Aug 2, 2008

Life And How To Survive It

Today I have an old friend as my guest contributor. Adrian Tan is a litigation lawyer at one of Singapore's leading law firms. Outside the courtroom, he is known for a variety of funny things, including The Teenage Textbook, which he wrote in the late 1980s. The book became a cult classic among students of that generation and was adapted into a film 10 years later.

Adrian had read my previous post and emailed to tell me that by coincidence, he'd just given a speech along the same theme. Cherian George had invited Adrian to be the guest-of-honour at an NTU convocation ceremony last week, and this is Adrian's speech to the graduating class of 2008:

Life and How to Survive It

I must say thank you to the faculty and staff of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information for inviting me to give your convocation address. It’s a wonderful honour and a privilege for me to speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation or retaliation. I say this as a Singaporean and more so as a husband.

My wife is a wonderful person and perfect in every way except one. She is the editor of a magazine. She corrects people for a living. She has honed her expert skills over a quarter of a century, mostly by practising at home during conversations between her and me.

On the other hand, I am a litigator. Essentially, I spend my day telling people how wrong they are. I make my living being disagreeable.

Nevertheless, there is perfect harmony in our matrimonial home. That is because when an editor and a litigator have an argument, the one who triumphs is always the wife.

And so I want to start by giving one piece of advice to the men: when you’ve already won her heart, you don’t need to win every argument.

Marriage is considered one milestone of life. Some of you may already be married. Some of you may never be married. Some of you will be married. Some of you will enjoy the experience so much, you will be married many, many times. Good for you.

The next big milestone in your life is today: your graduation. The end of education. You’re done learning.

You’ve probably been told the big lie that “Learning is a lifelong process” and that therefore you will continue studying and taking masters’ degrees and doctorates and professorships and so on. You know the sort of people who tell you that? Teachers. Don’t you think there is some measure of conflict of interest? They are in the business of learning, after all. Where would they be without you? They need you to be repeat customers.

The good news is that they’re wrong.

The bad news is that you don’t need further education because your entire life is over. It is gone. That may come as a shock to some of you. You’re in your teens or early twenties. People may tell you that you will live to be 70, 80, 90 years old. That is your life expectancy.

I love that term: life expectancy. We all understand the term to mean the average life span of a group of people. But I’m here to talk about a bigger idea, which is what you expect from your life.

You may be very happy to know that Singapore is currently ranked as the country with the third highest life expectancy. We are behind Andorra and Japan, and tied with San Marino. It seems quite clear why people in those countries, and ours, live so long. We share one thing in common: our football teams are all hopeless. There’s very little danger of any of our citizens having their pulses raised by watching us play in the World Cup. Spectators are more likely to be lulled into a gentle and restful nap.

Singaporeans have a life expectancy of 81.8 years. Singapore men live to an average of 79.21 years, while Singapore women live more than five years longer, probably to take into account the additional time they need to spend in the bathroom.

So here you are, in your twenties, thinking that you’ll have another 40 years to go. Four decades in which to live long and prosper.

Bad news. Read the papers. There are people dropping dead when they’re 50, 40, 30 years old. Or quite possibly just after finishing their convocation. They would be very disappointed that they didn’t meet their life expectancy.

I’m here to tell you this. Forget about your life expectancy.

After all, it’s calculated based on an average. And you never, ever want to expect being average.

Revisit those expectations. You might be looking forward to working, falling in love, marrying, raising a family. You are told that, as graduates, you should expect to find a job paying so much, where your hours are so much, where your responsibilities are so much.

That is what is expected of you. And if you live up to it, it will be an awful waste.

If you expect that, you will be limiting yourself. You will be living your life according to boundaries set by average people. I have nothing against average people. But no one should aspire to be them. And you don’t need years of education by the best minds in Singapore to prepare you to be average.

What you should prepare for is mess. Life’s a mess. You are not entitled to expect anything from it. Life is not fair. Everything does not balance out in the end. Life happens, and you have no control over it. Good and bad things happen to you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Your degree is a poor armour against fate.

Don’t expect anything. Erase all life expectancies. Just live. Your life is over as of today. At this point in time, you have grown as tall as you will ever be, you are physically the fittest you will ever be in your entire life and you are probably looking the best that you will ever look. This is as good as it gets. It is all downhill from here. Or up. No one knows.

What does this mean for you? It is good that your life is over.

Since your life is over, you are free. Let me tell you the many wonderful things that you can do when you are free.

The most important is this: do not work.

Work is anything that you are compelled to do. By its very nature, it is undesirable.

Work kills. The Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which means death from overwork. That’s the most dramatic form of how work can kill. But it can also kill you in more subtle ways. If you work, then day by day, bit by bit, your soul is chipped away, disintegrating until there’s nothing left. A rock has been ground into sand and dust.

There’s a common misconception that work is necessary. You will meet people working at miserable jobs. They tell you they are “making a living”. No, they’re not. They’re dying, frittering away their fast-extinguishing lives doing things which are, at best, meaningless and, at worst, harmful.

People will tell you that work ennobles you, that work lends you a certain dignity. Work makes you free. The slogan "Arbeit macht frei" was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. Utter nonsense.

Do not waste the vast majority of your life doing something you hate so that you can spend the small remainder sliver of your life in modest comfort. You may never reach that end anyway.

Resist the temptation to get a job. Instead, play. Find something you enjoy doing. Do it. Over and over again. You will become good at it for two reasons: you like it, and you do it often. Soon, that will have value in itself.

