Interview with Nick Pang
Words by: Lemuel Teo (Photos by: Ronald Lim)
Conversations in cell groups can be rather mundane at times. They rarely go beyond cursory questions: How’s your week? Share one thanksgiving. Answers tend to remain superficial. Confined to complaining about colleagues or deadlines, they rarely dive into serious reflection about our lives or God.
One day whilst shopping at a Naiise outlet, I came across Breadcrumbs, a card game featuring numerous questions designed to help kick-start deeper conversations about Christianity. As I flipped through the deck, I found the questions listed on them thought-provoking and insightful. I bought it immediately, in hopes of using it in the cell group I lead.
In one such meeting, I brought out Breadcrumbs to facilitate that day’s sharing. Among other questions, one of the most interesting was: “What do you find most challenging to accept, understand, and/or practise in your faith?”
This was something we would not usually talk about in such a candid way. It reeled out honest thoughts about our struggles with some of our faith practices. Different individuals in the group identified with each other, reminding themselves that they were not the only ones with the same struggles, and they helped each other clarify certain doubts they had been holding on to for some time.
Breadcrumbs is just one of the decks created under the Smol Tok brand. The other decks include Smol Tok (questions about life, love, and everything in between), Dun Tok Cok (questions about the Singaporean way of life), and Double Tap (questions about how we use, and are used, by technology) among others.
Delving deeper into what the brand stands for, I had the privilege of speaking with Nick Pang, creator of the Smol Tok universe. Nick is so passionate about creating opportunities for people to engage in deeper conversations, that he left his job a couple of years ago to focus fully on growing the business.
In an interview with SELAH, Nick details the state of conversations among Singaporeans today, and how he hopes to build communities and drive change in our city-state.
How did the name, Smol Tok, come about?
I wanted to challenge the idea of what small talk could be. When you say “small talk,” you just think of mindless chatter about superficial topics. But it can be so much deeper if you give it a chance.
I also didn’t want people to feel intimidated; if I had named it “Deep Conversations,” people would have just walked away from it.
The spelling is simply based on the phonetic spelling of the words “small” and “talk” from an old-school dictionary. There wasn’t a strategy or higher thinking behind it. (Laughs)
Given that you would like people to engage in deeper conversations, what do you think is the state of conversations in Singapore society today?
Singapore society is becoming more fragmented in general. With the digital space and social media — and the algorithms that come with it — people don’t talk to each other as much anymore. They comment, share, and like, but don’t physically talk. It’s all done from the comfort of our smartphones, and it’s fairly anonymous. The effects of this is manifold in our world today.
The biggest bugbear I have is how it causes greater fragmentation within families, communities, and society at large. With this in mind, I wanted to tackle this question: How do we get people back to the same table and have a conversation? These conversations need not be about divisive issues. It could just be about “Hey, what do we have in common with each other?” In the spirit of curiosity, how do I find out more about you and me, and along the way, build a relationship?
Why did you decide on a card game?
Going digital would go against my starting principles, which centre around getting people to speak to each other face-to-face. The best way to do so is to create something physical and tactile, rather than connect in the digital space. I also think that there are already too many products in the digital sphere.
You’ve developed several other decks that aim to bring different communities together into a conversation. Tell me more about Dun Tok Cok.
Dun Tok Cok came out at the time when the government mooted the idea of a population base of 6.9 million. After that announcement was made, there was a lot of very public anti-foreigner sentiment. The deck was already in development but instead of making it too comfortable and insular, I introduced questions to focus more on shared experiences about living in Singapore which both Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans can talk about. The aim was to get locals and residents to converse with each other — not to view the other as threats or enemies but as persons with similar hopes and dreams.
Which deck was the hardest to create?
Pillow Tok — a deck meant for couples and singles. I started working on this with my wife before we got married. Whenever we argued over certain things, and after we’ve had time to reflect on our conflict and distil the lessons, questions relating to our circumstances went into the deck. As we went through our church’s marriage preparation course, we realised that there are many other issues that we had not thought or talked about. An example would be our attitude towards how we spend money or what it means to argue fairly.
It’s important to make room to talk about these things. And we’re still revisiting some of them today; it’s an ongoing conversation. You can’t do it over a weekend or over four months in your [marriage preparation] course and consider yourself done. We’re still figuring things out.
How has it been running Smol Tok for the past four years?
It’s been a great blessing. It’s been a source of life for me in so many ways — for work, for relationships, for a bigger purpose. I often think about, “How can this tool better serve the community and society?”
In your experience, what do you think people talk about when they meet up?
The meet ups that we have most of the time are very task-oriented. My sense of it is that people meet for functional reasons. We treat the people in those conversations as part of the task as well.
When we do meet friends, there’s very little time to warm up to get to the point where the conversation goes deep. There’s no runway for it. Maybe, as an adult, you’re meeting to celebrate someone’s birthday. You have two hours for it. After that, you have to leave for another appointment. Everyone’s always busy. People just don’t make the time for deeper conversations anymore.
Also, over time, our circles get smaller. The people that you can have those deep conversations with amount to small groups of maybe three to five people. The frequency of meeting up also drops.
In general, the topics that populate those conversations are very practical considerations: How do you make a living? How do you succeed? How do you compete? We talk about schools that our kids can go to or buying a house or flat. They centre on optimising life in Singapore, rather than talking about where we are at personally. There’s little space for reflection or introspection.
What is your inspiration for Smol Tok?
I think it is about Jesus Himself. Jesus uses questions and humour to great effect, with plays of irony. He asks questions and lets it land on people to see how they would respond. He is masterful at using questions to get people to look at their own values and behaviours.
When He, for example, asked the disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” [Luke 9:20]. I think that’s a very powerful moment. Imagine yourself as part of the scene, an onlooker, how would you react? Another case in point would be the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus asked, “Who would you say was the neighbour to the man who was attacked?” [Luke 10:36].
Jesus uses rhetorical questions to such great effect.
What is your greatest hope for Singapore in relation to Smol Tok?
I hope to see a change in behaviour. The answers to life’s questions are not found in a Google search. I want to see people from different backgrounds — from someone who lives in a rental flat to someone who drives a Jaguar to a politician — actually talk on equal terms and not have that stratification. Can we include everyone in the conversation? Everyone’s experiences are valid and need to be considered, especially in a country this small. No single person has all the answers. Right now, to be included in the conversation, you must have certain qualifications or credentials.
I also hope to see a change in perception towards the idea of asking questions. Our society values the right answers over the right questions. Right now, our questions revolve around: How do I make the most money? How do I make the best HDB flat purchase? How can I score the next promotion? A young person would ask questions like: How can I get better results? Which school should I apply for?
But if I could live my life all over again as a young person, the questions I ask would be quite different: How can I fill my life with meaning and purpose? What kind of contribution do I want to make in the future? Where/when do I feel most alive? What kind of work makes me feel that way?
The “why” is just as important as the “how.” Finding ways to be happy and successful in life is great, but that is not the end game. It can’t be. The invitation that Smol Tok offers is to explore what makes life meaningful and purposeful, to discover what you were created for.