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Breast Cancer Survivor: I chose life over future children

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and in Singapore, more than 2,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and they’re getting younger. TheHomeGround Asia speaks to a survivor who was diagnosed when she was just 30 to find out about her journey to recovery and how younger women can take precautions to protect themselves from late-stage breast cancer.

The year was 1999. Nora Ng was 30.

After a long night of drinking with her friends, she stumbled into her house. As she could not hold alcohol well, she began vomiting.

“That was when I felt the sharp pain in my chest but I didn’t think anything of it because I was too ‘high’ to care. But the next morning, the pain was still there,” she recalls.

She contacted her best friend, who told her that an acute and persistent chest pain was not normal, and that she should see a doctor. During the visit to her general practitioner (GP), the doctor found a lump and referred Ms Ng to a hospital, where a biopsy was done. When Ms Ng was asked to come along with her family members for her test results a few days later, she had an inkling that it was bad news. She was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.

Younger women getting diagnosed with breast cancer

According to the Singapore Cancer Society, more than 2,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and for over 400 of them, the cancer proves fatal. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 13 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer within their lifetime. 

Although the odds are much lower for younger women, they can and do get breast cancer and when breast cancer is diagnosed at a young age, it’s more likely to be aggressive and spread quickly. (Photo source: Canva)

In the United States alone, over 70,000 men and women aged between 15 and 39 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Yet there is a common misconception here that breast cancer only occurs in older women.  As a result, most younger ones do not go for mammogram, a low-energy X-ray that examines the human breast for diagnosis and screening, or for regular breast cancer assessments.  Ms Ng had led a healthy lifestyle, ate cleanly, and did not have a family history of breast cancer. She was the last person anyone would expect to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet she received the news at 30.

Ms Ng was warded that same evening when she was given the news of her cancer and her lumpectomy, a surgery to remove the cancerous tissue in her breast, was performed the following morning.

She was only at the beginning of her treatment journey. Although the cancerous cells might have been removed, there was still a need to undergo chemotherapy to rid the area of any remaining cancer cells. 

She was referred to an oncologist who recommended that she undergo four to six chemotherapy sessions every three weeks, along with a month of radiotherapy. 

“Fortunately, my cancer was detected early. At the same time, I was unlucky because although my cancer was in its early stage, it was also very aggressive and it spread very fast,” she adds.

According to Clinical Assistant Professor Sim Yirong, a Consultant in the Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), the number of people diagnosed with breast cancer in Singapore has tripled over the past 50 years.

Some of the reasons, she says, are that people are living longer and are proactive about screening. This means the number of diagnosed cases in young women would naturally increase. The growth may also be attributed to lifestyle-related factors.

“Some of these factors associated with increased risk of breast cancer include obesity, alcohol, smoking, having fewer children, having children later in life, use of hormone replacement therapy, and having a more sedentary lifestyle,” says Dr Sim, who is also a surgical oncologist. 

“There are also other risk factors that are being studied, such as night-shift work, lack of sleep, carcinogens in our diet and environment, and these are interesting areas of research,” she adds.

At 30, a woman’s risk of getting the disease is 1 in 227, and by 60, she has a 1 in 28 chance of receiving the diagnosis. Although the odds are much lower for younger women, many like Ms Ng, who live perfectly healthy lifestyles and have no family history of cancer, are still stricken. 

Clinical Assistant Professor Sim Yirong, Consultant in the Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), who started specialising in breast surgical oncology in 2016. (Photo courtesy of National Cancer Centre Singapore)

No skipping chemotherapy 

Many young women with the most common type of early breast cancer can choose to avoid chemotherapy, but not for Ms Ng. Her cancer was very aggressive that her oncologist told her it would spread if she did not undergo both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. But should she go through with these life-saving treatment, it would cost her the ability to have children in the future. 

“That was the first time I cried, because I love kids and I always wanted to be a mother. The thought of not being able to have my own was what hurt me the most,” she says. 

As though that was not bad news enough, Ms Ng was also told that the kind of chemotherapy medication needed for her rare cancer was still in development and that the hospital had no specialised medication for her. To fully remove all her cancerous cells, they would have to treat her early-stage cancer with intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy meant for stage 4 cancer patients and this would be significantly more draining and painful.

Ms Ng was dumbstruck. Her doctor had given her two weeks to make up her mind. When she went home, she was asked all sorts of questions and given different kinds of advice. Only one question asked by a close uncle made all the difference.

“He asked, ‘Nora, what’s the point of having children if you won’t even live long enough to take care of them?’’’ she recounts. That pushed her to choose the treatment. 

Today, Nora is a successful insurance agent who splits her time between work, raising awareness about breast cancer, and taking care of her fur-kids: 14 adopted cats. (Photo courtesy of Nora Ng)

“Being diagnosed with cancer at this age will not only affect [the woman herself] but also have a knock-on effect on the people around her,” says Dr Sim. 

“She will need time off from work to undergo treatment – surgery, and possibly chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The duration of treatment and recovery can take weeks to a year, depending on the stage of the cancer and the treatment required. This will have an impact on her income, financial stability and contribution to society’s workforce. She may also have concerns on her body image and sexuality, and would need peer and emotional support,” she says, adding that it also applies to women of all ages.

When she first started her chemotherapy treatment, Ms Ng began losing her hair. She recalls her feelings then.

“I thought I was prepared. I used to have long hair, and I knew I was going to lose my hair, so I cut it short. But no matter how much you prepare yourself, when you wake up one day and you see so much of your hair on the pillow, it’s still a very scary and sad feeling. I had my head shaved, because I really didn’t want to deal with the amount of hair falling off each time.”

“Going through chemotherapy was a terrible, horrible feeling, and I do not wish it on anyone. Until today, I still do not know how I managed to overcome it. It was terrible,” Nora says.

Each chemotherapy session was three hours and halfway through every session, Ms Ng would feel like giving up. She could smell the acrid stench of the medication going into her body, and each time, she felt extremely cold and nauseous. But she told herself to “press on till the very end, down to the last drop” of her intravenous (IV) drip. 

The chemotherapy also caused her to vomit for days, and the medication prescribed by the oncologist did not help. Throwing her doctor’s advice not to mix Western and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to the wind, Ms Ng visited her TCM practitioner.

“I have always believed in TCM. This time, it helped boost my immune system and blood (cell) count, because chemotherapy kills off the red and white blood cells,” she says.

Ms Ng also had to undergo radiotherapy, which uses strong ultraviolet (UV) radiation to destroy cancer cells. It resulted in painful first-degree burns on her chest that she could not even use soap or wear a bra. To cope, she found that using pure aloe vera gel helped.

Despite how arduous her treatment journey was, Ms Ng’s extraordinary will to live kept her going. Now 52, she has been actively raising awareness about breast cancer, advocating early cancer detection and dishing out advice to countless young women years after her recovery.

“I didn’t want to die so young. I wanted to see the world. It is a beautiful place and I had not seen enough of it yet,” she says.

Options available to young women today

Dr Sim believes that adopting a healthy lifestyle and lowering one’s risk of breast cancer has to start early.

“It is a worthy investment to your overall health. Regular self-examination is vital to detect any lump or unusual changes in the breasts. It is important to seek medical attention promptly if you notice any changes or if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you,” she says.

For many young women, it is also important to undergo regular check-ups and mammographic screenings that enable early detection of breast cancer. Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon went for regular mammograms since the age of 35 — 15 years earlier than the recommended age of 50. At 40, she detected breast cancer in its early stages, underwent treatment and made a full recovery.

Others take more drastic measures. Hollywood film star Angelina Jolie went through a preventive bilateral mastectomy after discovering that she carries a genetic mutation that increases her risk of getting breast cancer. 

“There is never a good time to have cancer, but it is important to remember that breast cancer is very treatable, especially when detected early. As such, I cannot emphasise enough how important regular screening is. It can help detect breast cancer early. When found at an early stage, more treatment choices are available and simpler, and the chance of a complete recovery is higher,” says Dr Sim.

“You don’t have to do it alone. Women are pillars of support in our family and society – let’s encourage one another, be it your friends or your mum to examine themselves regularly, or even make an appointment to go for a mammogram together. Let’s support one another to have a healthier lifestyle, and to encourage each other to be more breast aware and go for regular screening,” she adds.

Myths about breast cancer

Many young women have misconceptions about the causes of breast cancer and who it affects. No one is entirely immune to the risk — not even perfectly healthy young women or men.

According to Breastcancer.org, many young women believe that a lump is the only indication of breast cancer. The truth is that everyone’s signs and symptoms can be different, and cancerous tissue in the breast may be invisible for some people. Receiving professional breast examinations and undergoing regular mammograms is the most fail-proof way of detecting breast cancer. 

Signs and symptoms

According to Gleneagles Hospital, potential signs and symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Bleeding or unusual discharge from the nipple
  • Pulled in or retracted nipple
  • Painless lump in the breast
  • Persistent itch and rash around the nipple
  • Dimpled or puckered skin over the breast
  • Swollen and thickened skin over the breast

For women experiencing these symptoms, it is imperative that they consult a doctor promptly for a professional medical assessment.

Where to seek assistance for treatment

Along with visiting your usual doctor, there are plenty of organisations available for young women to receive assistance:

For women who are unsure if they have breast cancer, Ms Ng says it always helps to seek a second opinion from doctors, family members or friends. This gives them assurance about their decisions on the  diagnosis and possible treatment options. She also believes that acceptance is important in saving women from the immense emotional toll that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis.

One of Ms Ng’s beloved cats. (Photo courtesy of Nora Ng)

“I think it is difficult for any person to accept that they have cancer. There’s no point in asking ourselves, ‘Why me?’ I was a very healthy eater; I was a non-meat eater at the time, I ate tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli — all these so-called ‘anti-cancer’ foods, but I still got cancer,” Nora says.

The hardest part, she says, is having the mental strength to pull through the treatment. She encourages women to remain positive and look towards a cancer-free future. During her treatment, Ms Ng had financial issues and relationship challenges. Despite that, her brush with cancer led her to cherish life more, and adopt a more optimistic outlook.

“I thank God for giving me a strong heart. Life is never a smooth-sailing journey; you will always face thunderstorms. I always tell people this: If cancer cannot kill me, nothing else can.”

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Culture Home & Family Local Opinion Singapore

Wish for change? Plan to be a parent

As global fertility rates continue their decline amid a world of rising costs, inequality, climate anxiety, and Millennial pessimism, TheHomeGround Asia writer argues that being a parent could, ironically, be the most effective way for young people to drive the change they wish to see.

As a generation that has been subjected to all manner of criticisms — think lazy, disrespectful, overconfident, spoiled, snowflakes, strawberries, and now, cheugy — Millennials the world over have had it pretty rough. 

Many have been told they don’t work hard enough by the generations before them, but also that they sometimes try too hard by the generation after them. 

A Millennial myself, I often wonder if I have internalised these denunciations over the years. After all, we may be the first generation to make less money than our parents, on the average. Unlike the Boomers, most Millennials in the West cannot afford to own a house today, while over a third in Singapore do not feel secure about retirement. 

