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Making Light of Things



Updated: 2015-10-30T03:14:44Z

 



Onward Ho

2015-10-30T03:14:44Z

I turn 38 today. Moments ago, I rode helmetless through the streets of Cambodia on the back of a motorcycle driven by a stranger who stopped me on the street as I was looking for a tuk-tuk. I just said...

I turn 38 today.

Moments ago, I rode helmetless through the streets of Cambodia on the back of a motorcycle driven by a stranger who stopped me on the street as I was looking for a tuk-tuk. I just said “airport”, and he nodded and gestured me to get on.

Compared to many of my peers, I consider myself among the least travelled. I never felt the need to fly much apart from the necessary: college and work trips to the States, volunteer work in India and Myanmar, baby-sitting while Faith attended a friend’s wedding in New Zealand. We had our very brief honeymoon in Bali and a short family trip in Phuket, but I never got the travelling bug for leisure.

It is funny where life takes you sometimes. In the last two weeks, I’ve travelled to four different countries, all of which I’ve never ever set foot on. My first helmetless motorcycle ride as year 37 comes to a close, is an apt retrospective summary of the year past.

It was a little over a year ago when I left the public service where I spent my late twenties and early thirties. That period of my life cohered around a single mission of helping my fellow Singaporeans become more kick-ass citizens. Leaving that meant looking for a new mission work-wise.

I’m the catcher in the rye.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

I’m Salinger’s Caufield in all his naive idealism, all his personal flaws and snarkiness; I am older brother to Phoebe. I’ve come to realise that being the elder brother has shaped me indelibly in who I am and what I do.

At Google I work on keeping people safe online, which when articulated sounds very vague and almost a little vain. Millions upon millions use the internet every minute, and someone’s got to got to make sure that they know the basics of online safety. Might as well be me.

Just this afternoon I spoke to a large classroom full of Cambodian youths, and drilled into them the importance of not using the same password for every online login. Maybe it’s not as heroic as performing brain surgery, but the connection with the kids (all of whom can’t remember their first time using the internet because they were born into it!) was something I could relate to universally.

It’s been a year of personal metamorphosis. From thinking as a public Singaporean servant, and shifting to a cyber-uncle extending the wisdom of the older, more benevolent age of the internet to the younger generation; a proud citizen of hot and humid Southeast Asia, learning to appreciate the dusty roads and letting go of the very Singaporean need to have everyone adhere to rules.

Learning to appreciate life, because it comes in so many forms I have never seen; and that in all its diversity, lies the handiwork of God in whom I place my trust as I make my way down this uncharted road.




We're the Planeteers, You can be one too

2015-09-28T14:44:30Z

When I was working in the Public Service, I replied quite a number of letters from the public on the topic of foreigners in our workforce. I told them that while their concerns were valid, a diverse workforce brought together... When I was working in the Public Service, I replied quite a number of letters from the public on the topic of foreigners in our workforce. I told them that while their concerns were valid, a diverse workforce brought together better ideas, skills and talents. But truth be told, it was all theoretical to me at that time. I had no idea what working in a diverse workforce was like. In the last twelve months I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing people who hail from different office around the world. Mountain View, Dublin, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Tokyo, Hyderabad and Singapore. This week was the first time we were physically gathered in the same location. It caused quite the furore, with readers berating him for publishing such “racist” remarks. To seal the deal, dear Mr. Tan poured enriched uranium on the fire, calling these readers “Internet brigade dogs” (online lapdogs of the ruling political party, if you need context) He subsequently apologised for his initial post of the bus passengers, but qualified that his apology was “extended to “local Indian friends who feel offended”. It is not extended to IB dogs, racists, rude people and foreigners (who think they now own Singapore)”. And yes, many of us breathed a sigh of relief that this man didn’t come close to office of the President. But the question remains, was his initial post racist? The post in and of itself doesn’t offer much. If I stood in Chinatown and exclaimed that I felt like I was in China, it would be a compliment to the authenticity of the recreated experience. A lot is inferred by how readers interpret the tone of Mr. Tan’s post, and whether he meant it in a derogatory manner. It is true that there are times, especially when taking public transportation, when I feel a sense of being in a foreign land. Oddly enough, this feeling often excites and fills me with a sense of awe. In our history, even predating that of our independence, Singapore has always been the interchange of many cultures. Starting as a trading post between India and China, Singapore today is a product of those tradewinds that brought different people together. It is by no small measure of God’s grace that we banded and forged this country together. The natural instinct, as shown even in online comments today, is for our patchwork community to shear. As we search for some permanence to anchor whatever newfound collective identity we have, we need to remember that this moment is but a sliver in the annals of time. The cliché that change is the only constant is even more evident here in Singapore. We are small and nimble. We have survived and thrived by windsurfing on global trends. These are traits that we cannot abandon if we are to remain relevant to the rest of the world. As the world becomes increasingly connected and globalised, national barriers fade and workers made infinitely more mobile, Singapore serendipitously possesses the prize: a successful experiment of how people from all corners of the world, speaking different languages, having different religions, found enough common ground to live in harmony while still celebrating our unique identities. The essential question for Singaporeans today is whether what we have is scalable. Or whether we want it to be. It is sad that Mr. Tan Kin Lian seems more eager to pander to our baser instincts to segregate, divide, discriminate and hate. Those feelings, while understandable (just as I can emphatise with my children’s tantrums), are not the qualities to reside in higher office. We need more people to see that anti-foreigner sentiment isn’t about preserving Singapore. Singapore’s defining quality has always been openness. What we need to add to that is [...]



Sticks and Stones

2015-01-09T05:37:04Z

There are many ways to kill a man. It is undoubtedly tragic, those 12 lives lost when gunmen barged into the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Murders affect more than those who die - it destroys families, forever...

There are many ways to kill a man.

It is undoubtedly tragic, those 12 lives lost when gunmen barged into the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Murders affect more than those who die - it destroys families, forever altering timelines; nullifying the possibility of memories that have yet to be made; moments of love and laughter, now never to be realised.

As millions gather in Paris to mourn the deaths of the papers’ editors and cartoonists (I find it hard to type “journalist”), the topic becomes one of how free speech is being attacked.

I believe in free speech. And I believe it in because it is powerful.

Looking at the body of work that came out of Charlie Hebdo, it is impossible to ignore how they recklessly, even maliciously wielded their pens and pencils. Bullets might not have flown, and no deaths were directly caused, but the things that they said were deliberately offensive. It is old-school oppression and bullying, where the person who owned the printing press had power over those who didn’t. My personal opinion is that Charlie Hebdo was guilty of this.

Words are powerful and can be used for good and also for evil. We may think lightly of the cartoons and that they are only good for a laugh, but this sort of laughing soon becomes derision; derision, scorn; and then alienation and hatred. An entire community was subject to the impact of their words. No physical deaths resulted, but attempts to kill the dignity and pride of a people were continuously made.

I can never excuse the blatant murder committed by the gunmen, but neither can I look away from why they did it. The realm of words and public opinion, while now more democratic with social media, has never been a fair battlefield. How could the tears of a young Arab boy ridiculed in school go up against a virally distributed cartoon being passed around as political opinion?

We need to be more vigilant and active to ensure that expressions of hate and oppression are met with equal verve and force. No one should ever have to resort to violence as an alternative language.

Je ne suis pas Charlie.