From a new place

I am writing this from my new house which is still in the process of becoming a true home. My belongings are partially unpacked, some furnishings and carpentry still yet to arrive, but it is enough for me right now.


Just like my cat who is still coming to terms with the new house, I am adjusting to the neighbourhood and getting my bearings right. It isn’t a completely alien area for me as I spent some years living in the same town as a teenager, but the Singaporean pace of urban change requires a reorientation. As I take my walk through the town, I discover new developments being built on what I remember as vast open patches of grass. Buildings don’t look the same way as I last visited them, and it seems like the edges of the town has been pushed out further since I last lived in this town. I didn’t even move to another country and it is already taking me a while to adjust. I also find myself literally figuring out the neighbourhood, by which I mean drawing mental figures, maps and diagrams in my head to remember the new routes and facilities in the area.
 

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Taking long walks through the city have started to become a thing for me over the last few months. Some of these walks are pre-planned with a route in mind but there are some that unfolds with fate as I step out of my front door.
 

Not too long ago, I put on my shoes and took one such walk where the roads to walk and turns to make were decided in the moment. It led me to landscaped paths, ten-lane road junctions, a ‘rural farmway’, wild dogs & otters, and beautiful water bodies. I am starting to wonder what I will discover as I walk on other routes across different parts of the island.

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Late in October, I shared to a small group of people and briefly on my IG story that I was going to start working on a new project to support new talent and ideas for a better city. The impetus for this comes from a reflective moment from earlier this year where Mizah and I wondered about our contribution to the city beyond client work, beyond our companies, and beyond our own lives. We know that there are many other issues in our city that need community-powered solutions, and while Mizah and I never managed to shape this thought into reality together, it has become one of my personal goals to continue working on it.
 

For a start, this personal project of mine will focus on offering educational bursaries and mentorship to tertiary students who are pursuing their interests in community-driven solutions to our urban issues. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and I will be providing updates as they are available.
 

To read more about the project and find out how you can help, head over to adibjalal.com/bettercity/
 

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That’s all for this month. You may notice that I’ve reshuffled some stuff on the website and a more coherent archive of recent Dispatches now sit within the site itself. There are still some weirdness in there but just I am figuring out this new physical place of mine, I will be getting to sorting that digital place in the next month as well.

Till the next time, be kind to yourself.

A place in between

The words you’re reading now has been dispatched from a strange place. It is a place of in-between. Not just a place between the innerworld and outerworld like the blurb I wrote for this newsletter that you signed up for, but it is a place between the now and the new. If you are starting to feel like this is not the place you want to be at, be careful as you follow the lights to the exit.

The last time I wrote, the changes were getting started and since then, it has been weeks of preparation of the new place and the packing up of the now place. Now, most of my belongings are packed away leaving me feeling detached from the current apartment while not yet connected with the future one. I feel unmoored. As though the things in the house were the weight that kept me grounded to this shell of an apartment.

Between a house which is a construction site and a house that has been packed away, nowhere feels right. In the day, I walk amongst the dust and debris while imagining in my head what the apartment might be in the future. At the end of the day, I rest my body amongst the towers of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap while considering the life in this apartment of the past. The placemaker (me) is displaced from his house for the moment, and home is just a place in his head.

Even so, the new awaits with possibilities. While I’ld rather the circumstances surrounding it was different, the light of hope that I have been tending to inside me is starting to glow just a flicker brighter lately. 

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In a moment of serendipity or grand coincidence, the people behind ELEVEN magazine, a student-run publication produced by Nanyang Technological University Muslim Society (NTUMS), dropped me a DM a couple of weeks ago to ask if I had words about the theme of ‘Possibilities’ for them. I reached down inside and typed some that read something like this:

As you stand at the doorway of these two places (between now and new), you can’t help but wonder what lies behind it. Through the gap underneath the door, you get a glimpse of what lies beyond. It sounds like peace, and it smells like joy. It seems greener on that other side, like a vast expanse with an abundance of all that you have been seeking. You know that it has its own version of bullshit that is fertilising the land, but it still seems better than the now.  

