Author Archives: Chef

29 Questions with Jessie Ye

29 Questions

The Heartware Network team met up with Jessie Ye, a volunteer leader for the Support Our Pioneers Programme 2017 on her usual Saturday morning. Here are our 29 questions with Jessie:

1.     What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Stretch.

2.     What did you have for breakfast?

Strawberry cake.

3.     Do you have a nickname?

Yes, so many. Umm, snail?

4.     How old are you?

22.

5.     If you could pick any age to stay for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

15, in Secondary 3 because it was very relaxing.

6.     What’s one thing you could never live without?

Music.

7.     What are 3 items that I can definitely find in your bag?

Wet tissue, medicated oil, and lip balm.

8.     What are you doing today?

Visiting the elderly.

9.     Other than the Support Our Pioneers programme, what do you do over the weekends?

Binge-watch dramas.

10.  How many elderly have you befriended so far?

7.

11.  What happens if no one opens the door?

I’ll write a note and leave it at their door, and let them know what time and date we’ll be there.

12.  How do you feel when you see the elderly?

Happy and excited!

13.  What’s the toughest thing that happened in the Support Our Pioneers programme?

Probably the first visit when we didn’t really know what to do.

14.  What scares you the most?

Darkness.

15.  If you have one super power what would it be?

Teleportation.

16.  What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Be yourself.

17.  Who was that advice from?

My teacher.

18.  How do you think Mdm Leong is today?

Usually she is quite chirpy and chatty.

19.  What do you and Mdm Leong usually do?

We talk about how she is, what she has been doing, what does she want to eat etc.

20.  What do you want to say to your 60-year old self?

Stay active.

21.  What’s the most beautiful thing in the world?

A mother’s love.

22.  What is one cause that is close to your heart?

Elderly.

23.  What’s the best gift you have ever received?

Handwritten letters.

24.  Do you think you are a giver or a receiver?

Probably a receiver, but I give back too.

25.  Do you think you are a leader or a follower?

I’m a leader who is not afraid to follow.

26.  Do you think the youth could make a difference?

Yea, of course.

27.  What do you need to do/have to volunteer with the elderly?

Be patient and open-minded.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

28.  What kind of difference do you want to make in the world?

Just to be kind to everyone.

29.  Last question: Is SOP worth waking up in the morning for?

I’m here, so ya!

To see the full video, click on the link below!

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Hardship Makes the Man

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Scots-American Preacher Peter Marshall once said, “When we long for a life without difficulty, remind us that oaks grow strong under contrary winds, and diamonds are made under pressure.”

Because winds of change are ever-present in our lives, if we do not learn to stand our ground, who knows when we will be uprooted and swept away. Instead of running away and seeking shelter from the storm, our students under the Heartware-Character and Citizenship Education (HW-CCE) Leadership Programme learnt to embrace and grow from difficult moments and lend support for one another.

At an age where people’s opinions are everything, what are some trying times experienced by our students?

It’s hard to speak out.

Despite conversing daily, many don’t understand that the voice is an important tool for reflection and change and growth. When our students were nudged to speak in front of a crowd, their mouths often clamp shut! It is frightening to be seen so openly, and to hear only their own voices in the presence of many. Words just won’t come.

So we scaled our students slowly from modules on body language and voice projection, to answering simple questions in class, to eventually delivering important messages to others.

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Students lined up to try project their voices effectively across a room.

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Kelly spoke on the best and hardest moments as an apprentice at Sands Skypark .

One of the HW-CCE leaders, Kelly, made her first speech on her apprenticeship experience in front of directors, mentors, parents, and peers. She initially requested to back out as she was very uncomfortable with the arrangement. She later expressed her thankfulness at being given this opportunity to share and grow out of her fear.

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Brittney taking the spotlight for a moment to brief students on game instructions.

During the last lesson at Serangoon Garden Secondary School, Brittney mustered her courage to facilitate a blindfold game for both her HW-CCE peers and students from a junior class. She persevered through awkward silences and a relatively unresponsive audience. The experience could have left her demoralised, but she quickly picked up herself with the re-assurances from her friends and facilitators present.

It’s hard to make others understand.

Once our students found their voices, the next challenge is to use it right. They often have great ideas or images in their heads, but find it challenging to translate these thoughts into messages that everyone can understand.  Ineffective communication is the downfall of many leaders – something that the students are having a first taste at in a safe environment.

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Anneivia and Jing Wen had a hard time explaining to their juniors the gameplay of a captain’s ball match with tweaked rules. A facilitator stands nearby for moral support, ready to jump in should they need help.

