may we never forget these days

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This post is emotionally wrought with stories of nostalgia, themes of reflection and thoughts on moving on. This isn’t a sad post, but neither is it necessarily an extremely happy one. But that is also how I feel right now – at the perfect state of bittersweetness.

I’ve heard how college changes your life. I’ve heard how it’s the best four years of your life. I’ve also heard how you make some of your best friends here. I’ve seen all of that come true, especially as the past month unfolded itself. I find myself at a really important point in my life, wanting to give it the time and space it needs to fully affect me as it should.

I’ve learnt so much about myself the past 3 years, constantly facing challenges and having to evolve as I learn more about the world around me. I came into college with a head bigger than it should have been. I had completed some significant chapters in my life, but it wasn’t experience that beget opportunities, but humility and curiosity. I learnt that vulnerability is where you are fully taking in what is around you because you have fewer guards to stop you. For example, when I signed up to produce a musical, I walked into rooms, shut up and learnt from others before speaking my part. I learnt to trust the knowledge of the community and my peers, and that made me even more important as a collaborator and manager.

It is also this humility and curiosity that stopped me from judging people who were different from me, something that is almost endemic to the conservative Singaporean psyche and allowed me to connect with a fascinating diversity of people. I am so so happy I got the opportunity to come to Chicago, which is the crossroads of culture, politics and experiences in the US. The days I’ve spent just wandering the neighbourhoods and the nights I’ve spent traversing the beautiful urban landscapes of the city will always be etched into my memory as some of the most classically romantic points in my life.

Before college, I thought I understood what friendship was and what it stood for. A step backwards, I was also a very angsty teen growing up. I really thought I was undeserving of love, that I was someone who had to claw his way up in every situation he was in and prove his utility to earn a place amongst others. It’s a huge part of the underdog story I had to live as a part of growing up, both as a minority and an immigrant. But in college, again in the past month, I’ve seen my real friends take their place and make their love for me known. I’ve felt my heart explode a thousand times over as I feel emotionally connected to the people who have surrounded me for the past few weeks, months and years. I’ve felt distraught as I realise that this chapter is ending, that this story is taking on a new turn and that the cruelty of the life will not allow me to have the privilege of being just a five-minute walk from any of these people. But I’ve also felt the showers of affection. The more I give myself away, the more I get back and the more honest I become, the more connected I become to the people around me. I’m leaving college having a vastly different understanding of friendship and love, and I really am standing on a bittersweet intersection of this realisation.

I am a product of my experiences, my character and the people who support me. I have never felt more connected to life itself, to the wider ways of the universe. I will always be that kid from Singapore, the one with dreams bigger than he can handle, but I will also always be your friend and loyal companion if you choose to be mine. I will take every adventure on with you, and I will promise that our memories will be laced with surreal moments.

These are my transformations in college. may we never forget these magical days and may we always remember who we were at this point in our lives.

hooah.

have you ever seen a grown man?

Salar De Uyuni In The Rainy Season

04 Feb 2010, Bolivia  — Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

I’m taking a break from all the travelogues to finally write a thought piece. It’s been a while, and I’ve forgotten how much I enjoyed writing in this space. This has served both as a dumping ground for all kinds of thoughts and yet, paradoxically also a curation of who I am. Leaving this space to rot will give very little for future-me to reflect on.

I’ve been in a naturally reflective state recently, given the stage of life I’m transitioning through. I’m graduating out of college, and while I’ve always believed I came in here at a different stage from my class (given my experience with the military and running a company), I still find myself grateful for the maturity these 3 years have granted me. I find myself thankful for the friends I’ve made – I’ve never wanted to stay in touch with people more than with these souls who I’ve had the privilege to encounter. I pause at moments to breathe and appreciate the range of opportunities I’ve been granted – from governing over a council of fraternities to producing a musical to signing a big name artist for a festival to running a research project at one of the world’s best museums. I struggle with the difficult lessons I’ve learned and I contemplate daily how to apply myself to advance social justice, community building, and leadership development both in my daily life and the various contexts I’ve become embedded in. The worlds I have to straddle become discrete yet overlap and I feel challenged yet empowered to care about all of them. I think frequently about Singapore, my home, but I also care about Evanston, the US, the world I belong to and to which my friends around the globe live in.

