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National Inspirational Role Models Month: Overcoming the odds to live a dream

Every November people across the United States recognise and celebrate National Inspirational Role Models Month. This is a good time to also celebrate role models who embody the qualities and characters for lifelong success outside of the US. In this feature, TheHomeGround Asia spotlights three special needs persons who have overcome extreme odds and through sheer dedication and perseverance they are living their dreams.

Just as a fashion model represents an inspirational ideal, a role model is someone who inspires others to imitate his or her good behaviour,  character and accomplishments. There are even those who overcome extreme odds to achieve their dreams. As the people in the United States celebrate National Inspirational Role Models in November, it is also a good excuse to celebrate role models who embody the qualities and characters for lifelong success in Singapore.

Sarah Leong – Not a deaf violinist, just a violinist who happens to be deaf

Despite being deaf, having to practice between two and four hours a day on the piano was nothing out of the ordinary for Sarah Leong. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Leong)

Ms Sarah Leong, who is 29 this year, started playing the piano when she was three. Sarah was born with hearing loss and she says because she had never experienced hearing, she never felt a sense of loss. 

“You can’t really miss what you never had. I don’t feel particularly deficient in any way,” she adds.

With a father who is a professional musician, learning to play a musical instrument was something she was expected to do as a child and having to practice two, three or even four hours a day was nothing out of the ordinary for her. 

My dad is my biggest role model, but he maintained from the start that I am my own person and that I am neither a worse nor a better version of him because I am the only me that there is, and that’s awesome,” says the violinist, who also teaches piano and violin. 

“I learned to read notes early. I honestly don’t remember the initial learning at all. It was as much a part of daily life as making the bed or brushing [my] teeth – albeit infinitely more enjoyable,” she adds.

Ms Leong draws her inspiration and fortitude from her own violin teachers — Professor Alexander Souptel, the former concertmaster of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and Masako Suzuki White, a professional Japanese violinist. They would never let her get away with anything short of good work, but also made it clear that she is human and playing the violin is just an expression of the human condition. One thing she has learnt from her teachers is that people thrive when they are treasured.

“You’d be surprised at how much you can achieve when you feel comforted, loved, and supported despite all your technical faults,” she says. 

But Ms Leong insists that she is not a deaf violinist. Instead, she is just “a violinist who happens to be deaf”. 

“It’s not exactly something I think too much about, no more than you would keep yourself up at night thinking about the colour of your eyes or hair,” she says.

“I won’t lie that making music is frustrating at times, but every single musician has his or own moments of self-doubt and anxiety. Music was never meant to be a bed of roses, and admitting to being human and flawed is enormously empowering because it’s the first step towards taking ownership of your problems,” she adds.

Ms Leong says that most people do not realise that she is deaf whenever she plays the violin. To her, disability does not mean inability. It just means adaptability. 

Ms Leong says often, people with disabilities are more disabled by society than by the condition. When people do things for them because they are too slow or because they look awkward doing them, these people are often taking away that ability from those with disabilities. 

“I have seen kids who literally never learned to use their hands because someone did everything for them. I know of someone who does nothing except yell for attention because everyone tells him what to do. Even though he knows how to do things for himself, he is completely dependent on having someone run around for him like he is a drill sergeant,” she says.

The best advice from Ms Leong then, is to “just do it”.  

“Just go out there and try and try again. You can’t – until you can. The same could be said for anyone who isn’t deaf. Which beginner cellist doesn’t sound like they’re killing cats at the start?” she asks.

“I always say seven times down, eighth time up – there is no failure, except when you are no longer trying.”

Azariah Tan – a doctorate in piano performance despite hearing loss

Dr Azariah Tan at the Arts & Disability International Conference and True Colours Festival 2018. (Photo courtesy of Dr Azariah Tan)

Dr Azariah Tan, 30, may only have 10 per cent of his hearing left but it did not stop him from pursuing his passion in music. He has congenital bilateral sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), which means he suffers a hearing loss of about 90 per cent in both ears. 

The root cause of SNHL lies in the auditory nerve, the inner ear, or central processing centres of the brain. Dr Tan was diagnosed at age four and lost between 5 and 10 per cent of his hearing every year, leaving him with only 10 per cent now.

Dr Tan’s parents had introduced him to the keyboard when he was very young. They brought him to concerts and made him listen to music recordings and radios. They also trained him to be disciplined by making him practice playing the piano every day. 

“When I was teenager I started to enjoy music more. It was also when I was home-schooled and had more time to enjoy music. I loved listening to various classical recordings and reading books about famous classical composers and great pianists,” he says. 

However, the journey in music has not always been smooth sailing. It has its ups and downs, Dr Tan says. While there were many favourite pieces he enjoyed listening to and playing his heart out, there were also obstacles – mainly related to his hearing challenges and his disappointments from practicing. 

Although he is able to hear better with the help of hearing aids, the focus of these hearing aids has always been on speech, and not music, so he could not hear his own playing well. As a result, his hearing condition affects his perception of certain aspects of music. 

For example, it makes it difficult for him to play by ear because he is not able to clearly distinguish one instrument from another, or when there are too many sounds going on at the same time. There are many other examples, such as pedalling, dynamics, timbre that he could not perceive well. 

Yet, that has not stopped Dr Tan from pursuing music and obtaining a Doctorate in Piano Performance from the University of Michigan with Logan Skelton. 

Some specific skill sets of musicians are much more challenging for me. So I try to find creative ways around them. If I am not able to solve them at the moment, I focus on my strengths, on what I am able to do,” he says. 

“For example, playing with other musicians takes a lot more effort than what would normally be required. It also involves creative approaches, which may be unfamiliar to those I work with. As a result, clear communication is so important in overcoming these challenges,” he adds.

Despite the challenges, Dr Tan remains steadfast in his reason to pursue music. He says it is “a wonderful artistic expression and way of communicating with others, as well as self-therapy”. He also cites his resilience and love for music as factors that kept him going. 

“Know your ‘why’. For me, music brings much joy. It is something which contributes to good well-being, enjoyment, and also enables me to give to others. And, there is nothing like the feeling of working hard on something with my head, hands and heart – and to see it come to fruition and bring joy to others,” he says. 

Another huge factor that supported him in his journey to obtaining his Doctorate in Piano Performance is the encouragement and support of his supervisor, Professor Skelton, who was so kind, and adaptable in teaching him.  

“I would not be here if not for the encouraging piano critics, mentors and teachers, who had been so encouraging and supportive. Although my learning process was not perfect, the kind, unwavering support of these people have contributed hugely to where I am today,” he says. 

To aspiring musicians with disabilities, Dr Tan says they need to “know [their] why” – to train their thinking and focus on what they can do instead of what they cannot. 

Sim Kang Wei – from supported to supporter; a career in social service 

As a passionate advocate for PWDs, Sim Kang Wei often gives motivational talks on overcoming disabilities. (Photo courtesy of Sim Kang Wei)

Mr Sim Kang Wei is a trained counsellor and a passionate advocate for people with disabilities (PWDs). He is also an experienced trainer with more than 10 years in public speaking and specialising in personal and group motivation, burnout prevention and self-care, and diversity and inclusion. His purpose and passion partially stem from his experiences living with cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.

As a child, Mr Sim became aware that he was different when he realised that he wasn’t able to sit up straight or talk like other children. He was not hitting the typical milestones a child is expected to, his parents told him. Speech was an obvious obstacle because he had trouble communicating, and it was frustrating as he did not know how to make sense of that. When he did not want something, he would cry. 

Growing up, people called him names, and in secondary school, he was bullied for his condition, even physically, that he actually feared going to school. It took a toll on him. At the same time, his experiences drove him to pursue a career in social service. 

“I didn’t want any other person to really go through similar experiences [as I’ve had],” Mr Sim says, adding that he wants to make long-term, sustainable changes to the social service sector, in how they are providing support to people with disabilities. 

“Being part of the system gives me a practical reality check. It helps me to understand the challenges faced, so whatever I propose is with the knowledge that I know the sector and the struggles too well,” he says. 

“Since I was supported by various voluntary welfare organisations from a young age, I can also provide dual-perspectives to make better changes in the sector and to my community as well,” Mr Sim adds.

Yet, there are times when he feels disillusioned, which is normal, he says, because people in the social service sector are not angels – they are also human. “It is crucial to take the time to care for oneself, especially for people in this line of work”. Mr Sim says that it is especially important for him to take occasional “resets” – to go back to the fundamentals of why he is doing certain things. 

