All posts by Alden Boon

Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

‘He Slapped Me, Punched Me, Kicked Me and Spat at Me, but I Forgive Him.’ Sandra Aulia’s Powerful Account of Surviving Domestic Violence.

This story contains details that may be emotionally unsettling, but they reflect Sandra’s journey as a domestic violence survivor.

The pain from the contusion on Sandra’s forehead throbbed like a heartbeat. She could feel it start to swell. ‘What just happened?’ she thought. ‘All this over a bowl of instant noodles?’ She had just had the happiest day of her life two weeks ago, a day when she was the envy of many — where was the promised matrimonial bliss? She should have kept the door locked. Such rage in her husband’s eyes as he charged towards her she had hitherto never seen before, not in the two years of courtship. Already tired out from a six-hour flight after a weeks-long business trip, she popped a paracetamol and isolated herself in that very spare room while her ex slept in the master bedroom. Any reconciliation would have to wait.

Sandra came to Singapore circa 1996, after her company relocated her. She was a self-professed workaholic, having studied interior design in the United States. At the turn of the millennium, she was part of the team who brought The Fullerton Hotel to life. The hotel’s grand opening was graced by Singapore’s then prime minister. ‘It was beautiful and there was a huge celebration the next day. But I felt so empty.’ Even as she loved her job, she was not impervious to the unavoidable burnout stemming from a punishing routine of irregular work hours and transactional relationships. She sought solace in the church, and became a faithful servant in the community.

The church was where she met her former husband. Quiet and affable, he was someone who ‘blended into the background’ yet had an innate charisma he could unveil when the need arose. ‘By the time both of us were dating, we were no longer young,’ says Sandra. Her meetups with her ex frequently took place in the presence of their common church friends. ‘We were involved in many volunteering activities organised by the church. We met up after office hours and would head back to our respective homes after our dates. I never got the chance to see him in his home setting.’ They also participated in church camps held in Singapore and Malaysia, and he was always a well behaved fellow during these events. Even during their couple’s retreat to Thailand, Sandra saw no red flags or signs of threat.

Finding love and settling down with a Singaporean man were the last things on Sandra’s mind. She wanted the high-power career, her heart and mind ever wandering back to the United States. In spite of her ambitions, she found herself saying yes when her ex proposed. To Sandra, this was a man who had the same values as she, his character exemplary. Working for the church and under the archdiocesan, he preached the message of empowerment to believers across four continents. A few months before they got married, he had completed his training course with the Ministry of Education, and begun his teaching tenure at a junior college.

As a rite of passage, the then soon-to-wed couple attended a three-day marriage preparation course. ‘We were the best couple; our compatibility was off the charts.’ After a short honeymoon, Sandra was sent to Shanghai to oversee a hotel project. On the account that she was a newlywed, her company gave her a respite and allowed her to come home. ‘I was tired from the flight home, hungry, so I went to cook noodles. I asked if he wanted any, and he said “no”. After I had made it, he wanted to take it from me. I refused to give in to him, saying: “I had already asked you and you turned it down. This is my only dinner.” That was when he prised the bowl from me, and the content spilled all over him. His anger arose. I was upset but I knew better than to face an angry person. I went into the spare room and locked the door. Banging and screaming, he demanded for me to let him in. I did, and that was a mistake.’

The first abuse incident blindsided Sandra. She hailed from a loving family and was close to her siblings. She was a tennis player who competed at an international level, and her weekends were dedicated to honing her skills. Her father was a doting man and would train with and prepare her for her tournaments. ‘My father never laid a hand on my mother. Even when there was a conflict or an argument, he never once shouted at my mother.’ This perhaps idealised her perception of marriage. Like a calf that has toed only the riverbank and does not know its full depth and so does not fear drowning, she saw no reason to be guarded.

‘He reasoned that he just wanted dinner. I didn’t know at the time what he really wanted was attention from me. For two weeks I had been away, and didn’t fulfil my so-called wifely responsibilities. We had a talk and made up afterwards.’

Read: How My Dog, Clifford, Uplifts and Gets Me Through My Chronic Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder: Rajes Balachanther

Bingz Huang Highly Sensitive Person Human Design Gentleness

Bingz Huang on Navigating the World as a Highly Sensitive Person, Energy Healing and Gentleness

As a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), Bingz Huang knows what it is like to feel emotional burnout. By tapping the teachings of the Human Design System and practising energy healing, she is able to navigate the world despite being inundated with external stimuli. She shares more on what it’s like being an HSP and the practice of gentleness.

Bingz, what is an HSP?

For an HSP, the sensitivity of the central nervous system and cognitive processing of external stimuli is much stronger and deeper. The wide-ranging stimuli can be emotional energies, the thoughts of passers-by, environmental noise, to name a few. I tend to be more sensitive to the emotional energies emanating from people around me. Growing up, I was discouraged from crying and so I learnt to numb my sensitivity when I couldn’t cry freely as an emotional outlet.

When I was doing my physiotherapy internship at a hospital, I worked with elderly patients who had walking difficulties. I could sense the pain of the patients, as well as the stress of the healthcare staff. I could feel people on the brink of death, and their energy leaving, and they would pass away shortly. It was very overwhelming. If someone was hurt in the hip or having digestive issues, I’d feel this rumbling and pattern of the energy. The energies were very dense, like they’re fixed and cannot be changed. Sometimes, the energies in a place, such as a hospital environment, can feel very heavy and gloomy, and may also have another layer of chaotic energies zigzagging in all directions.