I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably a sports journalist.

So what should you do? You will find your own niche. I don’t imagine you will need to look very hard. By this time in your life, you will have a very good idea of what you will want to do. In fact, I’ll go further and say the ideal situation would be that you will not be able to stop yourself pursuing your passions. By this time you should know what your obsessions are. If you enjoy showing off your knowledge and feeling superior, you might become a teacher.

Find that pursuit that will energise you, consume you, become an obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you don’t, you are working.

Most of you will end up in activities which involve communication. To those of you I have a second message: be wary of the truth. I’m not asking you to speak it, or write it, for there are times when it is dangerous or impossible to do those things. The truth has a great capacity to offend and injure, and you will find that the closer you are to someone, the more care you must take to disguise or even conceal the truth. Often, there is great virtue in being evasive, or equivocating. There is also great skill. Any child can blurt out the truth, without thought to the consequences. It takes great maturity to appreciate the value of silence.

In order to be wary of the truth, you must first know it. That requires great frankness to yourself. Never fool the person in the mirror.

I have told you that your life is over, that you should not work, and that you should avoid telling the truth. I now say this to you: be hated.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you know anyone who hates you? Yet every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused, murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross.

One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong.

The other side of the coin is this: fall in love.

I didn’t say “be loved”. That requires too much compromise. If one changes one’s looks, personality and values, one can be loved by anyone.

Rather, I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise. Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance. It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable.

Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning, attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul.

Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm.

You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the heart.

You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you.

Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it.

Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone.

You’re going to have a busy life. Thank goodness there’s no life expectancy.


WhiteDusk said...

Thanks for this post... I'm in a little roadblock in my life and I'm already feeling a bit better after reading this post. We must not be slaves to our jobs...

Anonymous said...

love thy neighbor as u would yrself. Yet u will be hated for not being of this world by following r convictions to do good proper work.

nonetheless, i repeat, do things that u preferably enjoy and that can help u to be portable, independent and sustainable. tat way, u dun hv to please others and the organization for sake of $$$.

tat's the bottomline first of all. ev'thing else, u can afford to play along or follow r conviction w/o fear or favor i.e. say wat u mean n mean wat u say.

sorry i m the 1st one n i start to sound like a broken record ...

Anonymous said...

After seeing nameless colleagues and frens diefrom karoshi(or hve close shaves), I discovered that:
Doing as little work as possible, avoid telling the truth, be hated pays much much better.

Though I am sure what I have in mind is wayyyy different from what your pal has in mind. 'Cos mine includes sucking up.

You see ... your frens and yourself have the same mentality. Your circle is disconnected. But in a good way. The rest of us mortals can only hope that one of you would be stupid enough to be like that greek god who gave the world fire and end up pushing a rock uphill for eternity.


Anonymous said...

Adrian is still as funny as ever, after all these years. :)

The Teenage Textbook brings back many fond school-day memories for me. Yes, indeed it was a classic among students then.

Anonymous said...

Amen to that.

Cherian George chose the right person indeed.

Anonymous said...

I laughed the loudest when I read "...that work lends you a certain dignity. ... Utter nonsense." How true! How true!

Contrast that with our PM, NTUC Chief and MOM folks evangelising "Dignity of Employment" for old folks! *shake head*

andrian martin dominic said...

wow, i'll definitely be giving him a standing ovation if i were there. execellent post.

i totally agree when he said this in his first paragraph "It’s a wonderful honour and a privilege for me to speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation or retaliation."

He had tht opportunity to speak without anyone talking back at him and oh, he would definitely be hated by some of the educators at NTU

Anonymous said...

No wonder they say, the best thing that can happen to you in life is to find something you love to do and have people pay you to do it. Its the best of both worlds, isn't it?

Jonathan said...

Indeed it was a classic! I'll need to do the one remaining points of the four that Adrian has raised and i'll be fine!

Anonymous said...

"Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone."

One major gripe.

Avoid telling the truth? Didn't he say telling the truth will get one hated? Contradiction there.

One must tell the truth. Because telling truth will set one free, not only to oneself but also those listening, no matter how much they may hate the truth.

recruit ong

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Good point ...... perhaps Adrian will drop by the blog and elaborate. He did say that he might visit and comment.

ILMA said...

The big problem is so many people don't know what they like to do and even if they do, there is the issue of getting a job. Because while its great to say, don't work, don't just make a living, if you are interested in, say, making animated movies, you still need to get into Lucas Arts studio.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

The real big problem is that:

1. people think that there is a problem;

2. they choose some other "safer", if less interesting, alternative; and

3. they find that they have a problem anyway.

AT said...

Thanks to Mr Wang for publishing my speech.

I suppose what I meant was that if one always did the right thing, it would be inevitable that one would make some enemies. Being hated is a by-product of being upright. Being popular is a sign that one has made compromises.

Telling the truth, on the other hand, is overrated. Often the truth is unnecessary. At times it is dangerous - not because it will cause people to hate you, but because it can harm others. The truth is a luxury.

Adrian Tan

Anonymous said...

I find Adrian very trying in trying to be outrageous and "think out of the box"... not at all funny!

Anonymous said...

Adrian only said "avoid telling the truth", and not "tell lies". Sounds similar, but is quite different.

I think he meant to keep silent or provide white lies if by doing so, you don't commit a crime or do anything unethical.