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Ee Kiat and Jordan elicited confused stares when they shared their VIA project’s S.M.A.R.T. goal. Feedback from fellow VIA leaders and facilitators helped them understand how they can improve in their message delivery.

It’s hard to accept failure.

We define ourselves by outcomes, so when we don’t do well in something, even if it is minor, it is easy to feel defeated. For some students who do not want to appear uncool in front of their friends, they downplay the significance of ‘failure’ and may even resort to putting others down to make themselves feel better.

Failure, however, means that we have the courage to try. It is an opportunity to learn something valuable. Throughout the programme, students were praised more for trying hard and helping others rather than just getting the right answers.

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As part of a game’s forfeit, a group of students had to form a shape of a heart. They were highly reluctant and embarrassed, until other students in the class offered to create a huge heart together. All for one, one for all!

Congratulations to the graduated batch of 2017 HW-CCE servant leaders and community champions! May they always face hardship with perseverance and poise, and emerge as diamonds reflecting brilliant light.

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HW-CCE leaders from Serangoon Garden Secondary School.

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HW-CCE leaders from Hougang Secondary School.

4 Things We Learnt from our Getaway

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Work hard, play hard! – a mantra we chant in our heads as we navigated through a year of challenges and successes. We recently lived out that adage by taking a few days off for a staff retreat in beautiful Krabi!

Our deepest gratitude to a Heartware Network donor who sponsored the retreat so that we could unwind, recalibrate, and replenish our energy. We are now in top condition to deliver our very best to our youth and beneficiaries in the upcoming months!

But even in our moments of repose and recreation, we took away many learning points we wish to share with you. Here are 4 biggest lessons we gained from our time-out:

The only way out is forward

Our most memorable experience – if you leave out the delectable banana pancakes we stuffed ourselves with almost every meal – was kayaking at Ao Thalane. This is a mangrove sanctuary that lined a magnificent bay of picturesque limestone cliffs. What a beautiful journey it was, to meander through the mangroves under the call of tropical birds in calm weather (at least at the beginning).

StaffRetreat2-20171020-154801 Us on a mini island in the middle of adjacent limestone cliffs.

Unbeknownst to many, this tranquil scene hides a deeper struggle. Can you imagine steering through the waters with hefty paddles against the current in low tide for kilometers? Or being stuck in a heavy downpour, stranded on a sandy island in the middle of the sea? What was supposed to be an enjoyable time became grueling and intense with these unplanned turn of events. Our arms were as heavy as lead, and our bodies extremely vulnerable to Mother Nature. Secretly, we wanted to give up.

Here’s the hard truth: There was no good in throwing in the towel. Had we not picked up our paddles and given it all we’ve got, had we not made light of the uncomfortable situation, we would have been stuck in that sea with a miserable mindset.

So we laughed off our fatigue, waited for the calm to get back onto the kayak, and listened to our guide to avoid shallow waters. We made it back to land with aching arms and a story to tell. It is important to persevere and stay positive even when the odds are against us. So, chin up! The only way out is forward.  

Don’t just ‘do it’…own it!

We proudly declare that we are all now certified in basic Thai cooking! Yes! We are talking about authentic Thai Green Curry, Tom Yam Goong, Pad Thai, and Papaya Salad, whipped from scratch.

StaffRetreat3-20171020-154827 Just look at the size of that knife! We all had our turns bashing chillies and lemongrass with it.

Most of us have almost zero skills in cooking, if you ignore our fried egg and instant noodle expertise. So seeing these exquisite dishes being served on the table and knowing that they were concocted from our own hands was an amazing and humbling experience. Not to mention they tasted absolutely fantastic.  StaffRetreat4-20171020-154903

In clockwise from top left: Pad Thai, Tom Yum Goong, Papaya Salad, and Green Curry.

Whether it is cooking or managing our programmes, we learnt the importance of having the right ingredients, and trusting our abilities to deliver a satisfying product. We take ownership of what we do, and feel a sense of pride over the fruits of our labour! We reap what we sow.

Think ahead

It’s not all fun and games in our retreat; we continued to put our heads together through envisioning exercises for our programmes and brainstorming our role in community building. These light-hearted exercises affirmed who we are as a charity organisation, where we stand in the face of other competitors, what we can uniquely do, and how we can strategically help our beneficiaries in a 3 year timeline.

StaffRetreat5-20171020-154931 Heartware’s newest recruit, Elysia sharing on her S.W.O.T. (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of the National Day Parade Hospitality Management.

StaffRetreat6-20171020-154944 The team did not hold back in expressing each other’s strengths and rooms for improvement. Definitely helps in strengthening bonds and understanding one another better!