The thing is, put anyone in the emergency room or a ward and he is likely to feel overwhelmed too. How is it different for an HSP?

Prior to my internship, I was already adequately trained on all the theoretical and practical aspects of my job scope, and I fared well in a classroom environment. But when I was in the hospital ward, even when it was a quiet and peaceful one, even when my classmates were relaxed and cheerful, I’d still burst out crying. I felt both heaviness in my chest. Panicky, I couldn’t focus on the simple tasks I needed to do to help my patients.

Though I had already been conditioned to numb my emotions throughout my childhood to my early twenties, I was still immensely affected by these intense emotions. If someone was angry with me, I’d feel like I was being punched in my chest. I’d need time to recover from this energetic blow.

Does this mean that HSPs have to live a life where they have to bear the weight of negative emotions?

A lot of times, for HSPs, we may detach energetically from our physical bodies to sense what’s going on. And when we do that, we are not fully connected. We are not grounded in ourselves. It doesn’t feel safe because we’re out of our bodies. So, it’s important to first come back to our physical bodies, to feel how we are reacting to others. For example, saying “I feel like you are judging me” is not a conveyance of an actual feeling. That is more of a thought. A true feeling can be “I feel sad in my chest”, or “I feel heavy in my shoulders”. What we feel can be emotions, or tangible sensations in certain parts of our physical bodies. Even saying “I feel numb” is an actual feeling too.

Is it all negative emotions? Do you experience moments of transcendence?

When I conduct interviews with other healers and coaches and transformational teachers, their presence alone is very moving. It’s not about their words; their entire presence just evokes my need to cry — but it’s a positive sensation. I feel touched that they are leading with integrity with their teaching, that their actions are aligned with their words and presence.

When did you learn about energy systems?

My first job was in the aircraft engineering industry — I held the title of  ‘Continuous Improvement Executive’. My job was to use the Kaizen and Lean Six Sigma methodologies to streamline business efficiency. Fresh out of school, I was clueless about what I was doing. I was the only person in the five-hundred-strong company in charge of this task as well. My contributions and even my role itself felt unmeaningful. I took energy healing workshops over the weekends, and I began practising it on a few colleagues. The healing modality I learnt at that time was proactive. It takes a bit of imagination and being acutely aware of your breathing and sensing. You can send colours and symbols as a way of sending healing energies to someone. Helping someone relieve his pain, both emotional and physical, allowed me to feel lighter. I felt a much greater sense of achievement helping someone release physical and emotional pain than helping my company improve its productivity.

What is energy flow? And what causes energy blockage?

There’s always energy flowing through us. When we can align ourselves, when we can improve the flow within us, we can improve the rate of our natural healing abilities. We tend to get blocked in our energetic flows because of the way we react to things, people or situations. For the patients in the ward, I could sense that there was blockage in them. And their energies were dense.

As we grow older and get wiser, we learn to anticipate our emotional reactions and then curb them. Take for example, when someone intentionally tries to antagonise you — you try to control yourself so that you don’t erupt in anger.  But it takes energy to repress that anger. And this is when your energy flow gets blocked.

But if someone is deliberately ruffling my feathers, isn’t it a good thing that I block the incipient anger lest it erupt?

Yes, but you don’t have to erupt in anger. You also don’t want to suppress this anger. It is already trapped in your body, and it’s so much better to feel all that you’re feeling, so you can process, release, and integrate this energy. Suppressing this emotion creates an energy blockage within you. In turn, the harmony in your body is disrupted. Over time, as you suppress anger and other negative emotions, there comes a time when you will erupt over the most trivial of matters because there’s so much in you that needs to be released. Most likely, you will take it out on your closest loved ones because it feels safest for you to be ‘real’ with them. In doing so, you hurt your relationships with the people who matter the most to you.

Naturally, we will react a certain way to the person who’s antagonising us. What we can do is to meet that person with more openness, and in that way, positively affect the other person. Think about it: we won’t approach monks and try to irritate them. Why not? Because they radiate such peaceful energy. And even if we tried to, they would likely not react, so our efforts would be futile. So, in the face of criticism, it is important to think whether it is worth it for you to have more open, more honest communication with the other party.

For example, you may feel stuck in a toxic company, working on projects that are meaningless to you and being surrounded by critical colleagues. Sometimes, the best consolation may be drastic, such as leaving it because it simply isn’t a good fit. If you tolerate the things that your colleagues do to you, resentment will build up. Eventually, you will vent it on someone whom you feel comfortable venting on, and this can be your parent, sibling or spouse. I think all of us are all immediately intuitive. If you keep your body light and free of this resentment, or of any stuck energy, it becomes easier for you to be intuitively guided. So, when we don’t try to block things out, it gets easier to receive messages on how we can honestly connect with other people.

I get what you’re saying, but at the same time, it’s a little idealistic, isn’t it? To say to just lean into your intuition and leave a job. It is easier said than done, especially for those who don’t have a security net. 

