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A life of service is a life worth swiping for

Philanthropy is not just a matter of donating money. As the Greek etymology reveals, it is a more general and universal feeling of “love for humanity”, that can be practice in our daily lives with a spirit of humbleness and a predisposition of helping and serving the people we cross in our daily life.

Tan Chin Hwee, Asia Pacific CEO at Trafigura, has recently invoked the importance of serving others as the key to a fulfilled life and successful human relationships during a speech delivered at a recent National Youth Council event in Singapore. The speech has been adapted into the following article, which has been published by the Straits Times.


It's not all about you, you of the digital generation. Service to others is key to a fulfilled life.

In today's highly competitive Singapore, many high-fliers want to achieve - but my question for them is: Who are you achieving for and what are you truly leaving behind?

Many of us today, especially among the younger generation, have the mentality that to achieve "success" (defined in your own eyes - be it status, money or position), you put yourself first - some of you even do this subconsciously without realising it's always about what's best for you.

Let me ask you: Which is the most successful sports team?

Answer: The most successful sports team in the professional era is not the New York Yankees, or Manchester United, but a team from a far less well-known sport. It is the New Zealand All Blacks in rugby, who have an astonishing 86 per cent winning percentage and numerous championships to their name.

How are they able to do it? Especially since they are from a country with such a small population, similar in size to us. Even less well known is the concept of "sweep the shed". It is a selfless ethos of how each All Black player, no matter how famous, has to humbly sweep the locker room after each game. This is the foundation of an All Black - serving others before self. Character and discipline triumph over talent.

In an era of self-entitlement, we should not forget the key element of true achievement. Talent and discipline are important. But so is humility.

Humility is not about bowing or appearing servile before your superiors. It's about performing little acts of service for your company, your team, your family, and your country daily.

What are acts of service? Taking out the trash, helping to put back your bowls and plates after a meal at the hawker centre, and deeper acts of commitment such as volunteering weekly and helping a colleague out at work when you don't need to.

I cannot blame today's youth for being selfish: I was probably like you too as I pushed myself up the career ladder. I want to share with you my personal journey so you can take in my observations with your own set of experiences and life goals.

At 29 years old, I was already running a small proprietary credit desk at a local bank. By my mid-30s, I had learnt how to manage winning teams and set up regional offices from scratch for two large US companies - from buying coffee powder to laying T1 lines.

The wake-up call came with the premature birth of my daughter. That forced my wife and me to recalibrate our lives, and reminded us of the things that really matter to us. We had both been involved with social work since university and we revisited this first love with more fervour. We took time to re-forge deeper family and personal relationships (simple commitments such as having a meal with family members every weekend). I also spent time nurturing talent and investing in the lives of young people.

One of the first things I did at my office in the new multinational company was to send a company-wide e-mail to instruct my colleagues to wash their own cups and not wait for the cleaners to do so. I have made similar decisions in US companies; but this time there were a lot more colleagues and they were from very diverse backgrounds. The question "What would my colleagues, especially the traders, think?" did cross my mind for three seconds - but discipline and humility are key attributes which I really wanted to encourage, so I got over my brief hesitation.

Sweeping the shed can start from the office and at school and should continue at home.

It's the little acts of service that will truly matter at the end of the day. A word of encouragement to your family. A smile for a service personnel. Spending time (not on your phones or on social media) with good friends and meeting them face-to-face. Being kind to yourself.

"How can I serve?" and "How can I give?" are questions I do not hear often from young people. Perhaps it's time to ask a little more, do a little more, give a little more. I learnt from my kind-hearted neighbour who asks every morning "Who can I bless today?"

You need to be part of something bigger than yourself. If you want higher performance, begin with a higher purpose. At your age, you can do a lot, especially with other youth - focusing on technology and financial literacy. How about teaching computer coding at a study centre or teaching financial literacy to kids in a neighbourhood school?

What if I told you that this is the secret to true sustainable and meaningful success? To live a purposeful life.

That in addition to making meaningful impact in whatever cause or field you choose, material successes will also naturally come - not because you seek them, but because you will then naturally act and apply your life with a passion and selflessness to much bigger things beyond your own narrow ambition?

And that in so doing, you will find joy - and realise that work can equal life - and that a life worth living for is a life worth dying for?

Take Tinder, for instance. The dating app is a microcosm and encapsulation of this world we live in, where everything is a transaction. This is what we have come to - where we debase and simplify the value of humans and real relationships into a simple left or right swipe, where instant gratification - my gratification - is the name of the game. Where it becomes easy to attach points or value to people based purely on what? Looks? Surface attributes? Where everything is a game, a game where you selfishly are in charge of your gratification - because it is always just about you, right? So that's the new normal: You swipe left or right.

Today we have lost much of our face-to-face interactions. The art, beauty and importance of real human conversations have been lost to this faceless online facade. We have forgotten how to engage each other, and to some extent how to truly understand, empathise and love each other.

Don't get me wrong, I am a strong believer in technology and the private logistics company I work for is effectively a technology backbone; we spent about US$280 million (S$397 million) on IT development in 2016 alone.

Yes, you may think this transactional culture is localised to only specific things like the Tinder app - but no - we are the most networked generation and yet many of us are lonelier these days.

Dear readers, do not let this happen to you. As I said at the start, dedicate your life and your livelihood to a cause greater than yourself - find it for yourself - whatever it is to you. Each of you have unique gifts, talents, personalities; each of you have much to contribute and serve the world with.

I challenge you to really think about what matters to you beyond all the noise and clutter and striving for success the world throws at you, and think of a life worth living.

This is a life worth swiping for.


This article appeared on The Straits Times on March 10, 2017.

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