Story 1 — Pre-U Seminar 1986

Many years ago, when I was in JC 1, I was a participant like many of you here. I was involved in one of the research teams and I was one of the presenters as well. As the first story I share with you, let me read out to you the introduction from the speech by the guest-of-honour for that particular Pre-U Seminar. Just in case you think I was overly enthusiastic and actually took notes, I had no clue and I could not remember who the guest-of-honour was. I also could not remember what was being talked about. But surprisingly when I googled it, the speech was online.

“The last Pre-U seminar on the economy was in 1975, after the First Oil shock. We were then deeply worried about the economy. But the nation rallied together, and so we pulled through.

Now we face a new economic crisis. This recession marks the end of a phase of our economic development. To recover from it, our economy must advance in new directions. We need to find a formula which will see us through the next decade, into the next century. These will be the decades of your working life.”

The purpose of sharing this little story here is not to tell you that we must pay attention to the guest-of-honour when he speaks, but to share a period of my life, and certainly the life of many of my peers; and I think many of the teachers and principals here went through difficult periods as well. When was the last recession? Perhaps in 2008 when we had the financial crisis but that was remarkably short-lived. And remarkably short-lived also because at the onset, when the Lehman Brothers crisis hit, we were literally peering into the edges of the abyss because we did not know what was going to happen. Fortunately, we recovered very quickly, in large part because we learnt the lessons and stories from what happened in the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and the changes that were put in place as a result of that.

But 1985-1986 was a particularly difficult period. You read about some of these things in the news, you see the effects of it, especially when parents of your friends are affected and they lose their jobs. It was difficult, not just from a financial standpoint, not just from a grand strategic standpoint for the economy, but in very real terms, in terms of the lives of the people that are affected. And in this short introduction, the guest-of-honour also talked about the oil crisis in 1975. My parents went through that and perhaps your grandparents went through that. There were many such stories and the purpose in sharing this story is that in today’s Singapore where we grow up, where many of you have been growing up in the good years, where you see Singapore developing with many exciting developments, we almost imagine that the good times will continue. It’s a given. We cannot imagine any other possible scenarios. Sharing these stories help us to remember what we went through, how we dealt with them, and this is something for us to take away from. And you have to decide for yourself, what do you want to take away from these stories? The school cannot decide for you, the government cannot decide for you. But what I take away from these stories, is that we do not take what we have for granted. We need to stay ahead in the game when we can. When we face difficulties, we will deal with it.

And in case you are wondering who the guest-of-honour was, he was my present boss, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was Acting Minister for Trade and Industry then.

Story 2 — MacDonald House bombing

The second story to share with you is to ask you what are the stories that you grew up with? I am sure your parents told you stories, I do not mean the stories from the story books but their life experiences, what they encountered and what they faced when they were growing up. For me, my parents grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the things I shared recently on my Facebook was the MacDonald House bombing. I know many people have forgotten about it and some treat it as if it was a trivial incident. But my father worked in MacDonald House. My father did not come from a rich background, he barely took medical leave, but on the day of the bombing, he was home as he happened to take medical leave. And the place where the bombing took place was the place where he would have gone to when he took his break. It is as real as that. Things happened, and there were real lives lost.

What do I take away from stories like that? My parents grew up in a period where there was turmoil, and there were riots, uncertainty, housing issues, sanitation issues, and job issues. There were many, many concerns that Singaporeans faced. At the end of the post-colonial rule, when people looked at South-east Asia, people were looking at Burma (known as Myanmar today) and Philippines as two bright shining stars – educated, populous, established bureaucracies, one an American system, the other British, with loads of resources. Singapore was successful in its own right to some degree, but always very much part of the British colony, and very much tethered to the Malay Peninsula. I remember my mum sharing with me quite a number of times about how fearful she was on the day we were booted out from Malaysia, August 9th. It wasn’t a sense of euphoria and excitement, but fear, uncertainty, because we did not know where we were going to go. And again, many of them of that generation felt the same uncertainty when the British announced that they were going to depart from Singapore earlier than expected.

And these stories remind us that even though things seem hopeless, and nobody really gave us much hope, it is useful for us to remember that despite all odds, we fight on. I think we took off from there to build something special.

But you will find today, that some are beginning to say that actually, Singapore was already successful. It was not such a dramatic transformation. But for many of us who have heard such stories, we know that it is a consistent story, from our pioneer generation, of the sheer transformation that we have seen within one generation. There are very few countries that are able to do that. I am not sure if we are able to do that again if we were to turn back the clock. It was the confluence of many things. What is your takeaway from these stories? For me, it made me feel strongly about our own security and defence, which was a big reason why I joined the SAF when I graduated from JC to embark on what I thought to be a lifelong profession. It made me feel that it was important to give back to society, to be in public service, something that I continue on today. It also made me realise that what we have, we should not take for granted, and we should hope. There is always hope and that we are a remarkably resilient people.

