By Val Yeo (20S03O), Gabrielle Ng (20A01E), and Jermaine Wong (20S03R)
When students filed into the PAC slightly before 1 pm on Saturday, 3rd of August, the anticipation was thick in the air, eagerly filling the front seats to be as close to the stage as possible. After all, only 100 students were given this rare opportunity to see so many well-known public figures in one place, in close proximity. And when 1 pm rolled around and the emcee came out on stage to introduce the first speaker, the audience cheered with enthusiasm, keenly waiting what the day had to offer.
1. CAI YIN ZHOU
Geylang. Many continue to associate the neighborhood with good food and its red-light district, but Mr Cai Yinzhou’s social enterprise, Citizen Adventures, is working to change that. Growing up in Geylang, Mr Cai spent much of his free time in the district’s back alleys, playing badminton with his neighbors, Bangladeshi workers who lived only several minutes away from Mr Cai’s childhood home. As Mr Cai developed a kinship with these men, he soon learned the nature of their living arrangements: eight of them shared a single bedroom and a common toilet. Many had also made huge sacrifices when moving to Singapore in the hopes of securing their families a better future.
Barsha was one of them. He and his twin brother would have been the first doctors in their village if they had not dropped out of medical school. The pair made the difficult decision of moving to Singapore to work as electricians after their father had a stroke.
Most migrant workers have similar stories to tell. They have hopes, ambitions, passions––just like any other human being. Yet, as Mr Cai pointed out, Singaporeans often forget to look “beyond their transactional value, [to] see them as humans and as equals.”
Mr Cai continued to play badminton with his companions amidst rising tensions between locals and migrant workers in the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riots. Back alleys were lit, liquor control zones erected, lamp posts installed with surveillance cameras; still, their small coterie of friends gathered, unfazed, until one day, the police arrived.
“Why were you playing badminton with them?” They asked. “These people cannot gather in groups in back alleys.”
The back alley badminton rallies had to come to an end soon after, but Mr Cai was determined to continue meeting up with the workers. This began with Majulah Belanja (“Onward, To Treat”), an annual branch session organised by Geylang Adventures in 2015 and 2016 at a migrant worker dormitory, which saw locals and migrant workers team up to cook and enjoy the local dishes they prepared together. Other ventures included guided tours through Geylang that would allow non-residents to see it as a “social ecosystem” with a vibrant culture and people.
Another of the organization’s better-known initiatives is Back Alley Barbers, which provides free haircuts for migrant workers––Barsha received Mr Cai’s very first haircut––and other groups such as nursing home residents and the rental flat community.
Ending off his speech, Mr Cai prompted, “What is the society that we want to create?” Indeed, all of us wield the power to change our society––for the better, if only we choose to take action now.”
2. EDDIE KOH
Next, one of our very own General Paper (GP) teachers, Mr Eddie Koh, took the stage. The audience was not to be fooled by his initial lighthearted surprise at the formality of the stage setup, for he soon immersed the theatre in deep contemplation with his next comment: that “all of us are mysteries, unconsciously looking for something.” The unprepared audience was left very consciously mystified, ourselves included.
Upon later clarification with Mr Koh, he further explained that: “Human persons are mysteries, and we spend our [entire lifetimes] trying to unpack our purpose, to forge a life that is meaningful to ourselves.” As a teacher, he considered himself to be a privileged recipient of many stories, which has humbled him. “Still, each of us is fighting a battle that few people know about”, and hence, the stories below lightly delve into the human mysteries that Mr Koh mentions.
Much like the organised structure in a GP essay—more of a wistful dream than a reality for most teachers—Mr Koh systematically segmented his talk into three separate stories that were very real and relevant.
The first was about a former student. Mr Koh recounted how he had casually recommended a film to a secondary school class, only for certain evocative parts of the film to prompt a student to privately divulge her haunting tale of familial sexual abuse to him.
The ending of this student’s tale was a reconciliatory one, with the student mustering the courage to approach trusted adults around her and have the abusive family member removed from her home.
