By prioritizing the needs of others over our own it not only makes others happy, it creates a sense of well-­being in us too. And most important of all, it makes for a greater road safety for all.

When I passed my driving license in the late 60s, there were fewer vehicles on the road. I remember too that the well­-groomed white-­shirted traffic police officers were a lot more visible. Their presence was a deterrent to dangerous driving.

Today, we do not see them around as much. Instead, speed cameras are everywhere and hopefully we are deterred from speeding or dangerous driving. But why not practise some kindness on the roads? Why pay a fine when we can exercise attentiveness, benevolence and civility to fellow road-users and save ourselves money and time? The benefits of kindness are manifold. To be sure, kindness on the roads will make for a much more pleasant and safe driving experience for all.