Author: <span class="vcard">The Maestro</span>

IBM’s “roadmap” – its stated lofty intent to deliver US$20 per share in earnings come hell or high water by 2015 is clearly in trouble. IBM has just abandoned its roadmap.

The way I see it, soon, IBM will suffer yet another near-death experience.

The way some corporations operate, it is a marvel how they haven’t collapsed already.

Huge dinosaurs roamed the earth at one time, but they weren’t nimble and fast, they survived based on sheer might and size – their brains were tiny – and soon they too all perished.

Indeed I often wonder how some corporations can survive the passage of time.

Take Ericsson for example; though official appointed “regional supplier” for its leadership and management development programs, internal problems mired within Ericsson has prevented the Swedish corporation from awarding me any business so far.

I am only “regional supplier” in name only.

People at the helm of institutionally short-termist corporations often fail to grasp the endless damage they inflict on themselves and their corporations by the way they interact with others.

Often, the self-flagellation is not their personal fault. They are just pawns and cogs in mammoth, bloated bureaucracy the machinations of which they have little control.

The first victims are often those they should be nice to.

Ginni Rometty, Chairman and CEO of IBM has not been able to articulate a convincing reason why the colossal corporate behemoth she heads has to abandon its roadmap. Meanwhile, typical of IBM culture, deadwood and hangers-on continue to rely on internal relationships and networking to cruise in the organization. I am reminded of the Malcolm Muggeridge saying that only dead fish swim with the stream. Look at IBM today, all the good, talented people are gone, most of those who are still there survive by riding the coattails of their “godfathers” and hiding in the highly matrix organization, just as they have been doing for years.

Serena Marriott, Ericsson’s Head of Learning & Development – South East Asia & Oceania, has so far not been able to come up with a cohesive explanation of how their internal complications have transformed Ericsson into a failed corporation in the eyes of their external business partners and stakeholders like me. When I expressed my dissatisfaction all she said was “I have already made our APAC Head of Sourcing, Rocky Varbaro aware of your feedback and you are welcome to contact my manager, the global Head of Learning & Development, should you feel the need. I will forward your mail to him. His name is Bradley Samargya.” What an easy way to problem-solve – just pass the buck! Is this how some people continue to stay secure in their jobs?

All multinationals – oh, by the way, now they all want to be known as “globally integrated corporations” – claim to be big advocates of transparency.

How many actually walk the talk?

Transparency describes the extent to which a corporation’s actions are observable by outsiders. From the perspective of those not in the corporation’s inner sanctum, transparency is simply the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from the corporation.

There must be increased transparency and accountability, not just for overstuffed corporations like IBM and Ericsson but for everyone. Cover-ups and lies should not be part of your life. What a terrible burden it must be to live a lie. The world is a small place, imagine what happens when an IBMer meets Ginni Rometty face to face, what can she say that is not gibberish, what can she say without sounding condescending? Imagine when I see Serena Marriott in person –  has she, with a job title longer than her name, what it takes to look me in the eye and admit that her corporation’s internal quagmire has caused her to fail her business associates in a most dismal way?

Has it ever occurred to leaders to put themselves in the shoes of the other parties?

Corporate leaders must be called to answer for broken promises. They didn’t get fancy job titles to impress their neighbors’ three-year-old kids.

Extrinsic Change

Spock, the Vulcan in Star Trek, operates strictly on logic. He shuns emotions.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, we are introduced to the android Lieutenant Commander Data. Being a robot, he has no emotions and operates strictly on, er, data.

Spock and Data are characters from science fiction.

We are not.

As human beings, we are emotional beings. (If you break it down, you’ll be amazed how many decisions you make based on emotions. Good salespeople know that.)

But far from being fearful of emotions – and some unbridled emotions can and do get us into trouble – we can harness positive emotions to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others.

Righteous indignation resulted in the launch of MADD – read about it here.

Emotions can cause us to decide on certain actions to take or not to take.

When reacting or responding to a stimulus, we can fly off the handle or we can take a deep breath, calm down and try to see what is not evident to the average mind.

Some refer to this as “discernment.”

Discernment is the ability to judge well, of being able to grasp and comprehend what appears to be murky.

If you walk into a store playing songs with lyrics that demean women, does it mean that it represents the ethos of the store? Do you immediately conclude that this act epitomizes the moral beliefs of the store and its owners and do you then publicly vow never to patronize the store again?

Nothing wrong being young and idealistic. But to be young doesn’t give one the excuse not to pause and analyze; it doesn’t entitle one the license to shoot from the hip, to open one’s mouth before thinking.

The millennials amongst us ought to learn from their elders how they can deepen their understanding of potentially prickly issues. They need to learn how to maintain civility and temperance even in the most incendiary situations. Right to speak does not equate to right to offend and he who speaks the loudest is often simply he who makes the most noise, and may be perceived as an immature, attention-seeking loudmouth full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Recently a storm in the teacup arose when a publication used by an organization engaged to teach relationships to high school students listed phrases commonly heard and what their “real” meanings may be.