If your wife ask if her new dress look nice, either keep quiet or say something positive even if you hated that dress. every married man who wants to stay married should know this rule.

Anonymous said...

to A T: 'the truth is unnecessary ... harm others .."

i find tat actually most ppl noe the truth ... unspoken yet open secret, but compromises hv been made. Therefore the danger comes when it hurts to speak the truth, since ppl hv a pain avoidance mechanism and not blaming oneself is a default. It can thus also harm others because at the end of the day, many hv become blameworthy.

In the larger picture, Sg needs a major crisis or else it becomes more like N Korea. 'Forced awareness ..'

I just watched 'Money Not Enough' .. gritty and hard hitting, not satirical n not meant to be funny.

Anonymous said...

"Telling the truth, on the other hand, is overrated. Often the truth is unnecessary. At times it is dangerous - not because it will cause people to hate you, but because it can harm others. The truth is a luxury."

hi Mr Tan, allow me to disagree a bit. It is one thing to be pragmatic, another to bend one's principles for fear of harming one's own (or other ppl's) interests. Ultimately i believe truth will prevail, it is just a matter of time and when. Truth is not a luxury, it is a (moral) necessity.

recruit ong

Anonymous said...

mr tan, i also want to add... i feel that the several paragraphs u spoke on love is equally applicable to this thing call truth. Don't u think so?

For e.g you said, "You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you.

Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it."

in other words, courage to speak the truth inspires oneself, and half-truth is no truth..

i find that if the word 'love' in these paragraphs is substituted with the word 'truth', it holds true. This is why i cannot understand why u place the concept of 'truth' on a lower priority than 'love'.

but i'm not a ntu grad, just a pte uni one.. so maybe i am missing something. Still i like ur speech very much. :)

recruit ong

Anonymous said...

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."


Jas aka paced said...

Mr Wang, Thanks for getting Adrian Tan on as a guest blogger.

Adrian, Thanks for sharing.

As a graduating Mass Comm-er from a private institution, I have been thinking if I should venture into PR, marketing, advertising, writing or even events. This speech is indeed very enlightening in helping me decide where I want to go and what I want to do. Thanks so so much again!

Alex Tan said...

excellent speech by adrain tan...but to the wrong target group.

"The most important is this: do not work."

the first thing in these NTU's grads' minds is to find a job and pay their education debt off.

work gives fast cash, interests don't.

these fresh grads are looking for instant gratifications to their finance and status.(to qualify for their platinum card, get a car loan, partying etc.) i won't be surprised to know that none of them are interested in their course of study.

they have long chosen to work and abandoned their interest (why are they in this uni for?)

"The most important is this: do not work."
they were probably be laughing when they heard this.

pardon me but i think this speech should be directed to a general public who need to reinforce their mindsets on pursuing interests.

these grads are better off with partial truth like "work and make your mark" advice.

choaniki said...

Adrian Tan just posted and already someone has hated him. Seems like he is on the right path to living by his definition.

Anonymous said...

Quite funny. Pity that when you're giving a talk you're trying first and foremost to be perceived to be (fill in your blank) than to be truthful - which kind of makes sense wrt the contents.

ILMA said...

But tell me Mr Wang, suppose I really have a passion for making animated movies, but somehow I just never have the opportunity to get into a top animation studio. Many reasons possible even if I am talented, for example parents do not have money to send me there, economic downturn etc. I just cannot be expected to be happy quoting my friend), "drawing Singa the Courtesy Lion for courtesy campaigns, or Sharity the Charity Elephant." How then could I be happy?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Ah, don't assume that I hold exactly the same views as Adrian on work, life, marriage, happiness, death etc etc.

I suspect I'm apt to be much more esoteric than Adrian on these sorts of matters - however, it is not entirely productive to elaborate on my views in a blog like this, which has a mainstream audience.

Suffice to say that in my opinion, no lasting happiness stems from object-referral, that is, where you expect an external thing or experience - eg an exciting job; lots of money; hot sex etc - to bring you happiness. At best, these things give you temporary happiness, or a lesser state of suffering. (Which, of course, is nevertheless better than prolonged, unmitigated suffering).

BunnyButt said...

What a beautiful speech. Thank you Adrian, and Mr Wang for bringing it to us readers.

By the way, I am a teacher. And yet, I will share this with my students.

Ser Ming said...

Contentment and yet giving oneself goals to achieved in life, though sound contradicting, is how one truly and genuinely feel happy and satisfied?

Anonymous said...

I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably a sports journalist.
i thoroughly enjoyed that. life is fiction, isn't it?

porcorosso said...

Good to meet all my friends in one blog - I have not caught up with Adrian for some time. Nor you, Mr Wang, for that matter. Porco has a simpler formula for happiness: you have to know what makes you happy and to know you don't always get what you want.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Ah, Porco, I thought you had a one-word formula for happiness: wine. :D

Miao 妙 said...

I read his Teenage Textbook and Teenage Workbook. He has a wonderful sense of humour.

Anonymous said...

