“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs, Think Different
I first meet Bernise in a little café on Telok Ayer Street. As she sidles into the seat opposite mine, she exchanges a friendly greeting with the staff manning the counter, and flashes me a megawatt smile. Making friends comes easily to Bernise; after all, part of her job involves the creation of solid networks between people. We corresponded via email prior to our meeting, and from the get-go it is clear that Bernise belongs to the rare breed who speak the way they type – her sentences punctuated with smiles and enthusiastic inflections where the exclamation marks would have been. I am charmed by this quirky girl with the toothy grin, and more so by the evident dedication to her work, to Syinc.
Started in 2008 by Bernise, Syinc is a non-profit that seeks to empower our youth by developing their capacity to become effective agents of social change. By enabling young founders and community kickstarters to tackle social and human problems from different angles to create new solutions that shift the status quo, Syinc aims to help build a generation of youth with the both the vision and capability to create the change they would like to see in society. Over the few short years, the organization has continued to grow in scale, and is steadily expanding its operations.
As I speak further with Bernise about her work with Syinc, it is obvious that her heart, as well as the heart of the organization, is very much in the right place. Syinc is, above all else, about the people. The organization understands that social change is at its root driven by all these different individuals – the progenitors of ideas, creative solutions and game-changing momentum. Ironically, we often forget about the very human side of the social change equation; in the sense that social change is more than just a series of static, perceived solutions to a problem, but also about the connections we form with the people we work with. Syinc works with the intangible, but like all intangible things, these may be the things that end up mattering the most.
What is Syinc about, and how did it begin?
It all happened in university, when I got involved with student activism in Sydney. The whole process of getting involved in a student movement and, with other students, working for a common goal to advance the welfare of fellow international students….something about it opened my eyes to what really making a change was about. Growing up in Singapore, all I was exposed to was CIP, which was a little bit contrived. Going out onto the streets asking for coin donations, going to old folks’ homes, even beach clean-ups – I didn’t really see how doing those things would change anything. Of course, at the time I wasn’t thinking on such a big level, I was like “Sian. Just do this to get my points and be done with it”. (laughs)
It was only through this involvement that I saw that it was not only just about the one off, itty bitty community service hours and points. There was something deeper – social justice. The idea of justice was completely foreign to me before this experience. I mean, we always learn about being nice, doing things out of the kindness of our hearts, which is true – we should always be compassionate. But it’s only when we combine it with the justice angle that it becomes really powerful. When we combine it with a moral calling to make things right in the world. So that really opened up my worldview. I felt that we should do something in Singapore to engage young people, and get them to realise the big potential they have and probably have no idea about. So that was kind of what seeded the idea to do something related to the youth in Singapore and something along the lines of social change. But I didn’t know what.
When I came back to Singapore, I started having a lot of coffee chats with various players in the social sector, and with other young people from different social circles. Through these numerous conversations, I realised 2 things. One is that young people often lack the skills and experience to get something done. This is for the kind of people that have “itchy bottoms” and want to make something happen. The second obstacle is the lack of connections and networks. So for this kind of young people, they already have the passion, they just need the contacts and relationships to get access to institutions and get things off the ground. Why not accelerate the process by giving them things that can eliminate those barriers? This is why Syinc focuses on two areas: building their skills and growing their networks. For skills, we particularly focus on innovation (even though I hate how it’s such a buzzword).
A lot of youth programmes that do skills development focus on technical skills – project planning, doing your budget, creating timelines, etc. And that’s really good. But what we lack is creativity in this area. How do you find new ways to solve old problems?
We need to have a certain programme that can widen the worldview of the youth and allow them to see things from a different angle, so that they can tackle a problem with fresh eyes and truly add new value.
And that’s the whole point, right? The status quo is the status quo for a reason. If you want to change it, you need to shift something in society, be it social, economic, political, or whatever. Our programmes now are actually based on principles from the design and creative industries, which I think is really unexpected and cool. But it’s taken some time for us to get to where we are as well. A lot of times, people who are not into creative work think that creativity is just about someone having a brain fart and whoo! Out pops an idea. (laughs) But we can’t expect people to just sit there and let something suddenly hit them. The Industrial and product design industries have managed to extract a method from the madness – which we thought was really useful. Could we take that, morph it somehow, and use it to generate something for social impact? So we try to show people what that method looks like. Industrial design is a discipline that produces great products, physical stuff. We saw underlying threads, so we ignored the examples, took the principles and translated it for the Singapore context, and toward social and human outcomes. From there, we slowly put together this programme based on design thinking, that we now use to train young people who want to be change agents – or as we sometimes call them – superheroes! (laughs)
So that’s the training portion, which is about 60% of what we do. And then 30% is…we call them “percolation events”, because we don’t really like the word “networking”. (laughs) I mean, yes, we know that building networks is very important, but we think that culture and the way you do it is also really important. For us, rather than using an innovation hammer to hit through many creativity nails, we believe in creating a great environment for that kind of experience where people can connect and ideas can bounce off each other. You develop a community of change makers, people you can share your difficulties with. I have found that to be really important. The amount of inspiration, energy and friendship that I found from this sense of community really kept me going when I felt that I was going nowhere. It’s a kind of intangible value that you can’t quantify.