When we thought about our wishlist and the future of our programmes, we saw a vision we wanted to turn into reality. We dispelled amateur thoughts about how we were already doing okay; we now have a burning passion to do better. Look forward to us executing our purpose with greater poise, and creating an even greater impact in the lives we reach out to, together with our youth!

Live in the moment

Being away from our laptops and office pressure allows us to smell the roses with greater mindfulness, and to live in the moment. In this novel setting, there was just us, a beautiful view, and some mosquitoes. We looked to each other, laughed till our bellies hurt, and learnt to slow down.

Check out the video below to watch how our great getaway transpired: 

We’re now ready to enter our next working phase in our best state possible. Till our next retreat!  

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Signing out,

The Heartware Team <3

The Many Ways to Say Goodbye

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“Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”                                                                                                             -       Wicked the Musical

These lyrics ring in our heads as we come to the end of a full cycle for the Tuition Programme. September and October marks a period of many goodbyes and naturally, deep reflections on how the volunteer experience has changed them.

Take it from tutor Wen Li from Eunoia Junior College, who quipped:

At the start, I always felt frustrated with my tutee’s progress, and sometimes by the small attention span he had, up to the point that I had even cried in class. But gradually I learnt to be patient, and to engage him in other ways that he preferred, and we made more progress from then on. I know now that being understanding and encouraging is essential for children to feel motivated, and be willing to push themselves.

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Throwback to the first tuition session at the primary school Wen Li volunteers at.

So here we are now, saying our farewells.

Parting with people we are heavily invested in is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Heck, it can even be fun! Check out some cool and loving closure ideas planned by our tutors for their tutees:

Gifts and thank-you notes are a common trend

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Li Ying got caught off guard when the tutees surprised her with letters as she gave out her own gifts!

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Loving notes from tutees to tutors!

Many tutees prepared heartfelt notes detailing their gratitude towards their mentors, in time for the closure sessions. In turn, tutors arrange simple gifts as a token of their well wishes. It really shows that when our tutors put in earnest efforts, they don’t go unnoticed! Even if the outcome may not relate to huge surges in grades, our tutors have opened up a new world of possibilities and hope for their tutees. That alone is enough.

Food is the cure

They say the way to hearts is always through the tummy! Our tutors brought an assortment of goodies and sweetened drinks to enjoy after a fulfilling last session.

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 Tutor Tsing Ngia and Brenda threw a little food party for their wonderful tutees. 

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Going BIG with pizzas!

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Candies and stationery up for grabs! Tutees had to close their eyes and reach for a surprise. *Tutee’s face has been blurred to protect identity. 

Work hard, PLAY harder!

Got a problem? Settle it outside, literally! There’s nothing better than sweating it out through games with these energetic bunch of students.

When the tutors surprised their tutees with this change of pace, the eyes of these little ones LIT. They had so much fun releasing their stress with rounds of dodgeball. We wonder if this was also part of a secret revenge by any of the tutees? We definitely hope not.

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Ready to dominate?

Thank you tutors and tutees for this wonderful learning journey. We bet there is so much to take away from these months of leaning onto one another for support and change.

Here’s wishing the best of luck to both our tutors and tutees. let’s tackle the examinations with all we’ve got!

‘Stop moaning, be pro-active’: An Interview with Founder Raymond Huang

SINGAPORE: He was a banker, but about 17 years ago, Raymond Huang decided he had had enough of the corporate world, and dedicated his life to youth development, encouraging them to be leaders, volunteers and entrepreneurs.

He set up the Heartware Network, and has seen his volunteers help out in settings from National Day Parades to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s farewell.

(Photo courtesy of Raymond Huang)

Today, he sits on Heartware’s Board of Directors and is Chairman of Kairos Asia Consultancy which looks at green-field projects and global entrepreneurship networking that benefit Heartware’s youth.

He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about the challenges of getting people to move from hardware to “heartware” and how organisations with a cause can do better to get people behind it. They started talking about how it all got started.

Raymond Huang: I started my overseas career posting in Beijing, China. I think over the few years I enjoyed myself helping Singaporeans solve issues. So whenever Singapore Ministers come to visit China, I would always try to organise gatherings with them and during one holiday with a dear friend of ours who was formerly the head of the Economic Development Board in China, he told me, “Raymond, my observation is you don’t love money enough to do banking. I find that you have greater joy helping people.”

That, to me, was a revelation. I told my wife that actually it’s true. I enjoy helping people. So I asked why don’t we leave the banking sector for a few years and see where we can take this. There was a particular key event that sealed this decision. One year when there was a demonstration by the communist youth, we saw young Chinese people climbing over our Singapore embassy wall to take a shortcut to go to the British and American embassies and there was nothing we could do. They were protesting about the fact that because the Americans used some old maps, they bombed the Chinese embassy (in Belgrade) instead of their intended target. Four Chinese nationals were killed. The British and American embassies were down the road so they took a shortcut through the Singapore embassy.

