What a girl wanted, what a dad gave

She’s coming 20 months soon, with all the signs of a terrible two but still the sweetness of a baby. It hurts to discipline her, but parents do what they gotta do.

Last weekend something struck me. It took 3 days to completely sink in, and will probably be a recurring thought in the next 20 years at least.

It was in a pool. A children’s pool with a giant playground-like structure in the middle, capable of holding adults, in a neighbourhood country club that we occasionally swim and have dinner at together with our college friends.

Since my wife didn’t swim that day, I was shadowing miss adventure on her quest to do what every 5 year-old was doing in the pool, climbing up and down, playing with every water sprout and every wheel that turns.

And there was this slide in the middle of the huge contraption. A very popular, spiralling slide, with children (and occasional adults) streaming through over and over. The pool was only 1 foot deep, which provides for pretty lousy landing at the end. But it did not hinder these 5-8 year olds from mastering the technique of straightening their bodies and trying to land with their feet down first.

We watched in awe for a while, and before I could interest her in the tyre swing, she was climbing up the structure and joining the queue. You see, in the last month she had been trying to slide down every slide in sight, after figuring out how to slide properly thanks to great guidance from her grandparents.

I was very concerned. It was clear that she could not handle this slide and she might hurt herself by slamming herself into the shallow pool.

But her determination (and the politeness of the other children who waited for her to settle) encouraged me. Once seated, I flee to the bottom of the slide to position myself to catch her. When she saw me, she was still reluctant, but eventually, she came down.

At what seemed like 100mph.

Body spinning as the slide spirals.

And came head down first towards the end.

I dived to catch her. I did. She had a mild splash and I could quickly restore her balance upright, hugged her and quickly carried her away from the dangerous landing zone where other kids came.

And then my heart sank.

She was in total shock. Her eyes were wide open and her face was pale. She didn’t move when I held her and soothe her.

She wasn’t ready but her ambition and my carelessness had shaken her so much that for the rest of the evening she hardly smiled and simply looked dazed.

Still, that wasn’t the main story I wanted to tell you. It’s what happened next.

After that we went to the swing – and she was too afraid to even swing mildly, so we continued to wander around the pool as she recomposed herself.

She went up the structure again, I joined her.

I discouraged her from the slide, and I brought her down.

She went up the structure again, climbing to higher ground, looked afar for mum, and then followed my lead to climb down again.

It was clear – she’s not giving up.

She was reassessing the situation.

She went up again, and this time… she stood firm at the entrance of the slide. The other kids had went away and she stared at the slide for a long time.

I asked her, “Do you want to take the slide?”

She mumbled carefully, “slide…”, by that she means affirmative but still concerned.

And it was at that point the epiphany hit me.

I’m her god damn dad. Slide down with her.

I must first clarify that I have had my fair share of bad roller coaster rides and phobia for fast uncontrollable means of transportation, something my wife still chides me for. Heights, water etc had been lifelong challenges I try to overcome but it doesn’t just go away. I have successfully stayed away from most activities I deem “harmful to health” or “risk of death” like sky-diving or scuba-diving. Officially I cherish my life and my safety over adrenaline rush, privately I just deal with the ghost in me.

And I have a daughter with more determination than her mum.

“I’m her god damn dad, if I don’t bring her down am I going to let her do the 180 degrees upside down ride again?”

But there was no time to lose. She already sat down at the tipping point, ready to make that journey again. I almost cried, sat down and grabbed her, and went down the double spiral.


And a painful *THUD*.

My ass hurt with joy. So did some other joints.

The mum was standing by, giving her approval. I was more concerned about the little one at that point – Did she enjoy it? Was it scary? Was she satisfied with a joint ride?

And she emerged looking so proud at me, but without the cheerfulness or silliness when we were playing. To her, that slide had just became the pinnacle of her life, her greatest achievement, the mountain she must conquer.

She pondered around the pool for a while, regained her footing, and went up the structure again.

I’m her god damn dad.


I guess it got easier after the first time, but old bones hurt real bad and I had to curl to protect her towards the end. Sorry, ass.

And then a 3rd time.

By then it was late and I happily accepted my wife’s suggestion that we clean up and bath.