What had touched Mr Koh enough to share this story with over a hundred people that day was, however, not his former students’ mere retelling of the abuse.
It was instead the depth of her thought and torment, in that while she wished to protect her own personal dignity, as any rational human would, she was conflicted by her unwavering devotion to her family and struggle not to dishonour them.
The second story was one about a GP essay, which almost induced joking groans from the student audience if not for the deeply pensive atmosphere that the previous account had created. Mr Koh had noticed patches of ink smudges on the essay, which was unusual for an otherwise neat student.
Upon asking the student about it, Mr Koh realised her mother suffered from a certain mental illness and would have sporadic outbursts, where her erratic behaviour ranged from smashing plates to the ground to threatening to jump from their apartment window.
To protect her mother, the student stayed in the kitchen to complete her essays despite the mayhem, her own helpless tears thus smudging the patches of ink.
Mr Koh remarked that in this simple yet poignant act of keeping vigil for her mother while she battled a mental war, the student had also displayed remarkable devotion to her mother.
He also spoke of the student’s palpable depth of dignity and perseverance to submit her assignment on time despite the calamity she was facing at home.
Mr Koh’s steadfast work ethic of punctuality had also been influenced by this particular student, as he shared: “My student understood the integrity of handing up her work on time, [and] taught me what integrity is about.”
This forever changed him, and still evokes inevitable frustration in him when students submit work late with poor reasons provided. In his own words, “That one student of mine could offer them a lesson I could never communicate.”
The third and last story concerned a former teaching colleague in another school. Her departure from their workplace was, however, where this story started.
She had gone to take care of her son, Sebastien, who has cerebral palsy. In Mr Koh’s words, her journey with Sebastien was as if she had boarded a plane planning to reach a certain destination but landing on another instead, one that was unfamiliar and where she was trapped for life.
Sebastien could not speak, and depended on his mother 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He could potentially choke himself if the tubes that were connected to him were not removed, and taking care of him entailed having to pat him on an exercise ball, clean him up, feed him liquid food, and countless more tasks that anyone else would likely deem as menial.
Yet, what Mr Koh and Sebastien’s mother saw in him was human beauty and fragility.
He brought out his mother’s endless devotion as she began to read his every action and word; every twitch of the eye and every soft murmur, meant something in a code of communication between the two that no one else could decipher.
He reminded Mr Koh of the dignity every person deserves and possesses, even if they are disabled.
He brought about a sense of bittersweet loss to his mother, where the mere sight of able children frolicking at the playground would bring tears to her weary eyes.
Her steadfast care despite that deeply humbled Mr Koh.
Every time, simple yet moving incidences like these grow one’s world to become a little deeper and a little bigger, Mr Koh shared. They leave one, or at least have left him, forever humbled and privileged.
Mr Koh ended his deeply provoking sharing with a reiteration of the three stories’ common themes: depth, dignity, and devotion. “Regardless [of the unknown battles we fight], [these three virtues] have redemptive value”—not in a religious sense, but in that “we may experience a renewed sense of purpose in our lives, once we grasp them, or try our best to see them present in our own lives and in that of others”.
He also shared with us later that in sum, “at the end of the day, the human spirit and its strength and potential should never be limited by age and/or circumstances”. Through this sharing, Mr Koh hoped for all of us to experience this at least once in our lives, so as to “better defend what and who we hold dear”.
With that, Mr Koh then exited the gently contemplative air his ruminative insights had fostered.
“If you want to take a photo later with Nathan Hartono, just be careful because he can be quite cold. I mean, he is Nathan Hard-to-know.”
Rambunctious giggles erupted throughout the theatre.
Living up to his title as SGAG’s founder, Mr Adrian Ang, better known as Xiaoming, literally stole the stage.
Having shot to online fame several years ago for his nonchalant albeit very enjoyable jests concerning anything and everything under the Singaporean sun, he was inevitably greeted by a teenage audience teeming with bated anticipation as to what he would tickle our sense of humour with next.
