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The Art of Keeping On: 3 Singaporeans Tell Us What They Learned From Life’s Twists and Turns

The Art of Keeping On: 3 Singaporeans Tell Us What They Learned From Life’s Twists and Turns

  • Culture
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Photography: Zachary Tang (Daniel Goh)/ Thaddeus Loh (Zhu Minying and Imran Johri)

The first film I watched in 2020—just a few days after the New Year, in what already seems like a different time—was Jojo Rabbit. The film, about a young boy coming of age in Nazi Germany, concludes with these lines by the poet R. M. Rilke: Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.

I’ve thought a lot about these lines in the months since, and how we survive the things we think will overwhelm us.

So far, 2020 has been a Commando-level exercise in endurance, like the product of a demented scriptwriter determined to find inventive ways of putting their characters through hell. Every month has seemed to bring some new loss: dreams derailed or delayed, waves of business closures, families buckling under the strain.

There is no set of instructions for surviving tragedy, whether a personal crisis or a global pandemic. Nor is it as simple as walking towards the light, when you can make all the right moves and still lose. Sometimes, there’s nothing to be done except hold on tight and wait for the worst to be over—and to be surprised by your own strength.

To have been weathered away by something, after all, is to be worn down by it, but to weather storms is also to survive them. And in this, it’s worth looking back at what we’ve already been through.

From the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 to SARS in 2003, Global Financial Crisis in 2008/2009 and now COVID-19, Singapore has endured her share of crises over the years.

In the time I’ve been alive, Singapore’s been through the Asian financial crisis and the dot-com crash, post-9/11 uncertainty, SARS, the 2009 global financial crash, and now, Covid-19. These are just the largest, history-textbook events, to say nothing of the personal crises which form the in-between moments of everyday life—the ones you think you won’t survive, until, somehow, you do.

We spoke with three Singaporeans about what they’ve learned from life’s twists and turns, and how they came to learn, in their own time, that no feeling is final.

Daniel Goh, 45, Entrepreneur

Like most precocious graduates, I left university thinking the world would roll out a red carpet for me. But it was the year 2000, Singapore’s economy had just recovered from the Asian financial crisis, and jobs were still scant. If any jobs were available, they weren’t in the media sector —that was starting to decline —and I was a journalism major.

When you’re rejected from job after job, no matter how talented or skilled you are, you quickly learn that the world doesn’t revolve around you. I finally landed a job as a Librarian at the National Library Board, doing research at the then National Library on Stamford Road.

From there, I joined the National Heritage Board at what was—unbeknownst to me— probably the worst possible time. Mere months after I joined, SARS ravaged Singapore. Travel was effectively shut down, which meant there were very few visitors to the various museums under NHB’s care. I remember many friends in the travel and hospitality industries losing their jobs. Even the public sector was hard-pressed; there were pay cuts across the board, and bonuses that year, if there any, were very paltry.

For me, the turning point came in 2010, when I was retrenched from a gaming company. The management had decided on a restructuring that didn’t include me and a few other colleagues in its future.

It was a very harsh and painful lesson, but it opened my eyes to the fact that there’s so much I cannot control in my own destiny. Or could I?

I took my severance pay and started a craft beer hawker stall, The Good Beer Company, in 2011. That expanded to a second stall, Smith Street Taps, in 2013.

The interesting thing about entrepreneurship is that your work defines you. Unlike a corporate job where you can generally hide behind a faceless corporation, when you’re an entrepreneur, people equate what you do with who you are.

There’s nothing to hide behind. If you succeed, the credit is yours. If you fail, well, it’s your fault. It forces you to do your best work, and be the best that you can be.

In this, I think it’s interesting to consider the differences between resilience and repentance, which are concepts I’ve thought a lot about over the years.

People generally think of repentance as a form of expressing remorse or regret. But in Classical Greek, repentance, or metanoia (μετάνοια), means “change of mind”. My faith has taught me that repentance sometimes comes simply from a change of mind about things.

Resilience, on the other hand, is being tenacious, and being able to pull yourself up and continue. But the problem with resilience is that you can be tenacious to the point of stubbornness; that can lead you to ruin. To paraphrase Einstein, doing the same (wrong) thing over and over again but expecting different results is the very definition of insanity.

And that’s when you need metanoia. Not to change your goal or objective, mind you, but to change your mind about the methods to achieve the goals you want. To look at things from a different angle.

Business has started to pick up for Smith Street Taps, which is heartening—we were shut for months during the circuit breaker, which was painful. The Good Beer Company recently opened a new outlet in River Valley, and we’re looking to expand to another location later this year. We’re very blessed to be in a better position than most of our peers in the F&B industry.

I’ve applied both repentance and resilience on my personal entrepreneurship journey. I’ve shut down businesses that did not help me meet my life goals, and started others that I believe that can. This—and COVID-19— have taught me that while it’s good to plan, don’t put your hope on things you cannot control.

Zhu Minying, 24, Dancer/Freelance Content Creator

Art is life, and life is art. Dance is who I am internally—how I’m feeling right now, at this moment in my life. Whatever I’m feeling comes out in my dancing, which is both good and bad. Everything you feel shows. The body doesn’t lie.

I began dancing when I was 4, starting with Chinese dance. When I was 12, I saw my friend doing hip hop and thought, that’s so cool, so I switched over. I’ve been doing street dance since then, though I’m also training with T.H.E (a contemporary dance company). Dance has basically been my whole life; I wasn’t super involved in university, because I was trying to build my reputation outside. I’d go to class and then stay out late, training, performing, rehearsing, teaching, taking classes…

I initially planned to work as a commercial dancer after graduation, but it’s difficult to make it. You need the looks, the style, to play the PR game. I tried it for a while but realised that life just wasn’t for me, so I switched to teaching. Right before Covid struck, we were preparing for the Singapore Youth Festival, so it was really busy.