* * *

On my own, I would never go down that slide. After this episode, I would still not go down that slide. That’s me, and people around me respect that, to which I appreciate greatly.

And I accepted this challenge to raise our girl into a fearless lady in this brave new world.

And thus, before I even know it, I just had my first taste of being push way, way out of my comfort zone by my 19 month old.

Love you, Yenn <3

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Preparing for a TEDx talk

I’ll be speaking at a TEDx event in KL in a few weeks time. The event is unique as it’s one of the rare TEDx that’s in Mandarin. Needless to say it’s a very challenging talk as the last time I did public speaking in Mandarin is probably 讲故事比赛 in primary school.


I’ve learned a few things so far:

  • Radio DJs do read your blog because they need to create relevant questions to ask you, so no matter how abandoned it seems, there’s always gonna be someone reading it
  • Being interviewed on a phone is not as bad as it seems. Before a camera one has to sit and look proper, which is totally my weakness. On a phone however, I could be dancing around the house to get the mind to expand my vocabulary (especially in Mandarin!!) at an instant
  • I didn’t know preparing for public speaking consumes me emotionally, and bleeds into my working environment. Need to find a way around it. So far one trick has worked, that is to repeat the same speech rather than always updating it to the latest and greatest content available.
  • Last but not least, never credit your photographer for every picture he took for you. Just like if you were to rearrange my music for your group’s specific need, just say you’re the arranger, it’s ok. Every artist I know makes deliberate decisions on their art. If you change it (crop, recolour, touch up etc.) it’s no longer the original work, and artists might not always want to be associated with it for professional integrity reasons primarily.

3 weeks to go! *back to slides*

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Home @ 35

AirstreamThis post is inspired by reading many accounts of Home (A Sense of Place) on the current issue of Stanford’s Alumni Magazine (if you’re interested).

Yes. Turned 35. Started a family, started a company. Own a home, drive a car. Materially, other than the fact that I’m still gambling a little by surviving on a pittance from weekend music arrangement work and some morning assembly shows, throwing everything else into growing the next unicorn, I have little doubt that I live an enviable quality of living. It affords me a psychological stability to take on risk that involves quantum leaps for the next phase of my life. And today (yesterday) would be a good checkpoint.

And that stability is crucial in playing the role of a dad, co-founder, husband, service provider etc. An article passed around in social media alleged that only the rich can take high risk for being an entrepreneur. Perhaps they are right – even if I don’t see that kind of money in my pocket, I must be at peace with what I already have in order to take longer term bets.

What I’m not fully at peace, at 35, is indeed this sense of place. Being very comfortable in Ang Mo Kio for the past decade, I’m firstly facing the challenge of having to uproot and move to the condo over in Hougang, which we got our keys a few weeks ago, once the renovation is done later this year. Settling in, including settling the 1-year-old in, will not only sap up time, money and energy, but also rock the very sense of place (basically this central region of AMK, Bishan, TPY) that has become so familiar to me.

Moreover, what one considers Home varies. One Portuguese novelist in the alumni mag explored the possibility that some feel at home when they are speaking a particular language. Or when they are in a constructed sense of place (e.g. in a novel). Or simply a loving friendship. Some I spoke to about this move countered that I should take solace in that I’m moving with my wife and daughter. Apart from the obvious physical relocation, I started wandering whether our family in AMK would be the same as our family in Hougang?

But it doesn’t end there. I want to have a clear sense of place, for myself, that can be logically projected into every facade of my life. For example, in the music world, it’s clear as day to me that my Home is with the wind band scene. I perform in orchestras since 13, I love taking up gigs with the brass quintet, but they are often me projecting out from a core sense of place – a tenor trombonist in approx 60 person wind group, playing every possible genre of music. Wind band is home.

In another example in the technology world, most people would know me as a connector stemming from many years of startup relations, business development and civil servant roles. But each of them are also projected out from a common base, which is one widely exposed generalist software developer wearing a computer science degree on one sleeve, and a fierce hustler attitude on the other. This sense of place translated well when I reprojected myself back into robotics. Comp Science is home.