Young, burnt out and anxious

Earlier this year, the Financial Times conducted a survey among its global readers to understand the major issues young people face today, relative to the prior generations. Thumbing through the findings was both reaffirming and consuming for me as thousands of young people around the world seemed to describe, with uncanny accuracy, the social immobility I have noticed in Singapore. 

On many levels, it almost seems to us like the world is beyond repair, with problems compounded over generations and young people bearing the brunt of it. We were told that we would make it just like our parents and grandparents did if we work hard and have a good job, and that success is measured by having a house, car, family, children, and planned retirement. Then cost of living over the last five decades skyrocketed disproportionately to wages, and young people today across the developed world find themselves having to work two jobs just to pay rent for a small apartment, with no car or children, a partner who is as burnt out as they are, a massive student loan debt, and an unending supply of climate anxiety brought on by the actions of the previous generations. 

A study by the FT on how young people around the world felt about their prospects relative to their parents’. (Photo source: Financial Times (FT) / Aleksandra Wisniewska)

In Singapore, where renting is uncommon, young people are stuck living with their parents until they get married. For some, it is even after they are married. Since people are marrying later, Singaporeans today are living under their parents’ roof much longer than their parents did. 

Alas, the advantages the young people of today have over their parents and grandparents — higher salaries, better education and jobs, access to technology, diversified industries — have been cancelled out by the simple reality of intergenerational inflation. Making $100,000 a year helps no one when rent in the city costs half of monthly wages and one is $50,000 in debt because of the student loan. 

What’s the point of having children?

Given this constant uphill battle for the good life, it is no wonder that fertility has declined across the globe, with more young people embracing a childfree life now than ever before. 

A recent post on Reddit’s Singapore community titled ‘What’s the point of bringing a life into Singapore’ had been upvoted over 3,800 times in less than two weeks, packed with a lively discussion of over a thousand comments mostly underscoring young people’s pessimism for Singaporean society and its future. 

A Reddit post titled ‘What’s the point of bringing a life into Singapore?’ received over 3,800 upvotes in two weeks. (Photo source: Reddit / r/singapore)

Other threads point to the same sentiment. Due to reasons that run the gamut from evolving lifestyles and impossible property prices to worrying inequality and racism, young Singaporeans, akin to their counterparts in the developed world, are making the conscious decision not to bring life into a world they view as increasingly problematic.

Echoing these sentiments, political science undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Izni Azis describes her decision not to have children partly as a response to the current state of the planet. 

“I’m not super well-versed in the environmental problems of our globe, but what I can gather is that the future seems very bleak,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world knowing all of this, especially when taking other (societal) factors into consideration.”

It is evident that an uncertainty about the future contributes to the decision to remain childless. Much like the Financial Times survey had uncovered, young people are pessimistic when they look into the future. Ms Johanna Teo, a freelance creative in her late twenties, explains that apart from uncertainty, the need to bring more life into the world also seems unconvincing. 

“There are enough orphans around,” she argues. “I would like to adopt if I do commit to being a parent”.

Here, Ms Izni shares an almost identical view. “There are already so many orphaned or compromised children out there who are alive and in need of care. I think adopting these children and giving them a home should also be a consideration for those eager to be parents,” she adds. “While I do not wish to procreate, I do support the notion of adopting or fostering children.”

Change starts at home

While the arguments are certainly cogent — I, too, would like to offer my children the opportunities they (and every other kid) deserve, and a world that may implode from climate disasters or a society that has lost its humanity to the rat race would make that improbable — I cannot help but wonder if this defeatist sentiment might, in actuality, be symptomatic of the very toxicity we young people claim to be against.

To put this in another way, could we have internalised all this talk of an unjust, deplorable world that we have taken its flaws as preordained principles, sealing the fates of our unborn children? 

Society may be lost and the world has seen better days, but as individuals, it seems natural to feel powerless in the face of such overwhelming odds. And yet too many of us forget that this limit is often self-fulfilling, and that history is replete with change as a result of choices made at the individual level. 

One of the first lessons I learned from my parents about change was when I was in secondary school. It was in the form of a Mother Theresa quote; ‘The way you help heal the world is you start with your own family’. The irony of this piece lies in this very idea — becoming a parent is everyone’s shot at changing the world. 

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the unborn generation would be anything like we are today. A would-be parent who disagrees with the workaholic culture in Singapore, for instance, needs only to inculcate in their children an appreciation of the difference between working to live and living to work, and the value of a life balanced by fulfilment and achievement. 

Our relationship with work has been described as unhealthy. (Photo source: Flickr / Markus Binzegger)

In the same vein, there is no universal truth that warrants our perpetuation of the toxic ‘pressure cooker’ environment to which we currently subject children. A great example can perhaps be found in the approach Dr Teo You Yenn, the Singaporean sociologist and author of the national bestseller This Is What Inequality Looks Like, takes with her child — Dr Teo had shared on an episode of CNAs On The Record podcast in 2018 her conscious decision not to enrol her daughter in tuition and enrichment classes, “so that she doesn’t have more advantages than she already has”. 

Such a parenting philosophy demonstrates not just a reluctance to perpetuate the inequality that resides within a meritocratic system that blindly advantages the privileged, but also the autonomy parents have in rewriting the narrative. Arguably, there exists no guiding principle in life that mandates that we all own a car, go on luxury vacations to Europe, or live in condominiums with pools and saunas. The concept of a good life cannot be monopolised.

Similarly, if we truly fear climate catastrophe, resent political subordination and detest social injustice, then we ought not to walk away from them but face them head-on. If we truly believe that society is fundamentally flawed, then there should be no greater source of empowerment than a commitment to nurturing the next generation. Conversely, leaving the game just means that the status quo will be maintained, naturally by those on the other side of the court.

Unenlightened socioeconomic policies may have beleaguered our generations, but the greatest opportunity lies in our recognition of it. Being a parent through birth or even adoption accords the next generation the chance to undo decades of wrong turns, and us the prerogative of seeing that through.

Chester Tan is a freelance writer, aspiring photojournalist, and communications student in his final year of university.

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Asia Culture Home & Family Lifestyle Local Opinion Singapore Wellness

Is therapy for everyone?

Following World Mental Health Day on 10 Oct, TheHomeGround Asia reached out to key mental health support organisations, including AWARE, SOS, Silver Ribbon Singapore, and Singapore Counselling Centre, to debunk common misconceptions, pitfalls and success factors in therapy. 

In Season 3, Episode 4 of Sex Education, Jakob Nyman tells therapist Jean Milburn, his soon-to-be co-parent, “I’m not saying that you’re not good at your job, but I’m not sure that talking can fix everyone!”

There are two kinds of people: the therapy sceptics (Jakob, right), and the offended believers (Jean, left). (Photo source: Sex Education, Netflix)

He wouldn’t be the first or only one to have reservations about therapy, even in 2021.

In 2020, the Women’s Care Centre at Association for Women for Action and Research (AWARE) saw almost 500 counselling clients, according to an AWARE spokesperson. About 4 in 5 reported functioning better at work and/or in their personal lives post-therapy, and around 9 in 10 were able to develop effective coping strategies to deal with the issues they faced. 

But what about the plight of the remaining 15-21 per cent? Does therapy just not work for everyone? What are the factors that contribute to its failure for this group of people? 

Common misconceptions about therapy 

According to Mr John Shepherd Lim, Chief Wellbeing Officer of Singapore Counselling Centre (SCC), clients dropping out of therapy after the first session is common. 

“Some may feel that the therapist is not a right fit for them, or that the therapy session is not aligned with their expectations,” he says. 

This is why many therapists aim to make the most of the first session by getting to know the expectations of each client to manage them, set clear goals, and ensure therapy continuity, says an executive of Partnerships and Engagement of Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) Emily Tandar. 

From their experiences, the few factors that contribute to the decision to stop counselling sessions include the following fallacies: 

1. Going for therapy is a sign of weakness.

“It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge that one is struggling and in need of help,” says Ms Tandar. She cites the example of suicidal clients who might experience emotional barriers such as shame and fear of being judged. 

In fact, many therapists, Ms Tandar included, believe that seeking help is more a sign of courage. “Taking the step to find support and hope when they are in a state of distress shows strength and resourcefulness,” she says. 

2. Therapy is only for people with serious mental health issues.

There are many reasons why someone seeks help — from wanting to understand more about their relationship patterns, stressful home and work situations, to longstanding conditions such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Instead of treating therapy as a judgement of how “serious” one’s problem is, Mr Lim encourages people to view it as “just another way to improve aspects of your life by learning more about yourself”. 

“Typically, the longer people wait to start therapy, the worse the problem gets, and the longer it might take them to resolve the issues,” he adds. 

3. Therapy is a one-stop shop for solving all your problems.

Contrary to popular belief, therapists do not have that magic wand to give advice or provide solutions that clients passively accept. 

“Instead, we work collaboratively with the clients to explore different ways to manage and navigate their difficult situations, and come up with a safety plan,” says Ms Tandar. 

It is through skilled questioning that a therapist eases through the thought processes and helps clients evaluate the resources that are already within their reach, adds Mr Lim. 

Is it working or just a bunch of mumbo jumbos?

Due to the wide range of issues different clients face, mental health support organisations like the SCC often have specialists from various fields working with them. They include experts in depression, addiction, children and youth, family, and relationship counselling. his allows clients to pick counsellors who can best address their needs. 

There are also centres that specialise in specific areas of help. AWARE, for example, provides trauma-informed, non-judgemental, gender-focused support for women. “AWARE’s sessions are safe spaces designed specifically for women to discuss their issues — including marital problems, abuse, and violence — and [they then] learn about the options available to them,” says its spokesperson.  

“Therapy goals are usually set by the client themselves during the first session, and refined with the help of the counsellor to ensure that objectives are achievable,” says Mr Lim. These goals are centred around measurable and observable behaviour changes, which are constantly revisited and assessed periodically. 

Another measure of success, he adds, is when clients is eventually weaned off their need for counselling altogether — of course, periodic check-ins would still have to be done. “This is one marker that can tell us that clients are more adept in self-management, and are not in need of our help,” he says. 

Common pitfalls — when therapy might not work out

Mismatched expectations aside, there are also a few reasons that contribute to the high dropout rates among first-time therapy-goers. They become discouraged when they are unable to achieve their own set of goals within a certain timeframe, causing them to lose hope and to leave therapy altogether, says Ms Tandar. 

Another reason is the level of readiness. “Some clients, who are still in the pre-contemplation stage, may be less motivated to follow up with counselling sessions, especially when they have yet to acknowledge a need for change,” she says. 

A third reason is time. Some clients cannot make time for themselves to attend therapy sessions when they put work or family first. 

In more dire cases like when clients are suicidal, Mr Lim says they also require other kinds of support that organisations like SOS are not equipped to provide. 

“Suicidal thoughts are often a complex culmination of different factors,” he says. “When unemployment or financial struggles are contributing to a client’s feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, they require practical support beyond just counselling. … Such clients are usually referred to appropriate social service agencies for more holistic support.” 

Even so, therapists do aim to make the most of each session by first exploring available positive coping skills and resources the clients can tap on, says Mr Lim. 

Critical factors for success in therapy 

While there is no hard and fast rule for therapy to work, there are a couple of key ingredients that have proven to be beneficial.

