June 23, 2017

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by Suhaile Md

YOU’D think that with all the anti-Islam prejudice us Muslims chafe against, we would be better at recognising and weeding out the bigotry in our own backyard. Apparently not.

Last Monday’s (May 1) Yahoo article on the minority Ahmadiyyah community in Singapore drew a flurry of Facebook comments. This particular one bothered me:

Yes, Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim even though mainstream Muslims don’t, given the fundamental differences in some beliefs. Even so, neither threats nor anger are justified responses. I was hoping this blatant bigotry was a one-off incident but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Muslim community is not a homogenous one. Just like how Christianity has a multitude of denominations, Muslims are diverse, with many sects and groups approaching the faith in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are two mainstream Muslim sects: Shi’ism and Sunnism.

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Earlier this year, Minister for Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim spoke about the need for Muslims to embrace diversity in an interview with Malay-language newspaper Berita Minggu (BM). He specified the need for the majority Sunnis to respect the minority Shias (also known as Shi’ites), reported ST which had referred to the BM interview.

Said Dr Yaacob: “They pay MBMF (Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund). They come to our mosques. They pray together with us. They celebrate the same Hari Raya. So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?”

So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?

There are no firm numbers in Singapore, but a 2009 Pew report estimated less than 1 per cent of Muslims here are Shia. Over 457,000 Muslims reside here according to the G’s 2010 population census. Globally, up to 13 per cent are Shia.

There was no Shia-Sunni divide during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The split happened a few decades after his death over competing views on who should lead the Muslims. The political struggle evolved into a religious split as different interpretations emerged from different sources of authority, resulting in some differences in practices and theological views on certain issues.

There are many sub-sects within Sunnism and Sh’ism. A minority of Shias in Singapore are from the Dawoodi Bohra sub-sect. They tend to be Indian Muslims and they pray at Masjid Al-Burhani in City Hall, the only Shia mosque in Singapore. The majority Malay Muslim Shias tend to be from the Twelver branch.

Like Dr Yaacob said in the interview, Islam is “very diverse”. Nonetheless both Shias and Sunnis share the same fundamental tenets of the faith. In 1988, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) issued a fatwa (ruling) that Shias are Muslim. A MUIS spokesman said that the fatwa remains valid to this day.

Still, “there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia,” said Mr Yusuf Roslan. The 32-year old radiographer, who became Shia about 10 years ago, once overheard a Madrasah teacher praise the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for killing Shia Muslims. Another time Mr Yusuf’s friend was chased out of a mosque near little India when his turbah was spotted. Unlike Sunnis, some Shias rest their forehead on a clay tablet, or turbah, when prostrating during prayers.

there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia

Mr Habib Albaity has been involved in various Shia organising committees through the years. The 61-year old taxi driver said that there were times when the application to use mosque facilities for Shia events were unsuccessful. He is sure it had to do with them being Shia Muslims. While they have their own space on the second floor of a shophouse at Guillemard Road, it’s inadequate for larger events. They opened their new, larger, Shia centre yesterday (May 11).

When TMG emailed MUIS to ask if Shia Muslims can hold events at mosques, whether said events can be publicised on mosque property, and the possible reasons why they might be denied the use of mosque facilities, a spokesman only had this to say: “A mosque is an open, shared space for all Muslims regardless of orientation, to use for worship, learning and service. All Muslims are free to attend congregational worship together.”

It’s a curious response. Surely, a simple yes you can hold Shia events at mosques but like everyone else successful applications depend on availability, would have sufficed? There was no response to the question on publicity.

But the challenges are not from the Islamic authorities, said Mr Habib. It’s from the ground. People don’t understand Shi’ism and “give bad remarks as if we are not Muslims but very bad people”.

Since her school days, for example, 28-year old Ms Sakinah Abdul Aziz said she has heard offensive comments like “Shia are Kafirs (disbelievers)… oh they are orang sesat (deviant)”.

These are not benign stereotypes.

These are not benign stereotypes. In October 2015, a video of Shia Muslims singing and slapping their chest – a well-known practise – was uploaded on Youtube. There was public backlash significant enough that the owners of the private space near Bedok North, which they had rented, advised them not to apply the following year, said Mr Muhammad Al-Baqir. The 32-year old who was part of the organising committee added that the owners “have nothing against us… it was just the situation at that time”.

So it’s not too much of a stretch to think that mosque managers would prefer to avoid rocking the boat by disallowing Shia Muslim events to be held.

This discomfort with Shi’ism has taken a nasty turn up north. Shia Muslims face legal persecution by the authorities in Malaysia, said Associate Professor Syed Farid Alatas. But it wasn’t always the case, added the National University of Singapore (NUS) academic who specialises in sociology of religion.

A 1984 fatwa by the Malaysian Islamic authority, JAKIM, made it clear that Shi’ism was acceptable. This was reversed in 1996. Anti-Shia fatwas were issued in various states in subsequent years. This is contrary to the views of leading Islamic scholars, like the Shaykh Al-Azhar and Shaykh Qaradawi, from around the world. Now, Shia Muslims are detained and harassed by Malaysian authorities, their places of worship raided. Hate speech is also allowed to circulate.

“The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this,” said Dr Farid. And it’s to a “very great” extent, he claimed.

The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this

I went online to see for myself. A quick search led me to posts and comments on social media and Youtube which demonised Shia Muslims as monkeys, satanic, kafir, sesat, and so on. There’s also a public Facebook group called Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays reject Shi’ism) with over 1,800 members.

It’s not just online. A trip to some Muslim bookstores along North Bridge Road and Geylang Serai revealed some questionable material on Shi’ism – mostly from Malaysia – like this book for example:

Self-flagellation as shown on the cover was outlawed decades back by the highest Shia Muslim religious authorities, said Mr Habib. The blurb describes the book’s contents as a “clear” outline of the “ideological background, and threats posed by Shi’ism against the true Islam… a warning against falling prey to the calls of the Shi’ites.”

