You Should Hold Up the Sky of the Land Where You Live

Why are you here taking jobs from my people?

I froze. It was Youth Day 2011, and we were walking along the Green Corridor when my friend, a fellow educator from another school, asked me that momentous question.

On the country’s 25th year of independence, I came to Singapore as a 9-year-old. My parents were seeking a better life for our family and a better education for me. In August that year, I drew a birthday cake for this new country I lived in and won my school’s National Day drawing competition. This young country became the land of possibility to me, one that accepted me, and so began our love affair.  In two decades, I had never before felt unwelcome until that fateful day walking along the Green Corridor.   Perhaps it is a testimony to how accepting Singapore had always been, that I had never experienced this earlier. After all, we/this/Singapore are/is a nation of immigrants.

Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung.

(“You should hold up the sky of the land where you live.”)

Zubir Said (1907-1987) cited this Malay proverb to sum up his philosophy when he was composing Majulah Singapura (the Singapore national anthem). I learnt about this from two of my students. Arts students are a unique lot, but these two took it to a new level. Endlessly curious and deeply appreciative of their country’s history and culture, these young creative talents had stumbled upon this interesting account of one of Singapore’s arts pioneers. They took their own initiative to share it with their school community at assembly, on what would have been Pak Zubir’s 107th birthday. As the school sang that morning, the national anthem seemed to take on a deeper significance. I thought the proverb, in the national language no less, was inspiring and posted the story on social media.

A Singaporean friend, an arts programmer who had always been supportive of my work to nurture the gotong royong spirit amongst the next generation of creative talents in Singapore, responded simply that this was “just what [I had] been doing all these years”. As I read those words, big fat tears rolled down my cheeks. I couldn’t help it— it felt a lifetime away from Youth Day at the Green Corridor.

Learning to Serve

I choose to serve through education, here in Singapore, because I am largely a product of this system and can identify with some of the struggles youth here continue to face. I went to school in an era when Kishore Mahbubani was asking Can Asians Think? and school rankings were the driving force in education. In my elite secondary school, the high stakes, exam-oriented culture resulted in the routine educational practice of: if it’s not in the syllabus, don’t ask questions—concentrate on acing your exams. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was miserable and craved escape, finding solace in my extra-curricular activities in the band. Fortunately, my less than stellar grades landed me in a lower ranking junior college, headed by a most enlightened and supportive principal who was a strong supporter of out-of-classroom learning. There I became actively involved in community service, albeit ad-hoc without sustained relationship building with any community. But it was here that the seeds were sown for a sense of purpose greater than myself. I participated in my college’s overseas community involvement programmes, deeply impactful experiences that would later lead me to join Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Youth Expedition Project (YEP)—then a brand-new initiative supported by the forward-thinking political and social leaders of the day. The pedagogy behind the YEP is service-learning–there is a greater purpose to learning—it is to use our learning to serve others.  On the other hand, the purpose for serving was to learn from those we serve. Service-learning is a form of experiential learning—when we reflect on what we experience, this learning becomes our constructed knowledge which informs our future actions, helping us to serve better and so the cycle continues. Service-learning goes far beyond charity—it calls for us to respect the community as our teachers, to keep questioning why things are the way they are, to be mindful that we do no harm out of good intentions that don’t actually meet real community needs, to ensure our service upholds human dignity; empowering those whom we serve to become better able to serve themselves and others, to respect and create space for the community to have a voice, and for the student/learner/server to also have a say in what is to be learnt. This mode of learning was new to me—there couldn’t have been a more polar opposite from what I had experienced earlier in my educational journey. This approach to learning resonated with my budding sense of purpose and has been one I have adapted to every community I have worked with.

The Journey is the Destination

In my decade of designing, coordinating and facilitating service-learning projects and programmes with youth and communities, we have journeyed from senior activity centres to hospitals, from schools for people with disabilities to social enterprises, from Venus Loop at MacRitchie to the jungles of Sumatra, from shelters for children of offenders to originating villages of people who have been trafficked.

Through partnering communities in service-learning, students explore and act on issues of significance to humanity, engaging in real, responsible and challenging actions for the common good. As an educator, I appreciate that service-learning transforms my role. In a class of 20, the power dynamics shift from the “teacher” as the all-powerful sole repository of knowledge and arbiter of right and wrong to that of “facilitator” of the exchange of ideas and opinions between 21 minds, each a voice valid and respected in their own right. Because there is only so much one can learn about leadership in a freezing lecture theatre. At some point of time, we need to be comfortable enabling youth to take risks, developing relationships with real individuals in our communities to provide opportunities for students and community members alike to road test theories through the school of hard knocks; making decisions that have real consequences, learning to take personal responsibility for the consequence of these choices, embracing the good, the bad and the ugly of the learning process, to develop the wisdom and resilience to be able to learn, celebrate and recover from both the mistakes and the successes, in the process developing the informed judgment, imagination and skills that our better world depends on.

