Nairobi Terrorism and the Hierarchy of Trauma

Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.

James Dawes: The Guts of Atrocity

I have never quite known what to react in the wake of tragedy. Saying too much almost feels too opinionated, and saying too little almost feels to insincere. I remember my first encounter five years ago with a personal tragedy and death was uncontrollable laughter. Apparently my ‘coping’ mechanism then, was to try to see the humorous side of the story. Highly inappropriate. But now, over the past week, I am finding no humor that can help me cope as I watch Kenya balance a growing sadness of a nation, the anger of their citizens and the anguish of loved ones as terrorists stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi claiming over 60 lives.

As emails, phone calls, texts and social media updates came pouring in, the irony is not lost on me on how tragedies happen everyday around the world and yet, why is it that this one just seems so much more real. As my emotions slide between the continuum of “why” and “shock”, a strange version of this Hierarchy of Trauma began to emerge. As I scroll through the news for updates on Nairobi on that day, and throughout the week, it dawned on me that hundreds of people die and are affected by conflicts around the world. In Pakistan, 81 people perished in a church suicide bombing. In Nigeria, over 500 perished in terrorist related violence in the north of the country, and the on-going Syria crisis has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Countries and communities that I can’t even comprehend who and where – are suffering. Yet, why my heart aches the most for my Nairobi home and only for a fleeting moment of empathy for the news in Pakistan.

And suddenly it struck me, trauma and grief isn’t a competition or a hierarchy. We each grieve for different losses, in our own way and in time. There is no trauma that is superior to, lesser, greater, less shocking, better covered, or any other comparative phrase, than the suffering of any individual or community. All we can do, is know that even if your experience does not have a chapter in other stories of conflict and trauma, it still a part of our story as humanity as a whole.

Thinking of you.


Selected pieces that provide different perspectives on the Nairobi incident:

1) Generosity of citizens in donations for the victims

2) NY Times on the Value of Suffering 

3) A Tribute to a Friend: Ravi

4) Aung San Suu Kyi: the Freedom from Fear

5) A beautiful piece in The Nation on forgiveness

6) Nanjala Nyabola in Al-Jazeera on Keeping the Nairobi incident in perspective 

7) An interview with author, James Dawes on his new book: Evil Men – a collection of dialogues with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)

How are We Standing with the Poor?

“The more someone identifies with a profession or an “accomplishment” such as an award, the less human he will be (in the classical sense). In virtue ethics, the only “excellence” worth attaining is that of “being human”, with all what it entails (honor, courage, service, satisfaction of public & private duties, willingness to face death, etc.); “achievements” are reductions and alienations for lower forms of life.

IN ANCIENT ROME this was a privilege reserved for the patrician class. They were able to engage in professional activities without directly identifying with them: to write books, lead armies, farm land, or transact without being a writer, general, farmer, or merchant, but “a man (*vir* rather than *homo*) who” writes, commands, farms or transacts, as a side activity.

TODAY, as humanity got much, much richer, one would have thought that everyone would have access to the privilege. Instead, I only find it in minimum wage earners who just “make a living” and feel forced to separate their identity from their profession. The higher up in the social ladder, the more people derive their identity from their profession and “achievements”. – Nassim Taleb

When I was with Acumen Fund, we would ask ourselves: How are we standing with the poor? And quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if I even really knew what that meant. For the longest time, I thought it meant putting myself into another person’s perspective, trying to see the world through their eyes and “speak up” for those who didn’t have a voice. And then I came across this posting by Nassim Taleb, who separates out identity and accomplishment and really got me reevaluating my definition. It also made me realize how hard it was, as the higher up the social ladder you are, the harder it is to distinguish between identity and accomplishment, the harder it is to relate.

Standing with the poor is about looking beyond profession. Beyond awards and accomplishments. Beyond first impressions. Standing with the poor is a reminder to oneself to separate the way you look at yourself and others around you; between their accomplishments and identity. Standing with the poor is about understanding self-worth, regardless of what situation/career/social status you are in.

And at the end of the day, it all comes back to valuing human dignity.

Goodbye Vancouver, See you later New York, Hello Nairobi!

2012 has been my year of being in between stories.  A process that involves embracing uncertainty to explore possibility, constant iteration in future plans, packing and repacking my belongings into two luggages, moving between continents and trying to make some sense out the disorientating dance of the familiar and unfamiliar.

