Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ownership and individualism

I figured Michelle Chong's article really hit a nerve with people on the internet who either fall into the "we lost our sense of pride in our work because" and "yah lor...these days people are..."

Have we lost our way?

We look toward the very earnest service staff in Japan, and admire how warm service is in other countries. We envy German engineering when they devote their entire lives to their trade, and see how the Nordics take their democracy very seriously.

Yet as we admire, we don't band together and do something and change our current predicament. Some might argue it's the nanny state, or the history of the government not listening to its people. We may even go so far to say we have been denied rights. All these gives us a sense of weariness that no matter how much we fight, we can never escape the gilded cage of a perceived wayang political system amidst the forest of bopian citizenry. A veneer covers our eyes, we become focused on ourselves - the big I, Me, Myself takes over. We turn to consumerism, entertainment, gossip and mindless play to distract from the sad reality that beyond the Pleasure Machine, we have very little control over our lives. Working hard insofar as it rewards our pockets and wardrobes, as long as the customer pays we don't really need to care what he/she does afterwards.

It's sad, and my personal dystopia, where people have blinkers to high that they don't realise that we are all suffering together, inspite of our selfishness, and equal powelessness against the forces of fate and state.

I think we need to step aside from the humdrum and really consider the legacy we want to leave behind. Whatever that goes out in your name, are you going to make a difference in someone's life? Will my proposal make someone's life easier, will this email or memo sent make someone smile or generate further discussions that can mutually reinforcing.  It does not mean that you be "nice and polite" all the time, but people resonate with you when you care a lot about how your contributions affect others. It can be a role as a parent, sibling, friend or otherwise.

Artists inherently feel this, because the trade is performative in nature, the strive for perfection drives artists to put their best foot forward towards the light all the time. I think we should all think like artists, and treat your boardroom like an audience. We have that sense of responsibility to whoever we interact with, that we owe it to everyone's limited time and attention, to put our best work forward. You can be broke, hungry, frustrated, you can even feel a little selfish today. We all err from time to time - yet I pray we never become individualistic.

It might sound idealistic, but the Singapore I love is the hardworking hawker who is proud about his signature carrot cake, the plumber who comes in eager to solve the problem in your toilet despite his inexperience, or the MacDonald staff sneaks a couple more curry sauce for the ravenous secondary school kid with chicken nuggets for lunch.

I hope we retain the sense if responsibility towards one another, and despite the macro and micro challenges, we put aside our selfish interests, realise we are all suffering and invest a little enpathy for people other than your paycheck.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The embarassment of regret

It's graduation season, and everyone's cheering that they made it, parents heaving huge sighs of relief that their money hadn't gone to waste and proud professors on stage nodding politely to the next generation of learned with the flame of education passed on.

It might seem the most inappropriate time to discuss....regret?

Yet 5 years (has it been THAT LONG?!) since I wore my first mortarboard, I sat in the audience of robed graduates asking myself, was this all a huge mistake?

This post is not to discuss the things "I would have done differently" nor a romantic reminisce of better times back in the day that I'd wish I'd done differently. This is rather, a post to discuss the embarassment of voicing one's regret.

I have a close friend tell me, that s/he regretted taking geography because s/he felt that history was his/her real passion. I have another friend tell me, I regret going to NUS even, when their hopes and dreams were in a technical college in Germany. Of course, life presents us with crossroads and decisions, often made with partial information available to us. We lool back in regret and we feel embarassed to talk about that.

I think that's not healthy. It invokes self-blame, sometimes justified, many times not. Not that by avoiding self-blame is a measure to encourage arrogance beyond belief. However, it is the simple acknowledgement to one's limits.

While some of us regret signing to a bond, to be working in a profession we otherwise realised we're not suited for, we can either blame ourselves for being "weak" and taking the easier comfortable route, or take this as a learning curve to finally understand that there is nothing to be afraid out there in the world and that opportunities will come to you if you're open to them.

Consequences of self-blame is to take on something you regret doing, and then doing it all over again in a different place because of the reluctance to learn and step our of your boundaries. Over time, it manifests into divulgment of blame - everyone sucks - rather than a reflection and reinforcement that old habits yield the same result.

Having the moral courage to shed embarasment and admit to yourself (in secret, in a cellar, whatever), you were wrong by choice or by circumstance, and find another way out of this maze, is the first step of taking back control and mature as a person. I don't personally think it is wrong to regret because re-gret is also re-flection. I try to be encouraging or stern in pushing those that come to me voicing their regret, in the direction that empowers their life rather than feed the monster of self-blame. I try not to judge, being human and all, and it is important that we start recognising regret as not a dirty secret, but one that we should openly come to terms with.