Of course, there is the consideration of job security, but we don’t have to figure things out immediately. It’s also idealistic to assume that we will still have our jobs as long as we don’t quit. Our lives can change even when we are not making the changes. We also cannot anticipate major events such as a cancer diagnosis. We don’t have to create a plan for the next ten years. We can only take one step at a time. It is about trusting your inner guidance. The more we trust, the more we are gentle with ourselves, the more we love ourselves, the more able are we to take the necessary action.

SGBrisketKitchen Founder Jayce Ho on the Joys and Pains of Smoking Meats and Entrepreneurship

Jayce Ho is a multihyphenate: she is a full-time business development manager, a passionate owner of Polish chickens, and she also runs a side business selling diatomaceous earth. The newest feather in her cap? SGBrisketKitchen, an online business where she purveys mainstays such as Texas-style smoked briskets and pulled pork. What’s impressive is that she’s an autodidact, learning the art of smoking meats just by watching online videos. By many customers’ testimonials, her meats can hold a candle to those prepared by bona fide pit masters.

Jayce, tell us about your first brush with entrepreneurship.

I had previously won a Star Wars toy through a magazine contest. I was eleven — this was the pre-Internet banking days. I decided to list it on eBay, and within an hour I was able to close the transaction. I started looking around my room for things that I could sell, and I found stuff like Gameboy cartridges. Later in life, my girlfriends and I were hooked on a popular Taiwanese variety show, and I had a thought: ‘Why not import the beauty products that the hosts were recommending?’ So, I began procuring products from Taiwan, as well as Japan, as I was fluent in Japanese. I listed these products on eBay as well.

What did you learn from these early ventures?

The skill to set up a website. It’s a far cry from the options you have today where you can construct a website using pre-made templates. Back in those days, I had to build a website from scratch, and I had to learn HTML coding. And then there’re the product shots. I bought basic light equipment, a diffuser and set up the shots myself. And then came the editing of the photos, such as removing the background. It was laborious, but it was worth it when I saw the finished product, and that all the links worked.

Were there any experiences during your formative years that planted the seed of grilling and cooking?

During my Girl Guides days, I was exposed to outdoor survival skills and outdoor cooking. My mates and I participated in quite a few competitions and we strove for the President’s Guide Award. It was a really fun time. We had many camps over at the Sarimbun Scout Camp site. We had to dig our own pits in the ground and start fires, which were needed for boiling water. These were the things we were not taught in the classroom. Even when it’s raining, and we were soaked from head to toe, even when our shoes were muddy and we smelt, we still had to get the work done. If we didn’t pitch the tents in time, we wouldn’t have any shelter. These experiences toughened me up.

It was during this time that I learnt the art of solar cooking. We would take cardboards, wrap them with aluminium foil, and position them under the hot sun. Then, we would place a pot of food in the middle and with that, we got to cooking. Sometimes, we’d prepare and affix a chicken to a clothes hanger, wrap it with aluminium foil to prevent the heat from radiating. It would take us over six hours to cook the meat over embers.

We would be so thankful for the sun, because that meant we could cook our food. It made us appreciate nature, and to respect it. We always had to do contingency planning as well: when it rained, we’d switch to using the burner and cook on the mass tin. This in a way has prepared me for real life. When it comes to work, we always have to be prepared for what is to come and what can go wrong. Girl Guides trained me to be prepared; it’s one of our mottos.

Jayce Ho SGBrisketKitchen Main

And what sparked your interest in smoking meats? Was it perhaps a delicious meal that you had?

No, in fact, I’ve never had smoked meat prior to my business. I was always the designated chef at my family’s and friends’ barbecue sessions, in charge of grilling prawns, satay and the like. Eventually, I got kind of bored of this direct cooking method, and I searched the Internet to see what else I could do. My interest was piqued when I read about this low and slow cooking method over a grill — initially I was shocked that it would take up to twenty hours. It was circa 2019 that I started to watch online videos and then dabble in it. During my first few experimentations, my parents funnily asked: ‘Are you going to set the house on fire?’

Take us through the first few times that you smoked the meat.

I failed so many times that I had to take a break from it. The meats are not cheap; all told I think I spent about a thousand dollars on just the ingredients. I tried offerings from different countries — I personally find that Argentina, Australian and Brazilian beef tend to have a gamier smell. After numerous tests, I also decided to go with grain-fed beef instead of grass-fed ones.

With each failed batch, I tried to salvage as much as I could, but sometimes, it’s just burnt. It kind of pained me when I had to throw some of the meats away. It’s always disappointing when things didn’t turn out the way I envisioned it. I’ll always remember the first time I succeeded — it was a rush of emotions, and I had that ‘whoa’ moment. Even today, I still get that joy when I slice into the meat. I think that’s important; if the joy is gone I probably won’t do it anymore.

What contributed to the early failures?

Temperature control. The cut of the meat, being too small, coupled with an overly hot temperature, caused the meat to burn. The texture was hard. My taste testers were quite encouraging and supportive in that they still finished everything off the plate.

What are the ingredients you use to marinate the meat?

That’s the beauty of it — just salt and pepper. And the Maillard reaction that happens over a span of sixteen to twenty hours. And I use only high-quality cuts; I’ll never skimp on that. I’ve tried cheaper cuts during the experimentation phase but the taste was subpar.