There are legitimate doctrinal differences to discuss but “usually these anti-Shia books present a caricature and attack that caricature… it’s substandard scholarship,” said Dr Farid. Traditionally in the Malay- Muslim world, he said, the majority “Sunnis are not anti-Shia” to the extent it is now. There are many reasons for this shift.

One reason is “the rise of more extremist Ulama (religious scholars) influenced by Salafism” which in turn is “partly related to the greater influence of Saudi Arabia in Malaysian affairs”, he said. Salafist anti-Shia propaganda from Saudi Arabia spread in response to the Iranian revolution in 1979 which saw a secular government replaced by a Shi’ite-oriented leadership.

While there is extremism in many branches of Islam, including Shi’ism, Dr Farid believes “Salafism is the most dominant form of extremism in the Muslim world today”. He stressed however that “the vast majority of Salafis do not condone physical violence and are in fact against terrorism”. He meant extremist “in the sense that” it is too “exclusivist” and “legalistic” to the extent that even Sunni branches of Islam like Sufism are also considered deviant and dangerous. That said, Salafists are Muslims and he is “not a fan of banning” them.

Exclusivism, or the idea that there is only one narrow interpretation of Islam, is at the heart of the discomfort with Shias. This poster from 2015 for example advertised a seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the “dangers of Shi’ism”:

Seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the dangers of Shi’ism to be held on the Deepavali holiday.

It’s not clear if the seminar went ahead or whether anyone had complained to the authorities.

It’s more difficult to hold such seminars now. Since Jan 1 this year, all religious teachers must register under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) to ensure what is taught takes Singapore’s context into account.

According to the Code of Ethics which must be followed, an Islamic teacher “must recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam and may choose to adopt and teach any of these” so long as it does not cause public disorder. Also teachers cannot claim any practice of Islam is “deviant or unacceptable” unless the “Fatwa Committee has pronounced it to be so in a ruling”.

This is good methinks but more can be done. Given what is found in some bookstores, on social media, and the personal accounts by Shia Muslim Singaporeans, it’s clear that anti-Shia sentiments in Singapore are not insignificant. While such sentiments cannot be banned out of existence, stereotypes that fuel bigotry need to be engaged directly by religious and community leaders of all stripes together along with the community.

MUIS’ azatizah code of ethics recognises that there are “diverse opinions and schools of thought” in Islam. Maybe MUIS can consider having exhibitions and seminars presenting the diversity of Islamic thought at the various mosques – a grassroots education programme. Intra-faith dialogues at mosques would also be a good start.

Recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam

There is a view that addressing differences in plain view – even if not sensationalised like the Imam video case – will blow the issue out of proportion riling people up unnecessarily. I think this misses the heart of the problem.

The point of the ARS is to ensure Islamic teaching is contextualised to our own society. But foreign celebrity preachers have the largest social media presence. Who vets them? Some like Zakir Naik are controversial and are banned from speaking here.

Yet through videos and social media posts, the ideas flow unchallenged, freely, online, publicly. Closed door engagement will never come close to the reach of viral videos. We risk having only one narrow interpretation of Islam dominating, that too a foreign one. Islam’s diversity in Singapore should be actively defended.

So public engagement should supplement closed door sessions. No doubt some will see engagement as a direct challenge and get upset. But it’s cowardly and wrong to stand by quietly while bigotry festers. Let’s take a stand, please.

 

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by Brenda Tan

ON LABOUR Day, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend whose daughter takes the same school bus as my 11-year-old girl. Her daughter had told her that Ah Girl was watching a clip from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” – and was concerned.

“13 Reasons Why” is a television series based on a story written by Jay Asher, in which the teen protagonist who commits suicide leaves behind 13 tape recordings on why she ended her life. Each tape implicated a person whom she blamed for her choice to kill herself.

It seems an intriguing and well-constructed piece of fiction, except that when translated into a highly-publicised teen drama series, alarm bells begin ringing for parents and the international mental health community.  They understand how easily a Hollywood treatment of such a complex issue as suicide may glamorise suicide instead.

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A couple of days before receiving that WhatApp message about “13 Reasons Why”, a parent in my 9-year-old son’s class parents’ WhatsApp chat group shared a news article about the “Blue Whale Suicide Challenge”. The report, which was picked up by other major news media, linked the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia to playing the “Blue Whale Challenge”, in which youths followed the commands of a game-master in ever-escalating acts of danger, culminating in their own suicide. Although fact-checking site Snopes.com said that the claims are unconfirmed, it’s nonetheless of concern that our young people may be susceptible to such sinister suggestions which put so little value on life.

The concerns of parents here were enough for the Education ministry to post a comprehensive advisory on schoolbag.sg regarding suicide games in the online media and how parents should handle it.

Of course, our concerns and fears for our children’s mental health is not new. No one doubts that our high-stress and exam-oriented school culture can easily create a tragic situation where failing to meet parents’ and the school’s expectations may cause yet another student to contemplate suicide. It only remains for parents and school counsellors to be vigilant when dealing with our children, to take note of their behaviour and well-being, and to create an environment where our children can feel safe enough to share their feelings of insecurity with us.

I read the news about the Blue Whale Challenge, I immediately shared the story with the kids and we had a chat about the implications of this challenge. I asked them what they thought of the challenge and how similar or different this challenge was to other internet viral challenges like the ALS ‘Ice Bucket’ Challenge and the more dangerous ‘Cinnamon’ Challenge. We talked about our responses to such challenges and dares, and what separates cowardice and bravery.

For my 18-year-old son, however, I had to be a little more subtle and a whole lot more ‘clueless’. “What’s this Blue Whale Challenge hah?” I asked him – and had him explain it to me. My “Why are they like that?” question encouraged him to give his views on the people who participated in the challenge and the game convener. It’s really good to know that he’s up-to-date with current affairs and, more importantly, to be assured that he places a high value on life.

