Wally Tham: Singapore Dream, Storytelling Catharsis & Harnessing Empathy - E113

· Singapore,Positivity,Creators,Podcast Episodes English

I guess part of it is like we are also in a place I think where Singaporeans havedreams that are way bigger than what little island in Southeast Asia maybe should have. I talk to myfriends and their aspirations are first world American, even European aspirations. And you look at wherewe are and what's around us and it's very unusual that we are such an anomaly where we are. Andwhen we think, we think beyond Southeast Asia into the world, very naturally. Yeah. So the step that isgoing on. There's this privilege that we do have that we see ourselves legitimate, able to go onto world stage and contribute. - Wally Tham

Wally is an award winning filmmaker and runs a brand content company www.bigredbutton.com.sg

As an ontological coach and organisational development practitioner, Wally uses storytelling to help people/corporations/government agencies tackle emergent and persistent issues in Singapore.

Wally also leads a ground up initiative: https://m.facebook.com/StandUpForSG/, to find ways to contribute to Singapore’s narrative on what kind of country she could be and how are the best ways to contribute to one another.

In his spare time, Wally likes to look at global problems and help out in his own little way. He has built Indonesia’s first Haze Clean Air Shelters, crowdfunded aid in Sri Lanka after the bombings in 2018, crowdfunded 20 tonnes of rice to the Smokey Mountain community in the Philippines.

See the projects here: https://fb.watch/6f1jAW29xV/

This episode is produced by Kyle Ong.


Wally Tham (00:00): 

So dreams. 

Jeremy Au (00:02): 

Yeah. Okay. So seeing our dreams, right. And I feel like that's a big phrase and I think that's also actually a great encapsulation about your other two spheres of work, right? Because you work in helping political groups with their campaign message. There's a lot of dreams that are actually on screen on video that you're doing there, but also a lot of the societal change work that you're doing to help people in different countries and Stand Up For Singapore as well. There's also a lot of dreams, right. That people are seeing not necessarily screened by coming to life, right. So tell us more about, at least on the societal change side, what was it like to start building Stand Up For Singapore? 

Wally Tham (00:52): 

It was great. It was in the year where I was going through a personal development course and weekly we'd be asked, were you too afraid to do and why wouldn't you do it, right? And suddenly there's this sense of like yeah, I get so angry seeing Singaporeans get down on a country that is really very prosperous, very blessed, has so much resource. And the way we talk online sometimes sounds like, well, powerless and without hope. And I just found it incongruent, but I found myself getting angry so often and I wasn't sure what the anger was about. Then I realized actually my anger was just around the fact that we weren't doing anything with everything we have. We were just putting words and telling stories about how you're powerless, which are so strange to me. So a bunch of friends and I were doing a Bible study. 

Wally Tham (01:51): 

And this Bible study was very different from the regular ones, which were more like listening comprehension. This one was asking like, when you look around you, right, when you see your community, what other the gaps do you see? And what can you do to get into those gaps and do something real? And suddenly there was this incident on the MRT, right. Where auntie versus some young lady were arguing and it got really big. And for the first time it became a social media event because Stomp had just come out, right. The SP gossip and like outrage site. Right. And people started posting videos of this argument. Right. And it was like the first time we saw a interpersonal breakdown happen on such a large scale like everyone was in on it. Right. And we noticed that after that, when we stepped onto the train, there was this like strange discomfort that we felt, right. 

Wally Tham (02:54): 

That people were more quiet, more withdrawn, almost like they were afraid of just showing themselves in public. And it was a whole bunch of us independently thinking, yeah, some chill has fallen upon Singapore. So we decided, okay, let's do something, right. What about that event changed the mood on the train? And what could we say to bring us back to where we were? Yeah. So we started Stand Up For Singapore. We invited a whole bunch of young people to go on the trains and have conversations with strangers and say, "Hey you could be my auntie" or "You could be my uncle" and "How are you feeling right now?" This initiating a conversation among strangers. And it was beautiful. 