I looked at them and I felt that we were being pillaged. Yet we couldn’t do anything about it. It was a sea of 150,000 Chinese. That is a mental picture I remember till this day. At that point though, I thought, imagine if I could motivate young people in that way but for a common cause for a better Singapore beyond focusing on your car, on your house. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.

Bharati: In a previous media interview, you mentioned that you were actually moved to do this by an overseas Singaporean’s remark that he would actually pull his family out of Singapore in the event of a war.

Huang: Yes, I remember this guy. It was at the National Day celebration at the Singapore embassy and we were just talking candidly and so I asked him what he would do if something like that happens in Singapore and he said: “Oh, it’s very easy. I will just pack up my bags and move my family out of Singapore. I owe it to my family.”

I thought, it was the Singapore brand that gave you that nice comfy MNC job. It was the Singapore education that made you who you are today. It’s not like you were just born out of nowhere. In my heart I was thinking, I can’t help you anymore. You’ve made up your mind. But everybody else, maybe I can reach out to. Maybe I can reach down to our youth who are still schooling and hopefully inspire the next generation of young people who would not take Singapore as a glamorous 6-star hotel that you check in and check out of.

Bharati: Your areas of interest span quite a range – doing good for society, doing good for one’s country. Explain what “heartware” really means to you.

Huang: I think my inspiration for “heartware” was what then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said: Look beyond the material, look at the soul of the nation beyond the economic and material needs. See whether or not you can build Singapore as your home and not your hotel. That resonated with me very closely because I find that every other conversation you hear in Singapore is about car loans and housing loans.

I remembered it was different in my family in my growing-up years. We were a happy middle-class family. We grew up in a 4-room flat. Six siblings sleep on the floor. My sister had a prestigious career in the bank and at a young tender age, she gave up everything and went to India to become a missionary. My father always talked about his broken toe. This toe was broken because he was trying to run away from the Japanese in Malaysia. He said he pedaled too hard and it got caught in the bicycle chain. So we grew up with a mental picture that my family was hard-working. They almost lost their lives in the Second World War. They came to Singapore and they did good being teachers. My father always taught us integrity. He was a grassroots volunteer and from young, I would follow him around and see how he helped other people. His last act before he died was going door-to-door to ask residents whether they wanted to change their old torn and tattered Singapore flag to a new one and unfortunately while he was doing that, he caught a cold. That got worse and he was hospitalised and passed away. We buried him on National Day.

I remember my mother who, when she saw boys in school who had no pocket money, would give them 50 cents. In those days, 50 cents was a lot of money. Mental pictures of growing up and seeing a family always serving, always volunteering and always complaining why volunteers only show up when MPs are around, and why volunteers don’t show up when MPs are not expected, all this sort of stuck in my DNA because we were always taught to give back.

So to me, “heartware” means that we want to have a global perspective on things but deep down, we want to be patriotic. To us, patriotism doesn’t just mean being loyal to the PAP because PAP is just one party. Patriotism is what you want your country to be. So what do I want my country to be? How can we contribute?

Bharati: How challenging was it to get people to donate to such a cause?

Huang: It was a challenge on many fronts because we had sceptics. My wife and I had very little in our bank accounts. We always joked with our friends and our staff. I would say, “look, the young people are worth so much. If I hadn’t spent my money on young people, I would have been able to buy a condo.”

It’s a fair question in the sense that as a charity, we didn’t look after the blind or those with cancer. Those are very emotive causes. It looks more pitiful. We are asking to raise up active citizens, to raise up volunteers, some people don’t think that’s valuable enough. But I think people started to see the value. We were developing people who would help others in society who needed it, volunteers with skills you can count on, people who would be great leaders. That requires investment. We were developing young people with low self-esteem and other issues to be confident to be able to take themselves and the country to the next level.

(Photo courtesy of Raymond Huang)

Bharati: When you first set up Heartware Network, you were asked by one retired minister how you would measure “heartware”. You were taken aback then, but do you have an answer today?

Huang: You know how difficult it is for young people to do things without any incentives, no goodie bags, no lucky draws. So when the minister asked me the question, I thought if some students have difficulties finishing, in those days 6 CIP (Community Involvement Programme) hours a year, but a Heartware volunteer can finish 60 hours. To me, that’s a direct measurement.

Bharati: However, surveys show that fewer people volunteer or volunteer less once they hit adulthood and the working world. So clearly you have a problem with sustaining their interest.