So those are the two main things that Syinc does. Then there’s this last little bit, which is consulting. This came about fairly recently, because we wanted to practice what we preach. We didn’t want to become the kind of trainers that only train and are so disconnected from what really happens on the ground. So we started to take on a few consulting projects, where we used the same design thinking method we teach, as a professional service to social sector clients. This not only inspires us but also the people that we train, because we can really show them how things work. But the very practical value to that is that you can read all you want about innovation methodology and design thinking, but it’s only through practice that you can really see how the different principles play out in action. Which we experienced for ourselves.
What made you come back from Australia?
One big factor was family – I couldn’t say no to mum’s pleas. But another big reason was that I knew I wanted to go into some kind of social work. And if I had stayed in Australia I would have actually done much better for myself in terms of an NGO career, because it’s much more respected and professionalized in Australia than it is in Singapore. But it was painful to realise that the place that needs more change is Singapore, and if I really want to put my… life where my mouth is, then I should come back.
What was one thing about running Syinc that didn’t really go the way you thought it would?
I guess I didn’t realise it would be so all-consuming. I’ve taken deliberate decisions in my day job, like deciding that I wouldn’t be a corporate climber. That meant that I wouldn’t go out and talk to my boss about doing more interesting projects, bigger projects, and take on more responsibility at work…so that I could have some time to build up Syinc. This might be okay for most Singaporeans, but I come from a background where everyone is a super overachiever – my family is like, nuts. (laughs) Between the sword of honour and scholars of all types, doctors, consultants, lawyers, everything…it was quite against the grain. So that was kind of hard. But I figured it was quite a compromise already that I was doing a corporate job. I also came to reconcile with doing the corporate job because it enabled me to understand a lot about how the corporate world works, and how finance works (I was in a private equity firm for almost 4 years). Which, in such a business-dominated society, gives you a lot of leverage in reaching out to people who would otherwise not listen to you. It gave me a language to communicate with the mainstream of Singapore society, which is very economics and finance driven. I found that useful, but I think in terms of utility I’ve gotten the most of it already. I feel that I want to…not be a corporate prostitute forever. (laughs) I’m looking to do more creative – more generative – type of work.
What is one thing you would like to see in Singapore?
An openness to experimentation. An openness to failure, and openness to trying. Letting different people be who they are, celebrating different ways of being. And ultimately broadening our notions of success, which I think are narrower than they should be.
What do you think is success, then?
I could do a cop-out thing and say it’s about not having a definition of success, yadayada. But truly, I feel that as long as you are the living your life the way you want to, you’re being the best version of yourself that you can be – not compared to anyone, just yourself – and you feel happy and whole, then you’re successful.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
One is to do your homework. It sounds really boring, but I believe that knowledge is power, and you can only be powerful if you understand the context in which you are operating. Especially if you’re trying to effect change. As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you may end up hurting the people you are trying to help.
Another is to accept that people are imperfect. I’m a little bit obsessive compulsive. (laughs)I want things done quickly, and well and perfect and everything, but over time, this has mellowed somewhat. Now I just try to get the best out of people, and that’s really the value of working with people – seeing them grow over time, and trying to bring different strengths together. Which is really tough, working with people is so much tougher than all the “team work” stuff you hear about in school.
How do you keep from feeling disheartened, then, with all these people who want to take advantage of what you are doing?
One, my team. They’re not only my sanctuary, but they’re also my pillow. (laughs) They’re my safe space. I can just go there and be myself, we share pretty much everything with each other. I think it’s absolutely crucial to have a team that you can fully trust. Because you need it.
Secondly, I’m spiritual. I believe there is a higher force, and a higher order of things. If I accept the assumption (and this is something that I’m still on a learning journey on) that what I’m doing now is what I’m truly being called to do, then…a higher spiritual force will guide me there. Even if it’s a circuitous road.
- Profiled by Natalee Ho, special thanks to Chan Chi Ling