Passing on a Legacy

It is Teachers’ Day as I write this, and preparations for SG50 are underway. As Singapore’s 50th year of independence approaches, I reflect with immense gratitude on the many pioneering educators of this country who have nurtured generations of learners, including myself. Their lessons took our classrooms from the indoors to the outdoors, from within this island nation to the shores beyond it, and have nurtured my own desire and confidence to hold up the sky of the land where I live. I have learnt to make peace with my dual identities as both insider and outsider, turning this schizophrenia into an advantage when bridging communities and cultures both within and beyond Singapore. That I am who I am and do the work I do as a service-learning practitioner, is the legacy of the many educators, both formal and non-formal, Singaporean and otherwise, whom I have had the fortune of crossing paths with and who have dedicated their lives to provide my peers and I with experiences from which to make sense of the world, to grow and to discover our own individual place and purpose. In gratitude, we endeavour to pass this spirit on to the next generation.

Written with gratitude to this island, as published in Singapore: Insights from the Inside—Volume II by the Singapore International Foundation

in a land of idealists, thinkers and dreamers

Only here, all in two hours:

I reunite with the lady who as a fresh grad, refused to turn a blind eye to the children she saw on the streets, which began a lifelong cause.


On Labour Day, “Obor Marsinah” (Marsinah’s Torch) started its 11-day long tour to cities in Java. Marsinah was a worker activist at an Indonesian company in East Java, whose rape and murder 21 years ago drew international attention to the practices of the dictatorship and the suppression of workers. The torch tour is in celebration of her spirit and aims to generate public support and solidarity to secure justice for Marsinah and to spread the message of her courage among workers to resist intimidation from employers. Day 5 lands the torch in Semarang and I arrive just in time to hear the labour activist ask the crowd: “What kind of government do you want to vote in?”

I dine with a PDI-P candidate for the Central Java Legislative Assembly. A humble former activist and unlikely politician, I asked her what made her step up to party politics and she answered with crystal clear conviction: “Under this regime, we cannot achieve anything if I choose to work from outside the system.”

I drink teh with an activist whose tool for change is the written word, and whose works are inspired by the thoughts of Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich.

Finally, I end the evening in the “thinking den” of the resource persons of the Governor of Central Java. There, I meet the leader of the bunch, a former theatre-of-liberation member who, on hearing that I’m from Sekolah Seni Singapura, greets me warmly and asks if I know his friend, Wong Souk Yee of the Third Stage. For those of you who are too young to know what this name implies, here’s a google search for you.

Coming Full Circle

I will be going to Myanmar tomorrow. 

It has been a long time coming. 

The last I was there was 14 years ago, to Yangon in 1999 for an Overseas Community Involvement Project with my junior college.  This time, I will be going to a place I have never physically been to, but where I’ve visited in spirit countless times before.  I may have never stepped foot on Kayah State soil, but Kayah, home of the ethnic Karenni people, holds a special place in my heart. 

In 2001, when I was a first-year undergrad, I conducted field work in a Post-Grade 10 school in the Nai Soi Refugee Camp along the Thai-Burma border.  The school served students who had passed Grade 10 but, because of their refugee status, had no access to higher education, yet also no access to work. There I befriended and heard the painful stories of many young Karenni refugees and grappled to come to terms with the privilege I had as a university student, while my new friends were in the camp, able only to dream about furthering their education.

With Myanmar’s current transition to democracy, long-standing travel restrictions to Kayah State were finally lifted in January this year and my friend has asked me to go in his stead to contribute something to the friends who have helped him.

Today, as a result of the brain drain, Kayah, the smallest and poorest state, also has the lowest national pass rate for Myanmar’s Basic Education Standard 10 Examination diploma.  I don’t know what I can do, but I will go listen to school and community leaders, teachers and students, and learn about their aspirations to develop their own community.

Rattan Dreams

Breezy days lazing at the farm on Grandpa & Grandma’s rattan sofa set.  Fighting my cousin for a ride on her rattan rocking horse.  My childhood days were made of these.  I have a soft spot for this natural material of our jungles; so suited for our balmy tropical climate.

It breaks my heart to hear younger relatives choose to throw out the old favourites in favour of “minimalist look” sofa sets, perhaps to impress yuppie friends.  The flashy new seating are invariably hot, latex contraptions that require air conditioning for any semblance of comfort in our hot, humid weather.  Rattan, on the other hand, reminds me of gentle breezes, sun-dried laundry swaying on the line and the softest well-worn cotton fabrics.

Older relatives know to call me when they hear of heirlooms being thrown out.  The old treasures somehow always find their way to our house.  In my room in Singapore, I sit on a rattan chair castoff from a granduncle who moved to the Philippines.  In Kuching, I sleep in a teak bed that used to be a cousin’s childhood bed, complete with tacky blue formica and peeling, faded stickers intact, and lounge in Grandma’s discarded rattan sofa set.

And so this clip commissioned by the National Heritage Board for their Heritage in Episodes project so captured my heart, I just had to pay the craftsman a visit.