All seemed clear except one small corner, when I hold my passport in my hands. In the past months, various events has brought me to rethink this concept of Home in the dimension of national identity. Here’re a few short stories:

1. Thanks and no thanks to SG50, I’ve arranged Home (Kit Chan) 4 times this year alone, and rejected 2 other request for arranging Home, and we’re still 2 weeks to NDP. Also, one of the projects that I ran for SG50 for the past year didn’t take off, but I was happy even though I spent countless hours interacting with arrangers on writing national songs, managing stakeholders and rights owners. People still download and perform the music – that’s most important to me.

2. In my constant interaction with Singaporeans about SAF (and this is with reference to the officer type, coz the band type I don’t get much of it), I always feel like people have to actively censor information, only for the reason that I haven’t served in the army, despite being a permanent resident here for the past decade. I am still considering whether they would stop doing that if I take another few weeks of my life before 37 to serve in the volunteer corp.

3. Between me and my wife, we have often talked about at least one of us becoming a citizen, primarily for the kid. It would be an unnecessary financial strain otherwise, contingent on the extended stay here. Who should relinquish the citizenship of their birth since there’s no way to hold both? The indirect question here is, what are the chances we would be forced to relocate again, such as overseas career move?

4. Professionally, as we’re aiming to build a regional business, we often need to rethink out branding and outlook. Do we introduce ourselves as a Singapore-based startup when pitching to Indonesians clients? Many Malaysian clients we pitch to dig through my personal background to verify my citizenship, despite me telling them I only come home for parents or for work – is my national identity critical to you hiring my company, or my locale?

Here are the hard questions put together in 1 breath: Does giving back to a Singaporean society make me less at home as a Malaysian? Would I ever consider Singapore home when Singaporeans build a wall around my inquisitive learning? Does changing the passport make any difference psychologically in recognising your home nationality? Does your nationality have to be public for the sake of work or simply feeling more at home?

For my birthday this year, I dropped out of attending some tech gatherings to spend the entire day with my family and in the evening 2 friends. We staked out at Satay by the Bay so that we can catch the aerial fly by and the fireworks for the NDP preview show. I ate so much siham and drank so much beer I became worried that this isn’t the cheapest place to binge. When the planes flew past our heads, I was thinking of the 4 summers I spent in Seattle, never missing a single show by the Blue Angels when they toured to Lake Washington.

It almost felt like Home could be in the skies…

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How To Use Dropbox – for Scores


Here’s what they call an “Idiot’s Guide” to using Dropbox, or I usually call “Cook Book”, written specially for my musician friends who after collaborating with me for years still find Dropbox hard to use.

Step 1: Prepare to use Dropbox

If anyone, whether it is me or your band leader tells you that you will be receiving scores via Dropbox, do yourself a favour and setup Dropbox on your devices for convenience. It includes:

  1. Get a Dropbox Account (my referral link here)
  2. Download to your computer, or install the App onto your mobile devices.

This step is actually optional for the lightest users, i.e. you will only receive scores.

Step 2: Receive a Link

Normally you will receive scores as a “Link“, not a Shared Folder. Why? Because scores are organised for you for read only. If you receive a shared folder, you might inadvertently edit or delete the scores.

Whether or not you have a Dropbox account, you can open a link.

When you receive the Link, do the following:

  1. Open the Link and verify that it’s correct
  2. Optionally, download or save the relevant file (e.g. your part or the conductor score or the MP3 etc.) so that you have a copy of the file on your computer. You can then print it.
  3. Or, you can save it to your Dropbox. This means duplicate it but in the cloud.

It’s important to know that when you receive a Link, you will not see it in your Dropbox. You only see Links you send others from your Dropbox.

Step 3: Advanced things to do with the Link

If you receive a link on your phone or tablet, you can open the link in the app.

When you see your part, select the Favourite (star) icon so that it’s cached in the app. Some band rooms have bad connectivity and you don’t want the score to be downloaded over and over again.

Unfortunately Dropbox still don’t have a basic annotation tool, because this happens usually when some score wasn’t printed or you forgot to bring the printed score. Tentative measure is to use the Comment tool and type in English. Alternative is to open the PDF in another app that has annotation.

Step 4: Collaborating to put the library together

At some point you will be asked to the provider. Maybe you’re the librarian, maybe you’re the music arranger or composer. In this case, you will be given access to the “Shared Folder“.

