By Geoff Tan

Since Ms Sylvia Lim’s (Aljunied GRC) speech in parliament on the 19th of October regarding the happiness of Singaporeans, there have been much debate across both online and offline platforms on the relevance of this linked to a more holistic approach of how we can better measure our country’s development. I am sure awareness for the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has since escalated after it was brought up as the prevailing benchmark – Buutan has an indicator called Gross National Happiness (GNH), which measures the mental well-being of citizens and not their material wealth.

In a highly affluent nation such as Singapore, we are accustomed to talking about material wealth in our conversations. Where do you live? What car do you drive? What brands do you like? Where have you been for your holidays this year? Which company do you work for? How much do you earn? Where do you play your golf? Which clubs are you a member of? Which restaurants do you frequent? What wines do you invest in? What concerts have you been to lately?

Recently a client of mine sent me email describing a place just 30 kilometres from Cambodia’s world famous Angkor temples. Tucked away from foreign eyes on the outskirts of Siem Reap is a community of about 500 people who live – or survive – in a rubbish dump. The story goes on to say that Spanish photojournalist Omar Havana spent seven months from October 2010 to April 2011 getting to know the people at the dump and documenting their lives. He has since shared his photos and stories with ABC News Online.

If you are interested enough to go online to look at these photos, you will see children rummaging through rubbish; families living and bringing up their kids amidst a sea of garbage; others sieving through swill to see what they can salvage for a meal. There is even a photo of a boy holding up what looks like a packet of discarded blood which was going to be his meal for the day.

Mr Havana went on to say that what he noticed in that community was that the people looked happy. Many of his photos depicted genuine smiling faces and warm spirits. The first thing that struck me was to ask myself how could this be possible having seen the situation these folks are in.

Outwardly, we Singaporeans seem like a privileged lot but it does seem that there is so much these Cambodian people can teach us. Singaporeans to an extent are a complaining lot. Even when we have a comfortable roof over our heads, good schools for our kids, decent jobs, the comforts of life etc, many of us don’t seem to be completely satisfied! In a New Paper blog piece, the writer shares “All those in the sales and service industries know that Singaporeans are a complaining lot. They usually complain about “poor” services not so much to see improvement in services but hoping to get some form of compensation in return.”

This Cambodian community living in the rubbish dump has much to teach us. If these folks can exude such joy and happiness in spite of the situation they are in, we perhaps need to reassess our priorities and be more thankful for the blessings that have been poured upon us and our nation!

The good, the bad, & the ugly!

I’ve been reminded of late that I’ve been taking the “art of perfection” to an unhealthy extreme. No, it’s not a colleague or a friend who was kind enough to do the prompting, but rather a still small voice in me cautioning my obsession. Doing things really well has been an inculcated discipline of mine ever since I started my working career. I’ve since realized that taking this too far in expecting everyone else to live up to my high expectations can be unhealthy to myself and the people around me. It can cause undue stress of the negative kind and strain a few relationships along the way!

A story is told about a kid whose mum would regularly struggle to cook dinner after a long, hard day at work. One evening, his mum placed a plate of vegetables, omelette and extremely burnt rice in front of his dad, who without a word reached out for it, smiled warmly and started eating. He finished his meal as if there wasn’t anything amiss with his wife’s cooking.

When the boy got up from the table that evening, he heard his mum apologizing to his dad for burning the rice, to which his father replied – “Honey, I love burnt rice!” Later that night, as the boy went to kiss his daddy good night, he enquired whether the statement was indeed true.
His father wrapped the kid in his arms and said, “Your Mum put in a hard day’s work today and she’s is really tired. And besides – burnt rice never hurt anyone!”

You know friends – life is full of imperfect things…and imperfect people. I’m sure you will agree with me that we are not the best at everything. We all forget birthdays and anniversaries like everyone else. We lose track of time, miss deadlines, and turn up late for appointments. The key to coming up tops despite all these misgivings is to learn to accept each other’s faults and choose to celebrate each other’s differences. This is one of the best ways to create healthy, growing and lasting relationships.