Story 3 — Tsunami 2004

The third story. Well, 10 years ago, on December 26th Boxing Day in 2004, a massive earthquake occurred and a Tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean. Two hundred over thousand people died, a hundred over thousand people went missing and scores injured. I remember first hearing about this incident when I brought my daughter for swimming. I heard people talking about some big waves in Indonesia. Later on in the day as we watched the news. I was wondering what is a Tsunami? That was the first time I came across that term. And with every hour, we began to realise the scale of devastation. The remarkable thing was that we had not done an operation like this before. I mean we had done many different trainings and operations but relief effort of such a scale was not something that we had done. The next day on 27 December we began mobilising, the headquarters were meeting up and remarkably, many units on their own accord decided that this was something we might get involved in. Within a few days, the Air Force flew off some choppers, air crafts and supplies. Our main task force, which till today is the largest military operation we had mounted, basically sailed off to the unknown on New Year’s Eve, within a matter of days. And these were not your standby units that were on a 24-hour readiness mode. These were ordinary units.

There were many stories about this but I would share one big takeaway for me. For me, it was a glimpse into the heart and soul of our people. During the operations, we did not have a lot of time to think and reflect. It was very emotional. I remember I flew ahead in the task force, I entered Banda Aceh on New Year’s Day and I always remember the helicopter ride down the west coast of Aceh itself. It’s a beautiful place and I had been there once before. It was just sheer desolation and devastation and as you looked out of the helicopter, you hoped to see some life but you just could not see any. It was a beautiful landscape but I would always remember that very sheer brown scar on the mountain where the trees and vegetation were ripped off by the waves. The big takeaway was this – it was generosity of spirit that our people showed – our soldiers, airmen and our sailors, and our nurses who volunteered to come. The volunteers who came forward, the many Singaporeans back home whom mobilised themselves to reach out and help a fellow neighbour. It was the magnanimity of spirit, the dignified respect that we had accorded the locals. When we interacted with them, we made sure that our people did not wear the sunglasses. We made sure that when we disbursed aid, we did not throw the food and water out of the truck or helicopter. At all times, even though people there needed help, we made sure that we treated them as brothers and sisters and to accord them respect. And I can tell you that that one experience would stay with me for a very long time because it shows that despite the fact that we are a people who like to grumble a lot, we have a lot to say about many things, but when it comes to the crunch, I think we are remarkable people. And we should never forget that. And we should never run ourselves down. And you see that not only on occasions like these, on many occasions since, on a day to day basis, you see many acts of kindness that reflect our true spirit.

Story 4 — Social team on the ground

The 4th story is a very simple one. Not sure if it qualifies as a story but it was a status update from my friend’s Facebook. On the ground as a MP, I operate in an area where we have a fair number of low income Singaporeans. We have developed various programmes because we feel that at the ground level there is space for volunteers, be it activists or grassroots leaders or volunteers of all sorts – we play a role which I think government is not able to play because I do not think the government is able to reach all the way down to that level in detail. That is where the community can operate and work closely with government agencies, whether from MSF or medical health institutions. So we form social teams where we follow up and visit families to understand better what the problem is. Some problems are genuine, some less so, some are complex, and we have social safety nets to catch people when they fall. But for us we feel that if we can catch people before they fall, all the better, because often we see people who have been struggling for some time and many of them have a lot of pride, not in a negative way, but they want to stand on their own two feet. This is what he posted:

“Delivered the second tranche of donation comprising toys, books, children clothing, a table and 2 chairs to a needy family that we are hand holding as part of our social house visits this afternoon.

Thanks to all the kind hearted and generous friends Alvin Chan, Quek Chee Tiong, Jasey Poh and my two little daughters who donated part of the above items, while my fellow Professional Photographer volunteer also brought in bags of stuff and the table/ chairs.

It was also heartening to find out that the husband of the family is adapting well in his new job, while we encouraged him to persevere, so that his family condition can get better. The family is also excited that their two toddler daughters are finally getting into infant and childcare from tomorrow. Hope the mother can find a good job after that to supplement their family income. This is very much a happy ending (progress) that we were happy to see. However, at other house visits, we also saw new cases that require the team to investigate and assist.”

Every weekend, we have teams of volunteers who put in time to go forward and visit the households to understand better the situations that people face and help to link up to the relevant agencies. What is my takeaway from a simple wall post like that? I am grateful for my friends and volunteers who stepped forward to help, making a small difference in their own ways. Again, this may not be a big massive crisis, but from the little actions, I’m inspired by the fact that we have Singaporeans who truly care.

