on turning 21 : in singapore, in 2014

Turning 21 was great – I’m a big fan of birthdays because you give yourself the opportunity to celebrate life. It can get easily abused into a day to celebrate “self” and “narcissism” but I’ve made it a particular focus to enjoy the people, events and moments around me.

From various meals and getaways , I had an amazing birthday week. I won’t bore you with the details of how I celebrated it although I thought it’s interesting how the older you get, the more displaced the notion of a birthday gets from the original day itself , but rather a certain milestone in life that can be celebrated over a longer period. We’re either too busy , or as I prefer to accept, more involved in the spirit of the  birthday itself.

But the reason for this blogpost is very simple. I’ve discovered that there are indeed fears that I’m facing moving forward with life – in Singapore and in 2014. With my humble experience as well , I’ve learnt that there are a few discoveries about life that I’m making. So I decided to write a bit about them – in hopes that I can revisit them sometime when I’m older and see how far I’ve fared.

 

3 THINGS I’VE LEARNED ABOUT LIFE

1. There are only decisions

I used to be afraid that the decisions I would make in life would turn out to bite me in the ass. Worse still were those supposedly moral decisions – those that if you chose the wrong option you would end up damned for life. I’ve learnt that decisions don’t tend to be supremely right over others. Yes, there are inherently better decisions than others. But every decision has it’s complications , it’s own nuances and it’s own consequences to deal with.

Suppose that you were to choose between starting a business when you’re young or working at a reputable firm as an intern. Now to different personalities, each decision seems inherently better. To the risk takers and independant personalities – starting a business seems the mark of a true wayfarer. But to the ladder climber and career seeker , working at a reputable firm definitely makes sense. But to each, there it’s own difficulties.

Working at a reputable firm ,you tend to lose a lot of freedom working for someone else , and you’re working to make someone else’s dreams. Having said that, starting a business you also tend to be on new strange ground and the amount of uncertainty can tend to be overwhelming. There is no “better” decision. There are simply decisions . The question has to be then – which risks are you willing to take, and which joys are worth fighting for.

2. Characters evolve, principles don’t

It’s not surprising to me that I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about my newfound constant presence on media. It’s true – The Hidden Good is doing well and as a result I’ve become more prominent online. I’ve also become bolder with my statements – wanting to encourage others to truly champion the causes they believe in by seeing what we’ve achieved. It’s only because I’ve become positively reinforced with the successes we’ve achieved as a bunch of under 30s that I’ve been shouting it out. I’ve always believed in empowerment of the community and allowing for collaborative models. That’s a principle that I’ve always kept to – even internally for The Hidden Good.

But my character has changed. I’m a lot more plugged into what’s happening in society and I’ve become a lot more aware of how society operates. There’s exuberance which I have unabashedly indulged in – and I’m severely trying to reign in. I’ve become a lot more aware of society’s pain points and am trying to find ways I can apply myself to them. From a silent fighter, I’ve become a prominent advocate. My strengths are flexed, but I am also very aware my flaws are exacerbated.

My ego has always been my biggest stumbling block, and with the friends I have around me , I’m able to regularly keep it in check. Ambition and ego are character traits that tend to be associated with one another – and it’s a constant battle to grow the former while keeping the other to a healthy level. I’ve been very honest about my struggles though. As a youth, it’s important to get the right steps forward. Where my character is allowed to change, my principles cannot. Those of collaborative models, those of loyalty and compatriotism, those of risk-taking – I won’t let go.

 3. Anything’s possible – if you put your mind to it

The most remarkable thing a person can discover for himself is that his own limitations were just that – his own limitations. Having surpassed them , he discovers a new version of himself ; one that is able to achieve more and seeks to discover whether other misconceptions he previously had still hold true.

I started out loving YouTube , and more importantly wanting to be a part of society. The various projects I’ve embarked on thrashed any fears I had of being able to positively influence people , as well as making a mark. With the support of an amazing team , without which The Hidden Good can never be what it is today, we managed to make a space in the online content-sphere for our experiments.