What keeps him going in the social service arena is seeing his clients believing in themselves, he says. 

Mr Sim also says that it has not been easy for him in the job market. He says he faces specific barriers for inclusive employment. Some employers do not share similar opinions about inclusive employment as he does, and that creates a barrier to entry for him and people like him. 

Thankfully, he knows his own value – which is something that grounds him and gives purpose to his actions. He believes that it is especially important for people with disabilities who may struggle with things like self-esteem to know their own value. 

Mr Sim says society’s overly-positive messaging actually places additional expectations on them. He wants people with disabilities to know that it is okay to fall short of these expectations, as long as they are willing to get back up. Having such a mindset is more helpful in enabling them to move forward, and he advises them to always be grounded in their own purpose. 

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Culture Food Home & Family Lifestyle Local News Science & Nature Singapore

Strong public support for Good Samaritan Food Donation Law in Singapore

Following his call for the public to voice its concerns for the Good Samaritan Food Donation Bill earlier this year, Member of Parliament Louis Ng and his committee are currently reviewing relevant issues raised at an online public consultation. These include the need for accreditation, liability waivers, tax incentives and grants. TheHomeGround Asia takes a look at the findings that show a strong public support for the Bill to be passed.

Here is an ethical conundrum for you: A restaurant donates its excess food to needy beneficiaries who had gone without at least three meals a day. But one of the beneficiaries ended up with food poisoning. 

Does the restaurant deserve to be sued? 

Before you answer “yes”, remember that Singapore generates about 700,000 to 800,000 tons of food waste every year. Food security remains one of the most pressing issues the nation faces today. 

If you answered “no”, you would be among the 81 percent of the public who are in support of a Good Samaritan Food Donation law to be passed in Singapore, according to an online public consultation carried out by the Good Samaritan Legislation Review Committee (GSLRC). 

Led by Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng, the committee was set up in September 2020 to work towards passing a Private Member’s Bill which would help waive liability for food donors while ensuring high levels of food safety. 

The GSLRC comprises big and small players from the food industry, including representatives from NTUC Fairprice, Breadtalk, DBS Bank, Ya Kun International, The Fullerton Hotels, The Food Bank Singapore, as well as grassroots leaders and Members of Parliament Poh Li San, Hany Soh, and Edward Chia. 

“As a restaurateur, we will be happy to donate excess food in good faith to beneficiaries for their redistribution to those in need. However, most of the time, we are faced with fears about liability from all angles,” says Mr Dellen Soh, CEO of the Minor Food Group Singapore and a member of the committee. 

“This Bill, if passed, will benefit residents who may not be able to afford their meals, the environment with lesser food waste, and the society through greater efforts of caring for each other,” adds Mr Wong Jin Feng, a grassroots leader at Nee Soon East and a member of the committee. 

A separate series of closed-door stakeholder consultations were carried out by the committee from October 2020 to February 2021, including restaurants, hotels, social enterprises, food producers, distributors, wholesalers, logistics providers, supermarkets, food merchants, bakeries, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). 

The open public consultations were carried out to gauge public support for such a piece of legislation and the responses were strongly positive. Over 330 were received, of which more than 317 were from members of the public, well distributed across all age groups and walks of life. 

Key findings

1. Whether Food Charitable Organisations (FCOs) should be accredited

Exactly half the respondents in the survey agreed that FCOs handling food donations, such as Food From the Heart or The Food Bank Singapore, should be accredited. 

“These respondents thought that accreditation would boost the credibility of FCOs and increase public acceptance or receptiveness to donated food,” says lawyer Charmaine Yap during a virtual press conference held on 24 November. 

Twenty per cent disagreed, while 3 per cent were neutral, sharing concerns about the additional compliance burden that any accreditation will impose on FCOs. 

“To minimise compliance burdens, respondents shared that the costs of these accreditations should be kept low,” adds Ms Yap.

2. Food donors and logistics providers should be exempted from civil and criminal liabilities

More than 4 in 5 (80 per cent) respondents agreed that donors to FCOs should be legally exempt, if the donor has compiled with food safety and hygiene laws, has not been dishonest, and the food was safe for consumption at the point of donation. 

While respondents were supportive, most wanted stringent regulations in place so that a minimum standard of basic assurance that can be provided to ensure food safety. 

“There were some concerns that merely ensuring that food donated is in good condition only at the point of donation is not enough, because some time will be needed for the food to be transported to the recipients,” says Ms Yap. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables thrown out at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre are collected by volunteers from Food Rescue Sengkang to be redistributed, putting discarded food to good use. (Photo courtesy of Judith Tan)

“Respondents felt that it was very important for donors to be transparent about how food is handled, as well as the condition of the donated food,” she adds. 

Mr Ng shares that unlike regular liability waivers which can only waive civil liabilities, the Bill will have the power to exempt food donors from both criminal and civil liabilities. This encourages hoteliers and restaurants to come forward with large amounts of excess food that are wasted regularly. 

Similarly, 76 per cent of respondents agreed that logistic providers of these FCOs should be exempt from the same liabilities. 

“Some of the risks here surround delivery timings, the ‘safe for consumption’ timeframe, spillage or contamination during transport, and potential tampering of food from bad actors,” says Ms Yap. 

Similar to Section 41A of the newly revised Animal and Birds Act, the committee will look into introducing quotes that food donors will have to read out each time, before liabilities are waived.

3. Incentives and support to be given to food donors and FCOs

More than 4 in 5 (81 per cent) respondents agreed that grants, assets, and tax exemptions should be provided, in order to encourage donors or FCOs to purchase assets. 

These assets include blast chillers or refrigerated trucks, which were brought up by donors and FCOs themselves during closed-door consultations. 

While grants for food digesters currently exist, Mr Ng finds this to only be half the solution. “Most of this food is still edible, but we’re turning it into fertiliser and water. Why don’t we use it to provide for people who need it instead?” he asks. 

Additionally, tax exemptions were a suggestion put forward by hoteliers, who voiced that it would be very helpful in convincing senior management to donate food, according to Mr Ng.

In response to concerns of possible abuse of grants or tax exemptions, the committee is looking to ensure these policies are accompanied by regular audits. 

Japanese buffet restaurant at Suntec City. Mr Dellen Soh noted that combating food wastage is a tough battle and more widespread food donation would be a win-win for all. (Photo source: Choo Yut Shing / Flickr)

Bill drafting process not to be rushed 

Mr Ng estimates that the Bill will be tabled in Parliament “tentatively in 2022”, and he emphasises that having no fixed timeframe is crucial to ensuring that all concerns raised by the public and stakeholders are properly addressed. 

“This is not the end of the consultation process. Members of the public will have more opportunities to share their views and propose amendments after the Bill has been drafted,” says Ms Yap. 

“If more concerns are thrown up again, then I think it’s good for the committee to go back to the drawing board to make sure we can address these concerns before I table this in Parliament,” adds Mr Ng. 

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Culture Home & Family Local News Science & Nature

Give a senior pet a loving home

November is adopt-a-senior-pet month. Just like this little-known fact, senior pets are often overlooked when people are looking to welcome a furry companion into their homes. TheHomeGround Asia speaks to animal welfare groups Voice For Animals and SPCA Singapore, as well as those who have walked the talk, or rather their old dogs, to find out what it means to take on a senior pet. 

Meet Macs, a 15-year-old poodle currently residing at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Singapore. 

Macs was given up last October when his family’s human child developed an allergy to his fur. 

What a good boy. (Photo courtesy of SPCA Singapore)

Apart from his own few skin issues, Macs remains a jovial and healthy companion. One year on — because of his age, he is still waiting for that new home, that loving new family.

Older pets do not find homes as fast as puppies and kittens, and cats and dogs older than seven years often have to wait longer to get adopted. According to Ms Aarthi Sankar, the incoming Executive Director of SPCA Singapore, senior animals are most often abandoned or surrendered at a time when they need care the most. 

There are two major challenges when it comes to rehoming rescued senior pets, she says. 

“The first is that many potential adopters often worry about developing emotional attachments with an animal that is near the end of its life. The second is that with older animals, there may be medical issues that require additional care and can be costly,” she says.

