‘Made in China’, but Singaporean.
For 30-year-old Ou Ningfei, who migrated to Singapore with his family when he was 7, this puts him in a spot where he was, in a way, stuck between two cultures.
Being a foreigner meant being an ‘outsider’ in a land foreign to him, and some of the things he experienced back then include being treated with prejudice, or “they would start to interact with you lesser because they see that you’re from another place.”
Such ostracising and marginalising behaviours towards migrants are ubiquitous, but it is also exactly that that often makes our society forget empathy.
Fortunately, those experiences only pushed Ningfei to pick up on the nuances of the local culture more quickly. And today, his identity as Singaporean is no less than any other born-and-bred locals, for he has spent almost this entire life here and also fulfilled the service of every Singaporean son.
However, for many other immigrants who come to Singapore in search for better livelihoods, the privilege of being accepted by society may not exist.
Besides personal experiences, Ningfei also had his share of interaction with migrants and the hardship that they face. His parents were migrant workers themselves and his mother, a regular volunteer at church events that support migrant workers.
“I’ve seen the spaces that [migrant workers] occupy, the issues that they face, physically and socially. And many times, they get exploited in so many ways.”
Migrant workers lack privilege and power of influence in a foreign society, making them more susceptible to being taken advantage of by errant employers.
“There are so many stories that are so hard to hear, so painful,” Ningfei added, as he shared about migrant workers who end up with injuries or even permanent impairment caused by their work, as well as the exorbitant agent fees and low salaries.
In an interview with another publication, Ningfei shared that some workers pay “as much as $3,000 SGD to $15,000 SGD to their agents in home countries like India and Bangladesh.”
Once, at a gathering he and his mother were helping out at, Ningfei met a Chinese migrant worker who was forced to do OT for 2 weeks straight without remuneration. Seeing that the worker had come at almost 10pm to collect the packet of Cai Png for dinner, Ningfei spoke to him to understand why.
Describing the grease, grime, and blisters that marked the worker’s arms and hands, Ningfei recalled, “You can tell how hungry and tired he was. He was crying and telling me how he hasn’t gone home for a long time. And I realised how even though we were around the same age, we lead such different lives.”
“You look at people like him, and you know that there’s really a lot of things you can do for the underprivileged.”
After having helped out at many welfare support events for migrant workers together with his mother, Ningfei decided to do more on his own.
In 2018, he started Labour Arty, a ground-up initiative that leverages various mediums like photography and digital media to promote appreciation and awareness for migrant workers in Singapore.
“The genesis of this is that I’m Singaporean but I’m from China. My parents are migrants themselves, which is why my heart goes to migrant workers.”
With the support of friends, Labour Arty shot and launched their first project: A humble photography exhibition titled Blind Spots. It captured a sight familiar to all of us but often go unnoticed.
Since then, Labour Arty have gone on to launch several projects. These include the Tap4You project, which encouraged NUS students to share a meal with migrant workers, as well as the Yellow Helmet Challenge, one of their earlier works, which aimed at increasing the visibility of and appreciation for migrant workers.
Just recently over Chinese New Year, they also partnered with sponsors like Impossible Foods and Dumpling Darlings to organise a Dumpling Party for migrant workers who were affected by the travel restrictions arising from the COVID-19 situation.
Besides championing for the migrant workers, Labour Arty’s work is also a subtle approach at increasing social harmony in a community. This is especially important in Singapore, as our society is such a diverse conglomeration of different nationalities, races, and cultures.
“We try to change the perspectives people have of migrant workers. By increasing awareness amongst those who aren’t aware, and by making those who are aware be more ready to stand up, so that [migrant workers] don’t get exploited.”
However, juggling full-time work and personal commitments on top of running a ground-up initiative comes with its share of challenges of course. For example, the lack of resources to do more.
Although Labour Arty has been fortunate to receive support from various parties and organisations including the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, it is fully run by Ningfei and a team of like-minded friends on a volunteer-basis.
A full-time product and process manager himself, Ningfei explains the constraints they face in championing for change.
“It’s fun for friends to help out for one or two projects, but it’s tough to sustain an entire movement.”
However, the mission has always been very clear to him: Every little bit helps.
Citing several similar movements and initiatives like Migrant x Me and Sama Sama, he spoke about the inspiration he draws from them, as well as the sense of camaraderie in working towards a common cause.
He also emphasised the importance of collaboration and finding the right partners in achieving the mission, “good partners can give you support and help you spread the work you do.”
Besides Labour Arty, Ningfei also co-founded another groundup last year. Aptly named codeToLove, the initiative helps other non-profits with their IT needs.
In some ways, codeToLove is also a passion project and one that allows him to help amplify the good that others do while practicing what he likes (designing and writing digital/UX content).
“If I am to be labouring, it better be for good, and to have some fun out of it,” he explains.
“If it’s purely meaningful but not fun, it’s going to be miserable. But if it’s fun but not meaningful, then it’s not going to mean much at the end of the day.”
And yes, at the end of the day, Ningfei’s motivation is something that many of us can relate to, which is a desire to derive meaning and enjoyment out of what we do. It can come from your job, or it can come from starting your own groundup, but what he said will ring in our ears for a long time to come: “Do something that’s close to your heart.
Passionate about a social issue and wish to make a change, or keen to contribute towards a certain cause? Check out how you can get support from Groundup Central here!
(This article was written in collaboration with the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre.)
(All images credit: Ou Ningfei and Labour Arty)
Growing up, John Paul’s family was unlike most of ours. Their family dinners were at the coffee shop tables where his dad peddled their famous beef noodles, and John pretty much grew up there.
“I was that small boy at Siglap who carried like three, four bowls of hot soup all at once.”
At 11 years old, John was already known by regulars as “Gubak Kia” (Hokkien for “beef boy”), an endearing nickname for the son of ‘Gubak’, which is what they called John’s dad.
It was a name that John hated, but grew to embrace as he continued helping out at his father’s stall. In fact, this name now brands the hawker stall John runs at Timbre+, where he sells the same traditional bowls of Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow along with his modern creations.
Now 25, John is a full-time hawker. But this was not exactly his plan at the start.
As someone who always wanted to be out-and-about, John had lofty dreams of making a living off travel photography and writing. This led him to pursue a Mass Communication course in Kaplan.
However, the more he helped at his dad’s stall, the more he felt pulled into the trade. He began observing the way his dad prepared orders, noting details like how long his dad would cook the kuay teow for or how to portion the meat.
His first attempts at cooking came about when his dad left him alone at the stall.
“I started making my own bowls of noodles when my dad went on breaks. Then, my dad would tell me what I did right or wrong when he came back.”
With time and practice, John developed a better understanding of cooking, and this sparked his deeper interest in the culinary world.
John’s ‘big break’ came when the boss of Wolf Burgers saw his resume on a job portal. In disbelief that a 19-year-old kid could have nine years of hawker experience, he paid a visit to the stall covertly.
“He came with his wife, ordered a bowl, sat outside and watched me,” John recalled.
That day, John was offered a job in the Wolf Burgers kitchen. It was a golden opportunity, but John hesitated.
“I was really scared that I would mess up, because I had never worked in a professional kitchen or had any proper training,”
He gave it a shot in the end, and it was also through this stint that John realised his true passion in cooking. He went on to work at Camp Kilo and Kilo Lounge, where he was trained in more diverse types of cooking and cuisines.