1. Having an open mind

While it may be beneficial, Ms Tandar says counselling can be difficult for someone to go through as it “not only exposes your vulnerability, but it also requires you to trust and be open to a total stranger”. “At the same time you need to be patient because the recovery journey is often non-linear,” she adds. 

Having an open mind also means allowing yourself to be vulnerable, real, and willing to be taught — all of which facilitates the process of deep self-exploration. 

“This will give the therapist more insight to work with, such as identifying existing beliefs, thoughts, and behaviours that could have contributed to the problems that you are currently facing,” says Mr Lim. 

“Beyond the counselling sessions, having the openness to implement coping strategies that were discussed during the sessions also contribute largely to eventual client outcomes,” he adds.

2. Getting along, believing in one’s therapist

Mr Lim believes that the most important factor influencing a successful therapy outcome is being able to get along with the therapist. Termed as the therapeutic alliance, the bond between client and therapist is crucial, because “both parties need to work closely and collaboratively”. 

“Compatibility can strengthen the connection and level of trust between client and the professional. Having a client feel safe and comfortable is important to having an honest working relationship which may influence the outcome of the therapy,” says Ms Tandar. 

According to Mr Lim, honest communication regarding what works and what does not is key to helping the therapist identify coping strategies that suit the client’s personality and style. 

“Should clients not find the sessions helpful, we would then encourage them to convey this directly to their counsellors and consider giving it a few more sessions,” he says. “Having said that, good ‘chemistry’ is critical, so do not be afraid to voice out should you want to change your therapist.” 

Not every therapist may be right for you — while a friend may have positive experiences with a particular therapist, you may not necessarily have the same experience and that’s perfectly normal. Here are some red flags if a therapist is not a good fit, according to Mr Lim: 

  • You feel judged for the values you hold or the life experiences you have. 
  • You do not feel comfortable while being honest and authentic. 
  • The therapist is either too gentle or too assertive — these are neither good nor bad traits, but each person responds differently to the different personas and styles. 
  • You feel that your therapist talks too much about themselves without any therapeutic purpose. 
  • You leave the session feeling lousy about yourself, and there is no actionable direction or solution. 
  • When your therapist encourages you to rely on them to meet your needs, instead of guiding you to do so independently. 

If any of these should happen, it is perfectly reasonable to request a change of therapists for the next session. 

Ms Porsche Poh, Executive Director of Silver Ribbon (Singapore) (SRS), adds that it’s okay to try out different therapists, “as long as you don’t get confused”. 

“It’s like finding a hairdresser. You’d often do trial-and-error until you find somebody you really like and who knows your style, and then you stick with him or her,” she says. 

Importance of holistic support 

Many have the misconception that if they feel overwhelmed, they have to speak to a professional, and that would be on their record, says Ms Poh. (Photo source: Psychiatry Advisor)

Ms Poh left her previous role at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2006 to launch SRS after discovering that there was a lack in the accessibility of mental health support in Singapore. 

She says then she had noticed that funding was pumped into making the institute look “like a beautiful resort”. “Yet, when I asked young people if they were willing to seek help here, they’d still say, ‘hell no, over my dead body’.”

She founded SRS to address the stigma surrounding mental health through workshops and peer helper programmes with the public. Her focus: mentally or emotionally troubled youths.

“Due to stigma, I’ve realised that many youths are not comfortable with seeking help from counsellors. It’s very important to understand the community’s needs, and craft our support methods accordingly,” she says. 

Ms Poh and her team has reached out to a wide variety of groups, ranging from professors and student leaders to religious leaders and even the police, hoping to help those who want to be “helplines for the mentally troubled”, and teach them how to look out for warning signs and know the right advice to give. 

“There are some who relate mental health issues to spiritual deficiencies, for example, and would advise those who seek help to pray more, rather than go to a therapist,” she says. “This happens across all religions in Singapore. We try to propose a concurrent treatment system, while respecting their religious views.”

She also says that it’s helpful for civil groups like the Singapore Police Force (SPF) to go through mental health workshops since the police are often the first point of contact when the mentally troubled face the risk of harming others or themselves. 

“I have young people who tell me that when they have their outbursts, their parents would call the police. This makes them resent their parents even more. Sometimes, the police would handcuff them, and that never in their lives have they felt so ashamed,” Ms Poh says, adding that such traumatic experience will make then less likely to comply with a future treatment plan.

“A pleasant first experience with mental health support or management is therefore critical,” she says.

At times, SRS’s professional counsellors offer to mediate relationships between youths and their parents, advising parents on alternative approaches they can take to enhance their relationship with the children. 

“Not all parents know how to be perfect parents,” she says. “Often, when youths seek help, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a mental health issue or diagnosed condition, but something else going on in their lives.”

Ms Poh says the traditional treatment model is just a part of the mental health support puzzle. “Often, many of us may be concerned for our loved ones, but one key question to ask is, ‘are they ready to seek help?’,” she asks. 

“If they’re not, they don’t have to speak to psychologists or psychiatrists. We can instead focus on getting them to speak to anyone for a more light-hearted intervention approach — such as the friends they trust, for a start.”

If you are looking for help, seeking for a loved one, or just interested in learning more about mental healthcare, check out this consolidated resource: tinyurl.com/gethelpsg.

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Categories
Local News Singapore Youth

Breaking into new frontiers for Malay/Muslim youths

This article has been sponsored by Yayasan MENDAKI.

Helping Malay/Muslim youths break into new frontiers is the aim of the third MENDAKI-Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Policy Dialogue 2021, that will be held on Saturday, 30 October. While most of the Malay/Muslim community are in public service, education and health, they are also gaining foothold into growth sectors like IT, finance and banking. TheHomeGround Asia finds out more about the event and speaks to a data scientist who has broken both the gender and race stereotypes.

Data scientist Asyikeen Azhar, 32, did not realise her dream until after she started work with one of the Big Four accounting firms in Singapore. It was after five years into the job that she became restless.

“I wanted to do a master’s degree and looking back to my undergraduate days, there was one module I enjoyed — management science. Unfortunately, it was not one of the courses of study for masters, so I picked the closest thing, data science and started to dabble,” she says.

It was then that Ms Asyikeen realised how it applies to everyday life — not just for organisations but also on an individual level. 

“Besides computer science and mathematics, data science also covers other domains like psychology, sociology, linguistics and biology. It is very overreaching. I could find meaning, explore data, make decisions, and derive inspiration from all these different domains. For instance, in linguistics, there’s something called text analytics. If you build algorithms for text analytics, you can understand how humans communicate with each other and how languages work,” she says.

Data Scientist Asyikeen Azhar broke both gender and race stereotypes when she went into the field of data science and analytics (Photo source: Asyikeen/Facebook)

When Ms Asyikeen started volunteering with MENDAKI in 2018, she saw the possibility of using data science for voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

“I’ve done projects in the past that utilise data from NGOs to help them make decisions. I wanted something along that line for MENDAKI. While working with the Young MENDAKI Club (YMC). I helped build the algorithm to match mentors and mentees for the mentorship program. It’s basically like a dating app where it finds the characteristics of mentors and mentees that will build greater chemistry between them,” she says. 

Ms Asyikeen is one of the panellists at the third MENDAKI-Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Policy Dialogue that will be held on 30 October (2021) and according to Team Lead and Senior Manager of Research & Design Department at Yayasan Mendaki Faisal Aman, she is picked because she is an inspiration to young girls and youths in the Malay/Muslim community.

“Last year (2020), during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a lot of youths and jobless people and we wondered what the current ground sentiments were. This year, the dialogue looks at how we can have positive conversations through intergenerational discourse between mature and young workers,” Mr Faisal says, adding that the conversations are “upstream, especially with youths from upper and post secondary and tertiary education”.

“These conversations are important because they shape the minds and the hearts of our Malay/Muslim youths … So we hope to inspire, and also change mindsets to be more open during these very uncertain times,” he adds.

Mr Faisal says a survey carried out by MENDAKI last year (2020), on 200 Malay/Muslim youths between the age of 18 and 35 found that they usually seek advice from their family and friends before approaching other sources such as the government information centres or even their school services. 

The survey also found that 4 in 5 youths believe that they are resilient and would like to pursue education while employed by attending part time or short courses.

“So this third instalment of the MENDAKI-IPS dialogue looks at how we can have positive conversations… and these conversations are based on evidence from sources, so that the youths will know that there are available platforms, available courses and specific programs that are catered for them. For example, we have the Professional Conversion Program (PCP), that we have been pushing through for our Malay/Muslim community,” he says.

Mr Faisal, who is also the moderator at this year’s dialogue, says that the question of “what” had already been addressed during the dialogue held last year, titled “Developing A Resilient Community Through Lifelong Learning”

“It is now the question of ‘how’, so that is where we are coming from with the title ‘Gearing The Workforce For The Future’,” he adds

Having younger speakers to help break through set minds and ideas

This year’s panel is also made up of younger industry leaders to reach out to the young Malay/Muslims. Mr Faisal says psychologically, people tend to trust those they identify with and most often with youths and young Malay/Muslims, getting senior executives, community leaders and established academics to speak may not work with them. There is a need to speak, hear and think in their language.

“So a lot of our engagements this year have brought in those youths who are able to go to sectors which were often not very conventional for the Malay/Muslim community. If you were to look at our census, our data sets, most of our Malay/Muslim community are in the service, sector — public service, education and healthcare. We want to move and shift this into growth sectors like IT, finance and banking, which, I think, we are gaining a foothold in, but not as fast as others,” he says.

Psychologically, people tend to trust those they identify with and who youths trust may impact their lives and future. (Photo courtesy of Yayasan MENDAKI)

So this year’s dialogue panel comprises Dr Woo Jun Jie, a Senior Research Fellow in the Governance and Economy Department at IPS; Dr Gog Soon Joo, Chief Futurist, Chief Skills Officer, Chief Research Officer at SkillsFuture SG; and Data Scientist Asyikeen Azhar.

“And Mr Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab, Vice President of NTUC Central Committee and a Nominated MP. Mr Samad is also a senior specialist in tech and he represents the generation who were very hard working and have 20 years in the service. He not only represents mature workers, but also someone with the knowledge of the labour movement and skill upgrading,” Mr Faisal says.

“Dr Woo will speak on global understanding and gaps in policies in the different segments of the populace, especially those in the youth sector. Dr Gog is a chief futurist who will be able to give us some very pertinent examples of how currently SkillsFuture SG looks into translating programs to encourage and reach out to the young Malay/Muslims so they can move into the growth sectors. So I think that is a good balance,” he adds

Breaking both gender and race stereotypes

Mr Faisal says Ms Asyikeen is chosen as she would be “someone who is very inspirational to both the young girls as well as youths”. 

NUS Medicine’s new undergraduates 2017. (Photo source: Khalid Baba/NUS)

“If you were to look at the Census 2020 findings, female Malays represent a high proportion of graduates and this is something that we want to push. We want to push these women, who already have the education and aspirations, further; not stop at just having that degree. We want to push them to further their careers. So to help capture their imagination, we want the story of Asyikeen’s trailblazing journey towards a PhD in her area of specialisation to be told in her own words,” he says.