Wally Tham (03:45): 

We saw 400 people show up at Youth Park and we briefed them and we send them out and conversations are happening. And connections are happening. And I think it was for us a very beautiful day and not only that, it got noticed, I think PM Lee caught wind of it. And he talked about it during the National Day Rally. And then we went, "Okay, this is interesting." And in that same year that first event gave us courage to intervene around bus strikes that happened. I think some drivers from China were very upset and then they refused to drive. 

Wally Tham (04:27): 

And that created a whole series of social media responses about again, foreigner, local issues. But one thing we noticed was that as much as people were complaining, they were still taking public transport. So whatever anger you feel, you still go and you still expect a bus to pull up. So we thought, why not on Christmas day, we get folks who are taking the bus to just write a thank you card to the drivers. 

Wally Tham (04:55): 

So in 2012 Christmas day, again, a whole bunch of youths went out. We handed out cards to people, ask them to just say something nice to this driver who is driving you around on a public holiday. And again, it was a beautiful day. Yeah. So it started with these very Meta-campaigns they're not very dark and gritty kind of issues. They were more about how we are with each other. And how we are with certain groups, like say the bus drivers and such, now they're called bus captains and just examining what our relationship is to each other in the public space. 

Jeremy Au (05:40): 

Wow. Even I didn't know about all these things that you've done and I think they mean something right to something. And I got to ask, so what movie does Singapore have playing on every... Because I just got to ask, right? So you talk about movies about dreams and screen and you're talking about the movie that Singaporeans have. I'm wondering how would you describe the movie that every Singaporeans have on the back of their heads inside their minds on a day to day basis? 

Wally Tham (06:16): 

Okay. I think I'm going to share my opinion and have to say, this is my opinion. I think if you were to look at individual lives because I've been coaching a lot and I get to hear stories from different people about what they're going through, a lot of it is a family drama. A lot of it is about maybe young adults or even adults trying to figure out who they are in reference to their parents, what they want in reference to maybe a culture that has valued their academic prowess more than anything else and funnel into a life achievement Which as a child they may not have chosen. And now as an adult they are reaping results. Yeah. So I do meet a lot of folks who sometimes go, "I'm successful by any measure. I have the job that I was told was a good job. But I'm feeling lost or maybe even really unhappy." 

Wally Tham (07:20): 

And they wonder where their choice matter in the journey. And it does track back to family system or even the larger culture of meritocracy and achievement. Yeah. So in the personal, I see a lot of that story. On the macro, I think, and I wrote about this in this essay I had to write for The Birthday Book. Like I cannot see Singapore as a traumatized child that for a long time, we didn't own our identity. We were a product of a business deal between the British and Malaya then after maybe a hundred plus years of that suddenly and of course within the hundred plus years, so much impact of like segregation within the colonial system being told we were subjects to another power. And suddenly being taught, therefore we belong to something that we have never seen almost like this power of kingdom. Yeah. 

Wally Tham (08:31): 

Then suddenly we are taken over by the Japanese in a very violent and brutal way, only to be liberated again a few years later, only to get dumped by the British when they exited. And then in a very short marriage from Malaya only to get ejected again, ejected or left. So for a good chunk of our history, we didn't own our story. And in 1965 and onwards, a lot of it was survival. So if Singapore were a child trying to grow up in all of that, for a good chunk of our history we were not a wanted child. We were not loved or we were not safe. Yeah. And by the time we get to define ourselves, I think we're in this pretty severe state of survival. And then all of us are born into it. 

Wally Tham (09:33): 

So if you draw that line in the continuum of the Singapore story, we are in the brighter days but from very dark past, if that makes sense. And I don't want to make light of the suffering of the past. In fact, I'm trying to understand it. But I'm also trying to do or link that if we grow up in that culture of always fearing for our survival, how does that impact our sense of self now. And what is our story if we're going to go forward? What is that powerful, courageous story? I don't know what that is just yet, but I think in our little interventions, when we do our small interventions out there, we stand up or when we go overseas and try and be generous and give to those who truly have it worse. I think we get to see little glimpses of who we can be and not just run that survival story all the time, because I'm sure it impacts the way you see yourself to always be taught that you don't have enough. 