Then, his dad got into an incident.
“I saw how bad my dad’s hand injury was. I also saw that he was getting older, and I knew I had to do something.”
Coming full circle, John brought years of culinary expertise in different kitchens and cuisines back to the beef noodle stall.
He started experimenting with the various ingredients he could find around the stall during lull periods.
As luck would have it, he met an old friend, Lincoln, who saw the potential in the beef noodles and John’s desire to build the brand. The duo drew up business plans and sought investors, but “who in the world would entrust such a big amount of money to two 24-year-olds to run a shop?”
Instead of giving up, the pair took the leap themselves. Lincoln forked out the capital and with some help from John’s former boss, their stall Gubak Kia came to fruition in May 2019.
In a way, Gubak Kia is John’s homage to his family legacy, which traces back to his great-grandfather’s time at Hock Lam street in 1921. Despite this history, John’s dad never asked for John or his siblings to take over. But for John, he naturally saw it as his duty to preserve their name.
“If it stops at my dad, I don’t know if I can live with that.”
“I love the food,” he explained, “and if I don’t cook it, I won’t get to eat it ever again.”
Starting Gubak Kia is also John’s way of showing appreciation to his dad.
“My dad toiled so hard to build this name up, and I don’t want to see it go to waste.”
While John retains most of the foundations of his dad’s dishes, he also creates modern twists to these traditional dishes, like introducing Beef Short Ribs to their classic bowls of Beef Kway Teow, and Gubak Bao.
No doubt, being a young hawker has its challenges. Whether it’s the worry of an inconsistent cash flow or the physical strain of working in a hawker kitchen, these are all part of pursuing a business venture or an unconventional career. But for John, the food always comes first.
“I don't really care about the money part as much, I just hope that we can make rent. The only important thing is that people are happy with the food, and they know about my father, about Empress Place.”
“It’s tiring but fun,” John mused. After all, the kitchen is where he comes alive. The best part of it all is that he toils, knowing that people will get to eat what he loves.
Reflecting on his journey, John talked about many fears he had, but his persistence and determination paid off.
“If you know you’re working towards something and you are humble about it, there will always be a way to make it work.”
Like Gubak Kia and many others, we all have dreams we wished we were brave enough to pursue.
Check out a series of workshops done in collaboration with Spark The Next here for more inspirational passion stories, and how you can chart your own path to success!
(This article was written in collaboration with Spark The Next by the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth.)
“You never wear bra how you know right! I don’t know, so I just try, try, try. Then after that I realise the bra got size one, then got number, then got alphabet one. Then I realise ohh, this one is my size.”
It was at Mustafa Centre that Daniel Lee found the bras he often sports in his streams, as well as most of the ensembles you would see him in when he goes live on The Ladyboy Marketplace.
As the founder and the face of the Facebook page, Daniel is known for his live auctions. More accurately, people follow him to catch him in bras, stockings and even lacy lingerie, complete with ladies’ accessories, wigs, and makeup.
He auctions items on the livestream, but for the layperson who isn’t there for the sale, his antics make for live entertainment. It’s a striking visual: A ‘ladyboy’ dancing unabashedly to Thai disco music, and it is exactly for this reason that Daniel started cross-dressing—“I wanted to portray a visual that will catch people’s attention the moment they see the stream.”
He had been running his own live bidding business on another Facebook page, but after more than two years in the trade, he saw the need to be more creative. He did a trial run with the Ladyboy persona and it was surprisingly well-received. The next day, he launched The Ladyboy Marketplace.
Anybody can play dress-up, but viewers will still switch off if someone is inherently boring. Thankfully, Daniel’s natural sense of humour helped. He would spice up his streams with comical dances and often switched personas. Some of his old videos shows him in looks inspired by iconic Singaporean characters like Liang Po Po and Phua Chu Kang.
His videos were entertaining, and the news of this Ladyboy Auctioneer spread fast. When his friends and family first saw his ludicrous on-screen personalities, they were shocked. But Daniel has always been known as a joker amongst people who knew him, and they quickly understood that this is just Daniel working.
Nonetheless, there were criticisms, and they came from strangers who would leave nasty comments on his streams. Some throw jabs at Daniel for prancing around in women’s underwear as a man, calling him xia suay (embarrassing and disgraceful).
I asked if he ever felt paiseh about the things he has had to do for his Ladyboy image. Up to that point, he had given me the impression of a tough, ballsy ah beng who is too focused and driven to be bothered about how people perceived him. Instead, he flat out admitted to feeling paiseh, especially when he had to buy bras at Mustafa alone while seeing the staff staring and laughing at him.
However, he explained that paiseh is just a barrier to be overcome.“A lot of things will paiseh. But paiseh is just a feeling. Don't because of a feeling, then you don't go and achieve what you want to achieve.
“If it’s just because you’re paiseh then you [don’t fulfill your potential], isn’t that such a waste?”
With that said, there are many other problems he has to deal with as someone who makes a living off selling products on Facebook Live.
He was once banned from streaming for two weeks after someone reported his page for nudity, presumably by someone who found his videos (or him) offensive. For someone whose livelihood depended on livestreaming, that meant he had no income for two weeks. For fear that something like this happens again, Daniel has since toned down his Ladyboy antics in his streams.
Even without the problems that came with cross-dressing, the job of a live auctioneer is tough. Unlike most of us, there are no weekdays or weekends for Daniel.
“My routine is no routine, I get the job done and the rest are my rest hours.”
We only see what happens on the stream, but a lot of an online auctioneer’s or work goes behind the screen.
A promoter with a seafood wholesaler today, Daniel’s days start in the late afternoon, where he will be knee-deep in backend preparations with his logistics team and fine-tuning the order, processing, and payment systems before he goes live at night.
Then, after streaming for two to three hours, where he would be constantly talking, Daniel would spend another few hours sending out invoices and coordinating with the logistics team for the deliveries. It’s usually around 3am by the time he gets home.
On the days that he isn’t selling for the seafood wholesaler, Daniel would check in on his valet business which his business partner is managing, and the occasional consignment jobs.
Despite the long hours, Daniel tells me that the only challenge to him is the high chance of losing his voice after every stream, “Long hours and everything else is okay, because when you got the motivation, working is nothing.”
It became really clear that this ‘ah beng’ is a hustler. And his drive to make money, or to succeed, was a result of growing up underprivileged.
His family wasn’t well-to-do. His mum was a housewife and his dad didn’t earn a lot as a stall supervisor. Circumstances forced him to be independent from a young age and at 14, he was already selling vegetables at the neighbourhood market for pocket money. He didn’t earn a lot, but to him, it was still money.
“One day, maybe eight hours, I only earn $20 or $30. Very jialat. But nevermind, try lor, because anyway one day earn $20, five days earn $100. That time I only Sec. 2, $100 is a lot already.”
He was a defiant kid and picked up several bad habits like smoking, but it was also right around that period that he found the drive to work hard for money through (ironically) the legendary Sunshine Empire. He was amazed by how his friend could afford tuxedos and LV bags, and he soon found himself spiralling into the Ponzi scheme.
“I was so brainwashed because very young ma, [but] that’s how I wanted to do sales more and more. So [on hindsight], I need to thanks [sic] the Sunshine Empire, because that’s how I came to where I am now.”