But the path to where she is today was not an easy one for Ms Asyikeen as it was fraught with steep learning curves and stereotyping by clients, bosses and colleagues.

“When I was working for one of the Big Four, I did face stereotyping with some clients. It was quite apparent at that time. When it comes to data scientists, there are different kinds of stereotyping. The first is gender. In computer science and data science, people tend to think that men are better at it; just like how they think men make better drivers, but of course it’s not true, right? In computer science and data science, I still face the fact that I am a woman and they will look at me differently,” she says.

“When it comes to the question of race, since I work at a multinational company, it is Asians instead of a particular race. For me, I just show that I am competent and work to always improve myself. As I am more linguistically inclined, I do presentations and explain difficult concepts to people who are not trained in data science so they will be able to understand the technical aspects. So I leverage on my strengths, and at the same time, I also work on my weaknesses, my technical stuff, because I got into the field quite late in life compared to the rest of the data scientists,” Ms Asyikeen adds.

You can reach that goal but it might take longer and eventually you will get there

At MENDAKI, Ms Asyikeen volunteers on an ad hoc basis, speaking to Malay/Muslim youths whenever she can.

“I wanted to show them that it’s possible to dabble in uncharted waters. I didn’t start off in data science at a young age. In fact, I was quite late going into the game. It is more like following and understanding my joys in life. That was what led me to data science in the end. It was a struggle because I was competing with people who have been coding for the longest time. So, I really needed to put in more effort in finding ways to differentiate myself from the rest. I wanted to show [these Malay/Muslim youths] that if something has not been done before, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, it just means that you have to try harder and find your own way to get there,” she says. 

Ms Asyikeen says she did not do well for both A Levels and her final year examinations at the university. 

“So when I first got my job as an accountant for the big four firms, it was purely by chance. I guess what set me apart was during one of my classes where there was an invited speaker, I asked a question that both my professor and the speaker thought was quite insightful. I then took the chance to talk to both after, introducing myself and telling them what I was actually interested in. That was when my professor recommended me for the job. Without that, I would not have that opportunity,” she says, adding that “even though you may not be good at something, there are people who can recognise your strengths, but you need to show them first”. 

“So, reaching out to people and introducing yourself is still a valuable thing to do. It really is hard but something good might come out of it in the end. … Always surround yourself with people who inspire you and from diverse backgrounds because the environment you’re in makes a difference. I’d rather be a small fish in a big pond than a big fish in a small pond,” she adds.

Mr Faisal agrees.

“Through the dialogue, we want to motivate not only the youths of our community but also policymakers, researchers, those in the public service or even the community. … It’s both a top-down and bottom-up approach. The government can do so much and we also do not want them to just come in from the top. We are trying to shift in terms of the movement from the ground — from the union’s perspective, from the youths’ perspective,” he says.

He adds that it is important to tell the youths in the Malay /Muslim community, especially those studying in the Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) that they may not be in the course that they want or love, but it is not difficult to move upwards and outward later.

“We want to tell them that what is most important is that these qualifications are not the be all and end all. They are the basis of further learning. Dr Gog would share, for example, that ITE is more about having different programs. For instance, we have NITEC, an ITE Diploma. Then you move on to higher NITEC as well as to a polytechnic while you are still in the ITE. These ITE Work-Study Diplomas and Technical Diplomascan actually help you to get to the different local universities. So it’s a learning continuum. You just need to know what program to enrol yourself in. Nothing is stopping you and that’s something that we want to bring forth, to let people see the new journey, show people the back lessons, and guide them along,” Mr Faisal says.

In order not to be preaching to the choir, Mr Faisal says the first wave is this YM-IPS Policy Dialogue that will be looked at on different platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, which “will succinctly encapsulate the key points”. 

The dialogue will be posted on the different platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, and will succinctly encapsulate its key points. (Photo courtesy of Yayasan MENDAKI)

“This is not just a one-stop program. We will be continuing the engagements and the conversations and we will push it as much as we can. It takes time. And we are trying to expand our audience. For one, we will write to the madrasahs and those who are in national service. We’re already tracking and monitoring the paths they have picked in terms of their life journeys and try to intercept and give them some signposting along the way,” he says.

The Mendaki-IPS Policy Dialogue 2021 will be held on Saturday, 30 October between 2pm and 3.30pm. To register, please click here by 25 October 2021. For any queries, please email ym-ips@mendaki.org.sg.

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Culture Exclusive Lifestyle Local People Singapore Wellness

In Conversation With: Touch Therapist Vivian Lee on Agrihood

Through our weekly series In Conversation With, TheHomeGround Asia amplifies and celebrates the ideas, achievements and experiences of extraordinary individuals who are creating ripples in unique ways. For a dose of healthy living this week, TheHomeGround learns from touch therapist Vivian Lee about regenerative agrihood practices to create a fair and inclusive circular food system.

It all began when trauma-informed relational somatic touch therapist Vivian Lee, 43, started paying more attention to her own health after eating out frequently in a foreign country.

While studying for her masters of fine arts in photography and video in New York, she took up yoga to maintain her health and that got her thinking about how she could improve her diet to complement the results from her yoga practice. At the same time, she realised that more research is needed on the types of food we eat to stay healthy. Ms Lee was able to grasp that food sold on the busy city streets is not ideal. She also spoke to the farmers at the many farmer’s markets there to understand why they grow what they grow. That was how the idea of cultivating her own food was born. 

Ms Lee, who is also a social artist and a mindful eating facilitator, says her different interests seem unrelated “but they are all earthworks – they are all related to regeneration and healing”. 

It is no wonder she is involved in projects related to that, and one of which she is currently into, in partnership with the National Parks Board, is the Soil Regeneration Project, a community-led action research and education venture. “What we eat is related to how we treat the soil. If we tend to the soil and encourage its health in a respectful way that creates biodiversity, the food that is grown there will be nutrient-packed and complex. This, in turn, leads to more health benefits for us and the larger ecosystem. It is a win-win,” she says.

THG: Having grown up in a city with all the modern amenities, how did you become interested in farming? 

Vivian Lee: It was really about a connection to health and understanding that biodiversity is important for wellbeing — be it personal or ecosystem health.  I developed an interest in yoga while doing my masters in New York, and I started to pay more attention to my own health. After researching the food that I ate there and speaking to the farmers, I realised that a lot of food we eat is processed or comes from questionable sources. We have no idea what we are putting into our bodies. That was when I wanted to grow my own food. I also found out that the gut microbiome is important and people take kombucha to feed the biodiversity in their guts to increase beneficial gut flora. If the food you eat doesn’t have that complexity, your immunity is not strong. You are what you eat, and you are what your food eats. That’s how I got interested in growing my own food. 

THG: Could you share more about the story behind Foodscape Collective and how you became the current guardian and community elder of the collective? 

VL: After leaving the US, I travelled for over a year to volunteer in different community and small scale vegetable farms. When I returned to Singapore in August 2015, I wanted to grow my own food and build my own shelter. I actively sought people who share the same interests. So, I volunteered at the Ground Up Initiative in Khatib. It was there that I met (Ng) Hui Ying, one of the initiators of Foodscape Collective. That’s how I got involved in its formation. The collective was not organised intentionally but happened in a spontaneous and organic way. We started out visiting numerous garden communities in Singapore. We wanted to learn more, investigate, and explore the foodscape here. 

Until the beginning of last year (2020), I spent half my time in Singapore and the other half in Chiang Mai. I have a small longan orchard there. I was also growing other edibles plants for self-sufficiency. At the same time, I was involved in Foodscape Collective here.

In December 2018, four of the core team members of Foodscape Collective went to Chiangmai and visited my eco-project for two to three weeks. We spent a lot of time bonding. We did a lot of yoga and gardening. We also participated in mudhouse building, cooking, harvesting, and eating. We got to know each other better and managed to come up with a common vision — a fair and circular food system for all. The vision is of agrihood, which is agriculture in the neighbourhood. In every neighbourhood in Singapore, we have specific amenities such as bus stops, clinics, and supermarkets. What if there is also a small scale farm? In an agrihood, we can design the neighbourhood to be centred around a small-scale farm where we can talk to the farmers, work on the farms, and learn more about what we are eating. It’s not just a food-producing place. It’s also a place for nurturing our health. It can also be where the community gathers and students learn. 

I’ve been with the group from the get go. As we grow, we want to work on different projects, such as soil regeneration, composting and edible gardens. We need to have projects with people working specifically on them. As the current guardian, my responsibility is to remind the community of our values, intentions, purpose, mission, and vision. I also take care of the well-being side of things and others can consult me if they want to work on a new project. Here is where I help to brainstorm and align the proposals with the Collective, and render support. 

Foodscape Collective core team in Chiang Mai collecting soil sample. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Lee / Foodscape Collective)

THG: When you say farming, do you mean just agriculture or are you also looking at livestock too? 

EK: Foodscape Collective is not a farming group. Agriculture refers to not just plants. Globally, when people think about farming, they also think about livestock. The inclusion of different animals ensures diversity. A lot of nutrient recycling happens within the farm. However, things have become too fragmented in modern agriculture like focusing only on plants or on chickens. It’s no longer circular and generates a lot of waste. Just to provide a simplified idea of how having an integrated ecosystem requires diversity: Waste is generated from harvesting. You can feed it to chickens or compost it. 

THG: Why do you believe that city dwellers like Singaporeans can be interested in getting down and dirty to do farming?

VL: Community is essential. No one can do this alone. I’m personally very interested in the community aspect as we need to scale up the efforts. All of us have different ways of thinking. In a diverse and complex ecosystem, different individuals play different roles. When farming goes beyond a certain scale, like when it becomes industrialised, that’s when things go haywire. Human connection is lost. Take Facebook as an example. We have many friends on Facebook but only a few whom we really talk to. Quality is more important than quantity. 

Let us take a look at the type of material used in a regenerative agrihood. It can be biologically organic. This means it can be composted. This type of waste doesn’t cause much harm to the environment and goes back to the soil. It doesn’t require energy to break itself down. So what we need is a farm that can recycle its own waste that is circular in nature. A regenerative farm will be naturally sustainable. 

City dwellers are definitely becoming more interested in sustainability. More awareness can be raised, and this is the key work of Foodscape Collective. We share with people that it’s possible. This generation may not be familiar with farming, but the previous generation grew up in kampungs where they have space to grow their own food. 

THG: What are the ways in which one can set up his or her own farm in Singapore? 

VL: I don’t think farming is for everyone. If you want to get into growing your edibles, it’s important to ask yourself why you want to do this. If it’s for the money, farming is not profitable.

There are a lot of underutilised green spaces like green lawns, and grass fields in many parts of Singapore. What if these places are allowed to be used for setting up small scale farms? In the past year and a half, more community and allotment garden spaces have been sprouting up. NParks has been building more gardens- but the administrative details still need to be sorted out. It is clear that the interest is growing. 

I started growing my own food because I wanted to know where my food is coming from. More than half the time, I’m eating local food and could observe a lot of exchange and circulation in close proximity.

So ask yourself: Is it for your family? Do you want to share healthy nourishing food with people in your neighbourhood?   

