I turn 29 in a couple of months. T-W-E-N-T-Y-N-I-NE. This is doubly a shock because in my head I feel forever young, partly as a function of always having been the youngest person in every single circle I have run in, from friends to career to everything else really. I started blogging when I was 15 — nearly 15 years ago! — at a time when Tripod.com was a hosting provider, content management systems transmitted your passwords in plain text, and leaving a message on a ShoutBox was a valid way of engaging on the Internet.
That young life and everything that encompassed feels as faraway as the era in which I packed 30 Compact Discs to school in a metallic CD holder, and my music skipped — as I skipped — on the way to school through the deserted carpark of my housing estate at six in the morning, every morning. My peers are entrepreneurs and CEOs (being a high-flying lot), my friends are married and/or engaged, my contemporaries have published books, plural, and I show up in magazines occasionally as the Older Role Model For Younger Women. Wow, that’s old.
All of that just means it’s great fun. It’s more fun when you’re of age. At least that’s how it’s been for me. When it seemed dire — sometime around the final year of university, panicking, wondering: what do I do with my life? — when it seemed as though all that life had in store was some dead end office job and an indeterminate life (growing up gay in 1990s Singapore: hard), it’s been hard to really envision the sort of life I wanted to carve out for myself. For the most part it was even difficult to articulate what that life would be. At almost-29, having seen a bit of the world, having that much more clarity, I have to say Fuck Yeah, It’s Great. Anything is better than the black holes and the black spots that so terrify you when the alternatives aren’t immediately obvious.
A hundred and seven weeks ago I left this city (KL) in a mad haste. I didn’t know how to ship a puppy three hundred and seventy kilometres back to the city I was born and bred in. I didn’t know how to step away from that comfortable but middling life I had built for myself over a couple of years. I didn’t know how it was going to be. I’d set up a company at the tender age of twenty three, in an industry I knew nothing about. I learned more in those years than in all my years of education put together; I grew to love the hustle. That hustle was addictive, but I didn’t know measure, and I didn’t know the upper limits of my ambition and my ability. I got very, very ill. In a way, I had to lose it all in order to be a better person along the way.
I’ve now carved out a life for myself in the city I grew up in. The city I rebelled against and hated with every inch of my being (it was a much different place, then). It has been surprisingly good for me. Chalk it down to the stability of ‘home’ and a rock-solid support network I’m lucky to have back here; to the incredible opportunities I get from being here; there’s hardly a week which passes without the ability to reinvent myself in any of three or more amazing ways.
A decade ago I was a wimpy teenager with nothing but a half-baked sense of the general direction I wanted to move towards. The hardest part, it felt at the time, was to learn how to leapfrog the various handicaps I felt I had then: the curse of being female, gay, and opinionated. These days all of those things feel like strengths.
In the decade since, I’ve relentlessly pursued every single one of my goals in life and in love. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but at least I can say this: I failed, I stumbled, I felt I could not recover from some of those setbacks; I bounced back, even if it took a very long time in some of them. I’ve managed to create a life for myself across continents which appears charmed and easy and privileged and opportunistic to some, but which I’ve worked really hard for.
A few months ago while having a bit of an existential crisis, I’d written in my (paper) journal: I’m ambitious and a perfectionist in my career, so why not in happiness? That’s what drives me at the end of it all: the seemingly elusive happiness, defined by you and you alone. It was clear I could never be happy pushing paper behind a desk, so I ran from it. It was evident I could pretend to be happy in the sort of middling arrangement in which I had all of the trappings of comfort but none of the excitement of an inspirational love, so I had to learn to be happy on my own before I could hazard such risks again. I’ve spent the past hundred and seven weeks figuring stuff out, which is perhaps as self-indulgent as it comes, but I learned I just wasn’t ready. You grow up a ton when you have bills and thousands of dollars in taxes to pay for your youthful mistakes.
This is what I do differently now:
- Write clear, concise emails. I wish I knew it earlier, but learning to ask for things clearly and briefly is a life skill.