Actually Life is different for everyone.
Work is how you define it.
After all, look at the trend of web developers, in more advance countries more are becoming Freelance(aka consultant). Why this trend?
Well like what Adrian Tan (my opinion) pointed out they realise the Rat race is just a rat race.By becoming independent, they get the respect that they did not get while working for a company (they can ask for better pay and not fear retrenchment).
PS fact is a lot of outsourced project are so messed up that after retrenching staff in their own countries those companies have to literally beg their staff back to the company to undo the Mess.
That's why you never see any sane Manager asking for outsource now it is because sometimes the cost is more than expected.
And another note we have no Core technology that we can call our own. Creative Audio and MP3 player can only last that long. and Air travel is crippled by the oil "Shortage?".
Korea have online gaming, LCD and media.
Thailand have manufacturing capacity and tourism.
Japan have PS1,2,3 ,nintendo console games and innovative new product.
China is the factory of the world.
Even Taiwan have fruits and media.
All these are constantly improving but we are importing technology that just would not become a core product.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Wang,

I'm the 40 years old male, you quoted in your previous post. I feel so much better after reading your post.
I may have missed some details in my comments.

In fact, I love what I’m doing. I’m full of passion, but with my current boss and company culture I’m restricted from doing the best that I can. There are many reasons to this, which I would not want to elaborate here. Sometimes, it is not the work you don't like it is the people who stop you from excel.

The main reason that I think I would want to bring another life to Singapore is the education system. The system is not to educate, but purely for economic reasons. I see what my nieces and nephews went through and I don’t like to put another soul to go through this. I’ve friends who are planning to immigrate purely for their children’s education.

As for marriage, I’ve been working hard for the past 10 to 15 years, there was almost zero social life. By the time I notice that I’m turning 40, most of my friends are married with kids or still too busy with their job like me.

Well, maybe 40 is still not too late. Anyway, it is not easy to balance career, marriage and children, especially with the current situation in Singapore.

The next step, is to find a new job.

Anonymous said...

The one problem with education is it cuts into the best years of one's life.

I am closing 40 myself and yet I still dont have anyone worthy to consider as a life mate.

However, tagging on to what AT said, I dont believe its solely a matter of willing oneself to love somebody else.

I dont believe its so easy. There has to be some chemistry at play somewhere.

If one takes a look around even in our blogosphere, the people who can thunderbolt, polar bear hug and sweep you off your feet are probably also a health hazard and a danger to your brain, wallet and probably your pets in the long run, there are some personalities who I rather not mention by name such as one specific famous troublemaker who hangs out in the singapore daily and website just stuff, but generally the question is why cant the dependable guys also be interesting and fun as well? And why cant the fun and dangerous guys be less of a self destructive James Dean typo.

This leads me conclude AT life tale is definitely entertaining but as real advice, I have to agree he is trying and it does sound trying. Very, I am afraid.


Anonymous said...

"And another note we have no Core technology that we can call our own.

Korea have online gaming, LCD and media.
Thailand have manufacturing capacity and tourism.
Japan have PS1,2,3 ,nintendo console games and innovative new product."

Don't belittle Singapore !
We have no core technology but we have core governance that have world-class execution of continuously reaping money from citizen. This alone is the core strength of the tiny red dot. No first world country ever come close to match this capability.

Anonymous said...

We must realise that it is a luxury for Singaporeans to have it all - a good balance of marriage, children, career and $$ in the current situation in Singapore.
In today's economy, something will have to give..

What makes you enjoy living?
Having a lot of money and being able to lead a high life?
Having a fantastic career in which you enjoy going to work daily?
Working hard at a job which you don't really enjoy but coming home to someone you love be it parents/children/spouse?

Our government has little interest to help Singaporeans achieve a balance in our personal lives.. They run the country as Singapore Inc..

It's up to us to make the best of this life we have in Singapore. How do you want to live your life?

Anonymous said...

"And another note we have no Core technology that we can call our own."

"Thank goodness there’s no life expectancy."

The secret is out! How did this lawyer know about our top secret life sciences research! How did you know we have found the GOD MODE FORMULA of forever life!

(pssst pls keep it secret. Only 1 person can take the pill.)

Anonymous said...

If you have a father like Khoo Teck Puat, you can very well follow Adrian Tan's advice. But for most of us, well we have to get the best paying job (like it or not) to pay the banks, support parents, supoort sibblings still studying. So, the choice is not so simple as following your passion, like Eric Khoo. That's life!

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

In my opinion, the top performers in any industry are usually people who love their work.

If you really enjoy your job, you're much more likely to be outstanding in it.

If you're outstanding in what you do, you're much more likely to be paid well for it (not to mention - happier).

Contrary to what some readers suggest, what you love is not necessarily (and in fact, often simply is not) something unusual.

Adrian was a debator for a good part of his school life. It was something he did for fun. This isn't exactly a very uncommon CCA either.

For him, his hobby simply morphed into his job (as a litigation lawyer, where he's frequently arguing in court). One may surmise that he likes his job, and is good at it, because it's something like a hobby to him.

There are all sorts of different things that a person may like. They need not be anything as esoteric as "making animated films".

I know of a lawyer who loved little kids. So she actually quit her legal practice, to be trained as a kindergarten teacher. Many years later, she now runs her own preschool & kindergarten. I do not know how much she makes, but considering the size and popularity of her school, I think she must be quite wealthy. This is her school.

I know of another lawyer who did NOT like law. I should not have said "lawyer" because she already knew, after law school, that she did not like law, and therefore she never actually worked as a lawyer. What she liked was baking. So she became a baker. Her business started off very small - she made cakes in her own home kitchen - but now her business has spread to Shanghai, Jakarta, Taipei, Beijing. This is her company website.

Also I know of someone who was very interested in photography. He could have done the conventional Singaporean thing - do his A-levels; go to university; become an engineer or something - he was quite a decent student.

