My 94-year-old grandma made me question what being a good & successful S’porean means

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | August 31, 2019 @ 04:01 pm


Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2019 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 54 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore’s collective future.

“Inheriting stories of past and future” is an essay contributed by Pamela Chng, co-founder of Bettr Barista, a social business and specialty coffee company. Originally a sociologist by training, Chng now has over 18 years of start-up and business experience.

Chng’s essay is reproduced in full here:

By Pamela Chng

Sometime in the early 1940s, in the midst of World War II, my grandmother was married off to an older businessman so that she could escape from Swatow, China, to Singapore.

In the almost 80 years and four children since, she has started and sustained a successful dressmaking business. Her family now includes nine grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

Grandmother held our family together

My grandfather died 30 years ago, after which my grandmother held our family together single-handedly. At 94, she is still kicking the living daylights out of life with her razor-sharp mind.

To me, she epitomises the earliest and best of the Pioneer Generation, who gave their blood, sweat and tears to help build the Singapore we know today.

I was brought up by my grandmother and eldest aunt; both took on the roles of parent, guardian, disciplinarian and teacher from my parents, who spent most of my childhood hustling in their (then) new business to try to build a comfortable life for my siblings and me.

Grandma spent hours reading to me, explaining the meaning of Chinese idioms and phrases, making me learn them by rote through daily practice after school so that I would remember and understand first principles and fundamental truths about life as well as what makes a good person.

She always said life lessons can be gleaned from Chinese history and books, but I didn’t believe her until much later. I only remember a few of those Chinese idioms today, but I never forgot the values she instilled in me.

Grandma’s dressmaking business

A couple of years ago, my family and I came across a yellowed newspaper cut-out from 1960 describing how a 36-year-old lady with four children was running a successful dressmaking business and providing opportunities to dozens of young women, teaching them to be seamstresses and giving them dressmaking skills to increase their incomes.

Grandma had been running her own version of a “business for good” back in the 50s; her thinking and actions were truly pioneering for her time.

I didn’t become a doctor, lawyer or banker

Our family wasn’t very rich, but we were certainly comfortable enough to want for nothing. I was given access to everything I needed for a good shot at a successful life — education in the best schools, support by a loving, close-knit family that gave me a clear sense of right and wrong.

I was compliant, law-abiding and competent at most things I took on — studies, sports and extracurriculars. I followed my heart in university and pursued the arts, so, alas, I didn’t become a lawyer, banker, doctor or accountant.

I left those to my siblings and cousins who, between them, probably account for every “desirable” Singaporean occupation.

Instead, I started my career in a safe, start-up-like environment in a government-linked corporation, then went on to co-found a business in the wild, wild Web when I was 26.

Questioning what it means to be a “good Singaporean”

As I grew older and really started to explore both my own vision of my life and the world around me, many of those “Singaporean desires” and expectations started to make less and less sense.

Pam was brought up to be a competent version of a good Singaporean, but by the time I was 30, I realised I was not a great version of Pam.

What was my gift? My potential? What was my purpose in this life and in this world? What did I stand for? What positive value was I contributing to the world such that I was useful and relevant? Was I living my values?

Was every decision and action aligned with my higher purpose? If not, why not?

My professional journey reflects this questioning and shift.

Started Bettr Barista despite uncertainties

In 2011 when I started social business Bettr Barista, the notion that you could mix profitable business with helping people was hard for pragmatic Singaporeans to comprehend.

I was laughed out of many meetings (mostly silently, but I could hear it in their eyes), and good old Singaporean Pam would probably have curled up into a corner and questioned herself into a hole.

Instead, I chose not to give a damn what people thought.

From my process of questioning and the road bumps along the way grew a sense of enlightenment and conviction. I genuinely believed that business has the responsibility to be a greater force for good; that we can — and must — create sustainable business models to do this with.

I had no certainty that Bettr would succeed, but the ideal was worth hoping and fighting for so much that I was going to keep trying until I had no tries left.

Grandma — the OG independent woman

Grandma started a woman-owned and woman-run enterprise — working with women, dressmaking for women — on the back of the beginnings of women’s rights in pre-independence Singapore in the 1950s.

The Singapore Council of Women was lobbying for the protection and advancement of women, contributing to the framework of what would one day become the Women’s Charter, and trying to instil independence in women by organising classes for self- defence, sewing, handicrafts and domestic science.

Career prospects of S’porean women before 1960s were so poor that floor-scrubbing was an ideal job

Grandma’s contribution to that time was not lobbying but courageously doing and showing how a woman can become independent through her business. All while raising four children!

I have realised, 50 years later, that I have taken a similar approach with the Bettr business and our people. I too believe that there is no better way to prove something can be done than just getting it done.

Over the three generations since arriving in Singapore, Grandma has evolved from being an immigrant to being a grounded part of the nation’s fabric by starting a family here, as well as eventually becoming a core economic and social contributor through her business.

All through a time of great change and upheaval.

I do not know how much longer she has to live, but I do know that the Singapore she experienced and helped to build is vastly different today.

S’poreans need to collectively rethink who we want to be

Re-imagination and re-invention of the status quo was what started our country’s journey. It required the collective vision and will of people like our grandparents, Lee Kuan Yew and his founding team — our next chapter requires similarly daring vision and courageous will.

I often find myself returning to the conversations around first principles and fundamental truths with my grandma:

  • What makes a good person?
  • What defines a good life?
  • What is success that matters?
  • What can we become so that we can contribute more meaningfully to the world?

These are questions I see Singapore grappling with more and more as a nation. How we choose to respond will define the story that our children and grandchildren will inherit for the next 50 years.

Grandma taught me that ultimately all the answers lie within, and only you have the will and ability to shape your own life story.

Your story will be composed of the answers that speak your hope and your truth. Do we have the will to redefine all our definitions — of success, of value, of worth, of meaning, of purpose? What is our truth, and dare we speak it?

Top photo via Unsplash

If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, “The Birthday Workbook”, that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can sign up for its newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.

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