The Singapore Soul

A Societal Transformation Experience

by the Singapore u.lab-S Team: Moses Mohan, Anna Leong, Rafidah Rahumathullah — curated by Zoë Ackerman

“Rafidah, Moses and I (Anna) are students of continuous learning , and we connected over TheoryU, a systems thinking process of transforming self and our eco system, to be able to lead from an emerging future.

We believe that real transformation starts from the ground , and we sense that Singapore is ready for a collective transformation.”

A motley group of Singaporeans came together in February 2019 to kick off a project to explore what the soul of Singapore might mean in the next 100 years. The invitation ahead of meeting was for each of us to bring an object that signified the current soul of Singapore. Here’s what we brought:

  • Fu, Lu, Shou — Chinese gods of prosperity, luck and longevity
  • A wooden puzzle of a lotus flower
  • Book/stickers by contemporary Singaporean author
  • Gold Nespresso Instant Coffee
  • Play dough
  • Singapore passport
  • Subway card
  • Cash

This was the beginning of our journey through the inaugural u.lab-S, a societal transformation lab organised by the Presencing Institute to support teams who are co-shaping more sustainable and equitable social systems worldwide through a 4-month, multi-local, online-to offline innovation journey based on Theory U, an approach to awareness-based systems change. Throughout the 6 months, we explored the phases through the lens of discovering, unleashing the Soul of Singapore, also mindful that 2019 was the year of the Bicentennial of Singapore.

Uncovering Shared Intention — Building a Container

Our first face-to-face meeting (or “co-initiation in Theory U terms) was held on a Saturday afternoon at Joe & Dough coffee shop, a co-working space in Duo BugisCollectively, we agreed on this intention for the group: To unleash the Singapore we aspire to be through new stories and possibilities.

We split into two teams and proceeded to map out the current reality of Singapore and our team’s hope for the future. This practice is referred to as “3D mapping” in Theory U. In the current reality, the team felt the overpowering effects of external forces in shaping how our government make decisions, generally with a business focus. The different social groups are also generally separated and not woven together as ‘one united people’. There is also less emphasis on the spirit and more on the tangible.

The future revealed the possibility of Singapore being porous, open and citizens being aware and prepared to deal with an open society and the beauty of nature embraced. Our hope for the future is for the many social groups to be woven together, and connected to the core. We admit that it will be messy, and that is what we need.

3D mapping of the current reality of Singapore and to the future

Crystallizing the New Soul of Singapore

Our next step was to meet with explore the stakeholders within the system, our team decided to meet and interact with Singaporeans themselves. This is the “co-sensing” phase of the Theory U journey. We decided, given our busy schedules, to meet be opportunistic, which means meeting ‘people we happen to bump into or have access to’. We know this may limit our interactions and as much as possible, we tried to meet children/youth, hawkers, middle-aged professional, the elderly, and foreigners.

Social Presencing Theater

Next, we involved members of the public in our investigation into the Soul of Singapore through “Social Presencing Theatre.” With the generous support in the form of physical space and publicity from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), an independent not-for-profit organisation that advocates giving in Singapore, we held a half-day programme on the 4th of May, 2019. About 40 people from various walks of life, including university students, young adults, social workers, educators, business professionals, and retirees responded to our invitation through EventBrite attended the “Our Singapore Soul: Emerging Stories and Possibilities.”

Social Presencing Theatre practices of Current Reality Mapping and 4D Mapping

We started by Checking In through a Mindfulness exercise. We acknowledged our inner weather as we bring ourselves to be fully present in the room together.

Current Reality Movie

We invited each of us to step into the shoes of the different faces of Singapore…the elderly, the young, the educators, the government, and we invite you to consider three key roles, Nature, the ‘Ineligibles’ and Humane SG. The Ineligibles were defined as people who fell through the cracks of getting government support. Humane SG is the humane state of Singapore, the humane mindset of Singaporeans and what that might look like.

The intention here is to learn to pause and consider the perspectives of people who are different from us, and who have different current realities in Singapore.

