46 going on 16

Copyright ampulets / Winner / Me at 6?

My second ceramics teacher is a millennial. She asked me to write “A Letter to my 16 Year-old Self” for an online magazine called "Strawberry Generation" she had started with a bunch of friends, to encourage other millennials. I agreed because I belong to a generation who still believes #MustListenToCher (and would probably know who else Cher could be). If you are easily bruised, I've placed here the homework I submitted for your reading:

When you are 16, you do not think about being 45 (ok, I’m going on 46 this year).

At 16, the next most exciting thing in life is not 30 years away, but next month – or maybe next year, at the latest

When I was 16, in pre-internet Singapore, a large part of my time was spent in the worlds created by the lives and imaginations of writers and artists. These worlds were real, immense, and liberating. I lost myself in fantasy novels, science fiction, silly romances, historical novels, “serious literature”, illustrated books and comics. Maybe because I could lose myself in the struggles or triumphs of someone else, I also had a pretty comfortable sense of who I was. Reading required me to empathise or even reason with that fictional someone’s motivations, and sometimes I could apply the same questions to my own motivations. If you read closely, you can always sniff out a character’s dishonesty – even the writer’s dishonesty. 

So what should one say to a nerdy but self-assured 16 year-old like that? A friend suggested this: fashion and styling advice. But we just as soon agreed, nah, we are kidding ourselves to think a 16 year-old would care for fashion advice from a soon-to-be 46 year-old.

Since taking up the job in 2018 to head the team at the national performing arts centre Esplanade, I occasionally do get asked to share “advice” or my “perspectives” with young people. About the arts, leadership, the future and how to prepare for “Economy 4.0”, the creative industries or whatever is the latest catchphrase.  Regardless, I find myself often landing on this point:

Who are you when you are alone? Apart from school. Apart from even your friends and family. There is a space you will inhabit which is entirely your own, where you feel most free in yourself. You can think of it as a room. Or you can think of it more abstractly, like a state of being. Chances are, for most of us, it is a set of actions or things we enjoy most in our alone-times. The arts – be it literature, music or the visual arts – have a special power of being that kind of space for many people. The same may also be said for religious faith, or an abiding passion in a sport, a field of knowledge or an act of service to others. These expressions often take us out of ourselves, but with empathy and imagination, we often begin to understand, challenge and accept who we are. Your job as a young person – if you have not already done so and especially if you have the ultimate privilege of spending time in a university – is to find or make that space for yourself. 


Because life, most certainly, would throw you curveballs. However hard you work or however perfectly you’ve planned or thought about your relationships or studies or career, you are not in full control. So when these curveballs are served to you, how do you continue living with the person that you are? Where do you go to, to make sense of the world? What do you draw on for the energy to pick yourself up?

While the love and care of family and community should never be taken for granted, and indeed, they are so much part of our identity, you may also find yourself returning to the space of you, alone. I hope there, you will find “the tools” you had or the things you enjoyed when you were 16 that helped and will help you make sense of the world, who you are, and how you should live. 

I give this mumbo-jumbo spiel because there are 2 groups of young people I typically meet. One, privileged young people who lament that school leaves them no time for anything else, that the competitiveness of life makes them weary, and that the future is uncertain. And the other, young people who have already been served curveballs by their youth, the flawed actions of adults around them, or the inadequacies of our society.  

If the occasion is appropriate, I share, matter-a-fact, the 2 curveballs I received in a short span of 6 months between 2018 and 2019: the head surgeries I had to do, and my husband’s death shortly after. I do not tell them that he killed himself, my surgeries probably having tipped his mildly anxious person into a heightened state of anxiety and depression. Losing my life – well, I pray heaven would be my forever home. But losing him was the stunner. I believed he was my everything. And so, quite literally, I do have to continue alone. Amongst the many things that helped me just get on with living is this habit I’ve had since 16: books and writing. I read and write to figure out and understand the world. I read and write my way out. 

If you are 16, enter the world of books, be lost in music, see the world through paintings and art, encounter the injustices and loves of humanity in film, write out your confusion and dreams, sing the songs of rebellion and broken-heartedness, and dance dance dance! 

If you are 16, enjoy the wind as you run, the silk of water as your body cuts through it, the single-minded pursuit of a goal, the integration of your decisions and actions with that of your sporting team! 

If you are 16, learn about the big bad beautiful world in and beyond this island, feel angry or curious or the simple joy of helping a friend, a family, a stranger. 

If you are 16, understand, appreciate and acknowledge that there are forces beyond you (if you have a faith, God) and the sheer fallen-ness of humanity, these will continue to keep life and your future uncertain. 

You will still feel the shock and hurt of those curveballs when you are 46 or 76, but you will have your 16 year-old self to thank for initiating these reserves from which you tap to carry on.

Copyright ampulets / Study Hard / Model: J age 6


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