In life, it is unrealistic to only want the positives and not accept any of the negatives. Our all-encompassing journey is packaged with a full suite of experiences and associations. To ensure a healthy existence, we must learn to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Questions, questions, questions!

When I was contemplating this column, my first thought was to come up with another thought-provoking motivationally-oriented piece which has been the staple of my regular editorial deliveries. However, I was reminded by a friend that it’s okay to take a “break” sometimes times and write about something else other than what I’ve been consistently dishing out!

In this day and age where knowledge is available so readily, especially with the likes of Google and Yahoo granting us the benefits of instant and contextual search, there isn’t any excuse anymore for us to be less than informed.

So when someone asked me a question last week which stumped me, I told him that I will get him an answer shortly. True to myself, I dived straight into my favourite search engine and whipped up the answer in a jiffy. But not before stumbling upon a whole slew of other intriguing questions that I had no immediate answers for.

So I’ve decided to take a break this week and throw some questions your way to get you contemplating as well. Check these out! “Why is it that people say the ‘slept like a baby’ when babies wake up like every two hours?” “Why are you IN a movie, but you’re ON television?” “Did you ever notice that when you blow in a dog’s face, he gets mad at you, but when you take him for a car ride, he sticks his head out of the window?” “Why do we press harder on a remote control when we know the batteries are getting dead?” “Why do people keep running over a string a dozen times with their vacuum cleaner, then reach down, pick it up, examine it, then put it down and give the vacuum one more chance?”

The English language sure has its fair share of idiosyncrasies and perhaps this is what makes it interesting, especially if you can look past its more serious front and take in the lighter side of things. For example, “What disease did cured ham actually have?” Or “How important does a person have to be before they are considered assassinated instead of just murdered?” Or “Why is ‘bra’ singular and ‘panties’ plural?”
Tongue-in-cheek wise, why not have a bit of fun today and ask your office colleagues a few questions to get them thinking – for example, “Why does a round pizza come in a square box”, or “If a deaf person has to go to court, is it still called a hearing?”, or “If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil from vegetables, what is baby oil made from?”

Or if you are feeling a little facetious, then try asking this – “If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?”

My favourite question that is so obviously true to life and I am sure you can well relate to is “When we are in a supermarket and someone rams our ankle with a shopping cart, then apologizes for doing so, why do we say ‘It’s alright’ when really it isn’t. Why don’t we say, ‘That really hurt, why don’t you watch where you’re going?”

I don’t have any answers for you this week I’m afraid. But I hope I’ve played a small part to awaken you from the complacency of the English language and get your noodles crunching. A parting shot – “Now why do they call it an asteroid when it’s outside the hemisphere, but call it a hemmorhoid when it’s in your butt?”

If I were you, I won’t arse, I mean ask!

The People Who Matter Most

Have you ever wondered as you go through life and get to know thousands of people across your “live, work, and play” environments, how many of these characters really matter to you eventually? And in the hectic world we live in these days, it is even more difficult to keep up with the who’s who? With the exponential growth of digital and the intrusive dominance of social media, the question I would really like to ask Lady Gaga is “How many of your 39 million Facebook fans are really your friends, and how many of these friends really mean something to you?”

One of my office colleagues recently sent me an email about the philosophy of Charles Monroe “Sparky” Schulz, an American cartoonist whose highly popular comic strip “Peanuts” proved to be one of the most influential in the history of the medium and is still widely reprinted on a daily basis.

In the course of illustrating his take on life, he was said to have posed these questions: 1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world; 2. Name the last five winners of Miss America; 3. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize; 4. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress; 5. Name the last decade’s worth of World Series winners.

I would presume that even if you are a true blue American, you’d probably be stumped for the answers. Charles Schulz goes on to make the point that “none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.”

He followed this through by proposing another quiz comprising five questions: 1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school; 2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time; 3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile; 4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special; 5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.