A 17-year-old student was so enraged by the publication’s contents that she accused the organization for promoting a rape culture because its publication says that sometimes when a girl says “no” she may actually mean “yes.”

A big brouhaha ensued. Keyboard warriors with too much time on their hands were quick to contribute to the flap by attacking, disparaging and besmirching anyone and everyone connected with the organization. Those involved with introducing the relationship course started scrambling to take cover and repudiate all and sundry who have even the remotest connection to the program. People in leadership positions were quick to blame anyone and everyone; trying to assign the blame instead of fixing the problem. Even a research fellow from the Department of Pharmacology of the National University of Singapore jumped onto the bandwagon for her five minutes of fame and contributed to the cacophony by writing to the press proclaiming “the gender stereotypes in the pamphlet do not reflect either scientific consensus or careful, data-driven analysis. There is, for instance, simply no credible scientific evidence for the view that men are inherently ‘direct’, whereas women’s words cannot be taken at face value.” The PhD holder even cajoled 13 other research scientists from NUS and Yale-NUS to co-sign her letter. Yup, it really does take all kinds!

Good luck to her and her ilk if they are looking to data for answers on how to bridge the communication gap between genders.

I am no textbookish academic perched in ivory towers, and I am not advocating      to build a discriminatory society that alienates people, but speaking from personal experience, after 30 years of marriage, I am no closer to understanding my lovely wife 100%, and I don’t need scientific consensus or data-driven analysis to tell me that.

I do catch some clues of what my wife is trying to communicate by observing her body language and from the things she says.

If she says “We need to talk” it usually means she has something to question me about that I won’t enjoy hearing, like why on earth did I purchase yet another expensive tourbillon that I don’t need and will never use.

If she becomes unusually quiet and says “nothing” when I asked if something’s bothering her I can be sure probably something is indeed troubling her – could be her patients, her siblings, etc.

Sometimes when she says “no” to me, I know she actually and secretly means “yes.” I am sure if I ask her “Can I get you a big diamond solitaire on our wedding anniversary?” she will say “no, please don’t spend money like that” but if I really go and get her a diamond the size of a golf ball, I’m sure she’ll squeal with delight.

This is not based on scientific proof, empirical research or any of those mumbo-jumbo from academia.

I am not talking about sexual stereotyping here, I’m just stating facts. I am relating my own experience with my wife and what I commonly see among other people. The fact of the matter is that men and women are wired differently and we communicate differently. Words cannot always be taken at face value. And just because someone points out some of the common differences doesn’t mean he or she is promoting sexual stereotyping or advocating a rape culture.

Sure, data is important, facts are important but it doesn’t mean that we should not use our wisdom, our common sense, our discernment.

If your wife is upset about something – and it’s written all over her – and you ask her if she’s ok and she says “no” do you take her words at face value and end the conversation there and then or do you probe a little and gently coax her to open up and pour her heart out to you?

If you do the former, you will be no way closer to bridging whatever gap there exists between you two.

If you forgo data and scientific research and deploy intuition, gut feel, wisdom, common sense and discernment, you are likely to foster a better relationship with her.

Imagine if you work as a counselor and you ask your client “Are you ok?” and he answers “I’m fine” but his posture, facial expression and gestures project everything but the fact that he’s fine, do you investigate further and cajole him to open up to you – and in the process helping him – or do you then say “Ok, in that case, goodbye! You may go home now”?

Do not be so quick to jump to conclusions – or you may be jumping to concussions! If you have make that mistake before, pick yourself up and move on. Falling and stumbling is part and parcel of our attempt to learn to walk more steadily. Make a change, a commitment to think things through a bit more calmly and thoroughly. Be astute. Make use of all your faculties to be a better person and a better communicator.

Change the way you process information by deploying discernment, instead of using knee-jerk reactions or shooting indiscriminately from the hip.

Intrinsic Change

Some time ago, China and the UK signed a joint declaration to return Hong Kong to China in the year 1977 under the so-called “one country, two systems” formula.

It was agreed that the territory would retain its capitalist economy but would become part of communist China.

“Hong Kong has always been part of China,” said Lord Powell recently. Powell served as a key foreign policy advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. He said political rights in Hong Kong were always going to be limited.

“We rented it for a while and we didn’t introduce democracy… and one reason we didn’t is because we knew it was eventually going back to China and it would have been far worse to introduce full democracy and then taken it away from them.”

Lord Powell also said pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong are “unrealistic” and should enjoy the freedoms they already have.

Why did Lord Powell say what he said?