I had to be a bit careful about talking about “13 Reasons Why” with Ah Girl though, because I didn’t want it to affect her relationship which her friend who had told her mother about her viewing the clip.

It turned out Ah Girl was watching a YouTube video on a friend’s smartphone (because her mobile doesn’t have data roaming), and the Netflix video ad for the series had to play in full before she could watch her TED-Ed video.

I asked her what she knew about “13 Reasons Why” and she shared that she knew it was an M18 show about a girl’s suicide, but she wasn’t interested to watch a show like that. Her younger Di-di, aged 9, chimed in to say that he also saw the ad for the series when he surfed YouTube, but won’t watch it “because it doesn’t have a funny part!”.

“Is there a difference between watching ’13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Star Wars’?” I asked.

“One is real, but the other is not,” the boy replied.

“Actually, both are not real,” I corrected, even though I knew what he meant. “They are both stories written by people and made into movies.”

I felt that it was important for my kids to see the difference between fact and fiction. If they mistook a fantasy for reality, it would create the basis for their behaviours and actions. This is why it is highly unlikely that playing ‘Counterstrike’ would turn Kor Kor into a terrorist, or watching ‘Star Wars’ would turn Di-di into a Sith Lord, even if we did encounter quite a number of these cosplay characters over the Star Wars Weekend at Gardens by the Bay.

However, if my kids believed that Hannah Baker’s suicide story is real, they may just simplify suicide as an option for revenge and justice from beyond the grave, and an action worth carrying out when they encounter difficult times.

Therein lies the true danger of headline news like the unverified ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ and the concerns about ’13 Reasons Why’. Both suicide-focussed stories cut too close to the divide between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. For vulnerable youths seeking attention or help, these stories may provide an unanticipated call to action that we are not prepared for.

We can’t stop them from watching such videos and clips all the time, but we can start talking to them about the value of life and steer them into healthy pursuits. This is in the hope that the suicide option will never cross their minds as a way to overcome what problems they face. They must know that life is very much worth living whatever the fantasy or fiction might portray.

 

 

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Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

SO SOME people are kicking up a fuss over what Minister Chan Chun Sing said about the above question while referring to jobs. It seems that he was trying to tell his audience of polytechnic students not to keep thinking about landing their dream jobs immediately but to find meaning in whatever job they’re in. Is this a good analogy? Many people are trying to stretch the analogy, which I was told was made in a spontaneous speech. You have people castigating the minister for suggesting to young people that they can pick anyone to marry, or that he was telling them to be content with whatever job they have. Worse, some are making it “personal’’.

I have been wondering about my own career after graduation and whether I married the one I love or love the one I married. I can say that in my undergraduate days, I was actually infatuated with banking and flirted with the idea of working in a bank and counting money. I had a couple of bank suitors after graduation but eventually plumped for journalism. Not because I love journalism. I didn’t know a thing about it and wasn’t even sure I’d like him/it. I decided on him/it because he/it would make a better provider. Serious. It paid better.

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Maybe it’s because I belong to a generation where being able to provide for the family – I mean the first family with Mom and Dad – was a deeply ingrained duty of children. Even if there was no romance in the job, I told myself I would stick it out – and succeed. A decade later, I was asked to list a hobby for a company book. I wrote that “work is my hobby’’, to the astonishment of my colleagues then. Maybe they thought I was trying to curry favour with management. I don’t care. It was the truth.

More than two decades later, I am still wedded to journalism although I’ve divorced the company. I sometimes ask myself if I should have worked in a bank, which was, after all, my first love even though not as good a provider. The thing is, you never know if you’ll be happy doing your dream job unless you’ve tried it out. It’s like a couple for whom the honeymoon is over and business of living together starts. You could get along comfortably with each other, or you could grate on each other’s nerves.

I have come across too many people who wish they’re doing something different from what they originally wanted to do. For them, I advise a trial separation or a long holiday, like no-pay leave or a sabbatical, to re-charge their life. But since marriage is a death-do-us-part affair, it does mean that people have to make the effort to work at it. Effort which must start from the day you made your marriage vows. It’s no point starting a new job with a long face and making yourself feel worse by focusing on the things you don’t like.

I don’t think this is said often enough because we’re now so concerned about living the dream rather than making a living: people are being PAID to do a job and that job, however dis-likeable, should be done well.

If the unhappiness is overwhelming and affects your ability to justify your salary, then get a divorce. Play the field or maybe there is already a suitor waiting in the wings. Okay, I too am guilty of extending the analogy and no doubt, have succeeded in riling up some people. Just allow me this: Get an internship in your dream job, then you’ll find out whether you can live with the person you love. If you can, the question posed above is moot.

 

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by Suhaile Md

Suhaile attended the last two More Than Just Series of Dinner conversations on race. One of the underlying questions participants grappled with was this: Is there always a clear line between what’s racist and what’s not? The discussions in the dinner itself did not cover race-based jokes. So here’s a short reflection on situations in which race-based jokes, in his opinion, are acceptable.

I ONCE had a stranger do the “indian head shake” barely five minutes into our conversation. He changed his accent too for added effect. A lame attempt at humour that hardened the ice rather than break it.

To be fair, I had cracked a few self-deprecating jokes on stage during a presentation earlier. But the jokes were not racial. Perhaps my self-deprecation led him to believe that I’m not “the sensitive sort”, as some like to say when their racial jokes fall flat.

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Truth to tell, my friends and I – of various races – frequently engage in race-based jokes that would well, embarrass others outside the group. But they are very close friends. I could never fathom why some people thought it ok to walk up to a stranger and make such “jokes”.

When I ask them, they usually reply, “but my Indian friend is ok with it leh, so not racist what, why you so sensitive?” Or they say: “But X can make such jokes why I cannot?”

Ah, well, context my friends. Context is everything.