It makes me wonder how college is supposed to serve the individual. Yes, the primary purpose is the education. My Computer Science degree will serve me will in the future, both as a bolster for any career choices I make and a foundation to understand the world as it evolves.  But this environment has been rich in its experiences. I came to the US with an objective of transplanting myself away from Singapore – not because I disliked my home but because I loved it so and needed space to understand it from afar. Contrast and juxtaposition increase awareness of what makes us unique. Northwestern has provided me that platform to explore my passions and goals in a setting that is relatively free of expectations. I don’t have to fit a preconceived notion of a college student in the US – I can be whoever I want. Success belongs to those who find excellence in whatever form. It’s starkly different from Singapore, where as a country we struggle to appreciate the humanity of our society. We think in numbers, laws, and achievements – not in values that connect us. Because where the former keeps us safe and moving, the latter keeps us alive and excited for life. The joy of life is in our ability to choose our own struggles to earn the rewards that matter – not in inheriting struggles imposed by social hierarchy, hyper-legalism, and history and finding ways to accommodate our existence.  Our children must find meaning in their day, they must see themselves molding society. That shining sense of opportunity has to surpass the ‘needs of the economy’. The economy grows because of our ambition. Our ambitions should never be limited by the decisions of society.

College built my hope in change. I’m notoriously known for my optimism and it’s exacerbated by my youth. When I was running The Hidden Good, I remember the countless number of not only older people but also my peers feeling the need to provide a ceiling to my goals or a signpost back to their idea of reality. I’ve always been fearful that perhaps I do live in my own head too much – that perhaps my hope for society can only manifest itself in the smallest of doses. But college has given me the platform to shape my own future, not because it’s a magic bubble, but because if you look deeper it has similar levels of unfairness, inequality, and injustice. Yes, the progressive slant of Northwestern is enabling, but reality is encountered quickly when you push for anything more than a statement or declaration. Action requires getting down in the mud, and I’ve focussed my time away from the surface level politics and in the work of understanding and empowering change. The successes have given me momentum but the failures have only riled me up more to recalibrate and go again.

There’s so much more I could probably write about. From the thoughts on traveling as a student to the consistent effort to diversify my circles, but I think I’ve run out of mind-fuel. This post will continue to serve as my reminder of my optimism, just as my posts from the last 10 years have been equally charged with positive energy and the journey to improve the communities I’m a part of. I’m excited because I’ll be graduating college excited about possibility.

The world is a jungle and I’m excited to explore it.

hooah.

 

 

orientations and the issues of social programming

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It’s difficult to say the words ‘We have a problem’. It means owning up to the pain we may have caused and admitting we’ve made mistakes, and it’s human nature to want to be in the right. But progress only happens when we accept the situation as it is, and identify ways to deal with it. When it was reported that the NUS Orientation Camp had activities promoting rape culture and sexual indecency, it was surprisingly disappointing how many people tried to defend these activities but in that same moment, it was also encouraging that people were talking out loud about their experiences because finally the dominant narrative was being challenged.

I have a number of thoughts, but I need to make some declarations and caveats to my arguments. First of all, yes I don’t attend NUS and attend a college in the US, but I am Singaporean and have been witness to the numerous activities either through Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram etc. as well as the anecdotes of my friends. Secondly, even though the programs I’ve experienced to address similar issues aren’t perfect and perhaps approach a different culture, the intent and themes are the same through and through.