As we celebrate the start of a new journey, be it marriage, career or education, regret and reflect while you wait on the aisle or in the auditorium and as you step up on the stage or platform, or look through your photographs, ask yourself, "what is my biggest regret, how can I choose differently moving forward?"

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Most movies or drama spit this question in spite, often when a character turns brutally on his or her team.

What kind of person are you?

Brings to fore the age-old conversations of what being human means, discussed at length by sages, philosophers and coffee-shop revolutionists. I don't wish to rehash their treatise, but to focus on the more mundane everyday.

No one can tell us the formula of what makes a "good" person, it after all very much depends on the time and place of what is socially accepted behaviour. As Michiavelli would argue, a Prince need not have genuine altruism, simply display when suitable for his people that will further strengthen his agenda. Christians would argue that God judges all hearts.

Yet, the kind of person we want to be, the very question doesn't surface in our lives as often as it should. Regardless of your moral compass, to choose is to give life meaning. Some people seek meaning in religion, with the path of good being laid out clearly (sometimes too clearly IMHO) and they then choose to follow that path. Walking in the valley of shadows of indecisiveness makes life torment, and in addition, makes us easily autumn leaves in the wind, rather than the oak in the forest. The feeling of being lost, meaningless-ness and living day-to-day in purgatory, makes the hardship that comes with having to fight for what you believe a thousand fold more unbearable.

I'd rather fight for the person I believe I should be 

Monday, June 19, 2017

The politics of friendship?




Friendships are expensive, assuming you give a damn, it takes up energy, patience, and an emotional reserve within us. For some reason, losing a friendship feels like losing on a good investment, and we become even more cautious who we give our time and sympathies to.

Friendships are also financial extras; going to that gym class and that cafe requires an expense. We exchange money to spend time with our friends.
Unfortunately, not all friendships are reciprocal. You may spend hours listening to someone's rants about their work and life, and in turn not be invited for their wedding. We start to wonder, are friendships transactional, political, and some what Machiavellian as well?

Derrida posits that friendships are political, and he first suggests that no relationship is devoid of politics, and true altruism is the realm of God. A "political friendship" immediately brings to mind an economic and emotional transaction. The term "politics" come from Greek - the state of government, or the science of the affairs of the state. Derrida, in his paradoxical fashion of writing, refers to the breaking down of friendships in the political realm, that "O my friends, there is no friend.", only common interests - a belief held in international realism in foreign affairs today.

What of personal friends? Modern social science writers study friendships as "political" in the personal realm. On the macro, we have study of networks and friendships as class-propagating, we are more likely to make friends within our class circles. On the micro, feminists study how friendships in the LGBTQ community form support and reliance, how foreign expat women form friendship alliances in foreign lands. They are political, because like a gift-economy, "feelings" are exchanged for interests. The very reason why we feel betrayed, or disappointed when a friend doesn't give us the Return of Investment we expect from them.

Does this mean there is no humanity in it all? I don't think so. Just because some thing is exchanged in a gift economy, means that it is cold and economic. The affecting qualities of friendships, how one feels about this exchange, if sincere and out of care for the other, is what sustains this gift-economy. In politics, "friendships" refer to strategic alliances, but even so within the corridors of power, affectation kinship forms.

What makes 2 individuals "click"? It might be common interests, or simple sharing a similar worldview. Yet, friendships based on similarities alone is the sketch work to the full oil painting. The inexplicable quality of friendship transcend power relations, exchange and even gifts. The word we are searching for is sincerity and commitment - much is based on choice. You choose to invest time in this person, not expecting that an individual will betray you. You choose to spend resources to help a friend in need, not considering your return of investment. However as ties become thicker, the strain of giving one-sided takes a toll only when the other person is insincere, cynical and selfish. A gift economy breaks down when it becomes less reciprocal - it can be unequal in material goods or services but if each gives what they can most afford, it is the thought and sentiment that is exchanged rather than the physical thing itself.
That's why some people, especially of the older generation, argue that money buys you friends but not affection. It hints towards an unequal exchange of sincerity, the best one can give within the circumstances they are in. To withhold any or everything is the very thing that politicised friendships, breaks a return to investment. It iteratively regresses.