In the beginning of the year, I left my job with the intention of beginning a new adventure. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was especially hard as I had grown to deeply respect my company and had mentors at the firm that I still treasure to this day. But there was this nagging little voice inside of me that pushed to me to leap. To be bold and pursue my interests: one that thrives in the intersection of impact investing, design thinking and change.

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.” -Alan Keightley

There is a myth of consistency in life stories. People tend to expect a familiar story, a journey that they have heard before and unsurprisingly, we impose this ‘familiar story’ on ourselves. We fail to leap because we believe that our capacity to dream is in accordance to our inherited prejudice of what we have been told/come to expect. When faced with uncertainty, people tend to intuitively, move to find a solution quickly. They tend to rush down a path, usually towards familiarity, at the expense of the insight and engagement that uncertainty can bring. It is in these situations that I am slowly realizing that our courage and faith must be addressed to the dreams we have been afraid to dream, either because they are too difficult, or because it has been too breathtaking to even comprehend how they could possibly exist within our current constraints.

My journey for 2012, has brought me out of Vancouver, to New York, to Malaysia and now to Nairobi, Kenya where I am working everyday to not only “willing to challenge the status quo, but understand the world as it is and have the audacity and moral courage to build the world that could be” – Jacqueline Novogratz.

The work of embracing uncertainty requires the discipline and wisdom to make trade-offs, the best way we can. It is about knowing when to pick up your belongings and leave. When to fight and when to concede. When to listen and when to lead. When to be generous and when to be humble. When to hold your breath and when to breathe through it. When to be adventurous and when to be grounded.

It is these trade-offs, that forces a shift from uncertainty to possibility, from reality to abstract and back again: one of the most fundamental processes by which we unlock our imaginations and open our hearts to new insights. To understand our stories is to embrace uncertainty.

With that, I bid you farewell Vancouver, see you later New York and jambo Nairobi!

Matters of National Pride: When All is Said and Done

I have long since desired to write about this topic to some degree, but it was only after a series of recent conversations and following the Olympics Games that called forth an unexpected wave of patriotism towards my country.

I grew up as a Malaysian, through and through. Born and raised in Sarawak, educated in Malaysia’s public school system and seen first hand my country’s political and racial stance. The older I became, the more I came to understand the indoctrination of nationalism that the country has imposed on its citizens, the more I concluded that we were made to love! From standing in the equatorial heat during assembly saluting our “Jalur Gemilang”, singing the different anthems: Negaraku and Sarawak, Ibu Pertiwiku on a daily basis to memorizing Malaysia’s geography and history everyday in our public school system. The older I grew, the more I questioned the underlying racial intolerance in our country, the more I heard my fellow compatriots scheme to “study overseas and stay there”, that if you could obtain a PR from a first world country, “go for it and don’t look back”, the more I saw a brain drain in my country’s top minds as they throw their hands up in frustration at Malaysia’s economic and political situation.

Apparently, being made to love something is a flawed strategy, and rightfully so. As my generation grew up, our understanding of the world expanded and we look back and criticize the flaws in our own country. We tell people, “I love Malaysian food, but to go back and be discriminated based on the colour of my skin and last name? Why should I subject myself to such treatment?” spoken sometimes out of disappointment, sometimes out of disdain. When I saw Dambisa Moyo speak at my university on Dead Aid and development, someone from the audience asked her whether she would ever go back to Zambia to help her country. She retorted that people often forget that every human being at the end of the day craves equality, dignity and access to basic needs. If Zambia could provide those needs for their citizens, Zambians would go back in a heartbeat. I looked around and saw my friends: South African, Iranian, Pakistani, Chinese, all nodding silently next to me. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way.

Now, working and learning in the social enterprise/development space, I come across many individuals who are passionate about changing the lives of others in developing countries. Some take a more economist standpoint of helping where people need it the most, other are driven by a certain cause/skillset – be it health, finance or human rights. I see others have a deep drive to help countries that they never even grew up in, and sometimes have never even set foot in that continent, let alone country. I ask myself: Why? Then, I look at Malaysia and wonder: What good is it that we are made to love a country when our hearts are filled with complaints/disdain for it? I look around again and I see my friends: who have gone back to Peru to create change in her hometown, who have dreams to advance South African films in the world and who are waiting for an opportunity to return to Kenya. Apparently, I was missing out on connecting with my birthplace and identity.