My first issue with orientation programs is their intent. Traditionally, they’ve been designed as a form of induction into a college culture or program. This can come in the form of team-building, sharing of values, and establishment of a safe space. But many times, this also comes in the form of establishing a social hierarchy and perpetuating social norms. The activities that tend to aim predominantly achieve this, either explicitly or worse, intuitively, are what we in the U.S. call hazing. Hazing is when in order to ‘fit into a group’, people are pressured to conduct themselves in a way. There’s normally a psychological deterrent from not participating, commonly through exclusion, ridicule or expulsion. Why is this a bad thing? I hope it’s clear to most people, but for those who find it difficult to accept social hierarchies as innately wrong, I refer you to your own experience where you were excluded from a group simply because of a choice you made that aligned to your own principles. A university is designed to be a place for groups from all parts of society to come together and contribute to a learning environment that will help them grow. When someone is under psychological duress or social stigmatization, it becomes difficult to feel safe and valued in a college environment. While in many ways, it’s meant to prepare you for the real world, which is a dark and difficult place, college is also meant to help you incubate your ideas for change and be a starting ground for shaping your ideas for the future. And don’t worry, colleges tend to be dark and difficult places for a lot of people already, and your experience isn’t necessarily representative of those who suffer on a day to day basis from social stigmatization. Orientation games that contribute to this message need to be severely evaluated and addressed. Hopefully, it also becomes the first step to evaluating all aspects of a college environment that perpetuate the lack of justice and the spread of social hazing.

The second and more obvious issue with the orientation activities was the sexualization of the activities. Let me caveat by saying that anything consensual between two willing partners is completely fine with me. I am not trying to be a moral pundit on what form of sexual expression is appropriate, but what I do believe in is that it is no place of an institution (in this case, the orientation camp committee) to decide to have any activities that take away the agency of a person in deciding his own sexual fate. There’s a huge problem with Singapore’s approach to sexism and patriarchy, and I could write a whole post about it, but this orientation camp clearly is evidence of how pervasive rape culture and the lack of understanding of consent is. Men and women are fed into a patriarchal system where hypermasculinity for men means not saying no and taking up space, both physical and social, even at the expense of women. And for women, they’re told that that’s just how the world is, and they cannot be active agents themselves, but simply passive to the direction of men. So while a legal system can set the first step in hope for equal rights, a culture that clearly does not understand and accept the intention behind the laws is self-defeating. 

The scary part isn’t the activities themselves because as many students pointed out, it’s already been removed and the camp can exist without them. It’s in the normalization of the beliefs above, and that people can talk about rape in a joking manner, or believe that they have a say in someone else’s sexual life. It’s the normalization that it’s fine to put someone in a position of submission or weakness and make him follow your way through power mechanisms. It’s the normalization that the ‘real world fallacy’ is justification for your own abuse of power and privilege. Because for society and more importantly, for college students, to progress, we must reject normalization and the ‘way things are’, and continue demanding for a new society built on the values we choose moving forward.

I think NUS canceling the camps was a strategic move to regroup and avoid any future lapses. But I hope it takes the opportunity to through relook its whole culture and understand that systemically it may have a problem in perpetuating the wrong values. And this isn’t a problem just for NUS. It’s a problem for all schools in Singapore, Asia and even the world. I myself will take these lessons back to Northwestern and the institutions I’m a part of.

What I do encourage is for people to continue speaking up. Speak up about your injustice. Speak up because educational institutions in Singapore don’t have transparency on the pervasiveness of sexual crime in its institution even though there is a year on year rise in sexual crime . Speak up because more crimes in Singapore institutions go unreported because of internalized social hierarchies whether gender-based or not. Speak up because you can be an active agent of your own destiny and not a victim of the whims of those with power and privilege.

It’s scary to hear people say nothing is wrong with the way things are, or even that the problem can be easily solved by simply removing aspects of the program. There is a systemic problem and that requires all college students to actively fight to change the system. Don’t allow things to continue as they are, and continue to build a better future.

