Tales of the Malay World currently exhibiting at the NLB Bldg on 10th floor has provided me an insight into this world I am living but not submerged.


Last night I was at the curator’s tour and some learnings caught me by surprise. Singapore was not a sleepy fishing village when Raffles arrived. While not sophisticated as major world cities like Nanjing, it boasted a history from 14th Century.


Alexander the Great allegedly passed through. He was known as Zulkernain.



Raffles was inspired to pick up Malay on his boat trip from UK.

Raffles chose Singapore as a port because of the Malay book “Genealogy of Kings” <em>Sukalat al-Salatin that the Forbidden Hill housed remains of the 16th century Melaka Kings or Malay Annals Sejarah Melayu.

Raffles was a collector of many things, among them Malay manuscripts which allowed the British and Dutch better idea of the locals so as to conquer them.

Singapore was not a sleepy fishing village when the British came. The Malay annals led Raffles to Singapore.

Singapore was not founded in 1819 when Raffles came with the East India Company. Its role as a port was as early as 14th century. A significant port and settlement, known as Temasek, later renamed Singapura, existed on the island of Singapore in the 14th century. Vietnamese records indicate possible diplomatic relationship between Temasek and Vietnam in the 13th century, and Chinese documents describe settlements there in the 14th century.

It lapsed into insignificance for 200 hundred years when abandoned until the British came to establish a port without antagonizing the Dutch.

Location, location, location
Point to note that despite Singapore’s strategic location, it fell out of action for 200 yrs. The Dutch did not choose Singapore for their spice trade. The late Mover, the British chose 2nd best, Singapore. Strategic advantage is highly dependent on economic relevance. 1st Mover advantage is not necessarily winner takes all. (Unfortunately for Raffles, he died in debt.)

Importance of learning lingua franca of the day, which may not be English.

Diversity and global trade have been around for a long time.

People were more open to learning from one another. Rev Keasbury obtained the help of Muslim cleric Munshi Abdullah to translate the first Malay bible. He introduced Abdullah to the printing press to produce bibles. Initially the missionaries were in Singapore enroute to China. But as that stop was closed, their attention turned to Singapore.

While the Bible was translated into Malay, the audience could have been wider, as the varied trading community spoke Malay, the lingua franca, including the Chinese. Today’s Muslim and Christian community, it appeared to me, are more sharply alienated. It didnt seem that Abdullah converted to Christianity. Yet there was a meaningful working relationship between Keasbury and Abdullah.


Musicians look at notes and hear the music in their heads. I look at happiness data and hear the comforting sounds of lives well lived. The joy, the feeling of connectedness and the sense of purpose.
– Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, Copenhagen


I bought fairy lights to create cozy feel


I like his second book much better “The Little Book of Lykke”– The Danish Search for the World’s Happiest People. I was nearly turned off by a little quote that everything runs smoothly in Denmark. Four years ago, one train did arrive 5 min late. The passengers each got a letter of apology from the prime minister and a designer chair of their choice as compensation. I am not running down Danes when I question that everything runs smoothly. Coming from Singapore where things generally run smoothly, .. yet not everything. Certainly not our public transport which we made the mistake of privatising at the advice of consultants. Japan though, their public transport is indeed the most effecient in the world, has one of the highest suicide rates in OECD countries. Books on why the Japanese live long lives do not address this dark side of Japan.

There are many beautiful stories in the book looking at countries like Brazil which is overcrowded yet is relatively happy, #22. Most Brazilians consider themselves kind and happy people who know how to have fun. Its true that the Brazilians I know are more helpful and smiling than the Danes I know. (Not the most scientific approach). But perhaps if we are moving towards a more gracious society, we have more to learn from Brazil. On second thoughts, 12hrs to Copenhagen is better than 48hrs flight to Rio.