- Talk about money without feeling weird. I don’t know about you, but I used to find it difficult to talk about money. Expected compensation, ballpark estimates, money you will render for a good or a service — maybe girls aren’t really brought up to be OK asking for what you think you’re worth? I don’t know. But ever since learning to do this, things get done faster, and more importantly expectations are met — or not — in a more efficient manner.
- Say no. I believe it’s a trait of many a person’s younger life that saying no is just the most difficult thing you can do, next to talking about money, often together. A month ago I was at the cusp of a huge career development: I had three major opportunities, each better than the other. At the end of it I realized (a) you already know what the best option is, if you trust your gut (b) but that takes time and experience to learn to trust. I said no to the first two opportunities, and I’m happier for it.
- Having to prove yourself is bullshit. There’s a difference between establishing credibility and having to again and again prove your worth — and that’s true in business and in love. With age I’ve also become more comfortable with the big idea of Who I Am and What I Stand for, and it’s (related to the previous point) been easier to move towards what you really want as a result. For example, social media contests for popularity in order to “Win Something” — that’s all bullshit. You have better ways to expend your time and energy.
- Pay It Forward. Your mileage may vary, but I truly believe that paying it forward is one of the best things you can do. I run an NGO, organize community events for causes I Give A Shit About, and mentor some younger gay and trans kids because… why wouldn’t you? It’s so much more fulfilling that way. You get back in spades what you give, and not solely in the monetary sense.
- Give A Shit, Or Don’t. This part was hard to figure out. I’ve had some arguments and lost some friends over this. My version of it: in general, I try to be a nice person, and perhaps succeed at it. But I feel I’ve come to that point in my life where I’m aware of the limitations — of myself, more than anything else. And when I don’t feel like it, or when someone or something has a negative impact on my happiness or that of a loved one’s, not giving a shit is the only way I know how to deal with it these days. Anything else — the awkward pretense? the song and dance of adolescent and young adult social niceties? Fuck that. My only rule is if a person or organization or thing has a nett positive effect on the things I care most about — that’s great. Life’s way too short for people who tire you out and worse still, people who subtract from the world.
- Sleep More. I’m late to the party, but I’m a new convert to the Sleep Is Really Important school of thought. It’s related to aging, but damn, it’s magic. Not sleeping, however, is toxic. No matter for what ends.
- Do What You Love. I’m not a fan of this pithy statement. It’s almost too slick. But there’s some truth to it. What I prefer, though, is a combination of that with “Change What You Don’t”. I love a lot of things — aviation, gin, India, travel, and so much more — but I’m not about to run out and eke out a living out of every single one of them. What helps me keep balance (and sanity) is the other part. What bothers me so much that I cannot sit idly by? For now, it’s girls’ education in India. Xenophobia in Singapore. In a couple of years it might be religious fundamentalism in Singapore. Or something else which will surprise me.
- Learn Something New. It wasn’t always so, but of late I’ve had a strict personal rule. That I should learn something I don’t know anything about, whenever it feels like I’m stagnating. Last year, it was diving. And swimming. This month, it’s classical guitar and gardening.
- Know Thyself. Then Adjust Accordingly. As I previously mentioned, I set up my own company at age twenty three knowing fuck-all about tech and business. I now know how important it is to have strict accounting and paper-filing standards. When I was ill in KL it felt like the sort of health-related traffic red light which made me stop to take stock of my life, health and my abilities. I have always known I’m not temperamentally suited to conventional employment, yet I did not feel ready enough — financially or mentally, since I was for a long time at that point in my life where I could not even remember passwords or how to populate spreadsheets, so I could not.
Lastly, this: Jump On The Train When It Pulls Into The Station. In my industry there are various ways to convey this. One of it is, when the rocketship arrives, get on and don’t ask which seat you’re on. The other one is, do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water? In that respect, I’ve just had my metaphorical train pull up into the station. So I’m going all in.</li>
In a month and a bit, I get to pick up where I left off and call this past 107 weeks officially over. It wasn’t possible without a lot of hustling, but here I finally am. I’m starting a new company which combines the two things I Give A Shit most about, tech and female empowerment in Asia. I have a great team, enlightened investors, and nothing to prove this time but to see how far technology can improve lives (tech solutionism? perhaps.) in that part of the world I care the most about. We get started — first in Jakarta, then in Yangon, which also brings me back to how everything comes full circles and all the dots connect if you let it, that I spent the better part of my youth ‘aimlessly’ wandering around these parts finding things to do. When things happen, you grab them by the bloody balls.
