9-minute read

Friendships for a Better World

author

Mai Tatoy

Mai is happiest when she finds meaningful ways to involve the community in the stories we tell. She gets a thrill at seeing a story transform people’s lives. Mai loves to sing in church, bake at home and eat anywhere.

Friendship is one of the most important relationships of my life. When I moved to Singapore from Manila over two decades ago, I knew practically no one. So slowly, colleagues became friends. I began singing in a church choir, they became fast friends. Volunteering was also an opportunity to make friends along the way.

As the saying goes, friends are family we choose for ourselves, and being a Filipino in Singapore, my friendships have been a source of good times, shared experiences and going through the different seasons of life together. When I think of my life in Singapore, my friends are the biggest gift that I’ve received.

If there’s one thing my friendships with people of other nationalities have taught me it’s to open up my mind and heart to different perspectives. Because of my friendships with people of different cultures, I’ve learnt to give people the benefit of the doubt. To not lazily judge people by their actions. Inherently, as human beings, there are things we have in common, values such as integrity, honour, respect. But culture influences our perspectives and values shape our actions. The same value may not manifest in the same behaviour. My friendships taught me to pause and consider that people mean well, they may just view or do things differently because of how they were raised or where they grew up.

Working at Our Better World (OBW) has given me more opportunities to make friends from other countries. As the storytelling initiative from the Singapore International Foundation, we get to tell stories of people across Asia doing good. No other job I’ve had has given me the chance to make new, meaningful connections, and for that I’m grateful.

For International Friendship Day this year, I spoke to three friends I’ve made through OBW — people whose stories we’ve told — and asked them to share about a friend of theirs from another country and culture who have made them better Singaporeans, global citizens and human beings.

Alvin and Kitt

“With Kitt, it’s like having a partner in crime but it’s not crime. We dream and we make it happen. We are great partners.” - Alvin Yong

Alvin-Kitt
Kitt (left) teaching Alvin the ‘joyful labour’ of rice farming

We are all influenced by our friends — for better or worse. But when a good friend is able to inspire and make you a better person, that’s a gift that keeps on giving, to yourself and everyone around you.

That’s the case with the friendship of Alvin Yong from Singapore and Yongyoot Watasittikul (Kitt) from Thailand. They met in Chiang Rai in 2007 when Alvin and his family, who love the mountains, went to Chiang Rai on holiday. Kitt was the travel agent they chose to take them around.

Alvin found out that Kitt was more than a travel agent. Kitt had a law degree from Bangkok, but as a member of Thailand’s Karen hill tribe, he couldn’t stand staying in the city. 

“He wanted to return to his farm, the forest, the land. I could see that Kitt has a deep care for the environment and his culture,” Alvin said.

“We were very impressed that this young man in his early 30s had a law degree but he wasn’t thinking about earning lots of money.”

On the day Kitt took Alvin’s family on a trek past paddy fields while sharing about rice planting, Kitt brought them to meet his parents and see his farm.

“I fell in love with that farm. It has a little bungalow at the top of a knoll overseeing the entire paddy. It was like Shangri-La to me. Since then, Kitt and his family have meant a lot to me. We created Tigerland Rice Farm out of that,” said Alvin.

Alvinkitt
Kitt and Alvin

Alvin feels that what is unique about their friendship is that Kitt considers Alvin, his wife and their daughter part of the Tiger family. Kitt’s father, who Alvin affectionately calls Father Gun, even built another house next to the bungalow and he named it Robyn's Hut, after Alvin’s daughter.

“Despite not being able to see each other that often, we have this bond and trust that is very precious.

“Kitt trusts my business acumen and my intentions. One time, he walked me into the bamboo forest at the back of their house, which is a part of their land. I basked in the beauty of it and said that it’s a good place for meditation. I pointed out that a particular spot would be good to build a bamboo hut spacious enough to sit one person. The next time I came to visit, Kitt had built it. And Kitt said: ‘Alvin, I want to show you that your vision came true.’