We managed to build an organisation that empowers youths. We managed to champion messages that organisations don’t have the courage or expertise to champion themselves sometimes. We partnered with amazing brands , agencies and organisations to produce meaningful content. It’s amazing how much we’ve achieved and I still remain humbled at the distance we have to go before we can properly make deep impact in society. I keep asking myself – what else do I not know about myself yet? What can I grow in?  That drive helps me stay on the edge – and it’s why I’m looking forward to college. I want to unlock the next treasure chest in life.

2 THINGS I’M FEARFUL ABOUT

1. Financials

The thing that worries me about current policy stances is that they tend to encourage Singaporeans to reach high , to  innovate, to compete and succeed – but when it comes to our needs we’re encouraged to keep them low. I can appreciate the need to be frugal and careful with expenses and desires – but I honestly think the minimum I would need as a working adult is a house, the ability to have a beautiful marriage and family, a mode of transportation and safety/security. These costs are costs that I have to consider as I grow up, because I need to save up for them – and the honest truth is that I don’t think our generation has been educated enough on how the systems and processes work in Singapore. Some of the PSAs that I see throw numbers so magically that they fly past me – and I’m an A Level Graduate.

I’m honestly a bit cautious on how I move forward because I have to take care of so many financial needs – and the last thing I want to do is to fall into debt. I want to have a good quality of life as well – and I don’t think that’s a privilege – I think that’s a basic human need. To live without fear or unwarranted worry.

2. Morals

I’m probably not the best person to talk about this but I’m learning the need to appreciate the shades of gray we exist in. Relativity is probably one of the biggest obstacles we’ll face as we grow up, because relativity is the greatest escape to accepting that there are struggles in this world we need to be concerned about.

I just found out that one of my Secondary School teachers lost the battle to cancer today and passed on. However as I saw as a bunch of students wrote memorial posts to him, myself included, I imagined how proud his family must be of the soft impact he created and left behind. He cared, beyond his need to, and that made the difference. We can be remembered for many things – principles included. But our moral decisions define our lives a lot more. And in this changing society, where morals are constantly being debated and redefined , I as a youth have to truly figure out what my morals mean and what I stand for.

My faith is a good indicator, but I have to ensure I practice my faith because I first believe in it – and not take it as simple rule of law. It’s definitely a struggle.

1 THING I WILL ALWAYS APPRECIATE

People Matter

From family to friends, I’ve realised the value of deep and meaningful relationships. As I’ve always believed, there’s no point scaling the tallest mountain if you don’t have someone by your side to share the sights with.

To abandon the people in your life for anything else would be a dangerous and unwise move – unless it contravenes your principles or morals. People make mistakes – it’s a empirical fact – but we never should let that affect the value we have in the relationships we’ve built. We’re able to build emotional and intellectual connections that cannot be replaced.

I’ve loved the people that have made my past 21 years truly remarkable. I’m indeed grateful to so many people for loving me back.

Here’s to many great years ahead.

geronimo.

truly.

soft-spots for policy – why the #trainofdreams could have been better

Photo by Chris Mcgrath

It’s been a long time since I last blogged. There’s been a lot that’s happening on my side – I’ve got a few posts that I want to do. There’s of course my birthday post where I reflect the significance of 21 years of living ; there’s a post on the corruption of the volunteerism ideal that I’m still working on and finally some more for the e-publishers I freelance for.

But the one that has got me going the most is this one – the need for soft spots in policy making. Let’s contextualize things first. In the duration that I’ve been championing building spaces and mediums for communities to come together, I’ve realised that there’s a need to work with government in achieving these goals. For various reasons , the primary one being that of regulation and authority. As much as the Hidden Good prides itself in conducting guerilla activations and social experiments – we’ve always stayed in the legal zone, sometimes even playing very close to the lines.

The Train of Dreams was a tussle from the get-go.

Let me begin by saying that the people I worked with in LTA were extremely collaborative with the process. I’m very grateful for the mediating and brokering involved and the amount of effort that went into helping us achieve the product we finally achieved.  However the video you see, as happy as I am about it, is not the product that i had envisioned.