But his interest was in photography, and he went for it (we imagine that his parents must have been shocked and outraged). Anyway he is doing very well as a professional photographer now, definitely making more money than the average Singapore engineer. Some of the people he has been hired to photograph include:

Jackie Chan
Demi Moore
Gong Li
Zhang Ziyi
Black Eye Peas
Yo Yo Ma
Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber
Tiger Woods
Roger Federer
Sebastian Coe
David Beckham
etc etc

The photographer is Russel Wong.

Where do I stop giving examples? In university days, I had a friend; I found him EXTREMELY inspiring. He exceled in sports; music; studies etc etc but what inspired me was the way HE could inspire other people (including me) to do their best, in anything. I could see it in the way he trained his sports team members; and worked with people in his band; and taught people to act and sing (I performed in a musical where he acted as a music director).

I cannot describe it any better than that; he was just inspiring. He exuded love, compassion, warmth, friendship; encouragement to everyone around him; and he just brought out the best in everyone.

And that is what he loved to do - inspire people.

I lost touch with him after graduation, but I heard he'd become a teacher, which seemed like a perfect job for him - . Then two years ago I heard some news about him. I blogged about it too:

He'd won an award for being Singapore's Teacher of the Award.

Etc etc. Point here I'm making is that if you do what you love, you're much more likely to excel.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Errr, typo ...

The chap won an award for being Singapore's "Teacher of the Year".

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Now, a more personal perspective. About myself ....

Can I honestly say that ever since I was a little kid, I've always dreamed of doing the kind of job I'm doing now?

Naaah. When I was a kid, the kind of job I'm doing now didn't exist. OTC derivatives didn't really take off until the early 1990s, and didn't really come to Asia until years after that.

However, my simple personal requirement is that my job should be interesting to me. It need not be interesting to me forever, but it MUST be interesting to me while I'm still in it.

I'm not saying this, just for the sake of making a point for this post. You can check out this old post of mine (written in 2006) where I wrote about a job opportunity (at GIC) that came my way.

A huge pay increase was on the cards, but I rejected it because the work didn't promise to be interesting. I just said, NO, I dowan. Link.

So that's my career philosophy. I need to be interested.

And what would I do if I no longer found my job interesting? Well, I'd ask for a change in job scope; or an internal transfer. Or I'd quit and change jobs.

After all, life would be quite sad, if every day I had to do something I didn't like.

As a matter of fact, I've changed jobs quite a number of times. I've worked in the civil service; in a law firm; in banks; in private practice; as a litigator; as a corporate lawyer; in hardcore criminal cases involving rape and robbery; in cutting-edge financial transactions with hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands; in a front-office investment banking role.

And now I'm working in a role where I hardly touch Singapore law any more (even though that is the only kind of law I'm formally qualified in). Instead I wrestle with foreign legal systems in countries like Korea, Thailand, China, Cayman Islands and Taiwan.

It's interesting. Keeps me engaged, challenged and relatively happy, I suppose.

AT said...

I should tell you about three Singaporeans.

Ed, 39, has 3 daughters and a wife who is a full-time homemaker. Ed left his job as a university lecturer to go into advertising. But he loved comic books. So he left that job and started his own film company. He’s helped to write the screenplay for one movie, and is now working on his second. He commutes between Singapore and LA.

And no, his father is not Khoo Teck Puat. His father is a nobody. In fact, he didn’t have a father. He was raised by his mother in a 3-room HDB. But he’s happy.

Paul, 60, was a cop. Because he didn’t like to take any crap from anyone, he made a lot of enemies in the Police Force. He wanted to do righteous things, so at night, he studied for his law degree. When he retired from the Force, he was called to the Singapore bar and practiced criminal law. His two children were still in school, but he made a go of things and started his own law firm. He always fights for the underdog. He has a small office in People’s Park, no staff and clients who don’t pay him. But he’s happy.

Steve, 45, was raised by his washerwoman mother. He became a lawyer, and eventually a partner in a big law firm. He always wanted to do something for his faith, so at the height of his legal career he retired and studied to be a pastor. Today, he is a missionary, with his wife and 2 daughters. He’s not earning very much. But he’s happy.

These are just three people I’ve met in my own life. Chances are you will meet such people in your own circle too. Such Singaporeans are all about us.

What I recommend is not for everyone. The vast majority of Singaporeans will choose the life expected of them. I just want to highlight another way to happiness. I just want to point out that your aim should be happiness, and everything else should be a conscious means towards achieving that end.

I should add that I met Mr Wang when I was doing my reservist training. I met him again when he started his legal career (he’s a bit younger than me). Mr Wang is very musical (you can’t tell by looking at him) and quite bright. He could definitely have been a success in government or in the private legal sector. He’s chosen his own form of success. And, I bet, he’s happy.

Adrian Tan

Anonymous said...

Haha... I wish he was there to give out a speech too on the same event last year... ;)

Anonymous said...

Do lawyers "avoid telling the truth", Mr Wang?

Anonymous said...