Jeremy Au (10:39): 

Wow. That's deep because, we're talking not just about history, but not only about culture, but also some of the decisions that have been made in the past and the decisions that we have to make in the future that's grounded of that core emotional reality right now, narrative reality. And I think what's interesting is that it feels like you and your work are choosing to try to emerge something new or stronger or future oriented self. Because the Stand Up For Singapore, you talk about the first part of the emotional reaction and reality and then the second half of the action and improvement to resolve, talk earlier about how to do that at a deeper, more true level. So I'm just curious about that. Do you feel like what's that story? Was that newer story that acknowledges this reality but also something that fits where we are today in the 21st century? 

Wally Tham (11:44): 

So again like on the intro I'll talk at two levels, like on the intro when I talk to folks and when I coach folks, usually the story is, where do you want to go? And then they start the goal set, they'll set a goal and we work on that, but there's always going to be that moment where the goal is there, but then there's an unwillingness to move towards it. Maybe there's a wall or there's some narrative of a fear that shows up. And we get stuck there. The client gets stuck there. And at that point, I used to be just stuck with the client, but in the last few years, the question would now be, so what's the story about this? What's the story about the fear? And then we go backwards and just have them talk about where was the earliest point of this fear? 

Wally Tham (12:36): 

And then they begin to see the echos of the past life showing up that if goal is, say a new position in company or some financial outcome. The fear of winning. The fear of actually achieving it tends to come with some echo from the past. Someone's voice saying, "That's not really what you deserve to get" or "Are you really sure you want that." And usually we find that this voice is not their own. So I think it's been evident that in some ways, yes, we limit ourselves, but the limitation isn't just our own. That's the voice of our ancestors in a sense or the voice of our culture, our families that comes in and says "This change isn't for you." So part of reaching for that future that we want, that beautiful future is also maybe in invitation to say "Look at the things that you don't want to look at." 

Wally Tham (13:39): 

So that by the time you come to the cusp of it, you're not held back anymore. You understand where your fears come from and you can decide, do I want this fear to be true for me or should I just give it back to my parents or give it back to my culture and say that's yours and not mine? The tough part of even doing say a political message is how detailed a dream do you want to paint for everyone? Because the truth is, everyone may not join with your dream but there are certain pillars or points that people will align to. Safety, prosperity but aspiration to what is often the challenge of that grand story for everyone. To me, I think the work is really, if you were to ask me the work is for every Singaporean to do their inner work. 

Wally Tham (14:39): 

Look at what's holding them back. What tilts them towards this lack of safety that tilts them towards racism, let's say. Because to me racism is about safety. It's not about a horrible person who hates another person because of their skin color. I think that's too simple. Yeah. And in Singapore, especially. So you go to anyone you ask do you think racism is bad? Most people will say "Yeah, it's bad. Yeah." But why does it exist or persist? I think because we don't feel safe and we reach for the easy reasons to draw our lines. And if we can get people to do their own work, I think the easy stuff like race or the easy stuff like class, we can let go of those things and begin to do our work towards the future we want. Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (15:30): 

Wow. That's really deep because you're talking about how you think about it on a one-on-one coaching basis. About how being able to articulate the past helps free you to enter the future. And then of course, at another level, you're talking about it, scaling that outright to every Singaporean doing that work on themselves. And then thirdly, of course, you're talking about the meta over acting dream where articulating and talking about that message. So it feels like the dream of course is for every Singaporean to go through and have the opportunity as a coach. So that's one level and that level, I think you're talking about something interesting which is like, what is the Singapore dream? Because we know what the American dream is. 

Jeremy Au (16:22): 

It's like underdog story, is like Rocky, start from the bottom, you work your way to the top. Everybody's a fair shot if work hard and get there. And to some extent, like the more constructing parts of it, right. The traditional view of a lawn and a house and a white picket fence which is transforming today. But still, I think a lot of people look to America and say like America is a dream and that attracts so many people to immigrate to America. And I think to some extent, I think China, started to articulate that. They're trying to articulate the China dream that Xi Jinping was talking about. So what do we think, looking ahead, what is that new Singapore dream? 

Jeremy Au (17:10):I think you used to be the five C's. For those who knows, like what cash, credit card, car- 

Wally Tham (17:17): Country club. 

