PERSPECTIVE: "But one good thing about hitting rock bottom was the opportunity to consider how to approach the next 40 years of life differently from the first 40."
In 2018, Joel Chang found himself all alone on a precarious rock face deciding whether he should continue the dangerous journey to the peak of Mount Jade, the tallest mountain in Taiwan, or if he should retreat to safety.
Three years prior, Chang had been hit by "a litany of personal and business failures" but turned his life around and began his journey of climbing mountains around the world, exploring underground caves, and conducting a climate change expedition.
In this adaptation of Chang's essay "Climbing Mountains", he relives his daunting experience on Mount Jade and reflects on his own life and Singapore's future. He writes about how his decision to push himself to the limit, both physically and mentally, led him to discover his purpose in the world of sustainability.
Chang, who co-founded an electric motorcycle startup, is on a mission to convert 200 million combustion bikes in Southeast Asia to electric ones.
Chang's essay was first published in The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet? Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 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.
By Joel Chang
2018, 11:45am, 3900 metres above sea level.
After hiking alone and non-stop from base camp towards the summit of Mount Jade (Yushan), the highest point in Taiwan, a sudden gale force wind blows me off my feet. I’m pinned, somewhat luckily, against the rock face.
Unable to get up for fear of getting blown off, I try to come to grips with my fleeting mortality. Self-preservation tells me the mountain will always be there, and I’m tempted to abort the climb.
Then I glimpse a sign that says, "150m to the peak". To climb or not to climb? Or—given the possibility of sudden wind-assisted death—to be or not to be?
We, Singaporeans, always pat ourselves on the back by celebrating our relative success and exceptionalism. This little red dot found its place under the sun among the wealthiest and most developed nations.
We finally feel secure enough to declare our brand of guided democracy underpinned by good governance, Confucian values and multiculturalism as the best system for our island of 5 million people.
Passing many people who were heading down as I was on the way up the mountain, I was often asked this question: "你单工?" Translated, it means, "You lone ranger?" They really seemed to be asking if I was crazy, or if my partner had somehow abandoned me.
I soon realised I was the only one who came alone to the mountain.
Perhaps Singapore felt the same way during Independence when Malaysia kicked us out in 1965, albeit without a choice in the matter. We were alone, weak and abandoned to an uncertain fate in the toughest of neighbourhoods during challenging times.
But yet we made it and as they say, the rest is history.
But have we really arrived?
Our economic growth miracle is sputtering, and our middle class continues to be squeezed as the gulf between the rich and less well-off continues to widen. We seem to have no solution to our ageing population as we continue to push back on immigration. Being an island prone to rising sea levels we also seem to be slow to react to the impending climate crisis.
If Singapore's number one selling point is "security" then does her people feel truly secure about their future too?
So near, yet so far
Face down by the rock face and freezing in the high altitude, I knew the logical way out would be to retreat.
Because my lone-ranger self had decided to attempt a non-stop ascent at an odd time, all the other climbing groups had already descended from the summit. I couldn’t wait for help or advice. My phone also had no signal at that altitude, so I could hardly check the latest weather report.
I was, as they say, so near, yet so far.
I was already late, so further delays would mean doing the descent in partial darkness—a dangerous proposition on the narrow mountain paths. Even if I didn’t fall, getting lost would mean freezing to death, and I wasn’t keen on becoming a popsicle.
I’d come far enough, and given it my all. If I just said I’d made the summit, nobody would know. Except me.
How often do we find ourselves stuck and paralysed by fear and indecision? Faced with challenging obstacles, should we just take the easy way out and fade towards mediocrity? Or should we summon all our inner strength and resolve and rise to the occasion?
Fortunately for Singapore and me, our times of struggle are when we truly realise what we are made of and whether we are going to sink or swim.
Approaching 40, I was lost without a purpose, beset with a litany of personal and business failures that culminated in a downward spiral of alcoholic depression.
But one good thing about hitting rock bottom was the opportunity to consider how to approach the next 40 years of life differently from the first 40.
The push to the summit
"Fail but fail well". As foolish as it sounds, I had to give it one last shot, so I had to have a plan. "Fail to plan, plan to fail"
The first thing I did was get rid of my outer jacket shell, as it was literally a parachute in the wind.
Next, I found a rock crevice to hide my bulky gear and backpack from the wind. Curiously, there were others before me who had also stored their gear under the same rock crevices. Hmm. Wonder why they never retrieved their stuff.
With bare essentials in my pockets, I proceeded to make my summit push the only way I could; I crawled all the way up.
In 2015, after a lifetime of exuberant hedonism, I stopped smoking and drinking. Then I challenged my grit by finishing a marathon and faced my confrontational fears by fighting in a boxing match.
Next, for perspective, I scaled six mountains around the world and embarked on expeditions to explore the largest caves in the world. I also practised meditation to alleviate my trauma and gain inner strength and control.
Singapore too can cut her reliance on fossil fuels and lead the region towards carbon neutrality.
We can be the force of peace and compromise by mediating regional disputes or conflicts. We can once again lead with our ingenuity, innovation and productivity in technology and manufacturing.
We can finally be open and confident to accept constructive criticisms or "hard truths" to become better.
Peaking is only the beginning
Bruised, dusty, and shivering, I finally made it to the peak.
Magically, after the last corner, the winds died and the skies opened to a magnificent bright blue with the sun embracing my less insulated body with her much-needed warmth.
Elated and relieved, I proceeded to meditate on my gratitude to the mountain, my loved ones, the kind people I met along the way, and the universe for allowing me this honour. I knew from that moment on, my life had changed.
After exploring the limits of my physical and inner self, I finally found my purpose as a sustainability proponent, after embarking on a climate change expedition in Iceland, to witness first-hand the fast-receding glaciers which are the biggest store of fresh water on our planet.
A future of carbon-neutral harmony
I dream of contributing towards a carbon-neutral harmony between us humans and our precious biosphere and home—earth.
The next phase of our beloved Singapore's story has just started, and she too can redefine her next 50 years by acknowledging her flaws and weaknesses whilst truly harnessing her strengths.
ASEAN is the fastest-growing region in the world and Indonesia is poised to become the 4th largest economy in the world well before the middle of this century.
Singapore can be ASEAN’s heartbeat. We can lead the sustainable development of our regional economies by investing and scaling key technologies in renewable energy and responsible consumption.
We, together with our neighbours, can be the powerful bloc that balances geopolitics and mediates trade tensions between the East and the West.
We can sow the seeds of an ASEAN union unique to our regional cultural and political diversities that would reinforce peace and prosperity within our regional nations as well as between them.
"Life can only be understood backwards. But it must be lived forwards." – Soren Kierkegaard
Top photo courtesy of Joel Chang.