TEO REN FENG: What would you tell your 14-year-old self?
MELISSA KWEE: Don't worry too much—you tend to worry about the dumbest things as a teenager.
REN FENG: What did you focus on at that age?
MELISSA: I think as a young girl, it’s easy to become preoccupied with weight and body image issues—things which at the end of the day are really small in perspective. But at 14, I was also deciding between being a makeup artist or a development economist in the future. [laughs]
REN FENG: You wanted to be a makeup artist?
MELISSA: Yes. I really loved the idea that on a superficial level, you could see it making a big difference to somebody. [laughs]
REN FENG: So it wasn't so much about changing yourself?
MELISSA: It was the idea of transforming people, which was also why I wanted to be a development economist too. Economics is a way of transforming people's lives, materially. I guess it's the same as what I do now, just on different levels of betterment and change.
REN FENG: Your interest in people led you to study anthropology at university. How does that help your work today?
MELISSA: The method of anthropologists is called ethnography, which is basically about getting under the skin and into the lives, rhythms and minds of another group of people who share a certain culture. You are both a participant and observer, and part of what I learnt was to empathise. It also teaches you to pull back and see patterns in a situation. You connect the dots to look for underlying beliefs and threads to help you understand systems: why people do what they do, why they value what they do, and even why something has value in the first place.
REN FENG: You think empathy can be learned?
MELISSA: Yes. It is natural for some, but it’s not universal.
REN FENG: Does empathy come naturally to you?
MELISSA: It is super natural for me. I’ve been told by a psychologist that natural empaths don't understand that the world doesn’t work the same way as what they think or feel. But we need to know the reality and adjust ourselves accordingly.
REN FENG: Has that been a struggle for you?
MELISSA: You just have to be aware that whatever one perceives as true or real, is not necessarily the same for others.
REN FENG: What's your best method for breaking down barriers between people?
MELISSA: Identifying the commonality that you have with another human being, even though maybe from the exterior, you might see yourselves as being radically diverse. It could be light-hearted, frivolous things like you are both pet lovers or something deeper like your greatest fears, reasons for existence and finding a higher sense of purpose. When people realise that there is commonality despite visible or perceived differences, then there is hope…
REN FENG: Are you optimistic about the future?
MELISSA: I think I have to be or I wouldn't be doing what I do. It doesn't mean that there aren't days where I feel extremely frustrated and think: Just what is wrong with this situation?! [laughs] But yeah, I think hope is a choice. There’s always something to look forward to.
We need people who are willing to build bridges and cross different boundaries and lines, to actually bring people together.
REN FENG: What worries you most about the future?
MELISSA: [pauses] I don't spend a lot of time worrying... I don't really know.
REN FENG: Well then, what do you think will be your greatest challenge in the future?
MELISSA: People losing the ability to empathise with others.
REN FENG: How do you see it happening?
MELISSA: It can happen if you are always busy and always around people who are like you, because that constantly reinforces a mental model that how you live is the way things are all-around. It’s something that can happen in a fast-paced, urban environment, where people tend to have less time to spare to pause and reflect. There’s very little opportunity to see other ways of living, or even be exposed to people with different viewpoints.
REN FENG: And we create media echo chambers that are not helping.
MELISSA: I think we’re seeing a certain rise in intolerance as a result of that. Why social issues are so polarising right now is because people are simply becoming more and more entrenched in their views. Whether it is religion or a whole range of different, contentious social issues, people get stuck in their corner and don't want to see the other side. We can't imagine what it's like to be on the other side, yet we make sweeping judgements and deem it bad or wrong.
REN FENG: Is it all blind judgement?
MELISSA: It's not to say that people aren't entitled to make their own assessment or even judgement about certain things. But use your wisdom and discretion to decide what you think is right or wrong. The idea is that you judge the sin, not the sinner—the action and not the person. Can you still love someone who did something wrong? That is a really critical distinction to make, and if we could do that, I think a lot of our fragmentation and conflict could be dealt with.
REN FENG: It’s not easy in a world that lacks tolerance.
MELISSA: We live in a very fragmented and even stratified society, so we need people who are willing to build bridges and cross different boundaries and lines, to actually bring people together. And I think that is my mission… and what motivates me in everything that I do.
People who are givers are grateful and abundant in a lot of ways—it's not a function of how much money they have or don't have, it's an attitude that doesn’t correlate with income.