While it can sometimes be emotionally daunting for adopters, it is also an incredibly rewarding and beautiful experience. “No matter how short a period an animal has with its new family, it is one that adds value to both parties. Our senior animals deserve loving homes too,” she adds. 

Derrick Tan, founder of animal welfare and rescue group Voice For Animals (VFA), agrees. “Sometimes we do have amazing people who would only want older dogs that have been at our shelter for the longest time,” he says. 

Mrs Lina Lewis, 43, is one such individual. 

Mrs Lewis and her husband named him Toof because he had several decayed teeth and one tooth was sticking out from his misshapen jaw. (Photo courtesy of Lina Lewis)

After seeing photos of a five to seven-year-old chihuahua “on the brink of death” on VFA’s Facebook page, Mrs Lewis and her husband knew they had to adopt him. 

“Toof is an ex-breeding dog who was barely hanging on to dear life, and we knew he’d not get picked if we didn’t do so ourselves,” says Mrs Lewis. 

He was severely malnourished, weighing just above 1 kg, has a broken jaw, rotting teeth, and two almost blind eyes. Toof also had heartworm, which meant that “if he got too excited, he would just drop dead”. 

Being mentally and financially prepared to nurse Toof back to health, Mrs Lewis waited a year for his heartworm to be cured before they put him through surgery to remove all his teeth, which “were so rotten his breath smelled like the arse crack of Hades”. 

Today, Toof is in the pink of health, having doubled in weight and has zero health issues. “Even if he dies any day now — we think he must be around 11 to 13 years old  — we feel we have given him a quality life,” she adds. 

Mrs Lewis’ husband, Ryan, with Toof. (Photo courtesy of Lina Lewis)

Old is gold 

According to Mrs Lewis, adopting a senior dog exempts owners from the “crazy puppy years”. “Poorly-raised pups can be destructive and some people struggle with training dogs, especially if they have no experience. But senior dogs are so very chill,” she says. 

At the same time, adopters of senior dogs must realise the emotional histories these old-timers bring into their lives. Mr Tan is extra selective about who his rescues end up going home with. 

“In order for one to adopt a senior dog [at VFA], one must have experience in caring for the geriatric, and commit to the very end of their lives. We always ensure that those who want to adopt a senior dog should be well prepared emotionally and also financially, since their medical bills can be quite high,” he says. 

Similarly, the team at SPCA Singapore conducts a counselling session at any senior pet adoption, to find out what adopters are looking for in a companion animal — matching their lifestyle, habits, and the type of home environment they will be able to offer the elderly animal. “We also try to provide as much in-depth information about the animal’s medical history and background as possible,” says Ms Aarthi. 

When Ms Jennifer Lim adopted a senior dog a decade ago, she never looked back. Her first ex-breeding dog Ini fit her family’s needs better than a puppy would. 

“Ini became family. We got used to having this not-so-noisy dog who doesn’t do typical ‘dog’ things, like barking at the mailman or playing fetch,” she says. “My parents are elderly, so they don’t like when a dog over-barks.” 

After Ini died, Ms Lim went on to adopt a 10-year-old mini-schnauzer Santa from SPCA’s rehoming page. “He was still very sprightly at his age. He had a thousand toys, played fetch, and ate snacks,” she says. 

So it came as a shock when he died at the vet’s just a year later. 

“He had a good year with us, but we were quite traumatised. We adopted him during the Covid-19 period, and having a noisier dog helped because things were quite quiet then,” she says. 

This, however, did not stop Ms Lim from adopting yet another furry friend in need. She found that what helped was having a community for a support system. 

“When I got Santa, I joined this mini-schnauzer Facebook group for all the indulgent mini-schnauzer owners in Singapore,” she says. “Every other day, someone would also lose his or her dog, and we would share in the grief. We also learn how people do memorials for their dogs as well.” 

Today, the 57-year-old retiree is fostering yet another mini-schnauzer, this time from VFA. She is Butter and she is blind. 

Being familiar with blind people and guide dogs, the former executive director of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) finds it “a serendipitous work of fate” that she is now caring for a blind dog. 

“Butter refuses to be leashed and our friend is very confident. She goes walking three times a day, and would listen to my helper’s voice on walks to guide her,” says Ms Lim. 

These little behaviours address the misconception that senior pets might find it harder to integrate with new environments. “Many senior pets are still able to learn new things and settle in easily into their new homes,” Ms Aarthi says. 

“You learn their quirks without expecting them to adapt to yours. Assimilation and integration into the household are all about patience and zero expectations,” adds Mrs Lewis. 

Agreeing, Mr Tan adds, “The most important thing about caring for a senior dog is still lots of love. They might not want to do as much as a young dog, but they are still active. Their brains are still going. All they need is regular health checks. You’re going to have to bring them into the vet a little more often to help them stay healthy and prolong their vitality.”

If you wish to adopt Macs or other senior dogs like him, check out SPCA Singapore or Voices For Animals’ adoption Facebook pages. 

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Categories
Food Lifestyle Local Singapore

Crew Eats: The team at JAAN by Kirk Westaway share their go-to places for a bite

Ever wondered where the staff at your favourite food and beverage haunts dine outside of work? We have and we asked, so you don’t have to. In this instalment of Crew Eats, we reach out to the team at the modern British restaurant JAAN by Kirk Westaway which is presently helmed by the British chef. We hear not just where Chef Westaway likes to eat, but also staff in both the front and back of houses.

At JAAN by Kirk Westaway, a majestic panoramic view of Singapore’s central business district (CBD) greets the eye. Located 70 storeys above the ground at Swissôtel The Stamford, the internationally celebrated restaurant also boasts an impressive collection of accolades, including two Michelin stars in 2021, ranking 42nd in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2021, and one Michelin star in 2020. 

Restaurant interior of JAAN by Kirk Westaway boasts a majestic panoramic view of the CBD. (Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

For the uninitiated, JAAN started out as a French restaurant in 2001, during when Chef Andre Chiang was behind the stove. Chef Julien Royer of the three-Michelin-starred Odette took over the helm in 2011 but when he left in 2015, he handed the reins of JAAN over to his protégé Kirk Westaway. 

In an interview with Timeout Singapore, Chef Westaway confessed that the pressure to perform well was insurmountable. “Now, the boy from Devon is going to take over – English boy, good luck. He’s going to be a disaster. Jaan’s going to fail,” he said, before cutting off all contacts with the world to focus on his craft over the span of six months. 

Left: Executive chef Kirk Westaway; Right: Scottish Lobster with Hipsy Cabbage and Brown Butter. (Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

Chef Westaway’s philosophy, as it turns out, is all about showcasing British cuisine in a modern and innovative manner, or as he says ‘Reinventing British’. He does so by spotlighting seasonal produce or traditional British fares. Take for instance the Hens Egg with Barbecued Celeriac and Black Truffle, which is a refreshed interpretation of the classic British eggs and soldiers dish that has been imbued with a deeper and smokier flavour. Under his direction, JAAN by Kirk Westaway is Asia’s only modern British restaurant and has earned high praises from diners and critics alike. 

Given the unpredictable and challenging year the food and beverage industry went through during the pandemic, receiving not one, but two Michelin stars (the restaurant’s and Mr Westaway’s first) this year was an unexpected surprise for the team at JAAN. The executive chef says: “The second star was admittedly a very appreciated affirmation. It is a testament of not only the team’s hard work and dedication, but also our enduring commitment to putting a definitive mark on modern British cuisine.”

In this series of Crew Eats, we hear from Kirk Westaway, executive chef of JAAN; head chef Ng Guo Lun, senior sommelier Tan Chuan Ann, assistant manager Rashelle Bantolina, and restaurant executives Dorothy Ling and Steven Lee about their favourite dining haunts.

Kirk Westaway, Executive Chef at JAAN by Kirk Westaway

Hailing from Devon in South West England, Kirk Westaway has been working as a chef in Singapore for nearly a decade. (Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

Executive chef Kirk Westaway will be celebrating his 10-year anniversary under the hospitality hotel group Accor this coming December. He says: “A big part of what keeps me going over the last decade is my team. They are incredibly passionate, talented and hardworking and there is a familial spirit, even amidst the intensity of the restaurant environment.”  

Chef Westaway says the restaurant scene is dynamic and ever-changing, making it “difficult to pinpoint a favourite restaurant”. And yet, in his quest to unearth new food establishments, he found sustainability-focused restaurant Kausmo a delight to visit. “(Kausmo) embraces a progressive culinary philosophy that bucks the practice of aesthetic filtering by using ‘imperfect’ produce that are typically discarded,” Chef Westaway says. In fact, the restaurant is helmed by JAAN alumni member Lisa Tang.