Few important things to know about participating in a Shared Folder:

  • If your local Dropbox is turned on (which it is if you did step 1 and didn’t set it to not autostart), whatever you change in the Share Folder will immediately change on everyone’s computer as well. This is Dropbox black magic 101 and it is irritating as hell if you use the Dropbox folder as your working folder and save your file every few seconds. Please – work somewhere else and only move the file to the Dropbox folder when you’re done.
  • Your quota will be used. Dropbox has some sophisticated math behind their Shared Folder, which counts the total size of the Shared Folder against every participant. Something like, if 3 persons share a folder that’s 30MB in size, Dropbox will count 10MB against everyone’s quota.
  • Because often the Shared Folder is also the same folder where a Link a generated to be shared with the whole band, you don’t want to keep changing the files in the Shared Folder, as different people in the band will end up getting versions of your score!! The simplest remedy for edits done after the Link has been sent out, is to version your score, both in the file name and the title of the score, so that musicians can verify for themselves if they downloaded too early.

Conclusion, “Learn More” is your friend. Click and read it anywhere you see it. Don’t just use, use with understanding.

Any other tips you want me to add to this list? Let me know!

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Being a boss and being a friend

Recent events in my life greatly dampened my spirit, but I’m not going to let it pull me down. Especially when I realise I’m still so blessed to have many mentors in my life who cared for me even though I had more often than not been trouble to them.

Still, the recent events made me reflect very deeply into people management, motivating staff, team dynamics and other things that comes with trying to be a good boss. I write this here as a public reflection because I think I want my staff to know this, besides benefiting anyone interested to get another perspective on being a boss.

The myth of the tortured artist

Let’s start from the fundamentals. Each person is different when it comes to employment. Some prefer guidance while others prefer autonomy. Even though I came from the later tradition, for me to lead people who want guidance outright turns out to be the simpler option. Through a combination of clear vision, “carrot and stick”, and helping people scope and execute, I rely on this great strength when commanding a larger team of do-ers. As long as everyone’s attitude is right, heart is right (taken for granted in this article as it’s a subject for great debate in itself), usually people will buy into my style of leadership and fight hand-in-hand with full responsibility and pride.

It’s the ones who wants autonomy that turns out to be harder. 6 years ago I saw myself preferring my own bosses to simply set general direction and leave me alone, and I’ll come back with results that surpasses all their expectations. And I thought I was doing great. Until, I had people do that to me. Turns out that people who want these autonomy are also very forceful in their personality, so much so that one has to constantly get hurt, swallow it, and keep putting up with the cordial front that would hopefully rub the ego of the staff the right way, in order to achieve the greater goal of the company.

Most of the time it’s not the idea itself, or even the work. Many young hot blooded man and women have stood up for what they believe, by putting their ideas in to action. These are people who “can think”, is “creative and disruptive”, can “design solutions”, etc. In one previous position I was at, we mistakenly labelled these people tortured artists, and the label stuck. The most common mistake these artists made is the approach taken to engage stakeholders, in this specific case, the boss. Upon reflection, there are many tortured artists who work in silence, prefer to engage only intellectually, and do not require validation from the organization. It’s the ones who confronts everyone, the ones who “engage stakeholders” with a loaded gun on people’s head, that set bosses reeling.

I also realise that, to have a strong team, I don’t always need to have these tortured artist who could forge a new insightful future. As long as everyone’s attitude towards professional work is positive, everyone’s contribution are welcomed because many ideas in this world need a team to make happen. There are exceptions of course (my solo dabbling into music arrangement being a great example), but by and large, companies succeed by having all hands on deck, teams succeed when the boss takes in all the eccentricities of their staff and still presents him or herself professionally, provide a plausible path to victory that’s inclusive of everyone’s dreams, and hustle everyone.

The myth of being your friend

The next point is a bit sadder. I have always tried to connect with people personally. Like, really personally and deeply. One of the push factor I had when I worked in US was that I realise the general work population there don’t connect as deeply with you as people here (in Singapore/Malaysia). Turns out that not only was I wrong (again), I was directly feeding into this almost 三姑六婆 (“nosy aunty”) style of friendship, and it’s finally biting me really hard.

