how one man inspired me to live

It’s been a while, but I feel like I’m finally ready to comment on the series of events that have just passed in Singapore. Founding Father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew passed away last weekend. I was sitting in Nashville, Tennessee when I read the news on Facebook. It was 0300 in Singapore, it was only 1400 for me here. I was one of the first wave to read the news. I remember sitting , and being taken aback. There was grief and then there was confusion.

I didn’t understand why I felt so emotionally connected to the death of someone I had never met before , yet supposedly was so familiar with. I remember telling Derrick, another Singaporean, who was travelling with me about the news and seeing his reaction of shock as well. We sat down for a while and let it sink in. We then continued to help share the news to bring closure to the worry that was spread in the past few weeks with regards to LKY’s condition.

I was always a fan of this man. It started when I was 17 and read Men in White, the book documenting the formation of the People’s Action Party and it’s evolution over the years. I didn’t become a PAP supporter after reading the book, and neither do I have any necessary political affiliation, but I definitely became a LKY admirer. I admired the ferociousness with which he had decided to take on life and the sense of purpose that drove him to make Singapore a country to be proud of. I valued his ability to be grandiose and a technocrat, while still basing his decisions on the simple value of humanity that every Singaporean deserved.

Perhaps the most fascinating and inspirational series of events for me was the simple decision to form a party back in Singapore. LKY had made friends and had conducted debates in the UK where he was studying and after much dialogue and some time in between , brought together a solid group of people, some of whom he had had such debates with, to run for government. These debates involved fantastical ideas of reforming governance and heartfelt hopes for the nation. He had essentially created a “mafia” of leaders to shake up Singapore. With that vision and clout, he essentially road-mapped the country to where he could pass it  on successfully.

That to me was a powerful idea. One man had the ability to understand how to bring people together towards an optimal vision and leverage off that combined vitality to shape a whole nation.

As the week went on, I was slightly afraid of the consequences. I  had started The Hidden Good to get Singaporeans to rediscover the pride in being Singaporean. I loved our unique state and wanted us to collectively protect our culture, heritage and future. We ought to be the only ones to path our future, no one else. But as much as that came from an innate belief in the good in Singaporeans, it was also a hope to persuade Singaporeans to put away their cynicisms and decide to believe in hope instead. Throughout the process of building the organisation in the past 2 years, I have been overwhelming confirmed of the fact that Singaporeans are an amazing bunch of people and have slowly put away their cynicisms. Yet, the desire to criticise without the desire to improve still existed in circles. People still wanted to throw hate where it would not do any good. This was a perfect opportunity for the country to come together or be split apart.

We would have achieved 50 years of history, come this National Day. 50 years isn’t just a story of what we had achieved, but an invitation to dream of what our country can be. We had built a nation, we had shaped history. But what’s next? That was the challenge I wanted to solve as a part of this generation.

LKY’s legacy is in this nation. It’s in our  existence as a community, racially and religiously diverse coexisting . It’s in our economy, robust and immensely strategic, not overly privy to the whims of harmful agents. It’s in our safety, in our ability to understand how to leverage any possible asset to keep our asses covered. It’s also in our values, pragmatism and excellence shining throughout wherever we go.

That legacy lives on, but it need not be everlasting. It’s the start, but  it  need not be the end. LKY was not known for talking about compassion, but it did not mean he didn’t value compassion. He wasn’t remembered for talking about community driven initiatives , but that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary for our future. We are given, right now, the ability to decide how LKY’s passing affects us.

The truth is, Singapore surprised me. Singapore went out of the way to mourn not just the death of a great man, but to remember the journey we had made as a nation. I feel some of it came out of the fact that we just realised how much we had taken for granted the life we had in front of us. For someone to give so much of his life, almost Messianicly even, to help a nation, reminded us that we had rarely appreciated that sacrifice truly.  We came out in flocks, and as I watched from the US, I was overwhelmed. We then collectively shared our experiences. We connected via social media and the news. We spoke to one another, and had discussions. We reflected and appreciated our successes and shortcomings.  We then cared for one another. We gave those who needed a shoulder to cry on, a sturdy support. We gave out water and snacks to the queues that needed them , purely out of the desire to support.

We were starting to show our priorities as a nation moving forward. It was extremely unfortunate that our Founding Father could not witness the nation celebrate its 50th birthday. I remember when I witnessed The Hidden Good’s first anniversary, the immense happiness I felt at how far the  organisation had come. I cannot imagine the sense of joy he could have felt. Yet, I believe it gives us the opportunity to  use this 50th birthday to decide where we want to go. It’s morbidly uncanny, that his passing happens this year even, almost signifying the change of times.