According to Chef Westaway, dishes at Kausmo are thoughtfully curated using ethically sourced ingredients and, thus, “full of character”. He adds: “What’s arresting is how Lisa intently elevates ‘unattractive’ ingredients with finesse to provoke thought and embody a meaningful perspective.”

Kausmo

Address

1 Scotts Road, #03 – 07, Singapore 228208

Opening Hours

Tuesday to Sunday: 6.30pm – 10.30pm

Closed on Monday

Ng Guo Lun, Head Chef

(Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

Like Candlenut’s chef-owner Malcolm Tan, JAAN’s head chef Ng Guo Lun enjoys dining out at the acclaimed tze char (Hokkein for stir fry) restaurant Keng Eng Kee Seafood. “I was fortunate enough to befriend the owners during a work trip and have been patronising their restaurant ever since,” says the Singaporean father of two. 

Chef Ng adds: “Keng Eng Kee seafood is renowned for its Chilli Crab, Silky Moonlight Hor Fun, and my personal favourite, Coffee Pork Ribs. The pork ribs are deep-fried and glazed with a roasted coffee caramel, giving it a bitter and sweet taste that’s to die for.”  

(Photo courtesy of Ng Guo Lun)

Keng Eng Kee Seafood 

Address

124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-136, Singapore 150124

Opening Hours

Monday to Sunday: 11.30am – 2pm; 5pm – 10pm

Rashelle Bantolina, Assistant Manager

(Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

Assistant manager Rashelle Bantolina frequents the hawker centre near her home with her husband. The 32-year-old Filipina professes her love for hokkien mee, or fried prawn noodles, cooked by a local hawker at Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre and Market. Highlighting how she likes her hokkien mee tangy, she would often get extra servings of lime with it. “Ever since my husband recommended it to me, I’ve been hooked! In fact, the stall owner recognises me too!” she says.

On what piqued her interest in the dish, Ms Bantolina praises its umami-filled profile that pairs well with the tartness of the lime, while the crunch from the pork lard is extremely addictive too. She adds: “The hawker is also very generous with his portions too.”

Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre and Market

Address

2 Bukit Panjang Ring Road, Singapore 679947

Opening Hours

Monday – Sunday: 6am – 10pm

Tan Chuan Ann, Senior Sommelier

(Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

A former sommelier at Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, Mr Tan Chuan Ann is JAAN’s senior sommelier. An adventurous soul, the 33-year-old Malaysian would traverse the sunny island in search of good food and unorthodox culinary experiences. The self-professed lor mee lover recommends dining at his go-to haunt is the award-winning hawker Xin Mei Xiang Lor Mee at Old Airport Road Food Centre. Mr Tan says: “Its lor mee features a rich gravy that is balanced with vinegar and spices. It also stands out from the rest because it offers hand-peeled fish as a topping. It’s a must-eat in my books!”    

(Photo courtesy of Tan Chuan Ann)

Old Airport Road Food Centre

Address

51 Old Airport Road, Singapore 390051

Opening Hours

Monday to Sunday: 6am – 11pm

Dorothy Ling, Restaurant Executive

(Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

Originally from Sarawak in northwestern Malaysia, restaurant executive Dorothy Ling is looking forward to returning home when the much-anticipated vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between Singapore and Malaysia opens. Like many Malaysians who are unable to return home due to the pandemic’s restriction, Ms Ling often feels homesick. Her way of coping? Sarawakian dishes at Shi Wei Tian Coffeeshop at Kaki Bukit — from Sarawak laksa,  which contains no curry but a tart and spicy soup base made using sambal belacan, galangal, lemongrass, and assam (sour tamarind)  to kolo mee. The 29-year-old recommends first-timers to try the stall’s kampua mee, a variant of kolo mee that comes with straight noodle strands instead of its curly twin. She adds: “It is a flavourful dish that is lightly seasoned with a mixture of shallot oil, soy sauce and pork lard. To me, that is the ultimate comfort food that truly reminds me of home!”     

(Photo courtesy of Dorothy Ling)

Shi Wei Tian Coffeeshop

Address

31 Kaki Bukit Road 3, Singapore 417818

Opening Hours

Monday to Friday: 6.30am – 6.30pm

Saturday: 12am – 3.30pm 

Closed on Sundays

Steven Lee, Restaurant Executive

(Photo courtesy of JAAN by Kirk Westaway)

As someone who occasionally works into the wee hours, restaurant executive Steven Lee knows a thing or two about the best supper spots in town. One of his favourites is Tian Tian Seafood Restaurant, which is located on the outskirts of the CBD along Outram Road. With close to two decades of history, the tze char restaurant sees eager patrons making a beeline from a little after half-past six in the evening. “(Tian Tian Seafood Restaurant) was recommended to me by Chef Kirk,” Mr Lee says. “The food and service are top-notch, making Tian Tian Seafood Restaurant a repeatable experience. Furthermore, it opens till late, which is perfect for those who work in the F&B industry!”

(Photo courtesy of Steven Lee)

Tian Tian Seafood Restaurant

Address

239 Outram Road, Singapore 169042

Opening Hours

Monday to Sunday: 5pm – 3am

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Categories
Featured Events Sports

Singapore National Swimming Championships Youth Time Trials – 26th to 28th Nov, 2021

Catch all the action of the Singapore National Swimming Championships Youth Time Trials 2021, from 26 to 28 November 2021 live here on TheHomeGround Asia. The broadcast will begin at 8.30am daily.

Day 1 (26 November 2021)

Day 2 (27 November 2021)

AM Female

PM Male

Day 3 (28 November 2021)

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Categories
Featured Events Sports

Singapore Athletics All Comers Meet 5 (27 to 28 November 2021)

Catch all the action of Singapore Athletics’ All Comers Meet 3 live here on TheHomeGround Asia. The broadcast will begin from 1.30pm on the 27th and 28th.

Day 1 (27 November 2021)

 

Day 2 (27 November 2021)

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Categories
Design Lifestyle Local News Singapore

The rise of the machines: Has renotech finally come for interior designers?

An AI home designing tool is about to give home renovation a whole new meaning. But do homeowners buy it, and are interior designers concerned? TheHomeGround Asia takes apart the nuts and bolts to get to the heart of the matter.

They say technology is only as good as how much money and time it can save humankind. Whenever tech-enabled solutions replace less sophisticated ones, the reason is seldom a love of tech but more about our addiction to cost savings.

This tendency explains so many of the decisions that were made in the name of improving our modern economy, and also why certain jobs have and will inevitably become obsolete. 

From proptech startups that make it effortless for homeowners to sell their properties independent of real estate agents to fintech solutions that make do-it-yourself (DIY) investing accessible to all, a common thread sticks out — technology serves to drive out the middleman.

A firm believer in the ‘direct-to-source’ philosophy, Homeez, Singapore’s first renotech startup, has started a rethink in the home renovation industry. Through a Sims-like experience, the startup’s DIY renovation tool, Design Now, leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and gamification to allow homeowners effortless autonomy in their home renovation. 

For the uninitiated, Sims is a strategic life simulation game created in 2000 that imitates the daily activities of one or more virtual people (“Sims”) in a suburban household near a fictional city and players control customised Sims as they pursue career and relationship goals. 

Akin to a simulation, users of Design Now can drag and drop pieces of furniture on a digital floor plan, select themes for the different rooms, create moodboards, and ultimately see their project come to life on the screen, completely free of charge.

A screen capture of Homeez’s Design Now tool, powered by AI and the prospects of a digitalised renovation industry in Singapore. (Photo source: Homeez)

With the help of AI, the tool then processes the customisations and renders three 3D drawings — something that would generally cost homeowners about $60 each according to Mr Shawn Ng, an interior designer from MET Interior. 

Homeowners can then expect to be connected with the contractors in Homeez’s list of approved direct suppliers and merchants who will provide instant quotations. 

“We took a leap of faith and jumped onto the tech bandwagon after seeing how successful unicorns have become by offering consumers direct-to-source prices,” Mr Jon Ho, co-founder of Homeez says. 

Aspiring to be the “Taobao of renovation”, the startup claims to provide homeowners who fancy the idea of a DIY renovation cost savings of up to 60 per cent.