None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the incredible people in my life, especially my family. They keep me grounded, in all of the best ways. My dad, because he’s never once flinched at being the rock of my life; my circle of best friends, because they never let me get too arrogant or too hurt, all at once. Mostly, because I have a home to come back to, in the literal and the figurative sense.
I’m excited to embark on the next phase of my life with the sum of every single goddamn part, and so much more.
As you may know, I set up The Gyanada Foundation last year. We’ve spent the past year building the organisation and learning as much as we can.
Last year, we supported 150 girls in India. This year we hope to raise that number to 350, including the existing students we have onboard currently; also expanding geographical reach alongside enrolment numbers at the same time.
Yesterday evening we had a great event at Artistry where we talked about what we’ve done so far and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Here’s a summary and how you can help.
Watch the Video
Support A Girl Today
- I got a Battlestar Galactica tattoo
- I’m pretty pleased about that
- It’s one half of the pair of wings and Caprica constellation that Starbuck gets when she marries Anders
- Within a couple of hours of getting it, a random stranger proposed to me — saying she would get “the other side”
- Which would be romantic, but that would also mean (a) she’s a Cylon (b) we’d have a tumultuous relationship (c) she’d better be damn good at Pyramids
- It’s unbelievable that 10 years has passed since I first started to watch this show
- I don’t generally fan-girl anything, but this was special
- I identify with Starbuck in far too many ways, if you know what I mean
- It’s potentially far more meaningful than anything else I could have gotten
- After getting this done I do kinda feel like nothing can frak with my qi
I love BSG.
Two years ago I found out I have an autoimmune disease. I will always have it. It changed everything about my life from what I do for money to where I live. It prompted a reinvention of myself which was at turns painful, but ultimately necessary. This is what I learned.
Never forego sleep. “You’ll sleep more over the weekend” is bullshit. Not sleeping is bullshit. There is no amount of money in the world anymore that can make me sleep less, even if I grumble about it: I’m convinced sleep is the single most important thing I will never, ever give up again.
Make your own destiny. The single best thing I have done in my 20s was to grab every damn opportunity that came my way. And there were plenty. Even if people can’t see the method in the madness, every little thing adds up. I truly believe that.
Be nice to your family. At least for me, they’ve been the foundation upon which I’ve been able to build a life. Through illness and in health.
Home is home. There are many reasons to not want to live in Singapore, but returning here to build my adult life here in my late 20s was the best decision. There are a ton of opportunities and we are in the centre of exciting things, at least for what I do in tech and business.
Surround yourself with smart people who care about people. I’ve been lucky to have some of the smartest people in the world in my direct orbit. I’ve learned an immeasurable amount from them. It’s the only way to be better. If they’re douchebags, nothing you learn can ever be of use.
If you need anything, just ask. There’s a longish essay in this that I need to write sometime. If you don’t know anything, ask as well. Only good things can ever come out of asking.
Don’t date people who want to hold you back. Or down. Ever.
Do date someone who inspires you to get up every morning and change the world. Who won’t laugh when you say that. Who will ask you what part of the world you would like to change today, and how she can help.
Milestones are a sham. You’re expected to check certain boxes by a certain time: degree, first job, first apartment, blah blah. It’s not that they’re not important, but following someone else’s timetable for your life is the biggest lie we’ve all been told.
Corporate conferences are never worth any amount of money you are asked to pay. Ever. If there is a giant billboard and a roomful of suits, go to the bar and do some real work instead.
On February 21, I wrote an open letter to the Health Minister, CC-ing the Prime Minister and the Law Minister. This was prompted by the Feminist Mentor’s own open letter. I found LoveSingapore’s pro-377A guide very helpful for this purpose — it gave me everyone’s email addresses in a single page!