“Kitt and I are partners in building this wonderland in Chiang Rai. We work on projects that benefit the community, the hill tribe children. With Kitt, it’s like having a partner in crime but it’s not crime. We dream and we make it happen. 

“Kitt is simple, authentic and truthful. He has a good heart. He has widened my mind on the scope and definition of what living a good life means. We need to re-expose ourselves and return to that connection to eco-consciousness. In a broader sense, that is what Tigerland Rice Farm is about. This is not something you are told but something you have to experience. It can’t be taught but it can be caught.”

With travel restrictions lifted, you can experience the magic of Tigerland Rice Farm and help entire villages rise from the struggles after the lockdown. We told the story of Tigerland Rice Farm in 2017.

Grace and Kaite

“With Kaite, even though she’s 20 years or so my senior, there’s no hierarchy, no seniority. I felt that instant connection with this person. We're in sync not just professionally. It’s a friendship. It’s a kinship.” - Grace Lee-Khoo

Grace and Kaite
Kaite and Grace

“My friend and mentor Kaite O'Reilly is an Irish playwright based in Wales. She's a pioneer in disability arts advocacy. I was studying in London in 2017 when we met. We were introduced by a local theatre maker because Kaite comes to Singapore often as she teaches at the Intercultural Theatre Institute,” Grace shared.

In addition to Kaite’s strong Singapore connection, Grace and Kaite are connected through the international performing arts community, and a shared area of interest and specialisation in applied theatre about disability and working with marginalised communities.

“With Kaite, I knew this is the person that I wanted to work with. I am in awe of her body of work. She's so established. She’s like my theatre mum. And yet, she's excited about what I have to say. She's such a great listener. 

“With Kaite, even though she’s 20 years or so my senior, there’s no hierarchy, no seniority. We connected on a comfortable yet profound level. We're in sync not just professionally. It’s a friendship. It’s a kinship. I worked with her and her late partner, Phillip Zarrilli, the renowned theatre director and academic and it feels like a person-first kind of process.

“Both Kaite and my work is centred around not just humanity, but that we all collectively care for humanity and want a better world. We hope that our art inspires impact and change. As they say, art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I felt that spirit with Kaite.”

Since becoming friends, Grace and Kaite have collaborated a number of times.

The first play they put together was And Suddenly I Disappear which was live streamed globally. Kaite was the playwright and Grace produced it and was also in the cast. It was a production funded by a UK consortium of disability arts organisations known as Unlimited

Other projects Grace and Kaite have worked on include the Singapore adaptation and staging of Lie with Me with the Intercultural Theatre Institute. They also participated at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2019

“If I lead a series of workshops on zoom, I will have Kaite come in and teach. When she was lecturing at the University of Cork in Ireland, I would zoom in and do a session. We're constantly creating opportunities to work together, open doors for each other, and showcase each other’s work.

Grace  Communnity
Kaite and Grace (far right) with friends in the theatre community

“I look up to her. I see her putting her convictions, her beliefs and ethos into action as an artist and I follow that. The biggest thing that she has role-modelled for me was really to own your talent, own your abilities.

“We all struggle with imposter syndrome, but Kaite is so unapologetic about her achievements and her talents. That was something I struggled with at the beginning of my career. Kaite’s not afraid to share or worried that people will steal it. Because she knows that even if they take it, they will never deliver it the same way she would.

“She’s an example that to be good at your craft, to make great art in a profound and perhaps metaphysical way, you fundamentally have to be a really good person. She has empathy and radical compassion. Kaite feeds me, not just artistically and professionally, she feeds my soul and from there I get to grow, I’m nourished.”

Since both Grace and Kaite are involved in disability awareness through art, what they have in common is a curiosity about being different.

“We relish diversity. We think differences ought to be celebrated because if everyone is the same, it’s very boring. We don't judge, but we are fascinated by differences. That has to be part of being an artist.”