Look at race-based jokes like you would butt-slaps. That’s right, the childish, nonsensical game some kids engage in: “HAHA I HIT YOUR BACKSIDE!”

With that analogy in mind, here’s a quick guide (and please don’t kill me if you disagree).
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a. Do it to a stranger and it’s criminal.

b. Not all friends are cool with it no matter how close you are. Respect that.

c. It’s never appropriate in formal settings, even if you’re the best of friends.

d. Never use it as a weapon no matter how justifiably upset and angry you are. It’s humiliating.

e. Also, please don’t try it out with people you’ve barely met.

f. Don’t dish it out if you’re not comfortable being at the receiving end.

g. Too much of it gets tiring very fast.

h. Not everyone understands this sort of… friendly banter. And not understanding it doesn’t mean they are “too sensitive”. So don’t be a jerk about it.

i. Being cool with it between friends does not make one a sadomasochist (or in the case of race, self-hating “insert race”)

j. You need to be really close friends to even consider it… and these friends are often the first to rush to your aid when sh*t hits the fan.

k. When in doubt, just don’t.

 

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by Suhaile Md

This is the second of three articles on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Participants attend all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here.
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DAY two (Mar 31) of the dinner series and the stories streamed out. Of racism, in racially harmonious Singapore. Some spoke of the casual cruelty that springs from ignorance. Others lamented the broader sense of discrimination that permeates society at large.

But underlying it all, was the question: When is it racist, really?

A 28-year-old Indian male participant mentioned during the large group discussion that stereotypes do have some basis in reality, or “nuggets of truth so to speak”. He said, for example, that he found the various races can smell different. He thinks it’s due to cultural factors like diet for example. Not bad, just different.

So, when a child asks: ”Why you smell like that?”, it might just be innocent curiosity on the child’s part and the child just does not have the language or maturity to phrase it politely. Likewise for other observations, such as “why you so black?” or “why you so hairy?”.

In response, an Indian lady recalled the time in primary one when a Chinese boy refused to hold her hand. It’s something young students do when they line up during school assembly. “He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.”

He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.

Just like it affected her when “someone said my hair was so oily you could fry a fish”. And it definitely “affected me in secondary school when my classmates all spoke Mandarin, and for no reason of my own I was excluded from people with whom I could engage with”.

She said she doesn’t “attribute any malice to any of these episodes” but she wishes she was able to make her former classmates “understand that it hurts”. It’s cruel how casually ignorant questions cut.

The lady was hurt as a child because of her race. But by her own account, she did not think it was malicious. Would it be fair to call her former school mates racist? Well, the intentions may not have been racist, but the outcome certainly was.

On hearing the Indian lady’s story, a Chinese lady added: “Race really played a really big part in choosing a primary school for my daughter.”

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Why race matters in school choice

The Chinese lady is married to an Indian man. Their daughter has darker skin. Even though her daughter can “speak really good Mandarin”, the Chinese kids at the playground “just don’t talk to her at all and exclude her”.

When it was time to choose a school, the mother had three choices, a top Chinese school which was her alma-mater, a neighbourhood school nearby, and a convent school.

Following the advice of most people, she was thinking of either the top school or the school next door, “until a Eurasian mother came and talked to me and said… you want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?”

You want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?

Likewise for the neighbourhood school because she lived “in a new estate… with many new citizens from China and Malay(sian) Chinese.” Given her daughter’s experience at the playground, she realised it might play out the same way at school.

So she followed the advice of the Eurasian mother who had said: “Send her to convent, she’ll mix, she’ll blend in there with everybody.”

The Chinese mother’s sharing led to a discussion on how individual experiences might build up to society-wide stereotypes and consequently racial discrimination.

When a Mandarin speaking yet-not-Chinese-looking child is at risk of being ostracised on account of skin tone, what more the other races?

Furthermore, as another participant mentioned, his secondary school, a top Independent school, only had a handful of Malay students in the whole cohort of about 400. Let alone Special Assistant Plan (SAP) schools which only offers Mandarin as a second language. Are such schools racist? Do they end up allowing stereotypes to foment due to a lack of exposure to citizens of other races?

As a Eurasian man in his 40s put it, racial differences are visible. “You can see what the guy looks like but you don’t know his” background or who he is. This can lead to viewing everything through a racial lens.
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When race becomes the only lens

The Eurasian participant brought up the example of the radio DJs who got into trouble a few months back. They were discussing a survey on the sleep patterns of Singaporeans. In the process, they made remarks that stereotyped certain races. They were subsequently fined by the G.

Said the participant: “They split (survey results) it according to racial lines. What is that teaching you? How is race even relevant? Let’s talk about what kind of jobs they are doing, which neighbourhoods are they living in, how are they getting to work, those are things that will teach you things that are useful that you can turn into policy or constructive discussion.

“At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?”

At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?

Expanding on his point, other participants said that the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) categorisations in Singapore forces a racial lens on everything even if there’s no need to.

However, a Malay social service practitioner in his mid-30s felt there may be a “need to compartmentalise according to racial groups because members of a “particular community would know what works best… what will be culturally sensitive, what will not.”

That said, he added, after a certain point it blinds us. “Race is just a lens that we put on.” What about viewing the issues through another lens, like class?

Race is just a lens that we put on.

In his work, he found that a Chinese boy from a single parent household living in a rented flat has much more in common with the Malay boy with a similar background, than he did with other Chinese kids with more stable families.

At this juncture, a Chinese participant asked the Malay social service practitioner if he thought too much focus on race “hides all the other factors which are more important”.

“Definitely”, he replied.
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Ghosts of policies past

For example, on the issue of drug abuse, when the social service practitioner visited prisons, he said, “for every one Chinese inmate I see, I see four or five Malays”. That’s a fact, “a reality my community is compounded with, but again we need to stop saying” it’s a Malay problem. It’s wrong to just attribute it to race.

