My tiny Singapore (which is only 26 square miles) made world headlines not once but twice in the month of August! The first was regarding the official visit of our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long to the White House on August 2nd.
The buzz was neither about the celebration of 50 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries, nor the great speeches made by Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee. The big commotion featured on the BBC, in local newspapers and on social media was about the Prime Minister’s wife Ho Chin’s clothing and her $11 dinosaur bag. While First Lady Michelle Obama was dressed to the nines in a gorgeous yellow lace dress, Mrs. Prime Minister was wearing a batik looking samfu that my 86 year old grandmother till this day wears. She was also carrying a bright blue dinosaur clutch that looked like something that I would buy for my 4 year old daughter. The purse was later identified as having been designed by an autistic child who loves dinosaurs and can draw from memory. The bag was sold at a charity event that she attended weeks before (and all 200 of them are currently sold out thanks to her). People on social media were quick to point out that she was also wearing slippers (the American term is usually flip flops), and they could even identify the exact brand.
Some netizens were outraged, and went as far to say that she is an embarrassment to our nation with her fashion, and how she should hire a stylist. However, I am frankly very proud of Mrs. Ho, who also runs Temasek Holdings, an investment company based in Singapore. She is who she is. Furthermore, if she were to hire a stylist, there would also be criticisms online that she is wasting tax payer’s money.
Adding to this, I think it is important that every one of us who has a fiduciary duty of looking after people’s money should think about what values we are communicating with our fashion choices and any outward appearance of décor. What does it say about our duty to our customers for looking after their money? That is generally why I always feel a tinge of sadness when I go to a lawyer’s office in a penthouse suite with floor to ceiling glass windows and fancy tables and chairs. I will start to think – “so this is where the fees I paid went!” Of course I am not advocating a vow of poverty like St. Francis. I am just saying it is important that what we do reflects our values. Dress and spend appropriately for your vocation.
The second Singapore news that hit the world was about how Singapore’s home grown Joseph Schooling beat Michael Phelps in the 100 meter butterfly and brought Singapore its first GOLD medal.
The last point might stun outsiders who wonder why Singaporeans would ask for a holiday when all the credit goes to one person who did all the hard work? As a collective society, you belong to everyone and everyone belongs to you. You are part of a bigger whole, and your identity lies with how everyone is and not yourself. Bizarre I know.
In Singapore, we are literally a little red dot on the map and overshadowed by our neighbors in size and natural resources. There is always this sense that the world out there is better, stronger, and more powerful than us, and we can never match up. But the story of Schooling and how he was so determined to win since age 6, and his parents relentless and active support, helped us see that there is a way. There is talent and also there is incredible hard work and sacrifice and focus. It shows the strength of the human spirit and how great things can be achieved by ordinary people like you and me.
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