I would like to pay a tribute to a friend who migrated and runs a small shop in Perth. He had many passions including the love of the martial arts and the need to be of some service to the poor. But he could not. He never did and up till today he has not done so. Did he lose his passion? Did he become a slave to his job. My friend grew up in Chinatown in Singapore,not the romanticized, sanitized tourist attraction that passes for Chinatown today. No he grew up in a small room, a cubicle with a piece of cloth for a door, shared kitchen facilities where each family had its own charcoal or kerosene stove and smelly wet bathrooms and toilets shared by all the tenants. In other words he was poor. And because he was poor, he had to give up his education and became a teacher (the best he could be then because he came from RI) at a school in Bukit Ho Swee. He taught all subjects but was best known as the discipline master. Those who grew up in Bukit Ho Swee or who studied at the schools there would know what it was like to be a discipline master in the 60s. He wanted so much to go to university but could not because he was poor and had to support his family. Later in life, he immigrated to Western Australia and managed to enroll at the university taking on many jobs to feed himself. Still, he could not really step away from his poverty. He did not become a CFO or CEO but runs a small shop and runs it well. He owes no one his success. But did he fail to live up to his passion and became a slave to his duty and work.

I write this to celebrate the many citizens who could not live up to their passion(s) because they had to work for a living. It is good that Singapore is now wealthy and progressive enough to allow our workers to choose, to follow their passion. I wish them well. Do I envy them. I don't really know - maybe people like my friend and I are mere anachronisms, no longer fitting in. But then that had always been our fate.

Anonymous said...

Dear Adrian

2 of your examples were people who were financially secure(pls lah .. I know at least one policeman turned lawyer).
Your fren Ed got his big break OUTSIDE of Singapore. Kudos to him. Takes plenty of courage. Reminds me of a cousin who was "looked down" (not academically inclined) but is now probably making more $$$ than Mr Wang outside of SG (he had no choice as he is gay).

But the fact is most Singaporeans are expending all their energy trying to just keep afloat.

(Which is why I am extremely envious of Zen beings like Mr Wang who seems to be blessed with all the luck)

I would say that only 2 groups can live the life u suggest. The financially secure ones (rich fathers a big plus). And a lucky few of the nothing-to-lose segment at the bottom.


Anonymous said...

I just read the inspiring postings by Mr Wang and AT.

Of course, it is vital that people find something that interests them a great deal and that can pay, in that order.

What I notice is either a.) ppl who make it a habit to look for interesting things to do, or b.) ppl who (at last) make the choice to do something that they have been wanting to do.

The message to me is whether a.) or b.), it is never too late or rather better late than never. This presumes that the willpower and desire are there to take the risk or 'risk'. Of course, first is to set the goal and purpose.

I hope I can put it this way, it is all in the mind -looking back to 'regret' does not help and in fact, the very act of doing so simply energizes the very belief that prevents one from moving forward and worst and ensures self pity.

I can speak for myself presently.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

This post has attracted quite a large number of people who were sufficiently interested to write about it on their own personal blogs.

Depending on what link you use to you read comments, you might or might not have seen those links (to those other readers' own posts).

If you haven't seen the links and do want to check them out, click here and scroll down all the way.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon

aiyah .. most readers here weren't born yet (in the 60s\70s). Bukit Ho Swee area in the 70s had many gangsters and other assorted misfits (and I was told that 60s were far worse).

Discipline masters had balls of steel and public canings were very common.

Not sure if Adrian Tan, from dunno which mission school, will have any idea what you are talking about.


Anonymous said...

err.. a small clarification.

I am already making a transition. So I wasn't merely talking to myself; hopefully I was encouraging enough.

TAR (old postings from Mr Wang) is relevant but in the transition I am making, it is really all in the mind.

The overall key is nurturing yourself to be open to identifying the opportunity flow in life, when life surprisingly presents the opportunity.

Fearing is useless. Hoping helps in a limited way. Greedy ambition is pointless. Belief or Faith in yourself and what you are doing to nurture yourself is better. That would be like conviction once the goal is set.

A mind is like a parachute - it only works when it is open, all the time.

Anonymous said...

I agree that most if not all top performers love what they are doing. Just like my friend’s father (a very successful businessman) used to tell us. “It is different for man to chase after money, but it is easy when money is chasing after you. Do what you love and the rest will come after you.”

Again, it is easy for someone who don’t have to worry about pay bills, supporting kids, and etc…
Maybe it is just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if you have not move to the next level, how will you have the time to think about doing something you love.
On the other hand, (Maslow’s hierarchy of NEEDS), everybody needs/wants are different. Maybe some people are able to move to the next level easier than majority of us, who still think of the 5Cs.

I still remember there were a lot of examples in the MSN during the years where Singapore government promoting entrepreneurship. Young people gave up their university study or well pay job to start up some business, but most of these examples, they are either from well to do family or have already make enough from their well pay job.

阿包 abaoo said...

hihi...nice to know u ^^ Congratulation to you get in top 3 ...Wish you all the best ^^

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, you dun have to post this.

I want to say that it is indeed an inspiring speech. Some will be bitter for the glimpse of paradise out reach, but each soul saved is cause for rejoice.

Having said that, all I want is for enough of u intellectual gods to come down from Mt Olympus to die on the cross (ala christ), get shot (King, etc) or just get sued. Is that too much to ask for so that MY kids have a fighting chance at living a real life?

*note: desperate cry for help from a loser in the top 10-15 percentile - uniquely singapore*


Anonymous said...