We’ve all heard of the busking on trains in New York and other subways in the West. When I was in the States last December, not only did I truly enjoy the performances , I noticed that the general mood in the trains was a lot happier and pleasant. The performers had an informal stage to reach an audience and the community was being truly integrated with the arts. So i decided in the spur of the moment that Singapore not only would benefit from this – but that it sorely needed this. It needed a way to invigorate its public spaces. Not only would this help to quell the frustration on the public commute; it would also give the creative arts the chance to truly be integrated in society.

It was daring – to take on public transport so fiercely, but I decided I wanted to do this and so made the necessary arrangements with National Youth Council to fund the project. National Youth Council again was such a great help throughout this process, helping to connect us to the people that we needed to be connected to and mentoring us throughout the journey. I recall NYC managed to help us pull together a meeting with LTA/SBS TRANSIT/ SKM/NAC for us to present our initial concept and get comments. We told them that compared to doing this without permission , we wanted to prove that collaboration with authorities could work and address potential safety and security concerns we had the maturity to accept we may not be aware of.

Where there were performances like these , rather regularly in Singapore:

We saw an opportunity for a mass activation across different stations on the trains themselves , spreading joy and officially approved. We had seen Proof of Concept through these videos – audiences generally really enjoyed the performances and wanted to see more. Regulators would not pursue illegal performers because the terms and conditions don’t directly prohibit it – they prohibit forms of it such as “those who create a nuisance” even though it’s so ambiguous. There were stakeholders to convince : LTA had to have a strong reason to back  this and they saw it as encouraging graciousness and improving commuter experience ; SMRT/SBS Transit had to be balance possibility for negative backlash with the more favourable possibility for a positive response; MHA had to be concerned about security threats.

However due to the uniqueness of the project , the operators and MHA were reluctant to allow the performances to occur. They could not reconcile the project with the existing systems and policies they had in place and were afraid of security threats. I had a few issues with these:

  1. There was a precedence of performers already performing on trains, showing Proof of Concept. Why is our activation being so critically analysed?
  2. Security-wise , threats could be mitigated by having us go through a security check. We had curated our performers and volunteers and so there was no random variable.
  3. The effect of performing on the trains would be a lot be more powerful than anyone else, as it is here where most frustration or apathy occurs. It is where we could spread the most joy.

Yet, because we had already begun engagements with the stakeholders, we couldn’t go rogue and betray the trust we had built with them. It was just not in our DNA. After 3 months of back and forth pushing, we finally accommodated for performances not even within the station, but outside.The whole process became a tiring one – that ultimately made me evaluate the value of bureaucracy and collaboration with authorities. I was appreciative of where we had gotten, and the final video did eventually communicate our message still (with a lot of focus on editing, you can’t imagine) – but it was not optimal, and as a content creator and creative juicer I was not satisfied.

It was from this series of events coupled with MP Baey Yam Keng’s speech in Parliament that I’ve decided  there’s a strong need for soft spots in policy in Singapore.

We need to have departments and teams in agencies that focus on collaborative projects with the community – not sidelined as a means to relieve pressures from society, but as an actual policy focus to build strength to strength solutions in society and tap into ideas that a humble agency would not be able to generate by itself. We need to accept risk as a natural side effect of policy work – and work to understand that not all solutions are zero negative effect solutions. We must learn to accept the possible spillovers as long as they do not harm or impede others’ rights.

We must have teams that recognise the inconsistencies in policies and realities and seek to if not address them in policy itself, address them in interim practice. Discretion and maneuverability become the words of the day as we realise that putting not just smart but decisive leaders will ultimately the agency move forward in capturing new possibilities. There is space for innovation in all agencies, even in regulatory agencies .

Through this process, I’ve learnt a lot about working with bureaucracy and civil servants from a community activist perspective. I’ve learn to empathise with the people that I work with, who are at the mercy of the policies and systems themselves, but strive to still help us achieve  our goals.. But most importantly I’ve learnt it’s necessary to modify the way our civil service interacts with its community and serves it. A much more real understanding is needed.

That’s something I will continue to fight for.

geronimo.

P.S. LTA has a division that we’re actually recently working with to explore new collaborative solutions. It’s pretty cool how they’ve involved us and are working with us . For the sake of respecting confidentiality, I won’t comment on the process, but there are plus and minus points here as well.