Well, Hong Kong did not have a democratic system for 150 years under British rule. London picked the governors. Hong Kong people had no say. Each governor came complete with that ridiculous huge white plume helmet that has been part of the ceremonial garb of Hong Kong’s British governors since the 19th century. (Well, the last governor George Patten was sensible enough to abandon that absurd outfit.)

The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 made no mention of universal suffrage, (the right of all adults to vote in political elections) and because China promised universal suffrage, today, the people in Hong Kong have more than what they ever had under the British. This is the point of view of people like Lord Powell.

So if there’s going to be universal suffrage, what drove protestors into the streets then?

A bit of explanatory background is in order: Hong Kong was handed back to China on July 1st, 1997. Under China’s principle of “one country, two systems” Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs, for 50 years. Its leader, the chief executive, is elected by a 1,200-member pro-Beijing election committee. However, China has guaranteed that ultimately the chief executive will be elected “by universal suffrage” – something the British never countenanced. (Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, China has promised direct elections for the chief executive in 2017.)

Now China says that this will NOT happen. On Aug 31st, 2014, China’s top legislative body – the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee – unanimously passed a resolution stating that Hong Kong residents will have to choose only candidates who must first be vetted by the government in Beijing. These candidates must be those deemed by Beijing to be suitably “patriotic” and must “love China.” This resolution effectively gives Beijing the ability to screen out candidates and accepts only those puppets it approves of.

It all sounds like a sham alright. China’s own version of universal suffrage.

In response, demonstrators took to the streets. They are dead against China vetting the candidates.

I don’t intend to debate Lord Powell or to discuss if the protestors are being foolish or are wasting their time.

My focus is on China’s change of mind.

China – and any organization for that matter – has to do a better job of explaining its position each time it decides to make a change.

How change is being “sold” to those impacted is critical.

Change not only will impact people’s lives; people’s perception of the change can alter their views about things.

Their views about things can result in their decision to take action.

No government, especially those claiming to be democratic or have the people’s best interest at heart can just arbitrarily change tune and expect people to just suck it up without question.

Last time I checked, China’s official name is “People’s Republic of China.”

(And Hong Kong’s official status is that it is a SAR – Self Administrative Region.”)

China cannot claim to be a people’s republic if a bunch of buffoon-like, uncouth, phlegm-clearing, loud-spitting octogenarians tittering on the brink of death, yet vain enough to dye their hair black, acts like bullies and just shove things down people’s throats.

All too often I’ve see leaders making the same mistake – they think they have every right to just make a change and expect those under them to just swallow the change, hook, line and sinker.

No consultation. No discussion. “My way or the highway” mentality.

In my grandfather’s time, they were resigned to say “Ours is not to question why, ours is to do and die” ala Tennyson.

Not anymore.

How do you sell change?

If you don’t consult and don’t believe in discussions, and don’t manage perceptions and expectations, you’ll end up with a mutiny or a riot.

Which is exactly what’s happening in Hong Kong now.

A word to the protestors: I admire your courage and lack of political apathy. I look at the politically-lethargic youth in my own country and I can’t help but take my hat off to you. You are the world’s most disciplined and well-behaved protestors. You’ve made your point, now please move on. You may not have gotten the outcomes you’ve wanted but the reality of having to put food on the table can turn your sympathizers against you if continuous blockages threaten their livelihoods or access to medical care. You are not the things that happen to you. Experiencing a loss doesn’t make you a loser. You are already a winner beyond measure and the world salutes you. You have made those thick-headed old men in Beijing wake up from their slumber. Sure, it could always be better, but it could always be worse.

Remember Tiananmen! If you die your dream dies with you without being realized. If you live, you can always come back to fight another day, to create a desired future.

Extrinsic Change

In Tokyo for four short days recently I noticed the shift from summer to autumn.

In the west, summer is a big thing. The Americans talk about the summer when things happened – the summer I fell in love, the summer I became an adult, the summer of this and that, the summer of discontent, anyone? Some even count their years in terms of summers passed as in “I’ve seen 60 summers already.”

I didn’t see seismic shifts when I was in Japan, however. Pardon the pun.

Indeed the transition from summer to autumn didn’t seem like such a big deal in Japan.

Sure, the change in seasons did not go unnoticed. The transition requires different kinds of activity. The climate is different; there are different seasonal food to enjoy; people dress differently and there’s also time to start preparing for the impending winter period. In any case, nature has marked this transition time with unique beauty – my meal onboard ANA flight was accompanied by a maple leaf. I thought that was a nice touch, and a nice reminder that once again, change is upon us.

Changing seasons can be a metaphor for life itself. Isn’t life filled with change and transitions? Some are natural processes of growing up and growing older. We welcome many changes with eager anticipation: new discoveries, new friends, etc but some changes are unwelcome intrusions: loss of relationships, work or financial setbacks, health problems. All are a part of our journey. How we respond can make all the difference.