“This doesn’t mean that those with interior designers can’t use the tool. Many of our existing users are homeowners who hire freelance project managers and still benefit from direct-supplier cost savings on our platform,” he adds.

A “grey industry”

In an industry that has seen heightened costs and a labour crunch due to pandemic restrictions and border closures, the cost savings Mr Ho speaks of may prove highly attractive to many homeowners in the new normal. 

Ms Aileen Ng, a manager in advertising who recently overhauled her parents’ apartment with a “20 per cent pandemic surcharge” recounts a renovation journey filled with ups and downs caused by pandemic-induced delays. 

With workers and materials stuck across the border, Ms Ng says that she had to move into an unfinished apartment in August this year.

“Until today, the work is still incomplete,” she adds. 

On top of the additional costs lies the issue of shoddy workmanship and the use of materials of inferior quality, which Mr Ho suggests are byproducts of a “very grey industry that lacks transparency and systems”. 

“The renovation industry here has always been a very traditional human-to-human one, having seen no change over the last five decades. There’s a huge reliance on the middleman and labour, and a lack of any real protections for homeowners from unreasonable costs,” he adds.

A builder applying cement to a wall in a HDB apartment. (Photo source: Renonation.sg)

According to the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE), the industry has received the second highest number of complaints in the first half of 2021, just behind the beauty industry.

The number of complaints against renovation contractors was close to double that of last year’s, from 312 before to 621 this year.

About 48 per cent were from consumers dissatisfied with the quality of the renovation works, while one-third of the complaints were about contractors failing to complete projects on time.

CASE said that the increase in the number of complaints is likely due to a prolonged shortage in manpower and raw materials arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Homeez intends to change this.

“We hope our disruption of it with the right kind of tech will enable families to enjoy the renovation process without fear of any sort of nightmare scenarios,” Mr Ho says.

While certainly not a nightmare, Ms Jasmine Yeo, an accountant who moved into her new BTO apartment last year, shares her experience engaging an interior designer who was not honest about her situation.

“Our ID had actually resigned before we met, but she let us sign the contract anyway and came clean only a few months later,” Ms Yeo says. 

“We got her to conceptualise our project and help us visualise it, but she didn’t even provide 3D drawings. If we had known about Design Now then, we wouldn’t have needed an ID,” she adds.

Looking back at her renovation journey, Ms Ng expresses similar sentiments. While having an interior designer’s eye on the conceptualisation of the project was helpful, she maintains that most of the value actually came from project management. 

The future of reno?

Mr Ho believes the technology and solutions behind Homeez can eventually lead to a more accountable industry, one in which both homeowners and contractors are equally protected and where there are no conflicts of interest. 

“The idea is to digitise the initial stages of a home renovation, then standardise the later stages through systems. For example, we act as an impartial third party in our use of escrow to pay suppliers on behalf of homeowners progressively at set milestones. This ensures a regulated environment,” Mr Ho says.

“We only connect homeowners with a list of trusted merchants and direct suppliers. Quotations are instantaneous, works come with warranties and a lowest-price guarantee,” he adds.

Skeptical of the often chimerical price guarantee, TheHomeGround Asia asks Mr Ho how Homeez intends to deliver

“Suppliers and contractors may offer different quotes, but the cost price at the source is always going to be the same. By connecting homeowners with the source, we aim to standardise prices across the board,” he shares.

But while Homeez’s Design Now tool seems bent on driving out the middleman, interior designers, like Mr Ng from MET Interior, believe they can coexist perfectly. 

Mr Ng sees the AI tool as a valuable addition to the home renovation process and a supplement to the work of interior designers. For one, it will certainly have its users, mainly homeowners who have good ideas of what they want their homes to look like, but also interior designers who may leverage the tool in their own work. 

A typical 3D drawing provided by interior designers for a fee. Shawn Ng from MET Interior has qualms about Design Now’s ability to match such accuracy. (Photo source: Home Guide)

“But I don’t think it’s futuristic, at least not in its current form,” he says. “The majority of homeowners don’t wish to DIY. Also, how is it going to provide 3D drawings that are as accurate as what we can currently achieve with AutoCAD and SketchUp if they have never seen the actual unit?” Mr Ng adds.

“Some people will use it, but I’m not too worried. There is space for both jobs.”

Ms Ng agrees that some limitations of the tool make it less viable as a complete substitution for the interior designer. 

“I’m not sure if it’ll work for people who want built-in and custom furnishings. It’s a good tool to play around with when planning but it still needs some work,” she adds.

But Mr Ho has big plans not just for Homeez but the industry at large.

“We intend to continue pushing this space by creating systems for companies to adopt for their own processes and to ultimately revolutionise and digitalise the entire industry.”

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Categories
Culture Home & Family Local News Singapore

When things fall apart: Red flags in a failing marriage

The option to divorce by mutual agreement was recently introduced as a proposed amendment to the Women’s Charter. It aims to allow couples to “take joint responsibility” for the breakdown of their marriage, and to reduce acrimony at the divorce proceedings. With this more simplified track, how can couples decide whether their marriage is able to continue, or when it’s really over? TheHomeGround Asia explores some warning signs that the marriage is in trouble.

In Singapore, the law states that there is only one reason for divorce to be granted – the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. Currently, this must be proven by one or more of five facts: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, separation of three years with consent, or separation of four years without consent.

A sixth fact was recently introduced as a proposed amendment to the Women’s Charter, divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

This amendment enables couples to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage. Mr Ivan Cheong, a partner in family and divorce law at Withers Khattarwong, notes that the changes would benefit more couples who wish to go their separate ways amicably, and do not want to have to find fault with the other party’s behaviour to obtain a divorce. 

“Often, the act of having to list out the faults of the other party as a means of seeking dissolution of the marriage increases animosity, and may result in each party trying to pin fault on the other,” says Mr Cheong. 

Currently, grounds for divorce must be proven by one or more of five facts: – adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, separation of three years with consent, or separation of four years without consent. (Photo source: Canva)

While Mr Cheong welcomes the development, he adds that he doesn’t think divorce rates would increase simply because of the introduction of the option. “This option does not make it easier for parties to get a divorce, or render divorce as the default option simply because parties have minor disagreements in their marriages”, he says, pointing out that certain safeguards will be put in place. 

So, how do you know when it is worth fighting for your marriage, or when it is truly time to think about splitting up?

Red flags in a marriage

The late American author and journalist Mignon McLaughlin once said, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person”.

But what if that fails to happen? 

Dr Edmund Wong, principal family life educator, and Ms Chang Mun Lan, senior family life educator at TOUCH Integrated Family Group, says that some common problems that married couples go through include unrealistic and unmet expectations, unmanaged conflicts, relationships with in-laws, financial matters, and personality or cultural differences.

These recurring problems could even get worse, if left unacknowledged.  Here are some warning signs to look out for.

Common problems for a breakdown of marriage including infidelity, feelings of neglect and abandonment, and disagreements over parenting styles and finances. (Photo source: Canva)

1. Total breakdown of communication

Arguments happen in all marriages, even healthy ones. But there may be situations where the couple can no longer spend time together without constantly getting into arguments and would rather be physically apart from each other as much as possible, says Mr Cheong. 

“It’s a major red flag where couples refuse or are unable to talk civilly with each other, preferring to spend as much time away from the other spouse as possible and where they start keeping separate households, either by living physically apart or in separate bedrooms.”

2. Lack of physical closeness and companionship

A lack of physical intimacy and physical affection, including hugging, kissing and holding hands, can be signs of greater problems to come. It could start off with reasons such as busy work schedules, being preoccupied with the children or household matters, or even a major event such as the loss of a close family member. 

However, these could easily lead to spouses getting habituated to the momentary dry spell, and start feeling increasingly distant from one another. Over time, either spouse may begin to experience abandonment issues.

3. Being emotionally checked out

Another major red flag is a lack of awareness, interest and knowledge in what your spouse is doing. Ms Winifred Ling, a couples therapist and relationship coach with Winslow Clinic, Promises Healthcare, says that when you have checked out emotionally, you are “living a parallel life and see nothing wrong with it”. The person may feel alone in the marriage and yearn to regain independence by cutting off emotional connection with his or her spouse. “You stop making the effort to take the initiative to be kind. Instead, you engage in a ‘waiting and comparison’ game where you refuse to be the one to reach out to your partner but you want your partner to make the first move’.” 

