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The Power of Acknowledgements

Flowers. I love them. When I used to stay in Beijing, the one thing I did religiously every weekend was to make a trip down to the wholesale flower market to buy a big bouquet of flowers for my apartment. Actually, they are for me. I love the sight and smell of flowers. They cheer me up. They remind me of the beauty in this world. They remind to stop rushing around and (literally) smell the flowers. I love flowers.

In the past month, I know of four bouquets of flowers that brightened up six lives. I sent my secretary a bouquet of flowers for Secretary’s Day – as it turned out, it was the first time ever she received flowers. She then sent her mother and sister-in-law flowers for Mother’s Day. I sent my gf a bouquet of flowers on her birthday, in the name of another gf who is now living in India and me.

There was a stretch last year when I was feeling low. My husband sent me flowers to cheer me up. It lifted me out of my malaise and melancholy mood. I was reminded that I am loved no matter what and every time my memories recall that file, I am reminded I am loved. (I couldn’t resist patting myself on the back for cleverly showing my husband my favourite online floral shop some time back. Ha!)

In the lift on my way home, I met a pair of folks whom I believe to be co-workers. The lady’s eyes lit up when she saw the bouquet and said, beautiful flowers, with a whimsical smile. The guy asked if it was my birthday or anniversary or some special day. Before I could answer, the lady added, did he do something wrong?

I laughed then and I laugh now at the memory of that short exchange. I remember I responded: They are from my husband, I was feeling a little down the last few days and he sent them to cheer me up. The woman blushed a little, I guess somewhat embarrassed about her last remark. The guy simply said, Wow.

My passing shot delivered with a smile: you don’t need a reason to send someone flowers. Everyone likes to know he is being appreciated in some way.

Acknowledgement is for everyone, anytime, anywhere. Flowers are but a tool; in my opinion a simple and effective one. You don’t need a reason to acknowledge someone. You don’t need to be a man to send flowers. You don’t need to be a woman to receive them. You don’t need to wait for a “special” day to do so. You could acknowledge someone for no reason and THAT would make any normal day special for the person.

I can think of a million reasons to acknowledge the people in my life but there really is only one that matters: because I can. Like the ones who make my day bearable when it gets tough going; the ones who make me smile; the ones who lighten my work and life loads; the ones who quietly exist in my life; the ones who left a footprint in the years passed; the ones who touched my life in the many small ways that I sometimes do not realise until much later.

It is with hindsight that I saw that the very buying flowers for myself in Beijing was an acknowledgement of my life in this foreign land; a simple acknowledgement of my courage to stay sane despite all the chaos I was experiencing. A willingness to look past the struggles, the flowers were an expression of my gratitude that I was able to still enjoy the simple beauty in life.

My secretary expressed her love and acknowledgement for her mother and sister in law with flowers, a simple act that tilted everyone out of their comfort zones and reminded everybody that something bigger is present, something hopeful and optimistic that is available in life. The flowers I sent was my way of saying ‘thank you for being in my life’. It over-rode my sense of inadequacy in our relationships and was my way of expressing my gratitude that I am blessed by their existence in my life.

Sometimes we forget to count our blessings. Yet, don’t just stop at that. Take it one step further – acknowledge the people for being a blessing in your life in the first place.

Acknowledgement is a simple act of generosity and kindness. When was the last time you acknowledged someone in your life?

P/s: There is another aspect to acknowledgement that applies in the not-so-pleasant aspects of life. I am leaving that for a separate post as it deserves its own space.

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An Open Letter to Opposition parties in Singapore

In his email from Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) James Gomez to the media, he made an excellent point that the choice of political system belongs to Singaporeans and not the ruling government. In the same letter, he demanded PAP to release its manifesto saying “We and the people want to scrutinize what programs the PAP is going to introduce to alleviate the suffering of Singaporeans.”

As much as I agree with SDP’s call, I ask the same of SDP and all Opposition parties in Singapore. Show us CONCRETE alternatives to what you claim to be bad policies, viable alternatives which will “alleviate the suffering of Singaporeans.”

We know the PAP is not perfect. We know they have made mistakes. At some point, the Opposition’s unrelentless repetition of this only serves to ANNOY and ALIENATE frustrated Singaporeans who are not contented with the status quo but have no viable, credible option. It is like rubbing salt into the wound. This does exactly what SDP claims the PM did when he said the PAP considered “splitting into two” – “belittling and patronising” Singaporeans’ sense of judgement and capacity to think critically.