At 16, he started working for Jose Eber, where he was promoting premium hair straighteners at a pushcart at Vivocity. He was even recognised for being a top salesperson there. It was then that he realised he had this natural ability to draw in crowds and to sell, he understood the ways to appeal to different customers.
He continued doing sales after he graduated from Temasek Polytechnic. Along the way, he also dabbled in all sorts of work, which helped him learn more about the world: “I’ve worked at McDonalds, I cut vegetables before, bike shops, mechanic, everything I also do before.”
He also started several businesses, which he continued after completing his National Service. At one point, he even had several employees to help with his live bidding business. However, he admitted that he had made many mistakes, and have had to deal with many tricky situations like faulty products, malicious customers, and people management.
For example, he was too lax and didn’t bother to have a proper management system when he hired employees, and ended up having to face the consequences himself when there were issues with orders.
“I'm not paiseh to admit that I did wrong for that part. I tried and I failed because I thought that it's very simple. This one is I really misjudge.”
There’s a lot to joke about when we see Daniel as Ladyboy. Most of us would make fun of him, wondering if there’s even any future for him to be doing this. However, behind that facade is someone who has so much drive, and dedication to his work.
Despite the many ‘stupid’ things he does on his live videos, or the ah beng image he seems to portray in person, this 27-year-old Singaporean is an innovative salesman who isn’t afraid to do what it takes to succeed ethically.
It is his fearless drive that has got him to where he is today: A highly sought-after salesperson in the industry, and who runs a stable valet business on the side.
At the end of the day, this ‘ladyboy ah beng’ is one person who is simply very real with what he wants and how he will get there. He is driven by money. But, it comes with a strong sense of ethics and the genuine wish to be a good salesperson and the bridge between suppliers and customers.
He’s not afraid to experiment, fail, and try again, not ashamed of being shamed or mocked, as long as he’s able to achieve his goals. And his resolve to succeed is something that a lot of us lack, and probably can learn from.
Also read: We Know Him As The ‘Hunky Hawker’, But Walter Tay Shares A Past He’s Not Proud Of.
(Images used in header taken from The Ladyboy Marketplace’s Facebook Page)
“Do you really think this will help or change anything? At the end of the day, the children are still going to go out to a world that doesn't accept them.”
This was a harsh wake-up call for Jean Loo when she ran an inclusive art show in 2016 involving more than 80 children and youths. It was meant to be a happy experience for participants and the public to learn about special needs. After all, it was a showcase of works created by children from Special Education Schools like Pathlight School and Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore School.
Yet, after toiling for three months, having a special education teacher walk in and criticise the team’s intention was like being thrown into cold water.
“For us it was like, oh yah, ouch.”
“It makes you question the relevance of your work and the tough realities many families with children with special needs deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
Arts and creativity have always been a way of expression for Jean. But beyond that, she sees it as a responsibility to use her ability in creative arts to share stories and messages for a greater good.
After running her own content creation studio for a decade, the Singapore Youth Award winner from last year co-founded Superhero Me, a non-profit arts organisation that harnesses the creative arts to empower children from less privileged and special needs communities. It also serves as a platform to allow children with different abilities to socialise.
Her inspiration to grow Superhero Me can be traced to the first 15 children she worked with in 2014.
The first Superhero Me project centred on the theme of ‘Becoming’. Through costume crafting, the children explored the possibilities of who they wanted to become despite their social circumstances.
It was a simple project, but the bond that grew between Jean’s team and the 15 children was the catalyst that drove Superhero Me into an entire, inclusive arts movement for children, young creatives and caregivers.
Five years on, it is the little moments with the children she has worked with that motivated her to continue advocating for inclusivity in Singapore.
She shared a story about Jun Le, the first child with autism that the Superhero Me community ever worked with, and how many of the kids were a bit apprehensive of him initially. After their first interaction, everyone was able to see Jun Le as a sweet and funny boy who loves Milo.
“They made their own effort as kids to try and socialise and interact with him.”
That struck Jean: “A lot of times in Singapore, we want to be inclusive, but we’re fearful of those with special needs. Maybe we can trace it back to childhood, because we never had the opportunity to grow up with others who are neurologically different from us.”
Superhero Me also tries to bridge the gap between mainstream and special education schools, through workshops or programmes where ‘typical’ children and those with special needs can meet and interact with each other.
“At the end of the day, the mission of the work is about using art to shape how our next generation might think of each other, and more importantly, opening the minds of families.”
Considering our society’s current sentiments on people with disabilities, this is a big dream to have for an individual. Let alone through arts—a medium that is not widely appreciated by Singaporeans either.
And Jean admits that right from the start, “it was a very idealistic way of wanting to use my photos and stories to change the world.”
Jean’s passion for social advocacy work started back when she was in NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication. She dived into the works of war photojournalists who risked their lives by going to war zones and documenting an issue. Their dedication sparked Jean’s desire to pursue work that serves a social cause.
Her interest in photojournalism then grew into an appreciation of the arts. She discovered how community arts, specifically, did not just help her write about a certain community like socially isolated elderly or people in a particular neighbourhood. It also gave her the opportunity to build a shared experience and relationships with them.
“I wasn't a doctor, wasn't a lawyer, but that really struck something in me—that I can use what I have to make a difference.”
As Superhero Me is a non-profit organisation, funding is a big challenge. Thankfully on that front, the movement is supported by Lien Foundation. It was also awarded the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Seed Grant in 2017.
However, the philanthropic nature of this movement also makes human resources a constant challenge for Jean.
With her team, Jean has reached out to more than 20,000 people, and over 1,500 children have participated in the organisation’s inclusive workshops. All the facilitators juggle responsibilities of their day jobs and their work with Superhero Me, but are driven by a shared vision for Singapore to be a truly inclusive society one day.
Even with the passion that every individual from the Superhero Me community has, the reality is that we may still be a long way from achieving that.
When I probed about the not-so-glamourous side of running programmes that advocates for inclusivity, Jean shared, while stressing the importance of education, how there are instances where they meet people who are skeptical and averse to the cause.
“We’ve had parents who say that ‘oh, I don’t want my kids to mingle with those with autism’. So they walk in [to our event] and they walk out.
However, Jean takes these in her stride. “Everyone’s entitled to their own perception,” she explained. It is not in her power to ‘convert’ people who do not believe in being inclusive. Neither has it ever been her intention to do so. Instead, her hope is to open doorways for people to learn about those with disabilities, when they are ready to, and to start with the willing.
For her dedication in creating inclusive communities in Singapore, Jean was conferred the Singapore Youth Award last year. An award that Jean was psyched to have received, as it helps to shine a spotlight on the work that the team does.
“You never do such work looking for awards, but the nature of the Singapore Youth Award helps to validate what the community has been doing. Not just me, but me representing our whole community of captains, of parents, of kids. It's really everybody's victory.”
One year after the award, Jean’s dream for Superhero Me remains the same: “I look forward to the day where Superhero Me will no longer be relevant.”
Ultimately, while there is no end point in this journey of inclusion, Jean hopes for a day where there will be enough support for disadvantaged and special needs children in mainstream schools. Where kids—no matter how severe their disabilities—can learn alongside their typical peers in early childhood.
However, she stressed that the problem now, is how we look at inclusion.
As most of us are exposed to people with special needs through charity, and the narrative of many charities are of the need for us to help their beneficiaries, the challenge is trying to balance the need to help and respecting their personhood, independence and ability. “It is difficult to see someone as equal if you are always expected to help them.”