I often lament why I don’t have friends like I had in high school, where there were no secrets between us, no walls, raw and brutal, even though we work together for projects, activities, and everything, and even have protocols (e.g. in band, we call our seniors ‘sir’ and ‘madam’). Maybe it’s true that you don’t get another chance at high school. Everyone was going through identity crisis and searching for themselves then, so there’s nothing to lose for being an honest teenage broncin’ buck.

But in adulthood, things are a bit different. Everyone brings a bit of their past to the table, which includes the good and the not so good. The good is usually what one is hired for, the potential to fit into a particular role of an organization and would hopefully make a difference. The not so good, is usually suppressed at an individual level. You don’t bring up how you were fired in your last job, for example. You don’t tell everyone your private pet peeves, because it has absolutely nothing to do with work, right?

Personalities and past experiences, unfortunately, bleeds into the workplace. And like a raven, I slurped in all these like a savage whenever I am given the opportunity. There’s a bit of secret about how my mind works (that thanks to Mark I manage to quantify): growing up an introvert and an insecure socialite, I build complete logical structures of all knowledge in my mind – everything has its place, its reason – including of every person I meet. I rely on this “program” to interact with people. And thus, the good, the not so good, all gets built into the knowledge tree.

Put that in the context of me being a boss. Now that I have varying degrees of understandings of each of my staff in my mind, I suddenly need to be extremely measured about how I reveal that to others. If I expose my staff’s not so good, even in private, my staff would not be able to defend his front that he brought to this organization. On the other hand, I have a better chance at motivating my staff, if I associate his good with the charter of the team, the goals of the organization, and let the person see how his ego can be rubbed when the organization succeeds.

I finally fully appreciate when people bring up the phrase 没有办法下台 (didn’t let the person off the stage). To be an objective boss means to have my role interface with my staff’s role, not for me the person to interface with him or her the person, by which I mean being friends with my staff. In itself, being friends is such an overloaded and multi-connotation thing – everyone has a different idea of what is it to be a friend (vs acquaintance, vs contact etc.), trying too hard to connect with one’s staff at a personal level can potentially be detrimental not just to the company but to both party’s emotional well being.

So, we can’t be friends. In fact, there might not be such a thing in life as a friend when professional work is concerned. This dark conclusion naturally has its exceptions, and that’s what it should be – an exception. For many years, I was operating where trying to be your high school friend was the norm, doesn’t matter if you were a colleague, a vendor or a customer, because I felt that connecting with people and receiving reciprocity gave my life meaning. Now I have to operate to find where people are willing to be an exception to the opposite rule, where people first play their role in the company, and give each other space to be honest and brutal about life only if there’s sufficient accrued good relationships at work.

* * *

I hope from now on, I won’t take personal relationships for granted. Friendship and autonomy are earned, much like trust is earned. It takes one mistake to break all the trust that was built up over the years; similarly, for a large set of workplace friendship, it can take just one unnecessary “offside” to break through the other person’s facade and lose the friendship that was built up.

Put it in my high school level language: Better be fake and only be real when you’re sure the other person’s heart won’t break. It’s just business.

Comments discussions disagreements agreements welcomed.

p/s for those who fall into my exception list (you guys know who you are) – thank you for taking shit from me and still loving me. I love you all.

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Mourning gaining momentum

Lying In State

Wow the mourning week has been getting more and more interesting by the day!

It’s Friday now and I’ve just gotten out of the hall of Parliament House, still feeling slight regret that I did not have the heart to approach the coffin even though I didn’t have to deal with barriers and ushers being on the other side, but certainly satisfied by the 15 minutes that I got to keep vigil over the man, as the music I wrote was performed for the occasion. All this as the public who waited or 8-10 hours got ushered along without any opportunity to stop.

Also glad that even though no photography and videography was allowed, the recording of the music was not explicitly stopped. So much to process, decide, and then seek permission to release. And that’s not the end – there’ll still be another band dedication tomorrow evening. Probably only skipping the final day and staying with the TV.

The day time weather today was really unforgiving. Exactly 1 year ago, I recalled the weeks as we were preparing for Hwa Chong’s 95th anniversary concert around late March, with only rain upon us around concert dates. This year it felt the same – the showers came just last week, and now, back to the scorching hot sun.