In such cases, Ms Ling adds, the couple has forgotten why they share a life together – and they engage in negative communications such as criticisms, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

If issues in a marriage are left unchecked, the marriage may eventually suffer from emotional distancing, poorer communication, increasing conflict and dissatisfaction. (Photo source: Canva)

4. Violence or abuse

Abuse does not necessarily have to be a slap or a kick in the stomach. Besides physical abuse, there may be instances where a spouse controls, bullies, or even threatens the other party. Some signs include blaming the other for everything that goes wrong, throwing things when angry, constantly yelling at the other to make him or her feel small, threatening loved ones, or controlling the other party’s expenses, as well as who he or she goes out with. 

5. Presence of a third party

Infidelity is a clear warning sign that the marriage is on the rocks. But third parties can come in other forms. Addiction – be it social media, alcohol, gambling, video games and so on, can easily become a third party in the marriage. You may find that your scrolling through Facebook and Instagram is putting a dent in your couple-time and relationship, or that you are constantly sneaking or making excuses to get a drink. If these actions make you feel guilty and make you feel like you are cheating on your spouse, it’s a huge red flag and a sign that your relationship needs help.

Research shows that couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help. (Photo source: Canva)

Is it time to say goodbye?

There may be situations where staying in the marriage is more detrimental to the psychological and emotional health of both individuals. Ms Ling explains that it can be exhausting for the couple to be “living a fake life”. “The dishonesty and inauthenticity will take a toll on them emotionally,” she says.

In addition, it can also affect other members of the family. There may be cases where the couple fights so much that the mental well-being of the children is compromised and they grow up in a high-conflict environment. “Some parents may also feel guilty about giving the wrong impression to their children of what a marriage should be,” Ling adds. 

It remains to be seen whether the introduction of the option for couples to mutually agree to divorce will have an impact on divorce rates. But experts seem to agree that the change would be beneficial in that a long-drawn, acrimonious divorce process could be avoided. With the new option, the two parties would file as applicant and respondent, compared to the current proceedings where they would file as plaintiff and defendant. 

Mr Cheong says he had previously received feedback from parties and other family lawyers that “having to recount past conflicts and play the ‘blame game’ by finding fault with the other party’s behaviour as a reason for the breakdown of the marriage causes further animosity between the parties.

Even more importantly, NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser is of the view that a simplified track would surface what could have ended up hidden. He says, “It reduces the acrimony or the prospect of having to put up with a broken, through apparently intact marriage.”

He also adds one could argue that a broken marriage would lead to a divorce in any case, the only difference is not in the “divorce statistics, but in causing further hurt and pain”. 

Recognise when you need help

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that your marriage is doomed, even if you have ticked off one, or more, of the above warning signs.

Research has shown that marital relationships can be repaired if both parties are willing to put in the effort to make things work, by addressing the hurt and pain, understanding each other’s perspectives and taking active steps to hear each other out. 

Relationship coaches and marriage therapists can help assess the health of your relationship and help you develop better relational skills. (Photo source: Canva)

Dr Wong and Ms Chan add that marriages need consistent effort and nurturing. They recommend a marital health check on a regular basis, for instance, once every two years, or in preparation for transitions in life, such as parenthood or career changes. It could highlight the areas of growth in the relationship and guide couples towards areas that may be causing tensions, and help nip any potential issues in the bud.

Research shows that couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before getting help – by which time a lot of hurt and resentment has built up. Ms Ling urges couples to seek help at the first sign of trouble. “This can be as early as the first year of marriage when you notice that there are perpetual issues that keep surfacing and you simply can’t find ways to resolve them.” 

If you think a divorce is the best option for you, seek professional help in guiding you through the process. Look at the motivation and reasons for the split and assess if the situation is salvageable or not, she says. 

“Divorce doesn’t just affect the couple, it affects the extended family as well”. 

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Categories
Culture Home & Family Lifestyle Wellness

National Family Caregivers Month: Let’s talk about caregiving

November may be National Family Caregivers Month in the United States but as Singapore society is also aging rapidly and many are now playing the role of caregiver for their elderly parents and loved ones, they, too, need to be celebrated. Caregiving takes a significant emotional, physical, and financial toll. While the government has ramped up support for caregivers, there are still gaps that need to be plugged. TheHomeGround Asia uncovers what it’s like to be family caregivers and the challenges they face, and finds out what more can be done to support them. 

Celebrated every November in the United States since 1997, National Family Caregivers Month recognises and honours family caregivers. While this is a special time to acknowledge all caregivers, it also offers an opportunity to raise awareness of caregiving issues, educate the community, and increase support for caregivers.

As the society ages rapidly, many in Singapore have taken on the role of caregivers for elderly parents, loved ones suffering from rare diseases or become full-time mums. It is estimated that there are more than 210,000 caregivers, many of whom have had to compromise careers, finances and even health.

It is no wonder that caregiving takes a significant toll on one’s emotions, finance and physical health and with nearly half of all caregivers being over the age of 50, many also suffer a decline in their own health. They have seen their stress levels climb to an all-time high during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially during the circuit breaker or whenever there was heightened alert when they had to spend 24/7 at home without any respite. 

With the financial, physical, and emotional challenges that family caregivers face, it is ever more important that caregivers themselves receive some kind of care as well. 

Stepping into the role of a family caregiver

Caregivers assume many responsibilities that revolve around caring for their loved ones. (Photo source: Canva)

A family caregiver is often an unpaid individual — a spouse or family member— who assists a senior with activities of daily living and/or medical tasks and has multiple responsibilities, working for twenty-four hours seven days a week. 

Ms Jacinda Soh, Head of TOUCH Caregivers Support, says the daily routine primarily revolves around the needs of the care recipients, such as feeding, toileting and showering. She adds that with limited resources and a care support network, these caregivers shoulder work commitments, housework, cooking, and sending the loved ones to and from medical appointments.

Ms Soh says that in many instances, individuals become caregivers overnight or without prior warning and would have to quit their jobs to provide care for an elderly-sick at home. Financial concern is a primary cause of worry for many caregivers. They are usually unprepared, overwhelmed, and lack the mental capacity when they take on full-time caregiving, often ending up feeling frustrated and bitter. 

“Without sufficient time to fully consider the long-term financial implications of their decision, and not knowing where to turn to for financial assistance, this concern often snowballs, particularly when the burdens of care increase, leaving them little time or energy to even seek help,” she says.

“This is especially so if the caregiver is the sole breadwinner of the family. For those who have their successful or high-flying career cut short, the additional loss of status not only leads to a loss of financial resources but also affects their sense of significance, leading to greater anxiety and stress, and possibly affecting their relationship with loved ones,” Ms Soh adds.

Apart from the financial pressures, Ms Soh says caregivers face challenges in accessing the right resources, often coming up against constraints when looking for placements at nursing homes for their loved ones or when employing the right domestic helpers. There is also that general sense of job insecurity when they need to drop everything at work to tend to the emergencies at home, or when they are being confined at home with their elderly loved one. These combined stressors can lead to anxiety and depression, as reflected in the calls received by the TOUCHCare line. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions have also made caregiving more overbearing and stressful as people get increasingly isolated by the unprecedented lockdown and disruptions caused to everyday life on all fronts – at work, home, and in school. 

Ms Soh says that caregivers looking after elderly loved ones with dementia particularly face a harder time in helping them cope with the suspension of activities and comply with the ever-changing government guidelines on safe distancing and mask wearing. Having to manage vaccination, the loss of routine for the elderly, such as going down to the coffeeshop to chat with their friends, and the pressures of keeping them occupied, have driven stress levels of caregivers to an all-time high during this period.

When granny was no longer herself 

Founder and Mindfulness Coach at Mindful Moments Singapore Erin Lee took care of her late grandmother who suffered from advanced dementia some years back. She had to juggle her own business, studied for her master’s program, and looked after her family all at the same time. 

My grandmother’s condition was serious and required a lot of care and attention 24/7. She was disoriented and anxious most of the time, and would scream and shout at the top of her voice throughout the day and night. It also didn’t help that she wouldn’t sleep at night because she feared she would die in her sleep. She constantly felt the need to get up and walk, which she was not allowed to because of the risk of falling, so we had to keep watch round the clock to make sure she was not trying to get up on her own,” she recalls.