“I don't have the answer, but these are the questions that we talk about all the time. And this is something that I hope to be able to explore deeper with our kids at Superhero Me.”
The Singapore Youth Award (SYA) honours exceptional young people every year. Young people who have put their talents, energy, and experiences to work in the service of society.
This year, the 15 SYA finalists are outstanding men and women who are Trailblazers, Changemakers, and Champions. These youths have ventured on the path less-travelled and excelled, sought to spark positive transformation in our community, and triumphed over adversity to become role models.
Read more about the stories of the SYA 2019 finalists here. Vote for the story that inspires you the most and stand a chance to win Grab vouchers!
(This article was written in collaboration with the National Youth Council.)
In the earlier days of his training, going home with cuts and bruises were nothing. Because when one is training in a sport that employs everything from punches and kicks to chokes and throws to achieve dominance in combat, injuries are inevitable.
For the uninitiated, the bloodied faces and broken bones that accompany Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fights paint the sport as violent or even brutal, but for 26-year-old Niko Soe, it is also one that drastically changed his life path.
The professional MMA fighter was exposed to the world of martial arts when his mother sent him to Silat classes at 8-years-old. However, it was not until he discovered MMA at 15 when martial arts became more than a pastime.
“My friend showed me some videos of different martial arts versus different martial arts. Then, when I looked at them, I thought ‘Woah, interesting!’”
He was particularly fascinated with how powerful MMA is but back then, martial arts weren’t as widely taken up in Singapore, and it took him a year before he decided to hit search on Google for ‘MMA gyms in Singapore’.
That search led him to his first martial arts gym, where he would meet one of the coaches that played an integral role in guiding him in his pursuit of a career in martial arts.
Although his parents always worried for his safety, his dad gave him money for the classes in the end because “they just wanted me to do something, as I had stopped Silat for a year at that point.”
However, the initial support soon turned into aversion when it became a new norm for Niko to return home with cuts, bruises, sprains, and stitches.
“They started telling me to stop, but I’m not willing to stop. I want to continue training.” And the more he learnt, the deeper he ‘fell into the rabbithole’.
“It’s fun lah,” he told me later on when I asked him ‘why MMA’, “it’s the reason why I’m still doing this after 10 years.”
He understood his parents’ concern for him, but explained that the worst part of getting injured isn’t so much the pain or the impact it has on his body, but in having to put a pause on something he has so much passion for.
“When I get these injuries, I'm sad not because I got a cut or anything. I'm sad that I cannot train because of that cut.”
These injuries are just some of the sacrifices that Niko has learnt to deal with. We’re talking martial arts after all—a sport that relies heavily on one’s physical ability to fight, as well as the mental capacity to overcome its corresponding tribulations.
Refusing to give up on his passion and not wanting to rely on his parents to fund his MMA pursuit, Niko took up a part-time job after he completed national service.
On top of juggling work and MMA trainings, he also enrolled in a part-time diploma course in hospitality management. Because back then, Niko never fathomed being a full-time fighter. In fact, he had planned to work in the hospitality industry.
It all changed when Niko had his first Sanda fight which his head coach then, Bruce, a Singapore mixed martial arts pioneer, had signed him up for.
“Honestly, that match was terrible because there was no game plan. My objective was just to beat him up, But it was a turning point because the adrenaline I felt there reminded me of why I started doing MMA in the first place.”
Something clicked within Niko. Subsequently, MMA wasn’t just a casual pursuit to him anymore. Neither were the matches: “I started to know how to think properly, know how to control my mind properly, how to prepare for a fight.”
It was a pivotal moment.
However, survival in this industry goes beyond knowing how to fight in the cage.
“Money-wise, the beginning definitely wasn’t easy.”
His weeks were packed to the brim: Every day, he’d train in the morning and afternoon, then head to school or to work at night. This went on for a year.
“So when people say they got no time [for their dreams], that's crap,” he quipped.
Eventually, he switched over from his part-time job in a hotel to teaching martial arts—a step towards making a sustainable career out of his passion. Subsequently, he was also signed by Impact MMA and is one of the youngest trainer there today.
Despite his age, this Singaporean millennial is also one of the most experienced MMA practitioners around and is signed with ONE Championship. When he made his debut at the ONE Championship stage in 2016, he scored an impressive submission victory. He was also highly lauded for his second victory in the 2019 ONE: Roots of Honor.
Looking back on more than 10 years of his journey, he talked about how he had, in pursuing what he loves, popped his knee and elbows, lost his ability to walk or even sit properly for almost 3 months due to a very bad back injury, sacrificed time with friends and even the relationship with his family.
“So, I mean, it's how bad you want it lah,”
Many would see MMA as a violent sport. Some would even argue that it’s just ‘glorified fighting’. To which Niko acknowledged, “Yes and no. It is fighting, but it is also life changing.”
Speaking about the many students he had seen starting out uncoordinated, slow, and shy, he highlighted that the important thing is that these students didn’t give up: “Now, you see them move flawlessly and they have so much more confidence in themselves.”
“A lot of people, when it's too hard in training or if it gets too tiring, they just give up. They don't want to do it again. Or if they get injured, they stop and they say they cannot do it.”
For Niko, perseverance is what got him to where he is today. And despite his admirable accomplishments, he remains rooted to his goals not of achieving fame, but to be the best in the sport.
“That's what I've been working on since I was younger, and that’s what I [still] train hard for [today].”
For Niko, his end goal is simply, to be the best MMA fighter.
Though, when I asked about his thoughts on being able to be recognised on such an established stage like ONE, Niko shared something that I didn’t expect to hear from a pro-MMA fighter who loves what he does.
“Fighting is a chore,” he said, “because after you finish, suddenly it’ll feel a bit lighter.”
He explained that behind every fight is a considerable amount of preparation for these matches. Not only is it a sacrifice on his own time and money, it is the time and, often literally, also the blood and sweat of the team of coaches and partners that train him.
“Everybody's really doing this as a team. It's for the team.”
There are two types of fighters in Singapore: The one that wants others to know that they are a fighter, and the one that just wants to win.
For those who want to be a fighter, it's not about all the fame and glory, but it's all the hardship and whether you can take it. Niko emphasised, “it's a lot of sacrifice.”
“Don't give up. No matter how slow you are, don't give up. Persevere. Of course, you have to be consistent as well, but persevere.”
Also read: Look At My Ability, Not Disability: This S’porean Plays Tennis Despite Being Blind.
For a Singaporean Chinese guy with a long boxed beard and striking green hair tied up into a ponytail, that image alone would warrant antagonistic comments from conservative locals.
What's more, for a Singaporean guy who raps for a living. That’s like a double whammy, in the sense where that would be everything everything our (traditional) parents would have discouraged us against.
In the 90s where most of us grew up in, one would have been an ah beng to sport such a bold look, and crazy to pursue music as a career—as stereotypical as it sounds.
But for 27-year-old Pek Jin Shen, otherwise known as ShiGGa Shay, these are all merely forms of expression.
Before I met ShiGGa, I was like most Singaporeans: I wasn’t particularly a fan of rap music or of him as an artiste. I didn’t dislike him either. But there’s just this impression of him as someone unfriendly, despite having never met him before. His physical appearance and his form of expression as a rapper probably contributed to that air of arrogance he seemed to give off. Though on the other hand, it’s strange if rap and hip hop is cheerful and merry.
