Making Light of Things

Onward Ho

I turn 38 today.

Moments ago, I rode helmetless through the streets of Cambodia on the back of a motorcycle driven by a stranger who stopped me on the street as I was looking for a tuk-tuk. I just said “airport”, and he nodded and gestured me to get on.

Compared to many of my peers, I consider myself among the least travelled. I never felt the need to fly much apart from the necessary: college and work trips to the States, volunteer work in India and Myanmar, baby-sitting while Faith attended a friend’s wedding in New Zealand. We had our very brief honeymoon in Bali and a short family trip in Phuket, but I never got the travelling bug for leisure.

It is funny where life takes you sometimes. In the last two weeks, I’ve travelled to four different countries, all of which I’ve never ever set foot on. My first helmetless motorcycle ride as year 37 comes to a close, is an apt retrospective summary of the year past.

It was a little over a year ago when I left the public service where I spent my late twenties and early thirties. That period of my life cohered around a single mission of helping my fellow Singaporeans become more kick-ass citizens. Leaving that meant looking for a new mission work-wise.

I’m the catcher in the rye.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

I’m Salinger’s Caufield in all his naive idealism, all his personal flaws and snarkiness; I am older brother to Phoebe. I’ve come to realise that being the elder brother has shaped me indelibly in who I am and what I do.

At Google I work on keeping people safe online, which when articulated sounds very vague and almost a little vain. Millions upon millions use the internet every minute, and someone’s got to got to make sure that they know the basics of online safety. Might as well be me.

Just this afternoon I spoke to a large classroom full of Cambodian youths, and drilled into them the importance of not using the same password for every online login. Maybe it’s not as heroic as performing brain surgery, but the connection with the kids (all of whom can’t remember their first time using the internet because they were born into it!) was something I could relate to universally.

It’s been a year of personal metamorphosis. From thinking as a public Singaporean servant, and shifting to a cyber-uncle extending the wisdom of the older, more benevolent age of the internet to the younger generation; a proud citizen of hot and humid Southeast Asia, learning to appreciate the dusty roads and letting go of the very Singaporean need to have everyone adhere to rules.

Learning to appreciate life, because it comes in so many forms I have never seen; and that in all its diversity, lies the handiwork of God in whom I place my trust as I make my way down this uncharted road.

We're the Planeteers, You can be one too

When I was working in the Public Service, I replied quite a number of letters from the public on the topic of foreigners in our workforce. I told them that while their concerns were valid, a diverse workforce brought together better ideas, skills and talents. But truth be told, it was all theoretical to me at that time. I had no idea what working in a diverse workforce was like.

In the last twelve months I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing people who hail from different office around the world. Mountain View, Dublin, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Tokyo, Hyderabad and Singapore. This week was the first time we were physically gathered in the same location.


We had such an amazing time. After so many meetings over late night / early morning video conferences, it felt so good to finally meet everyone in the flesh. There were so many intangibles that surfaced in our time together: we all shared a good sense of humour, and it was so fascinating to learn of each others’ cultures, countries and languages.

We learned that the word “banana” was audibly similar in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese. We also learned that Argentina, Brazil and Japan all had a saying warning young children that playing with fire would result in them wetting their bed at night:


It’s still very surreal to me that I’ve been blessed to work alongside my marvelous teammates with whom I share so much in common despite having such different origins. We were brought together as a team to help users all over the world make the internet a safer, better place.

That such a team exists is part of the magic of working at Google.



I haven’t been very good at celebrating milestones. Today is our 12th wedding anniversary.

Last year, after making reservations at a couple of restaurants, Faith and I decided to eat at our nearby hawker centre, much to the consternation of my sisters, who thought I should be putting in more effort.

The year before that, on our 10th anniversary, we skipped celebrating altogether because we were taking care of Joshie who was one week old at the time.

This year, I saw a promotion for lobster at $1 at The Boiler and thought I should do something nice for once. Not being able to keep secrets from Faith, I told her where we were going and what food to expect.

“Looking at the pictures on the website, there’s going to be crab, lobster, corn on the cob…”, I said to her as I checked out the menu online.

“Corn on the cob! Yum!”, came her response.

I don’t know if you guys have ever experienced it: the moment you know that you married the right person. This was one such moment for me.