I have no way of telling you what lies behind that door, but it is probably not what you are expecting. It is also probably going to warm your heart and break it at some point, but that’s okay because that is what being human is all about. All we can do is to be graceful and grateful in not knowing what is behind it.

At the threshold between these two places, you may have questions like I did. Am I stepping into a good thing, or am I stepping out of it? Am I coming back to myself or am I going away to discover a new part of myself? Is this starting over or is this the next chapter? As I discovered later, there are no wrong answers because there were always other doors in the new place for me. Doors that would lead me to places that I would never have seen if I didn’t walk through that first one. Doors that would lead me to the people I never knew I needed to meet. And doors that would lead me to lessons that I needed to unlock the next one.

Take it from this strange man with calluses and scars that you need to be careful with what and who you bring along on this journey. Be full, but be light. Know the difference between a weight that will keep you grounded and the weight that prevents you from soaring. Know what gives you strength or takes it away. Explore the contours between moving forward and leaving things behind. Decide what to keep and how to keep it.

You can read the full version here


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Thank you for reading this far. You have been so generous with your time and attention to me and I really appreciate it. The next dispatch that I send will be written from an old desk in a new place and who knows what the words will be like then. Till that moment arrives, write back to me if you wish or don’t, but always be kind to yourself.
 

-A

Between Now and New

We all got here under different circumstances. You may have charted your own path to this point, you may have been washed up here by the waves, or you may have woken up one day and inexplicably found yourself in this strange place. This my friend, is the space between the now and the new. 

As you stand at the doorway of these two places, you can’t help but wonder what lies behind it. Through the gap underneath the door, you get a glimpse of what lies beyond. It sounds like peace, and it smells like joy. It seems greener on that other side, like a vast expanse with an abundance of all that you have been seeking. You know that it has its own version of bullshit that is fertilising the land, but it still seems better than the now.

I have no way of telling you what lies behind that door, but it is probably not what you are expecting. It is also probably going to warm your heart and break it at some point, but that’s okay because that is what being human is all about. All we can do is to be graceful and grateful in not knowing what is behind it. 

At the threshold between these two places, you may have questions like I did. Am I stepping into a good thing, or am I stepping out of it? Am I coming back to myself or am I going away to discover a new part of myself? Is this starting over or is this the next chapter? As I discovered later, there are no wrong answers because there were always other doors in the new place for me. Doors that would lead me to places that I would never have seen if I didn’t walk through that first one. Doors that would lead me to the people I never knew I needed to meet. And doors that would lead me to lessons that I needed to unlock the next one. It is all in the wisdom given to us in Qur’an (2:216), “You may dislike something although it is good for you, or like something, although it is bad for you”. And how do I know that there is another door to walk through? I am still alive. 

Take it from this strange man with calluses and scars that you need to be careful with what and who you bring along on this journey. Be full, but be light. Know the difference between a weight that will keep you grounded and the weight that prevents you from soaring. Know what gives you strength or takes it away. Explore the contours between moving forward and leaving things behind. Decide what to keep and how to keep it. 

Then at some point, you will be on your own. The white space you will encounter on the other side can be both a canvas or a vacuum. It is exciting and uncomfortable and in the fervor of filling it up, don’t forget the breathing space that you craved for in the first place. Fear and shame will want to follow you through the door but only you get to decide who to let in. But I know you will be brave and confident with the knowledge that “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear” – Qur’an (2:286).

These words of mine came from the path that I’ve been on. Yours is and will be different and you will write your own words for others someday. Be on your way now. I’m just going to be hanging out here for a bit more to catch my breath before I continue along. Till the next time we meet, or we don’t, be kind to yourself and others. I pray that you will have the audacity to choose love and hope despite knowing that disappointment will still find you on this side of the new. I also pray that you be given the guidance to make good decisions, and the wisdom to see and choose it when it comes your way. It will all be ok. As the wise saying goes, “What is destined will reach you, even if it be underneath two mountains. What is not destined, will not reach you, even if it be between your two lips”.