We need change so that we won’t get stuck in the past. We may not welcome every transition in life, but we do have a choice in how we will respond. If we dwell on the past and keep on lamenting about what could have been, we rob ourselves of the present and deny ourselves of the future, a future whose destiny is now in our hands. Because your future is yours and yours alone, it’s a journey you must embark on. Sometimes the people around you don’t understand your journey; they don’t have to, it’s not for them.

So be strong and press on; the future is bright no matter what the season is!

Intrinsic Change

Last month, Singapore’s Prime Minister mentioned that Southwest District mayor while investigating why a walkway in the district had not been cleaned, found out that three different agencies managed three different parts of the walkway.

A fishball stick had fallen on the roadside to the right, which was cleaned every two days.

The stick was left there for two days and the poor mayor was driven from pillar to post trying to fix the problem!

So to avoid further such fiascos, a Municipal Services Office will be set up to get different public agencies to work more closely together, the Prime Minister announced.

He welcomed the setting up of such a central office, which he saw as a “cockpit” from which to ensure that nothing falls through the gaps.

All well and good.

My question, however, is “Since the fishball stick fell on a busy thoroughfare, and though just a little stick, it was obviously noticed by passerbys – at least one had actually bothered to contact the authorities to have it removed – why didn’t somebody just pick it up and throw it into the rubbish bin?”

It is important to have interagency efficiency and whilst it may be the government’s métier to continue to bloat its bureaucracy is the solution now to create yet another agency?

How about putting more efforts to educate the public to develop a better sense of civic mindedness?

It is important to make the most important thing the most important thing!

Isn’t picking up the stick and throwing it away a whole lot easier than picking up the phone and trying to get the mayor to contact various government bodies to request them to remove the stick?

The government should not spoil citizens by creating agency after agency to do their bidding.

Extrinsic Change

“He didn’t even have the courtesy to reply,” I muttered, “it’s not as if my fee is astronomical; what I quoted is a paltry sum compared to the brand new Mercedes he’s buying for his wife.”

I try to schedule my calendar to avoid free days. If I set aside time to wait for a potential client to start an engagement, I will be denying existing clients of my availability. Days spent waiting are days wasted.

My priority is to have as few of such days as possible. My prospect’s priority, however, seemed to be getting his wife her new luxury sedan; never mind the fact that his company’s operations desperately need a radical overhaul.

When I was in secondary one, there was once when we had to go out and raise funds on “Flag Day.” Typically held on Saturdays, Flag Days are days when students are each given a metal tin to collect donations from members of the public. Those who have donated would be given a little “flag” – basically a tiny piece of paper the size of a postage-stamp, and a pin. Donors are supposed to pin that little piece of paper on their clothing to signal to other collectors that they have already donated and are not to be asked again. (These days, little stickers are issued instead of papers and pins.)

My priority on Flag Day was to collect as much donation as I possibly could. The priority for most members of the public appeared to be to steer clear from students like us. In fact, the common reaction, when people saw us walking around with a tin was to walk away; they sure gave us a wide berth.

After a long period of unemployment, a friend finally landed a top job with a multinational corporation. It was a senior position and he did well initially but performance problems, poor judgment and personal indiscretion soon caused him to derail and the company engineered his dismissal. After a year of joblessness he became very bitter and angry and started to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. I advised him to seek career counseling but for reasons best known to himself, he refused to make such an attempt. Instead he still harbors grandiose fantasies about being either a guest lecturer, or corporate honcho at corporations.

My friend’s priority ought to be to look for a job, any job (he has already been evicted by his landlord, banks and credit card companies are threatening him with bankruptcy, etc); instead he would rather wait for (non-existent) clients to approach him and hand him lucrative lecturing contracts or for companies to make him some senior VP, which we all know is never going to happen, given his age, track record and reputation. (Meantime others I know who found themselves unemployed are now happily working; a few even became taxi drivers. The main thing is that they’ve grabbed the bull by the horns and took control of their lives. One ex-managing-director-turned taxi-driver, in his 60’s tells me he’s a much happier man now, plus the income’s not too bad.)

But my other friend would rather whine about how unlucky he is and how everyone – including God – is to be blamed for his plight.

It is often hard to comprehend how others prioritize their lives.

In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release, he wandered to the home of a bishop, who served Valjean a meal using his best silver and even gave him a warm bed for the night.

That evening, Valjean stole the bishop’s silver and was soon caught. Brought to the bishop by the gendarmes, he expected the worst, only to hear the bishop say, “I gave them to him. And Jean, you forgot to take the candlesticks.” Valjean’s life was changed due the bishop’s extraordinary kindness.

How many of us would be willing to trade our priceless silver plates and candlesticks for the joy of seeing a broken life restored?

The gendarmes’ priority was to put Valjean back to prison. The bishop’s priority was to touch a life.