Friendships, the ones I recognise, are not political, they are mutually enriching, beneficial and self-reinforcing. Any time this precarious state choose to cease, and when individual ambitions and self-interests come to play, it stops becoming a gift-economy, and transforms into a transaction of interests. My heart goes to those who give because they expect something in return - acceptance, belonging, recognition, to prove their worth - and those who endless take - to hurt before they get hurt, to fill an endless greed.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Lessons from the people I hated

We all have beef with someone, it ranges from frenemies to arch-rivals. It is easier to get supporters for those we hate, dislike and fun to mock someone, than to relinquish one's hedonistic pleasure in seeing the other suffer.

From exes, to ex-friends, the people we encounter all have valuable lessons to offer. I am not referring to the usual rhetoric "s/he taught me so much about myself, how I can be the bigger person" type of revelations. Those are reflexive exercises. What about actual lessons? Those nuggets of words that were spoken by someone less than desirable but nevertheless we have to admit to be true. Direct lessons from the very person we love to hate.

I have a few, and I'll be happy to start the ball rolling and admit that I have come to appreciate the wisdom of those we do not like.

1. My ex-boyfriend
Our very first argument was over a person's work aptitude. I was an idealistic academic who believed that everyone deserved a shot an employment, citing post-colonial and post-structuralist discourses. My ex is the exact opposite - a potent realist who works in recruitment. He meets and interviews more people in a week than I do in 2 years in my research.

His conclusion is that some people in certain buckets can do it, and others don't. The line is drawn clearly between the has and has-beens.

At that time, I found that idea preposterous, almost infringing upon the very definition of access to equal employment. Yet, having been to the workplace for a couple of years now, I can fully appreciate where he was coming from. The wool over my eyes revealed both my ignorance and arrogance. I was viewing the individual through the lenses of my privilege - a privilege provided by having access to better education than most people.

Not everyone is cut out to do the jobs they think they can do. Not everyone enjoys the successes of entering the labour market. Like what Haresh Sharma illustrated in his play, "those who can't, teach" - not all students can be saved and some will fall by the wayside. It is a sad fact that is the outcome of many structural and individual factors outside of our control.

2. My secondary school ex-friends

There was a period of my teenage years, during O'levels, that I had no friends (except 1 or 2) because my own group abandoned me for an obscure reason (I pissed them off apparently).

Back then, the deepest moment of my teenage life, I felt like no one accepted who I truly am, and it was a fight or flight moment. I tried to adapt and readjust my worldviews, to see how most people see things. Eventually, I gained EQ and social-awareness.

However the direct lesson I learnt was actually from one of those confrontations I had when one of them said, "you make people feel stupid, and you make them feel like it's their fault. Yes, we are not as smart as you, but so what?" Little did I know that my criticism of their work and other personal stuff made others feel inferior. It is an obvious point on hindsight. Of course repeatedly pointing out someone's mistakes is going to give you backlash. However, the younger me didn't have this experience because I've been too preoccupied with what I think is right - that correcting each other and improving is what we do as friends. It never occurred to me that well-meaning words can become cruel cold reminders of a person's own insecurity. Not everyone is equally accepting of personal criticism. I was fortunate to learn this lesson at 16, and 12 years later, I still remind myself to be fair in my comments, even when others have made serious mistakes.

3. My if-you-know-you-know people

After my mum fell to her stroke, the worst part was my family's inability to grieve properly because this group of individuals were "busy" with their own grief that as the survivors of this traumatic incident, we had to drop everything to accede to their demands.

Ultimately, I have never bore so much disappointment in a group of adults. Being 19, I grow up, hitting your early-adult years, hunger for wisdom and guidance as I navigate an increasingly murky world, made more messy because no 19 year-old has to face her mother in coma. You never expect the people whom you'd assume all along to be there for you, to be the very people who let you down.

This is perhaps the only incident that also has a reflexive angle - I learnt that we cannot rely on anyone. If they are there to help me, then I'd be pleasantly surprised but I don't expect it from anyone.

Having said, I've learnt directly from this, how not to treat your own parents. Seeing the ways some people shuttle their own parents off to take advantage of a family tragedy, is both remorseful and distasteful. It is a small fortune that we turned out okay and I am forever grateful.

4. My ex-manager

A lot could be said about this ex-manager. I personally don't dislike her as a person, and there were meaner bosses whom I've learnt nothing from. However, despite her short temper and sometimes frayed instructions, I can honestly say that her lessons in working smarter has certainly paid off.