12 year anniversary

Dearest Faith,

Our 23 years together have been marked by so many of these moments where I sit back and marvel at the beautiful person you are. The time you showed such grit when you shared a tandem bike with me and we made it up that steep hill; or when you understood and didn’t judge me for the frustrations I felt when my parenting skills didn’t cut it. You have filled our 12 years of marriage with so many of these amazing moments where I thank God profusely for joining our lives together as one.

As our children grow and slowly become more independent of us, I am thankful that I have you by my side as we walk this next stage of our family-life, taking a more active role in serving the young people in church whom God has blessed us with.

You remind me constantly of how good life is; and how Christ longs to come into fullness of this - this life together which fills our cup to overflowing - with His bride the Church.

May our lives and our service reflect the spiritual and heavenly reality. May He have the pre-eminence.

Let It Go

“Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.” - Psalm 127:4

While the early morning’s heavy rain had lightened up, the sky was still pealing with thunder and dark clouds. I wanted to take the train with Anne and shelter her with an umbrella because she needed to walk without the cover of shelter from the MRT station to school.

“It’s ok, you don’t have to go with me to school,” she said. “I have my umbrella, and it might not be raining when I get there.”

I was still a little hesitant, in part because I wanted to make sure she would be ok, and also because I didn’t like the feeling of not having done everything humanly possible.

As we walked towards the train station I looked at her and realised how much she had grown. She had been taking the train to school on her own the last six months, and though today’s weather added additional inconvenience, it didn’t dampen her spirits. Ok, she did laugh about how she wished it were Saturday so she could sleep in on a rainy morning. :)

Like an archer, this was one arrow I had to learn to let fly. And I didn’t want to deprive her of the opportunity to find her own strength and build her resilience.

It’s a lesson I’m still getting used to. As thunder fills the skies, I’m continually praying her flight be buoyed by the grace of God.

Accelerated Learning in Adversity

The trains broke down last night. Thousands upon thousands of Singaporeans were on their way home, only to find themselves stranded. Muslim commuters who had fasted the whole day were now stuck in traffic, and I can only imagine the very keen edge of hunger and thirst they must have felt as the promise of food and family shifted back a few more very long hours.

To add insult to injury, it had only just been reported that the CEO of train operator SMRT had his pay doubled in less than three years.

But out of the barrage of anger poured on the internet, there were people who saw the problem and got down to trying to solve it. Some folks brought food to the overworked SMRT staff, offered car rides to people who might need it, and Uber suspended surge pricing, choosing not to profit from the train failure.

We should be setting our minds on coming up with innovative solutions to these issues that affect us on a national scale. Over the years we have started to languish in our own complacency, content to pay a little to outsource these responsibilities to corporate monopolies or even the Government. “We’ve paid our taxes, now solve my work-life balance”; or “we’ve paid our train fare, it’s your job to ensure that I get to where I need to every single time”.

These expectations no longer seem unreasonable because we have become so used to this model of problem-solving. Our heavy dependence on domestic helpers and educational institutions in bringing up our children, or on CPF - a forced government savings scheme - to solve our retirement financials; we have chosen to specialise very narrowly on our responsibilities of our day job, because “we’re paid to do it”.

But there are many responsibilities that do not come by virtue of a job title or pay. I hope we widen our perspectives to see that we are beholden to our forebears to make our progeny better than ourselves. To leave problem-solving to corporations and governments is sub-optimal and archaic. Nimble, disposable, highly-skilled quick and dirty communities provide a strong layer of national security on top of the established system.

So while many who hope to insert themselves into established institutions of authority jump on these opportunities to demand the rolling of heads, they forget that you can only be a martyr once.

Heads rolling does nothing, serves nothing, and should be used sparingly, such as for incidents that display an individual’s lack of integrity or gross negligence. That something failed should not cause us to lose people with precious experience. They should definitely be held responsible, not only to account for, but also to fix the failure. Armchair critics cannot help us here.

We should be seeing more discussions, like whether a Uber-like network of citizen drivers can be activated as a contingency measure when public transportation is crippled; or how we can create greater redundancy in our transportation networks. These discussions solve problems. Kicking out the CEO - not so much.

Ingenuity and social-mindedness, accelerated through times of adversity, are very key traits we’ll need for our nation’s next 50 years.