The point here is about putting priority on things that really matter.

Shouldn’t my potential client concentrate on salvaging his business and re-learning the principles of stewardship? It would cost him much less than a new Mercedes! A company, well managed, would make him a real mensch, a decent and responsible businessman, a particularly good man of integrity and honor and a shining beacon for the inspiration of others instead of appearing Alzheimery, pusillanimous, rude and discourteous – in short, just another unprofessional Ah Beng.  Shouldn’t members of the public dispense with some spare change that can help the less fortunate? Shouldn’t the focus of my friend who lost his job be on being realistic and getting employed again? Surely he would find life a whole lot more meaningful if he will get his act together and become gainfully employed and fully engaged once more?

Here are some questions I often ask of senior executives I coach:

Are you willing to change the way you view your priorities?

Are you able to differentiate between your wants and your needs?

Are able to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Are you able to distinguish between reality and fantasy?

Are you willing to push yourself to overcome your fears and face your fears head-on?

Are you willing to be a conqueror or would you rather wallow in the victim’s comfort zone? (Steaks get cooked in their own juice!)

Are you a whiner or a winner?

Unfortunately, some things can’t be taught; they can only be learned.

And some people just have to learn the hard way.

Intrinsic Change

Last month I was contacted by an acquaintance who works as a general manager of an insurance company in Malaysia.

He wanted me to conduct a half-day leadership workshop for his company. Let’s call this company, Company A.

He also demanded a commission of 25% of my fee.

But that wasn’t all. The entire event, he said, will be sponsored by another organization and that organization – let’s call it Company B – has instructed that I bill it (Company B) directly.

But there was a catch.

Company B wanted me to bill 25,000 Malaysian Ringgit as my fee.

Out of the 25,000 MYR, I was told to keep 12,000 MYR for myself and return 13,000 MYR. (Yup, Company B was dictating how much my “real”  fee should be.)

(And remember, my acquaintance was insisting that he be given 25% out of that 12,000 MYR.)

If you do the Math I will end up only with 9,000 MYR, which is about 3,500 Singapore dollars, an amount way below what I normally charge.

A total of 16,000 MYR would be pocketed by two other persons who do nothing to earn it.

I would be the sucker doing the work.

How audacious and greedy can some people be? Most robberies occur when there’s a gun and a mask somewhere. These two persons are worse than highway bandits.

Being a Singaporean, living in Singapore which is the 5th least corrupt country in the world, compared to Malaysia which is the world’s 53rd corrupt country, I turned down the work.

(For more information on the ranking, please refer to Transparency International’s website.)

In another study, Malaysia has been ranked as one of the most corrupt nations and listed as a country which is most likely to take shortcuts to meet targets when economic times are tough.

Indeed, Malaysia, along with China, has the highest levels of bribery and corruption anywhere in the world, according to Ernst & Young’s latest report, Asia-Pacific Fraud Survey Report Series 2013.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib has staked his premiership on six NKRA (National Key Result Areas), of which “Reducing Corruption” was one of the most important.

Looks like the country has a long way to go.

There has been corruption since the beginning of time and it’s not going to go away, especially in countries where corruption is a way of life and considered a part of the culture. So, there cannot be one solution for all types of corruption.

Making it easy to report corruption, protecting whistle blowers and meting out harsh penalties are some deterrents and I applaud China for handing out death sentences for corruption. Nearly 63,000 officials in China have been punished and almost 70 officials under investigation have committed suicide.

As an individual, my anti-corruption strategy is to simply avoid incentivizing people who refer work to me.

It’s a small step, but it’s my way of saying “no” to corruption.

I believe that in this day and age, one can still be successful through sincere effort, without resorting to bribing others to get business.

No need for Faustian pacts of any kind to make an honest living.

Extrinsic Change

In my youth I was a “fighting cock.” I felt angry all the time. Teenage angst? I cannot really explain why but I suspect it has to do with being influenced by my dad who always seemed to feel that he was forever a victim. At least that was one frequent impression of him I harbored in my childhood: that my dad was always angry at being bullied. A visit to the hospital or an encounter with a civil servant would inevitably be accompanied by tales of how nasty the nurses were or how mean the officials were and how my dad had to fight hard to get what he was entitled to. (He always wins.) I walked around looking for reasons to be angry. I grew up “brain-washed” into thinking that most people out there were out to get me and I had to be in a combative stance at all times.

However, for the most part, my dad, and I, and thank God for that, did not go into loud, lengthy and prolonged diatribes when we were angry. Our anger was often very short-lived. We also did not allow our anger to be converted to physical violence. Gnashing of teeth there was but smashing of things there was none of that.

That type of display of anger or blind rage – destructive manifestation of anger – can be really frightening. People who are unable to manage their anger and easily fly off the handle can end up harming others as well as themselves. Some may never live to regret their actions.