I’m sure you must found these a lot easier to answer as compared to the earlier ones! The point that Charles wanted to make was that the people who make a difference in your life are not necessarily the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones that care.

The predominant content in many of my blog pieces has been about the reality checks I place upon my life through stories which my friends, colleagues, associates, even readers of My Paper, have shared with me over time. My role has been to amplify these so that the larger community out there can benefit from such anecdotes.

Charlie Brown from the “Peanuts” cartoon strip was quoted to say, “In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back.” For this and many more pertinent quips, together with the soft spot and fondness I’ve always had for Snoopy, Woodstock, Linus and Lucy, thank you Charles for being a part of my life!

Believe In Yourself!

I must tell you about this chap in the church that I attend who just loves to watch movies, sing songs, and tell stories. Although I don’t know him personally, he comes across as unpretentious and is often seen swaggering around the premises with a down-to-earth air of confidence that makes him genuine and believable. And when he gets going, his innate talent will spring unconsciously to the surface and that’s when he could break out into a short rendition of James Taylor’s “You’ve got a friend”, launch into a story about an unassuming and unsung hero, or more recently even popping open a can of “cat food” and eating a spoonful of it just to illustrate a point.

He didn’t disappoint once again when I last bumped into him and got introduced to an American girl by the name of Wilma Glodean Rudolph. Born prematurely at a tinge over 2kg, she caught infantile paralysis which was caused by the polio virus, as a very young child. By the time she was twelve years of age, she had also survived scarlet fever, whooping cough, chickenpox, and measles. In spite of her large family comprising 21 brothers and sisters, her parents drove her across large distances to seek treatment to straighten her twisted leg. At one stage, it was feared that Wilma was not going to ever be able to walk normally.

However, as it turned out, she was quite a unique person. She carried a strong belief that she could overcome her physical disability and follow in her sister’s footsteps to become a school basketball player. In 1952, 12-year-old Wilma Rudolph finally achieved her dream of shedding her handicap and becoming like other children. This was indeed the turning point for her. She became a basketball star, thanks to her unwavering determination and relentless training regime. It was during this time that Wilma was talent-spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Edward S. Temple, who saw the “natural athlete” in her and the potential of grooming her to be the best in her area of specialty.

The rest is history!

Wilma competed in two Olympics but it was the at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome that saw her as the first American woman to win three gold medals in the 100m, 200m, and the 4x100m relay. 80,000 spectators jammed the Stadio Olimpico to watch Wilma Rudolph run the 100-metre dash in an impressive 11 seconds flat. They media and the world hailed her as the “fastest woman in history”.

If you Google her name and see for yourself how bent her leg was before her successful treatment [it was practically twisted in the other direction to what a normal leg should be looking like], you will better appreciate how her intense belief resulted in what I would call a “miracle” of boundless proportions. Most people in this state would be so grateful if they can just walk normally again. But Wilma had plans to do so much more! She was determined to run, and run, and run, and to go for the gold.

The word “belief” is defined as the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true. It would have seemed that Wilma Rudolph never doubted herself one bit in her quest for the highest accolade. She showed us that if we were to envision something “impossible” to be true even before we even get there, there is every chance that we can go out and achieve it.

Thank you, Joel, for relating this story to me. Because of you, more people out there can be encouraged.


By Geoff Tan

Life, for all of us, is but a journey of sorts. We tread this unpredictable yet compulsory adventure one step at a time, taking in whatever is dished onto the platter of our experiences, and making the best of each and every moment we have. As someone once said, “Live it once and live it best!”

The date of birth and the date of death on every tombstone merely speak of the length of life. Knowing how long a person lives is perhaps not as significant as the “dash” that unassumingly resides between the dates. How much this little “dash” is worth is dependent on the manner in which we live our lives, and how much good we choose to impart to the people around us.