Some people here have already started their own edible gardens. It’s important to identify your intentions and who you want to serve with your garden. Why not join a community garden? Find like-minded people, get to know each other, form a group, then go to the town council to suggest a community garden. There are many ways of growing food, and you have to filter out what works for you. For instance, if I want to grow organic food, I want to find out what are the ways to fertilise organically. Singapore is a tropical island that has all the essentials for growing food, but we have become a concrete jungle. A lot of things can grow naturally and in abundance if we allow it. Underutilised green lawns could become a mini food forest if we are able to manage it. 

Harvesting of tapioca at Jurong Community Park. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Lee / Foodscape Collective)

Also, the weather here has been getting hotter as a result of climate change. Instead of leaving lawns exposed and open, we can allow forests to grow there and it will help cool down the surrounding areas. 

Foodscape Collective would also like to train more people to live regeneratively, in ways that can be applied in an urban context, such as permaculture which is an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. If we can work in collaboration with our natural landscapes and resources, the financial input is less. At the onset it will take time, but once the system is established, it can last for generations in a regenerative and sustainable way that is ecological as well.  

In Singapore, the scene is still in its infancy. In other parts of the world, there are already existing agrihoods and many communities living in a regenerative and sustainable way. I’m currently involved in the Global Eco-Village Network and was participating in the Transition Town Movement during my brief time in Los Angeles. In Singapore, if you live in a landed property with some outdoor space, you can use this example to grow over 400kg of food in a year on a 10m by 10m of space with a good design. You can also start learning about our local edible plants here, as they are suited to our climate and grow easily.

Visitors at the farmers’ market in 2016 could take home seeds and plants contributed by local community gardens, and choose to give something of value back. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Lee / Foodscape Collective)

THG: How would you describe a fair and circular food system then? In what way does this work hand in hand with recycling waste? 

VL: When we talk about fair, we really mean what is equitable, and one that is needs-based. We want to see all people and wildlife “have the ability and opportunity to grow and consume healthy, affordable, and culturally significant foods. In an equitable food system, all community members are able to grow, procure, barter, trade, sell, dispose and understand the sources of food in a manner that prioritises culture, equitable access to land, fair and equitable prices and wages, human health, and ecological sustainability. Food equity requires that food systems be democratically controlled and community stakeholders determine the policies that influence their food system.”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “a circular food economy produces organic, healthy food using natural, regenerative, soil-supporting growing practices. Any byproducts or waste can create additional new food, fabrics or bioenergy inputs. The resources of local ecosystems can be used to feed the communities.”

There are ways to accelerate a circular food system, such as working with the government to create resilient local food systems. 

Waste recycling is just one aspect of a circular economy. With the basic 3Rs hierarchy, it takes the lowest priority. 

THG: Are many organisations supporting the Foodscape collective? What are the different forms of support? 

VL: Under the government, there is the Singapore Eco Fund grant for the Soil Regeneration Project that I’m working on,  the use of GeoWorks co-working space in 2018 by the Singapore Land Authority. Some financial support for specific projects comes from corporations, such as OCBC Cares for Project Black Gold and there is private funding for the Soil Regeneration Project. The National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre provides networking and training support, while various media organisations such as The Straits Times, SAFRA Radio, and the South China Morning Post give us publicity.

THG: With all the support, what are some of the methods used to encourage people to choose actions that are better for the Earth, humanity, and the self?

 VL: For one, the food on your plate is a miracle. You have to pay attention to what you eat, as it will directly affect your health. Always stay connected to what you eat. You will want to take care of where your food comes from, and how it’s being produced. We encourage everyone to spend time outside in the gardens. It’s very nourishing. Covid-19 brought more people outdoors to spend time in the parks, helping to connect with our places as humans, as one of the animals in the larger ecosystem. By doing so, we don’t feel stressed or burned out in our human bubble. We are living in the Anthropocene, an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. We have experienced a lot of ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss. Covid-19 is a signal that we have been mistreating the wildlife.

THG: What are some of the challenges? What do you do when you face resistance?

VL: There are many layers of challenges, from the individual to the community, to the social and systemic issues. They are all interconnected. A part of the systemic inertia and inequalities we are experiencing today is also directly connected to the colonial past, and we are still living in the post-colonial era of a productivity-driven, capitalistic society that is unsustainable and driving people’s health to the ground. The general lack of eco-literacy and focus on short-term gains are also causes of climate collapse. We need to see the intimate connection between the wellbeing of ourselves as individuals, as a community, as a society and the planet. 

Whenever I face resistance, I try to be patient and practise deep listening. By fostering a culture of care, compassion and empathy, I hope that we, as humans, can remember our place in the world, to act in collaboration rather than competition. In Foodscape Collective we also value diversity and inclusivity. While we may take time to move things along, we choose to dialogue and hear one another’s perspectives to arrive at consensus; rather than prioritising productivity, we prioritise building relationships and capacity building for people to be a better steward in the larger ecosystem.

THG: What is the most common misperception or limiting belief about being part of the Foodscape movement? 

VL: That the food system, and other interconnected structures, are too complex or large to be changed by an individual as well as collective actions. As [American cultural anthropologist] Margaret Mead says, never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

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Culture Local Opinion Singapore

Is the Singaporean work ethic still relevant?

Workers of one of the longest workweeks in the world, Singaporeans have believed their entire lives in the virtue of a long, productive day. But what happens when these long hours do not translate to actual productivity? Our writer, Chester Tan, explores the relevance of the Singaporean work ethic to labour productivity in the age of technology.

Towards the end of the 2019 Netflix documentary American Factory, the Chinese billionaire entrepreneur Cao Dewang reflected upon his life as he strolled pensively around what looked like a massive shrine dedicated to himself. Amid doubts that his glass empire had done more good than harm for society came one of many maxims that seem to undergird his civilisation: “The point of living is to work. Don’t you think so?”

The notion that a worthwhile life can only be attained through constant productive endeavours resonates with most people due in part to humankind’s inherent desire to be ‘of use’. Indeed, what Cao had meant was that the purpose of life is to be useful. The inclusion of the line in the documentary, an attempt to accentuate the contrast between the Chinese and American civilisations, had ended up — unbeknown, I suspect, to the directors — an apt commentary on workaholic cultures everywhere, including Singapore’s.

Working one of the longest workweeks in the developed world, Singaporeans have long been victims of workism. Any conversation about one’s work these days is doused with vaunted mentions of 12-hour work days, weekends taken up by work, and not having seen friends or had a hobby day in months. Adhering to the tenets of workism, there exists a belief among far too many Singaporeans that the hours one puts in is directly proportional to their productive output. As the author Mark Manson pointed out, most people believe work and productivity to have a linear relationship. But if we believed that, then East Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan would be some of the most productive places known to mankind. Lamentably, that is not how work actually works, and a look at Singapore’s productivity stats over the decades show that these long hours have not in fact translated to more productive output.

Raffles Place in Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD). (Photo source: ILO Asia Pacific)

Are Singaporeans productive?

To make sense of Singapore’s unhealthy relationship with work, we first consider productivity and its components. In a recent analysis done by private sector economists Manu Bhaskaran and Nigel Chiang with data from the Department of Statistics and the Conference Board’s Total Economy Database, Singapore’s productivity performance over the past two decades has consistently lagged behind its high-income peers and the OECD average. Despite our gruellingly long hours — much longer than most of our peers in the OECD — labour productivity, which refers to the value a worker creates for every hour worked, is still lower than in most developed nations. Perhaps what is more striking is our negative total factor productivity (TFP), which Bhaskaran and Chiang’s analysis says is suggestive of an absence or under usage of hallmark advantages of an advanced economy, such as education, skills development and technology, in our industries and businesses. 

Singapore’s labour productivity growth and TFP, courtesy of Academia.sg. (Photo source: Academia.sg)

Clearly, overworking has not resulted in increased productivity. In fact, it might have had the opposite effect. Over the past decade, some societies have ventured to ask themselves the all-important question on which the future of work might hinge — can we work less and still grow?  

Having first taken off in Iceland, the idea of a four-day workweek or six-hour workday has since spread to nations like Spain and Finland as well as organisations across Japan, New Zealand and the United States, alluding to the increasingly apparent notion that sticking it out for eight to nine hours a day, five days a week might be one of the largest wastes of time for employees and organisations. After all, how much time in the office do we really spend on actual productive work, and how much of it is zoning out, chatting, cigarette and pantry breaks, unproductive meetings or Facebook? A study conducted by The Workforce Institute at UKG in 2018 discovered that close to half of employees surveyed worldwide believed they could complete their daily jobs in just five hours, while another study in the UK suggested that British employees’ “productive hours” only lasted a little under three hours in a given day.  

The Icelandic trials conducted between 2015 and 2019 revealed that output can indeed be maintained even with shorter hours, which equates to an increase in productivity since the same amount of work is now being completed with less human labour hours. Closer to home, Microsoft Japan trialled a four-day workweek in 2019 — to the amazement of our mainstream media — and boosted labour productivity by 40 percent. These and other experiments have been hinting for a while now that working long hours might in fact be the antithesis of productivity, begging the question — why are Singaporeans still doing it?

The crux of the matter seems to lie in the work culture Singapore has cultivated over the decades, or what some might also refer to as our work ethic. Studies over the years have pointed to a tendency of Singaporeans’ to leave the workplace only after their bosses have, as a show of one’s work ethic and dedication. In other instances, this tendency turns into obligation as employees, from their interactions with bosses and understanding of the office culture, feel it is expected of them. Unsurprisingly, any incentive to be efficient and thus productive instantly evaporates. Why finish all my work earlier when I am stuck here until my boss leaves anyway?

Of course, the four-day workweek is no silver bullet to overworked societies in desperate need of the fabled work-life balance. If anything, the evidence available now suggests that the four-day workweek might not work for all employees nor just any organisation, and that success may have been partly due to complementary policies and initiatives. In the case of Microsoft Japan, its success with the four-day workweek had been due in part to its expressed support of employees’ use of the day off through expense subsidies

In Singapore, progressive organisations have hopped on the bandwagon of flexible work hours in place of a rigid four-day mandate in efforts to empower their employees to live life on their terms, marking a promising shift in employers’ view of productivity and work.

Un-productivity and its deleterious nature

While productivity has been observed in these trials to improve with shorter hours spent at work, the cause of this improvement appears multifaceted. Apart from the obvious and unnecessary distractions that inhibit focus during a longer workday, studies like the Icelandic trials also uncover what more time away from work to be creative, build better relationships, and nurture complementary talents can ultimately do for productivity. 

An employee perpetually in a time crunch because they lack the bandwidth to exercise, eat well, pursue hobbies, discover outlets for creative expression, develop relationships, be present for their family, attend to their mental health, and pursue self-actualisation can hardly be expected to be at their most productive, and expecting a workforce to produce their best work under such circumstances due to a fixation with an outdated view of a worthy life is quickly showing to be a fool’s errand. 

Raffles Place in Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD). (Photo source: ILO Asia Pacific)

Beyond economically-driven work, allowing employees to live fuller lives is also a way for employers to be socially responsible and acknowledge the value of other forms of work that exist outside of the economy, such as caring for the young and old in one’s family, fulfilling one’s spousal and filial duties, attaining mastery outside of one’s vocation, or participating in civil society to improve one’s community. Among these also lies the possibility of a more healthy fertility rate, as one study from the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) in the US had discovered.