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Prompt of ‘Possibilities’ was given by ELEVEN magazine, a student-run publication produced by Nanyang Technological University Muslim Society (NTUMS).

Change is in the air

It’s the last Tuesday of the month, a time when I send these monthly email Dispatches that I’ve promised you’ll receive when you signed up for it. This is supposed to be words about our shared humanity in our shared cities but if you’ve been around this newsletter long enough, you’ll know that it is a very broad umbrella under which I put a lot of things.

There’s been a lot of movement and change on my side of these words since the last time I wrote. Following the life-changing events of many moons ago, I seem to have plunged myself deeper into this change, moved with it, and as Alan Watts would say, danced with it
 

Instead of my relative reclusivity in 2019 and earlier in the year, I have put myself on a run of ‘public appearances’ for work lately. Over the last month and the coming one, I have been and will be part of discussion panels as guestas a moderator, and also as a presenter at various webinars. These public musings and conversations about the future of communities and cities have gotten me back into the fold of my professional life and it all feels familiar and different at the same time. It is such a contrasting pace and I consider all of it part of finding my footing in this new world I live in.
 

Change is also happening on a tectonic scale as I am in the midst of relocating to a different part of the island so that I may start a new chapter. Faulkner writes: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore”, and I am indeed heading very far away from the shoreline. Moving house is part of my moving forward.
 

All this change is extremely uncomfortable and often a pain in the butt and in the heart, but I am discovering so many new things about myself as I go through this. I’ve encountered my demons and fears, aspirations and perspectives I never knew I had, and at times met parts of me that I didn’t recognise. I also find myself forced to engage with the sum of my life till this point, decide what and how to make them part of the future, and deal with all the complexities and decision-making that a move demands in entirely new ways. In these times of change, I take Maya Angelou’s words to heart: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

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Some months ago, I was invited to contribute a piece of writing to an independent magazine with the theme of ‘Spaces’. The intention was to explore ways in which spaces are created, experienced and lived in both urban and rural areas, and reveal new dimensions to it.
 

My contribution titled ‘Morning Intervals’ takes the form of an observation journal, one where I observe and document the city around me in that space between the start of my day and the start of the work day.


I’ve published an excerpt of the piece at adibjalal.com/morning-intervals/, or if you would like to know more and purchase the entire publication, visit sali-sasaki.exposure.co/spaces. Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt of the excerpt.

5:30AM

Hushed. The call of the koel birds have not yet begun, and one can barely make out the polite rumble of vehicles. Considering the number of people living in close proximity with me, it seemed unnatural that I could not hear any conversations or crying children.  

A cool breeze was blowing and I walked over to widen the window and let some of it into the apartment. It was still dark outside, leaving the vibrant greens of the tree canopy in the neighbouring precinct reduced to an indeterminate bushy carpet with some blocks protruding out of it.  

Looking out, I saw that the sky was a scene of perfectly blended shades of black and deep blue. The lack of stars in the scene above the horizon contrasted with the glowing veins crawling across the ground below me. A constellation of light spots pepper the ground: red, amber, green, white, and the distinctive shade of orange-yellow. I wonder if people call it “street-light orange”.  

The arteries of the city were still unclogged and the few drivers on the road were enjoying the smooth and easy drive. That could change very quickly in the coming hours, beginning with the appearance of service vehicles that will be preparing the city for the day ahead. But for now, the late sleepers and early risers get to enjoy the abundance of time and space in their city.  

I consider the idea that some people enjoy a city that never sleeps. But I much prefer it when it does, and when it still is.

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Before I end this dispatch, just a couple more website stuff.