There’s no shortage of theories about why people get angry.

One reason could be due to a person’s sense of helplessness and powerlessness or he could simply be irritated by something, so he becomes angry. He may direct that anger at himself. “I’m such an unlucky person. I knew this will happen to me. In fact, I was wondering why this didn’t happen earlier.”

Sometimes anger is born out of a desire to gain control. Whether arising from fear or irritation that things are not going the way we want, anger is often used to intimidate in order to manipulate. “This is not acceptable, read my lips. Do you have any idea who the hell I am? Get me your boss! Now!”

Sometimes people are angered by what they view as injustice. “Righteous indignation” comes from a person’s moral center, outrage at an inequity being committed against oneself or others. “What! Female genital mutilation in this day and age? Isn’t that as barbaric as foot-binding? This has got to stop!”

To many, anger management is treating anger as a negative emotion and eliminating it from their lives.

That is too simplistic a view, in my opinion.

We should first determine why anger arises in the first place and what’s done with it.

To me, anger is not necessarily a bad thing. It has always seem an appropriate response to injustice and may even be beneficial in that it motivates actions to right wrongs.

Our goal should be not to eliminate anger but to control it; not to suppress it but to create value with it.

It is mentally unhealthy to suppress anger. Once anger rises past a certain point, it requires satisfactory expression to be diffused. Imagine a bottle with a stopper and air is continuously expanding inside. It’s a matter of time before the stopper flies out or the bottle explodes. How you enable your anger to be channeled through an outlet depends on why the anger you feel is intensifying in the first place. What triggered your anger? How to manage those triggers? What can you do to remove your sense of helplessness if your anger was due to that? Or is fear of loss of control making you angry? Can that fear be eliminated? Are you angry because you are insecure? Anger that arises from insecurity is particularly efficient at destroying intimate relationships. If your anger is over an injustice, what is the best way to discharge this anger? Are there actions you can take or mobilize others to take?

Everyone can seethe with wrath and become bitter and cynical in the end. It’s the wise person who can calm himself down first, then transform his outrage into positive energies.

We have much to be angry about these days – the plane that was shot down in Ukraine, rapes in India, our fears of not having enough CPF for retirement, the tension in the Middle East, etc. Does it help to rant and whine or sit around and curse our fate or would it be more productive to turn our anger into some form of constructive action?

Many successful nonprofit organizations were started by individuals infuriated about something and wanted to use their anger to make a difference. For example, MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded by Candice Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. MADD claims that drunk driving has been cut in half since it was founded.

How do you deal with your anger?

Intrinsic Change

Dov Charney, who founded American Apparel, a clothing retailer known for its racy ads, used to strut around in his office in his underwear. Not only that, he once masturbated several times in front of a journalist; was hit with numerous sexual harassment law suits and was constantly bragging about his sexual adventures.

The board finally gave him the boot.

Rolf Harris, entertainer of children, was earlier this month sentenced to nearly six years jail for being a pedophile. He was convicted of 12 charges of indecent assault. The law finally caught up with him – Harris is 84.

He wasn’t the only child entertainer who succumbed to the dark side. Harris was snagged as part of Operation Yewtree, a Scotland Yard investigation into sexual abuse allegations, predominantly the abuse of children, against the British media personality Jimmy Savile and his immoral company of merry, lascivious men.

In the meantime, there is now emerging evidence that at least 20 or more prominent figures in the UK – including former Members of Parliament and government ministers – had abused children for “decades.”

Is it me, or as each day goes by is it getting harder to tell the difference between the queen’s honors list and the sex offenders register?

And please don’t get me started on Catholic priests.

In the US, renowned child entertainer Pee-wee Herman was arrested in 1991 for committing an obscene act in public.

Closer to home, it is believed that an ex-Indonesian president was once the potential target of blackmail when the Russians threatened to publicly show videos of him having sex with swallows (female spies) sent to seduce him; the plot failed when the said president asked for copies of the video so his citizens can view him in action. His “virility” will win him hearts and minds – and presumably votes – he claimed.

Too often the world accepts the idea that boys will be boys, men will be men, and that the most successful and dynamic ones are also the most sexually driven and the most lecherous and lustful.

So we shrug and look the other way.

Think Bill Clinton. After a lame attempt at impeachment, Clinton got away scot-free.

But this is nonsense.

We cannot and we should not look the other way.

There are a lot of people whose peccadilloes we are prepared to overlook simply because of who they are.

We cannot take certain beliefs as given and accept behavior which are simply not right.

We assume that most discerning adults can make out right from wrong, but that’s a risky assumption to make nowadays.

What is right and what is wrong is often something difficult to pin down in these days that seem to proliferate with easily-confused people.