A human-centric attitude to work

While work will always have its place in any society, when all is said and done, the goal of any prosperous nation lies in sustaining an exceptional quality of life for its citizens — working them to the bone goes against the very ideal. 

A thriving society recognises that there is more to life than work — particularly unproductive work. This requires them to acknowledge that not all work is equal, and that a degree of intentionality will help guide us on this journey to live life on our terms. By focusing on employees’ needs and investing in systems and processes that incentivise less labour input and more focused, curated work, labour productivity will have space to improve as the need for long hours fades into obsolescence.

As we have gleaned from the various trials of the four-day workweek elsewhere, rethinking work and productivity is ultimately a whole-of-society mission, and the reward for it is gradually proving to be fuller, happier lives. 

Chester Tan is a freelance writer, aspiring photojournalist, and communications student in his final year of university.

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Categories
Asia Culture Exclusive Home & Family Local News Singapore

Survey: Singaporeans split over Covid-19 as endemic, prefer loved ones to be safe

In response to a survey conducted by TheHomeGround Asia, Singaporeans displayed varying levels of comfort moving forward, especially when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions. The survey found that Singaporeans were more concerned for their loved ones than themselves. Hence, those with vulnerable loved ones tend to take a more conservative approach to the management of the virus.

Risk-averse.

That is what Singaporeans are when it comes to thoughts of their loved ones contracting Covid-19, compared to the thought of getting infected themselves. 

This was one of the findings of an online TheHomeGround Asia survey carried out between 30 September and 11 October. The study polled 132 Singaporean respondents on their comfort levels when it came to the existing control measures using a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the least comfortable and 5 being the most comfortable. 

It was the stark divide in sentiments in response to the latest Covid-19 restrictions that prompted TheHomeGround Asia to investigate whether Singaporeans are truly ready to treat Covid-19 as endemic. 

Following the latest restrictions that started on 27 Sep 2021, this @Wakeupsingapore’s post on Instagram sparked much social friction. While the post garnered almost 3,500 likes, many netizens voiced their disagreement over its chosen narrative. 

“[…] These decisions are made after serious consideration to assist in reducing the current daily cases. It’s unfair that you are criticising the government on every move they make. […],” @methanoooool wrote, and and the comment itself received 638 likes and 40 follow-up comments. 

Singaporeans still divided on endemic state

Responses regarding the government’s latest retightening of measures were split almost right down the middle, indicating strong social division when it comes to moving forward into an endemic state. 

The survey found that slightly less than half (46 per cent) think the government has made the right move to retighten measures, while the majority (54 per cent) feel it should have moved forward after having decided to treat Covid-19 as endemic. 

It has been 17 months since Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a nationwide Circuit Breaker, and only three months after Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said publicly that “200 cases a day may not be unusual” as the nation moves forward into treating the Covid-19 as endemic.

As such, a good 9,000 netizens have petitioned for Minister Ong to step down from his position as Health Minister in protest of his plan, making evident that the nation continues to be divided on whether the government should reintroduce partial lockdown measures or open the economy like what several countries in the West, such as Denmark and South Africa, had done. 

During the period when the survey was carried out, a total of 70 deaths had been recorded in Singapore, and with a total population of around 5.9 million, the average chance of dying due to the coronavirus then was less than 0.00119 per cent.

Fitness instructor Ann Loh, who is in her 40s, believes that with 84 per cent of the population being fully vaccinated, “we should move on”. Furthermore, she highlights that according to the Ministry of Health (MOH), 98 per cent of local cases are asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.

But the situation has escalated slightly since the time of the survey. The nation’s death toll experienced a sudden steep climb, leaping from 70 on 23 Sept to 246 on 19 Oct, because of the record-high infection rates.

Are ‘nanny state’ and no-death approaches still sustainable?

In an interview with the Straits Times, Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, an infectious disease expert from the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said that “severe illness and death will rise as measures ease, but aiming for no deaths means the constraints on society will be extremely high.”

Yoga trainer Tania Choh, 38, agrees. “In order for the economy to recover, we have to be responsible for our own lives. Working from home is sheltering the citizens, and we should be given the choice whether to stay home or leave, as every household’s situation differs,” she says. “No one should make this choice for us as this is our right.”

Dr Hsu told the Singapore daily newspaper that the nation can open up faster if it is willing to accept six or seven deaths a day as the new normal — about three times higher than that of the common flu.

“With vaccination rates rising and the end goal being an endemic approach, we would eventually have to start loosening the measures. A rise in cases while this happens is inevitable,” says Shruthi M Durai, a 23-year-old management associate — one of many respondents who have seemed to internalise the increasingly tangible risks of moving forward with the endemic state approach.

“With vaccinations at a relatively high rate and the roll-out of booster shots, lockdowns are now not regarded as a viable public health countermeasure to a worsening pandemic,” Dr Eugene Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University, tells TheHomeGround Asia.

“Lockdowns are more likely to be seen as a last-resort measure when all else fails,” he adds. However, he notes that the no-deaths approach, which was in play until about the middle of this year, remains influential in how people regard the measures they view as necessary.

Arts producer Tania Goh, who declines to give her age, believes that the heightened levels of fear in Singapore, compared to the ones overseas, can be attributed to the government taking a “nanny state” approach, as well as the way print, television and social media sites reported news on Covid-19.

“I was based overseas, and where I was, life went on as normal,” she says. “Here, Singaporeans are bombarded by the number of cases daily, and this sort of reporting doesn’t help. Nobody reports on the endemic dengue like this, as a comparison.”

Ms Goh believes that reporting has to change for people to start understanding that they’re going to have to “live with it”. She says reports on healthcare capacity,  as well as educating people on natural immunity and staying fit, are much more productive for society’s mental and physical wellbeing.

More invested in loved ones’ well being than their own

Respondents with kids and elderly parents were 1.5 times more likely to respond with a score of less than 3 at the thought of their loved ones contracting Covid-19, as opposed to themselves.

When it comes to possibly getting infected by Covid-19, Singaporeans seem more fearful for their loved ones than for themselves, according to the survey. Similarly, they were 1.8 times more likely to worry about loved ones dying from Covid-19, than themselves.

Madam Edar Idris, a 41-year-old executive assistant in the real estate industry, is one such person. “We shouldn’t have moved forward with an endemic state yet, and should have stabilised the country first before opening up. Don’t treat citizens like rubbish just because you can’t wait to open up,” says Mdm Edar, who has children below the age of 12 as well as elderly parents.

Dr Tan finds this unsurprising. “Our perception of what needs to be done is often influenced and shaped by our sense of the public health threat not just to ourselves, but to our loved ones,” he says.  

Those with vulnerable loved ones are more risk-averse

It seems, from the survey, that death toll and infection rates in the form of numbers are much less intimidating prospects, as opposed to the thought of one’s own loved ones being part of these statistics.

TheHomeGround Asia found that those with more vulnerable loved ones were significantly more likely to display risk aversion.

“Life still needs to go on,” says a respondent who has vaccinated children above the age of 12. “The heightened alerts will only cost more people their sanity due to income or job losses.”

Disagreeing, a freelance fitness trainer with elderly parents, says, “until we have a cure for Covid-19, it’s better to take extra precautions to curb the spread of the virus in the community, especially among the elderly and kids.”

With regards to the frequency of booster shots moving forward, almost half (46 per cent) would be most comfortable with yearly intervals, while the others remain divided.

Respondents remain divided on the frequency of booster shots for the Covid-19 vaccine moving forward.

Dr Tan believes that these contrasting views on the ground may be reconciled.

“The challenge is, perhaps, with arriving at a consensus on the infection numbers that we can live with. The need for the government to secure buy-in for their measures remains critical and will determine public perception of how well the government handled the pandemic when the pandemic is finally over,” he adds.

Excitement over travel bubbles, but Singaporeans still taking precautions

And on 9 Oct 2021, the government announced it will open vaccinated travel lanes (VTL) with countries such as South Korea, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain, and the United States, allowing vaccinated residents of Singapore and those countries to travel to and from without quarantine.

This falls in line with some of the respondents’ sentiments, with almost 2 in 5 (38.5 per cent) indicating to TheHomeGround Asia that they would like for travel bubbles to be established with selected countries.

Respondents remain divided on travel restrictions moving forward, with almost 2 in 5 being inclined towards travel bubbles being established.

Since the announcement, many have flocked to the Singapore Airlines (SIA) service centre in Orchard Road while others have crashed airline websites in the rush for flights.

According to research conducted by Amadeus, a travel technology platform, 74 per cent of Singaporean travellers want to go abroad by next year. Singaporeans are focused on regional travel, whether for business or leisure — with both groups ranking Asia as the top destination for their trips.

The study was conducted on more than 9,000 consumers across France, Germany, India, Spain, Russia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Britain and the US, with at least 1,000 participants from each country.

Despite this, it seems just as many are refraining from letting their wanderlust make their decisions. They have adopted a wait-and-see approach as they hold back for more information before proceeding with their travel plans. 

Amadeus’ research showed that the three main concerns that the Singaporean traveller has are fear of catching Covid-19 while travelling (54 per cent), self-isolation or quarantine before and after travel (44 per cent), and changing restrictions resulting in last-minute cancellations (41 per cent).

“As countries in Asia Pacific achieve higher vaccination rates, they are beginning to reopen their borders and restart international travel,” says Mr Jonathan Tong, Vice President of Airline Solutions & IT Sales, at Amadeus (Asia Pacific). “However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that for international travel to restart in a meaningful way, technology will need to play a central role.”

For example, biometric and contactless solutions can help reduce transmission of the virus, while digital health passes will help create a more seamless and stress-free experience for travellers, he says.

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Categories
Food Lifestyle Singapore

Crew Eats: The crew at NAE:UM 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 newly launched contemporary South Korean restaurant NAE:UM, which is helmed by former head chef of Kimme, Louis Han. We hear not just where the chef likes to eat, but also staff in both the front and back of houses too.

At his inaugural restaurant NAE:UM, chef Louis Han wants to reconcile with his past and pays homage to the culinary experiences he gleaned from going around the world. A former head chef at the now-defunct contemporary Korean restaurant Kimme, chef Han hails from the Gangnam district of Seoul, the cosmopolitan capital of South Korea where he cut his teeth in the culinary arts from the tender age of 14.

Chef Louis Han is the chef-founder of NAE:UM. (Photo courtesy of John Heng for NAE:UM)

In the decades that followed, he has prepared international cuisines to military officers and dignitaries in Lebanon; worked at Marco Polo, a Mediterranean fine-dining restaurant at Grand Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul; and collaborated with world-renowned chefs such as Joan Roca and Alain Passard. He eventually relocated to Abu Dhabi where he honed his skills at Circo, an award-winning Italian fine-dining restaurant, before moving to Singapore in 2016. 

Following his departure from Kimme in 2020, he returned to Seoul, where he reconnected with Korean food and its culture at the two-Michelin starred restaurant Mosu, picked up pottery and tended to his small family farm. All of which were instrumental in moulding his global sensibilities, developing his culinary palate and most importantly, influencing his cooking style.

Hailing from South Korea, Chef Louis Han is presently living with his Singaporean wife in Singapore. (Photo courtesy of John Heng for NAE:UM)

On paper, NAE:UM is a contemporary South Korean restaurant. But perhaps for the 31-year-old chef-founder, it is an extension of what he remembers and loves of his hometown and Seoul, where its hospitality, comfort and complex flavours take centrestage.

Impeccable yet wholly inviting, the restaurant’s brightly-lit interior boasts plenty of wooden accents, comprising oakwood tables and furniture decked in warm birch tone, as well as an open kitchen for guests to satisfy their curiosities or simply to marvel at chef Han and his team working their magic.  

Chef Han describes the restaurant’s menu as “episodic” because each edition references a part of chef Han’s culinary journey across the globe. Although most of the dishes are irrevocably South Korean, they are innovative and wholly unique with several interesting twists; they are either prepared with some facet of Western techniques or made using Korean ingredients, such as Gochujang sauce, in a surprising manner.    

In this series of Crew Eats, we interview the staff of NAE:UM, who are all foodies, and who share with us their favourite dining haunts, comfort food and more.

We hear from Louis Han, Chef-Founder of NAE:UM; sous chef Ben Goh, demi chef de partie Kenneth Tham, commis Caleb Gan, Ariel Mojica, NAE:UM’s Restaurant Manager, and Jay Ho, NAE:UM’s Assistant Restaurant Manager. 

(Photo courtesy of John Heng for NAE:UM)

Louis Han, Chef-Founder of NAE:UM

Chef Louis Han brings his globe-trotting sensibilities to NAE:UM. (Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

With several stints in places across the globe, including a two Michelin-starred restaurant, and having collaborated with notable chefs, 31-year-old Louis Han has made a name for himself in the local and international culinary scene. His inaugural restaurant NAE:UM, which opened in July this year, is his next big challenge.

On his favourite comfort food, the Seoulite relishes a bowl of Dwaegi Gukbap, a popular South Korean soup made using pork, soy sauce, miso, bone broth and more.  “I used to eat this a lot when I was young or whenever I was hungover,” he says.

But occasionally chef Han would go scouring for authentic South Korean fares. One of his favourite haunts is Go! KBBQ. “For more than two years, I worked opposite them, and Go! KBBQ serves really authentic Korean barbeque,” he says. When asked what was the best meal he has consumed, he jokes, “When my wife cooks for me, which hasn’t happened yet.”

(Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

Go! K-BBQ

Address

76 Amoy Street, Singapore 069895

Opening Hours

Monday – Saturday: 12pm-2:30pm; 5:30pm-11pm

Sunday: 5pm – 11pm

Ben Goh, Sous Chef

(Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

Sous chef Ben Goh has been with the team since NAE:UM’s pre-opening days. It was during a chance visit to Paradise Group’s Chinese noodle bar LeNu, as suggested by his wife who brought him there, that made him fall deeper in love with noodle dishes. “I’m Asian and it’s not surprising that I like noodle or rice dishes,” he says.  

With several franchise outlets scattered across the island, Mr Goh praises the LeNu for its consistency. The 33-year-old recommends first-timers to try the Braised Beef Combination Noodle which boasts three types of beef atop a piping hot bowl of beef soup.  

(Photo courtesy of Ben Goh)

LeNu (one of 11 outlets)

Address

200 Victoria Street, #B1-22, Bugis Junction, Singapore 188021

Opening Hours

Monday-Friday 11am-10pm, Saturday-Sunday 10:30am-10pm

Kenneth Tham, Demi Chef de Partie

(Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

If there is a dish that Kenneth Tham, the Demi Chef de Partie at NAE:UM, prefers eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it is Nasi Lemak. Otherwise known as a national dish in Malaysia, the fragrant and rich dish is made using rice cooked in coconut milk. It is often served with a side of chicken wing, a fried egg, ikan billis (fried anchovies), peanuts and a dollop of sambal on the side. However, customers may customise their orders from a selection of other small delights, such as fish filet, fried fish and otak-otak (grilled fish cake).

The 24-year-old confesses that he is not a fussy eater, but instead is a “coffee shop boy” who enjoys consuming his meals in a neighbourhood kopitiam or hawker centre. “I tend to go to the nearest coffee shop near where I live,” he says. “Plus, the food is cheap and tasty.”

(Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

Caleb Gan, Commis

(Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

For commis Caleb Gan, nothing beats sinking his teeth into a crispy slab of fried chicken, the likes of KFC’s or any other South Korean fried chicken diners’. Just like Mr Tham, Mr Gan prefers simple fare and dining out near his home. “I tend to eat at Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre,” he says. “You can find a decent hot and sour soup here.”

Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre

Address

Blk 208B New Upper Changi Road, Singapore 462208

Opening Hours

Monday to Sunday: 7am – 10pm

Ariel Mojica, Restaurant Manager

(Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

“I really miss Sisig,” says Ariel Mojica, the restaurant manager at NAE:UM. “It’s a Filipino delicacy made using minced pig’s face and belly, and served with garlic, chilli, and pork liver. You can’t find it here.” Mr Mojica, who hails from the Philippines, is an adventurous soul. He adds, “I generally like trying newly-opened eateries and restaurants. I don’t have any favourites but I do enjoy heading to Wine Connection occasionally.”

According to Mr Mojica, the franchise outlet at Sentosa boasts a terrific sunset view. “But it was at the Dempsey outlet, which has since closed down, that I first discovered the brand and fell in love with a glass of Riesling.”

(Photo courtesy of Ariel Mojica)

Wine Connection Bistro (VivoCity) (one of 35 outlets)

Address

1 Harbourfront Walk, #01-152/153/154 Singapore

Opening hours

Monday to Sunday: 11am – 10pm

Jay Ho, Assistant Restaurant Manager

(Photo courtesy of NAE:UM)

Like many Singaporeans, Assistant Restaurant Manager Jay Ho’s go-to comfort food is a plate of chicken rice. But while one would expect him to dole out a slew of recommendations, which often stir up a contentious debate, Mr Ho prefers dining out at French restaurant Bistro du Vin Singapore.   

“I happened to be walking by when I chanced upon it,” Mr Ho says. “The food is not overly expensive and the food is nice.” The 25-year-old recommends first-timers to try the Magret de Canard, a traditional French dish consisting of duck breasts (often sous vide, then pan-seared) served atop potato gratin (or with any potato sides), greens and drizzled with some of the restaurant’s in-house gravy. He adds, “It looks and tastes like a tenderloin even though it is just duck breast.”

(Photo courtesy of Jay Ho)

Bistro du Vin Singapore

Address

Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road, #01-14, Singapore 228208

Opening Hours

Sunday to Friday: 11am – 2pm; 6pm – 10pm

Saturday: 11.30am-2pm; 6pm-10pm

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Categories
Asia Culture Food Lifestyle Local People Science & Nature Singapore

In Conversation With: Ray Poh, Indoor Urban Farmer

Through our weekly series In Conversation With, TheHomeGround Asia amplifies and celebrates the ideas, achievements and experiences of extraordinary individuals who are creating ripples in unique ways. This week, we speak to urban farmer Ray Poh who founded the local indoor farm, Artisan Green

“I never thought about farming much, growing up in Singapore when I was younger,” Ray Poh tells TheHomeGround Asia. 

And it was during his teenage years going to school in Australia that he became exposed to a variety of farms and agricultural activities. 

Years down the road, this would prove the inspiration for his current research into futuristic agricultural technologies, resulting in his modern take on farming. “That’s when I stumbled upon hydroponics, and I thought that indoor farming was not only interesting, but also the way ahead for Singapore’s food security issues,” he added. 

Ray’s radical career switch came after he had spent five years in Macau’s casino gaming industry.

His new vocation is Artisan Green, a three-year-old pilot farm of about 3,000 square feet in Kallang which currently generates about 100 kilograms of fresh greens per week. By the end of this month (October 2021), the mid-sized farm is looking to double its output by upgrading its water pumps to accommodate the sheer amount of crops it is growing.  

And its growth, pun intended, has not gone unnoticed. “We’ve had many investors who were interested in doing a round of fundraising for us, but prior to this point, we wanted to focus more on developing and understanding the operational and cost aspects via our pilot farm,” says Mr Poh. “But now, after three years of research and development (R&D), we realised that we actually have pretty much everything in place.” 

Artisan Green is projected to break even by the end of 2021 — and could perhaps even begin to generate profits. Moving forward, Mr Poh and team are looking to relocate in order to be able to scale up – by a targeted 60 times – with the support of several strategic investors. “With a larger farm, what we’re growing will be quite different. Instead of just baby greens, we will be complementing our produce with a mixture of fully grown vegetables as well,” he adds. 

Mr Poh believes that the government’s “30 by 30” goal — to produce 30 percent of the nation’s needs by 2030 — is “rather ambitious, but that it’s good for us to have this moonshot of a target”. He hopes for Artisan Green to contribute up to 5 percent of this 30 after scaling up. 

The farm’s products are currently on Redmart, Amazon, NTUC Fairprice online, and Grab supermarket, among many other local grocery stores. While currently having a 10 to 15 percent online audience, Mr Poh foresees a greater shift into brick and mortar retail stores as they start working with larger players with bulkier demands. 

Join The HomeGround Asia in finding out more about the intricacies behind urban indoor farming, Singapore’s agricultural scene, and how it compares to traditional farming methods — in terms of ecological footprint, price, and taste. 

THG: What kinds of produce is Artisan Green currently rolling out, and why did you choose them? 

RP: We don’t view other local farms as competitors; we view the imports as our competitors. So we wanted to find a type of produce that no other farms were growing in Singapore, but that still had strong demand and scalability. That is why we first started out with baby spinach. 

Now, we’ve got baby spinach and baby red kale. On our herb line, we’re producing lemon basil, dill, coriander, and chives. In about a month’s time, we’re rolling out a mixed salad product. It’s a spinach and red kale mix and we’re calling it the “Kallang Raw” — an ode to Kallang Roar, since we’re based in Kallang right now! 

THG: Was the learning curve steep? 

RP: Definitely, especially since I did not have a science background. When you think about farming, you might not think it’s a science. But in fact, agricultural science is really important for not just indoor farming, but outdoor farming as well. It took me a year to do in-depth research before I started Artisan Green, and about three years before we got to the point we are at now. 

For example, every time we research a new crop, it takes us about two to three months to finalise and optimise our farming processes for maximum yield. For baby spinach, germination might take up to seven days with traditional farming methods, especially under Singapore’s climate. But we found a way to prime our seeds such that germination rates are close to 100 percent within three to four days. We’re also looking to cut down the life cycle of our spinach from three weeks to two. 

THG: How do your products compare with traditionally farmed products, in terms of taste? 

RP: Spinach itself is touted as a very nutritional vegetable. Everyone thinks about Popeye when they think spinach. But whenever I taste regular spinach, it just seems very bland. So I’m pretty sure people are eating it for its nutritional claims. 

Growing up, I’ve eaten a lot of spinach — even more so over the last few years. When we try our own produce, the taste is so much stronger that it almost feels like a completely different vegetable. So some people get a shock when they taste our spinach because it’s nothing like the spinach they taste that they purchase off supermarket shelves. 

THG: How about price? How does it compare to imported produce right now? 

RP: In terms of pricing, we’re a little bit more premium at the moment, But we’re pretty much on par with organic imported produce. As long as we’re not at 100 percent production, it’s going to be hard to cover our costs and keep our prices low. It took us three years of research to be able to hit this level, but we will be able to match imported produce prices once we scale up with our new farm. 

THG: How do you deal with ugly produce? 

RP: Every time we harvest, there’s definitely a portion of it that doesn’t meet the supermarkets’ standards. Currently, we’re working with food suppliers to upcycle these crops into pesto, so we try and reduce food waste as much as possible. 

By optimising our process for shorter life cycles, we are able to be more flexible when supplying to supermarkets. So within a month, we can actually grow to demand, changing our production output to gear towards supermarkets’ demands, sometimes even cutting out a certain line of product completely. 

THG: How does the carbon footprint of your indoor farm compare to that of traditional farms? 

RP: We definitely use more electricity than outdoor farms because we use LED lights in place of sunlight, but we’ve tried to conserve as much energy as possible over time. 

When we first started off we were using 28-watt LED lights, but after doing a bit of research, we actually decreased the voltage to 20-watts. That’s about 20 percent savings in electricity, which also translates to us using less air conditioning, because less heat is generated. 

THG: What about other ecological impacts to which traditional farming is often privy to? 

RP: Since ours is an indoor farm, we ourselves don’t want to be breathing in pesticides. So we don’t use any pesticides at all. 

In terms of our water footprint, we use 90 percent less water than traditional outdoor farms because we use a recirculating method to feed nutrients to the plants. And since all our nutrients are recirculated into the system, we don’t cause nutrient runoff into the surrounding lands, which may cause other environmental issues overseas such as algae bloom. Our water bill is less than $100 a month. 

THG: What do you think of the urban farming scene in Singapore currently? 

RP: The rollout of government grants have sprouted a lot more urban farms within the last three years, us included. I think it will be a very interesting scene, but I also hope that most, if not all, of them, survive. It’s not a very easy market based on our last three years of experience. 

We definitely want to see more farmers around in Singapore, because that gets us closer to the 30 by 30 goal that the government has set for Singapore. This goal has actually encouraged a lot of young Singaporeans to reach out and collaborate with us, either by having internships or working at the farm itself. 

THG: How does Singapore’s (urban) farming scene compare to those overseas? 

RP: In many European countries such as the Netherlands, they have agriculture as a big part of their economy and even history. They’re very good at greenhouse technology, so it will take us a little bit of time to catch up. It’s a very nascent industry and we do have good talent in Singapore, but we need to complement it with consultation, partnerships, and education from overseas. I would say that it will still take us about five to 10 years to get there; we have much to learn. 

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Categories
Food Lifestyle Travel

Traveling the world with your tastebuds

You don’t need a passport or plane ticket to take your taste buds on a round the world trip. Start your adventures right here in Singapore and enjoy the flavours of the world. From Peruvian Arroz con Mariscos to Ugandan plantain stew Matoke; from Chicken Pangra of Nepal to Mussels from Brussels. We have a kaleidoscope of tasty options all in one place. 

Climb Dempsey Hill, not Machu Picchu, for a taste of Peru 

Mention Peru and the 15th century Incan archeological site Machu Picchu comes to mind. Since we can’t fly 18,630 km to the South American country, why not let our palate passports do the traveling.

Nestled in Dempsey Hill surrounded by greenery is Canchita, a Peruvian restaurant owned and run by Peruvian chef Tamara Chavez Lopez. She trained under Chef Rafael Osterling, whose restaurant placed 29th on the Latin America 50 Best Restaurants listing of 2020. 

Peruvian food is believed to be from many different nationalities — Chinese, Japanese, Africans, Italians — who made their homes in Peru and found nothing they wanted to eat there. The range of food is available at Canchita.

For entree, have a Nikkei Tiradito, a traditional ceviche with a Japanese touch. The dish comprises sliced white fish with Nikkei tiger’s milk, Japanese cucumber and crispy red quinoa. 

Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian-Cantonese stir-fried dish (Photo source: Canchita Peruvian Cuisine)

Order the Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian-Cantonese stir fried beef tenderloin with tomatoes, onions, green peas and fires, or the Arroz Chaufa, a Cantonese-Peruvian fried rice with pork, scallops, asparagus, vegetable tempura, and achiote mayo.

To quench your thirst, never miss out on the Pisco sour which is a combination of Pisco Quebranta, fresh lime, bitters and foamee. 

Canchita Peruvian Cuisine

Address

9A/9B Dempsey Road, Singapore 247698

Opening Hours

Tuesday to Friday: 12pm – 2.30pm, 6pm – 10.30pm

Saturday and Sunday: 12pm – 10pm

Monday: Closed

Limin’ in the Caribbean

Hanging out and unwinding with friends over great food and drinks or simply limin’ — a Caribbean slang. You can do just that at Lime House, hidden in the precinct of Keong Saik. 

The restaurant, with its deck chairs in slanted blue and white strips, hanging lights covered with rattan, and its array of rum from Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Anguilla, Puerto Rico, and the Cayman Islands, gives the restaurant a tropical Caribbean beach vibe.    

Signature Jerk Chicken, a classic Jamaican dish of boneless chicken thigh, seasoned with a blend of jerk spices (Photo source: Lime House)

If you are there to just while away time, go for the seafood tapas — try the pan-seared freshly caught shrimps with habanero and topped with warm salsa on a plantain coracle, or simply go for the delicacy of tender octopus and okra cooked in the restaurant’s own tomato and mango chutney, drizzled with dark rum and olive oil.

Not into seafood? They have vegetarian tapas too. The are dhal mushroom tapas, curried chickpea and tamarind tapas with mango chutney, and fried eggplant tapas topped with the in-house mango chutney and spices.

But if you are really hungry, you should not miss out on the Signature Jerk Chicken. This is a classic Jamaican dish of boneless chicken thigh, seasoned with a blend of jerk spices such as spring onion, jerk, soy sauce and berries. Grilled plantains are placed on top to complete the dish.

Lime House Caribbean

Address

2 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore 089260

Opening Hours

Tuesday to Friday: 4pm – 9.30pm

Saturday and Sunday: 12pm – 9pm

Monday: Closed

Go on a gourmet trip around the African continent 

Just a few steps down the same row is Africa. Step into the continent at Kafe UTU and you are transported into a world of bold colours and diverse flavours. 

The cafe and lounge, opened and owned by Mr Kurt Wagner who grew up in different African countries, draws inspiration from the culinary traditions, influences and local produce of these various places.

Liberian peanut chicken stew with chicken thigh served in peanut butter sauce and habanero (Photo courtesy of Judith Tan)


You can taste Liberia in its peanut chicken stew where Sakura chicken thigh is served in peanut butter sauce with smoked fish and habanero. But if you like something more spicy, “travel” to Nigeria for the fiery peppered pork stew. Indulge in the black angus pork belly, charred peppers, habanero and smoked fish. 

And as curry is a hearty African staple, the Swahili Fish Curry is not to be missed.

Kafe UTU 

Address

12 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore 089265

Opening Hours

Wednesday to Friday: 10am – 5pm, 6pm – 10.30pm

Saturday and Sunday: 9am – 5pm, 6pm – 10.30pm

Monday and Tuesday: Closed

A taste of Lebanon

Lebanese food is said to play with all your senses — from the aroma of cinnamon, cumin, thyme, and roasting meat to the bright colours of the leafy green herbs, citrus sumac, earthy za’atar and golden honey.

So what is Lebanese cuisine? It may feature a great deal of meat, mainly lamb and chicken, but occasionally there is beef and fish. It also has an array of fresh vegetables and grains.

At Tabbouleh Lebanese Cafe and Restaurant, there is no want for these. It serves up ample fresh salads and dips with warm bread, grilled meat and fish on skewers and rice. But the portions are large and are meant for family or communal sharing.

For starters, either have the chilled hummus which is a creamy blend of mashed chickpeas, tahini or toasted ground hulled sesame seeds, lemon juice and olive oil, served with Khubz, fresh from the oven. Khubz is a round leavened flatbread that is soft and chewy and usually served to pair with most mezze. 

Or if you prefer fresh greens, then have the classic Lebanese salad that the restaurant is named after. It is made with finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion and durum wheat bulgur and seasoned with lemon juice, salt, black pepper and olive oil and served cold with pita.

But if you are into soups, why not go for the shorbat adas or red lentil soup? It is made with pureed red lentils, white onions, basmati rice, and carrots, and seasoned with cumin, turmeric, salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil.

Lamb Mandi is a large spice-marinated lamb shank is cooked to perfection (Photo source: Tabbouleh/Facebook)

Its signature dish,  lamb mandi, is a must try. It comprises a large spice marinated lamb shank that has the most savoury spice-flavoured succulent moist and tender meat, fluffy mandi rice garnished with caramelised onions, golden raisins, crunchy green capsicum, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.

Tabbouleh Lebanese Cafe and Restaurant 

Address

54 Bussorah Street, Singapore 199470

Opening Hours

Monday to Friday: 9am – 11pm

Saturday and Sunday: 9am – 4am

Mussels from Brussels

Chef Emmanuel Stroobant’s classic Belgian Moules (Photo source: KOB)

Take a stroll along the Singapore River to Robertson Quay to where “Europe” and the Kingdom of Belgians (KOB) is located. A casual dining place opened by Michelin-starred Chef Emmanuel Stroobant, the restaurant serves up hearty Belgian fare to diners. 

If you are there, you shouldn’t give the classic Belgian Moules a miss. The mussels in the savoury mussel-in-broth buckets are impeccably juicy and plump and KOB offers an array of broth choices to pair with them. 

These range from the KOB Special that comprises bacon, Hoegaarden white, wild herb and garlic to Mariniere that has white wine, celery, onion and parsley. But if you prefer your broth to be of a local flavour, then you may ask for laksa, chili crab or kam heong, which is steamed mussels in a sauce of dried shrimp, dried chilli, and curry leaf. According to a friend who had lived in Belgium, the art of eating mussels is to use the shell to retrieve the flesh from other mussels.

Another Belgian classic are fries. That same friend says while the French discovered the cut, it is the Belgians who perfected the art of fries — by double-frying. So go ahead and order the fries under Beer Bites.

Boulet Liegeois, large meatballs braised in a rich stew (Photo source: KOB)

But should you be looking for something more filling, then go for the Boulet Liegeois which is braised pork-beef meatballs with shallot, raisin and beef jus or the Pork Schnitzel which comes with fries. 

You can always round off your lavish feast with the selection of Belgium Bottled Beers.

Kingdom of Belgians (KOB) 

Address

8 Rodyk Street, #01-05/06, Singapore 238216

Opening Hours

Tuesday to Thursday: 5pm – 10pm

Friday: 5pm – 12am

Saturday: 11am – 12am

Sunday: 11am – 10pm

Monday: Closed

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