Dear Opposition, you are asking Singaporeans to vote for you to do what? So that you can criticise the PAP on our behalf, be the VOICE of Singaporeans in your words?

What makes you think that you can TALK us into believing we have a better future waiting for us if we play along with you? Just because you keep throwing verbal punches at the PAP?

In case you have not noticed, Singaporeans’ cynicism is not even the point. We Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot. Like it or not, the tentacles of PAP are entrenched in the everyday fabric of every Singaporean’s life that we Singaporeans cannot imagine life without PAP in charge.

You can criticise all you want – that’s the easy part. Making others look bad is the easy part. The difficult part is to PROVE you are able to substantiate your words with actions. To win our hearts you have to offer concrete programs and ways to better Singaporeans’ lives. You cannot ask us to vote you in FIRST before you tell us what you can do. That seems to me – a complete political novice – extraordinarily naive.

Yes, we know your job is extremely tough; PAP made sure of it by setting a pretty high benchmark, in spite of all its shortcomings. You cannot erase the good the ruling government has done all these years by insisting they are flawed. We all are.

You need to show you can do better by raising the benchmark, not by dragging it down along with everything else. To borrow the SDP tagline, show us it is really “about the people” and not politicians drumming the right noises to win this game called General Elections of the Republic of Singapore.

Yours Truly
A PR who considers herself a Singaporean at heart

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How do I see the upcoming GE?

I once followed Parliament sessions in Singapore quite closely. I am genuinely interested to know what the Singapore government is doing for the people, the ones it says it is representing.

After a while, I lost interest. I thought perhaps I’m not patient enough to listen to everything. The sessions were honestly, boring. The format isn’t exactly a debate like the one in the UK. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the sessions are more like an information session for the ruling government to inform the rest of the nation what it has decided to do. [Rephrased] what it thinks is in the best interest of the nation and us, the people. That, I can read from the papers the next day. Plus the papers provide further analysis and opinions. So I stopped watching the post 10pm news telecast of Parliament session highlights.

Over time, I didn’t see or hear anything that seemed to change my impression. The “lively debate” surrounding the two casinos. What a public reaction – for once, SIngaporeans spoke up. But wait, as the furor died down, I realised none of what was said seemed to have made any difference to the final outcome. It seemed it was a done deal afterall. Life goes on and now we can be proud we have two casinos thriving in approx. 700 km2 of land area.

Then there is the perennial ‘debate’ about our ministers’ salaries. I am not sure how this policy came to pass. I am under the impression that this matter while hotly debated and even soundly criticised by Sylvia Lim (Chairman of Workers’ Party in Singapore in this video), the policy was never an option. It was a done deal.

This is an interesting article that compares Singaporean ministers’ salaries to leaders around the world – I have not verified the information and probably wouldn’t. If what is reported is accurate, I am shocked. How can our ministers, who supposedly represent the common people, empathise with what is going on on the ground, when they live in such lofty skies? Our PM earns more than Obama in a year (base salary only).

Then there is the 6 million population target. Where did that come from??? Who decided Singapore needs 6 million people? Assuming that indeed is the magic number for our little country, what was the planning done to absorb that? We are NOW over congested – our roads, our trains, our buses. Sky high cost of living. Young couples having to wait an average 3 years for a home to call their own, that is, provided they can afford it.

LTA is compensating for wrongful estimates in number of cars and COEs needed. Now we are paying the price of it. Take the public transport they say. Transport Minister, with all due respect, have you ever tried taking the MRT during peak hour yourself? Have you ever done it, without informing the civil servants of an impending visit?

HDB is still boasting that it is doing all the right things to ensure Singaporeans have a roof over their heads, just be patient. The BTO scheme is at its most aggressive ever, it says. Yet there are reports ever so often that a project is only a go if it meets the minimum subscription rate. If it doesn’t, sorry for those who did put in a bid, you have to wait for the economic numbers to make sense before you get a sniff of your future home. As the name suggest, built to order (BTO). You forgot the fine print – only build when there is minimum order. Perhaps they should change the name to BTMO??

Public service goods should be exactly that, PUBLIC SERVICE goods. Sure there is a cost to these goods. The role of the government is to ensure taxpayers’ monies are used to benefit the people, the country, not wasted on nonsensical things and spent carelessly. The HDB is using taxpayers’ funds to build these homes. Yes they are subsidized (by who again?). They are not free; we still pay for them. (BTW, the fact the HDB flats are on a 99 year lease means we are really renting them from the government, not real ownership per se.) LTA, HDB and Singapore Power are all making money. These goods – public transport, public housing and power – are all money-making enterprises. Why aren’t social goods being treated as they are supposed to be?