OPEN LETTER TO
Mr Gan Kim Yong,
Minister of Health
Dear Minister Gan,
A few days ago you made a step which many of my peers and I applauded. You let it be known, in a written reply to Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s question about the Health Promotion Board Sexuality FAQ, that you would reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the nucleus family but also stand firm on your belief that the FAQs did not do more than affirm certain scientific facts about human sexuality as well as disseminate much-needed information about STIs.
In the ensuing turmoil which followed after the FAQs first came into public spotlight leading up to the point where you have probably received countless letters from concerned Singaporeans about your ministry ostensibly leading the way in normalising homosexuality, to where we are at the moment: receiving a letter unlike the others, one which will express in no unclear terms that young, secular Singaporeans like myself will always make our voices heard in continuing to champion for our Republic’s secular values, even if we have not often given enough credit or praise to your government and to your party in recent times.
Cultural “wars” have been waged and fought in many developed democracies across the world; secular values that impart equal weight to all of the important freedoms we hold dear — the freedom of speech, love, action as well as of thought and of belief, the freedom to live a life of love across racial, religious, geographical as well as gender barriers — have always triumphed. Those who have let their cultural “wars” wage on unchecked have, as the United States is testament to, seen their societies grow increasingly polarised.
As a young lesbian Singaporean who has returned home after many years abroad despite the odds: despite knowing that I may never be able to have a family recognised by my State, despite knowing that as a “single” person of a “minority” our public housing laws unfairly discriminate against me, despite knowing that I may never see significant institutional change in my lifetime, I refuse to leave.
I refuse to leave as I refuse to let the country I hold dear be held hostage by a group of religious bigots who take it upon themselves to proclaim my sexual orientation, if normalised, necessarily leads to a “regression” of Singapore society especially when they base their beliefs on Judeo-Christian beliefs which, I must remind you, a majority of Singaporeans do not prescribe to.
HPB in its FAQ provides timely, factual information to parents as well as to questioning younger Singaporeans. In its current form, our existing sexual education programmes do not provide much by way of actual useful information outside of “abstinence”, which is a conversation which has already been hijacked by a militant group in our society that has demonstrated its continued ability to organise and to politicise their pet topics. Should ground be ceded once again, we risk being completely unable to reach out to young Singaporeans who need information on sex education, STIs and other important subjects because we would have failed them and lost our credibility — it seems only rational to worry that they would look elsewhere for information, as I did as a young lesbian woman when the schools I attended uniformly pretended that my needs did not and should not exist.
These groups also ask for civility and tolerance accusing other groups who disagree with their interpretation of Judeo-Christian history and family law of demonizing their right to their beliefs. By purporting to speak for a “silent majority” of Singaporeans and by building upon their network of religious organisations in order to advance a political cause, as a young Singaporean I am concerned about what this means from a sedition perspective. As a Christian, I do not condone a fringe Protestant grouping taking it upon themselves to speak for all Christians — nor for all Singaporeans.
The public needs to see prompt action demonstrating that the State will not stand for potentially seditious and religiously divisive viewpoints which tolerate vitriolic, daily verbal abuse as evidenced by the posts of Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong on his public Facebook page — directed towards tax-paying secular Singaporeans who just happen to form a minority.
I understand this divisive topic is not one our society can come to immediate consensus upon, and am open to a variety of differing viewpoints and debate. Yet as a politically concerned young secular Singaporean who also happens to be lesbian, I cannot sit idly while I witness religiously-affiliated groups wage a cultural “war”, one which no one else is interested to fight.
I urge the HPB, the Health Ministry, and the Government of Singapore to remain steadfast in its affirmation of its commitment to the family as a nucleus of society, while also continuing to make progress in areas such as making available scientific facts on human sexuality which can save lives as well as inform parents and young Singaporeans in need.
I am not a member of the Pioneer Generation, but I am a member of the Millennial Generation who desires to see small steps in social progressiveness so that the Singapore I call home will grow into becoming the inclusive society we want to be. This does not have to begin with an immediate consensus on sexual minorities, but we must make a stand that we will not tolerate religiously-affiliated hatred that a majority of Singaporeans do not belong to nor agree with.
Millennial Generation (Tech)