1) The “link in bio” phenomenon of Instagram is an inconvenience and I’ve created a workaround where I now have a page on my website to list all the links that I would like to share. So instead of a linktree link, there exists a page that is literally called “Link in Bio”.

2) I am in the process of reshuffling the website and for now, have stripped it down to its bare bones. I expect some work to be done to it in the coming months and in that period, do not be alarmed if it looks weird when you try to visit it.

Thank you for reading this far and all the support. Till the next time my words reach you again, be kind. Onwards.

– A

Morning Intervals

There is a space in between the start of my day, and the start of the work day. In this space, I wake up to the city around me as it too stirs to life. I paused to ponder and wonder at it.

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5:30AM

Hushed. The call of the koel birds have not yet begun, and one can barely make out the polite rumble of vehicles. Considering the number of people living in close proximity with me, it seemed unnatural that I could not hear any conversations or crying children.

A cool breeze was blowing and I walked over to widen the window and let some of it into the apartment. It was still dark outside, leaving the vibrant greens of the tree canopy in the neighbouring precinct reduced to an indeterminate bushy carpet with some blocks protruding out of it.

Looking out, I saw that the sky was a scene of perfectly blended shades of black and deep blue. The lack of stars in the scene above the horizon contrasted with the glowing veins crawling across the ground below me. A constellation of light spots pepper the ground: red, amber, green, white, and the distinctive shade of orange-yellow. I wonder if people call it “street-light orange”.

The arteries of the city were still unclogged and the few drivers on the road were enjoying the smooth and easy drive. That could change very quickly in the coming hours, beginning with the appearance of service vehicles that will be preparing the city for the day ahead. But for now, the late sleepers and early risers get to enjoy the abundance of time and space in their city.

I consider the idea that some people enjoy a city that never sleeps. But I much prefer it when it does, and when it still is.

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6:30 AM

The water shimmered from the rays of sunshine that was emerging from behind the high rise apartment blocks. Although still, there is both a warmth and a coolness in the air, making it one of the best times to step out for one’s morning exercise. With kids and their parents too busy chasing the morning commute to school, the running path was occupied by middle-aged individuals, couples, and seniors who could afford to fit a jog in their morning schedule. It felt like every fifth person that I came across the route was wearing a singlet which proudly announced that he or she has been a “Finisher” in a marathon.

I was struggling to catch my breath; partly because I have not gone for a run in a long while, and partly from seeing the scene in front of me. The lush trees that lined the canal offered a buffer to the industrial buildings that lay right behind it. It was a perfectly crafted illusion of nature in such close proximity to the warehouses, machinery, and facilities behind the strip of green. An expressway cuts across the horizon with queues of delivery trucks and passenger vehicles on it, but all of it seemed distant from the ground where my neighbours and I were jogging at. The air was fresh, the urban sounds were faint, and the family of otters greeted us on the banks of the canal. It still amazes me how this city have adapted and reimagined its drainage system into a continuous strip of constructed nature across the island.

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7:30 AM

The void-deck was living up to its name. The blue, perforated metal chairs were empty. Four of them, fixed in position around a metal table that has also been bolted to the ground. Chained-up bicycles, mostly rusty and in various states of dismantlement, line the wall. A few bicycles from the bankrupted bike-sharing companies remain strewn behind the pillars, remnants of a time where this city thought these services were a good idea. But other than that mess, the floor and walls of the area was clean. In fact, sterile.

There was a hint of human life at the other block. A group of seniors were gathered around the stone furniture with walking sticks leaning against the chair, plastic bags filled with their morning shopping on the table, conversations in dialect going strong. I do not understand what they are talking about but I imagine that this must be their morning huddle before they retreat for their TV dramas, naps, and individual schedules for the rest of the day.

A few meters away at the other segment of the void-deck was a signage that read “Study Corner”. A few sets of benches and tables similar in design to the other perforated metal furniture were provided for in that area. Wifi and power sockets were not provided, but it was quiet and rather breezy. Unsurprisingly, no one was studying there for school was in session, but an elderly man was sleeping there.

This was his spot. The place where I would find him in every morning, but not in the evening. Lying across the bench that was too short for him, the man would prop his leg on the dividers of the area. He had a haversack at his pillow, and another tote-bag overflowing with things lay on the floor beside him. A styrofoam box, possibly of his recent breakfast, would often be left on the table. He slept with his arms across his body, hugging himself to sleep.

I’ve always wondered about his story. Is he taking a snooze after a late-night shift before heading home in a while? Is he homeless? Why did he choose that bench, in that block? What does he dream of? Is this city doing enough for him?

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The text above is an excerpt of my contribution to SPACES, an editorial project by Sali Sasaki.

‘SPACES’ gathers visual narratives, interviews and stories about the ways in which spaces are created, experienced and lived in both urban and rural areas. It reveals the complex dimensions of physical and symbolic spaces through a range of related topics including cultural expression, identity, movement, landscapes and natural resources. A particular emphasis is made on the flexible adaptation of local cultures in the global era, as well as the creativity of “non-creative” environments.

For more information and to purchase the book, visit sali-sasaki.exposure.co/spaces

The words for grief

Hello you. This is Adib and some time back, you subscribed to Dispatches, a monthly letter that I write about our shared humanity and life in cities. It’s a new-ish format that I introduced a month ago and I appreciate you being here. However, if you already immediately regret that decision, you can unsubscribe here.

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“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach,” wrote Joan Didion.

If I had read these words last year, it wouldn’t have made much sense. Just like all the other words written by those who had to live with the loss of their loved ones. In fact, in a conversation with a friend who himself is carrying the weight of grief, we talked about how most of us simply do not have the language for it. Many of us struggle to find the right words to express it and to comfort it, and yet our encounter with grief is inevitable.

Many weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve struggled to describe how I’m feeling to others. And so in my search of trying to put words to this human experience, I have been reading the words of others. Reading these words made me feel connected to a universal truth of our shared humanity: that of loss, that of grief, and that of trying to find a way forward. 
 

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“Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.

I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule.

Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.

The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.

When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, IG post on Rayya


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“Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

– Joan Didion, Year of Magical Thinking


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“The pain of the grief, that’s also a gift,” he said. “When you stop grieving is when you start losing contact with the person. But as long as you can grieve for her, then she will always feel very close. And so for me, actually, I welcome it. … Because then I feel much closer to her.” 

Eddie Chang at Storycorps


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“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


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“That is what I’ve felt like all of these months, like I am groping about in the darkness, waking up in a world I hadn’t expected to occupy. But there is no way through it except through it.”

– Nora McInerny, No Happy Endings: A Memoir


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On the topic of words, about a week ago, I wrote a post titled “100 days. 7 years.” in commemoration of a 100 days of Mizah’s passing which coincided with what was to be our 7th wedding anniversary. I offered a glimpse into life in that 100 days which has evolved from not being able to do nothing, to being able to do some things, and eventually a few new things. In very general terms, I am ‘better’ and have a lot to be grateful for but once again, these words are inadequate to explain how I am feeling now. But thanks to the community of grieving people out there who have had better success at it, enter the “Ball in the Box” analogy of grief: 

 

Imagine a box. There is a ball in it, and a “pain” button.

In the beginning, the ball is huge and it just keeps hitting the pain button. There is no way to control it and sometimes, it gets stuck on the button to release relentless pain.

Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less and less but when it does, it hurts just as bad. However, the ball does randomly hit that button when you least expect it, and there you are in pain again. 

For most people, the ball never really goes away. It might hit less and less, and one would have more time to recover between hits. But sometimes, the ball may unexpectedly increase in size for a while before shrinking back. And that’s just the way life is from now on.

Paraphrased & adapted from @Lauren Herschel on Twitter; first discovered via a FB post that was shared with me


Right now, as I type these words, the ball has been gradually shrinking. I am glad that I have the words of others who have had to go through this to help me along the past months and also what is to come. I am also very thankful for you for reading these words of mine. The grief that I write about is mine, but I’ve had many of you reach out to tell me that you feel it too. Thank you.