This impression is something that ShiGGa has long come to accept, as it isn’t something within his control. Everybody’s got their right to judge, but at least for ShiGGa, he’d rather people have a chat with him before passing him off as arrogant.
“I don’t think I’m better than anyone else, I’m just a human being.”
And to be fair, he was actually pretty chill. It could be that I was an outsider, and a journalist in his eyes, but he was nothing like what I’d perceived him to be when I joined him at Zendyll Productions studios one afternoon, a usual spot where he would work on his music besides his home studio.
In fact, it felt more like a casual gathering of friends coming together to chill (and make music).
I was also treated to a couple of his unreleased works, which includes a collaboration with Korean artiste, Jay Park—set to release later this year.
ShiGGa Shay is also a man of humour. When I asked about his Moniker, he explained that it was an onomatopoeic play on the Chinese words, “是个谁” from “你是个谁,” which translates to mean “who are you”. This came at a time where it was unusual for a Singaporean to do rap.
After a 3-year hiatus, ShiGGa recently released his comeback single, Paiseh, in April.
Just like a lot of his other tracks, it is, for lack of a better description, very Singaporean. And it is what got ShiGGa interested in writing rap in the first place. It is a way for him to express the many thoughts he has about Singaporean life.
“Growing up in Singapore, I was just like anyone else. I lived in a HDB and in that environment, I just had a lot I wanted to say but there wasn’t an outlet for me to say what I wanted to say. So I’d just write raps, and rap to kind of express myself.”
Contrarily, he was the only one in his family that’s musically-inclined and used to play the dizi and the trombone in school. Rap and hip hop came about after he heard an Eminem song on the radio. His fascination with the sound of rap songs grew when he dived into the world of Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and other hip hop artistes of the 90s era.
He was only 9 when he started writing rap. At 14, he performed at his dad’s 55 birthday party, to which he bashfully brushed away when I asked what he rapped about at such a young age.
“I don’t really remember but it’s something… kind of lame,” he laughed.
Mum And Dad Are The Main Motivations For Making Music
In 2009, his dad passed away. It was a pivotal period for ShiGGa as the sadness and trauma from losing his dad could have led him down an entirely different, darker path. However, it became the driving factor that contributed to his career today.
He had always been writing rap, but this time round, music became an avenue for him to express all the negativity he was feeling. More than just as a way for him to cope with the pain of loss, he also wanted to channel all his energy into putting something out there.
Music helped him get through his darkest time, and it was also his wish for his music to be a source of comfort for others going through what he had.
This became a goal that he consistently works towards when he makes his music.
As one of the first few musicians of our generation to have made a name for himself, and possibly the first Singaporean who have made it this far in rap, the challenges he faced are undoubtedly aplenty. There’s also the pressure of living up to expectations as a front runner for rap music in Singapore but for ShiGGa, it’s all a matter of staying true to what he had set out to do.
“Being recognised or known is not really why I did it in the first place. I really did it and am still doing it for the passion of music. And for the fact that I really want to share what I have with the world.”
A true Lion City Kia, many of ShiGGa’s song talks about Singaporean life. Hip hop is a reflection of the current state of society after all, and for ShiGGa, it is both his goal to make locals’ lives a little bit better through his music, and to put the Singapore sound on the world map.
He’s accomplished a lot for a Singaporean self-funded rap artiste, but nothing beats recognition from his mother.
His drive to be successful also comes from the need to take care of his mother. As an only child, ShiGGa has taken it upon himself to provide for her ever since his dad’s passing. His mum has also been his strongest pillar of support in his toughest times.
“I’m very close to my mum. She’s my emotional support, my rock. Everything I do, I do with her in mind.”
Since 2011, he has released several singles and albums, collaborated with many different artistes, and represented Singapore on local and international stages. He even dabbled in acting.
These are all laudable accomplishments but for ShiGGa, nothing beats being a filial son to his mother.
“Accomplishments and all that are external. It’s great being able to represent Singapore at the White House. It’s great performing for NDP. But hearing my mum say she’s proud of me is like the most important thing to me.”
Also read: “You Learn To Roll With The Punches” – A S’porean Millennial On Growing Up With 2 Sisters With Special Needs.
“Hunky Hawker,” “Muscular Hunk,” and “Beefcake.” These are all names that Walter Tay has earned from his striking bodybuilder physique and suave looks, especially for someone who cooks carrot cake at a neighbourhood hawker centre.
If you were to visit his stall at Kampung Admiralty, you’ll find his stall front display plastered with numerous article features of him and the stall.
Though this media darling seem to have achieved a ‘mini hawker celebrity’ status, with locals from all across Singapore and even expats travelling down to his hawker stall just to get his carrot cake (and a glimpse of him), he started out merely wanting to pay off his debts from failed businesses and a Ponzi scheme—A past that he isn’t proud of.
Instead of serving up plates of carrot cake, Walter once served as cabin crew. At 21 back then, he was what you would think of a young cabin crew zealous about seeing the world. It was a well-paying job, and enough to fund his sports car and expensive watches—all symbols of wealth and luxury, which reflected the kind of life he was leading.
But the fun didn’t last.
At 24, Walter left his high-paying job to become a full time sales agent for two brothers who pitched to him about a project that would yield high returns. Young and reckless, the project seemed like an easy way to strike it rich. He was sold that vision, and in turn, he sold that vision to many of his friends, encouraging them to join him. And they did.
All in their early twenties, many of Walter’s friends left their commitments for that vision. Some left school, some left their jobs, and they were also friends who left places that had a very promising future for them.
“They left whatever they were doing to join me full-fledged. They brought in money, they brought in connections, they brought in everything precious to them—I did as well. [But] at the end of it, all burn.”
The MLM company turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, which Walter only realised when he waded in too deep.
“Once you’re midway through, it’s so hard to pull out. Because, you’re also telling the whole world that you are wrong.”
As one of the earlier investors who roped in other investors, it also meant that he was, in a way, accountable to all the investments that his friends had poured in.
Walter finally managed to pull out of the scheme two years later but by then, the damage was already done. It was time, effort, and money that his friends had invested into this after all. Beyond that, it was the trust that was broken.
“So that’s why I really burned all my connections, all my friendships, all my relationships.”
A part of him wanted to blame the two brothers who sold the scheme to him, but he knew that the responsibility was still his for making that final decision. The guilt of having implicated all the people he was closest to sparked his drive to succeed and with that, he started a couple of different ventures.
“I wanted to do something and then make it big [so that I can repay] the people who I owe so much to. But with that kind of attitude [of trying to make it big quickly], I only kept failing.”
While the results of some of his ventures, like a cosmetics business and a fitness competition, were relatively promising in its reach and recognition, financial feasibility was another matter altogether.
When you’ve lost all the people who meant so much to you, and you’ve chalked up a mass of emotional and financial debts from your own doing, it’s easy to fall into a pit of anger, regret, self-blame, and guilt.
Walter was only in his mid-twenties then—a point where most Singaporeans would have either began to establish a stable career or at least starting to have their life sorted out. The negativity of failing the people who trusted him and of failing himself drove him into a dark place. He picked up smoking, and even with all those ventures he started, he couldn’t find meaning in them.
Knowing that his problems became a problem for his parents also made him feel “very shitty, like my naivety and actions caused so many problems.”