Keep believing.

hooah.

 

 

reflecting sunior year

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I think it’s safe to say this year has seen me develop myself. Doing a 3 year program means that I’m cramming two years of experiences into one, alongside pursuing my passions and maintaining that tricky 3.8 GPA. Sometimes I’ve asked myself if I’m cheating myself of a proper undergraduate experience by giving up the fourth year to pursue a Master’s instead, but looking back at what I’ve done, I think I’ve done as much as I could to have the best damn time.

Freshman year was all about finding my place in this school; about finding my families and friends. This year was about finding my purpose. I naturally got drawn to work on communities, to see how to build them and make them more cohesive. My experience with The Hidden Good had exposed me to the power of community activism, and I was excited to get back into the fray of finding ways to improve the way some of our communities function. My work on IFC saw me vastly transform the notion of community and how we need to educate ourselves on topics related to it. Mayfest allowed me to be part of one of the biggest community building events of the year.  ISO gave me the platform to set the stage right for the international community as they entered into Northwestern. And there’s so much more – either in the works or under wraps – that I’ve been found myself working on, that I truly feel like I’ve identified my purpose on this campus.

The concept of purpose is a complex one. Most would identify purpose as a milestone i.e. my goal is to become a lawyer. In college, that’s all too common. Many are here to strive for the degree, and eventually get a job. But purpose in that form does very little for the soul. The soul is an engine, full of fiery powers that connect to adrenaline, lust and happiness among others.  Purpose is the fuel. Good fuel is purpose identified as a state of being i.e. my purpose is to build communities.  With that, there’s always some new way to achieve the purpose even as multiple milestones are hit. It’s also more connected to your daily habits and ultimately, your values and principles, effectively molding you into a better person. This past year helped me realize that.

I think this year also saw me vastly reconsider how I approach friendships. While I love meeting people and growing my circle, I’ve found myself developing multiple core friend groups that I’ve just wanted to stay strong and secure in. I’ve made an effort to appreciate the people in my life, and I’ve felt the love back. Through the work I’ve done talking to seniors and alumni, what I’ve learnt is that keeping those core groups precious is extremely important, because those are the people you’ll want to remember past college.

One of my few grievances of the past year has to be with how little I’ve seen my family and how much of a crucial year I’ve missed. My siblings are going through transformational stages of their lives and I’m limited to how much I can be a big brother to them because of distance and time. More than once now, I’ve not been able to make it to family gatherings around the world simply because of logistical frustrations. It’s difficult, seeing friends who are from the US, constantly go for dinners with their families, when I know I have wait a whole year before I can experience that.

My biggest joy for the year past though, is how much I’ve developed my photography skills. I started photography as a hobby to complement the videography I wanted to do for The Hidden Good. Yet, over time, I learnt I had a natural eye for settings and also a tendency to put myself in dangerous but prime positions for amazing shots.  I loved being able to capture a mix of emotion and reality in a single frame, and translate that into beauty that I could reflect on. I’ve gone out on multiple projects just to keep the trigger finger happy, but every time I’ve completely enjoyed being a witness to the world around us.

So much has happened this past year. And yet there’s so much more I want to do. Senior year is next. And you know I’m not going to let it rest.

hooah.

 

 

people at war & thinking about toxicity

Elements of war can be separated into explicit and subtle elements. Explicit elements include manpower, ammunition, supplies and modes of transportation. Subtle elements, and this is where it gets interesting, include propaganda, sabotage and intelligence. I thought I had a break from the battlefield after I had finished my National Service, but the real world is made up of multiple ideological battlefields, all with the same elements as military ones.

Let me begin by acknowledging that there is a place for battles in our society. When a dominant narrative oppresses counter-narratives simply to maintain the status quo, battling helps shatter the glass and open the door for change. The qualification for this though is that battling is important when the leaders or the community is actively trying to prevent change, or simply refusing to engage with counter-narratives.