This made the sight of thousands and thousands in the Padang area really unbearable to me, as I drove one huge round to find parking. I didn’t expect anyone to drive – the 8 hour wait would make parking unnecessarily expensive. But I was wrong – and even car parks as far as Central had 4 out of 6 floors full.

* * *

This entire week I made a lot of small talk about the grand old man, and it’s really insightful, especially when talking to Singaporeans above a certain age, to learn about what is on the front of their minds.

For me personally it was less about the man (I hardly knew him), but all about the unbelievable mobilisation of the people which I described in my last post.

For some though, it was the lament about the victors writing history. There was no dedication from Ong Teng Cheong for example. Lim Chin Siong was mentioned and put clearly in the light of evil. And so on. Papers gave selective coverage of who visited, Chiam See Tong’s being the most poignant to me.

For some, it was the realisation and amazement that foreigners joined that queue they wished it was pure blood Singaporean, or, themselves the foreigners (PRs included) who did so. There were some interesting anecdotes. One came because her mother from Malaysia who rarely comes to Singapore _insisted_ that her daughter go queue up and pay respects for her. Another brought friends and family who were visiting Singapore through the ordeal.

Probably the most interesting one was a discussion on whether the grand old man is the leaf or the root. I had this lingering doubt when deciding on the style of music I had to write. To portray him as a big root, without which the tree will have to stand hollow on less reliable roots, would be to adopt absolutes, such as conclusive cadences, lament motives, and deep in minor harmonic choices. On the other hand, portraying him as a leaf would entail lots of fleeting harmonies that moves with the wind, but never actually resolving into a perfect cadence before it lands. I choice the later, (mis)using many modern sevenths progressions to lighten the feel, but still tumbled and roll around step wise bass walking line to add to the gravity of the matter (lest a piece be misinterpreted as impressionism). Add a sprinkle of augmented fifths when reaching out to the stars and hollowing out emotions, and diminished sevenths for the heartache phrase endings, and you get yourself a modern requiem.

But when I discussed this with another person, although he also concluded: leaf, it was said clearly as a sign of disapproval. It took a lot for the person to be honest, in private. The real gravity of the matter to him was precisely too many people will misinterpret this grand lying-in-state as the “root” story, prolonging the ruling power for another 20 years just like that, lest the tree comes crumbling down before you know it.

We sometimes listen to music and just let it wash past our ears. Have we even wonder why certain choices were made?

I do, always, but even more so as I grow older and more sensitive. That’s also because now that I have to pen things down of that have much more gravity, I can’t afford to neglect the tiniest of misinterpretations that might follow.

Another day beckons.

* * *

Another well written piece


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Remembering 23/3/2015

Today’s a really unique day to be remembered. I felt I wouldn’t do the day justice if I don’t take my next hour writing this down for posterity.

Some might remember this day as the Johor Sultan’s Coronation, but for most on the island, whether you’re Singaporean, PR or foreigner, you would have woken up to a sad day. Every radio station became Symphony 924. Every TV channel became a history text book. Huge queues formed at both the condolence books and toto outlets (0318?) as the grand old man, the founding father, the pioneer who promise to turn in the grave if he sensed something wrong in the country he founded and loved, was set to be cremated coming Sunday.

I don’t think I’m qualified to write any dedication of this man whom I have not met and yet whose shadows I live in every day. Suffice to say that even though I share his ambitions of bringing the two countries closer together for a somewhat more “just” ideal, I’m currently in no position to make any of that happen. Nevertheless, the legacy of this man would continue to serve as a guide to many challenges I’ll face ahead.

That said, it’s barely 24 hours since he left us at 3:18am, and I felt like I’m living in the world’s most synchronised wake. Some have compared everything that’s transpired today to the North Koreans, except people weren’t expected to wail loudly in public. I disagree. Speaker’s Corner revocation aside, there was a genuine, and almost scary synchronisation across the (Facebook connected) nation, that led to an outpour of both grief and thankfulness. Each expression built on the next, and before you know it a huge echo chamber formed in the virtual atmosphere.

Even the traffic in the morning was slower, and trains did break down as promised as well.