Notwithstanding his unrivalled ability to make others laugh, the full-time comedian’s journey to fame was not a bed of roses.
Mr Ang had appealed to his bewildered principal to be retained in his first year of Junior College, with his reason being his unsatisfactory grades and desire to improve at his own pace.
Like any conservative, archetypal Asian environment, the people around him were understandably apprehensive about his decision. Even Mr Ang himself was not fully confident of his decision, until its butterfly effect came into sight.
In his new JC1 class, Mr Ang chanced upon four fateful friends that would become his closest companions for life. Amongst them was Mr Karl Mak, his co-founder of SGAG.
Their memorable experiences, as relayed to us by Mr Ang, were reminiscent of endearing high school tropes.
He shared that he had once received an abrupt text from a classmate whom he fancied, asking him out for a date later in the afternoon. Gleefully awaiting his date the whole day, Mr Ang later before realised it was but a prank from his friends, who had used that classmate’s phone to send him the text. His friends’ cheeky endeavours induced much chuckling in second-hand embarrassment, as the audience realised that birds of a feather truly do flock together.
The uninhibited sense of humour Mr Ang developed with these friends grew to be the very foundation of his career.
Beginning with just one uncertain decision to retain an academic year, Mr Ang’s playful memes relating the joys and grievances of everyday life increasingly resonated with Singaporeans, bringing him the celebrity he enjoys today.
4. NATHAN HARTONO
The next speaker’s time in the spotlight had in fact begun with his humble entrance into the theatre to his audience seat. The very sight of him roused elated gasps and the muted snapping of discreet pictures by an especially excited few.
Towering over a large majority of the audience members as he strode onto stage, the tangible charisma and confidence of this speaker, as if he was born to be in the limelight, could only point to one person—Mr Nathan Hartono, Singapore’s very own beloved singer and finalist of Sing! China.
“This is out of curiosity but you guys volunteered to be in school on a weekend?”
Any guise of formality the audience might have expected from Mr Hartono’s status evaporated into an atmosphere of comfortable dialogue with his first line. A zealous reply of “For you!” from a conspicuously fervent audience member took even Mr Hartono by pleasant surprise.
The focal point of Mr Hartono’s talk that day was about following one’s impulses. Of course, not reckless ones, but ones that are seemingly absurd and could yet lead you to heights never explored.
The very premise of his attendance at TED was an impulse, one that occurred to him upon receiving an invitational text from the organising team of TED. Thus, Mr Hartono was prepared with neither presentation slides, nor cue cards, or even a clue of the next sentence he would speak.
Yet, his captivating account of his experience with Sing! China did not fail to impress.
At that time, Mr Hartono was barely fluent in both spoken and written Chinese, and all he knew was to sing. Like an island, he could barely interact with those around him and could barely express himself.
But the singer-songwriter knew that music was always a part of him. Having sung in competitions from the mere age of fourteen, it was this innate and fiery passion in him that drove him to “say yes to the complete unknown”.
Mr Hartono remarked that his Sing! China experience was one of the most difficult in his life, even more than his A Level examinations, before humorously retracting the statement to concede that the A Levels were still more onerous. Despite the trials and tribulations he faced due to the immense language barrier in China, he left without regret as Singapore’s first finalist of the show.
Mr Hartono ended off his stirring speech by reflecting that there is “so much in life” all of us will regret not doing, much more than what we could possibly regret doing, impelling the audience to “do the things that scare and terrify you”.
Quite literally heeding Mr Hartono’s words, to roaring laughter and stunned gasps of breath, an ambitious audience member then daringly proceeded to ask Mr Hartono out for a cup of coffee—to which Mr Hartono cooly agreed to.
Ending off by blessing the audience with a song, Mr Hartono truly made his speech one to remember, because hey, it’s not everyday you get to listen to Nathan Hartono sing live for you right?