My sister shared with me a story recently about a friend who went to a government hospital due to severe stomach pains. Before she was allowed to see a doctor, she was told to pay up first. No payment, no doctor. Oh what about the latest episode where a hospital told a patient the queue is 3 mths for subsidised healthcare as opposed to 3 minutes if you opt for private?

As someone so aptly summed it up: Singapore is a great place to live in if you have the financial means.

I found recent remarks by the new Workers’ Party candidate Chen Shao Mao a breath of fresh air and poignant (see end of article). Finally someone is asking the right questions and zooming in on the matters that will make a difference to all of us.

If only the government will listen for a change, instead of busy defending its policies and deflecting mistakes. Look, I am a huge fan of the Singapore government. I am a Malaysian who is born and bred here and lived in Singapore all my life. I love Singapore. It is my home and believe it or not, I consider it home and my country.

Without a doubt, Singapore wouldn’t be where it is today, and everyone who lives in this city state will not have the lifestyle options we have, if not for the ruling government. (The quality of life is a different story and left to another post.)

I am not a supporter of the opposition parties. As a PR I don’t even get to vote. I wrote this not as an act of defiance towards the PAP. I am not interested in the opposition’s proposition that the opposition will provide an alternative government to keep the ruling government in check. That remains to be seen.

I support anyone who can contribute to my country and I think this job is big enough, important enough to include everyone with the ability and passion to serve this country, regardless of the party. If it is rubbish, it is rubbish. If it makes sense, can we give it a chance?

Is it too much to ask the government to LISTEN to the people and for once, accept with humility that it has made mistakes and accept that it is not the only one capable of leading Singapore to the next level?

Several senior members of the ruling party have clearly said that this election is critical to the long term success of Singapore. Watershed. Indeed.

My humble opinion is that the government has to demonstrate that it is truly – not just paying lip service to – paying attention to what the people are saying. Instead of crushing and stifling the opposition and get all wrapped up in looking good politically, LISTEN to the people.

Singaporeans are not stupid (the government made sure of that – we have one of the highest literacy rates in the world.) We have been quietly watching and learning. We are more passionate about this country than some people give us credit for sometimes. We can think, if the government stops for a second to assume we can’t. If the opposition is without substance and you are truly serving the people, you will see the polls reflecting that understanding.

Excerpt from Interview with Chen Shao Mao, first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao and subsequently translted into English.

A dominant party is efficient in executing policies, but what effects has this brought about? What are our most important policies In recent years? Yes, it is the foreign labour policy. To let in foreign labour is to spur the economy, without concern about productivity that we’ve previously talked about. This policy has created a crude economic growth, and what is the price? It is the jobs, education, housing, living space, transportation of Singaporeans. These are all part of the price that we’ve paid.

Before the implementation of this policy, what form of discussion have we had? You have heard that Singapore plans to house a population of 6.5 million in the future, but not everybody is sure that this is indeed our policy. Such an important policy, are people consulted for a discussion? Didn’t they know that this will have a great impact on the lives on Singaporeans? To me, this discussion is insufficient. Even if having multiple parties in the Parliament affects efficiency, but to have a debate in the Parliament for huge policy decisions, is this inefficiency a fair price to pay? I think it’s worth it.

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Memories of Geylang

Last night, thanks to a visiting uncle from Melbourne, I went to Geylang for durians. Ya, the infamous red light district in Singapore that resembles a true-blue Chinese town. We parked our car at a carpark built on the land where a wet market used to stand, opposite my very first home which longer exists. The kindergarten I used to attend still stands, but my primary school which was beside the kindergarten is no more.

On our way to the durian stall, we walked past a bus stop where I used to take the bus to school every morning. The coffee shop that sells dim sum is still there though the workers are different now. Where we sat, I could see the row of shophouses where I used to play catching with my friends in the neighborhood. The stretch of drains which our feet ran over umpteen times has made way for wider roads.

I spent 18 years of my life living in Geylang, moving from lorong 25 to 27 to 23 to 18 to 15. I stayed in walk-up apartments, many of them dodgy. However at that age, I had no appreciation of the character of the environment I lived in. I used to cycle around the back alleys with my brother playing police and thief. I knew the alleys like the back of hand then and I was fearless and oblivious.

I moved into a student hostel when I went to the university and never moved back. My parents continued to stay in Geylang for a few years after I went to the university. I visited a few times and remember feeling extremely uncomfortable.