It was his mother who changed everything when she took the initiative to apply for the stall that would later become Father & Son. His father, who had been driving taxis as a retirement job for several years, returned to the hawker line for him as well.
With hard work (15 hour days) and a bit of luck, business picked up quickly. Thankfully, Walter was able to pay off the debts he owed from the business earnings, and from selling his car and watches. Some of these debts include ‘paying back’ some of his friends as well.
“I tried to recover people's investments, especially those very close to me, or those who bought into the investment portfolio because of me. I want to repay them—it’s the 人情 (debt of gratitude).”
The whole ‘Hunky Hawker’ image was something he adopted later, which he unabashedly acknowledge having done so for the good of the business. Despite the praises that people have sung about his success however, Walter professed that he isn’t successful—not yet.
To others, his may be an inspirational story of success after hardships. But for Walter, success is when, and if he is able to nurture students to take over the stall, or even set up another branch of Father & Son in the future.
Ultimately, it is also his wish to help contribute to the hawker culture, through baby steps like running his own hawker internship programme, which he is currently working on.
Although, the hawker life actually chose him before he chose it. A child to parents who dabbled in the hawker trade for 20 years, he resolved to not go into this trade after having helped out occasionally.
So, why the passion in not just running a hawker stall but also preserving its culture then?
“We grow up in this society that teaches us that we need to find a job which has very good entitlement, with high CPF, high holiday allowance, high this high that, but actually if you land a job with all these entitlements, you still might not be a happy person. I think it is what you do and how you find meaning in it.”
As a hawker, Walter’s life is a world of difference compared to the pleasures he enjoyed back when he was jetting around. On one hand, the Ponzi scheme is a part of his past that he is ashamed of, and the guilt from implicating friends a feeling that has and will continue to haunt him, it is also a lesson he is glad to have gone through, as it now motivates him to be resilient and to stay grounded.
“We grow up watching Hollywood movies and I thought the high life is what I wanted. I’ve had my fun. I’ve had expensive cars, I wore watches, I stayed opposite MBS. But it’s all fake lah. It’s all a show.”
At the end of the day, it is hawker life that humbled him. It is, to him, a lot more meaningful that the luxuries that he used to chase.
Hawker life is like being neighbours with the people there, and through each interaction he has with customers who return for another plate of carrot cake, he forms bonds with them that are deeper than those he would have formed in his life back then.
He’d even want for his children to be trained in the hawker trade in the future, because “to be a successful businessman, you need to handle a lot. I think it’s a good life training.”
Also read: The Dew Behind #DUNSTOP – How He Lost 18.5KG And Inspired A Fitness Movement.
(Header Image Credit: Melissa Chan)
There are many ways you can die on the mountain. High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema are common high-altitude related conditions that causes death. HAPE causes one’s lungs to be filled with water, which makes it difficult to breath “and as time goes by, you suffocate.” And one mistake can mean falling seven stories down to your death. You could also die by environmental factors like falling ice.
These are just some examples that 29-year-old Jeremy Tong shared when I asked about the possible fatal risks of climbing Mount Everest.
An avid mountaineer who has gone on two Everest expeditions, Jeremy has personally seen a friend die on the mountain. It was on the 22nd May 2019, which had been reported as one of the deadliest seasons on record, and Jeremy’s second attempt at Everest. The conditions on the route to summit that day were extremely challenging: the winds were strong and there was a long human traffic jam all the way to the summit.
“A few people died that day. One of them is my friend. He died after reaching the summit, he had a heart attack.”
When I asked if the death of his friend left a mark on him, Jeremy repeated the question to himself and paused for a bit.
“To be honest, the mountain is like that. It doesn’t discriminate. Even if you’re very fit or you’ve trained very hard or have years of experience, you can be the next victim, it’s really like that.”
As he continued on, stressing the importance of remaining confident on the expedition, I assumed that he probably chose not to dwell on the negative emotions that may have arose from seeing a friend die.
“You have to be confident. Be confident about your equipment, your guide, and yourself, and hopefully it wouldn’t be you [who bites the dust]. That’s the only thing you can do.”
When Jeremy first attempted Mount Everest in 2017, he had to turn back when he was just 200m away from the summit, as his feet was getting too cold. Back then, he had trained one year for this expedition. But even before that, he had already been an avid climber. Everest is, in fact, his 44th mountain.
He had been climbing for 15 years, and started since he was 14.
“I climbed my first mountain, Mount Ophir in Malaysia. I thought it was interesting and I kind of like the journey of climbing the mountain and reaching the top.”
It was just a new-found interest at that point and it was a year later, after his second mountain, Mount Kinabalu, when the interest in mountaineering became a passion that he would later carve a career out of.
This passion was what pushed him to take up an outdoor adventure diploma in polytechnic, and Sports Science Management in NTU. The four years in university were crucial years for him, as he wanted to progress and to climb bigger mountains.
“So I started climbing 6000m, 7000m, 8000m. That’s when it sort of got serious because as the heights scale higher, the risks scale also.”
Advancing on to higher mountains made the dangers more eminent as each expedition is potentially fatal, but Jeremy roughed it out. The sporty streak in him continued through the years as he went for more expeditions and he even started running climbing trips for friends. Eventually, that grew into a business which he started in February 2018.
Jeremy co-founded JTRACE, an adventure company that provides “specialised and bespoke small-group trekking and mountaineering expeditions,” and team building programs—his area of expertise where he worked at full-time for a year after graduating.
However, getting there wasn’t easy, as what he does is both an unconventional choice of career and a dangerous one to chase.
“It’s scary at first, but I think the best way to do things is to put both feet in.”
Besides clocking experience at mountains overseas, Jeremy’s fitness training includes runs and “because there’s no mountain in Singapore, we try to simulate the climbing.” Together with his clients (if there are), he will climb the stairs to the top of a 40-storey HDB building with a backpack and ankle weights on, take the lift down, and climb back up again.
But even the years of mountaineering experience and fitness training will not fully replicate the varying conditions that one will encounter during expeditions.
On the summit day of his second attempt at scaling Mount Everest, Jeremy faced condition similar to his 2017 attempt: It was quite dark, the winds were strong, and he was beginning to feel his feet losing energy from the cold, despite having battery-operated sole warmers.
The human jam didn’t help, as he had no choice but to wait in line in the threatening conditions. He found himself getting impatient, but he kept repeating the mantra of the three 'P's of his expeditions: Pace, Patience, and Mental Power
Eventually, Jeremy managed to push himself beyond where he last stopped, and reached the summit.
Homesickness was also something he had to deal with.
When Jeremy left for the expedition earlier this year, his wife had just given birth not too long before. A climber herself, Jeremy’s wife was fully supportive of his pursuit, but being away from them was still a big emotional challenge.
“Some of the days after you reach base camp, when you’re just resting, or just waiting to acclimatise before heading up, you start to think about family.”
On Jeremy’s phone is a folder of photos of his son, and he would avoid opening that folder too much, because “if I look at it, it’ll just make me want to go home.”
Besides climbing for leisure or business, Jeremy has also put his expeditions into a way to do good. He told me about how his uncle was diagnosed with stage 3 nose cancer when he was really young.
In 2017, Jeremy raised $13k for Singapore Cancer Society. And in the recent expedition, he has managed to raise $11k for Children’s Cancer Foundation, which he will continue raising funds for through his business.