Back in the 70s, a whole generation of Malay men were left in limbo because they were not enlisted for National Service (NS). Many of them could not find a job because they were not officially discharged from their NS obligation. Employers did not want to take the risk of hiring them. It was safer to hire someone who completed their NS.

“He can’t get a job, he just waits, NS never comes, nobody calls him, puts him in a difficult situation…” and that’s a contributing factor for the drug abuse cases. It’s a challenge the Malay Muslim community is dealing with.

This has an effect over generations, and we’re still feeling it now. Yet when the drug problem is discussed, it perpetuates stereotypes by focussing on race.

He added: “I’m not just saying this, this is actually based on academic literature I studied back in my tertiary days (as a sociology major). There are so many other structures that either work for you or against you.”

Another structural issue that came up during the discussions was on how Singapore’s elites might have blind spots when it comes to race.

Most participants, both Chinese and non-Chinese, acknowledged that a lot of top schools seem to have under-representation of minority races.

The trouble is, a participant mused, many top students and scholars come from the above mentioned top schools. They then proceed into the Military for example where it’s a predominantly Chinese background. Many parts of the Armed Forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – have little to no Malay Muslim representation especially. So it’s likely that many of these top leaders have little to no exposure interacting with minorities since their school days.

Yet, these same military leaders from lieutenant-colonels and above are channeled into various parts of the civil service or state affiliated companies where they influence policy making decisions.

Have they had the opportunity to examine pre-conceived and unchallenged stereotypes that might have calcified from their school days? Based on the stories shared, many minorities had schoolmates who had no racist intent, yet the outcomes of their actions were racist nonetheless. Maybe this is something that needs to be addressed.

 

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

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by Mahita Vas

IN OCTOBER 2015, my husband and I contacted one of the participating insurance agencies about signing up for the Integrated Shield Plan (IP). We were keen on a better coverage than what was offered on our MediShield Life plans. Within days, we heard that my husband’s application had been approved. Mine was rejected, but the agent said she would appeal. Less than a week later, I was told the appeal was also rejected. No other option was offered.

I tried all the other agencies. At that time there were five – AIA, Aviva, Great Eastern, NTUC Income and Prudential. I was rejected by all of them. Great Eastern told me not to bother applying because my application would definitely be rejected.

Disheartened, I pointed out that I was fit and healthy. I exercised regularly and was careful about what I ate. Neither a smoker nor a drinker. Minimum eight hours sleep. But the answers were all the same – nope. Not approved.

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All because I share one thing in common with these people – Catherine Zeta-Jones, Graham Greene, Winston Churchill, Nina Simone, Lee Joon, Demi Lovato, Carrie Fisher and Eason Chan. The list goes on: Mel Gibson, Stephen Fry, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale. The list does go on but I’ll stop here.

They are amongst the greatest artists, musicians, performers, writers and thinkers who ever lived. I cannot, dare not, compare myself to any of these leaders in their respective fields, being nowhere nearly as accomplished as any of them. Great as their achievements have been, they are also, first and foremost, people. Just like me. And like about 2 per cent of the world’s population, including Singapore’s.

People with a dreadful illness once known as manic depressive illness, now known as bipolar disorder. An illness marked by extreme mood swings, where patients go from feeling overly happy to feeling empty. Bipolar disorder is indiscriminate, incurable and requires lifelong medication. With diligent medication and visits to the doctor, it is possible for patients to function as normally as anyone.

When I appealed to the insurance companies, I provided them with a doctor’s report from the Institute of Mental Health, which stated that I was compliant with medication and in full remission. Still, my appeals were rejected. I questioned the discrimination – after all, they could simply provide exclusions for any psychiatric treatment or injuries arising from my condition, for instance, injuries sustained in a failed suicide attempt. Some of the agencies raised the issue of two other minor and common ailments but when challenged, agreed that without bipolar disorder, I would get an IP with exclusions for those ailments. The rejection was blamed squarely on bipolar disorder.

Discrimination forces people to keep fighting for equitable treatment. So, on a friend’s advice, I went to see my MP at a Meet-The-People Session armed with an appeal letter, along with all the rejection letters. I didn’t get to meet my MP but his team of volunteers who looked into my case were very helpful. They said it was unlikely that any of the international agencies would bother about a letter from an MP, and advised focusing on NTUC Income as it was my best chance. I left feeling hopeful because my MP was none other than Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Several weeks later, I received a letter which said this, among the usual official phrases:

“We hope you understand that it is our duty to underwrite each case according to our underwriting guidelines consistently so as to be fair to the others who contribute to the risk pool.”

Please help me understand how I could be at a greater risk than someone who drinks and smokes heavily and may even be obese? Risk of what, exactly?

Followed by this:

“Moving forward, we are willing to assess your coverage in future, when you have fully recovered and have been discharged from your follow up for your bipolar disorder condition without the need for medication.”

Brilliant. The day I am discharged from my follow up, when I no longer need medication, will be the day I die. Bipolar disorder is incurable.

Mental illness has no known comorbidity with physical illness. By rejecting my application and appeals, these insurance companies are deliberately denying me coverage for illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, all of which have no relation to my mental state.

I made a random check with the overseas offices of two of the international insurance agencies which rejected my application. All offered critical illness plans for psychiatric patients, though with exclusions. Some plans offered supplementary coverage for psychiatric care. So why exclude psychiatric patients in Singapore? Because they can?

If I could bring Isaac Newton, Beethoven or Charles Dickens back to this future, living in Singapore and requiring an IP, I wonder if these companies would deny them coverage.

I also wonder why NTUC Income thought it fit to use me, specifically my condition, on their first Future Peek campaign, and yet think I am unworthy of their insurance policy. Use my condition for marketing but spit me out when I want to buy an IP. Such hypocrisy.

NTUC Income’s website states “Insurance Made Simple, Made Honest, Made Different” and with great emphasis, “People. First”.  I wonder what they really mean by those claims.