100 days. 7 years.

18/08/2020 marks a 100 days since Mizah passed.
It would also have been our 7th wedding anniversary.
It’s hard to not see it as more than a coincidence.

It’s been a few weeks since I discovered the coincidence of dates. It kept surfacing up in my mind and demanded attention, and I eventually did what all of grieving demands of me. I sat with it. I didn’t have the strength to revisit wedding photos and videos. But I did dust off the words that I wrote and promised her:

  1. I vow to always treat you with tenderness, warmth and love, not only when you are easy to love, but also when you are difficult or when I am.
  2. I vow to be your husband, your friend, your soulmate, in young and old age, good fortune and bad luck, dark sickness and pink of health and everything else in between.
  3. I vow to begin and end each day together with love and gratitude for your presence in my life.
  4. I vow to be open, loyal, respectful and truthful to you in every thought and action.
  5. I vow to love you for who you are and none of your current or future scars can make me love you any less.

We had also hoped for a life that we could live well with each other, have kids, grow old together, and then ’till death do us part’; but we only got two out it. That’s the life that we were gifted and it was still pretty damn good.


It’s no surprise or secret that she was the best of me and the one who brought out the best in me. I was a man in search for a home and I found it in wherever she was. She was my companion and my light, and now she is a star — one of the stars in the universe that might be gone but still sending its light through space and time, bright in the sky, beautiful to look at, and still helping me to navigate through new adventures.

It’s fair to say that the last 100 days have been nothing short of a wild adventure. In that time span, I have:

  • Lived through the Hari Raya Puasa & Hari Raya Haji festivities without her
  • Lived through her birthday without her
  • Went into isolation and then learned how to crawl out of it to meet close friends and family.
  • Packed and donated away a lot of our things
  • Experienced too many flashbacks from the last 3 months of the most intense stage of caregiving while under Covid19 lockdown
  • Seen my therapist a few times
  • Slept very little and a lot
  • Cried a lot at predictable times. Then a lot at unexpected times. And now just letting it happen when it needs to happen which on the whole is slightly lesser
  • Struggled with being sad, and then learning how to live with it
  • Started learning how to cook properly
  • Watched too much Netflix
  • Got a PC and started playing PC games
  • Got back to work and started to try and figure things out by going through it
  • Got back to a meditation practice
  • Learned to put the social back in social media but not ready to put social into social life
  • Wrote more words than I’ve written in the last 1 year
  • Walked hundreds of kilometers
  • Considered and embraced the possibility that there are new adventures to be lived
  • Decided to sell the house and start afresh elsewhere
  • Start designing my new house
  • Re-learn how to smile & laugh & enjoy things
  • Tried to bake bread
  • Adopted a cat

Clearly a lot has happened in that 100 days. A period where Grief and Happiness have been slowly converging to become a completely new set of feelings that I am constantly learning how to be comfortable with. Behind all of this is the promise I made to Mizah towards the end of her life. She was always worried about what my life would look like in the future and she made me give her my word that I will take care of myself and figure out how to move on. That is the nudge behind all the things I am doing, and the rest is just pure momentum.


It has been 101 days since Mizah said her last words to me. Deep in the middle of the night, after I had cleaned and carried her to the bed, she muttered weakly to me, “Thank You Sayang”. I replied with a whisper to her ear, “I love you, now go get some rest.” I didn’t know then that it would be the last words we would say to each other. I hope she knows that the pleasure, honour, and privilege of the life we had together was all mine. All 7 glorious years of married life and the couple before that when she became part of my life.

7 years later, 100 days later, and many more to come. She is and will always be loved.

Small projects for big impact

Think about urban revitalisation in Singapore and large-scale, government-led initiatives come to mind.