How many times did it take you to achieve your first successful one?

Ten times, thereabout. And then a few more times thereafter to ensure I could achieve consistency. My family got sick of eating meat, so I roped in my friends for taste testing. Between each experimentation, there would be a slight improvement. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How could I improve the texture, the juiciness? It was only when my family and friends unanimously agreed that the meats were good that I became confident enough to start selling. I went to register my domain name and set up my company. And I bought a second-hand eighteen-inch grill off an online platform.

Was there anything that took you a long time to get right?

The salt level. My father found the meat overly salty while others said it could be saltier. I had thought that the older folks would want a heavier flavour, but no, it’s a mix of old and young. Trying to find a middle ground drove me crazy. I consulted some chefs in the F&B industry, asking them how they determined the salt level, and how to balance the differing views. They advised that it was ultimately up to me. They told me to stick to the level of saltiness I was comfortable with. They told me I couldn’t please everybody.

Read: Ceramication Founder Rayn Leow Talks the Art and Science of Pottery Making, Coming Out and Privilege

Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0727

The Epitome of Selflessness: Metta Cats Director Terry Lim on Saving Stray Animals, Eighteen-hour Days and Carrying on His Late Mother’s Legacy

Clad in his typical ensemble of black shirt, denim jeans and waterproof boots, Terry Lim is ready for another day of a punishing eighteen-hour routine. His forearms bear the pink marks of old wounds; fresh raised scratches overlap them. He enters the cubicle occupied by Bubbles, an eight-month-old mother cat whose petiteness and slenderness belie a feisty attitude. He herds her newborns into a carrier. Then he gets to work, hosing the tiled floor down, and with a squeegee expels the water out of it. Next, he gives the wooden shelf a thorough wipe down. This is only the first of sixty-four cubicles that he has to clean daily.

The dimly lit, seven-thousand-square-foot compound exudes an air of rusticity, held together by corrugated metal panels and lattice grills, some of which were welded by Terry himself. Blotches of azure-blue paint have come off the walls in the cubicles; cages corroded by rainwater creak and clang. Here, sibling cats share the same cubicle. Others idle their time away ensconced in their hammocks. Feral cats or cats with contagious illnesses are sequestered. Silence is a commodity here: dogs in the adjoining space bark relentlessly at seemingly nothing. Not an hour into his duty and Terry’s shirt is filled with gossamer fur, as he lifts the cats and gets them out of the way, sneaking in cuddles every so often. This is life at Metta Cats & Dogs Sanctuary.

Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0727
Terry with Bubbles, an eight-month-old kitten who has given birth to a litter of four kittens.

Terry, tell us about the beginnings of Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary.

Back in the eighties, people were habitually dumping their pets when they didn’t want them anymore. When it came to the nomenclature, my mom would name the animals she rescued after the places where she found them, or after the people who brought them to her. One of the first animals she rescued was a spitz along the now Central Expressway. She named him ‘Freeway’ — that was what expressways were colloquially called back then.

For years, as an independent rescuer and stray feeder, she’d send abandoned and injured animals to a local shelter whose protocols she wasn’t privy to. In 1999, she brought a mother cat who was nursing a litter of days-old kittens to the shelter. The receptionist at the front counter urged her not to bring them there and to find an alternative. Out of curiosity, she asked for the reason. It was then she learnt that space at the shelter was limited, and that the animals would be put down after two weeks to a month if they didn’t get rehomed. The revelation shocked her. She started backtracking, recalling the faces of the animals she had sent to the shelter, wondering how many she had inadvertently sent to their deaths. It took a long time for her to get over it: she wore this perpetual remorseful look on her face. Together with her good friend Dr Tan Chek Wee, who today handles our website and social media platforms, she set up Metta Cats & Dogs Sanctuary, a no-kill halfway house for animals in need.

There weren’t many shelters back then to model ours after. We kind of just jumped right in. While we had our own home pets, we didn’t have any prior experience taking care of twenty, thirty animals, and animals in poor shape at that. My mom was an insurance cum property agent, and later in life she became an administrator in a clinic. After work, she would devote close to eight hours a day at the shelter. Her days were very long, and she slept only three to four hours a day.

Did Madam Lee have a natural affinity towards animals?

My mom was born in Kelantan, one of those quaint towns in Malaysia with very tight-knit communities. Because her childhood house was nestled near a forest, she was exposed to all sorts of wildlife animals. She was especially fascinated with foxes and even wanted one as a pet. My grandfather however opposed the idea of having a pet — he ran a coffeeshop, so he had to keep things clean. My mom always had a soft spot for animals, even rats and snakes. When the predators encroached into human territory, she always advocated sparing their lives and moving them back to their natural habitats where they could be safe.

It seems that Madam Lee had a gentleness when it came to animals. Was she like that as well as a mother? 

She was extremely strict with me. She brought me up by wielding not one but two canes (laughs). But she had to. I was a mischievous kid. One time when I was four, I got off the pram and put my right arm under the escalator belt and got stuck. That earned me a dislocated arm. Many times, we would be watching television and I just had to pull the table runner and make a mess of things. My father left us when I was about eight years old. So, my mother was the only family I had.