Huang: Today we have a focus very much on what a person can gain from volunteering. I focus on youth and not older people because I believe we need to give them the skills of leadership and helping in any scenario – at work or through volunteering. We train them well and they pick up leadership skills, develop character, develop as people and they feel valued. So they may initially come with a view to getting what is now known as Values in Action points, but that changes when they realise how they can benefit while benefiting others.

The hope is that they continue feeling that way and most of our volunteers continue doing so even in adulthood. But obviously, we can’t do it alone. So we need more synergies in the sector to manage volunteers better – adults and youth – to similarly make them feel that they can gain too by volunteering. We need to shape character and the Character and Citizenship Education in schools hopefully will help. It is getting better. There needs to be a focus away from the material and more to what value we can bring to society and this will take time to do. This is a soul-searching process. We also want to reach out to the Normal Stream students because I think that many of them can do much more. They’ve just been labelled “normal” because of their unfortunate academic results.

FAILING

Bharati: We’ll talk more about what’s needed to sustain volunteerism in Singapore even in adulthood in a moment, but first, since you’ve mentioned Normal Stream students, what more do you think can be done in order to validate these students in society in general?

Huang: It is getting better. What we do to help is make sure that Heartware’s programme is very integrated. For instance, I have projects with Raffles Institution students and Dunman High students together with ITE students. Nobody sees them as an ITE or a Dunman High student because they wear a common t-shirt. They are just seen as students, all the same.

I think with such interactions and community bonding, slowly things will change. My biggest concern is this, at the end of the day, whatever they learn, is it going to be applicable to what they’re going to do in real life? My biggest concern now is that there is just too much conversation going on – narrative on this, narrative on that. There’s so much work to be done but still a lot of talking and conversation. I think we need action.

(Photo courtesy of Raymond Huang.)

You could say I am a product of “academic success”. I failed my “A” levels two times. I had to go to the US to get a degree. I was supposed to get to the US and transfer the credits to a better, more recognised American institution but I went to a private Christian university and came back and it was not recognised by the Public Service Division. But to me, it was what I learnt that was important. I look at all these kids and think now if I didn’t have my own setbacks, I probably wouldn’t be able empathise with them.

Character is paramount because I realised that many young people are street-smart, they will do and say the right things to pad their CVs, and we can see it very evidently. Sometimes you cannot blame them because that’s how society is, but we have realised that there’s now a great emphasis on character even in schools since Minister Heng Swee Keat was Education Minister before the last election.

I use my personal life as a testimony and it’s always the character that shines more. Don’t forget, I failed “A” levels two times. But I got the job I wanted. I delivered the results. One year, I was the top salesman in the bank. It wasn’t because of my “A” levels. It was because of my character. People could trust me. I have integrity. When I promise them something, I delivered.

But I think now there are some quarters taking things to the extreme. They celebrate failure to the point where they think that it’s shameful to celebrate excellence. People excel because they work hard. We should celebrate that. We shouldn’t celebrate people who fail because they are lazy. People who are lazy, in my book, ought to be kicked in the butt.

Celebrating a person doing his best is good. If he fails, we should provide a helping hand. Celebrating second chances is good but you’ve got to look at the root of the problem. Were they lazy or did they try their best and they failed? If you look at Singapore education, there are so many bridges to go to school. If you study hard enough and get some certifications, actually some people won’t look at the university certificate. And I agree that paper qualifications should be looked at with a pinch of salt. Heartware has hired and fired quite a few graduates who are from good universities because at the end of the day, they are only good on paper, they can’t do work.

Bharati: We need to start looking at different benchmarks of capability.

Huang: Regardless of your academic background and I don’t care whether you’re a scholar, you must know the ground, feel the ground, get your hands dirty, talk to the school, talk to teachers, talk to students. We’ve got to start preparing our young people for jobs that are not even created yet. It’s the resilience, the mindset that is important.

DEVELOPING RESILIENCE THROUGH VOLUNTEERISM 

Bharati: How to develop all that – resilience and the right mindset?

Huang: When the young people in our organization fail in any project, they are advised and they’re taught how to improve further because some people don’t accept failure. So we keep telling them that it’s okay as long you go through service learning, you go through scenario-based learning and if something pops out and you panic and fail, don’t give up. We had one student from a top school who failed in a project. She went AWOL from the whole project despite the fact that we were there to help her improve. They must understand that as long as they are teachable, they are receptive, we can train them. But the problem is that a person who has never scored a “B” in their life will never be able to understand what we are trying to do.

Bharati: This is an issue that’s been talked about many times, the ability to deal with failure. You talked about the importance of taking action. What type of action do you think is needed to change attitudes in this regard?