“Since my grandmother became surprisingly strong and had extreme violent tendencies, every meal time and activity such as visiting the washroom required extra help. She was also constantly banging on tables and surfaces as a way to relieve her anxiety. We hardly got any sleep at night for those few years,” the mindfulness coach adds. 

Ms Lee says it took her some time to accept the drastic changes that she witnessed in her grandmother – the changes in her personality and her inability to recognise family members. 

“We had to manage her hysteria while keeping ourselves calm. Every day we questioned whether the big and small decisions we made, from what she ate to how much medication to administer, were really helping or kind to my grandmother,” she says.

Ms Lee also adds that as caregivers, they struggled with a range of emotions – from sadness about their plight, to anger and resentment towards their circumstances and guilt and shame from feeling like they were not doing enough. In those moments, there was a tendency to feel very alone and separated from the rest of the world. 

“These were feelings of hopelessness because we didn’t know when it might end or if the situation would even improve, and we wondered how long we could sustain our present arrangements,” she adds.  

When asked about the sacrifices she made to take on the caregiving duties, Ms Lee says that those duties were disruptive to her “usual way of life”, but she was fortunate not to have sacrificed her career because she was “blessed with circumstances and conditions that offered flexibility, as well as timely support and resources from family and friends, healthcare professionals, and government agencies”. 

“Of course, if I didn’t take on the role of a caregiver, I might have been able to devote more time and attention to developing my work, but this is not an “either … or” situation. Taking care of my family is as much a priority as my work,” she adds.

Ms Lee also says that her family was advised to send her grandmother to a dementia care facility, and while they were grateful for the option, they decided against it as they felt that their grandmother would be more comfortable at home, surrounded by and with her loved ones tending to her. They were fortunate that they could also afford to hire a helper, and have the family work together as a team by taking on different roles and responsibilities and working in shifts. 

Caregiving: Not limited to just women 

Men are also becoming caregivers for their elderly parents. (Photo source: Goodmenproject.com)

There is the common perception that family caregivers are women. Many people still do not realise that a significant number of caregivers are men, and relatively little is known about the caregiving experiences of male caregivers vis-à-vis female caregivers.  

Dr Thang Leng Leng, co-investigator of the research study “Caregiving Experiences of Male Caregivers of Dementia Patients” by the Next Age Institute (National University of Singapore) and Fei Yue Community services, says that studies tend to concentrate on female caregivers and it is easier to find them because there are many of them. This is because caregiving is mostly perceived as a gendered task, Dr Thang says. 

But she also realises that there are single men who care for their aging parents. Among the dementia clients served by Fei Yue Community Services’ Community Mental Health (CMH), about 3 in 10 of the caregivers are men while the rest are women, as of April 2020.

Issues that men face when they need to care for their mothers in very intimate ways such as bathing also surfaced, which brought more attention to this subgroup of caregivers and the specific challenges they face. 

“Men face challenges that are a bit different from women, which is why we thought we could have a more focused-look on male caregivers,” the Associate Professor at National University of Singapore says.

As gender stereotypes are rooted in caregiving, men may experience caregiving differently from women. Dr Thang says men might see themselves as more involved with aspects of planning and execution, while women may be more emotional in their approach.

“Sometimes, we wonder if men feel like they don’t have much emotional support to look to, since they are less likely to want to go to a support group. That could mean that they could be more stressed but they don’t have an outlet,” Dr Thang says.

“There’s a need to create more awareness to understand the diversity among caregivers and to know that male caregivers may have a different set of challenges,” she adds.

Filling the gap in caregiving 

Caregivers face immense stress and need support just as much. (Photo source: Canva)

During the Budget debate in March, five Members of Parliament (MPs) raised issues about how caregivers in Singapore frequently experience burnout and struggle with mental and physical health issues.

In February, Ms Carrie Tan, an MP for Nee Soon, asked the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to consider a new financial scheme for full-time caregivers, which she called the CareFare Income Supplement. This scheme aims to supplement full-time caregivers’ income and retirement savings.

Separately, Mr Melvin Yong, an MP for Radin Mas, asked if MOM would consider incentivising employers to allow employees with caregiving duties to work remotely, so that they can better manage both work and caregiving responsibilities at home.

Caregivers’ plight is not overlooked and is still a recurring theme during Parliamentary sittings in recent years. The government has also ramped up its support for caregivers through its various schemes. However, there remains gaps to be plugged.

In an article published on The Straits Times, Ms Shailey Hingorani, head of advocacy and research for the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), said that access to clear information remains a challenge and barriers in accessing formal care services still exist. 

Illustrating from AWARE’s report, Ms Hingorani said caregivers often shared their frustrations when navigating the current landscape of services, which was found to be “extremely fragmented”. She also said for caregivers trying to find the best service for their care recipient, the onus is on them to seek out all available services and try to do a cost-benefit analysis on what works best for their situation — but there is no existing platform that compiles information on all types of services and providers.

At TOUCH Community Services, Ms Soh says that from their experience working with caregivers in the past two decades, accessibility to resources still remains a challenge. She adds that during the pandemic, caregivers not only need more support in managing issues at home but also to explore available care options.

“Some of the concerns we have come across on our Care Line during this pandemic include the limited availability of care options due to restrictions and constraints brought about by the crisis, leading to increased anxiety faced by caregivers. For example, many caregivers face difficulties employing domestic helpers due to the higher cost and travel restrictions. They also shared about the long waiting list for subsidised elder-sitting services, day care centres and nursing homes. In such situations, caregivers looked to employers to grant more flexible working arrangements or support access to services,” she says.

To increase awareness and accessibility to resources, TOUCH Community Services provide training to caregivers at home and update them on resources available in the community and direct them to where  they can go for help. They have also created a caregivers support group on Facebook, which is a closed group for caregivers where they explore solutions and also receive affirmation from other caregivers. Ms Soh affirms the importance of strengthening informal and formal networks of care.

This pandemic also showed the importance of community or neighbourhood care networks. During the circuit breaker, we saw how residents or neighbours took the initiative to reach out to vulnerable caregivers, the isolated or frail seniors in their midst,” she says.

“[Strengthening informal networks of care] is one way to increase the number of community assets, to increase knowledge, and equip residents to address caregiving issues,” she adds. 

The importance of self-care for caregivers

Caregivers need to practice self-care too. (Photo source: Canva)

Caregivers who do their best to take care of others often neglect their own wellbeing. They might feel inclined to continue providing for the ones they love even when their own bodies and minds need rest. Feeling like they are not doing enough or beating themselves up over what they could or should have done are also common emotional and mental stresses for family caregivers. This is what is referred to as “caregiver burnout” or “compassion fatigue”.

One of the ways caregivers can take care of themselves is through mindfulness practice. Ms Lee says that it has taught her the importance of keeping a gentle watch over herself so that she does not suffer burnout or break down easily. It has helped her let go of some struggles by accepting reality, become a more resilient person, and finding more emotional balance through the cultivation of non-judgmental awareness and kindness towards herself.

While it is important for a caregiver to be compassionate towards who we are looking after, they must also practice self-compassion. Only when they learn to take good care of themselves are they able to better care for others, she says. 

Pay more attention to your own mind and body – this is the greatest gift you could award yourself and the people you are caring for. In addition, know that you are not alone, and your struggles are a part of the common humanity. When we realise how interconnected we all are with one another, it becomes easier for us to ask for help, and to accept help. Last but not least, know that you deserve care and concern as much as anybody else.”

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What is driving work-related stress in Singapore?

When it comes to work-stress, Singaporeans are not only highly pressured, but they are also worse at handling it than their counterparts in Southeast Asia, recent surveys show. TheHomeGround Asia finds out what is happening at work that is causing so much tension among Singapore workers.

Singaporeans are under pressure from work-related stress and are not dealing with it until it is too late. But the problem can no longer be ignored. Too much stress can lead to burnout, and an exhausted, unmotivated workforce can hurt the economy.

A survey of 1,013 Singaporean workers by software firm Oracle showed that nearly 7 in 10 Singaporeans found 2021 to be the most stressful year at work. The survey, conducted between July and August this year, also found that 3 in 5 Singaporeans struggled more with their mental health at work in 2021 than in 2020.

Another survey, conducted by Milieu Insight, a marketing research and public opinion polling company, showed that Singaporeans fared the poorest in terms of handling stress compared to other Southeast Asian countries. 