Ok enough of LKY, as there’re plenty of websites and dedications out there on him already. This post is really about counting my blessings working with a resilient team of musicians. Hopefully without naming anyone or implicating anybody in this sensitive period, I would like to express my greatest thanks to all 14 who have performed today.

It’s probably the show with the most “spana” thrown at us. First, the requirements were weird. Our show originally required 7 person to bring music to an assembly of students in a school. But this school wanted 2 copies of it, happening at the same time, in 2 different locations in the school. Fine, we found another 7. But 3 of our regular 7 couldn’t perform. So we found 10 new people. Scheduling rehearsals was hard enough, but we managed to pull it through.

Then came the multiple changes in players after the rehearsals. For some, their priorities were clear, for others, they made a deliberate choice to drop out, and then others were committed but their circumstances forced them out. So fine, we replaced our players. Except we can’t have more rehearsals. One replacement whose father is critically ill in a foreign country had to be home till a certain date. Another had to be deployed overseas for work (that would be me hehe). Most had to juggle teaching and rescheduling of lessons to accommodate such adhoc changes in timing.

Then came the hoax period last week, which we realised we haven’t thought about it being the inevitable as a stream of PMO messages reached the public. One of our musicians was at risk being part of the machinery that _will_ be activated should the inevitable occur. And so when it did happen that the show fell exactly on the same day of the event, we were ready to react to call up backup, only to have the backup leave and go home as the regular player could perform after all. All these within the first 3 hours of the day.

But what took the cake was the engagement with the government. You see, these shows we do in school are primarily for students to learn more about the arts, and therefore paid for by the school, through a particular government programme. The content was up beat and engaging, something we knew worked and clicked with young teenagers. But it also bordered at being disrespectful to some during a 7 day mourning.

And so, we had a total of 2 hours reaction time to redo our programme, changing something we had productised and designed to be repeated in every school who hires us, into something more solemn and reflective. And the request came from both our stakeholders as well as the government.

The rational was that, we had to be sensitive. That I agreed. But to make sure everyone’s needs were taken care of, including our stakeholders, civil servants, the teacher and principal in the school and of course, the students who were the audience, we took it upon ourselves to fix the problem. I found an old chorale score written maybe 8 years ago from scoreexchange.com (it was still sibeliusmusic.com when I uploaded the score) that we downloaded, printed and rehearsed minutes before the show. Emcee scripts were changed and rehearsed also seconds before students streamed in.

If there was one thing I remembered it was the dazed look on the teacher’s face (the why-me? what-happened? did-i-do-anything-wrong? expression) as we explained that we needed the school to communicate with the government machinery responsible for such appropriateness. For us to then act as an advisor and a pace setter to sort things out amicably, was to me, very admirable of the team.

In the end we had a great experience with the relatively small group of students who attended and listened / clapped along suitably. I was positive that in that cozy environment, at least 1 more young soul would be encouraged to pick up an instrument to play music like we do.

Why all these? Because if I were to disclose to you the pittance we earn from doing shows like these, you would have laughed your head off. It was priced competitively assuming that the original team of 7 would perform over and over again with no additional preparations. It assumes every show builds on the previous and there are no further investment on our part to react, what more to react almost instantly like first responders.

In the past, shows were just that: go or no-go. If one key variable changed, we would be rescheduling the show to many months ahead, as students weren’t always available for such non-curriculum type of exposure. The money itself wouldn’t have made a difference when it’s finally divided by 14, even though to the customer (school) it seemed like a large sum of their budget.

What made the show tick is the confluence of a common desire to perform and reach out to new audiences, a fundamental and common grounding in the type of music that’s being played, and an attitude that does not give up no matter how many curved balls we were being thrown.

For example, no amount of rehearsal for this show would be able to bring out the full function of that said last minute chorale, if it wasn’t for the common classical music grounding of phrasing, harmony, balance and ensemble. No amount of money would be able to attract the musician to take up this show instead of the competing gig, if they weren’t happy performing this music over and over again. And no grand person’s birth or death can and shall stand between the innate desires of such an organisation and its purpose. That’s how we musicians deal with the messiness of life.