Pursuit of happiness
Why this fixation on Happiness you may ask? The author lost his mother when she was 49years old, to depression. I live in a country that witnessed the biggest progression in a lifetime yet people are very unhappy. I know people above 70yrs old who experienced starvation under British colonial days, yet are very unhappy today despite relatively high standards of living and peace and children who visit them weekly and support them financially.


My own take of the reason why Denmark and most of the Nordic countries have happiness is

The law of Jante
Conspicuous consumption is criticised. They dont like boastful people who flaunt their success. Decouple wealth and well-being. Read Michelle McGagh’s “The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More“. Go for walks and free art exhibitions.

Value of Free Time
I like this book very much. I think that the reason why Denmark is the happiest nation among the OECD countries is because they value happiness as a way of life. They value free time and not embarrassed that they are taking time off work to exercise and be outdoors.

They take care of mental health seeking treatment when needed and not be embarrassed.

Be with people
But mind your own business. Do not worry about what others think of you or what others are doing to accumulate wealth. I doubt Danish mothers compare results of their children or other people’s children.

They are cozy and value mental resilience, connecting with others and not complaining.

Do not complain
Complaining is not the national sport. Give others a break. They dont need to live up to your expectations.

Complaining doesnt make you look smart or look self sacrificial. Suffering doesnt make you a martyr.

Be authentic and Mind your own business
Meik Wiking admits that Danes do not go around wearing masks. You cant tell that they are happy judging from their stony stares. They do not pretend or have a need to keep up with the Joneses.

A friend once told me how Japanese mothers get calls from teachers if they send their kids to school with plain and non-creative lunchboxes. Even lunchboxes are sources of comparison and not just means of healthy eating.

Relieve yourself from others’ expectations.
As the song goes, “haters gonna hate”. Complainers are going to complain. Especially when you live in a society where people have no qualms giving advice to others which they don’t heed themselves. People who dont mind their own business.

The English have a saying for this ” People who live in glass houses shouldnt throw stones”.

This second book Lykke is certainly a keeper. I cant wait to try out more suggestions from the book and watch the French film Amelie. I have started lighting candles especially at 6am when I wake up looking forward to my warm cup of Arabica coffee brewed in my 12yr old Philips machine.

It’s human talent, not capital or technology or anything else, that is the key factor linking innovation, competitiveness and growth in the 21st century, says Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Work, he says, shouldn’t be a race between humans and machines, but a part of life that helps people recognize their full potential.


An individual’s potential is not fixed—it can be influenced, enhanced and unleashed to the benefit of the organization.

As people grow in knowledge, experience and seniority over time, they bring even more value to the business.

In contrast, machines typically operate at a limited maximum output and depreciate over time.

Experts say human talent becomes only more valuable as technology grows. It will be humans, not robots or artificial intelligence software, who will brainstorm new ideas, inspire others and drive organizations to succeed.

Social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, according to a survey of chief human resources officers by the World Economic Forum in 2015.

Investing in skills, rather than just hiring more workers, is the key to successfully managing disruptions to the labor market for the long term. 

Excerpts from 2030: The Very Human Future Of Work by Hazel Euan-Smith & Russell Pearlman & Karen Kane in the series on “The Future of Work is Human”
– KornFerry Institute

What’s your take on whether robots will replace your job?

The intelligent altruists, though less altruistic than the unintelligent altruists, will be fitter than both unintelligent altruists and selfish individuals. – Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize winner in economics

If its indeed better to give than to receive, why are some givers exploited and burnout while others receive extra-ordinary success? Harvard Professor Adam Grant examines the world of career success on why some people rise to the top of their career success while others sink to the bottom?

Grant observed that most people operate as either takers, matchers or givers.

It takes out that there are two types of givers:

(i) selfless givers are people with high other interest and low self interest. they give their time and energy without regard for their own needs and they pay a price for it. Grant calls it pathological altruism. It is unhealthy because they end up being overwhelmed and risk harming themselves.