But the goal has to be to move forward from battling into endorsing change and working on actual policy shifts. If a community has accepted its need to change, what must be next but to work with the groups it seeks to include or address and partner for effective transformation. This is the work of peacetime operations – realizing that war was a result of problems in society and so something must be done to prevent another war.

But peacetime operations cannot proceed when it’s constantly distracted by war. Leaders cannot focus on working with partners and creating programs, when they constantly have to be talking in the media about their response to issues and having to defend its position. War takes away time and resources from peacetime work to address PR dilemmas and various forms of posturing.

Perhaps the perception is that leaders aren’t really trying to effect change, but how can anyone be sure of that until both parties, engage and have a conversation? People hardened by the struggles of battling, experience a likelihood to become jaded and critical of anything. Their logic is complete and not irrelevant in any way, but change could perhaps be better effected in partnership with the communities they’re trying to change. Would it be possible for battling to not be the default response?

Killer Mike mentioned in one of his speeches that he joined the NRA because he believed that he had to be on the inside, hearing people’s’ views and realize that he had a bigger chance at influencing mindsets by working with the people who were themselves trying to create a ‘safer America’.

Toxicity prevails when engagement is absent. Parties are entrenched in their views, believing in absolute truths and absolute moralities on both ends, but worse, believing that the other side is absolute evil. Until one engages with the other though, on the topic of creating change, how can one know the other’s views and perspectives without taking assumptions and theories at face value?

I believe in social justice. I believe that there are groups all around the world that are being oppressed and that change needs to happen. I also believe that there are good people out there, allies that exist, that are seeking to use their privilege to help people. But to assume everyone’s evil before proved as an ally, is to assume that people are inherently toxic. How can a society built on that assumption ever seek to sustain past its policies?

Instead, I hope that we move to a form where best intentions are assumed in parties until proven otherwise, in which case battling may be necessary, such that we remain as far as possible in peacetime work and moving forward our society. Because war is a violent and disgusting place, and it brings out the worst of us. It pits us against each other in vile ways and reduces our humanity to but ideologies.

There is hope in humanity. There can be a better future. One must simply keep believing.

hooah.

take a day off

It’s easy to fall into the trap of obsession. You focus on one thing, and your world starts getting smaller and smaller. In the end, all you’re left with is that one thing, and you look around and there’s nothing left. Many of us let ourselves fall into that trap – we’re so determined and focussed that we don’t give ourselves time to breathe and look around.

Tagging onto this though, is the negative effect of disappointment. If your life isn’t balanced out, failure in your one domain of focus, becomes failure of life as you know it for you. ‘This was all I cared about, and now it’s failed’ is the sentiment.

I was here on Friday.

For good reasons, Lambda Chi has been a core part of my life and college experience. It’s literally a commitment to brothers, and as you would know, reader, I take commitment seriously. I became obsessed with the house to the point that I depended on it for some sense of meaning to my days here. I was conscious of the path I was taking, but at the end of the day, I kept going simply because it was convenient and it was easy. Why go out of the comfort zone when you don’t have to , right?

Now the person I pride myself on being would never let that slide, and I guess I caught myself before it got bad, but it took one emotional moment for me to realize it. Friday night got me somewhere, and I re-evaluated why I felt so many ways. That’s when I realized it was all to do with my own environment – I had built a comfortable space for myself and locked myself in, but the moment it became difficult to breathe, I had nowhere to go.

Saturday let me drop everything and take a day off from my own life as I know it. All my assignments had their deadlines shifted, and I was able to do whatever I wanted. I ended up going for a long run, having brunch in town, help set up a cultural fair, watch two comedy shows and just have an amazing time completely unrelated to my role in Greek Life. I reminded myself why I loved traveling, simply because it forces you out of indulging in comfort, and enjoying diversity. I kept telling people I wish I could travel soon, when honestly there was so much I could do right here while I wait to travel again.