Jeremy Au (17:18): 

Condo and country club. Right, exactly. So those are the five C's. It's Like a material dream. And I think I watched quite a few fun movies about that, which goes back to your point about traumatized children who in poverty who felt like material security will bring spirit control and personal security. And we are talking about it is like we've also progressed beyond that to some extent. Not consistently enough for everyone, we acknowledge that. It's just that we're not 1965. So how do you think about that new Singapore dream? 

Wally Tham (17:53): 

Well, if we started with the American dream, we can be pretty confident to say that they haven't gotten it yet. In fact, it's probably worse for them right now than it was in the fifties and sixties. But everyone needs a target. And the easy targets are material. We did this little comic about The Boy Who Lost His Heart. That for a lot of men in Singapore, they are told you can't express the emotions, they scold, or even punished to caning if they cry too much. And then there's this dissociation with themselves and this obsession with things that happen next. That for a lot of men, we don't have access to our interpersonal story. And then all these objects that are in front of us, whether it's a thing to buy or a position to attain, become important somehow. 

Wally Tham (18:55): 

And in the comic, it isn't until the heart gets invited back in and the little boy or now this grown up man gets to get in touch with himself. It isn't until that point that he can say, "Well, I'm alone" or "I'm afraid" or "I need friendship" that he begins to know who he is and what he needs. So what is our collective dream? I think on the grands on the macro level, I think we are in that place again where the world isn't safe anymore. Or so I think it'll be easier to say, let's go work towards that safety again, let's go work towards a prolonged sustained prosperity, because things are up in the air now. And I think we can distract ourselves again with that. And not that it's not important, but work towards this common safety again. I do think we are close to not exactly where 1965 was, but we're seeing that the world has changed and we need to figure out our place in it now. 

Wally Tham (20:04): 

That deeper thing of knowing who we are and what we need and not seeking supplements in terms of things to buy or things to get, we can get distracted by it. We may continue to be distracted by it, but my invitation is for people to loo because again, do you want to be realizing after you've gotten that thing, that promotion, that car or whatever and then it's a few days later you realize actually nothing's really changed for me. I'm still feeling lonely or afraid or in need of a good friend. Yeah. That's my dream for Singapore.It's so easy to find the supplement or the idol or the distraction. Doing the self work, I think is so rewarding because after that, we get to know who we are. 

Jeremy Au (20:56): 

Yeah. That's a beautiful dream and it's a small dream yet it's a powerful dream. And one interesting thing is that you talk about this from someone who is effective change from the social work that you're doing on the ground, on a community, also in your daily work as a coach. And yet you're also doing that large production. That large video slash campaign that is very different. It's a big dream. It's a grand story in that sense or attempts to be in. You and I were chatting about we wish that dropping a million bucks into a video gives you the answer. It changes everybody's dreams for the better. So I was just kind of curious how you think about what the work is there and what the right approach for those larger campaigns should be mindful about. 

Wally Tham (22:00): 

Yeah. I think I was framing it as the big lie. That somehow if you spend a million dollars, create some really moving video about say racism, people will watch it and go, "Okay, we've solved it." I don't think anyone in Singapore believes that, but maybe we do deep down inside that somehow we are pushing against these persistent, old issues by creating media to present our dream of it. I think that it's a fair effort to present the reality you want. But do we ever change because someone tells us to? That would be my question. And if we look at our own lives, human beings are very resistant to change. Because change brings a lot of fear, a lot of challenge. And me watching a two minute video isn't going to give me any assurance that I can navigate my change by myself. 

Wally Tham (23:03): 

Because there's going to be so much, I maybe need hand holding around or need some friendship to navigate the emotional turmoil that change may bring. So for me it is about community, it is about friendship. It's about people who want the same things and are willing to sit through difficult moments to get there. So if you have someone who believed very strongly ideas from their family about a certain race who says now, I don't want to hold those stories and I want to learn how to be with my friends who are of a different race. Then that's going to lead to a community effort that involves discomfort. Because for the ones who are hurt, the ones who are marginalized, would they be willing to sit with this person and then have that conversation. Would they be willing to even hear the misconceptions and say, "No, that's not true." 

