My first speech, on Love
On the 9th of May I received a Facebook message from a former teacher of mine, Mr Bryden Chew, that threw me off my feet. He was simply inviting me back to RGS as their Guest-of-Honor for National Day, and I couldn't believe it, I've never seen myself as an Anything-of-Honor. But I couldn't turn down the opportunity to return to my alma mater and speak. It was a terrific experience. I wrote my first speech ever, and delivered it. In between those two events, there were a few hiccups... which I'll save for another post. Having written a speech that some of my friends wanted to read was the final kick in the ass for me to launch my blog. No more hiding, here I am. If you were actually in the audience, I skipped past some examples because the girls were dropping out and my priority then was to finish.
The Speech: On Love
Hello. The prospect of facing all of you and coming up with something meaningful to say was nerve-wracking- and still is. I’m trembling like a leaf on the inside. But, on the 9th of May I received a facebook message from Mr Bryden Chew inviting me to return. I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to come back and speak, here I am.
Principals Mrs Hoo, Mrs Tan, Ms Chin and Mr Ng, Teachers, Staff, Guests, fellow Rafflesians, good morning. It is an incredible honor to be with you today. Thank you for the immense privilege that this is. I’m so glad to be back, my time in the Raffles schools fundamentally shaped me into who I am. I am fortunate to have spent my formative years here – they are a critical factor to me being where I today. So Thank you. To my classmates and platoon-mates and school mates who are here today to support me, I am so grateful for you. To the Guard of honor, standing solid still, I see you. I was once one of you. I appreciate your service. And I’m going to say what I have to say and then get off the stage, so hang in there. You all look very handsome.
Today we celebrate Singapore’s 47th birthday, and the Theme this year is ‘Loving Singapore, Our Home’. I’m going to speak about Love today. Let’s not pretend that I am any kind of expert on love, it was just a few years ago that I was in your shoes, and I am in no position to give you any real advice. So I’d like to invite you to keep in mind that love is something that we’re often not comfortable talking about precisely because it is so nebulous and subjective and it makes us feel vulnerable. So feel free to disagree with at any point- it is your right as a human being to have your own thoughts and feelings about love.
Today I’m simply going to make three points: Loving others. Loving yourself. Loving something bigger than yourself.
What does it mean to love someone else? Mother Theresa said, If you judge people, you have no time to love them. I used to be the number one judger on the planet. I had an opinion about everything, usually a negative one. I jumped to conclusions. I assumed things about people. I judged myself very harshly. I’m brainy - I had no problem rationalizing my judgments. And then, as I grew older, I hoped I got better about putting myself in other people’s shoes. I’m still in the process of leading with love.
I’ve been back in Singapore for about 8 days, and before that I was gone for close to a year. You know better than I do what the state of online social media is – there’s been a lot of negative energy directed towards the government, about the general elections, finding resonance around issues like MRT breakdowns. Bukit Brown. Immigration policy. Feng Tianwei. All of these opinions are legitimate, and I’m sure you have your own ideas. I would guess that there are some of you who are concerned with the level of vitriol and one-sidedness in some of these anti-government attacks. I know I was.
A few days ago a good friend of mine told me something over our dimsum brunch. He said, he liked that people are sharing their opinions online, but maybe they don’t have the skills to make a balanced argument or give constructive feedback. Maybe they’re not used to thinking long-term, but are short-sighted. Maybe they’re under-educated.
And as I found myself agreeing with him, I realized that I was falling into the exact same trap that I was close to accusing them of. I thought they didn’t have all the information. They were missing some perspectives. And what I realized is that I was missing some perspectives too. I wasn’t considering, why do people write what they write? Why do they feel this way? What motivates them to take their tone? Could it be that a more extreme opinion was needed to express some pent-up emotion? Maybe they were insecure about their voice being heard. I don’t know – the point is not to get down to the bottom of each individual, but to understand the depth in them. People are incredibly complex, and beneath every action there may be layers of motivations and compulsions that can be unraveled.
Everyone does what he or she does for a reason- sometimes this is unconscious, but in their perspective, it is usually a very good reason. Remember - if we judge people, we have no time to love them. Leading with love doesn’t just mean trying to understand someone. It is having the intent to find the best in them, the inherent lovability. It means that even though my first impression is to dislike an unfortunate face, I reset my perspective to afford the other person the best benefit of the doubt. A good way to catch myself making snap judgements or stereotyping people, is when I use the word, ‘just’ as a final reason. He’s just like that. That’s just the way it is. I’m just not good at math.
Nope. It’s never so simple. What’s hiding behind the ‘just’? Take pause, consider how you feel. What’s going on? The questions are infinite, and they are all around us. For example, why does your mom act the way she does? How did your teacher choose to teach? The questions are everywhere. Help one another find them. For me, extending love to people I meet has become my primary way of understanding the world.