My mind was given space to breathe, my heart was given time to recharge, my soul was refilled. I was on the path to obsession, and I tapped out the moment I realized it. And that made all the difference.

hooah.

and then I said no.

I’m marking today as a milestone in my life. I’ve begun my first steps of saying no ; of choosing what is important over what is necessarily visible. Strangely, I’m feeling displaced , as if a rock has been placed in my gut and I don’t know what to do about it. All I can do is think about it, appreciate my new place and somehow get used to this discomfort. It’s refreshing – being displaced. Today, I made the decision to not run for leadership in my chapter.

Giving some context, I joined Lambda Chi under a contract to myself to commit to improving the state of affairs in the chapter. What is a great brotherhood, lacked the momentum to inspire initiative and project its true self on a community that was obsessed with image. As the Vice-President, over the past year, I overhauled frameworks and planted seeds for a culture of self-motivated external involvement. But my proudest take-away from the position was when I was tired of doing well and wanted to empower others to do better. The game had become easy – it was as if I was an advanced character playing on beginner mode. That’s nothing to say of my own absolute ability – there’s so much I have to gain in experience – but I also came from two significant leadership experiences ; leading in the army and running my own private company. I realized quickly the challenge then was to captivate the chapter to adopt my vision and make it their own by finding meaning in it.  One year later, and I’m incredibly satisfied with the distance we have come as brothers and the vastly different perspective and energy we have for things. There were leaders within the chapter now – voices that mattered. I was no longer the shining tip  – I was part of a bigger foundation for the future.

Joining IFC was my way of playing on ‘very difficult’ level. The issues I’m faced to confront are so much more complex and dynamic ; and ever so scary. Mental health, inclusion, sexual assault, wellness are all topics that are so embedded into college environments and yet perpetuated in echoes throughout society. There’s so much I have to deal with just by tapping on the string that unravels into a mess of related issues and personal lives. But there also lies the opportunity to heal brokenness and potentially transform the future. I know I frequently talk in big ideals and visions, but here I see myself possibly dealing with my biggest challenge ever. And I’m excited.

We went on a retreat this past weekend to have a first touch on our leadership councils and see what we want to plan for in the year ahead. Amongst many other things, the displacement originated from a realization that the scope of my job was very real in its effects. If I did my job well, I could do the same I did for Lambda Chi – I could build a culture that perpetuates itself. I traveled back to my chapter, thinking about the election that was to happen that day. I had expressed intention in the months before of running for the first Vice-President role – a role I wanted to transform in a similar way to how I had transformed the second Vice-President role. The chapter seemed favorable to the idea and I simply had to run to prove myself. Regardless of whether I won, the decision to run itself started to become difficult for me.

I had to choose between two roles that demanded so much from me and it tore me that I cared so much about each community. The decision came finally in the comfort of my brothers, who above all else, reminded me that I had pioneered such a self-starter culture that there was a new brand of leaders emerging in the chapter. One of my mentors once told me ‘The best type of organizational leaders are the ones who empower others such that they are useless by the time they leave’ . I finally realized I was experiencing some semblance of that. I could finally say no, no because it was important that I let this culture perpetuate itself, but also because I needed to see to the bigger task at hand in my new role.

It’s here that I’m displaced. I grew up fighting for roles that allowed me to transform my environments and make them better. Yet, here I am , realizing the success comes in my saying no. In saying that I should not be involved this way – still involved, but in less prominent ways. And if this is the trend, then I’m truly growing up. I’m truly moving into my senior year and making something out of both my youth , and out of my college experience. I’m inspired, and I’m ecstatic, because the final lap is ahead, and oh boy, they’re always so sweet.

As I type these final words, the displacement is starting to sweep away. I’m starting to understand how powerful leadership can be, and how I’m still learning. The world has so much more to beat into me, the stubborn idiot that I am, but every lesson is a ballad in itself.

It’s good to be alive.

hooah.