Huang: One, we have to be very real in the conversation and two, parents, please don’t live your lives through the lives of your children. For me, I never nag my kids about their grades. I always try to talk with them about what is the purpose they want to achieve in life. I have to be very careful not to have my plan, my aspirations put into the kid’s life and tell them what’s good for them. Minimally, I want my children to grow up to be a young man and a young lady with a great sense of self-esteem, a great sense of self-worth. So I think adults should take a step back and don’t just pump a child with money and resources but at the end of the day, you don’t spend the time to listen to the child, to find out what your child really wants? That’s very important.

Bharati: Of course parents will tell you: we have no choice, we have to provide academic tuition, push them ahead, so that they can grow up and find jobs and be relevant and make a living.

Huang: Nothing wrong with that. I have to send my son to science tuition because I’m not good in science and to me, it’s very stressful but the aim must be that they enjoy the lesson. I always say, “it’s okay if you don’t enjoy it. Let daddy know.” Then we have to try and make science relevant to them. They must be made to understand that everything is part of a larger scheme of interaction and not just about the grades. In my family, we never talk about the grades at all because I don’t want my children to be like me and tune out in school. Once you tune out, that’s it. They grow up and become cynical.

Bharati: What would you say overall are the challenges of building heartware among Singaporeans?

Huang: I think we really need to live each day as if it’s the last day of our lives and take a step back and not build up so many 5 Cs.

Bharati: How do you cut through all that “noise”? Some might say what you’re saying sound like mere motherhood statements.

Huang: I think the message has to be more consistent. I do see a lot more young people applying for jobs even in our volunteer sector now, which 17 years ago, you don’t see so much of. So there are more people now trying to find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning which is excellent because 15 years ago, you’ll never have so many CVs submitted for a job application in the sector.

SYNERGISE, DON’T REPLICATE EFFORTS

Bharati: Could it be because of the economy?

Huang: I don’t think it’s because of the economy. I think that it’s just many more young people probably never grew up being hungry and decided, “I need to find a deeper purpose.” I also think it starts from the top. The top needs to send the signal to encourage more bottom-up active citizenry.

We are not like China. You can’t take the top-down approach anymore. Politicians cannot say, “I want 1,000 young people so you marshal 1,000 young people and you only support those who support you.” You can’t do that anymore. I think we need to follow what Minister Chan Chun Sing did when he visited Heartware in 2011. When he sees something good, he believes in investing in building its capacity. It’s about saying: “Okay, you are doing good. Make it better.” Rather than: “Oh, you are doing good, but this one is not my work. I will replicate what you are doing and do it better than you.” Which, sad to say, is very true these years because the people in-charge keep changing. Then after your 3-year term is over, you change and then somebody else comes in who says, I need to show my bosses fresh Capex and I will start again. This is not good. I’ve seen so many cycles of this.

Bharati: Give me a few examples of such instances.

Huang: We have been championing the building of a youth bank volunteer management system. One year there were plans to synergise efforts, but a few years later, other bodies such as the National Youth Council and National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre started building their own volunteer portals. And with another change of leadership, the focus will be shifted again in different government agencies.

Instead, look at the players on the ground and see who does what best. Help them with what they lack. For instance, we lack deep research capability, so we don’t set up a research arm. Instead, we get resources from the National Youth Council. We synergise. Singapore is too small to keep starting new things. Stop replicating. Synergise and make things bigger. We are so small.

DON’T OFFER INCENTIVES FOR VOLUNTEERING 

Bharati: You’ve said before that the Heartware Network is not a “rah rah charity”. You actually have a development pathway which includes leadership and entrepreneurship.

Huang: Yes, it’s all integrated. For instance, in the area of entrepreneurship when we help young people with loans, a simple point of character is whether the person is able to pay the loans on time. If I find that the person spends a lot of time holidaying and going everywhere else but forgets to make payment on time, then I’d wonder what the person’s character is.

When leaders plan projects, if they cannot show up, they give reasons, they don’t give excuses. So we watch all these little things because sometimes young people when they see authority, they behave differently. When they see peers, they behave differently again. To me, that’s not character. That’s hypocrisy. We need to eradicate all these things because we don’t have a population of 30 million young people. So even if you call our young people strawberries, remember, we don’t have a lot of ready stock of strawberries to replenish them, so we have to do with the bruised and damaged ones. We shape these standards from Day One. They know that if they don’t keep to their word or if they don’t show up, they’re out.