(ii) Otherish givers care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.  Grant quotes Bill Gates at the WEF, “there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest and caring for others”and people are most successful when they are driven by a hybrid engine of the two.  Being otherish is about giving more than you receive, but keeping your own self-interest in sight as a guide to whom you will give.

Some suggestions by Grant on how to give:

(i) Chunking, Sprinkling and the 100 hour rule of volunteering

Otherish givers tend of chunk their volunteering, specific times of the day, instead of sprinkling – helping whenever people needed them. This allows givers more control of their time and energy to complete their own work. Grant found that chunkers achieved gains in happiness while sprinklers did not.

(ii) Myth of giver burnout

Acts 20: 35 It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Grant quotes work by Northwestern University psychologists Seeley and Gardner who found that people who consistently override their selfish impulses in order to help others, they had strengthened their psychological muscles to the point where using willpower for painful tasks was no longer exhausting.

Grant went on to tell the story of Utah businessman Jon Huntsman who believes that being a giver actually made him rich.  Economist Arthur Brooks tested the relationship between income and charitable giving. For every $1 in extra charitable giving, income was $3.75 higher.  Neuroscience research also shows that giving also activates the reward centres in the brain, signalling pleasure.

(iii) Sincerity screening

Do you know what the other person’s intention is?  Its wise to start out as a giver, advise Grant. But once a counterpart is clearly acting like a taker, it makes sense for givers to flex their reciprocity styles and shift to a matching strategy.  Game theorists call it “tit for tat”, and Harvard mathematical biologist Martin Nowak found it can be advantageous to alternate between giving and matching.

(iv) How to negotiate?

Givers, particularly agreeable ones, often overestimate the degree to which assertiveness might be off-putting to others.

Asking on account of others. When you’re willing to advocate for others,  this sends a positive signal about how hard you would work.  When a client makes an unreasonable request, explain how it was going to stretch my team or kill them working crazy hours.


Read the book for his compelling research.

Are you a giver, a matcher or a taker?

“Your mind is the garden, 
your thoughts are the seeds,
the harvest can either be flowers or weeds.”


Japanese man seriously flying his kite


Hobbyist propagating his air plants from seeds

Hobbyist propagating his air plants from seeds


Several years ago, in between jobs after my MBA, himself had a crazy idea that I do a temp job with Starbucks as a coffee barista. I did not take up his suggestion as I was worried about running into my friends in this down-and-out state. Many years later, I would be paying good money (instead of being paid) to learn café culture and how to do latte art.  Café culture is really big time in Asia now, and something I really wished I had picked up.

How to make good use of your downtime, whether its voluntary or involuntary. No experience is ever wasted. Steve jobs took time out to learn western calligraphy while figuring out his next step, and the landscape of printed font has never been the same again. (I can’t stand courier.)

The author of Roget’s Thesaurus, Dr Peter Mark Roget, published his Thesaurus with a useful list of antonyms and synonyms in his 70s. An obsessive-compulsive, with a family history of depression, making lists helped calm him down. You can read about his story in this website on late bloomers.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a biography of Deng Xiaoping by Ezra Vogel. Vogel’s snippet of how Deng whiled away his time in the Jiangxi countryside wilderness was quite inspiring,  Some of his other compatriots fell into depression. Deng, the chief architect of China’s economic rise, on the other hand, was planning in his mind, how to reform China, while doing manual labor in a factory. He was 65 yrs old then.

85 Ideas on what to do with your downtime.

Some ideas here came from “How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free – Retirement wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor” by Ernie J. Zelinski. Since this came from an author residing in the US, I’ve added my own cultural specific ones. Many free lessons can be obtained from the internet (Youtube), borrowing books from the internet, local library or local community centres.