I have learnt much excel shortcuts, how to report data efficiently, as well as more effective communications. While I don't agree with her supervising style, I can see value in her work. While I have gone on to learn even more from others, but she was the one who truly gave me the toolbox an underskilled-and-over-educated grad student sorely needed.

I think the same can be said for many circumstances, and some people might call me a moderate. However, I think if we spend so much time ensuring the person we beat down never stands up, we lose an opportunity to learn something valuable that in turn strengthens our position. Assuming your goal is not driven by hedonism, and that your goals all along is in service of a purpose other than your ego, then it is sometimes necessary to take a step back and learn from the other, whatever the discourse, positivist or post-structuralist, right-wing or left-wing...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Toxic people: How now brow cow?

I think there are plenty of articles that have covered toxic people at the workplace, written by professionals who have way more experience and exposure than I.

I'll take a stab at this not because I want to add to the merriment of advice that's already out there, but to draw analogies between personal lives and working environments that overlap and remind my future (and your) self when times seem bad.

My first encounter with a toxic environment was when I've just graduated from JC and took a temp job at Woodlands industrial park as a sales admin assistant. 3 months felt like 3 years and I wanted to quit every day but my mother insisted I stayed on. My mum has always been about tough love but on some sadistic scale, it made my bullshit for nonsense a lot higher (which was her goal anyway). It was later, when my organisational behaviour lecturer introduced this idea of a "toxic work environment" that I started to have a frame around the experiences I was feeling.

Toxic bosses
There are tons of literature about dealing with bosses that take score. Bosses that are unreasonable and unsympathetic. Bosses that seem not to care, or give appreciation to what you are doing. Bosses that are bossy, passive aggressive, or worse, vindictive. Plenty of people's push factors are often their immediate supervisor. For those head-strong subordinates, they leave their jobs in self-preservation. Others resemble women (and men) in emotionally and physically abusive relationships. The individuals internalise the discourse and abuse hurled at them. After a while, you believe that you're not good enough, and that no other employer out there would want you because you're "so lousy". The worst cases are when these abused employees that never leave and start the abuse themselves when they stay long enough to be promoted.

Workplace abuse is a boo-boo topic at any HR office and an uncomfortable situation to be in. I often have a 3 month-rule. If the employer continues to attack your work quality personally, have enough self-love to leave and start fresh in mind with another employer.

("you are a graduate and you can't even handle simple admin"..."I don't want to see your face, you annoy me."...or nonverbals like neglect with old shoulders when confronted with an urgent request)

Victims of abuse tend to follow a path dependency especially when over time, this type of partner is all they know how to love. So sometimes it helps to have a critixal checklist of questions to uncomfortably ask your prospective employer so as to protect yourself. It helps to voice out your experiences with workplace abuse. It's not a sign of weakness and any prospective employer who thinks that way will probably not be suitable for you. Voice it in a way that empowers (I refuse to be treated with no dignity, did you know he said...) rather than come across as a complaint (she gave me too much work, I had to work until 2am) because the latter doesn't show that you know what you're doing. So, if you list down the reasons for leaving in a list and many of them sound like petty complaints, you know perhaps you should revist your working style instead.

Toxic colleagues
I have 2 personal beliefs. One, never work with friends, and second, never mix work with the personal.

It's one thing to invite your colleagues to a wedding or party, but another to reveal personable traits such as your person judgement on certain issues (or worse, even other colleagues as that would just be gossiping). It's okay to share general views and another to express something like, "I think BDSM is cool and everyone should try it." I never cross the blood-brain barrier of work life and personal life.

For one, what happens if you DO gossip about others, what makes you think they won't turn on you? Perhaps your follow-up thought would be, they'd gossip about me anyway, why shouldn't I join in to ensure I don't keep tabs on them?

Come on lah, if people really want to speak badly about you, you wouldn't know it and even if you do - what do you intend to do? Follow up and confront them about it? Then whole thing falls apart and you're stuck with 0 "friends" and 0 trust from those around you; and have to walk away licking your wounds.

Keep your record clean, above board, partake not in the toxicity of this high school gossip shit, and just shrug away comments that come your way that are meant to fish for a response. Make it about work all the time; joke about work and maybe Trump, but never sink into the quicksand of unhealthy finger pointing and judgement. Toxic colleagues will want lure you into their world, like a band of druggies and their gossip is veil false security, an addiction, that makes you feel that you're in-the-know. I'd rather have no "friends" at work, than companions like these.