They can go to their MP and appeal to them, but it won’t work. We actually had one case like this and actually a good laugh in the office. One student got his mother to go to their MP’s Meet-the-People session to appeal for Community Involvement Programme (CIP) hours from us. We received the letter, just laughed it off and said: “No, you have not met the criteria.” We explain this to the youth from the start. At the end of the day, when they don’t get involved, we will remove them. The youth planning committee will alert them, send them letters and if that doesn’t work, they’re out.

Some charities out there, they just appreciate every single volunteer that comes along. Nothing wrong with that, but no training or half-baked training. They just welcome them and this is actually very bad for the youth’s development. Volunteering must benefit the cause, but also the volunteer in terms of personal development so that the volunteers come back. But the way some charities do it, it makes the youth think, “oh, Values in Action (VIA) hours are a given, so I’ll just come and show up and even if they don’t add value, some charities will just give them the hours.”

Some charities tell volunteers if you raise more money for my charity, I will give you bonus Values in Action hours. We are not raising a generation of monkeys. You cannot offer incentives like that for volunteering. So for us, I keep telling my young people that they are young men and women who will take Singapore to SG100. If I want to raise a generation of monkeys, I might as well close shop and send everybody off.

ORGANISATIONS IN THE SOCIAL SECTOR NEED TO INVEST IN HUMAN CAPITAL

Bharati: What exactly is preventing organisations from doing better when it comes to volunteer development? A lack of resources?

Huang: The sad thing is when an organization has resources, they’d rather channel the resources to fund-raising instead of channeling the resources to developing human capital. We should focus on human capital first because when we build up good young people, we always feel that the money will come. This has happened for us. We are living proof. 80-90% of our funding comes from the corporate sector.

I think the last flag day that Heartware did was in 2003. Charities need to understand that building people is very important. We are in the business of transforming lives and you need to transform the lives of your volunteers as well. People need to be properly trained, engaged, documented. You cannot just use them as a warm body. Tell the youths what they will learn by volunteering with you. People skills, public speaking skills, safety and security skills, etc.

Bharati: Your volunteers get VIA hours too though.

Huang: But that too is something we don’t communicate. We always talk about your passion, your personal development goals. We talk about what you’re going to learn at the end of the day. And by the way, you also get VIA hours. So we take away goodie bags. Some organisations send me letters saying please send two busloads of youths. Why? Because the Prime Minister is coming. The poor Prime Minister. Does he know his name is being dangled like that? We look at the developmental aspect. Don’t ask us for two busloads just because the VVIP is here. This is not for show. Things like that get trashed into the dustbin within a minute.

Bharati: Another issue that’s been in the spotlight off and on over the years is getting more people to take jobs in the social services sector. Remuneration has been seen as an issue and improvements are being made in that regard. What else is needed?

Huang: You really cannot have people living by faith especially since it’s not a religious organization. Even some churches pay the pastors and staff reasonably well. Social workers are the same. If they are good at what they do, I think you need to pay them a good salary. Don’t ask them to go hungry. Recognise them as professionals. It’s not easy because in social work, you’re dealing with a lot of issues. It’s very draining both physically and mentally.

I think the social service sector needs to be championed more. There’s already a President’s Award for social workers but I think more of the success stories need to be highlighted in the media. Have more Singaporeans put through a stint in the family service sector and let them have exposure. No matter how short-term the exposure, let them understand what social workers have to go through. My sister is a social worker so we have a great pride in social workers. Also we need to recognise that in the sector, we shouldn’t use the words loosely – social worker, counsellor, mentor – we are very careful with such terminology because they are all real professionals.

THE YOUNG SHOULD STOP MOANING

Bharati: You also look into developing entrepreneurs. What’s preventing this from happening more organically in society?

Huang: It is not about the business about being a millionaire. It’s about innovation. It’s about resilience, independence. When I give you a sheet of white paper, you don’t ask 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 questions. You are immediately able to move with it. These are the skillsets that we need to train (in) our young people. When I started, it was a social enterprise because there was no funding so we had to fund ourselves. We had to make sure we stood out among 2,000 other charities. I started and the journey was satisfying even though it was tough.

But I realised that this is the journey that many young people need to go through. The pro-activeness, the tenacity when things don’t go well. How are you going to sell? The problem now I think is a lot of young people are comfortable. That’s why in a sense, I’m happy for this small economic recession, because while our government is going to do a great job in restructuring, young people now, instead of moaning and groaning, need to do more. When I first came back from the US, I didn’t ask for a salary. I went to a bank and told them straight: “You have no budget, never mind. Hire me for 4 months. I work for you for free. If I do well, maybe 4 months later when you have the budget, you can hire me. If I don’t do well, at least for 4 months you’ll have a volunteer.