Since the island’s independence, public agencies have led the city’s urban revitalisation projects which includes the monumental multi-agency clean-up of the then-polluted Singapore River in the 1970s and the Housing & Development Board’s Remaking our Heartland programme to renew housing estates in 2007. These government-driven programmes often aim for large-scale physical change, are capital intensive, and require a long timeline to unfold, thus necessitating masterplans that are usually crafted by a select group of politicians, policymakers, planners, investors and other major stakeholders of the urban area in question. Although led by experts in their respective fields, this approach is inherently exclusive as it places the power and responsibility over the urban area in the hands of a few individuals. Also, like many grand projects, it is an approach that can be susceptible to a single point of failure if redundancies and room for evolution is not built into the plan.

Over the past years, I have grown inclined to another line of thinking, one that approaches urban revitalisation as a series of smaller projects focusing on placemaking — an organic, people-centred approach of developing the character and quality of a place. Guided by a general trajectory, each development acts as an experiment to better define the next move, each intervention calibrated for maximum impact at minimum risk, and each initiative created in collaboration with the community to become a vehicle that catalyses further action.

The limited size and impact of these small-scale projects may seem counter-intuitive, but this limited scope is valuable in offering low-risk opportunities to prototype ideas that may hold the key to revitalising spaces at scale. This is not a new idea and is in fact the foundation of the Tactical Urbanism movement founded by Street Plans Collaborative who have been bringing large scale urban improvements beginning with one small project at a time.

Applying this approach to a tropical Asian metropolis like Singapore, my placemaking studio, Shophouse & Co, carried out tactical interventions at Telok Ayer Park on one lunchtime in January 2017 to test ways that parks in the CBD can be made more inviting during lunch hours. Ideas such as a mobile bicycle pit-stop for delivery cyclists, portable tables to be used at lunchtime, and many other interventions were tested by the community, who provided real-use feedback. Through these small-scale urban experiments, we were able to gather valuable user insights that could then inform resource-intensive infrastructural improvements in the future.

Beyond risk-management, small interventions also offer the potential for revitalisation efforts to become more inclusive by enabling collaboration amongst stakeholders of all sizes. As the saying goes, “You can’t become what you can’t see”, and the relatively small scale of the project enables individuals, groups and companies to visualise themselves making a tangible difference to the project. By being able to project themselves as part of the revitalisation process, the community feels emboldened and empowered to contribute assets, resources and insights — strengthening their sense of belonging to both the process and its outcomes. As a result, not only would the hardware of the neighbourhood be revitalised, its heartware also gets a boost.

This spirit of commnuity involvement was inherent in the process when Shophouse & Co took over a commercial unit in transition at King George’s Avenue in 2013 to prototype new ideas to revitalise the space. As we shared our vision for it to become a hybrid retail-workshop-communal space, various entrepreneurs, artists and creatives came forward to offer their support. We received sponsorship of hardware improvements such as fans, artificial turf and even a kitchen carpentry unit, while creative practitioners conducted programmes such as silkscreen printing workshops and even pizza-making session to activate the space across eight weeks. This collective approach empowered the community to take ownership of the intervention and instilled a sense of pride in the project. One of the partners eventually ended up taking a long-term lease to the unit, continuing the revitalisation process with a new concept featuring a bar, restaurant and creative workspace.

What is perhaps most potent about a small-scale intervention in the grand scheme of things is its ability to catalyse other projects for sustainable urban revitalisation. Like a spark that catalyses a movement, small projects offer tangible evidence to the community that positive urban change is achieveable. Granted, some of these ‘catalytic projects’ may end up as nothing more than a fizzle, but those that register as ‘quick wins’ can start to trigger a reaction. Stakeholders begin to believe in the revitalisation process, and a groundswell start to form to become a sustainable force of change. One famous example is the pedestrianisation of Times Square in New York. After its initial six-month pilot programme in 2009, the DOT reported reduction in pedestrian injuries, booming business for merchants, reduced travel time for cars, and an improvement in public perception of the area; and this visible impact was key in overcoming the stakeholders’ initial scepticism to garner enough support for the city to make the transformation permanent in 2010.