Wally Tham (24:07): 

Or because if you look at the way social media handles race issues, there's so much outrage, there's so much narrative or separation that if, even if you say something wrongly, there's no room for recovery after. Almost everything is a trip wire to separation and erasure. Yeah. So no video is going to help you navigate that. It's going to take a lot of patience, a lot of love and a desire for a different Singapore for us to get there. So it will take community. And this community needs to be made up of people who are humble enough to see that they have their own darkness. And that someone who's trying to make amends, someone who's trying to join with them, they may not look so great on the outside, but maybe we can take that step of faith of wanting to be together as the first point of contact. They don't need to be perfect to enter in. 

Wally Tham (25:11): 

I think that's what I'm saying. Or else, if that buy is so high, then we'll never come together. We'll never become a community. Yeah. So yeah I'm a bit not so hip with the crowd on this point that I don't think outrage. I don't think what we're seeing in terms of the discourse from the west around race is exactly what we need. We didn't have the 200 years of slavery. We don't have the police brutality. I think that's room to say it's a bit different. It's not as violent and yes it is painful, but let's not take everything wholesale and then say, "Oh, this is our circumstance." Yeah, so to me it's community. A community of people who do their own work, who are humble enough to know that they've made mistakes and are ready to tackle what's going on in Singapore. That's how we get to our dream. Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (26:07): 

Yeah. That's beautiful. A part about people don't change because they're told to change. But it's really about the community and the activation of why that dream is appealing fundamentally. Yeah. I think there is that desire. I feels like there is a desire in Singaporeans for that bigger, broader, more open, more confident posture. It's very much like we've had a past that has been tough and we've overcome this so far. And we can now approach the world stage from a place of generosity and confidence. Not arrogance, not false humility, not insecurity, not anxiety but from a place of confidence and self- awareness about what we're good at and what we have to do differently. And I think that's the dream, I think for so many change makers in Singapore. 

Wally Tham (27:09): 

I don't know. You and I know so many amazing people in Singapore and we love the work they do. We know we have it in us. I guess part of it is like we are also in a place I think where Singaporeans have dreams that are way bigger than what little island in Southeast Asia maybe should have. I talk to my friends and their aspirations are first world American, even European aspirations. And you look at where we are and what's around us and it's very unusual that we are such an anomaly where we are. And when we think, we think beyond Southeast Asia into the world, very naturally. Yeah. So the step that is going on. There's this privilege that we do have that we see ourselves legitimate, able to go onto world stage and contribute. 

Wally Tham (28:06): 

I think that's something to be grateful for. I think part of me, I just ask that we ground ourselves also in Southeast Asia. To see what's around us, to contribute where we can to recognize that what we have truly is exceptional, not in an arrogant way, but is strange Like you go north, you go south. The struggles people going through that are very different and exacerbated right now because of COVID. I was coaching someone from KL, young lady who's working there and they're in full lockdown. 

Wally Tham (28:41): 

And the things she is facing is so much different from us right now. Yeah. So what is this big dream? How do we get there? Yeah. I really don't know how to answer it. I'm afraid, but I think in the meantime I want to stay grounded. I want to stay connected. I want to talk to people about what they're going through, whether in Singapore or overseas. And I feel like in that I can find things I can apply myself to and be useful and help someone feel a little better about themselves at the end of the day. I don't think I answer your question. 

Jeremy Au (29:25):Well, it's not a question that's really answerable, right? 

Wally Tham (29:27): 


Jeremy Au (29:27): 

It's more like there is a conversation and this question that we can explore together. And I think he still has to be lived through at best and at worse something that we have to work on every day. So coming, setting, wrap things up here while so as in your work, as a storyteller and as someone who's been impacting Singapore and Southeast Asia through your work in digital media and educations and storytelling, you must have had some tough times as well. Over the past and it hinted at them along the way. I was just would love to hear maybe a story about when you had that adversity, how you overcame it and how you chose to be brave. 

Wally Tham (30:20): 

Yeah. Being brave. I almost drowned in a rip tide once. And I realized in the midst of almost drowning, I get very calm strangely, but there was this moment in another time when I was in Kalimantan and it was part of that first trip to give out masks and figure out what to do. I had stayed behind to give more workshops on what is the haze? Why is it different from other problems that folks face? Why is it a surgical mask wouldn't be enough to filter out the particles? Because that was what the government was asking people to use a surgical mask in the midst of a PSI, 2008, 2009 day. And all these surgical masks had so many gaps and it didn't make sense. I had stayed behind. I was in my hotel room. I had given up all my gear, all my air purifiers to the partners on the ground. 