Bharati: Did they take up the offer?

Huang: They actually offered me the job with full pay from Day One, but I was fortunate enough to get another job so I turned them down. But the point is I was willing to do it for free for 4 months. So I feel if you cannot find a job and if you don’t have a business idea, go and volunteer at organisations that are aligned with your thinking. Learn from them, who knows? That’s what our young people can do instead of going to social media and complaining and moaning. There are a lot of opportunities.

CAN SCHOOLS MAKE MORE OF A DIFFERENCE?

Bharati: To what extent do you feel the schools could be doing more to effect attitudinal change though education?

Huang: Like what the famous John Maxwell says: You cannot teach what you do not know.

If the teachers come from the standard polytechnics and JCs and are nicely-minted from the National Institute of Education and are going into schools with no external experience, how are they going to inspire the charges under them to think out of the box? So that’s why I’m a strong advocate of getting more mid-career teachers and outsiders to come in and inspire students.

Bharati: You’re saying that trained teachers for whom this could be a calling may not make as much of an impact?

Huang: I think they need to be inspired as well. That’s the issue. School teachers are very busy. You should see the long hours they clock. No joke. That’s why I keep telling people not to join the teaching service if you just want a secure job and a salary because you owe it to the kids to do more. The kids will know when they look at you if it’s just a job for you or whether you have the passion to touch their lives. That’s why every time we engage our students, we also try to inspire the teachers. We have an iconic programme where we get children, the youths to give the teachers handwritten notes to thank the teachers for being a great teacher.

Bharati: There’s now a Character and Citizenship Education module in schools as well, but you acknowledge that teachers tend to be very busy. Do you think more room should be made in our syllabus for these sorts of activities rather than just focusing on academics

Huang: I think there is more room now already. There are white spaces. But I think the balance is always how much white space is needed between the core subjects and this. But I’m sure it’s getting better. Over the last 17 years, I’ve seen a lot of improvements.

Bharati: When you talk about active citizenry, how much of it has to do with advocacy work which can sometimes be confrontational even towards the government?

Huang: To me, you must put your hand to the heart and know that what you do is real and sincere. I look at it, not so much from the government’s point of view. I look at it in terms of a person truly believing in the cause. If he or she is passionate about it, I think there’s nothing to fear. That’s why I always tell my friends: “You think the police so free, ah? You think they will go and bug your place and track you down?”

If you truly and sincerely believe in something that you want for Singapore, fine. But if you are being used by somebody, you are being funded by foreigners with an agenda to destabilize society, then you better watch out. But I think the authorities can engage relationally. I sometimes don’t like what our government does, but I don’t put it on social media. I don’t blast them because you can gently lobby them and find common ground. I think of it this way: At end of the day, I must bring a better Singapore. A win-win is more important than just getting my point right.

Bharati: Going forward, how do you think we can evolve to leading more self-actualised lives amid the demands of making a living and the stresses that come with that? This, of course, is related to what we talked about earlier – getting the young to continue with volunteerism even when they hit adulthood.

Huang: I can’t help the adults now-

Bharati: You think it’s too late for them?

Huang: Those who already locked in a 30-year housing loan and a 10-year car loan need to re-evaluate. I came from a banking career so when I started giving out loans, I refused to give out loans to people who have to leverage every dollar they make. I refused to lend them money because I felt they were asking for trouble.

What I’ve learnt is really try to live below your means and try to minimize a deficit position. I’ve stayed in the same HDB for the last 15 years.

What hit me real early was that I lost my precious niece when she turned 4 years old and a dear friend of mine from India. He just graduated with two masters, and suddenly, he had a brain aneurysm and passed away at age 25.

So the morbidity of death struck home. I thought, I’m not God, better balance life out. What if I were to die tomorrow? What legacy would I be leaving? So from that time, in my early 20s, I really tried to balance life out. So today I tell young people that you may look good. You may have all these trappings, but deep down there’s a lot of stress, there’s a lot of arguments and what’s going to happen? At the end of the day, you’ll just be living for yourself. That’s why I try to share with young people and tell them to try to have executive freedom, try and live below your means and not live month-by-month by credit card to impress people. I found out who my real friends are when I switched from banking to charity work. When I was in banking, every Chinese New Year, you would see so many hampers in my house. When I joined the charity sector, some people shook my hands as if I had leprosy. They touch you for two seconds and then go.

Bharati: Afraid you’ll ask them for money.

Huang: A lot of people are very practical so I think whether the economy is good or bad, we have to do some soul-searching and really go deep down. I encourage this among the young and hope that will carry this into adulthood. If you’re not here tomorrow, what legacy do you want to leave?

- CNA/mn