Dr Tan shared with me that she used to live the life of a privileged lady. But she felt that her days were filled with meaningless gossiping and socialising, and that she was wasting her life away. After she decided to change and find her purpose in life, she downsized our home to a three-room flat. Every day, cat fur and other allergens would trigger her status asthmaticus; one time a severe attack almost took her life. But she fought hard, because she had to live for her cats and dogs (and me), and thankfully she managed to pull through.

What an indomitable spirit, which I believe has rubbed off on you as well. Take us through a typical day at the shelter. What is the upkeep like?

During the weekdays, it’s mostly a one-man show. Round the clock, I have to keep the place maintained. There is a total of sixty-four cubicles across seven thousand square feet of space. Each round of full cleaning, from washing the walls to scrubbing the floor, takes about thirty minutes. The floors must be kept clean, and they must be dried after a wash, if not there is a risk of the cats getting a fungal infection. Then there’s the washing of food bowls and sheets, and disposal of their paper trays. These tasks are on top of having to feed the animals, medicate the sick ones, and also walk the dogs. It’s easily an eighteen-hour day.

When we first began, we had a few volunteers. But for over fifteen years, the running of the shelter fell squarely on my mother’s and my shoulders. After my mom passed away in 2019, I thought that I could no longer do it alone. So, I called a few ex-volunteers up and asked if they would be willing to help out. And they rallied to establish systems. Genine Loo and Fiona Yuen, for example, help with the administrative matters.

Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0727
'Structurally, our current shelter isn’t very sturdy, and the setup isn't ideal. Part of it is exposed to the elements, so rain gushes in during a thunderstorm. Metal and water are never a good thing. Fences and grilles have become rusty.'
Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0869

How do you rescue animals that are caught in life-threatening predicaments?

We have to hire expert professionals to trap them. Injured or abused animals are difficult cases to handle. They are still out in the open and they are roaming about. They are extremely skittish. And they can be ferocious or feral. They were harmed by humans (or other animals) or were knocked down by cars. So, any contact by human hands they will retaliate and go berserk. And the act of trapping itself is distressing for them — it creates fear. First they were harmed, now they are being trapped. How my mom used to do it was she would let the animals settle in, then approach them, talk to them, feed them and dress their wounds. Whenever wound dressing was unsuccessful, she would bring the animals to the vet. For serious cases such as broken limbs, she’d bring the animals straight to the vet.

Help us understand the psyche. After spending a fortune on them, and spending years with them, why do owners abandon their pets?

Most people naturally want their personal homes to be spick and span, and nice smelling. Animals, before they are trained, disrupt this. Cats are convenience creatures, so they tend to pick a spot near their marked territories to urinate and excrete. They could go on an expensive or sentimental rug. This then becomes an issue. My mother would sit the pet owners down and try to mediate and be an advocate for the cats. Sometimes, the solution is just as simple as relocating the litter bins to the areas where the cats hang out.

When it comes to dogs, time commitment is an issue. Dogs demand a lot of attention from their humans. They also need to be walked every day. Being cooped up in an enclosed area is not good for them: they need constant exercise, if not they will gain weight, and in turn their overall joint health will deteriorate. An active dog requires at least four to five hours of one-to-one attention. Many would-be pet owners misjudge this, and in turn their dogs become a liability.

And of course, with old age comes the health problems and the risk of chronic illnesses. Animals tend to get abandoned between the ages of eight and ten. Many owners abandon cats by leaving them at the void decks. Singapore’s culture is such that around the neighbourhoods, there will always be stray feeders — so by leaving the cats at the void decks, the owners are giving them a fighting chance at survival. Some of them would buy canned food and get the stray feeders to give it to the cats. This is a collective truth pieced together by feeders’ accounts and even confessions of ex-owners who have given up their cats.

Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0727
Chen Yuanhui Art Therapy Singapore Children Education MOE Teacher-0652

Stories by Children Founder Chen Yuanhui on Awakening a Child’s Divinity and Wisdom

Drawing on her experience as a former Head of Aesthetics Education in Singapore’s Ministry of Education, Chen Yuanhui today runs Stories by Children, a heart-based learning environment where young authors aged between five and twelve years old can indulge their artistic flair freely. The pedagogy she uses is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach®. She sees all children as equally divine as adults, and aims to help them find their true selves through the use of art.

Yuanhui, what sparked your interest in therapeutic arts?

Arts as a healing modality was a calling. I was nineteen, waiting to enter university, when I saw the biographical comedy-drama film ‘Patch Adams’ starring Robin Williams. It was a movie where Patch’s life was documented, from his early struggles with mental illness to his vocation as a doctor as well as his humanisation of the doctor-patient relationship through clowning, which is a medium for therapeutic art.

In the movie, there was a scene that struck me. Before he went to medical school, Patch admitted himself into a psychiatric ward. There was another elderly patient, Arthur Mendelson, who was somewhat eccentric but cerebral and intellectual. He held up Patch’s hand, and asked him: ‘How many do you see?’ Patch replied: ‘There are four fingers.’ And Arthur urged him to look at him and not focus on the problem. He said: ‘How many do you see? Look beyond the fingers, how many do you see?’ Patch eventually replied: ‘Eight.’