 

Mahita Vas is the author of ‘Praying To The Goddess Of Mercy: A Memoir Of Mood Swings’. She spends her time on advocating mental health issues and pursuing personal interests including reading and writing.

 

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by Ong Lip Hua
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THE trends are clear: We’re headed for a future where full-time employment is going to be a smaller slice of the pie, and where skills, both hard and soft, will bear more fruit over a career than the qualification you graduate with.
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A recent JobsDB report on how more than 10,000 respondents from seven Asian countries think that promotions are based mostly on your “supervisor liking you” and “leadership ability” tells of the need for soft skills in all types of employment. Job performance was also high up on the list from both employee and employer perspectives, especially in Singapore.
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Most Singaporean parents see studying and academics as their children’s job specialisation and invest heavily to this end. In some families, other childhood experiences, even basic life-skills like housekeeping, cooking and carrying your own bag, are subcontracted to a maid, grandparent or parent, who picks up after the kids. In exchange, the children are expected to deliver stellar academic results in school.
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And while good grades might set you up for a good start in a career, at what point does sacrificing other areas of development in favour of better grades begin to hurt a person? Would it make sense then to gear our children’s education so specifically towards grades?
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This approach has been hotly debated for the last few years, even as the G has begun to call for change through initiatives like Skillsfuture.
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It reminds me of how Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie, described the diversity of her team in a high-tech future: “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: Over-specialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”
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But what future are we preparing our children for? Would stellar but narrow academic performances be sufficient, or even give a competitive edge as we think it would? Would it be good for the individual and for society, or do we court Kusanagi’s “slow death”?
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HRinasia cited a February 2016 Willis Towers Watson 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study that measured employers in Singapore expecting a three per cent drop in full time employment over the next three years, and a 59 per cent increase in contingent workers in Singapore, compared to 25 per cent globally, over the same three year period. NTUC expects the 200,000-strong freelancer pool to grow in the years to come. These reports seem to say that our children have to be prepared for periods of non-full time employment.
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This points to the need to have a trade skill to participate in the contingent economy. The need to “bid” and “win” contracts would also require large doses of communication and inter-personal skills for effective networking. Yet these skills are not properly taught in the classroom, and perhaps they can never be.
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When Australia, one of the world’s education powerhouses, finds that skills are insufficient in its education system and that collaboration is increasingly more important than competition, we need to take heed.
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While tuition centres are abundant in Singapore, information on non-academic training, both in schools and by private trainers, is scarce. It is perhaps due to the lack of awareness and hence demand (and budget) that such services remain either a peripheral or the domain of the more well-off.
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But the real solution is simpler – help our kids balance their in-school learning with real-life application: temporary and part-time jobs, apprenticeships and internships, non-curricular activities and engagements and hands-on work at home. Make more holistic university choices and take in basic lessons from the army like making your bed in the morning.
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Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.
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by Bertha Henson

SO THE G is thinking about what to do about “fake” news. I am flustered. How heavy a hand will it take? What happened to the “light touch” approach? I can hear people screaming about why I am supporting fake news. I’m not. I don’t think the word “fake” and “news” even go together.

Do we have a big fake news problem here? How big is the problem? Some anti-establishment people will say news in the Mainstream Media (MSM) is all fake, because it’s calculated to make the G look good in the headlines and in the telling of the story. The thing is, even if the stories are complimentary, they aren’t based on false information and you would have to trust that the MSM has all the information it needs to make a judgement call.

I think governments around the world like to look good. They get angry at being caught out on a lie, failed promises and botched programmes. Every government would like its media to be its propaganda machine. The test is whether the people will regard the media as such and ditch it altogether as untrustworthy. Woe is the government which puts such a tight rein on the media that even its most important messages cannot reach its intended audience.

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Fake news sites, or sites that have some fake news, used to be dominated by those who have political agendas. Increasingly, the industry has turned in good money too. Witness The Real Singapore’s (TRS) rise and demise.

I am not sorry for TRS but have always wondered if the Sedition Act was the only tool available to bring the site down. The Class Licence Act was only invoked after the heavier legal weapon was wielded. In its review, I’m hoping that the Ministry of Law won’t take the easy way out and suggest legislation to crack down on “fake news”. I say this because there are other tools which can be applied first – and are sometimes applied. For the individual, it is the Protection from Harassment Act and defamation laws. In Singapore, however, it seems that the review is to protect the interest of the State after its failure to utilise the Protection from Harassment Act.

Of course, the interest will be defined as the preservation of law and order and social harmony concerns. The phrase is “right of reply”.

I suggest that the G looks at all the weapons in its arsenal before resorting to drafting a Bill for a speedy route through Parliament.

My question is: Is the G already doing enough to put its point of view across in the first place? Does it give enough information so that people wouldn’t fill the gaps with speculative comment? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the PUB price hike could have been explained better. So too the disastrous and out-of-touch move to call a permanent exhibition, Syonan Gallery.

Which brings me to one of the weapons which the G has said would counter misinformation and gossip: The Factually website. Launched in 2012, way before other governments around the world introduced their own channels, it is now a shambles.

The “trending articles” are old articles which people are still reading, like what is Zika, probably because of its re-emergence, which the website doesn’t explain. Quite a few old issues re-surface because they become current, like why GST is imposed on waterborne tax. This is probably because of the impending price rise – which the website doesn’t explain.

There is a piece on “Why are electricity tariffs rising?”, dated July 2016, when every household knows it has gone up again on April 1. The U-save rebates are therefore dated, which is a pity given that the G had announced a rise in the last Budget. Sometimes, the G doesn’t know how to help itself.

Factually’s “news” section is a hotch-potch of articles that are lifted from MSM, which only propagates the perception that they are G mouthpieces. Increasingly, there are re-writes of press releases, supposedly by Ministry of Communications and Information staffers and FAQs on policies which the ministries put up as annexes to the media in the hope that they will be published.