E.F. Schumacher was referring to economics when he wrote Small is Beautiful, but maybe we should look at small-scale urban interventions the same way too. Urban revitalisation schemes don’t need to take the form of mega projects but can manifest as intentionally smaller projects that are nuanced and calibrated to the context. As a more responsive and inclusive process, it offers a stronger and more sustainable impact in rejuvenating urban areas, but this can only happen if we start to look beyond committees and into the power of the community in improving our city.


The original version of this article was first published in Issue 12 of Urban Solutions, a biannual magazine published by Centre for Liveable Cities. This version has been edited to better articulate key ideas related to the theme.

The Silent Unplugging

It was sometime in late October when the urge for a retreat started to arise. Perhaps it was the overwhelming year that has passed and a certain anxiousness of what may lay ahead, perhaps it was the cumulative tiredness of running my own company for 4 years, it could also have been the realisation that it has been a full decade since I’ve graduated from university, or maybe, it was about turning 35-year old which inexplicably felt significant. Heading for a silent retreat had been on my mind for a while but has always been a ‘someday’ kind of activity, but at that moment, it felt like a thing that I must do.

Continue reading “The Silent Unplugging”

The poetic beauty in loss

Sometimes, when I look at the city that is evolving before my eyes, I am reminded of the Japanese phrase ‘mono no aware’. Its exact definition eludes me, but so are many profoundly amazing things around the world that defies my limited vocabulary. My unrefined understanding of the phrase defines it as the tender melancholy that surrounds the deep appreciation of a transient beauty and its inevitable passing — after all, nothing ever really lasts. However, an article by the Suntory Museum of Art in Japan offers an alternative: “Use of the Chinese character for ‘sad’ to render the Japanese word aware associates mono no aware with sad or fleeting experiences. That nuance is however not intrinsic to the phrase, whose essence is the experience of being deeply moved by emotions that may include joy and love, as well sadness.”

Either way, a heaviness hangs in my heart as I watch the city change. I recognise its impermanent nature and its perpetual incompleteness, but I struggle to cope with the pace that it is happening. A little bit of my heart cracks with the shattering concrete of a building that has reached its time, and yet I stubbornly search for meaning in between the cracks.

As the surrounding earth gets excavated for new infrastructure, and new neighbours move in, the buildings that still stand know that it is a matter of time. Being able to witness the passing of history all these years has been a privilege and this is inevitable. They are just biding their time; all of us are.

Just like the phrase ‘mono no aware’, it is in this relentless change that a curious appreciation of the city arises. In the midst of not knowing what to make of what’s left of the city we once knew, every pause in the city becomes more valuable, and every moment savoured deeper. We try to prolong the existence of the spaces and buildings in our memory through words and images. We create archives of stories that we may one day retell ourselves and our children. We construct meaning out of all this meaninglessness.

It is in that moment, even for us whose relationship with the building is from a distance, are deeply moved by its inevitable passing. If nostalgia is a dirty word, we allow ourselves to be the most vulgar of beings. If sadness is a gloomy thunderstorm, we gladly get drenched in the rain. If love is a thorny rose, we allow ourselves to bleed in order to enjoy its beauty. In the moment that we do not recognise our own city, we are once again in touch with our human emotions.

The city is constantly changing. The buildings that mean so much to many will cease to exist. But if we can bring ourselves to embrace its transient nature, we may just end up not mourning its passing, but rejoicing in its once glorious life. In the face of constant change, it is human to wish we have more time to connect to the built environment around us. But perhaps we can seek the poetic beauty in all this, for it is the absence of connectedness that has brought us all here.


First published in April 2016 for the publication, VIRUS by Fable – For the full tactile print experience featuring the photographs and other essay contributions, get the publication at the VIRUS website or at BooksActually. —