REN FENG: How much is too much in charity and giving?
MELISSA: I think it's a virtuous cycle, and if you are in it, the more you give, the more you receive. Most people who give a lot realise that they receive a lot more. And people who are givers are grateful and abundant in a lot of ways—it's not a function of how much money they have or don't have, it's an attitude that doesn’t correlate with income.
REN FENG: What is one characteristic of Singaporean donors?
MELISSA: It’s a global pattern that’s not just unique to Singapore, but generally speaking, people from the lower income segments proportionally give more than those in the higher income groups.
REN FENG: Why does that happen?
MELISSA: There's a couple of reasons for that. There are studies on income-diverse geographies—areas where there are the very rich and very poor—versus communities where people are pretty much middle class. What you realise is that when people are exposed to issues of disadvantage and can see those who are in need—tend to be more forthcoming. There’s greater realisation that there are needs beyond theirs and that they can and should do something about it. So, basically: when issues are out of sight, they are also out of mind. And I don't know, money is a funny thing, right? If you worship it, it controls you. Maybe the more you have, the more you need to be careful not to worship it. It can become unhealthy because of the hold that it has on your time and attention spent.
REN FENG: What is your relationship with money?
MELISSA: My parents brought us up with the idea that we were no better or worse than anybody else, and if we had something, we ought to share it. We were not pampered in that sense. We had to do chores for allowance, work and do internships during summer. We would save up to get our mother a birthday present, and it wasn't really about us or accumulation. Money was never our goal.
REN FENG: What does family mean to you?
MELISSA: Family is... the rock that doesn't move.
REN FENG: You’ve ever mentioned sometimes feeling like the odd man out in your family, because of what you do. What was the struggle in accepting your purpose in life?
MELISSA: I guess everybody wants the people who are important to them to understand what they do and who they really are as a person. It's not that my family is not supportive, it's just not their usual vocational choice. [laughs] So within the family, I’m the one who “does her own thing”.
REN FENG: What quote or belief do you live by then?
MELISSA: Love God, love your neighbours and love yourself.
REN FENG: Does religion play a huge part in your life?
MELISSA: For me, it's not so much religion, which is something I see as being externally structured and organised. I think of a relationship with God as being a living one: something that is just present, all the time. I think sensing that gives wisdom and courage, deepens respect and attention, and brings purpose to every situation. All the things that I handle in life, regardless of the parties involved—including myself, I try and adopt the perspective of asking what is God's best and highest will in each situation.
We forget that what we're actually trying to do is to extend our love for another human being.
REN FENG: How often do you meet and work directly with beneficiaries these days?
MELISSA: First of all, I really hate the word “beneficiary”. But I think it's still better than the word "client", which is used sometimes. Or, "service user". Not all volunteering is done in contact with beneficiaries or clients or service users. Volunteering can involve lending your skill to help a process or to design collaterals or to come up with a business plan for someone else. You could also be volunteering on boards or things like that. So not all volunteering is necessarily ‘touching’ the beneficiary, although 'human-to-human' volunteering is very meaningful, and people get a lot of satisfaction out of it.
REN FENG: Since you are not a fan of the term “beneficiary”, what word should be used then?
MELISSA: I don’t like that word because it connotes a certain power imbalance in the relationship—I have and you are receiving, as the object of my largesse. It describes a one-way relationship when in actual fact, what we have is very much two-way. I think that the essence of a good human-to-human relationship is very much on the basis of love. So my relationship with someone in this kind of context is actually about who I should and can love. So instead of calling them a beneficiary, why don't we call them the beloved, i.e. those whom we love? When I make this suggestion, people look at me like, 'What are you talking about?' [laughs] But sometimes, in the doing of the service, we forget that what we're actually trying to do is to extend our love for another human being.
REN FENG: I think the use of the word "beloved" really drives to the forefront of your mind, what lies at the core of relationships between people.
MELISSA: Language—how we talk about things and frame them, is important. I don't know if the use of the word "beloved" will ever be in the mass consciousness, but it makes an important distinction. Because love is two-way and love transforms. Love and relationships are the fundamental ways through which a person can transform. It’s not the performance of a task or delivery of a service to alleviate a temporary suffering. If someone is touched by a genuine love for them, that is actually what shifts them.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap