(This might be my last post but it is a personal post. So read at your own peril. 🙂 )
It actually all feels quite surreal, what is happening today.
Let me start by reminiscing about the time when I was still young and had not a care in this world.
I remember that when I was young, I was “botak”, meaning that I had a shaven head.
I was botak all the way until I was 14.
Once, after the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and when I was playing card games with some classmates, a friend remarked that I was actually quite good looking, so you can imagine my happiness.
I was beaming.
I mean, with that hair, or rather lack of hair, I can actually be thought of as good looking?
By the time I was in Secondary 2, I think it was about then that I realised that maybe you need to have some hair to at least have some semblance of attractiveness.
And so I started to try my darnedest to grow the hair out.
But it was not easy. How do you go from straight Chinese afro to F4’s Vic Zhou in a few months.
It did not just take a few months. It took another 7 or 8 years.
It was when I was in university when some friends started remarking that I looked like Vic Zhou.
OK, you can laugh. But at one point, with my dyed bronze floppy hair and my melancholic demeanor, I did resemble him OK. It was as if I was part of a Taiwanese drama serial as I walked through the corridors of the university.
And so, one day, a friend decided to enter me into the reality TV show School Beau and Belle organised by Mediacorp.
I actually thought I stood a chance, until they decided that a nerd couldn’t possibly win a competition where they were looking for hunks.
So they walked away with Elvin Ng.
A much better choice anyway. I guess I would rather swoon over Elvin Ng than Roy Ngerng.
I mean, would you go with someone with glistening pearly white teeth in the TV commercials or someone with teeth that looked straight enough but was blaring at the top of his voice about the government?
But hey, Roy Ngerng has balls, OK. Doesn’t quite know how to use them but he has them.
Anyway, the point of this story is that when I was young(er), all you would have thought about at that age was whether you had enough money to buy hair gel.
You see, I needed lots of hair gel to keep my hair down, and lots and lots of it.
When you had thick coarse hair growing upwards for the past 14 years of your life, by the time you need to push it back down, it has already learnt how to defy gravity and stick its hair up in the air.
Maybe that’s where I got my stubborn strength from. My hair led the way.
So imagine I would start going to school like the classic nerd, as I plastered layers and layers of gel on my hair just to keep it down.
But the hair would not sit still!
So loose strands would keep popping out everywhere. It would take years before my hair would grow to become the messed-up mob look you see today.
When I was younger, every bit of money was so important. That was all I had. I would have liked to buy the more expensive and nicer-smelling hair gels but I did not have that much money.
I could not even afford to eat at McDonald’s often. When I did join my friends at McDonald’s, it was to get an ice-cream and watch them eat while I had a cheaper meal in school before I met them. Then, the quality of the ice-cream was actually quite good and it was a lot cheaper.
And as you were growing up, you just hope to yourself that one day you will find a job that you will love, that will still allow you to love life, and that will give you enough money to buy hair gel.
By the time I had enough money to buy hair gel, hair gel had already gone out of fashion. Hair wax was in the rave.
Of course, it helped that when you could just pretend to look like Vic Zhou, then all you need is to grow your hair long and leave it like that. No gel or wax needed.
Until of course, it became a mess of dried hay, and then that’s when you decide to leave it black and go back to the nerd look.
By the time I started work at the Health Promotion Board (HPB) – I am so glad that they left my hair alone. If Lee Kuan Yew was still deciding on policies, my hair would have been chopped off and replaced with a half-watermelon cut out.
So, anyway, by the time I was at the HPB, I was finally earning my first proper income.
It was in 2006. I was a fresh graduate and the HPB only paid me $2,200. It was 2 years later when I realised that I was underpaid when someone swaggered in and told me that he earns more than $2,700. Thankfully I left with recognisably more.
But doesn’t matter. I was in it for my passion anyway.
I was working in HIV education and as someone who had my fair share of, shall I say, youthfulness, I knew how many times I had put myself in situations which would have warranted a person sit next to me to educate me about HIV each time.
It was only a few months into my job that I was finally fully convinced on the need for condom use to protect yourself all the time and went on raising that awareness to the public for the next eight years.
It was not easy. I had low self-esteem, I did not believe in myself. And so I kept putting myself in position of risks. I felt powerless against people who were older than me and I had trusted them to know better.
But it was not until I was in my mid-20s and got to an age where I should “know better” and realised that I didn’t, did I realise that maybe I should really know better and start taking care of myself.
It took some time but I finally got to where I am today.
Which is why it is surreal.
You grow up naive, and thinking that life is buying that hair gel, swooning over your crush or several crushes, or tens and tens of crushes, and chasing after bands.
Or going to the front of the class and pretending to host the Star Search competition until the teacher walked in and asked you to go back to your seat – who were you to pretend to be a Chinese host when your Chinese needs remedial classes?
But then you start to grow up.
By the time I was in junior college, I was thinking about society, and discussing such issues with a close friend.
But how our paths have diverged. She has found fame doing what she loves. And I have found fame or (in)fame, or (de)fame doing what I love as well.
The passion has not changed. I still think about society, about what I can do to improve things and how we can all live better lives.
Lofty ideals, but when you are a dreamer, life is always a dream.
At one point, when I was in HPB, my supervisor had once told me, “You are not in touch with reality.”
True, but it was also because of my detachment from what is perceived as reality that also allowed me to spearhead many new projects that took HIV programmes to greater heights.
A comedy show with the Dream Academy to talk about sex. Checked.
A fashion show with the Textile and Fashion Federation to get designers, artists and even politicians to design T-shirts to support the HIV cause. Checked.
