Thursday, June 30, 2005

Learning From Adversity

In 1999, I wrote this message to my team mates after we returned to our company from a training program which sparked a controversy within the management ranks after a few colleagues complained of the harsh treatment they received.  This message was copied to the top management which resulted in a decision to continue with the program.  I reproduce it here in its entirety without any changes or corrections.


Human Re-engineering Breakpoint


21 June, 1999

Now that I have some time to recollect my thoughts, I remember that when Puan Rahima asked me what I thought about the program, I did not give her a satisfactory answer because my mind wasn’t clear for me to think about the whole episode.  Now I wished I had made this as a speech at the end of the course we’d just completed.  But then, I would not have made a meaningful speech, as speech is not my best means of communicating my ideas.  While I congratulate the few of you who boldly stood up to express your thoughts, I searched my memory, to focus on each event and evaluate it for the depth of its meaning.  Hence, I decided I should write all these down and, hopefully, help you recall the events that transpired during those few days and nights and what they mean to each and everyone of you, because what I write here only tells you my point of view.  It may be different from yours.  I encourage you to think and form your own conclusions individually and whatever benefits you derived from it. 


Let us take those lessons and put it through a real live test.


Appreciating what we have.

We realised while standing out there under the hot sun, suffering the humiliation of verbal abuse, crawling and bruising our knees and hands, (kissing a tyre, and a dustbin) suffering the indignity and being ordered around by some total strangers, suddenly our snug little world of a comfortable workplace, our prestigious positions as technicians, officers, clerks, engineers, supervisors and secretaries disappeared into thin air.  We had sworn to give up our positions.  Stripped naked of our pride, identity, money, and means of communications, we were reduced to nothing.  We were totally humbled, put back to square one.  Having lost something (but usually taking it for granted), we suddenly realized its value.


I began to think; what if I had lost all these friends standing beside me?  What if I was all alone suffering the cursing and humiliation on my own?  How would I have felt?  How could I bear it all alone?  What if I had lost everything else, like my family, my home, and all my worldly possessions?  The full impact of the few hours of suffering under the hot sun had not penetrated into the deepest part of my mind until now.  (And I think of the homeless refugees who have lost even their country and identity, through no fault of their own and felt a deep compassion for their sufferings.) 


Be thankful we have our (more than) Five Senses

I promised myself to use my senses right and use them well, each and every one of them.  Remember how, many of us found the wrong bridge?  (Because we didn’t listen more carefully, we found a “garden and a bridge” instead of a “Garden on a Bridge”).  Sometimes we only listen but we don’t hear.  We don’t think of what we hear to actually view its full meaning.  Then we learned to listen to our friends’ hopes, dreams, troubles and their feelings and fears.  We shared with them their happiness and sorrows.  And in turn, we opened our minds to communicate with them our deepest thoughts.


Then we were reminded of our gift of sight, how we ‘lost’ it and had to depend on the other 4 senses to go through life.  What if we lose more than one of them?  Imagine losing your ability to speak and your hearing, or losing the use of your limbs.  Imagine losing your sense of touch, not knowing what is hot or cold, the feel of something soft or hard, smooth or rough, sharp or blunt.  Or imagine not being able to taste the food that you eat. 


There is also a higher level to our facilities and that is our ability to think.  We should use this facility more often and with great care.


Whatever position we hold, We Are Important to theTeam.

If you are a plant, it does not matter if you are a bush, a grass or a tree.  You don’t have to be a great oak or angsana tree and to feel mighty and strong.  You are important even if you are a small bush or grass.  You may turn out to be a herb, valuable and sought after by everyone for your ability to cure ailments.  A humble Nipah palm that generations of the people have used to cover the roofs of their homes, (or the Tongkat Ali of which the name speaks for itself).  Whatever talent you may have, use it well, not just for your own benefit but for others as well.