There are some attempts to debunk “fake news” and name the perpetrators but in the main, it’s more a regurgitation of G policy than a head-on clash. The biggest take-down was during the haze or when sites and bloggers were named.

The most recent posts of such kind had to do with remarks attributed to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in October 2016.

States Times Review (STR) article “Law Minister K Shanmugam: Eurasian Singaporeans are Indians” is a disgraceful fabrication. The Minister never said any of the things STR attributes to him. Indeed, he never said anything about Eurasians nor were there any questions posed to him about Eurasians at the IPS conference. It is malicious of STR to spread such vicious falsehoods, calculated to sow discord among our different ethnic groups. The Government will review STR’s post and decide whether to take further action against STR.

STR gave its response on its own website.

Editor’s note:
States Times Review report news without fear or favour, and will not entertain the Lawless Minister. States Times Review operates under laws of the Australia government, K Shanmugam is welcome to sue us under the Australian judiciary. As a Law Minister, resorting to police reports and lawsuit threats as the first response to criticisms speaks volume about the sad state of political affairs in Singapore.

Sometimes, it’s oblique, like this one before the September 2015 General Elections.

There have been claims on some online websites that the Government will raise the GST after the forthcoming General Elections to fund increased spending planned in the next term of government. There is no basis to these claims, and they are inconsistent with what the Government has recently stated.

In the 2015 Budget Statement in February, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated that the revenue measures the government had already undertaken will provide sufficiently for the increased spending planned for the rest of this decade.

Given that this is on the Factually website, it’s going to be tough for the G to change its mind…

Why doesn’t the G confront fake news perpetrators directly, like Snopes or PolitiFact, especially when policies have been distorted?

My view is that the G has to show that it has done more to resist the fake news plague before it embarks on something heavy-handed.

MPs have been a disappointment. No question was asked of the minister in the last sitting earlier this month when he spoke of the review. Last month, there was one question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who wanted to know how the webpage selects falsehoods to respond to.

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said the site aims to clarify “widespread or common misperceptions of government policy, or incorrect assertions on matters of public concern that can harm Singapore’s social fabric”. It was concerned with facts, not opinions, he added.

Going by Factually, we’re doing pretty well on the fake news front. The G has very little fake news to debunk. Which makes you wonder why a review is even needed.

 

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Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road.
Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road on Sunday (Photo: Sean Chong/TMG)

by Bertha Henson

I am getting old(er), so I don’t recall how many times I have seen plans to re-fresh and re-vitalise Orchard Road. An undergraduate doing her thesis on pop culture asked me last week about Swing Singapore, which was decades ago but which I still remember as a teenager. I was there! It was boring, walking the pedestrian-only road with deejays doing their best to hype the crowd. Except that everybody was just waiting for something to happen – rather than make it happen.

The plans to revitalise Orchard Road sounds fun, but it’s really more of the same thing as in past plans. Allowing more pedestrians and activities (buskers still need a licence no?) and festivals at open places, making Orchard Road pedestrian-friendly – which actually is if you consider the sidewalks are extremely wide, even without the suggestion to close off one lane. Have you ever had trouble walking along Orchard Road?

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We’re told there will be a Design Incubator, which sounds like a term that should remain in one-North or Science Park, showcasing local talent. Should we get excited about having scramble crossings?

It seems to me we are putting cart before horse and exploring ideas without understanding why Orchard Road is the way it is now – and what is it now, exactly?

What are we concerned about? That tourists are staying away from the street? Or locals giving it a miss? That there’s a parking problem? That retailers are complaining about lack of business? Even if the G goes about laying the infrastructure (and take away all the green lungs in the area), what’s the bet that people will come?

Don’t we recall the hype that accompanied the openings of ION Orchard, 311@Somerset, Knightsbridge, Orchard Central and Orchard Gateway? Have we considered that the road is too malled-up with stores that are too fancy and high-priced – that is, if we are thinking about getting locals down.

In any case, locals are well-served by the strategically-placed suburban malls. Neighbourhood centres are bustling with plenty of activities organised by town councils and commercial operators. Why go to Orchard Road? For high-class dining and high-price boutiques?

If it’s the high-priced parking that’s the problem, then there are at least three MRT stations there, so is the solution really to get everyone to go car-lite if they want to go there? If people are still attached to their cars especially if they’re shopping. Again, this is only if we’re thinking about local participation.

If the idea is to court foreign tourists, then what sort of effort have been made to ask them for their views on Orchard Road? Why have a plan which is without their feedback? Surely, we can’t be conjuring things from our imagination rather than based on information. If Orchard Road is losing out as a shopping destination, what else would tourists be looking for? Plenty of happenings everyday and night?

I took at look at Orchard Road’s website for events this month. There is Fiesta on a Great Street, from April 21 to 23 and we’re called upon to “ feast on local favourites and new gourmet classics presented by Baker’s Oven Patisseries, Café O, Good Chance Restaurant, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Potluck and Rice Bowl”. It doesn’t say if the fare is discounted but 20 per cent of proceeds go to the Singapore Red Cross. So, it looks like a charity programme. You can also pay $29.21 to attend a masterclass with five chefs. Don’t know how this adds to vibrancy. There will be “local acts”, but don’t know who or where they will play.

Maybe everybody’s preparing to hype the Great Singapore Sale (GSS), which over the years, is beginning to look more like attempts to get in the Chinese tourists. The GSS, which used to be an Orchard Road staple, extends to heartland shops too although you see fewer taking part, so why go to Orchard Road?

Okay, maybe Orchard Road is supposed to be a place to jalan-jalan, window shop and look at the myriad complexions and modes of dressing of the people who are there. I, for one, find the activity entertaining. But it also makes me feel like a fish out of water – most of them don’t look like me. So is Orchard Road really for foreigners because I have no reason to be there except to shop at Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. I’d rather sit in a coffeeshop or a café in the heartlands – and feel at home. Our foreign workers probably feel more at home in Orchard Road if you go by the congregations that mass in open spaces having picnics on weekends.

