Stuck in Sticky Singapore

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Lee Wei Jie)

Why are we such a discontented people?

“If Singapore were to be less humid and if she were enclosed by mountains, life will be perfect.” Our stuck-in-a-blow-dryer climate and the lack of awe-inducing nature are but only two gripes I’ve heard from Singaporeans. Discontentment seems so apparent wherever I go, seething like a volcano hidden under fragile ice sheets. Many have broken into elaborate eulogies about cities like London and Melbourne, casually rattling off their glowing qualities, from the vibrancy of their arts scene to the easy pace of life. Everyone seems to be tapping their fingers, in eager anticipation of the opportunity to pack up and move.

I am well-acquainted with such feelings of simmering discontent. When I returned from living abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, there was a soaring angst with living in Singapore. Why do we need to study so hard? Where is my freedom? Why is life shuttling at a blistering pace? Why can’t we have a change of season? Dissatisfaction and exasperation clenched around my mind and shackled my ankles, making a clanging sound wherever I went — I just could not escape this misery. I hankered for a summer internship overseas, desperate to leave this sticky island.

Elusive Gratitude

Every Tuesday morning, a 37-minute ritual is scheduled, as prompt as the MRT schedule. I would board the Circle Line from Paya Lebar to Kent Ridge, shamble into my seat, and catch up on some sleep before the onslaught of university grabs me by the neck. As I shut my eyes and hugged my backpack one wind-swept morning, it struck me that I had fallen soundly asleep every single time, without even entertaining the possibility that my belongings could be stolen. This laid in sharp contrast to the countless times when I would board the train in Europe, ridden with fear that someone would steal my valuables if I were to surrender my vigilance for a brief second. I also recalled the fear that ran riot in my body as I boarded the subway in New York City at night, wary that some drunkard would break out into a frenzy.

This particular incident revealed to me that gratitude begins with noticing; noticing even the mundane things about Singapore or in our life that we have taken for granted. Safety had become a given in Singapore living that I no longer appreciated it for what it’s worth.

In our country, where life is steady like the horizon, expectations rise at the expense of gratitude. Gratitude is elusory — finding it is akin to scouring the ocean floor for marine gems. My thoughts and speech have been a deluge of dissatisfaction, such that gratitude has been soundlessly sieved out of my life.

I also realised that the riptide of discontentment had drifted me further and further into oblivion, as I had forgotten to look upwards and keep myself abreast with the “good things He does for me” (Psalm 103:2 NLT), instead of choking on salty water. I had banished the knowledge of how much it cost God to send His only begotten Son to save me from the wild waters, reconciling me back into the warm embrace of the shoreline. The salt of the ocean had bled into my eyes, that I could no longer stare into His wildfire eyes and stand in wonder of His beauty. The incessant tidal sounds have become white noise, such that His voice — a gentle ripple in the ocean — was no longer recognisable.

When Discontentment Takes Over

When discontentment needles its way into our thoughts and speech, it can control us. It spins us like a rickety top, and we are bound to fall. Personally, it has an imperious hold on me whenever I covet people’s talents, character traits, spiritual gifts, and even their full, complete lives. Why can’t I write as effusively as her? Why don’t I receive words of knowledge from God like him? Why don’t I have such a life-giving friendship? Why am I not as charismatic?

These why’s have even culminated in me coveting the life of someone I had looked up to. His life was seemingly flushed in perfection: the capacity to travel, a job that enables him to serve God and dabble in something creative, a minimalist house within touching distance of a lake, and of course, spontaneous rustic dinners out in the open.

We might rationalise with ourselves that these desires serve as “healthy motivation,” that it pushes us to better ourselves. Yet, this habit of comparison only feeds an angry cycle of dissatisfaction, as once again we look sideways, rather than upwards. We look to ourselves rather than Jesus’ active process of perfection in us, causing us to eventually fade into shallow, bitter shadows of ourselves, instead of the person of destiny He intended for us. In gunning for control of our life, we paradoxically lose control of it (Matthew 10:39), as we ultimately cede control to discontentment.

Get Out of the Landfill

As I dug into the fetid crevices of my life, I found out that many of these things which left me reeking of discontentment were quite unnecessary in the light of eternity. Greed festered in these potholes, excreting a rancid stench of dissatisfaction.

I had assumed that these things I craved for would fill me up and complete me, but once I had acquired it, it merely swelled the gaping hole. I thirsted for something bigger, something better, unbeknownst that I was merely scavenging in a landfill. Paul, in Philippians 3:8 (NLT), counted “everything else…as garbage, so that [He] could gain Christ.” Do we really attest that “everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord?”

The many paraphernalia we seek for in life (that cages us in discontent) often do not make us a better person — they only serve to magnify the self. This life has never been about racking up an arsenal of accomplishments and assets but about shedding them, yet we have grown so distracted as a people. We have to make ample room for God to grow in us. At times, when I long for the vision of my dream life to come to pass, I now remind myself that He has already “given [me] everything [I] need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

Whenever I feel enslaved to discontentment, it has often been because I have strayed from remembering that God is my “perfect” Father (Matthew 5:48); I simply forget that He has memorised my heart and knows best. I forfeit my identity as His prized child and foolishly choose to revel on life’s primrose path, only to find myself stepping on thorns and thistles. The pleasures of this world that drive our discontentment will only cause us to lose ourselves in the process. May you throw down the spade of this world and find Him in your garden; allow Him to unravel the vines that have found its way around you and restore the knowledge of how much you possess in Him.

JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.


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