Story 5 — Mr Chia and his trolley with a cardboard box

And the last story – I often post stories on my Facebook about people I meet. I regularly stop to meet people – foreign workers, locals, or old folks working in the shopping malls because I want to find out if they are paid their CPF and getting their adequate overtime pay. There was once I spoke to one old lady who was rather concerned because I seemed to be asking lots of details and she asked me if I needed a job. It was quite amusing but it is useful because when they do not recognise you that helps a lot.

This was a story I posted some time back. We meet many people like this and often we just walk past them, barely ever talk to them. Some of us get angry when we see their situation and we think that society is failing them. But we do need to remember that society is made up of every one of us.

Well, I met Mr Chia in my estate. He was pushing a trolley with a cardboard box and he was picking up from the dustbins. I stopped the car and chatted with him for quite a long time. As it turned out, he came from Swatow when he was 14. He is 73 now. He lives in his 4-room flat, which is fully paid up. He has two sons, one working in Hong Kong. They are not well to do. They are managing, not sure what his son in Hong Kong is doing. His other son is working as a cleaner. He walked all the way from Hougang to Macpherson and he shared with me he has different routes everyday so he walks to different places. He told me that he is very grateful for the residents who put in the effort to set aside their newspapers and “barang barang” for him. On a good day, he can earn about $30 a day. On a poor day, perhaps less. Obviously I asked him – “Do you need help? Help definitely is available.” We went on back and forth on this for a long time. And he said, “When I need help, I’d let you all know! Don’t want to trouble you all!” And this is a recurring thing that I take away from many old people I speak to. I do not walk away with pity, I do not walk away feeling sorry for them. I walk away with a tremendous amount of admiration for this generation of Singaporeans who believe in standing on their own two feet and providing for themselves and learning to make ends meet. I know that sometimes we react with pity, with anger, but perhaps we should take our time to talk to them. To be honest, there are also those who do need help.

Let me continue his story. His children asked him to stay home but he felt that he should keep active and keep fit. And he was telling me that he is fit “because I walk like this everyday, picking up stuff!” But there is the onset of Parkinson’s. I could see his hands shaking slightly. He is seeing the doctor and I am glad that his treatment is fully provided for after the medical welfare officer looked at his case.

Why stories?

Stories are powerful and emotive. They remind us of the past, our roots, our history, and they form the foundation upon which we build our future. I think stories can also help us and inspire us to believe that despite everything, there is always hope. Stories inspire us to believe that even in small ways, we can make a difference. And there are many people who do. But I also think it is important not to sugar coat this whole aspect about the impact of stories, especially today. There are also stories that inspire hate, stories that rather than serve to build, serve to tear down. It is something we need to decide for ourselves, how to relate to that. We see that happening today, some of you might even be participating in that as well. But I am not here to judge. I have my views, but I think all of us need to decide for ourselves how do we view stories like these and how we ourselves contribute.

So the question really is, apart from the fact that we need to discern and decide what stories we read, follow and believe, more importantly, what are the stories we want to tell? What are the stories that we will be creating? What are the stories that people will say of us? That’s a choice that we have to make.

The question is, when you look back many years from now, a good way of figuring out what the future holds, where you ought to be, where you should go, is to imagine what things will look like. When you look back at your story, what will it be? What would your life story be? What would the stories be said of you and the kind of person you are? Would it be a life of regrets? Would it be a life with a happy ending? Would it be a life well-lived? Would it be a life that loved, cared and made a difference to the people around you? I think that the things that matter most would be the people around you. Your relationships, friends, family, neighbours. The respect that you gain, and not just the material gains – your fantastic academic results, your career as a CEO or politician. I think all these in the overall grand scheme of things would not count for very much. But it will be the people around you that matter. This is your story and only you can write it. We cannot give this responsibility to others. It is your life and for you to live.

Collectively, our lives and our stories will make up the story of Singapore. What will that story be? I think we need to decide for ourselves, as we live our lives to the fullest. Collectively we are also writing the story for ourselves as a nation. This is my view, and I think that the best days are ahead of us. There is no reason that we should put ourselves down. We have the capacity to reach out and make a difference to others and we can see that today. Despite all odds, do not take things for granted and stay ahead of the game because ultimately we want to look after the people to the best of our ability. That is a collection of stories, we do not know what the outcome would be. But I know what my part would be, the step that I took, not very long after JC, to decide to enter public service and join the army. In my own naive and romanticised way, believing in public service, that this nation, this people, this cause that is Singapore is worth fighting for. And the story for me continues. Hope it goes on for as long as possible, and I continue to make a difference where I can.

But ultimately you have to decide for yourself what that story has to be. And with that, I wish all of you a very fruitful Pre-U Seminar. It is important for you to have time to think for yourself as your whole life lies ahead of you, to think about what kind of stories you want to write and share, how would you want to inspire others and the lives around you.