Mother Teresa once said, “The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow, do good anyway.” This speaks volumes of the selfless attitude which this humble saint exuded when ministering to the poor and needy along the streets of Calcutta. Undeniably, some of us do good hoping to receive praise and recognition. The affluent society we live in perpetuates this even more and taints the wholesome innocence that’s at the very heart of selfless service.

Charles Michael Schwab, the American industrialist, lived by a business commandment which is, “In all things do your best. The man who has done his best has done everything. The man who has done less than his best has done nothing.” It’s true that you may not succeed every time you do your best, but neither you nor anyone else can fault you if you’ve put your heart and soul into the task.

A story is told of an elderly builder who was ready to retire. His boss was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he would build one more house as a personal favour. Although the builder said yes, his heart was not in his work and hence resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. When he finished building the house, his boss came to inspect it and handed the front-door key to him saying, “This is your house, my gift to you!”

I’m sure if he had known that he was building his own house, he would have given of his very best, as he had always done. Very much in the same vein as having to sleep in the bed you made, the builder had to accept the consequences of his poor effort. Regretting after the event will not turn back the clock and bring back the opportunity. You can only chalk it up as a lesson learnt, hopefully not to be repeated again.

Life is very much like building a house. Every phase we live through is akin to a part of the construction. Delivering consistent good work ensures a well-built home that you can cherish forever.

I figure if more of us can embrace Mother Teresa’s adage, the world will be a better and happier place to live in. “Giving off your best” can be positively infectious. If you’re already doing it now, keep up the good work. If you’re not, and only you would know it, today’s not too bad a time to start. Good luck!

Which wife should you look after most?

I am well aware that Singapore does not endorse the practice of bigamy but nonetheless there is a lesson to be learnt about prioritizing our lives taken from this illustration about a rich merchant who had four wives.

This wealthy man loved his fourth wife the most and took great care of her and gave her nothing but the best.  Although he loved his third wife very much and was always showing her off to his friends, he was in great fear that she might run away with other men.  His second wife was the confidante whom he always turned to whenever he faced problems.  His first wife, who loved him dearly, has always been loyal to him, helping him maintain his wealth and business as well as taking care of the household.  However, the merchant did not love her and hardly took notice of her.

One day, the merchant fell ill and was told that he was going to die soon.  He thought of his luxurious life and told himself, “Now I have four wives with me. But when I die, I’ll be alone. How lonely I’ll be!”

He asked the fourth wife, “I loved you most, endowed you with the finest clothing. Now that I’m dying, will you follow me and keep me company?” “No way!” she replied and walked away.  This hurt him tremendously.  The sad merchant then asked the third wife the same question and she also replied saying “Life is so good over here! I’m going to remarry when you die!” The merchant’s heart sank and turned cold.  He then asked the second wife, “I always turned to you for help and you’ve always helped me out.  When I die, will you follow me and keep me company?”  She replied “At the very most, I can only send you to your grave.” The merchant was devastated.

Then his first wife called out: “I’ll leave with you. I’ll follow you no matter where you go.” She was so skinny, almost like she suffered from malnutrition. Greatly grieved, the merchant said, “I should have taken much better care of you while I could have!”

What is the moral of this story you may ask?  Well, I’d like all of you to look at it this way.  Consider that all of us have four “wives” in our lives.  The fourth wife is our body.  No matter how much time and effort we lavish upon it to make it look good, it’ll leave us when we die.  Our third wife is our possessions, status and wealth.  When we die, others will take it away from us.  The second wife is our family and friends.  No matter how close they had been there for us when we’re alive, the furthest they can stay by us is up to the grave. 

The first wife, however, is in fact our soul, the part that will be with us when we die.  The ironical but tragic truth to things is that our soul is often neglected in our selfish pursuit of material, wealth and sensual pleasure.  When we eventually realize how important this is, many of us will regret how we have neglected it throughout the most part of our lives and wish we had paid more attention to it.   

If this story has been a wake-up call for you, today is as good a time as any to re-prioritize your values and pay more attention to your most important spouse.  I’m sure you know now which wife you should look after most!