Each one of us is important to an organisation.  The lesson we had with the 7 kayaks told it all.  The people who sat quietly in the middle had to hold the kayaks together.  Without them, the kayaks would drift apart, and each kayak alone on its own would topple over and sink.  The oarsmen had their jobs to drive the vessel and each one of the rest had their part to play as the situation arose.  Each kayak symbolizes a department of an organization.  If one dept. sinks the organization may still survive but will not operate to full efficiency.  But we could still recover by rebuilding the dept. and we did.  At first, we had successfully put the 7 kayaks together, but we couldn’t sail correctly because we did not have proper leadership, communication system, and destination.  Some want to go right, others want to go left.  When we realized that, we recovered and agreed to follow one Leader, one set of principles and finally we got into the correct rhythm and then to proceed on our course.  When we faced the danger of overloading, the team members at the back got into the water and floated and at the same time paddled their feet to help propel the vessel forward.


That 35 people in 7 kayaks, in my opinion, was the most meaningful lesson in teamwork that I ever learnt.


Suffering Shared is Suffering Diminished

I thought with my backache, I was bearing it well, and felt proud of the fact.  But when I looked around me I saw one who had fallen and hurt herself still bearing it well, and there were others too, who probably wished they could give up and lie down, but still remained on their feet, I was humbled.  None of us wanted to give in to our tiredness and go off early to bed because we could not bear the idea of being comfortable while the rest are still suffering.  If one has to suffer let us all bear it together.


During the infamous dinner called ‘Pudu Jail 1945’ I found myself struggling to keep my composure for the sake of my dignity.  (Some of you are young enough to call me ‘Uncle’)  I also hoped my strength and calmness could reassure the weaker members to hold on and not give in to panic and distress.  The Chinese have a saying, ‘A person having a meal must be respected as though he is a King’, but this guy here was making us eat off the floor like dogs.  (I thought if I were some years younger, I would have kicked our tormentor in the ribs and end this torture, but I remembered it was only a test of our patience!  And there were those two commandos always a few steps behind him!)   In one of those continuous harassment’s, when I thought I could not hold on any longer, being a Buddhist I started to repeat a mantra “namo-omi-tho-fo” to calm myself. 


In my forty-six years of life, I’ve not suffered this much indignity, although I’ve had my share of hardships.  This was the ultimate lesson in suffering although it was only simulated, it was very real and evoked some measure of emotions of fear, anger and possibly, hatred, within most of us. 


Although I did not show much emotion then, I did shed some tears when my wife served me some dumplings she reserved for me from the ‘Chang’ festival which I missed during our training course.  I felt thankful for having such a wonderful wife. 


It is through our ability to bear suffering and live through it that we become better human beings.  I guess we passed this test.  We found ourselves looking after each other without second thoughts.  I wish all of you a better future as a better person.





Your Friend in Adversity,



  1. From the message, it looks like some high intensity training, but it's not clear what exactly this program is. Can you describe what the training program's activities are?

  2. Let me find the training content I wrote. I have it somewhere. I'll post it later.

  3. I must have lost that file.

    Anyway, the basic idea of this training is to put participants through emotional upheavals like lost of freedom (they took away all our wallets, handphones, watches), lost of income (we swore away our jobs), suffering and fear and then we had some happy times like dancing, music and making fun of each other. They alternate these programs so that we go through an emotional see-saw. All these events continue one after another with meal breaks in between. We only get about 4-5 hours of sleep each night. Basically there was nothing real about the 'sufferings'. It was more of a mind game, to break down old mindsets, habits and prejudices and then build up a spirit of camaraderie among the group.

    For every 'break-down' session, we had one "scapegoat" who got punished for some fictitious offence while the rest helplessly watch the guy (e.g. shout a thousand times: "I must not...." or crawl along the floor and beg for forgiveness from everybody) You can't help him. You just feel guilty and behave properly and hope you won't get caught for doing something "wrong". During the infamous dinner "torture", many were moved to real crocodile tears. The trainer knew how to pick on a guy whom everybody else can sympathise with.

    I am told this is something like what they give you in army training, except that this is a lot tamer. After every break-down session, they gave us a build-up session. At the end of it all we still thanked the guys for giving us a hell of a time. I was told there were full grown men who were still crying as they left camp on the bus.

    Hope this answers your question.