I can finally say that working in the social enterprise/development space, have meant personally for me, of understanding Malaysia better. For its decaying political and administrative structure, for the incredible courage of Bersih protestors, and for new economic programs that are aimed to improve the country. More importantly, I think I have finally understood what it means to love unconditionally, even if I was made to in the first place. To love anyways despite all of Malaysia’s flaws, because love keeps no count of wrong. It is this choice – To love, not for a tolerance of corruption, crime or racism but to love unfailingly, stubbornly, for a beauty of a nation is not in the laws or the ruling party at that time, but in the dignity and essence of every citizen who have contributed in one way or another to shape our early views of the world.

So to all my fellow compatriots and those who have yet to make the choice to love for your own country, when all is said and done, here is my challenge to you:

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? – Acumen Fund


Thanks to Kristina, Nanjala, Cynthia and Robert for inspiring this post.

Three Thoughts On Being a Global Citizen

*Originally published on


When I was eight years old living in Borneo, Malaysia, I used to declare that I would someday live overseas. I would hoard storybooks about people having tea time in England or bushfire tales in Kenya and devour these stories late into the night. Now, I write to you from a hidden gem in New York City, where this is my eighth move in the last six years, lived in South East Asia, Middle East, North America, done developmental projects in Africa and travelled to over 25 countries.

Being a global citizen, I’ve spent the last few years trying to understand what this means: being stumped every time someone asks me where home is, feeling strangely at home at airports and have yet to obtain a valid form of identification that I can proudly flash at bouncers without explaining my life’s story. Only recently, I have begun to fashion, perhaps lovingly, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps nostalgically, a definition of ‘global citizen’ that is uniquely my own on Home, Identity, and Culture.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” -­ Robert Frost

Most people piously follow a traditional definition and association of home: family and childhood. I’ve known for a long time that this isn’t so. And sometimes home isn’t where the heart it. Home is where people understand you, where you build your love and dreams. Home is where you grow wanting to leave, and eventually yearning to go back. Every day is a journey for me, and this journey is home.

“If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” -­ Chuck Palahniuk

In this struggle to strike balance, knowing when to stay true to my Chinese-­‐Malaysian roots, when to adopt a new path, I constantly ask myself the fundamental questions of who I was, who I am and who I am becoming. I believe that we build our identity by the decisions we make, by the principles we stand up for and unexplored choices we have in front of us. When I moved from Oman to Canada, the difference in culture was alarming; from the freedom in speech to ideas of fun. All I could do is constantly emulate the values I hold true to myself, while beginning a tentative foray into a new culture. In my recent move to New York, I find myself returning to those same values: lifelong learning, authentic connections and generosity, and I know that this is at the core of who I am no matter what country I am in.

“The key to success is for you to make a habit throughout your life of doing the things you fear.” -­ Vincent Van Gogh

When I moved to Vancouver six years ago, I arrived at the international terminal with two luggages, knew no one in the country and had a huge ball of fear in my chest. I was fearful of letting go of my old life. I feared that I would not make friends. I feared failing. Now, having moved multiple times, I’m here to tell you to fear outrageously, fail courageously and create connections unconditionally. I constantly ask myself: What is the worst that can happen?

So as time bumbles along, does an individual become more risk averse, clinging on firmly to what is familiar, or do you seek to expand the world as you know it? As my current journey unfolds, I am drunk with the pursuit of learning, immersing myself in old interests and reaffirming fears that I form healthy opinions on.

So world, here I come! I guess the next thing to do is finally get my [insert country I’m currently living in] driver’s license.

Your resident global citizen,

Chinese sourced. Malaysian made and cultivated (Miri, Borneo!). Omani improved. Exported to Canada. And now, distributed in the United States (New York).

On Understanding the Learning/Thinking Process

There has been a theme of learning and creativity in my last couple of posts, and I thought I would sit down and share the way that I have been approaching the topics as I go through the process of understanding how I learn and changing the way I think about thinking. The process for the last couple of months has largely been very unstructured, full of trial and error, experimentational, and gut-driven. However, what I have come to understand about my own learning and thinking process can be synthesized in the followed illustration:

Let me break it down for you.  When I embarked on this journey at the beginning of 2012, I set out with the intent of breaking my linear process of learning. Along the way, I came across three concepts, of which I drew best practices from and found a happy in-between the three as illustrated above.

Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking 

When I was trying to understand a problem, I was going about it in a convergent way. I would look at my possible options and from there, converge my options into a conclusive solution. I could attest that my background in accounting and finance really honed this type of thinking and learning over years. However, what happened is that I started tackling problems with a limited amount of tools in my toolkit.