“My uncle didn’t want to die because he’s got kids. [Similarly,] I don’t want to die. I wanted to fight this challenge. Everyday, I’m fighting to survive. There’s so many dead bodies at Everest, [the dangers and fear are] really real when you are there.”
Also read: Meet The ‘Spiritual Guru’ Whose Job Is To Make You Rethink Your Life.
(Header Image Credit: Jeremy Tong)
At 5am where most of us would have still been deep in slumber, Phra CK gets out of bed. Like the other monks who are residing at Palelai Buddhist Temple at Bedok, waking up at the crack of dawn is nothing out of the ordinary.
It’s an impossible feat for most of us, but for Phra CK and the other monks we saw when we visited the temple two weeks ago, this is a lifestyle that they have long accustomed to.
Back when Phra CK was training in monastics in Johor, meditation sessions start as early as 4am every day. Over at Palelai Temple, the first agenda starts at 6am daily—the morning chant.
So there I was, at the start of my day where I will tail Phra CK to find out what a monk’s life is like in Singapore. 34 this year, Goh Chun Kiang is a monk by choice and was one of the youngest in Singapore to be ordained at 23 years old.
In a video interview with us later on, Phra CK shared how he wanted to be a monk ever since he was a primary school kid. Seeing the conflicts between his mum and dad back then made him think about the meaning of true happiness. Then, the shows he watched and books he read further influenced his perspective of wanting to be a monk.
Now a ‘full-time monk’, he resides in Palelai Temple and lives according to the daily agenda set out by the temple.
Together with the Millennials of Singapore team, we sat in silence at the back of the main shrine as we waited for the morning chant to start. The only sounds were the occasional creaks from when the wall fans oscillated. The monks entered singly, each of them finding their own spot in front of the Luong Pho Phra Buddha Jinaraj. And as everyone waited in silence, I actually felt like I would on a very relaxing holiday—calm and with a clear mind.
The temple is open to the public and while we were there, a few people came by for a short prayer and offer incense. A handful joined the morning chant, although, Phra CK shared that the evening chants usually see more crowd.
There is a rack at the back of the hall with chanting books as well, so members of the public can refer to the book and chant along if they wish to.
Midway through the session, I took a copy to attempt to follow the monks in chanting. After flipping through the pages, I gave up, for I had no idea where they were already at. And it was in Pali language.
When I caught up with Phra CK later, I asked how he even managed to memorise approximately 30 minute worth of chants and what more, in a language that doesn’t come naturally to us.
“If you’re talking about intensive memorisation, it took me a month to remember.”
These daily chants covers several aspects of Buddhism, of repentance, of dedication of merits, and of various teachings in Buddhism among others. For Phra CK, the daily chants is also a sort of recollection of the fundamentals in Buddhism and monastics. The chants help him stay mindful.
Mindfulness is one of the key principles they practice in their life as a monk. Such that even during meal times, the monks have their food in silence even as they sat together at a round table.
The whole idea of mindfulness, Phra CK explained, is also to overcome desires.
The exception is if they have urgent matters that require them to talk over their meal. I guess that explains why their meal times are only 30 minutes.
We followed Phra CK to their meal area and watched from afar, for privacy reasons during their meal times.
One of the temple volunteers later invited us to join the other volunteers for breakfast at the kitchen, when the monks were done with their meal—the dishes that are served to the monks are collected back to the kitchen area for volunteers’ consumption after.
When I saw the dishes, I was struck by the quantity and variety of dishes there were there—more than 10 plates of food. The dishes reminded of homecooked meals at my granny’s place: stir-fried vegetables, prawn with leek, carrot cake, and bread, among others. There were also about five plates of fruits like bananas, jackfruits, lychees, and apples.
Unlike some sects of Buddhism that require one to be vegetarian, Phra CK and the other monks at Palelai Temple consider food a blessing from lay people, and they consume whatever is given to them, including meat.
Part of their daily morning routine includes an area cleaning right after breakfast. The scope of cleaning depends on the number of monks staying there and what there is to do on that day.
On that day, Phra CK was mopping the main shrine. On other days, he could be clearing rubbish or sweeping the floor.
At around 8.20am, we headed out to a neighbourhood market area at Tampines, together with another monk and five temple volunteers, who drove us there.
Because being a monk means renouncing material wealth, they have to depend on lay devotees for their food. This is one of the reason they go out on their alms round daily, a traditional practice where they collect food from devotees.
Before this, I had, with my very limited knowledge and my misguided impression of monks, envisaged the alms round to be where they go around coffee shops or markets asking for food.
Instead, a crowd of devotees came up the moment the two monks took their spot at a central location in the middle of two coffee shops and the side of a supermarket. If you didn’t pay attention, you would have thought that people were rushing up to get freebies. The baskets and trolley the volunteers prepared were filled up within the first five minutes, and were wheeled away to be loaded up to the car by some of them.
A short 15 minutes later, we were back on the car headed back for the temple.
I asked Phra CK if the alms round is usually this short (and easy). He explained that at the beginning, it was more challenging as people didn’t understand what they were doing. There were even times where the Police has come up to check on them.
However, as the monks at Palelai Temple have already been following the same Alms Round schedule for more than 10 years, residents and devotees around are already familiar with this. The regular devotees will also have stand-by for the alms round when the time comes.
“Volunteers recognise the devotees, so once they see that they have more of less come already, then can go already.”
Although, this isn’t something that is practiced by every practicing monk. In certain countries, alms round is highly-frowned upon as natives see it as a shameful act of begging.
“This is why during the alms round, we have to look down and stay silent. We are not supposed to solicit donations. We cannot ask for anything, because that becomes begging, and we cannot speak or give any advice in return because this exchange becomes a form of trading.”
This is one of the ways you can tell bogus monks apart from the real ones.
For those who have ordained and devoted their life to monastics, these are also just a few of the 227 rules that they have to abide by.
Some of the rules include basic ones like not lying and not killing, and those that lay people would find hard to live with: Not being able to accept or use money, not being able to laugh loudly, and even extremely specific rules like “not to use mattresses, cushions or cloths filled with cotton or kapok.”
Even meal times are ‘regulated’, as monks are not allowed to eat after noon. Thus, their second and only other meal for the day happens after the alms round at either 9.30am or 11.30am. I cannot fathom how I were to survive with not eating after 12pm, but for Phra CK, these things aren’t a big deal. It is all a matter of conditioning.
“Before I ordained, I went to study up on the rules. When I first read all of them, it was a bit ‘wow’. Initially, it looks impossible when you just read it, but when you apply it to daily life, you just get into it.”
In the end, these drastic lifestyle changes are possible because they have been trained. Nonetheless, there were many things that he admitted having to give up.
“A lot of things. Personal favourites like gaming. I used to love gaming. Music as well. But all of that were just temporary and we are trained to overcome such desires at the conditional retreat, before getting ordained. At the beginning, there was something like Cold Turkey. But over time, I just get used to it.”
As a monk, he dedicates the rest of his day (free time) to meditations, memorising chants for different rituals, and on his own assignments. He is also currently an advisor to a Buddhist youth network, and helps with leadership training, and interfaith training.
Now that Phra CK has pledged to an ascetic lifestyle, I learn that the only thing he is able to watch (by choice) are news and documentary films.
With no worldly pleasures to look forward to unlike possibly all of us, and no material wealth to strive towards, I wondered what, then, motivates Phra CK every day. Are monks really, like those corny Journey to the West kind of movies, just in search of achieving Nirvana?