Each of us has our own set of eyes and ears, to see and hear the world in a different way. It’s a cliché, it’s a platitude, but it’s fundamentally true that we all are unique. Before we are able to love others fully, we have to love ourselves. It’s like a cup that needs first be filled to the brim before it can overflow.
What does it mean to love yourself? It’s not about narcissism, or egoism. It means acknowledging that you are perfect as you are. You’re worth taking care of. You never need to do anything to prove yourself. You don’t have to get the best grades, take 3 languages, win piano competitions if that’s not what you love. You’re worth it just as you are. You’re already beautiful.
I know how difficult this is. I’ve been beating myself up over everything for almost all my life. And it has nothing to do with the amount of external affirmation we have. It’s not easy to believe that you’re worth it when we were told since young that we had to score above 90% in primary school to be good. Or, told to wear Guess and Zara and to lose weight by mass media. It’s no surprise that self-love is often neglected. This is not about self-pity, or whining, or self-indulgence. It’s about realizing that when you go through hard times or when you feel inadequate, it’s not your fault. It’s not true that you have more flaws than everyone else. Be kind to yourself. Do things for yourself.
But it’s not easy. Self-love is hard, especially for young driven women like us. You know what helps? You can help one another. Make it a practice to tell people what you appreciate about them. And when you get a compliment, receive it with Grace. Take it in. Don’t just say, oh that was nothing. It may seem like nothing to you, but it means a lot to the person giving you the compliment. So I want you to think of someone who matters to you – it could be the friend next to you, it could be a teacher or a family member – and think of something you appreciate about them.
Ok. You thought of it? Now don’t forget it. You have to tell them. Commit to telling this person sometime today. Write it on your hand if you’re afraid you’ll forget. If you don’t see them, sms them. Email them. Whatever’s comfortable. You have nothing to lose. In the worst-case-scenario, you just made their day, or you were a little weird. Just like that, giving and receiving compliments, all of you are helping one another with your self-love practices.
Before I move on this point, I want to share a story with you. I spent the last month in Colorado. While I was there, I met a foot reflexologist who was just the most compassionate, spiritual healer that I’d met. He could sense that I was in a rough spot, and he was right. So he gave me something. He gave me this green wristband, and he told me he thinks our society gives far less affirmation to people than they need. So he made these wristbands for people, and he taught me his strategy. Everytime someone says thank you, our instinct is often to just say you’re welcome. So this reflexologist – his name is Brother Sage – said that he wore the wristband to remind himself to reply, with grace and in all sincerity – you’re worth it. You’re worth it. And when he talks about how people’s faces just light up from that simple statement, his face lights up. You could try that if you like. Practice it. When someone says thank you, Say you’re worth it, because they are. So are you. It is an irreversible, indubitable right that we all enjoy. The right to be loved, and to love ourselves.
Loving something bigger than yourself
So now I need to link this back to Singapore, right? I’m not going to tell you how to love Singapore. I don’t even think you need to. It’s hard enough to love people and love yourself, and now we’re talking about abstract ideas - like a country. What makes a country, apart from its name and place? And how can we love a country or a place? Do we decide to love a place, or do we discover that love within ourselves?
It’s a spectrum, and each of us has a different answer. For me, it wasn’t actually my army experience that made me realize my love for Singapore. It was the time I spent overseas. I found that when the going got tough, I derived a lot of comfort from spending time with people who look like me, talk like me, and think like me. I care about the systems that care for me and my loved ones, that educated me, and that made me who I am. I discovered that sense of attachment and rootedness.
This is where there’s a bit of an irony, that I’m the guest of honor speaking about how I love Singapore. Nothing privileges my versions of love for Singapore above yours. Your perspective is the only one that really matters, and mine could just as well be irrelevant. If you struggle to articulate what it means to be Singaporean, don’t worry. Sometimes the most important things have no words. They manifest as feelings. You don’t have to force yourself to ask or answer, what does my country need me to do. The question isn’t even how the world needs me right now. As Howard Thurman said, Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Singapore will be all the better for it if each and every one of you comes alive in your own unique way – and I think RGS is the perfect place for you to begin to explore that. So do what resonates with you. It could be curry. It could be the Olympics. It could be your community. When the expression of love is truly yours, it will be beautiful and meaningful.
And now, to conclude, just remember love. What does it mean to love others? Love before you judge. What does it mean to love yourself? Affirm yourself and one another. And what does it mean to love something bigger than yourself? That’s for each of us to decide.
To end off: L is for the way you’ve listened to me. O comes before my exclamation of thanks to thee. V is each of you being very extraordinary. And E is equal to all of you being true to you and. Love was meant for me and you.