I am reminded of the National Library Board’s decision this past week to remove three children books that it considered not pro-family. (Note: the books are not banned, the Board merely withdrawn them from its children’s section.)

The backlash was fast and furious. To protest, some local writers boycotted the Board’s events.

They chose to ignore the fact that one of the books, And Tango Makes Three, has been among the most banned books in public libraries and schools across the United States, which has long been known to be an open and liberal Western society, a “Seventh Heaven” many so-called “open-minded” Singaporeans are hoping that Singapore will emulate or become.

Many seem to forget that as a statutory board, the role of the National Library Board has to be consistent with the Government’s stance on the family, which, to paraphrase Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is made up of one man and one woman raising children together. Critics also seem to conveniently overlook the fact that the Board’s adult collection does contain titles with homosexual themes and its collection policy does not exclude materials on “alternative lifestyles.”

Indeed what is right and what is wrong? Or do some people deliberately choose to leave their blinkers on?

I was flabbergasted to read that on July 13th two young mothers had organized an event for children outside the National Library in defiance of the Board’s decision; they intentionally made sure that those three books were there for all to read. One of them even set up a Facebook page, Singapore’s Parents Against Library Censorship, to express her disapproval of the Board’s decision to remove the children’s titles. Completely missing the point, she declared to the press “I want my daughter to know that every family is valid, and not to feel sorry for people whose families are different from her own.” Yeah, right, I’m sure her daughter, who’s a five-month old infant, can understand all that.

Indeed, sadly, we can no longer assume that all adults are able to exercise discernment.

Take the case of Buddhist monks in Myanmar.

Do they have too much time on their hands or what? Is the saying that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop really true?

One would think of Buddhist monks as silent, low-profile religious men of the cloth, going about what they do quietly. (I am referring to the real ones, not those fake ones from China who fly all over the world begging for money. I’ve just read that they have now invaded New York City as well.)

But in Myanmar, some Buddhist monks are busy going around killing people or provoking their devotees to commit murder.

There is a gang of monks who call themselves the “969”, after the nine virtues of Buddha, the six elements of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the clergy. The 969 are consumed with hatred for Myanmar’s Muslims, who make up 5 per cent of the population. Nearly 200,000 have been driven from their homes. For Myanmese Muslims, the numbers 969 – which jump out at them from brightly colored stickers in shops and taxis – are as menacing as the swastika for Jews. In March, Buddhists set fire to an Islamic boarding school in central Myanmar. Twenty-four students and teachers were killed; a boy was decapitated; police stood by while onlookers applauded.

In fact, despite Myanmar’s supposed opening, internal strife is as vicious as ever – more than 250 people have been killed since June 2012. Most of the victims have been members of Myanmar’s Muslim minority.

Earlier this month, hundreds of Buddhists, many of them wielding knives, clubs and bamboo poles, threatened to kill Muslims again as they rode on motorcycles through Myanmar’s second-largest city of Mandalay on July 4th.

“We’re going to kill all the Muslims,” some shouted as they rode through the streets.

An innocent Muslim man was killed, beaten to death on his way to morning prayers.

The increasing violence against Muslims is widely attributed to the acceptance by Myanmese authorities of a rogue monk named Sayadaw Wirathu, the vile preacher who leads the 969 monks, who calls himself “the Myanmese bin Laden.”

Even Aung San Suu Kyi remains silent to this day on the killing of her Muslim countrymen.

Who knows what cataclysm could be averted if the Myanmese authorities and Aung San Suu Kyi could see what is right and what is wrong and assert their moral authority?

When those with influence lack discernment or judgment and look the other way, bad situations will only exacerbate.

“Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn,” declared TIME magazine.

I can’t agree more.

I’m not here to debate if TIME is correct or incorrect. It is also not my intention here to attempt an explanation of why people turn evil. I am also not here to make a stand for or against homosexuality.

The point I want to make now is this – the world must change its attitude and stop looking the other way, stop accepting what is abnormal as normal, when the facts before us are abundantly clear in revealing to us what is obviously right and what is obviously wrong.

As I write this, Martin Niemöller’s poem comes to mind:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a pastor and his poem was about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

It has never lost its relevance.

It is a poem we should all reflect on from time to time.

Extrinsic Change

Some years back, eight families on Everitt Road were involved in a long-running feud over limited car park lots. The ugly and vulgar drama was played out in public for all to see. It eventually ended when one of the families, believed to be the quarrelsome one who started it all, moved away, much to everyone’s relief.

The Everitt Road saga is unlikely to be the last of neighborly disputes, what with the population of Singapore – one of the most densely populated countries in the world – getting bigger and bigger by the day.

It is not uncommon to hear people getting apoplectic and complaining about noisy pets, quarreling couples, even crying babies or loud cheers from World Cup aficionados in the unholy hours of the night. In this stress-filled world, our threshold for tolerance seems to be decreasing, instead of increasing. Have you noticed how when we are on the road, we tend to spit vitriol at just about every other motorist and road user, as if we ourselves are perfect?