I then came across a design-thinking concept by Tim Brown in his book, Change by Design on divergent and convergent thinking. I found that I lacked the ability to think divergently, to create choice, to uncover new insights, to think laterally and to see multiple answers. This approach meant that whenever I approached a problem, I now starting my process by asking: “What if”? I realized that in order to ask this question, I had to expand my learning into other fields, be unrelentingly curious about best practices and continue to build up my toolkit. I currently find myself in learning furiously at the intersection of technology, design and development. Ultimately, the optional process would be to navigate the tension and exchange between these two ways of thinking, through continuously making choices and eliminating them as needed.

Fixed Vs. Growth Mindsets

‘Two Mindsets,’ Stanford, magazine article, 2007

Data Source: Carol Dweck: ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’, 2006. Design: Nigel Holmes

I stumbled across this infographic in one of Brain Picking’s early May posts and related to both sides of the infographic. On one side, a Fixed Mindset leads to a deterministic view of the world, and on the side, a Growth Mindset that leads to a greater sense of free will. I’m not a fan on how the Fixed Mindset is portrayed with rather negative connotation, but I do like the breakdown of categories, which is more important to me at the moment. In this approach, I would argue that simplification of the mindsets should instead be a spectrum instead of a split path, as the continuous movement between understanding effort, challenge, criticism constantly changes. My main takeaway from Mindsets, is really honing in on the categories on which I felt needed improvement to improve my motivation and productivity.

The biggest breakthrough for me in the last couple of months is in the category of Effort. I discovered that I never saw effort on a path to mastery as I used to believe that people were naturally talented/ inclined to be better in certain areas than others. I have come to realize though, that talent is overrated. When people ask me how I have been learning so much these days, I tell them: I hustle. Alot. 

Opposable Mind 

 In order to properly extract lessons from the two concepts I mentioned above, I found notion of the “opposable mind” extremely helpful in understanding how to create a balance in my thinking/learning. I first discovered this book on Acumen Fund‘s Fellows reading list and picked up a copy myself. The book presents the concept of an “integrative thinker”, someone who has “the predisposition and capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” The above graphic is the gist of the book, starting with the question of thinking how you think.

My biggest takeaway from this book is an understanding of how I nurture my own imagination and how I create balance to turn my curiosity into tangible outcomes. This understanding then links back full circle into the original two concepts of Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking as well as Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets.

What it Means to Dream

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

– Shakespeare, The Tempest. Act III Scene II

Walk in my shoes

Pic credit: Jody MacDonald

And it came to me. A moment of chaos. A moment of serenity. Breathe in. Breathe out. Red coloured chalk rains down, staining the ground like a polaroid photo coming to life. Past the cheap silk and whirls of bodies that from far off, they look like beautiful coloured beads. In the briefest moment, spring pushes through in this celebration of rebirth. In the next instance, I inhale – some dense, sharp sublimation of reality.


How do you see DIGNITY? Vancouver, 24/5

Dear Generosity

You’ve been on my mind alot these days. Sometimes in your other disguises: Giving and Kindness, but to be honest, I really prefer the authentic you – just good ol’ Generosity. I write because in two days, your big day is coming up and I want to wish you all the luck in the world. I hope that you work your magic in other people’s lives, just like you’ve worked yourself in mine. You’re the one who taught me that life isn’t about you get or receive, it’s about how much you share.

There’s one moment in particular that I really want to thank you for. I know that you’ve come into my life time and time again, but this particular moment, really changed the course of my life. It was about seven years ago, when I was still back in high school. Somehow, you had interwoven your magic into a stranger’s heart and through their giving, enabled me to attend the University of British Columbia to get my degree. I hope you know that I wouldn’t have even dreamt of going to UBC – or North America if it wasn’t for you. I was so stunned when I received the news. Stunned because I knew in that moment, my life is going to take a dramatically different course. Stunned because through that one action, multiple other people were touched – specifically the scholarship selection committee, who finally had the funds to place their belief in me. I was and am overwhelmingly grateful. I never found out whose stranger’s heart(s) you touched…but I hope that one day I will be able to.

Seven years later, I’m stil trying to comprehend this magical quality, your quality. I know that I’ve begun to just scratch the surface of what you really are capable of doing, but what I do know for certain about you is that the human experience really starts coming alive through discovering you. I really do hope that everyone gets a chance to experience your magic, because once they do – I know they will start to see a very different side of humanity.

So two days from now (and it’s so generous of you to let Love share the spotlight as well), I’m really looking forward to spending my whole day with you. Get ready and best of luck!