Arthur then said: ‘See what everyone else chooses not to see, out of fear or conformity or laziness. See the world anew, each day.’ This scene really got to me. What people show you may not really be what is inside them. People come in layers, like an onion, and what they show you is only one of the layers. A person who is struggling will have protection and coping mechanisms. What I want to do in life is to touch people at their authentic cores. There is a holy space within our hearts where the blueprints of our highest expressions lie. Sometimes, so numbed we are with surviving life that our hearts’ callings become something distant, even far fetched or unbelievable. For some of us, we dare not show up as ourselves, because of fear — a fear of what others would think, a fear of ‘how could I make a livelihood’. And then there are the many ‘what ifs’ — ‘what if I fail?’. But really, what are these fears, and where did they come from? It comes from a fear of deviation from socially acceptable norms and standards for success.

Through harnessing therapeutic art, what I hope is to awaken in children that inner divinity, that inner light. And in so doing, help children find their authenticity.

That is a noble goal, yet one that borders on grandiosity.

It may be noble, but not at all grandiose. It is a basic right to being human, and as our society slowly evolves, more of such ‘deviations’ and ‘authentic expressions’ are becoming increasingly socially acceptable.

You left the Ministry of Education in 2016, then the National Institute of Education officially in 2020, after a sixteen-year tenure. Did you experience an onset of mid-career malaise?

I’m an artist in my soul and as an artist, I’m somebody who values freedom. I’m less motivated by career progression, power and money. When I had a stint in the ministry’s headquarters, I worked with many senior officers, the bosses of my bosses, and I was not inspired by the destination of my so-called career trajectory. Don’t get me wrong — I am not making them out to be ‘wrong’, or sheep of a system. Our children need to go to schools; they need teachers and principals. So many of my former colleagues are warm-hearted, passionate educators who have found their callings.

It was just a personal choice that staying in the system was not somewhere I would like to be in. I’ve given this consideration from many perspectives and concluded that given my personality and my strengths, I can better benefit the system as an outsider, where I have some freedom and autonomy to articulate and execute my visions, which cannot be tested in the mainstream classroom due to its inherent constraints.

Chen Yuanhui Art Therapy Singapore Children Education MOE Teacher-0652

The school system is also evolving, but slowly. As a child and a student, I was quite the ‘responsible good girl’. This good girl grew up to become someone who didn’t want to let her parents down, then a good civil servant who didn’t want to let her reporting officers down. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are pros to being a good girl. What I am saying is that a good girl can be guided by her authentic core instead of living life based solely on external standards and the relentless pursuit of external validation. If the latter was the case, the true self becomes hidden. Being a ‘good girl’ or a ‘good boy’ with no awareness of the true self traps us in many ways.

How did the system trap the artist in you?

Art as a subject was approached from a systemic angle, and frameworks after frameworks were pushed to achieve key learning outcomes that the ministry valued, and determined (for good reasons) as important for the nation’s survival. It is a very practical approach to a nation’s survival and I’m not here to question that. Also, due to the high teacher-student ratio and the multiple learning outcomes educators must meet across so many subject disciplines and areas, it is nearly impossible for them to cultivate the individual and authentic expression of a child.

Rajes Corgi Puppy Pet Anxiety Depression Dog Singapore

How My Dog, Clifford, Uplifts and Gets Me Through My Chronic Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder: Rajes Balachanther

As told to Alden Boon.

You are a burden.’ ‘A waste of space.’ ‘A good-for-nothing.’ No, these are not my current innermost thoughts. These were words my parents hurled at me when I was just seven years old. Every single day. Threats to send me to a girl’s home rained down on me. What is inexplicably ironic to me is that I was a test-tube baby. Natural conception evaded my parents for ten years after they got married. I wasn’t an accident that sought to trap them in a transactional marriage; or an inconvenience that disrupted their freedoms. I was planned for: there was a careful decision to have me, and they went through the costly and laborious process of in vitro fertilisation to bring me into this world. So, as the only child in the family, shouldn’t I be surfeited with love and affection?

In hindsight, I guess I became a punching bag. That very year, my father was declared a bankrupt — I remember stumbling upon a letter marked with the word ‘bankruptcy’ in bold. The details are hazy: I think my father was an entrepreneur who got cheated of his money. There used to be a man who would come over to our house often and they would talk business; he suddenly vanished from the face of the earth. Whatever it was that transpired, the blame devolved on me. I was on the receiving end of my father’s displaced rage. My mother was an absentee parent: as a quality controller, she used to work the afternoon and night shifts, and so was never around to defend me. Not that she would have done so. What would a confused seven-year-old do in the face of constant berating? Laugh it off, of course. That only angered my father even more. As I wasn’t close with any of my cousins, nor did I have any friends, I had no point of reference as to what a normal upbringing was.

Rajes Corgi Puppy Pet Anxiety Depression Dog Singapore

In school, I was the oddball. I was — still am — an Indian who could not speak Tamil. Because I learnt Mandarin during my kindergarten days, my father wanted me to continue taking Mandarin classes. My then principal, who was Indian, was adamant that I picked up my mother tongue. I was completely inept. My classmates teased and taunted me, saying I was a disgrace. I remember thinking: ‘Yes, I’m lousy at speaking and writing Tamil. I don’t know, perhaps you could teach me?’ Such an obvious solution was apparently impossible. My mindset soon changed to that of ‘fine, if you don’t want to talk to me, I won’t talk to you.’