Work dried up very suddenly. When they announced that CCAs were going to stop, overnight it was just, like, eat grass.

Covid was a very dark period for me. I had no income, but more than that, I felt I was losing my identity. My self-worth has been linked to dance my whole life. And with Covid, I lost all my jobs. I literally had nothing. I was just stuck at home, like, who am I?

I was really angry at first. I had a lot of meltdowns, but little things kept me sane. Bible school gave my days structure. I thought about switching careers to content creation, and took courses in SEO and digital marketing.

A really funny thing that happened was that I got into TikTok. I used to be really against it, but eventually I thought it’d be a fun way to build a portfolio because so many companies are on the platform. Most of my videos didn’t get many views, but then one video I made on how to eat chicken wings went viral. It got 58k likes, and I’m still getting followers. It’s so silly, but it was stupid stuff like this which kept me going during the circuit breaker.

The thing about Covid was that even though I was feeling lost, it made me reevaluate what’s important in life.

After graduation, I told myself I’m gonna follow my passion. Everyone was like, aiya passion cannot survive one la, but I said no, I’m going to make it work! And I did, I made decent money and hustled really hard, but compromised on spending time at home with my family. When I look back now, I don’t know how I did it—I’d come home at 11 or 12 every night, sometimes 1:00 AM, after rehearsals and training.

I couldn’t do that now. I think it’s natural that we get a lot of our self-worth from work, but I realised that stability and family are more important to me now.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve sold out, because I always thought I’d go the creative route. But I’m still doing art, I’m still doing creative work, and more than that … I guess I realised that some things just aren’t meant to be. When life hits, it just hits lor.

Coming to terms with that, and learning to live in the present—that’s been the main thing for me these last few months. The hardest thing to learn is acceptance. Being able to let go has given me a lot of freedom.

 

Imran Johri, 45, Head of Marketing/PR at a venture capital firm

Across my career, I’ve worked in TV production, publishing, recruitment, and digital marketing. I’ve been a creative and I’ve been a suit. I’m trying to work out how to be both.

I graduated in 1999, just after the Asian Financial Crisis, and basically begged my way into my first job as a freelance producer at CNA, because there were no jobs going round. But I always wanted to write, and from there, I managed to land a gig as a scriptwriter on Phua Chu Kang, where I worked on Season 3.

Everyone thinks it’s just slapstick, comedy-of-errors stuff (and it can be — one episode I wrote, Melvin, is basically full of innuendo!). But many people don’t realise comedy comes from a place of pain. Humour is how we cope, and it takes that duality to make something happen.

Imran (with Angelina Jolie) during his days in media. Image courtesy of Imran Johri.

I stayed in TV for a few more years before making a switch to publishing, and worked my way up to become the editor of both Men’s Health and Torque, a motoring magazine. From there, I received an offer to work in Malaysia as the editor of a weekly newspaper.

Those were good times. I had a generous expat package, I got an apartment a stone’s throw from KLCC, my office was five minutes across the road, and all I had to do was put together a team to write lifestyle stories.

And then I got divorced, a year into my gig in Malaysia.

Our relationship had been tumultuous, and we grew apart. I was in my early 30s by then, and I remember at one point after the divorce, I was in my apartment thinking: I’ve got this sweet bachelor pad, a great job, money, I was ripped because I was at the gym every day … but I was alone. And I remember thinking that I should probably be depressed, but somehow, I wasn’t.

This is the thing about the abyss: if you stare at it long enough, it starts talking back to you. Everything I’d been through up to that point had stacked up. It wasn’t all hunky-dory, it was a dark period of my life; but you have to look ahead. I’m a firm believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And that journey was necessary for me to meet my wife. I had to go through all that before I could take stock of my life and realise no, no more girlfriends, I just want you.

I went through many more changes after that: a move to Hong Kong, entering marketing, coming back to a hard landing in Singapore, becoming a corporate, and moving into my current job.

Right now, because of Covid, a lot of my work involves helping to wind down businesses. It’s a painful time for everyone, but one thing I’ve realised is that while it’s great to be mission-oriented, it’s more important to be kind. We can talk all we want about processes and legal procedures, but it’s pointless if you don’t stop to ask: is the founder okay? Are the employees okay?

That’s the thing. For the longest time, I was extremely mission-oriented, determined to prove myself. But once the mission was complete, I was done.

For most of my life, I didn’t realise how destructive this was. I was always chasing the next new mission, the next new high, either on or off with no middle ground. It’s so easy to lose a sense of yourself. You have to adapt and evolve, but you can only do that by going deep first.

It’s not really about re-inventing yourself. I don’t really believe in that, because I’ve been doing that my whole life, but only just realised that I was on the wrong track. I think what you need to do is confront yourself; to ask yourself why you are the way you are now, and how you can be better. That’s what I’m trying to do now: to understand myself better.

The other thing about Covid is that it’s shown how important stories are. They’re laden with all sorts of biases that we have to unpack, but they’re also how we uplift ourselves and show ourselves the way forward. Without stories, we have nothing.

If you’d like to help spread hope and positivity and have a story you want to share, tag it #ThisisSG and be part of the ThisisSG campaign. ThisisSG is a national campaign that hopes to promote the pursuit of passion in Singapore and rally support for the members of our community.

This story is brought to you in collaboration with The Singapore Brand Office.

Author

Sophie Chew Staff Writer