Wally Tham (31:20): 

And then I was told that the airport was closed on the day I was supposed to fly. And then I was stuck there for another three days in that room, trying to survive in that room with no safety equipment for myself. Yeah. So I started to improvise. I used tape to seal up the gaps in the balcony door. I didn't have air purifier so I taped over the air conditioning vent, the intake vent with a pillowcase and used that as a cotton filter for the air. And I discovered, "Oh, it works" because I still have my measuring equipment. It actually cut the haze down by half in my room. Yeah. So all these things I was doing, just trying to figure out, okay, how am I going to make it for next day? Because I kept thinking, okay, tomorrow it will open and kept going on. 

Wally Tham (32:14): 

At one point I had done everything I could do. I sat on my bed. And I felt myself freeze. I felt my whole body just tense up, I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. And all I could imagine was my own death. I was just saying, "Oh, I'm going to die." And I think it went on for a good five to 10 minutes. Just sitting there, feeling like I had done everything I could and I couldn't do anymore. And if I couldn't get out, I was going to die. It came, it took over and then it passed. And after that, there was a lot of anxiety, there was a lot crying even. But after that came and went, I realized in that moment, I have felt what all my friends were feeling in Kalimantan, the ones who couldn't leave. 

Wally Tham (33:12):This is their everyday. They can't breathe the air that is around them. They can't protect their children. They're paralyzed and they're in fear. Yeah. I don't think it was bravery I felt after, but rather empathy, right. That this is what they're going to be facing. And that gave me resolve around how can I solve this in a more sustainable way. Because you can't wear a mask to sleep. You can't give a mask to a child. 

Wally Tham (33:46): 

Pregnant women are not supposed to wear masks because of the oxygen deprivation it creates. So yeah, the whole idea for a haze shelter came out of that moment of great fear. And what I learned later was great empathy. So I do think to be brave is really to feel your fear. To know that this is happening and then make a choice around that next. Yeah. Because there's wisdom in the body that there isn't enough air for you right now. And I needed to know that because prior to that, I was really comfortable with my equipment. But now yeah I was really maybe grounded around what the people in Kalimantan needed and I wanted to be a part of changing. Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (34:42): 

Wow. That was really touching and powerful story. Not because of the challenge, but of the empathy it created for you and how it changed you. Well, I think there's a good way to start wrapping up the show here. And I think there were three things that struck me about what you shared. I think the first of course was talking a little bit about storytelling and how movies are our dreams come to life and the catharsis. And so I really appreciate, I think that take and the insider take on storytelling and movies and all of that. And I thought that was as hopefully a good window for people to start exploring and being more thoughtful about why and how they're consuming, whatever they're consuming in terms of content, movies or ideas. But I think the second thing is that I also really appreciated your take on the Singapore dream. 

Jeremy Au (35:41): 

Which is what has been the dream or nightmare that people have their fears, their concerns, their hopes over the past 50 years. And also what we see, could be the green shoots for a new dream to emerge. And I think your tips around how to articulate it and how to nurture it to life, which hopefully will be a roadmap for other people in the new media space as well as the social chain space. 

Jeremy Au (36:12): 

And lastly, I think, thank you so much for sharing that last story about I think bravery and empathy and resonance. And I think the story, the end felt tight because of we were wrapping up the show, but I think you articulated bravery in other earlier parts of the show but you talk very much about how do we as change makers and leaders and community workers and volunteers and human beings really seek to harness and feel that empathy and have that be a source of strength for the future rather than a source of pain. And at the thought that was just really enjoyable how just hearing your story, Wally. 

Wally Tham (37:04):Yeah. It was great chatting, man. And once we can meet again, let's go for dim sum. 

Jeremy Au (37:12):I can't wait for dim sum. Thank you so much, Wally for coming to the show. 

Wally Tham (37:13):Yeah. Thanks man. I'll catch. You soon.