So, I became the outcast, the loner. And in school, being different meant I was the easiest target of bullying. My classmates would steal my pencils. Once, someone toppled the trash bin and made a huge mess. When the teacher reprimanded the class, everyone framed me as the culprit. I profusely denied the allegation, but the teacher called me a ‘liar’. I just had to accept it.

Another time when I was nine, I was minding my own business when a group of my classmates approached me. They told me to go to the basketball court. ‘This is it! They want to befriend me! I’m now part of a group,’ I thought, sillily. A girl pushed me to the ground, and the rest just ganged up on me and started hitting me. I reported the incident to my teacher, who informed my parents. True to form, the latter insisted that I was being melodramatic and that I was imagining things.

With all the things going on, school became living hell. To get out of it, I’d feign an illness. Whenever my father saw that I was playing truant, he would pull me by the hair to get me out of bed. With little time and dread, I had to get ready for school. There I stood in the assembly line, with my unkempt hair and wrinkly uniform, the laughingstock again.

Where I lived, there used to be a street vendor who peddled cigarettes. I bought a few sticks from him using my pocket money and picked up my first vice at the age of nine. There were also seniors from my school who frequented the uncle’s makeshift shop. I started hanging out with them. They introduced me to alcohol. They wanted to confront my bullies and fight them. I relished their company: it made me feel cared for. It was my first taste of friendship.

Rayn Leow Ceramication Singapore Entrepreneurship Coming Out Gay Singapore Pottery Porcelain

Ceramication Founder Rayn Leow Talks the Art and Science of Pottery Making, Coming Out and Privilege

Nestled in the industrial fringe that is Sungei Kadut is an austere workshop, and here a ceramicist is hard at work. Flanking him are wheelable steel racks, the shelves filled with a hodgepodge of pottery pieces both petite and bulky, mould parts and containers of minerals. He does not work on a whim; instead, his approach is highly methodical. First, he softens the liquid clay by mixing it in a polyethylene drum, and then he scoops it up using a jug and pours it into a composite mould. He sets the timer for one hour. He sidles up to his desk, where containers labelled with chemical symbols are arrayed on an abutting steel rack. He ensconces a few containers in his arms. With the meticulousness of a baker, he then weighs the materials on a scale before mixing them using a hand-held blender. Next, he reaches for a test piece and immerses it into the prepared glaze. Once the glaze has set, he places the ware in his trusty kiln. Now he prays to the kiln god. The quietude is ever rent by the noise of drilling emanating from next door and the periodic sound of the train careening along the track yonder. Morsels of hardened residual clay lie on the floor; his shirt and apron too are carelessly daubed with white. This is Rayn Leow in his element.

Other artists would be wont to call their workshops or workspaces their playgrounds, but you are loath to do so. Why is that?

The working conditions are not very ideal. Plaster and silica dust flies all around here, so I have to don my respirator when I work, and each workday is up to sixteen hours long. When I am in production mode, I work seven days a week. When the weather gets hot, my eczema will flare up. There is also the physical labour — imagine having to move forty sacks of twenty-five kilograms of materials.

An artist’s ineluctable sacrifices. Now, tell us more about your design philosophy.

I believe in function before form. I was having dinner with my family one evening, observing that my nephew was dropping food all over the table, when the thought came to me: ‘Why aren’t plates hexagonal with no gaps in between?’ It was at once obvious and yet novel. I wasn’t sure if hexagonal tableware would sell but as I gave it more thought, it evolved from a matter of function to a symbol that parallels the story of my life. A very Singaporean one in fact: my upbringing was steeped in Asian traditions, but I was also exposed and am receptive to liberalism. As a non-conforming person, I fit into our Confucian-style social structure, yet at the same time take refuge in modern passions, preferences and perspectives.

That birthed Ceramication’s signature shape of hexagon. It is a recurring geometry found in atoms, crystals and honeycombs, and it provides stability to the structures. When fitted together, hexagons form a perfect network, symbolising unity in diversity and representing the coming together of unique individuals to create partnerships, families and communities. I wonder: could liberation come at no expense to inclusivity?

If hexagon symbolises structure, then as a self-proclaimed non-conforming person, would you be exploring its antithesis?

The opposite of a hexagonal structure would be formless things like time, water and gravity. Such an exploration bucks the idea of establishment. But because my company is still new, established on 9 August 2020 — a date all Singaporeans are familiar with: National Day — I am still very much in the statement-making phase. So, for now, every collection will feature a hexagon-shaped piece. It is the brand’s signature. That said, this year, I am trying to obtain a government grant to create artistic, interdisciplinary work that combines porcelain, sound, light and water. Wish me luck!

Rayn Leow Ceramication Singapore Entrepreneurship Coming Out Gay Singapore Pottery Porcelain
The hexagon shape is Ceramication's design statement. (Photo source: Crate and Barrel)

What sparked your fascination with porcelain?