“Yes. For me it’s spiritual money. Happiness.”
The ultimate goal as a monk is to be fully dedicated to overcome desires, and attain peace and happiness. However, it is contradictory to say that that is an end goal either, as it signifies desire.
“Monkhood for me is a full-time volunteer job, or a lifetime volunteerism. It’s a very personal spiritual cultivation.”
Most of us will never fully comprehend the life of monks and nuns in our lifetime. From our perspective, it is a big sacrifice on things that make up our life today, all to pursue a life that surrounds religious teachings. Furthermore, it is a devotion of one’s life in something so intangible.
After spending half a day with this 34-year-old Singaporean millennial however, I am reminded of how life is really that simple if you mean it to be. We just live in an entirely different world, with completely different perspectives of the world and of our existence. While we are caught up with trying to live a hedonistic lifestyle, being a monk for Phra CK is being free. Free from the need to seek fame, fortune, love, or any sort of material pleasure to live happily. Because at the end of the day, a fundamental tenet of monasticism is impermanence.
Why fret over all those things when we will all go one day?
Also read: 3 Millennials Who Prove That Age Isn’t A Barrier – Keeping Singapore’s Traditional Arts Alive.
Once, she served a case where violence was prevalent at home, and where the child bore the brunt of the violence. Despite the family having already gotten official protections under relevant laws in Singapore, the mother had continued to keep her husband around by choice, and out of fear that things would escalate if otherwise.
As a social worker on the case, she knew that the violence will continue to harm the mother and child under such an arrangement but there was only so much she could do as a third party. She almost had to close the case knowing that the abuse will continue.
This is just one of many cases that has haunted social worker, Gina, emotionally, because it is in her nature (and job) to help and she wasn't able to help them.
“I’d go home and think about it a lot, and it’ll bring me to tears.”
Sadly, this is part of the reality, she tells me. Ultimately, social workers like Gina can only do their best to process situations together with their clients and advise them in the hope that they will find it within themselves to make changes. She is in no position to force or impose anything on her clients, because it is their life to live after all.
“I had to really learn how to let go.”
Emotional exhaustion is an almost everyday challenge for social workers. For new social workers in the field especially, it is very easy to be overwhelmed, Gina explained.
“We don’t really know how to draw the line between work and personal life. But with time and experience you will have to learn self-care.”
Many times, Gina had returned home from a day at work, only to cry to herself thinking about her clients' situation and how heartbroken she is for them. It is worse when she thought that she had done her best and in whatever she could, only to see no progress.
“You feel very helpless. It’ll definitely affect you because these are lives we’re talking about. These are families that are presented in front of you.”
Having to deal with such emotions is twice as hard for Gina, because the self-professed empath takes on whatever the clients feel. In fact, she had to rule out her initial dream of being a nurse for she would find herself unable to function when she sees people in physical pain.
“Literally, when I see people being in pain, I take on that pain myself.”
Social work came into the picture in Gina’s secondary school years. After gaining insights into what it encompasses from a friend from church who was a social worker, she realised that she, too, could do it. It was a perfect match for what she had been longing for, and it fit her personality well.
Several informal volunteer stints later, her mind (and heart) was set. The desire to do social work stuck with her all the way till when she was applying for university after JC.
“I realised that I really enjoyed the process of being in someone’s life for a moment, or to hear a story of someone and to assist them, or just to support them in some way.”
However, doubts naturally started to arise when she started getting comments that discouraged her from taking on what is seemingly a vocation with ‘no future’. And one of the biggest obstacles for her was getting approval from her parents to study social work in university.
“Initially, my dad was not very for it. I think he felt that, and a lot of people have this misconception that social work is like volunteering, and you don't get paid for this. So he thinks there’s no career progression [as well].”
There were also demoralising remarks from friends:
“Do you even need to study social work? Can't everyone do it?”
Thankfully, Gina managed to secure a scholarship, which paved the way for acceptance from her parents, as it symbolised to them the recognition of social work in the industry today.
In her course of study, she explained that students were taught about human development, and in short, the sciences behind human behaviour and how that knowledge helps them in knowing how to work with different groups of people. As part of the course, Gina has also had to complete 800 hours of internship.
However, even with all the counseling and coursework training, being out in the real world is another ball game altogether.
In an overseas social work opportunity, she has had to work with sex workers, of which many of them were tricked into working at the brothel. Not exactly trained in trauma work, she shared that while she managed to impart certain developmental skills to the ladies there, it was more an experience that humbled her greatly.
“It made me realise how fortunate I am. It made me realise how the world is so much bigger than myself.”
Many of us think it’s the end of the world when we face certain setbacks in our life, but comparing it to the ladies, Gina explains that it makes “you realise [that] it’s not such a great deal.”
We could be worrying about messing up a deadline at work, but many of the sex workers there come from poor or broken families who have been lured into the trade, and find themselves trapped.
Besides her stint overseas, Gina have also, at times, had to go against society’s conventions.
Once, she had to convince a school (and herself) that it is the right thing to pull a student out before he completed his secondary school education.
The student was sent to the youth centre that she worked at, as part of a mandated six months programme for a crime he had committed. Gina later realised, and with most of the youth, that this youth was just misunderstood.
It’s common for teenagers to talk about wanting to quit school and although it was the same for the youth, he had also expressed interest in a vocation: making coffee.
“So it wasn't just because he just want to be lazy and not do anything. He just felt that academics really wasn't a fit for him.”
After processing his case and getting support from the parents to allow his son to drop out of school in return that he be sent for the barista training course, Gina sought support from the school. However, that was the biggest obstacle, and the principal even emailed her to question her intentions. It was, to any layman, a ridiculous request to allow a student to drop out of secondary school.
“For a while I questioned everything I did. Whether I’m ruining this child’s life. But my supervisor was very encouraging and after looking through my assessments again we decided it was for the best of the child.”
There was very bad blood between the school and the agency she worked at after the case but eventually, the youth went on to graduate from the barista training program, worked at a cafe, and was promoted to manager.
Gina added that when she went back to visit him one day, the youth had told her that “all his life, he felt that he couldn't do anything right, or that people kept telling him that he wasn't good enough, and now he finally feels like he’s actually good at something and is recognised for it.”
Besides her official work delegations, Gina has also continued to volunteer with various groups like Runninghour, an inclusive running club that promotes the integration of Persons With Special Needs (PWSN) through running
As somebody who loves sports and the outdoors, Runninghour offered a unique opportunity for her to combine her two passions – fitness and working with people in need. Running guides like herself take time off their busy schedules to run with PWSN who might be mildly-intellectually challenged, physically challenged, hearing challenged or visually challenged.
And for Gina, who has been actively volunteering with Runninghour for six years, it brings her back to why she even went into social work in the first place: To make an impact in some way.
“It doesn’t need to be significant. It can be as simple as assuring someone that they are special, valued, or loved. I guess my ultimate goal is to at least show a bit of love to people through my actions or words.”
As part of Runninghour, Gina will also be assisting in their upcoming Run for Inclusion 2019, Singapore's only mass running event where participants run alongside hearing, intellectually, physically and visually-challenged runners. If you're keen to contribute or be part of the community, head over here for more information.
This is not a sponsored post.
Also read: Dealing With Cancer By Running, And Being Called ‘Chao Keng’ For It.
(Header Image Credit: Gina)
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