Ultimately, in time, toxic cliques and groupies will drive away good colleagues and what is left is a pile of bones that will eventually be discarded. I've seen it happen twice now, and favouritism will be the downfall of any management or business. By the time it happens, I'll be frolicking with some dolphins off the Australian coast.

Toxic clients
I find that Singapore generally have this "maid-mentality". What do I mean by this?

They think that just because they pay someone, they own and get to dictate when domestic helpers shit, eat and sleep. They expect them to go "beyond their jobscope" to also help you clean their backside. Some clients do this all the time - this unhealthy relationship is what drives many account servicing people out of their jobs and into a mental institution.

It wears any person down. One drink, two, and suddenly you're saddled with a health problem brought about by the many recesses of "the pressures in life".

Recite this: I do not deserve to suffer for the pains of others.

And walk away.

Simple as that, anger and malice requires a dance partner, let the chilling hurtful words slide from your back, don't ever let the water enter and fuel that deep dark place of doubt and insecurity.

Fuck it, fuck off, fuck them. Politely of course.

If people with money (money that isn't even theirs) cannot learn to be proper human beings, then they can jollywell learn. If the good stay silent, the evil will win. Hasn't the holocaust or any genocide taught us enough already?

It is not about war, it is to take an active role in making the world a better place by taking small steps.

Eventually, as long as any toxic client makes it personal, when you're losing sleep not because you can't bring in the deliverables for them but because they spite your very being, it's time to grow a backbone and escalate the matter. I have hope that decent bosses will see the issue as a negation to good business, and I have seen senior management manoeuvre such behaviour to their advantage by going to their bosses to ask for their people to tone down or else.

It's all about power, and not every client is powerful, and not every account servicing is a slave. Look at your organisation, the annual revenue, the major source of funds that pays your salary, and decide for yourself if you have to be subjected to this abuse. For the middling people like ourselves, escalate whatever issues and let the bigger players pull their agenda. You don't have to suffer or bitch about it.

In any case, the best way to neutralise any toxic, is a reagent. An alkali neutralises an acid, bonds untangle into harmless components of water and gas. Similarly, individual components are innocent in itself, but under the right conditions react together to cause harm. Adding water, or a dilution, only brings down the concentration but does not its latent potency. Don't feed toxicity by avoidance or feigned ignorance. Tackle it, subvert it, even if you are the smallest fish in the pond, in your own way, in your own style.

To all the lies, deceit and hidden insecurities - I'd say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Comfort zone: the ins and outs

My last entry, I wrote about being more forgiving with ourselves, to look into the paradoxical nature of our desires. It may seem counter productive that I write about the thirst for constant improvements.

About the same time as my last post, I had a deep chat with a good friend about the unlikeliness of our careers. We both didn't take the obvious route into teaching, civil service or similar functions given the long run of pattern in our department. We both consciously looked for external experiences, and now that we've left school for a couple of years, sort of discussed why.

"I was getting boxed in and comfortable, I had to get out."

I am not saying that teaching, civil service and jobs associated with these are boring, or part of an unchanging times. Indeed many of my classmates have travelled for work more often than I do, and the jobs they do are certainly meaningful and interesting.

For me personally, it was something so familar (almost my whole family is in the civil service), to learn anything new quickly, the easiest was to try new things.

...

Comfort, the home you return to after a long day, the warm shower that welcomes you into its embrace, the familiar smell of your sofa as you sink deeper into slumber.

...

I think zones of comfort are necessary to keep us sane, we all need a "break" and time to recoup ourselves. Doing familiar work might be the easiest way to remain productive and earn a living. Yet, once you are ready, a metamorphosis must begin, the butterfly must leave its cuccoon and like the eaglets that were forced out of its nest by their mother to fly or die, we need a kick off the cliff once in a while.

I think consequently on the other end, people relish in forever being challenged, and that becomes the only thing they know. They run too fast, forget that people behind need to catch up with you. They sprint for the finish line and are already eyeing the next race before the one they are on are over. This never-ending line of doing and challenging means a new equilibrium is created, the comfort zone becomes one that is in constant motion. The challenge is not the pursuit of growth, but to grow by understanding and come to terms with oneself in peace, solitude and recollection.

Regardless of your personal circumstances, as much as it is important to step out of the box, for some others, it's necessary to also return to it and take stock of your medals and legacy.