I belong to one of the last generations of Singaporeans who still remember the vestige of rural life, of living in rustic houses with zinc roofs. When I was young, my siblings and my relatives would play in the wilderness. One of the earliest playthings I had was mud, which I used to make mud-men. It’s a long-gone way of living. I was a natural at origami and I’ve always loved sculptures and architectures. Pottery became a natural go-to as it was at a scale that an individual could achieve. It is a culmination of skill, sculpting and sensuality (that sense of touch).

But I didn’t immerse myself in the arts, not at first. I was conditioned by my family members and the government to think that if I wanted to succeed in life, I had to pursue science. I went to Australia to study biomedical science, a field of study that seeks to understand how the body works and how that knowledge can be applied to medicine. Some topics included gene therapy and gene editing. I majored in evolutionary biology and wrote a thesis on the evolution of Anopheles mosquitoes in Papua New Guinea. I took a special interest in immunology, such as how HIV affects the body, as it is a matter that afflicts the gay community disproportionately. Were I to be born one or two decades earlier, and had I contracted HIV, with the scarce resources and slow medical advancements back then, a diagnosis would have been a death sentence. Following my degree programme, I worked for two years as a researcher. The humdrum routine of laboratory work, of working with a microscope, got to me.

When I returned to Singapore, I was at a loss to know what to do next. So, I enlisted into the army as a combat engineer officer and gave myself three years to think about my next move. The army taught me the value of freedom.

That is a rather curious paradox. How exactly does rigid regimentation teach you about freedom?

Because of the lack of it. Freedom of thought, freedom to take action — in the army, there are many red tapes that bind you. You know you are taken care of: your career progression is mapped out; it gives you a stable stream of very good money. But the price I paid to ensure I had a future was defying my authentic inner self. I learnt the importance of freedom, knowing who I was, and of having a sense of agency in life.

I was already dabbling in pottery during the first year of my service and by the third I had converted a spare room in my parents’ home into a studio. I bought a second-hand wheel and a kiln that was older than I with my own savings and started my own practice. Working with clay brought me back to the carefree days of playing with mud. It was second nature for me. Yet leaving a respected job to follow my passion was not so easy a decision to make — I might starve.

Derrick Tan Voices for Animal Interview nedla -0109

President of Voices for Animals Derrick Tan on Animal Activism, His Past and Sacrifices

For as long as he can remember, Derrick Tan, President of Voices for Animals, has always had a natural affinity with animals. Today, he has made it his life’s mission to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome animals in need. At his shelter, he has over a hundred rescue animals under his care. This is his story.

What were your aspirations when you were younger?

I didn’t have big dreams – most children dream of becoming pilots or doctors. My parents were hawkers, so I was inspired to be one too. They used to sell all kinds of food, from beehoon to bak kut teh. My contribution was being a taste tester (laughs). My parents would work long hours, so I used to cook meals for myself and my sister.

When was your first experience with animals?

Whenever I visited my grandmother’s place in Malaysia, I’d get very excited when I saw the free-roaming chickens, turkeys and cows. After my parents folded their food business, my father became a crane operator. He’d bring me to the construction site where many stray puppies were. I begged him to let me bring one home, but he always said no. Every day, we’d go to a nearby chicken rice stall and I’d ask the owner for the spare, unwanted parts. I’d happily tote a big bag filled with chicken parts and feed the hungry dogs.

Being that they were strays, were you not afraid of them?

Not at all. I was curious and fearless. When I was young, I thought that all dogs were harmless. There’s a scar on my face — I got it when I was petting a stray dog that was eating. He just clawed me and got me in the eye. I have so countless dog bites on my body.

You joined a gang when you were a teenager. Tell us about that.

I was fourteen years old, and I went to a skating rink with my friends. The rink was also a gang’s hangout place. The members recruited us — I think they just wanted to strengthen their number. I didn’t think joining a gang was wrong; I thought it was fun making so many new friends. I began dabbling in glue-sniffing — it was the cheapest drug available to us. I got a little nauseous inhaling it; it wasn’t the feeling I thought I would get. Then I moved on to marijuana; again I didn’t get the high I was expecting. I just got very hungry and could not stop munching on snacks. Eventually, one of my friends introduced me to ecstasy. I wanted to throw up, but when everyone else around you is high, you can’t help but go along with it. I just became giddy.

I’m drawn towards animals. I feel a sense of happiness when I’m around them. When I’m having a lousy day at work, when I feel stressed, I just need to sit on the floor and my dogs will surround me. There is this sense of peace. I don’t have to vent my frustration; this is my outlet.

Inverted Comma Bottom

You also had a brush with the law.

My friends and I were just out and about when we suddenly stepped into the territory of another gang. The latter began gathering their members and they were armed with rods. A fight broke out. I ran as fast as I could away from the danger. When I reached home, I was so happy that I wasn’t caught. Then, I got a call from the police: my friend J had given my name up. I was in handcuffs when my father just happened to return from his shift and saw me. He handed the pack of rice he had bought for me to the officer and told them to let me eat. Seeing his look of disappointment was a wake-up call. It was freezing at the detention centre, so I was shivering all the time. I was also very frightened as I overheard my friend in the other room being interrogated. He kept shouting, ‘I really don’t know!’ I was questioned on many things, from my gang affiliation to the identity of my boss. Luckily, when the police were satisfied that I wasn’t involved in the fighting, I was let off.