That can change.

And it begins with you.

My dad turned 83 last month and my mother-in-law is a year older. Both are healthy but they are my two oldest living relatives. Plus I have two sons who are away serving national service in the army. And my daughter travels three weeks out of a month on company business. My son-in-law’s work also takes him overseas. Because of my circumstances, for me, staying connected is critical. So I leave my smartphone switched on all the time. But our family makes it a point to be cognizant of different time zones and I try not to WhatsApp my daughter at 10am in Singapore because that would mean it’s 4am in Cologne. We take small little steps such as this just to be sensitive.  As a matter of fact, I try not to text or email anyone during certain hours. Now that emails are pushed into smartphones it can be annoying to be on the receiving end of all kinds of trivia round the clock. However, I often feel as if my family is the only one trying to be conscious of people’s need for privacy and personal time. My wife gets inane, time-wasting messages from people sharing jokes, videos and other rubbishy contents sent to her phone at all hours of the day including way past midnight or very early in the morning like 6.30am. Ironically some of these messages emanate from a “care group” from church. Is this how you show care? By annoying people at 3am in the morning with frivolous WhatsApp and text messages about how Jesus loves you?

What happened to good old-fashioned courtesy? In the olden days you only phone people late at night or very early in the morning when there is a death in the family.

No wonder the concept of neighborliness is in peril.

One other reason for the demise of neighborliness would be that many of us make the mistake of keeping to ourselves until a neighbor starts to annoy us. Meeting a neighbor for the first time under such circumstances will only ratchet up everyone’s “jerkitude.”

So is there something we can do about this?

Yes indeed!

Prevention is better than cure.

Be proactive!

Make the first move to get to know your neighbors.

And if you are a member of the resident’s committee, that’s even better. (By the way, if you wish to be an influencer, always try to serve in such a committee.) If you are a member of the resident’s committee, make an effort to introduce yourself to each new family that has moved in and let the family members know that you serve in the committee and if they encounter problems (such as dogs that bark unceasingly or residents who dump cigarette butts all over the place) to let you know. This also sets the tone for the sort of behavior that is not to be tolerated. Offer to explain the contents of the resident’s handbook; again, this provides a great opportunity to elaborate on what behavior is deemed acceptable and unacceptable. (It also helps if you can have a more forgiving mindset to start with – what babies don’t cry? Telling a mother with a sick child to stop her lullabies isn’t very reasonable or compassionate. So hey, don’t sweat the small stuff k?)

In Mending Wall, Robert Frost writes a contemplative poem based on the activity of going out with his neighbor each spring to mend the stone wall that divides their property.  Frost himself doesn’t really like the wall – he feels it is unnecessary, unfriendly, outdated, and a bit rude to have.  However, his neighbor, who seems to be steeped in tradition, says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This is an old belief that seems to imply that you can be better neighbors if there are boundaries. This is certainly true for societies that are yet to be considered mature and self-regulating. I remember how when I visited Zurich I was astonished by the fact that if I had boarded the tram without first purchasing a ticket, I would have gone undetected because no one checked. Such a system can never work in a country where laws have to be enforced to ensure that people behave with a modicum of civic-consciousness.

So while you go about establishing some boundaries with neighbors, I have a suggestion to make.

And that is: When you go and greet your new neighbors, whenever possible, bring along a cake or a dish you’ve cooked; even a plate of cookies will do. (Just so you know, I especially have a weakness for Danish butter cookies or anything from Mrs Fields or Famous Amos.) While pure altruism is a bit too much to expect, “reciprocal altruism” still works. Your act of kindness is akin to your making a deposit into your neighbor’s emotional account. Hare Krishna devotees at airports inevitably receive donations when they give away flowers and fund-raising letters tend to get responses when little gifts are enclosed, if you get my drift.

Moreover, being nice to people can give you a “helper’s high” and makes you more satisfied with your own life. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who studies generosity, says that those who are kind to others end up increasing their own happiness.

You’ll be amazed how much mileage there is in that cake or dish or in that plate of cookies. (In case you risk being thought of as being insensitive to the religious faith of your new neighbor, fruits are safest – no need to worry if what you bring will be kosher or halal. Stay away from durians as not everyone likes them but who can resist a punnet or two of lush strawberries, or a small basket of sweet, succulently fat and juicy lychees or half a dozen fragrant mangoes?) If anything your gesture will inoculate you against a neighbor suddenly going postal on you or harboring a life-long grudge against you just because you were too slow to catch your front door, resulting in a loud, deafening slam.

You see, like the rest of us, you won’t be the perfect neighbor all the time too. During those times when you slipped up, you would want to be treated with kindness, understanding and forgiveness as well.

Intrinsic Change