Grace is the founder of Access Path Productions that produces cultural experiences featuring the narratives and talents of the marginalised. Kaite is an award winning playwright and writer who works in disability arts and mainstream culture. We told the story of Grace in 2019.

Lynette and Anna

“The best thing about our friendship is the unquestioning love and care between Anna and me. We know when one of us is in trouble, the other would just dive into the water to help, regardless of what we are coping with at that given time. That love transcends physical distance.” - Lynette Lim

Anna Zoom
Lynette and Anna on one of their zoom calls

People say it’s hard to make friends as an adult, but that’s not the case if you’re open to making friends in the organisation you work at. Especially a non-profit that is aligned with your values and beliefs.

Take Lynette Lim and Anna Button. They are colleagues at Hagar International, a non-governmental organisation that helps women and children who are survivors of human trafficking, slavery and abuse. Hagar has offices in 11 countries and Lynette and Anna are based in their respective local offices.

“Anna is a New Zealander working in our NZ office, whereas I'm a Singaporean in the Singapore office. Interestingly, we discovered that we joined Hagar in the same year in 2017.

“In 2020, the global COVID crisis affected the entire Hagar network. A global emergency taskforce was set up within Hagar with every office appointing a representative. Anna and I were representatives of this taskforce and that's when I got the opportunity to work very closely with Anna.

“It was through these stressful times that we became friends. There were many opportunities where we worked together to support one another in the network, to tide through those very, very difficult times. Right now, we are both working on the global emergency communications for Hagar’s earthquake response in Afghanistan.

“There are so many things that I appreciate about Anna. But if I can say only one thing, it would be her authenticity. With Anna, what you see is what you get. There's really no need to second guess what Anna is saying or not saying. She's extremely, absolutely genuine in all her ways. And I really, really appreciate this very much about her.

“In our work, it's easy to be heavy laden and discouraged because of the issues that we deal with daily, as it concerns the lives of vulnerable women and children who have been victims of some of the most extreme forms of abuse. Honestly, there are many days when we don't have solutions to these problems.

“The best thing about our friendship is the unquestioning love and care between Anna and me. We know when one of us is in trouble, the other would just dive into the water to help. That love transcends physical distance.

“Since she’s in New Zealand, we don't get to see each other face to face. In fact, I have not seen Anna in person yet! I hope that one day she could come to Singapore or I could go to New Zealand to see her. But we keep in touch regularly through WhatsApp, so we message to encourage one another, and ask about each other’s day. We try to surprise each other by sending gifts, but we’ve not been successful so far because of international mail delivery issues as a result of COVID.

“Anna is very open. She's a straight talker. We discovered through our time working together that even the way we write, the tone in our writing, the choice of words we use when we craft messages can be quite different because of our diverse cultures.

“But even though we are different, there are still many things that we are similar in. The way we love, the way we respect people, the way we care. Over the years, I've learnt a lot from Anna and her perspectives, not just about work, but life in general.

Lynette
Lynette (centre) with members of the Hagar Singapore team

When asked how this friendship differed from her other friendships, Lynette described it as a safe space.

“I feel very privileged and grateful because I feel there's a safe place in my friendship with Anna where we know we can be ourselves. There's no need to put on a mask. In our friendship, there’s protection, there’s love and mutual respect. And when I tell Anna things, I know 100 per cent that she would honour the confidentiality of the issues discussed and pray for me when I'm in trouble. That’s the kind of trust that we have built up in our friendship.

“We know that even though we are far away from each other in terms of our physical distance, we are united in one heart, in one spirit. In situations when we cannot offer practical help, what we do is pray for each other and commit these issues to God and trust Him that he will work things out for each of us.”

To learn more about the passionate work of Lynette and Anna, click here for Hagar International’s work in Singapore, and here for their work in New Zealand. We told the story of Hagar Singapore in 2017.

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