5. SHARIFF ABDULLAH
Up next was Mr Shariff Abdullah, the “Singapore Blade Runner”. His sobriquet came to him after he witnessed his mentor running on “blades”––prosthetic legs.
Born without a left foot, he faced countless challenges getting around and was bullied as a child. “A lot of my friends pick up stone, throw at me and spit at me [sic],” he recounted. Yet, his motto, “DREAM: Determination, Resilience, Envision, Attitude, Mission”, kept him going––and he hasn’t looked back since.
After completing his primary education, he took on various jobs, first as a Nasi Lemak vendor at his kampong, then as a cleaner, security officer, and now, a bodyguard. His current line of work entails escorting VIPs like the Brunei royal family when they pay Singapore a visit.
However, it wasn’t his day job that earned the title of “Singapore Blade Runner”; this, he coined after he developed a passion for running. Mr Abdullah’s journey as a marathon runner began in 2008, when a skin infection left him no option other than to amputate his left leg. Following the surgery, “something happened to [him] after [he] saw a South African runner on YouTube running without both legs”, and he was inspired to begin training himself.
Despite his long working hours, Mr Abdullah finds the time to train every day. He explained, “As a marathon runner, I run whether rain or shine; there’s no such thing as no training––no excuses.”
Running the marathon is the true test of ‘DREAM’. From his own experience, “the first 5km looks easy; after 10km…amazing; but…35km? I should be sitting at home eating Roti Prata, not running!” Luckily, things start to look up after the 35 kilometer mark: at “42.195[km], life is changed; I’m happy to be a marathon runner.”
Having participated in both the Boston Marathon and the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, Mr Abdullah was invited to take part in the FWD North Pole Marathon last year, along with nine other sponsored athletes. His training regimen involved going to “Snow City for one month doing nothing” in preparation for the extreme cold, before he discovered a more productive method that involved “carrying heavy backpack [and] running on the sand”.
For Mr Abdullah, the highlight of the expedition was the prospect of seeing polar bears. While the plane and helicopter rides to the North Pole were bumpy, he soon put those “scary” experiences behind him once he began running. Despite facing challenges using his Flex-Run running foot in the snow, his hard work ultimately paid off––in his own words, “I’m quite happy because I got number one doing that.” Yet, one question remained: “Where’s the bear? There’s no bear around me!”
(Alas, no bears were to be spotted for the remainder of the trip.)
Finally, before exiting stage left––with a prosthetic leg slung casually over his shoulder—Mr Abdullah left us with an important message: never give up.
6. GAN JIN NI
Ms Gan Jin Ni then graced the stage. Sporting a turquoise tee with the word Telepod printed on it, her apt attire was a subtle nod to the subject of her talk that morning—how she founded one of Singapore’s very first e-scooter sharing operators, Telepod.
Humbly joking that the speakers before her had set the bar too high, since she could neither sing nor run marathons with a prosthetic leg, Ms Gan’s down-to-earth and affable demeanour made her formidable nomination for Forbes’ renowned 30 under 30 accolade nearly unexpected.
The promising entrepreneur stayed true to her homegrown brand by starting off her talk with a succinct introduction to it. She shared that the main aim of Telepod was to power mobility on the go. Relying on their own original technology, the team at Telepod had built an entire network of battery kiosks so commuters could swap e-scooter batteries on the go. Telepod’s six-country reach, spanning across both developed and developing states such as the United States and the Philippines, did not fail to impress the aspiring teenage audience.
Was this Telepod’s original vision, though? “Hell no”, Ms Gan humorously asserted.
“It all started with one little girl’s dream”, Ms Gan quipped. Her desire to spend a shorter time commuting from her home in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur to her gymnastics competitions in the cities sowed the first seeds of her transportation ambitions.
Thus began Telepod, a company started by Ms Gan and her team to eradicate the ‘last mile’ problem that torments nearly all city goers.
Much like any entrepreneurial venture, their aforementioned success did not come easy. Ms Gan took us through photos of a dishevelled team of youths toiling in a singular office unit to code, assemble, develop, and build every single part of their e-scooter brainchild by hand.