  1. Learn art of Japanese tea making
  2. Experience Café Culture
  3. Coffee Appreciation class
  4. How to create latte art
  5. Learn western calligraphy
  6. Learn Chinese calligraphy
  7. Learn to bake Hokkaido milk bread
  8. Join a club such as the Lions or Rotary.
  9. Join public speaking club such as Toastmasters
  10. Learn to grow plants
  11. Record the history of your hometown
  12. Create a drawing of your family tree
  13. Write a book on how your ancestors have affected your life
  14. Become a connoisseur of inexpensive restaurants.  (ieatishootiblog)
  15. Chinese tea appreciation
  16. Grow a herb garden
  17. Go back to university and get a degree
  18. Watch interesting court cases at the courthouse
  19. Go sailing
  20. Gaze at the stars
  21. Write poetry
  22. Memorise a poem
  23. Learn famous quotations
  24. Start a collection of …
  25. Write a mobile app
  26. Teach children of low income families to read
  27. Teach English as a second language
  28. Practice the art of gratitude
  29. Do something for others for 29 days
  30. Declutter your room/ drawer/ cabinet
  31. Paint a self portrait
  32. Write a novel
  33. Write a “How to” book
  34. Compile lists of … (remember Roget’s Thesaurus)
  35. Play guitar or ukulele
  36. Learn to speak a foreign language (Spanish, German, Chinese)
  37. Paint watercolors
  38. Take an online writing course
  39. Write a diary/ journal
  40. Take a one hour walk everyday
  41. Visit the museums
  42. Volunteer as a museum guide and attend their training
  43. Learn pottery making
  44. Volunteer in a home for the aged
  45. Visit your parents
  46. Bestow gift of real listening without interrupting
  47. sign up for a counselling course
  48. Sponsor a child in Haiti/ Vietnam
  49. Meditate for 30 mins daily
  50. Practice a new habit for 21 days
  51. Spend an hour by the beach/ riverbank and listen to the sound of water
  52. Speak to your plants
  53. Make a list of favourite music in different genres (Jazz, Classical, Opera, Pop, R&B, Hip-Hop)
  54. Watch movies of different genres (e.g. Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Kurosawa, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai
  55. Learn different form of photography (portraiture, black-white, nature, children, night, action)
  56. Learn martial arts (e.g  Tae Kwando, Akido)
  57. Go mountain-climbing with a friend.
  58. Take up dancing (Ball room, waltz, Zumba)
  59. Have friends over for lunch
  60. Volunteer to Teach a children arts-and-crafts class
  61. Volunteer to build in “Habits for Humanity”
  62. Learn about other religions
  63. Go to church.
  64. Keep a sketch book
  65. Learn to hash-tag on Facebook
  66. Have a long conversation with a child and see where the conversation takes you
  67. Play a game with young children (depending on age, e.g. playdough, card games, guessing names)
  68. Cook
  69. Invite your friends for tea/ lunch
  70. Visit a different part of town you’ve never visited
  71. Bake a tart
  72. Make a list of all your friends
  73. Email/ send a card, written note (one person a day) on what you appreciate about them
  74. Learn art of gift wrapping
  75. Learn the art of small talk
  76. Start a web page of inspiring quotations
  77. Sweep your floors everyday
  78. Try finger painting
  79. Cook a different cuisine (e.g learn to make Vietnamese Spring rolls or Thai Pomelo salad from Youtube)
  80. Learn to swim
  81. Learn to play chess/ mah-jong/ bridge
  82. Learn about fashion/ colors that suit your skin tone
  83. How the internet works
  84. Climb to the top of the hill and watch the sunrise
  85. Walk for 4hours (that’s what Charles Dickens does to de-stress from writing!

Create your own 85 things to do in your free time. Make it 100!


Tomita Farm, Furano, Japan

Tomita Farm, Furano, Japan

Myth #5 Networking sounds opportunistic

In “Social- why our brains are wired to connect”, neuroscientist Michael Lieberman proposes that the size of our brains, in particular the size of our prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain sitting right behind our eyes is larger than other mammals, not to do abstract reasoning as originally thought but to facilitate social cognitive skills – interact and get along well with others.

