We, the People of Singapore
Singapore isn't just made up of I.T geeks and blue-collared workers trying to win the rat race; the city-island is filled with a diverse mix of people who are more interesting than expected.
Crystal Yiu: When I first met the woman responsible for all the photos and stories rolling out on the site People of Singapore, I was definitely thrown off for a slight second. “Hi, I’m Robin,” she smiles. An expat running a site about Singaporeans…? Whudathought!
“The whole idea behind this site is really to humanize people here,” she explains. “There is so much diversity, and I just want to show that people are worthwhile not because of how much money they make but because they have integrity, they’re funny, they’re interesting and they have a history.”
Having lived in Singapore for the past 22 years, she’s seen the changes this country and its people have gone through. Initially an investment banker, she left the industry a few years ago and has been volunteering with NGOs ever since. However, she only started PoS last year in February. “I’ve always been active online, looking through the forums and discussions, and over the last couple of years people have been getting angrier and they’re getting kind of too negative about the society and themselves. Don't get me wrong-- I think criticism is good. It means people care and they want to engage. Not all the PoS stories are happy-clappy. But I want to show that these faceless, nameless stereotypes are a myth—everyone has a story."
In her opinion, people have created monoliths and everyone is viewed simplistically as indistinct beings. “I think a lot about national identity because I see myself as both an insider and outsider. The stereotype of the ugly Singaporean is simply not true and it’s harsh.” And that’s something Robin hopes to change through PoS. She set up the site with the ultimate goal of creating social trust—a sense of community. “If you show people as human beings, then maybe they’d be more willing to talk to each other, and like each other, and it would be a nicer place. I mean, wouldn’t you like it if you could talk to anybody?”
She recalls a particular day when she was roaming around Havelock, looking for subjects to shoot, when she stumbled across a couple of old men drinking at the hawker center. “And I’m talking 20, 30 cans of beer in front of them, and they see me. And they go “lai, lai, lai, come come come!” so I went with it. And I sat there for two whole hoursand they eventually started opening up, and some of the stories they had were just…” she pauses. “You know, there’s this whole bunch of old uncles getting drunk on a Sunday afternoon and most people wouldn’t even think much of them. But if you sit down, and you take the time, and you hear their stories… You’d be pretty amazed at what they’ve been through.”
It isn’t easy to get people to open up, of course. It takes both time and sincerity, to not only get to know a person, but to also be able to tell their story in a way that preserves their dignity and accords them respect. Sometimes the stories are hilarious, like the old man with a feathery beard and a crazy history in Australia, and sometimes the stories are inspiring, with its subject being a feisty centenarian who is as charming as she is striking. And sometimes, the stories are just heart-wrenching. Whatever the story is, it is the human connection that this site is creating that’s worth a deeper look. PoS connects anyone who’s clicking away on the site to someone whom they’ve never met before, simply through the very human emotion of empathy.
There is a lady in Chinatown that Robin’s been trying to persuade to be photographed. “She was an amah for the same family for 47 years, and she took sor hei (a vow to never get married), and these women are almost all gone now. So she was an amah, and now she’s a super feisty garang-guni woman. She’s 94 years old, but she’s so wonderful.” And although she couldn’t really understand what the woman was saying in Cantonese (her translator-friend’s linguistic skills unfortunately only allowed for 10% comprehension), there was definitely something about the woman that captivated Robin. “To me, she’s the epitome of what this site is about. She’s elegant, she’s strong, she’s funny—this person has so much value, and integrity and we should all be going, “This is an awesome person”, and yet she feels like she’s nothing. Scroll through PoS—and you can see that there is so much more to such a person than meets the eye.”