This is really odd because in big cities, the foreign tourist sees more locals at their prime spots than their own kind. It’s part of the tourist experience to able to see locals doing their own thing, so to speak.

As I said, maybe I am getting old(er). I didn’t see Orchard Road in the same blasé light when I was a teenager. Then again, I have it on good authority that teenagers now have so many more places to flock to than in my time.

All I am asking is whether we’ve taken a hard look at why Orchard Road is the way it is, before moving on to grand plans which require construction and hoardings. Take away words like “revitalise”, “rejuvenate” and “refresh”, and ask why is Orchard Road so dead first.

 

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by Danielle Lim

‘I look at him sitting at the table, between the certificates on his left and the ashes on his right, between the past on his left and the present on his right, between success on his left and brokenness on his right, between the hope of a bright future, on his left, and the courage to keep going, on his right. My uncle. An ordinary man. Some would say an unsuccessful man. Many would say, a mad man. But for me, I will remember him with his smile and the small, beautiful sounds he has echoed into my life.’
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TWENTY-FOUR years ago, I looked at my uncle as I wrestled with the predicament that his mental illness had put him, and our family, in. The lines above, taken from my memoir, ‘The Sound of SCH’, depict the struggle to make sense of his life after he developed schizophrenia.

When my uncle had a mental breakdown in the 1960s, my grandparents had no idea that he had become unwell. Even when diagnosed much later, treatment at Woodbridge Hospital (the former Institute of Mental Health) was rejected by my grandmother. My mother became his caregiver for the next thirty years, and I spent my growing years watching the loneliness that defined his life, as well as the despair that the circumstances often brought to my mother.

Awareness, treatment and support are better today than during my uncle’s time. Still, the challenges that come when a person crosses from being mentally well to unwell are very daunting. If a word can be associated with this baffling class of illnesses, then that word, to me, is “silence” – the silent onset of illness, the silent suffering of the one afflicted, and the silent despair that family members endure.

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The Silent Onset of Illness

Unlike many forms of physical illnesses, mental illness cannot be seen. The changes in the brain and mind, while often occurring over a period of time, also often occur insidiously. If cancer is called “the silent killer”, perhaps mental illness can be called “the silent destroyer”.

Diagnosis of mental illnesses can be difficult. Psychiatrists I have spoken to have shared that because the human brain is so complex – with a hundred billion neurons and several hundred thousand synapses per neuron – two people with schizophrenia can present with vastly different behaviours and symptoms. There isn’t a precise “test” that doctors can administer to measure the “level” of mental well-being, unlike how we can take a blood sample to measure levels of cholesterol or haemoglobin.

It is usually through changes in behaviour that family or friends start wondering if something is amiss. Yet the amorphous nature of such illnesses often means that the whole process of ascertaining what exactly is amiss can take a while.

 

The Silent Walk Alone

My uncle’s illness took a long time to be discovered when it struck him in his twenties. His life changed completely – he lost his job and friends, became a sweeper, and spent the next thirty years living a lonely life. Yet, he never complained, and was never violent.

Whilst studies show that around 90 per cent of those with mental illnesses do not become violent, there is a general perception that mental illness is associated with violence. There have been steps forward in how mental illness is viewed and treated, and in how recovering patients are supported in their efforts to reintegrate into society. Even so, it may be difficult for us to imagine what it is like to walk the path of a patient.

A doctor once told me that mental illness is the only illness where suicide rates go up when medication starts becoming effective. Therein lies the irony, that when patients become well enough to realise they have a mental illness, they find it such an unbearable sentence that they would rather end their lives.

Schizophrenia strikes about one in a hundred people. Every day, a child is born in Singapore who will suffer from schizophrenia, and the onset of illness is usually between the ages 15 and 30. In other words, it strikes young. I once had a student who was doing well in her studies but who often missed classes, the reasons for which I was not told. I only found out much later about her struggle with mental illness. She probably did not want the people around her to know of her condition. Sadly, such silence typically surrounds the response to having a mental illness.

I know of many who have recovered and who now lead meaningful lives. Recovery is possible, especially with early treatment, and with support from loved ones and the community. Family members, in turn, need support.

 

The Silent Despair of Loved Ones

As Professor Chong Siow Ann mentions in his article “Mental illness: Caregivers are forgotten collateral damage” (The Straits Times, 29 November 2014), the burden of the illness falls not only on the patient, but also on the caregiver and family members. Treatment and recovery can be a long, difficult and uncertain process. The helplessness, anxiety and caregiver stress of loved ones are often overlooked.

Acceptance of the diagnosis is itself difficult. Perhaps because there is still an entrenched social stigma associated with such illnesses, coming to terms with the diagnosis involves an intense inner struggle. How does one accept that one’s spouse or sibling or child is not “normal” and may be seen as “crazy” or “mad” by people around?

After reading my book, a friend told me that her brother had schizophrenia, and that he took his life years ago. She then said, “Please keep this a secret.”

Organisations such as the Caregivers Alliance have been set up to support caregivers of those with mental illness. Such support can make all the difference in enabling caregivers to push on. Many caregivers themselves become depressed, buckling under the weight they have to carry.

My mother did not have such support as she took care of my uncle for over thirty years. At one point, she had to take anti-depressants. I admire her for what she has done, and I salute all caregivers.

Those with mental illness and their loved ones walk a very difficult path. If we can dispel some of the silence surrounding mental illness, perhaps they can stumble a little less on their journey.

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Danielle Lim is the author of ‘The Sound of SCH: a mental breakdown, a life journey’, a memoir which won the Singapore Literature Prize (non-fiction) 2016.

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This article is part of a series to shed light on mental illnesses. Read the other piece here:

Taking the Myth out of “Mental” Illnesses

 

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