What’s so beneficial about living in groups? From studying primates, we know that the advantage to larger groups is that predators can be strategically avoided or dealt with more successfully. Its dangerous to be out in the open looking for food by yourself. However, the downside of larger groups is that there is increased competition for food and mating partners within the group. If you’re on your own and you find food its yours. But in a larger group, its likely that one of the others in your group will try to poach it. Lieberman argues that primates with strong social skills can limit this downside by forming alliances and friendship with others in their group

Networking is not opportunistic. Instead, it is a survival skill, not just leading to a division of labor and collection of diverse information, but also a way for self protection. Most of the people I hang out with socially are either current/former colleagues/ classmates or Lang’s former/current colleagues or spouses.  In today’s world, our world of work represents our major source of identify and influence (if not income). We spend most of our waking time with colleagues than with relatives/ loved ones. This is not always healthy, but colleagues come from the same socio-economic background and mindset. Since we spend so much of our waking time with colleagues than our family, why not work with people whose company you enjoy. Indeed, in many of the top MBA schools, including major strategy firms, one of the questions to the interviewer is, “Would you dread being stuck at the airport for 10hrs with this person you’re interviewing?”

Lieberman proposes that perhaps Maslow is wrong on one count. That the primal need of humans is social and it underscores everything we do, including the lower order needs such as physiological. The most basic human need is to be in touch with other humans, and to find an environment which we are comfortable in, and underpins our sense of security.

Many of the Masters students I work with, are curious how career change can happen. Why are some people able to make career switch so successfully? Recently I chanced upon a quote, on the tributes to Mr LKY, by the current CEO of SPH, Mr Alan Chan, on how he switched from being a civil servant to managing a newspaper giant. In 1994,  Mr Lee had invited Mr Lim Kim San, then Executive Chairman of SPH who had then lost his wife to join him on his trip to China. As then principal private secretary to Mr Lee, Mr Chan was on the trip, and spent 17 days with Mr Lim discussing all kinds of issues. Eight years later, in 2002, when Mr Lim needed to find someone to replace the CEO, he remembered the young man with whom he had many happy conversations with.

Networking is about having meaningful conversations with people whose paths we cross. Through such conversations, we understand each other’s aspirations, values and work ethics. Those who are more attentive, get “lucky”.

Myth #6 Networking is for the extrovert. I’m too shy

Some of us have a higher sense of self consciousness and lack self-esteem. Introverts, socially awkward. You may need some practice in non-threatening situations.

Knowing that I’m an introvert doesn’t give me an excuse. It liberates me to use areas of my strengths. I’m better at one-to-one or small group relationships. I get over-stimulated by large groups, and need to balance this with “alone” time. My extrovert students tell me they like introverts. Introverts make better listeners. Giving someone your full attention and clearly listen is a skill. Susan Cain’s “Quiet”.

Remember Mona Lisa. “The ideal smile, according to Leonardo da Vinci is a half smile, because it enhances the quality of gently gazing eyes.”

Do you smile because you’re happy or are you happy because you smile? In “Words can change your brains“, Newberg and Waldman cite researchers who found that when a mother sees a happy infant, dopamine is released in her brain’s reward centres, and she smiles too. But if a mother is being inattentive (italics mine), the smile will quickly fade away.

Myth #7 I’m afraid to be rejected

Not everyone will like you. Think of Mandela, Gandhi, Jesus or even Steve Jobs. Being rejected can happen to everyone. Perhaps there’s no match or appreciation for what you bring to the table. [Sometimes, the person could be deep in thought with their own issues and miss what you’re saying. This happens to me quite often, and my friends would ask if I was angry or something bothering me.]  Move on.