For that, I drove out the school gate remembering again, why I’m still holding on to this extensible conical tube. As part of the system, I was given, though joining in later than my Singaporean peers, a taste of elite life embraced by the present corridors of power. I walked the halls where people’s lives were shaped by public policy, spun the cogs in the machinery that generates stability, and asked myself ever so often why people decided that the shadow of the old man is the way to go? Have they not seen the daily struggles of man? And some days, like today, the answer is as clear as daylight: I could ask that question in the first place because I chose to struggle like any ordinary folk would, not only in the comforts of this air-conditioned nation, but also under that hot south east asian sun that watched over me as I grew up marching and playing music under.

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Two readings for your consideration:



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Java, first impressions

Java, Indonesia

Every time people ask me if I’ve been to Indonesia the answer has been “Bali” (which feels like a different country), but now I think I can say “Yes” and share an authoritative experience.

Cilegon is one of the most religious corners of Java. In most countries that I’m exposed to thus far, mosques only broadcast call to prayers, but here we get the entire prayer session broadcasted. I was told the locals are generally pious muslims. Churches are banned here apparently (I haven’t check), and the nearest church is in Serang which is an hour away.

It’s a coincident that the western tip of Sumatra – Aceh – is also a deeply religious community, except people are better employed here than Aceh. For being away from Indonesia’s center of gravity, Cilegon feels like Kedah in many ways, huge padi fields, township with beautiful mosques, and heavy industries. Air is certainly poluted by excessive burning in certain factories, but the food and people are still a pleasant embodiment of Indonesian mannerisms.

Jakarta on the other hand feels no different from KL, but 10 times larger. Beyond the comforts of any big cities, the one big thing it should really solve for itself, is traffic. Like omg please solve the traffic please. There’s like 10 times less major artery roads than KL. Sorry to say, but some houses just have to give way as long as the relocation is beneficial to everyone affected.

Notable to this first experience was Es Teler! It’s the local version of shaved ice dessert. It usually consist of avocado, jackfruit and coconut meat, and in one instance with soursop, served in coconut milk base shaved ice not very different from Ais Kacang. M felt that the vegetables here were laced with insecticide but I thought they were fine, just a different way of cooking perhaps. However, some vegetables are still an acquired taste, like the tapioca leafs (which I felt bleh).

Perhaps I had wrong stereotypes earlier, but I’m very happy with the comforts of life here, at least between the 2 cities thus far. 3G is better than landline (obvious to me, surprising to some), malay keywords overlap is high (feels like jap kanji and chinese), but the day to day words are still different and will require some thorough immerssion to get right. It’s also quite odd to get comfortable being addressed as Pak Jiin Joo after a few days. It’s a Pak Pak world :)

Selamat Datang monument

Padi fields along the road

Work Travel

2015 is also turning out to be work travel year for me. 5 days / 4 nights is probably the limit for me mentally. I don’t even know how long I will need to recover, but it seems like I don’t have more than a few hours of extra sleep anyway. Good thing I didn’t fall sick (yet).

Nevertheless, this was one of the hardest work trips away from home. As we travel from Cilegon to Jakarta, my heart was racing through the various scenarios that could have happened at home. How is YC coping? How is baby copy? How are the various groups I’m involved with coping?

They say business travel is hard, and people are better renumerated for it. But just based on my small sample of friends and work contacts, it seems like the norm in Singapore is to travel, and that usually means having to leave your family for a short period of time, with no extra perks.

I made a friend here who told me about his previous job at remote site in Indonesia. 4 months at work, 3 days at home. Repeat. That was the deal. Money was good, but not the communications in the middle of a jungle. He paid Rp. 5000 every time he needs to get into the bowl of the excavator and be elevated into midair, in order to call his wife and daughters.

If there was no travel, Singapore can hardly be a base for any meaningful international business. Certainly not the kinds of technology business that we are building now. When one specialises into a very high value niche, the corresponding customer is usually far and few as well, and mostly spread where the resources of the world are.

This time, I sought out how families cope with short term separation, but gained little new insights. Poeple who said they cope well does not always have the same testimonial from the wife and family (or husband too, just that for this trip it has been consistently male). I’m only glad that YC is willing to learn this together with me, because, she will eventually have to work travel professionally too.

How do you cope with work travel?

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