NoName: August 5 posting at 12:52.
Hi NoName. I am not offering advice just some thoughts. There are three spaces we grow up in: the public, the personal and the private. When we were young (although that could mean different things because I am an old man) the public space was very much further away. Rarely did it encroach into our personal and/or private spaces because government had not learned and put in place the psychological, social,economic and cultural controls/parameters that over the last thirty years have gained currency in Singapore. When the government intruded it was often violent and obtrusive - the search for gangsters/communists and other opposing elements were rough and deliberate (yes the Special Branch often raided houses at 3am in the morning). Today the methods are less obtrusive but certainly more pervasive and harder to put aside. In the past, with more personal and private spaces there was opportunity to grow and develop inner strengths and qualities even in poverty. No matter how poor we were, we knew something of the myths, the stories and the arts of our past. I am not saying that present day folks do not know these, far from it. However, in the past with little else to entertain or preoccupy us these myths became sustaining and shaping forces within us.
Do not hide the truth of what is happening from your children. They are more canny and aware than we imagine. Open their eyes.
At the same time sustain their inner psyche for when all else is done or all else fails it is the inner psyche that will buoy them up and drive them forwards. The common cause of all citizens is the shared awareness of our past and our myths. There is no need to enter into intellectual debates about these, rather I would prefer that we teach the young to rediscover these and to live them.
One of the commonest tricks in the armory of the social propagandist and manipulator is to put up such issues precisely for debate.In the process, their values are distorted and lost. So what I am saying is: give the young the personal and private spaces they need. Do not be tempted by the exuberance given to public space. Live the life of the inner spirit and to be honest not all intellectual gods are able to do that. The young will find their own path if the inner ballast is there.
I hope the sharing is of some use.

Anonymous said...

"We spend out lives chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy things we don't need. The things we own, end up owning us. If you don't know what you want, you end up with a lot you don't." - The Fight Club

Anonymous said...

I thank u, mr wang for posting this post. I find it the most meaningful of all your posts, although I enjoy reading all your post; and they make me think a lil more. This post is also inspiring. I am going to graduate next yr, the career I aspire for is not my parents' dream job although it's sth legal and useful to society; probably my parents wun understand and kick me out or sth..=P Well, nonetheless, I will just do my best according to my wishes

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon at August 5, 2008 9:32 PM

My/our past memories have been systematically erased. Our gahmen is trying to make the great leap forward (w/o condom). And there is absolutely nothing we (the little people) can do.

You have to admit that Adrian Tan is absolutely correct in one thing. Truth will get you nowhere.

I know that we are in reality cooked by just a few (how many PAP cadres are there?). What to do? we are cowed into paralysis by their shadows.

I belong to the generation which is "in between". I belong to the class which is neither rich or poor. I am neither stupid or smart. In fact I am mildly dylexic. Like a duck, outwardly calm, but really paddling like crazy.

I straddle between (looking in from outside) the perfect world of the Mr Wangs and the insignificant lives Tan Ah Kows. Tan Ah Kow may in fact be happier as he is ignorant of his fate as fodder.

Frankly I dun care anymore. I want to shelter my kids. And I am lamenting the fact that despite my best efforts I am still falling short.


siepiau said...

I know what I want, and I get what I want, but I also started with and end up with a lot of what I don't want. Somehow it's not easy to stay focused on what you want all the time... Am I suppose to keep lowering my expectations like what most people do? Any ideas on how to thrive in, not just survive, life in a noisy, crowded environment like Singapore?

Anonymous said...

Adrian wrote the local bestseller Teenage Textbook in the 1990s, which was later made into a movie.

He is also a lawyer at Drew & Napier.

He was Davindar Singh's right hand man at the defamation trial of opposition SDP and its leaders.

Is Adrian Tan himself a slave to his job?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

He was Davindar Singh's right hand man at the defamation trial of opposition SDP and its leaders.

Really? That's surprising. There are like 100 litigation lawyers at Drew & Napier, all specialising in different things. Divorce, construction, employment, shipping, criminal cases, company law etc.

Hri Kumar is the chap who normally works with DS on defamation cases.
Adrian, on the other hand, works on intellectual property disputes, such as trademarks, copyright infringement and so on.

Anonymous said...

AT has just posted about the "TRUTH".. by looking at some of the comments, I can feel some love it... some hate it... Some argued, some agreed... This is the nature by itself... We can't deny it.. I once told my friend "Tell lies with confidence" but one condition, it must not harmful to others by any means or not to promote your destiny...

Anonymous said...

Aiyo Mr Wang, just type key words 'adrian tan davindar singh SDP' on google and you'll find references to Adrian Tan's involvement in the SDP's defamation trial.

Tan also sat beside Davindar Singh's during the open court hearings, witnessed by the public gallery.

Perhaps Mr Wang could ask him to pen his thoughts on being the assistant to Lee Kuan Yew's hatchet man.

But Adrian won't budge. Why? Because he likes to keep his job, and all the material trappings that come with it. Never mind what he said in that convocation.

Anonymous said...

onlooker August 4, 2008 1:28 PM: After all, look at the trend of web developers, in more advance countries more are becoming Freelance(aka consultant). Why this trend?
... By becoming independent, they get the respect that they did not get while working for a company (they can ask for better pay and not fear retrenchment).

Bingo, I did that too some time ago, although more due to a sudden career event than by conscious choice. [Aside: Although as with Mr Wang's TAR theory, I had originally thought of escaping from the tyranny of my outsourcing company's bosses.] Back at the outsourced days, clients actually respect my professionalism more than my bosses who might have deemed me their competition. Ironically, my former company lost some deals to me partly because their size could not give them the nimbleness of a small set-up.