Their hard work eventually came to fruition, earning them a place at a San Francisco conference by famed tech giant Bloomberg as a guest speaker.
Even so, the startup firm had not seen the last of its troubles.
A later policy by the government regarding unlicensed e-scooter usage undermined their collaboration with and funding by them, posing such a gargantuan obstacle to their business that it almost drove them to return to unassuming 9 to 5 jobs.
Nonetheless, with their quintessential entrepeneurial wit, they pushed the envelope. Swappable batteries for e-scooters, instead of the e-scooters themselves, thereby became the new spotlight of Telepod’s business.
“It all started with one little girl’s dream. And if she could do it, you can too.” Ms Gan’s empowering peroration was accompanied by resounding applause.
7. FRANCIS CHONG
Next, Mr Francis Chong took the spotlight.
Being a Physics teacher, it was to everyone’s surprise that his talk that day was not about kinetics, quantum, or any jargon that Arts student like ourselves could conjure.
It was, in fact, framed around a topic much closer to Mr Chong’s heart and much more within our intellectual capacity—art.
Attempting to define the art Mr Chong shared with us that day would be convenient but unjust, as his style of art dramatically evolved with time.
Like the classic student finding respite and elation from his mundane school life in easy-to-read comic books, his first artistic ventures took the form of Japanese mangas that many of us still enjoy today. What made him out from the rest at such a young age was his devotion to the creative pastime, seen in his completion of over four books in the span of his secondary school life.
Later on in his Junior College years, his aesthetic talent began to manifest itself in the form of realist human portraits, all of which induced instinctive gasps of wondrous admiration from the students present in the audience.
However, he shared that his mental state was much more than the bed of roses his beautiful artworks would have seemed to be. Drawing, as a solo activity, left him increasingly empty and dejected.
Like the tumultuous course of completion of any artwork, his artistic journey was unsurprisingly filled with ebbs and flows. The then eighteen year-old started to pick himself up after entering National Service and entered the workforce as a Physics teacher, expanding his social circle and even his creative mediums as he started to venture into digital art too.
In Mr Chong’s own words, it was then that “[he] started to infuse art into his daily life”.
For a teacher like Mr Chong, this meant his art beginning to extend beyond his own personal life and enriching those around him in school, as he voluntarily illustrated portraits of his graduating classes, RI’s gryphons, and Teachers’ Day celebrations.
We noted that Mr Chong also courteously presented hand-drawn portraits of guest speakers to them, as thoughtful tokens of appreciation.
At home, he channelled his inventive talent into domestic efforts of creating a storybook with his two daughters—a significant milestone in Mr Chong’s and perhaps his daughters’ artistic journeys, considering the first piece Mr Chong had ever laid eyes on and aspired to emulate was his own mother’s!
Of course, his unwavering devotion to his craft also merited external recognition.
His keen eye as a visual artist earned him a feature on Stomp for his ingenious re-imagination of clouds in the Singapore sky as characters, such as the familiar Big Friendly Giant.
Beyond the local scene, he also clinched several professional accolades, such as a place among the top fifty artists in a 2013 mobile art exhibition, and a frame in local commercial hub Raffles City displaying his Superman versus Batman piece.
Mr Chong ended his speech by showing us a contrast photo of his remarkably improved attempt at remaking his first ever human portrait. Even as he exited the stage, his numerous and immaculately presented artworks stayed on the projector screen.
It was, perhaps, a visual reminder of the artist’s tireless dedication to doing what he loved, and the legacy of his art that may live beyond him.
As the talks came to an end and the students slowly made their way out, it was with renewed vigour and hope in their hearts, a fire fuelled by inspiration from the various stories brought about by the speakers. It was empowering and encouraging, to hear their success stories and the lessons behind them, because if anything, it made them human, like us, and it gave us hope that maybe, one day, we can be like them."TEDxYouth@RafflesInstitution",