Having grown up in this environment, it wasn’t until I left it that I realized it was an unnatural environment for a girl to grow up in. Once I moved out of this domain, I could never bring myself to return to this habitat as a resident. I hardly visited my parents as a result.

Visiting it again last night gave me mixed feelings. I remember the place fondly of all the innocence I remember from my childhood, of the times we created games out of nothing, with the most hightech equipment being my bicycle. These memories are clouded by a skin-crawling sense of disgust and intolerance for what the place has become, a bigger, more in-your-face place of vice that saddens me.

I have no urge to return any time soon. I entertain the idea that Geylang serves a social purpose for the many foreign workers in Singapore, the same guys who build our homes and do the dirty jobs many of us would never consider taking on.

Like a necessary evil. Is there really such a thing, a necessary evil?

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Take more risks

I came across a blog article by humanitarian photographer David duChemin which I found to be very inspiring.  

Art and Risk

By David duChemin

I had a video chat with Dane Sanders and a virtual room full of folks on AskDane.com this week and one of the questions touched on an itch I’ve been meaning to scratch for a while. And now I’m beginning to read Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (And Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. So the time is right to scratch that itch publicly, if you’ll excuse the somewhat indiscreet metaphor.

The question that was asked was along the lines of the kind of advice I’d give to people starting out, specifically those wanting to make a living with their photography. My reply is the same whether or not you ever intend to make a dime at your art: Take more risks.

Art, like love, like business, is about risk. We risk that our work will fail. We risk that no one but us will like it, and then even we ourselves are bound to be overly critical. We risk that we’ll never be the genius we wish we were in a culture that seems only to honour the very few extraordinarily talented ones (whatever that means), or the ones who market themselves best as such. When we could have taken a so-called real job instead, we risk not making enough to make ends meet each month. We risk rejection from the critics and our peers, or even worse – indifference. We risk disappointing those closest to us.

Or we don’t. We have a choice; the alternative is to risk nothing, remain safe, and create art – or run a business – that comes not from a place of vulnerability and transparency, or a place that’s truly, uniquely ourselves, but from the surface. We might even do well commercially, creating from this space (afterall, there’s plenty of money in creating crap) – but even if it rises above the mediocre it will never, ever – and this is the point – say the thing our soul has been wanting to say. We will always be dissatisifed.

Art is about risk. Anyone that tells you otherwise is a fraud. It’s not easy; it’s hard, and it’s risky.

But so is everything else. Because really, this is about your perception. It’s about feeling that something is risky, and that feeling keeps you from doing it. We feel secure in our 9-5 cubicle job, while the idea of forging out on our own scares us because it feels insecure. But why? Are you sure the monkey at the top of Cubicles Inc. knows how to run a better company than you? He might, he might not. But are you sure? Are you sure the markets are stable? Are you sure that job, that pension plan, that <insert name of your favourite safety blanket here>  is as secure as you think it is? And what of the risk of failure? Again, it’s about perception. We all fear failing publicly, creating something that’s not critically acclaimed, even if the critics are morons. But what about the fear of a life fully lived? What about the fear of never seeing your work realized, your ideas fleshed out, your words unsaid and images unmade? Isn’t playing it safe even riskier?

A few weeks I wrote a couple articles about beginning the work. This taps that theme. What’s holding you back from creating the work you truly want to create? Your market? Your peers? Your blog readers, your fans or Twitter followers? Your spouse? I know it’ll feel like a risk to step out into a space where you can create boldly, and fail more boldly still on your way to making your art. The question isn’t, Should I risk? Of course you should! But we’re already risking. The question is, Which risk should you take? Which risk scares you more – the risk of failing, of thrashing about creating a bunch of crappy images on your way to creating something great? Or the risk of doing nothing, watching your ideas gather dust while the images in your mind go unexpressed, unmade, as your life passes.

Life is short. You can take this little sermon or you can leave it, but the longer I live and look around at the people who’ve carved out for themselves a unique life in business or art, or any field of endeavor for that matter, they’ve all of them done so while risking. They’ve failed, they’ve learned, and they’ve tried again. Some of us have failed personally in embarrassing ways, and we’ve gone bankrupt, and I’m not suggesting you take that route, but where it counts – where it really counts – to get where you most want to go involves risk. If it didn’t you’d already be there. Some of us will take that risk, some will shy away from it. The people on the shore always outnumber the ones willing to brave the water. And they almost always desperately wish they had the courage to take that first step. There’s no guarantee of success, even if we risk it all, but there’s no surer way to failure than not trying.