I finally managed to drop by Hak Sheng and had a little chat with the 72-year-old founder, Mr Goh Kiok Seng.  He was sunning feather dusters today and told us that the feather dusters were new old stock from 15 years ago.

“These feather dusters are 15 years old and still so good.  They just don’t make things like they used to.  These are made of rooster’s feathers; they last longer than hen’s feathers.”



These feather dusters were made in the “珠江羽毛制品厂” (Pearl River Feather Factory) in Guangdong Province, China, sometime in the late ’90s.



I loved seeing these upcycled dustpans again.  We used to use them to sweep the class during class duty in my primary school in Kuching.  Our form teacher, Cikgu Benita, once used the big cooking-oil-can-dustpan (on the lower right hand corner) to sweep up a stray monitor lizard that had wandered into our Primary 1 classroom one morning, then in her matter-of-fact manner, dumped the fella outside our class and resumed teaching.



Three years ago, while walking in the back lanes of Semarang’s Kota Lama (Old Town) with a social worker, we bumped into a 16-year-old girl named Sari outside a “karaoke bar”.  The social worker had first met Sari a year earlier.  Then a 15-year-old, Sari had been begging on the streets of Simpang Lima, Semarang’s city centre.

A year later, on 9 March 2011, Sari was two weeks into her first job as a “karaoke hostess”.  Part of her duties, aside from wearing the standard uniform of skimpy halterneck top, mini skirt, strappy heels and thick makeup, was to sing along to the karaoke machine and accompany the male patrons as they consumed various kinds of alcohol, including vodka and beer.  Privately, the social worker told me she’s pretty sure prostitution was part of the deal as well.  Sari’s work hours were from 6pm to 5am, and for that she was supposed to earn 1 million rupiah (approximately SGD$120) per month.  When I asked her how much of this salary she had already received, she laughed it off, saying that it’s only week 2 and she still had to pay off her “loan” from her “mummy”.  The social worker told me this loan was probably for her clothes, makeup, food and lodging.  I wondered when she would ever see any of the 1 million rupiah the job promised to the child and her parents, who are fully aware of the nature of her work.

My colleague M commented that Sari is very kasihan (pitiful) to which the social worker responded:

“Sari does not think of herself as a victim.  In her eyes, she is earning a good salary and making a living.”

The Humility Sense

20130702-222700.jpgOn a plane again, my nomadic routine in search of quiet downtime and mindspace for fascination.

20130702-220904.jpgI have brought Richard Louv’s “The Nature Principle” on this particular journey and it’s turning out to have been the best choice.

Passages leap out to me from the book, clearly articulating ideas that have bothered me, but for which I had yet to formulate the words; ideas like The Humility Sense.

Louv cites David Quammen’s “Monsters of God”, in which he predicted that by the year 2150, all the world’s top predators will either be wiped out or in zoos. Then people, will

“find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread and kingly.”


And suddenly I am transported back to the winter morning of 20th Dec 2011. I have risen early to watch the sun paint magic on Mount Kanchendzonga. Its beauty gives me a sense of place in the world and reminds me that there is a spiritual life force connecting all of nature. In foolish folly, I attempt to keep its lesson close to me; its image greets me each time I switch on my phone. As the sun continues to rise over the Himalayas, I walk to the Darjeeling Zoo. There, my morning magic falls flat in the face of domestic tourists from the lowland cities taunting the majestic but ultimately imprisoned animals. In a zoo, we may see these elusive animals but we don’t SEE them. From behind the metal bars, we have no sense of their potential, and therefore no humility in their presence.

Disgusted, I leave the zoo and head further down the road on that bright winter morning toward the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where this Himalayan Inspiration restores some measure of peace:

“By inspiring those that come to them with all their traditions in Indian history and culture, humbling them with their vastness and power, satisfying them with their grandeur, trying their manhood with their glaciers and peaks, challenging their spirits with their inviolate secrets and showing that God exists not only in the beauty of his creations in Nature but also in the spontaneously noble actions of their companions, the Himalayas will forge men who, when they come back to everyday life, will do so with a changed perspective, ignoring all the petty, trivial and unimportant things that normally take so much of their energy and time and concentrating on problems that really matter.”- N.D. Jayal

Chasing that pot of gold

Steel Wool is the voice of reason. Because there are too many self-entitled “certified all-rounder” types who crash and burn then ask: “So I’m at the end of the rainbow, where’s my pot of gold?”

death by paper cut

it is espoused in school, that the recipient of the all-rounder award goes to the student who is excellent in everything; all academic subjects, extra/co-curricular activities, and takes up conspicuous leadership roles. yes, there will always be this one or two market-spoilers in each cohort that raises the bar higher and higher each year, making the rest of us feel less inspired and more inadequate.

i’ve been pondering another related and consequential matter – the elusive and virtually unattainable notion of work-life balance in workaholic singapore. we’ve been imbued since young that success comes at sacrifices, to the extent where personal interests and down time has to be put on hold until a certain level of success is attained. and only at which time you are allowed to think of being happy.

maybe us adults had it coming because we feed back into the vicious cycle by telling our…

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