The study also found that most Singaporean workers are reluctant to ask colleagues for help even when they are under severe stress, find it difficult to say no to more work when they are already overloaded, and only seek help when the stress becomes unbearable. The survey looked at a total of 6,000 respondents, 1,000 each from Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.  

Research findings like these have sparked discussions among change makers, managers and workers who want to expand the space where everyone can feel safe while airing concerns about stress. Some of these conversations took place on the 12th and 13th of November during an online conference organised by Calm Collective, a social enterprise that aims to reduce the stigma – the level of shame and prejudice – experienced by people undergoing psychological difficulties in life.

Speaking up about stress

During a question and answer session at the live webinar, Milieu Insight’s CEO Mr Gerald Ang said Southeast Asians find it hard to say no to more work even when their to-do list is full, because they don’t want to be judged by their managers. 

Milieu Insight CEO Gerald Ang (top right) discusses survey findings on work-related stress in South East Asia during an online conference organized by Calm Collective Asia. (Photo source: Calm Collective Asia)

Expanding on the reason why, Ms Rachele Focardi, an expert on generational diversity in the workplace, says that Singaporeans’ reluctance to say no to more work has to do with the collision of conventional and progressive notions of work in the modern workplace. 

“The general idea was that you have to take whatever is thrown at you and do whatever it takes to figure it out and make it happen. If you don’t, then there is the risk that somebody else will do it better and take over your job,” says Ms Focardi, who is chair of the Multigenerational Workforce Committee for the ASEAN Human Development Organisation, and founder of XYZ@Work.

“Until the millennials entered the workforce, the work environment was very cut-throat —  in some industries or local organisations, it still is — with a lot of internal competition for the boss’ favour or for a promotion. Leaders often encouraged this and took advantage of it by pitting employees against each other to make them work harder. Employees were taught to always look confident and not show any signs of weakness; even asking how to perform a duty could make them look bad in the eyes of the boss, who usually expected them to ‘figure it out’,” she adds.

Rachele Focardi speaks about the value of intergenerational collaboration at the workplace. She is chair of the Multigenerational Workforce Committee for the ASEAN Human Development Organization and founder of XYZ@Work. (Photo courtesy of Rachele Focardi)

COVID-19 crisis puts more pressure on workers

Milieu’s findings come at a time when the world is in the grip of COVID-19. Work-related stress was already a problem before the pandemic. COVID-19 has intensified it further.

Work-related diseases and injuries were responsible for the deaths of 1.9 million people in 2016, according to joint estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). Most of these deaths were related to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, with long working hours being the biggest risk factor and accounting for 750,000 of the deaths.

With governments instituting measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, turning teleworking into the norm in many industries, the boundary between home and work has blurred. The WHO warned that the trend towards increased work time is accelerating and this has more people at risk of death and disability from overwork.

The “always on” work culture

The news is rife with reports of employees quitting their jobs because of stress from a work culture that requires them to be on call 24/7. Singaporean lawyer Nick Ng quit his job at a financial services company in March this year because his team expected him to be available all the time. Receiving constant notifications on his mobile phone caused heart palpitations and breathlessness that resulted in the 37-year-old seeking medical attention, says a report on the Nikkei Asia website. 

A 31-year-old infrastructure development engineer, who wanted to be known only as Mark, told Channel News Asia he left his job after feeling mentally sapped and exhausted every day. Virtual meetings that dragged into the night and the constant intrusions into after-hours drove him to throw in the towel.

“Organisations that struggle with this kind of work-life integration, even though they have the policies in place, sometimes, do not actually do enough to make sure staff feel they can turn off from work,” says Dr James Goh, organisation development lead at the Halogen Foundation, a non-profit that trains young leaders and entrepreneurs.

Dr Goh explains that managers play a crucial role in shaping the work culture of their organisations. 

“As a boss, as a manager, the power is almost in your hands to lead by example and do what’s necessary. So one thing, for example, I do when I communicate is, when I have something to send as an email in the evening, I will just draft the email first, but I’d choose not to send it until the next working day,” says Dr Goh.

Dr James Goh (left) suggests ways to improve work-life balance during a discussion at an online conference hosted by Calm Collective Asia. (Photo source: Calm Collective Asia)

Employees, too, have agency and can play a part in shaping company culture. For example, they can set boundaries on communication after working hours. 

“When you set a time, be very disciplined and adhere to it. When you see an email (coming in at the end of your work day), don’t respond,” says Dr Goh, underscoring the importance of sticking to the boundaries one sets for after-hours communication.

Some employees stress themselves out by responding to managers’ after-hour emails and texts because they want to do their job well or impress their superiors.

“You think that by responding, people think you’re hardworking, that you are trying very hard in your work and doing really well, but the fact is, when you do your performance review, your managers won’t actually say ‘You sent emails at twelve midnight every single day and that’s why you worked very hard’. Most of the time they are actually looking at the quality of your work and how well you’re performing,” says Dr Goh.

Bosses aren’t superhuman either

Chief executives and managers are also workers, and like everybody else, they get stressed. These days they have to worry about the wellbeing of staff and business continuity in the context of a pandemic that is stoking an energy crunch, causing supply-chain bottlenecks, and driving inflation. 

“I think first and foremost, leaders are not superhuman,” says Ms Peta Latimer, CEO of Mercer Singapore, a global management consultancy firm. 

“As a leader you’re expected to manage P&L (profit and loss), you’re expected to have foresight, strategy, build the right culture, deal with operational efficiency, have individual approaches to people, and care about the mental health of individuals. I think we have to be very careful here because nobody is superhuman in all of these things. Each of us is on a journey. Each of us is hoping to improve ourselves as we go along, and leaders as much as anybody else need support,” she says.

Ms Latimer adds that leaders can reduce work-related stress by communicating expectations clearly, because burnout doesn’t necessarily come from doing too much. It comes from “being confused, and having all the pillars of your life thrown up in the air. The best thing that we can do as leaders is set far simpler, and clearer expectations”.

Mercer Singapore’s CEO Peta Latimer (far right-hand-side) says leaders should set simple and clear expectations for employees, during a live webinar on psychological safety at work. (Photo source: Calm Collective Asia)

The Singapore government is taking steps to improve mental wellbeing at work. In November last year, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) issued an advisory on mental wellbeing at the workplace. 

The document offers practical guidance on measures that employers can adopt to improve the mental health of staff. It includes a section on after-hours communication. One recommendation was: “Employers should set out a clear position for work-related messages (e.g. SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram) and emails sent after work hours, that a response is not expected until the next working day, except for messages/emails marked as ‘Urgent’.”

Some workers turn the table on the bosses

Efforts to nurture a culture that respects the mental wellbeing of employees should be counterbalanced with the need to manage workers who make unreasonable demands. 

The Daily Mail Online carried an article saying that some Generation Z employees are scaring their bosses with woke demands. These include insisting that bosses show support for certain political causes, demanding paid time-off for anxiety, and assigning tasks to CEOs. 

Gen Z-ers, or zoomers, are individuals born after 1996. The oldest members of this generation are around 18 to 25 years of age. They are the youngest employees in the workforce and will soon constitute a large proportion of it. 

“Their uncompromising attitude towards practices that don’t reflect their values, and the fact that they prioritise their personal ambitions and ideals ahead of the corporate good, can make them appear rigid and entitled,” writes Ms Focardi in a commentary on Channelnewsasia.com

But this aside, unreasonable demands can come from workers of any generation. From boomers to zoomers, anyone is capable of a sense of entitlement. The reason, however, for the concern about zoomers is the combination of digital savvy and social consciousness of this group that makes them effective at changing what they do not like in the world.

Ms Focardi writes: “Although they are often thought of as inexperienced, impatient, easily bruised and addicted to technology, Gen Z are sharp, mission-driven, fast-learners, champions for diversity, direct, and able to harness the power of the collective instead of trying to change the world alone.”

But zoomers lack the knowledge and experience, which their predecessors have, says Ms Focardi. 

“Their drive, adaptability and humanity are exactly what our society needs. But in order to bring about the change they envision, they need the knowledge, experience and wisdom of those of us who came before,” she adds.

Generational diversity at work need not become a source of more stress. Instead, it is a cure for it. The broad-based support for a work culture where managers and workers respect each other’s boundaries can benefit from Gen Z’s drive to make the future of work inclusive, diverse and psychologically healthy. 

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