An art installation to put toilet bowl-inspired artwork in the shopping malls. Checked.
Some challenges here and there, but when you believe in something enough and try to make it happen, you can make it. And you will succeed.
I did not know then that it was my belief that was making me pull through things, but looking back, I realise what it is.
Perhaps that was the eagerness that I had when I started my blog.
I got to a stage where I thought to myself, I didn’t see enough analysis of society from a varied perspective. Much of what was said and discussed in the media was, shall we say, singly-focused.
I decided to write about my own perspectives of the Singaporean society on the newly-created blog then, The Heart Truths. That was in June 2012. It has been 2 1/2 years since.
And the rest, they say, is history.
I started as I always have, naive and without a “sense of reality”, until I realised that things are no longer masak masak (play play).
In HPB, when there were office politics, I didn’t partake it them. In fact, I couldn’t stand it. I spent the first 2 years at work really unhappy – why do people have to play politics to get ahead? Why can’t we just get on with what we do, work together, and help the people whom we were supposed to help?
Wasn’t that easier than playing politics?
It was only in the third year that I began to learnt to ignore the politics and let it be played, but be aware of it and just let it be.
Little did I know that politics was going to catch up with me.
By the time I started advocating for a change of government, the government was already eyeing me.
By the time I started organising protests and forums, it was time to put me on the watch list.
And when I started writing essays about how the government was taking the money of Singaporeans to earn for themselves, I was placed on the take-out list.
And soon, a new-found fame followed me, or rather a new-found infamous one.
But how things have changed. From a boy living in my own village-like world in our 2-room rented flat, I was thrown into the open wilderness and was left to fend for myself like a sheep in a wolf pack.
I do miss those days. I miss the days when I was still carefree, where I had hoped that things would get better and they would, at least in my mind. I had learnt to find happiness within.
Today, I am in a different position. And soon, when the bankruptcy comes, I will be back to buying cheap gel.
When you were growing up and you look at your surroundings, you were grateful to live in Singapore. The high-rise buildings, the clean facade, the safety, the cleanliness and you think to yourself – Singapore is a clean and safe place to grow up in. What else could be better?
And when you grow up you, you thought to yourself that you want to do what you can to make your country a better place. And you start to hope that one day, you can contribute to make things better.
And then you did. I was creating programmes at the HPB that I was proud of.
But soon, you start wanting to do more. It started when you to start to realise that surely, people do not have to suffer just because they cannot afford to see a doctor? Surely, people should not have to work till their old age just because they couldn’t earn enough to save?
And then you start believing that for justice, surely things can get better?
But little did you know that whatever you had wished for was not quite what the government had in mind.
And when it was not, you become a threat.
From the innocence of wanting to make things better to becoming a threat simply because you wanted to make things better.
Never had I thought when I was young that the very government that was supposed to protect you would actually go against you.
It is all quite surreal.
All you ever wanted was to make things better, make life better. Maybe you were a bit too eager.
And then, before you know it, things come your way which you least expected.
But deep down inside, I am still the same boy, earnest, naive, eager and idealistic.
But there has been much that I have learnt. A bit street-wiser now.
Still, this has been a really expensive lesson.
But at least I can take heart to know that when I leave this world, I would be able to take with me some very interesting life lessons. But while the experiences are still ongoing, as they are, it can be quite a challenge.
This is just a reflective piece, a bit indulgent. But as I sit at home nowadays, this is a thought that crosses my mind often – all I ever wanted was to be happy and to make life better. What would you know, that when you seek a better life for all, there are those who rather you not?
And even among those you seek to help, even they among themselves are used to feeling so enslaved that they are not ready to see the possibilities of a better life as well.
And where those in politics also believe that you cannot rock the boat for how would a career politician have the tenacity to fix things if things were to change too fast?
But I am not a politician. I am a dreamer.
And my wish is for a better place that we can live in, as soon as it gets, simply because treating people right is the right thing to do, and we shouldn’t have to waste time to get there.
The past few weeks have been challenging. And I am still learning to live with things.
I still hope that we are ready for change and change will happen but when the sense of reality kicks in, you realise that as much as you can see possibilities, they can only happen when those around you can see them as well and work with you to see to it that the possibilities do happen.
But while they don’t, you have to take a step back and think about what else you need to do to see to it that possibilities happen, at least for yourself.
I looked at two boys talked at the MRT station yesterday. I was like them when I was younger – carefree, without a concern in the world and dreamy. Maybe I had people call me names but things got better when people got to know me more. I am used to being misunderstood anyway.
But I miss those days, those days where you would sit at the playground with your friends and think about what you would do when your ‘O’ levels are over and what jobs you will go into.
But to one day be at the crossroads on the national stage? That never crossed my mind.
And then you just have to take each day as it comes.
Anyway today is World AIDS Day. It is a also day where we commemorate those whom have passed away from AIDS-related Illnesses. But it is also a day of hope. A person living with HIV can today live a long life, as long as a person goes on regular medication.
I know of many dynamic individuals who are people living with HIV themselves and they have inspired me and continued to contribute to our society.
Hopefully we will learn to walk with them as they walk with us, and one day embrace them and give them the support they need, so that they can continue to take good care of their health and continue to inspire others like you and I along the way.
Meanwhile, always be strong and believe in yourself, be it if you decide to stay in a committed relationship or if you decide otherwise, to always use condoms, so that you will protect your partner as well.
I learnt the hard way in life, made several mistakes and upset many people, to finally learnt some important lessons but I suppose that as long as we eventually learn and do what is right for ourselves, that is all that really matters.
I live on dreams, but my dreams maketh me.