LKY inspired me to want to take on the challenge of building a society. He wasn’t the only person, but definitely a major player in the series of events that made me drop my old lifestyle, and passionately chase dreams and visions. I only hope that with his passing, we don’t forget that same tenacity can be adopted by us too.

We are his legacy. Through our survival and our excellence, he lives on. We take the good , learn from the bad, and work on the rest.  I sympathise greatly with PM Lee Hsien Loong, who not only was able to witness his father build a nation, but also see him have to pass.  I could not imagine that for any son to his father, let alone someone as esteemed as him. But I also imagine him to be well comforted by the crowds of people who share in mourning with him. It is comforting to know that a person you loved will not be forgotten easily.

Here we are now. We see the road built, and are given the tools to pave the path forward. I cannot wait to be a part of this future. Every moment from now onwards decides what values we adopt, what culture we nurture and what society we shape. Actively decide to do good, to give back to society and to add value to those around.

I continue mourning the passing of LKY, and invite anyone who hasn’t reflected on this series of events, to truly do so and be impressed by the lengths our fellow countrymen go to celebrate our nationhood.

We’ve come a long way, and have a long way to go. But we’re here now , one people definitely united.



the semi-privatization of community

I reckon what I do to be always slightly controversial. Not for the sake of being controversial, but because for every ten people who believe everything is alright, I believe something can be done better.

And I feel like the way we approach society today can be done better.

Let’s undergo a bit of a context analysis:

Community issues are solved at a few levels:

We have the government that drafts policies to legislate and execute scalable steps to benefit society. We have the grassroots that plan ground level activities. We have the charities/NGOs that undertake activities with the hope of minimal governmental inhibition/intervention. These are valid solutions for sensitive issues such as people in poverty, The elderly, broken families etc. I’ve been a part of these initiatives and these require plenty of hard work and consistent efforts by leaders in the community.

But our society is facing a new breed of problems that definitely cannot be solved by the same approaches. I would call them first world social problems. problems such as the lack of graciousness, the stratification of society, environmental sustainability, loss of culture and heritage. These are issues that are solved not just by smart brains crafting policy or persistent efforts , but with sincere hearts deeply in touch with what these issues represent .

Now, we have all of a sudden committees and NGOs set up that tackle these issues. the process works like this :

policy developed by civil sector –> execution outsourced to events company/activation agency/ ad agency –> post-mortem held .

There’s a problem here though. First of all, the civil sector has shown to have little understanding of operational aspects of most measures or solutions and the private sector whose sole focus is not on community solutions is then worse off, because the direction given is not only too macro to fully appreciate, but they themselves most of the time lack the emotional capacity to connect with the issues deeply and develop the operational sensitivities to properly execute measures.

What you then have are wildly unsuccessful campaigns and measures that just frustrate society. I would love to name some of these campaigns, but I’m in close talks with some of these agencies and hence cannot afford to discredit the work that they do. The fact that they’re in talks with us is signs of progress, and that’s something worth noting.

But , what’s worth understanding here is that there arises a market solution for agencies fully committed to these form of community solutions. Instead of existing solely in policy or execution, there are a new form of enterprises that have developed immense emotional and social capital while working in the private sector and understand how to best curate and apply such measures. People call some of them social enterprises – I call them enterprises that work. They see the solution as deeply intertwined between policy and execution and seek to create experiences and events that truly address issues.

A year ago, when The Hidden Good first started, we saw The Thought Collective as our model. They understood societal gaps as opportunities to provide a service that was valued. It wasn’t a charitable act , though it arose out of a need to serve. But they understood what they provided had value and decided to make a living out of it. That’s how The Hidden Good runs as well. We see gaps in society and fill those up by providing solutions that are valuated. And we only get better at understanding society by doing more.

I was impressed by how The Thought Collective curated the whole Total Defence immersive experience in the National Museum. Even some of my friends in NEXUS , the MINDEF arm that deals with these campaigns, commented that they could not see themselves pulling these campaigns off by themselves. The Hidden Good is building its capital , but we’re already able to provide services and experiences focussed at the youth community to build a better society. There exists more agencies such as SYINC that conduct hackathons and innovation labs to build intelligent solutions for society.

This presents to me an immense opportunity for a new way to approach first world social problems.

  1. Encourage more enterprises to build social/emotional capital and to understand focusing on understanding society and applying possible solutions have not just a monetary but a meaningful social value as well.
  2. Lobby for the civil service to understand that this new breed of agencies are able to provide better solutions that they could process by themselves. I would even go so far to encourage the policy-forming process to start with consultations with these agencies, followed by engagement of services and a thorough post-mortem together.

This “semi-privatization” of community understands and accepts that few people “get it”. These people much rather work in the private sector where they don’t have to endure too much bureaucracy , and focus on these issues because they truly care for them.

It can potentially become a very exciting and effective space for social change in Singapore especially. I would lobby for this.