Please note, I’m not talking about stupid risk. I’m not telling you to put a new Hasselblad on the credit card. In fact, that will only make risking where it really counts that much harder. Clear your debt, live within your means, and you’ll have one less reason not to risk, to do that personal project, to fund that gallery show, to set time aside to finally put that photo book together. I’m talking about the risks that are much harder to commit to, the ones that keep us from getting down to creating something potentially great, true, and unique.

We’ve so much to gain; the creative life is so rewarding if you’ll take the risks. Who’s in?

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Things that make me smile this morning

1. Wook up to hubby’s voice – he called me from army camp to share with me he won the gold award at IPPT. Well done Emril!

2. Super manja momo (my cat), so lovingly affectionate and adorable.

3. Mr Yeo and Mr Yeo. The taxi drivers of the cabs I took last night and this morning are both Mr Yeo. Love the big smile on their face when I said, Thank you Mr Yeo.

4. Auntie from my usual breakfast beehoon stall called me Sofia – my Muslim name. I’ve only told her once, when Emril came to lunch with me in Suntec and I introduced him to Auntie. We even laughed and said that my name is Fatimah…

5. I satisfied my little craving for fried fish fillet with beehoon. (sometimes they are sold out by the time I go to the stall).

I am present to being connected to this world, being touched, moved and inspired by little acts of kindness and generosity. I am thankful to receive them but find greater pleasure in giving them. It doesn’t take a lot to be happy.

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Who is the real me?

At some point of our lives, we start to search for a genuine version of one’s self. Who is the real me?

Today, an American who is honoured as the advertiser of the decade (2000-9) quit advertising. Mr. Alex Bogusky said, “you start to search for the more genuine version of yourself” at a point in your life, “and I’m doing that.”“I’m exploring and figuring out what is that genuine version,” he added, “and it’s not really consistent with corporate life” because in that realm “you’re kind of in the ‘get yours’ mode.”

The honesty is refreshing. The courage to be honest and say exactly what is there is inspiring to me. He was in advertising for 20 years, successfully breaking rules, challenging boundaries. Finally, he quit, just like that. No grand plans in the life thereafter. In fact he was on a bike ride when his last company put out the press release on his resignation.

For most parts of my life, I wondered who I am. I lived a confusing existence. My experience of myself was that I am someone capable of being so many things and ways, some good some downright awful and disgusting. For most parts, I am secretly happy, almost relieved, there is some decency in me; at times, I was disgusted with the person I am. The first reaction was to resist I could be that repelling and hang on for dear life the good parts of me and hope that they will cancel out the bad and leave me, on balance, someone worthy.

Even at times when I am nice, I know deep down I am nasty. When I am nasty, I know I am capable of immense love, even to perfect strangers. Trying to be only one way or another is futile but I tried anyway. I wanted to build evidence that I am a decent human being. Who is the real me?

So I experimented. I tried being many things. I tried to be everyone’s every thing, somebody’s some thing. At the end of it, I was just tired of being nothing. I was tired of pretending I was anything at all.

The overall experience of life was acute survival. I survived many episodes in my life. I survived periods of loneliness, anger, a loss of direction, pain, darkness, idiocy, a lack of self respect, arrogance, hopelessness. Life was a struggle but pretending I am OK comes natural. I mean, seriously, I’m OK.

The six months after I did the Landmark Forum coincided with a period of involuntary unemployment. During this time, I went on an excavation. I dug, dug deep. Who am I? What is important to me? What makes me happy? Who is the real me?

Layer by layer, I peeled away the pretenses in my life. It was initially scary and every fibre of my being resisted. There were a few days when I was home alone and I broke down and cried for no apparent reason. Slowly, I started to listen to me and begin to hear that little voice that has been suppressed by the deafening voices of survival and reasonableness.

Eventually, I stood before myself stark naked. In that moment I know who I am. More importantly, I accepted myself for who I am and who I am not. In knowing who I am, I can begin to create who I am in the future. Who I am is entirely a creation. I am who I say I am.

I am the possibility of inspiration and love. Of ease and grace. Of power and empowerment. Of happiness, compassion, contribution.

Possibility is a space to be, not a point I arrive at. There is nowhere I need to get to. There will be no sense of arrival when I am being my possibility. Moment by moment, I am my possibility. Every moment is a moment of creation and what I say it is.

I will fall, many times over. I will experience being discouraged, frustrated and upset. These are unavoidable. What is completely avoidable is allowing these to drive the way I live my life, to shape the way my life is. I am my possibility. I have every say how my life turns out.

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