Mr Wang: However, my simple personal requirement is that my job should be interesting to me. It need not be interesting to me forever, but it MUST be interesting to me while I'm still in it.

I'm in the midst of a transition again myself. I do not have deep pockets or rich parents. However, I sometimes wonder if the confidence to take a risk comes easier to me because like Mr Wang I qualify for Mensa. I say this because I see others doing similar transition as me struggling and wonder if they are happy. This is where Adrian's "not telling the truth" rule comes to play. E.g. When asked by my peers how I find this/that challenging stuff, I may not tell them if I find it easy. This is because people sometimes ask not because they want to hear the truth, but because they want to hear something that they can feel comforted with.

Adrian Tan: What I recommend is not for everyone. The vast majority of Singaporeans will choose the life expected of them. I just want to highlight another way to happiness.

Yes, I agree it may not be for everyone. I also like to point out that it does not make one's life any lesser even if one did not pursue one's passions. The reflection and evaluation of one's life is a very subjective and individual activity, broad rules-of-thumb cited by Adrian will always have exceptions. Anon at August 5, 2008 12:13 AM gave good examples. Even my parents are examples.

My parents are smart but they did not have the opportunity for self-actualisation due to the different socio-economic situation back then. I respect them for meeting the lower Maslow's needs and giving a chance for their children to achieve the higher ones. I look around and see that even though Singapore has progressed economically, there is still a significant proportion of poor families in Singapore that are not better off financially than my parents 40 years ago, i.e. living hand-to-mouth days. For these families, earning one's daily bread is more important that chasing the dreams.

Maybe the topic would be more appropriately titled as "Life and how to EXCEL it". You don't need to be chasing dreams to survive.

Ruok said...

Excelleeennnt shite! :D

Anonymous said...

When I read the paragraph about being hated in Adrian's speech, I think about J B Jeyaratnam. I admire him for his courage and determination to stand by his belief and conviction. Nothing will destroy the man's spirit.

Anonymous said...

Truth needs courage

I often lie as I realised that telling lies makes the other party happy. I continue doing it for a long while without knowing that I was hurting myself.

The truth will set you free, how apt. Recently, I have stopped telling lies and the other party (parents) started becoming uncomfortable. Eventually with more truth, our relationship distant. Eventually estrange.

Though the relationship is non-existent now but I am happy as there is no more guilt.

In summary, imo (1) No lies, white lies are bad too and (2) With certain Truth, comes sacrifice.

Take care xoxo

Anonymous said...

hi! anyone care to enlighten me on the avoid telling the truth part? =)

bluB said...

Well Adrian Tan did represent LKY against the SDP (a lawnet search will verify that).

However, it's just not right to call a lawyer who represents LKY a 'hatchet man' simply because of this association.

Read the reported judgment, and one realizes the biggest miscarriage of justice (in the construction of Defamation Laws) was perpetuated not by the lawyers, but by...

Anonymous said...

Eh, I've already realized those things he spoke of.

But he can afford to talk about those things because:

1. He's not a poor student who has study loans to pay.

2. He doesn't have parents to support and give money to.

3. He has enough money to live cheaply and simply all his life without working (probably).

Hey, I'll like to do what I like all my life too. I've already found it, and I'm doing it. But I can't keep on doing it. The money and loans always worries me, and I don't want to sponge on my parents.

So at the most, I can only try to do what I like part time, while he can do what he loves and get paid for it.

Reality hurts, and no amount of words can sooth that.

Anonymous said...

maybe smile more often. when u smile, no one can tell what is going on in your mind. what is truth anyway but honesty to your own self and doing your own thing?

Anonymous said...

i'm at this crossroad of my life and getting a little frantic about getting a job. Was directed to your blog by a beautiful lady. Inspiring entry i must say. Thank you

Agent Cherry said...

The secret to happiness is contentment... That what you have is enough, and you are happy with that...

I don't know about the rest of you, but that works on me...

Comparing to my elite friends, I probably made the least amount of moola, but in return, I have alot more time to spend on the things I want, with the people I love...

I think most importantly, we just have to understand that work, will always be work... It is NOT an extension of who we are, and not the reason of our existence... Do what you have to do, then pack your bags, go home, walk your dog, cook a meal, read a book...

bluB said...

people who say the secret in life is contentment ain't gonna get far ahead.


because if one lowers his/her expectations such that they are already met, there's nothing left to aim for, and/or to achieve.

that's just sad. life is too short to settle for mediocrity.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

The secret, IMO, is not contentment, but detachment. There is a fine distinction here which will elude many.

Buddha was probably one of the most ambitious human beings who ever lived on this planet. No modern-day CEO or politician could possibly hold a candle to him, in this respect.

The man was a prince; heir to a kingdom; had no lack of material luxuries; possessed a lot of earthly power. Was that enough?

Nope. He had the grand ambition of mastering his own mind; discovering his own soul and unveiling the very nature of reality.

And YOU think you're ambitious, by seeking a few million bucks and a successful career? LOL.

Anonymous said...

Ah, they always say the same old inspirational things in the convocation speeches. Steve Jobs delivered very much the same message in the commencement address at Stanford in 2005. "You've got to find what you love", he said, ending with a call to the graduates to "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish". Those who find these kind of speeches inspirational can view Jobs' speech at

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

One post rejected. I don't agree to my blog being used as a vehicle for other people's politics. This applies whether you're from the PAP or the Opposition.

Thread closed, as the comments have generally strayed too far from the original topic.