I met David five years ago, when we joined the new youth council of the United Nations Association of Singapore (UNAS). And despite working on a few projects together (including a sustainable development conference in Sarawak, Malaysia) we had few chats, and I only heard his story at the first “I Am Talented” (IAT) event in February 2011. Back then the intent of IAT was for participating students to acquire new skills and be inspired by the accounts of adversity and triumph, and today the initiative – in its third edition – maintains the same philosophies, anchored even more firmly by the core values of discovery, diligence, and determination. This year students choose from nine workshops, developing interests in photography and robotics for instance over three Saturdays at ITE College Central.
We were not the closest, but I was chasing more readers and I knew David’s account – after a recent interview with a young, aspiring chef had gone viral – would draw eyeballs. In this sense I featured him before it was mainstream, I remind David jokingly now.
In the next few years we continued with activities in the council, such as the UNAS Model United Nations Preparatory Conference and the second IAT, and after he left the organisation he busied himself with other endeavours around the world. Busied is probably an understatement, as he shuttled from presentations in schools to a 250-kilometre trek across the Gobi Desert, and while we had the occasional catch-up it was a nice surprise when David texted me last year about restarting the IAT gig.
The final session happens tomorrow.
I write this, because David is one of the most genuine people I know, especially when my community service commitments before national service were overwhelmed by pragmatism. Two weeks ago right after the first IAT session I met a good friend for dinner, and after sharing David’s story I thought about my own experiences in junior college. At seventeen for the first time in a long time – surrounded by so many intelligent and accomplished counterparts – I felt out of my depth, and diving into community service was my recourse. It would give me the edge when I applied for universities and scholarships.
So to compensate for my perceived inadequacy I dived into so many activities beyond the school, yet I never developed that emotional connection with my teams or beneficiaries. I was in overdrive. At a youth charity I did “Connect Singapore” and the Chingay Parade. In the grassroots I penned letters at meet-the-people sessions and organised events with a youth executive committee. I facilitated camps for youths-at-risk, sought to raise awareness of eating disorders, and even led a small team to Vietnam in November 2008.
It would be a stretch to say that I had no passion for what I did, but oftentimes through these initiatives my intentions were all over the place. When I got into a rhythm it was one engagement after the other, with little regard for the impact I actually made. At the camps for example I could cheer with the kids to match their level of enthusiasm, but straight after – besides going back the year after – I did little for these relationships. To be honest it was not hard as a charlatan at that time, going on about my supposed love for giving back.
And in this vein I grew sceptical of volunteerism projects in Singapore and around the world. I can never come to terms with my own selfish narrative, and with social media these days the exploitation of such gestures has become even more ubiquitous.
On the other hand David’s motivations shine through the smallest of gestures, and are reminders of what most could aspire to be driven by. He has affection for the youths he works with, and while IAT happens once a year he maintains these connections through the years. During the event he writes personalised, encouragement notes and speaks to them over breaks or lunches, and after the event the correspondence resumes on social media. His investment in these youths shines through when he speaks fondly of their interactions, asks about their lives, and when the youths clamour around him with their musings.
It has been refreshing. Two weeks ago at IAT I heard David’s “Chicken Rice” story for the fourth or fifth time, and am sure I will get the opportunity to do so again for years to come. And I am grateful for that.