Are we living or merely surviving? Ex-Special Forces soldier turned monk reflects on S'pore life.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | October 18, 2020, 02:42 PM

COMMENTARY: A former Special Operations Force (SOF) commando, Fred Cheong, spent 32 years serving as a soldier before eventually becoming ordained as a monk. Now known as Tenzin Drachom, he reflects on how he, and Singapore, have changed and grown over the years.

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2020 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 55 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.

"To my younger self" is an essay contributed by Tenzin Drachom, a Special Forces commando for over three decades, before he was ordained by the Dalai Lama as a Buddhist monk. Following his retirement from the Singapore Armed Forces in 2013, he now lives, learns, teaches and meditates at retreats in Singapore and around the world.

By Tenzin Drachom

Dear Young Tenzin Drachom,

When you come to the world in 1964, Singapore would not have yet become an independent country. Your young parents, who will become known as the pioneer generation 55 years later, will have to work very hard to raise their family in a small two-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh.

The flat that you grow up in will be small but sufficient. It is here where some of your happiest childhood memories will be formed.

You will spend much of your time at the neighbourhood’s playground during your childhood—playing so happily with your brothers and friends and inventing all sorts of simple games such as gliding down the slides on discarded cardboard sheets.

Are we living, or are we merely surviving?

What will it be like to grow up in Singapore 55 years later? Compared to your simple childhood, kids today are so much more fortunate. They will enjoy more wealth, more material comfort, more entertainment and more freedom.

But unfortunately, they will also tend to experience more physical exhaustion and mental stress.

Modern technologies and gadgets, which are invented and designed to enhance our quality of life, will inadvertently enslave and entangle us instead.

We will become so preoccupied with endless activities that they will deprive our tired minds and bodies of adequate time to rest and recover.

Sometimes I think it would be great if we have alarms to remind us to sleep instead of to wake up.

Amidst our hectic schedule, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on whether we are experiencing our lives consciously with passion and meaning, or if we are merely surviving, unconsciously and dispassionately.

The threats Singapore faces will come in all forms

You will see Singapore grow in the next 55 years. And you will see yourself changing in tandem with the quick pace of change.

Upon graduating from school, you will serve National Service. After completing your National Service, you will choose to serve as an army regular for another 32 years because you believe in duty, honour and country.

You may be glad to know that you will not be an ordinary soldier, but an elite Special Forces officer who will eliminate clear and present threats to our national security. You will complete your 32 years with honour and glory.

But as you age, you will learn that the threats Singapore face will come in all forms. Some can be dealt with by specialised teams, but others can only be managed by collective efforts of many.

Climate change, humanitarian disasters and environmental issues are just some examples. The urgency to deal with these issues will be unprecedented.

But we cannot ignore or delay our responses to such threats. We cannot maintain our ignorance any longer. We must be proactive in taking our first steps towards solutions.

You may be pleasantly surprised that you will eventually adopt a plant-based diet. Armed with mere compassion, you will decide to give up food that you used to love—meat, dairy and eggs. Yes, it will be inconceivable to you now.

But you will do it with your usual faith and conviction, the same way you did when you attended the renowned US Navy SEAL course.

Singapore may be small in size, but we can aspire for greater things

Yes, you must convince your friends around you to work hard and build the Singapore that we want and love. We may be small in size but we do not have to be small in aspiration.

Believe that we can be a catalyst for harmony and peace, simply by taking small first steps. In 2013, you will be ordained as a monk. Most people will notice only the obvious changes in your physical appearance.

But much greater changes will have taken place inwardly. Your perception of the world will shift radically from your days in the military. You will embrace not just your fellow Singaporeans, but all sentient beings.

Young Drachom, this letter is not an attempt at telling your fortune. My letter is an attempt to show you and all your young friends that faith, hard work, values and dedication can help you to shape the Singapore and lives that you want.

There will be ups and downs—trying periods and times that you will be tempted to give up. Never, never give up. Have resilience and guard your faith dearly, as you would have in the next 55 years.

A simple Buddhist monk,

Tenzin Drachom

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Top image via The Birthday Collective and Pinterest. 

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 view the Workbook issue for this essay here, and sign up for The Birthday Workbook newsletter at