All of us have our own inner baggage, and the people you may be working with, may have their own set of values, stereotypes and bias. Ask if you’re banging your head against the wall. Or you simply need more practice in building social skills. Networking is a skill that needs practice. There are books teaching you how to create small talk. Read them.  Practice in a safe environment.

Myth #8 Don’t talk to strangers

How to be a Power Connector, the 5+50+100 rule” by Judy Robinett, who says to people who tell her they hate talking with strangers, “I was a stranger five seconds ago and you’re talking to me”.

Robinett suggests making it a game. Talk to 3 strangers a day, starting with people who are “trapped” next to them in a grocery line.

Observe your inner speech. When it turns negative, it can bring about a downward spiral of inattentiveness, negative emotions, retaliation and other problems. You may want to generate positive self-talk, think kind thoughts towards the people you are interacting with.

If that still doesnt work, understand what motivates you and what is your networking style. Extroverts for instance, like bigger groups of people. Introverts on the other hand, are not socially isolated as previously believed. Rather, they are motivated by their passion. An introvert can talk non-stop especially in their area of interest. But as it takes less to stimulate an introvert than an extrovert, take time out and rest. Know when you’re spent.

All the best to your networking!

Tibetan man with his yak  at Yangpachen, Namtso

Tibetan man with his yak at Yangpachen, Namtso

Gift #4:   April Showers bring May flowers

Everything has a season, Everything has a reason

Had Steve Jobs not been fired from Apple, he would not have met his wife, and bought Pixar, which made him a billionaire. [This is according to his commencement address.]

In Chinese, there’s an expression that comes close to the English idiom, every cloud has a silver lining. In every terrible circumstance, there’s a tiny sliver of hope of something good that may come as a result.

塞翁失马 [sai weng si ma, yan zi feifu]

The expression 塞翁失马 literally means Sai Weng lost his horse and comes from 《淮南子》written by Liu An in the Western Han Dynasty. An old man called Sai Weng lost his horse, but when others came to comfort him, he said, “I have only lost a horse, and this is not a big loss. Maybe something good will come of it in future.” And so it came to pass – a few days later, his horse returned followed by another good horse.

Although from the story my mom told me, it continues that one day, his son sat on the new horse and was thrown off this wild horse. His son became a cripple. When neighbours came to console him, how is he going to start his own family? No one will want a husband like that?  The man said, its not a big loss. Perhaps something good will come of it. Several years later, the country went to war with a neighbouring country, and all the able-bodied men in the village were enlisted. But because his son was a cripple, he was spared and able to marry a young woman of his dreams. Perhaps the story has other twists and turns.

Tibetan yak

Tibetan yak

The Chinese saying, is usually twined with a question “Is this good or bad?”

Was colonialism good or bad for Singapore?

When World War II came, and the British came, and the Japanese occupied Singapore, was it good or bad?

When Singapore was expelled from the merger, was it good or bad?

When the British withdrew from Singapore in 1971, was it good or bad?

As I looked back at my own life, whenever I face a setback, fear crept in. At times, I was even paralyzed with fear and depression. Be positive, pull yourself by your boot-straps, friends tell me. They are not wrong. But somehow I couldn’t muster the courage to positive thinking.

I’ve come to learn that adverse situations are pivotal circumstances and contain seeds of new growth = turning points. Life-changing experiences take place, when I’m not preoccupied with grumbling. I’m not trying to justify the works of evil people. They will be judged in their own time.  Whatever man meant for evil, God can turn it to good.

My response to such adverse circumstances in future?

Ask: What is the lesson that I am supposed to learn from this situation?  What is my responsibility? Did I contribute to this problem? What can I do differently? [Which leads me to Gift #5 – Learn something new.]
What do I have to mourn and move on?
10 years later, when I look back, what can I give thanks for now?
Are there qualities, growth that I have gained?

Having a routine helps in adversity. And friends.

What are the lessons adversity has taught you? Let me hear from you.

Don’t judge each day by your harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.  – Robert Louis Steveson