4D Mapping

From the Current Reality Movie where we ‘acted’ the roles of the different players in the system today, we then took it one step further by moving as a system… from Silo thinking to how each role comes together in a system setting. The system modeled is Singapore, as a society.

Participants are asked to take on roles they feel inclined to do so. Use more feelings and gut instincts in the movements that you make. The first movements shape the current reality. The second movements, upon instructions, shapes where each role hopes to be in the future. Focus on feelings, and gut instincts: get out of your head and allow your body to channel the unconscious thoughts and hopes.

Highlights from this exercise included:

  • In current Singapore, Nature felt that they were a hidden figure, a side note in Singapore’s development. The Ineligible felt unseen. The government felt tired.
  • In future Singapore, the government takes the role of being in service and listening to what’s on the ground. Nature feels included and the ineligibles feel proud and seen. The wisdom of the elderly is leveraged. There is a general sense of connectedness.

The collective feedback from the participants pointed towards the need for all our collective actions to support the “Humane”. We have a role in each other’s lives, and we are more powerful when we are looking out for each other. We see people for who they are. We need more collective dialogue with different stakeholders. And we need to reframe conversations towards hope.

Picture highlights from Groups 2 and 3

Our final step was to tell our story. Below is a montage of our meeting on June 15, 2019 when we came together to put the storytelling canvas together:

Lessons from the Journey

The outcome of the event was extremely encouraging and rewarding. There appears to be public interest in unleashing the Singapore soul, and an openness to experience the various Theory U practices we had introduced.

But the journey leading to it had been a roller-coaster ride. Our teamwork and collaborative spirit were put through a brutal test. Expectedly, we were not spared from the three familiar barriers: the voice of judgment, voice of cynicism, and voice of fear.

Worry, anxiety, and anger crept in as the deadline drew closer. Several team members were away, leading to the lack of communications and mismatched expectations. Messages laden with judgment, blame, doubt, and frustration began to fill the Whatsapp group chat.

“Are we going to pull this off?” “Will anyone show up at the event?”

“Will there be sufficient attendees to make this event meaningful?”

“Who is leading this? Why aren’t some people stepping up?”

“Am I the only one that cares?”

“ Do I still want to be part of this?”

Some members left, and a new member joined. Those who remained committed to the cause chipped in readily, be it in programme design, publicity, logistics management, facilitation, and event photography. In the end, we emerged stronger. As Margaret Meade once said, “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” For a brief moment of celebration and relief (after the event), we felt we could change the world.

What else did we learn? As with any team, building trust and creating a shared intention is crucial. We had paid more attention to the task and could certainly benefit from strengthening the personal connections between the members of the team. After all, many of us were strangers just a few months ago.

What Next?

We reached the end of The Singapore Soul Societal Transformation Lab (STL) in June 2019.

The STL was offered to build the capacity to facilitate a shift in mindset in multi-stakeholder groups from a narrow understanding of self-interest to one that makes decisions based on the well-being of the whole system. For the team in Singapore, it was a social experiment to bring different groups of strangers with a common intention together.

We began with the invitation :

“Rafidah, Moses and I (Anna) are students of continuous learning , and we connected over TheoryU, a systems thinking process of transforming self and our eco system, to be able to lead from an emerging future.

We believe that real transformation starts from the ground , and we sense that Singapore is ready for a collective transformation. Join us in shaping the Singapore that we want to see tomorrow, for our future generation.”

The next steps are open. Each member has different paths forward for soul of Singapore and to practice Theory U in Singapore. One thing we are sure, we are grateful for the experience we had together and we have learnt and grown together.

Some initial thoughts are around the following…

  • Connecting with organizations to find a container for our project?
  • U Lab X support?
  • Singapore Discovery Center as a container?
  • Who is keen to continue together?
  • Move to the Soul of ASEAN?

The energy is still present. The invitation is still valid. Watch this space for what is emerging.

Social Presencing Theatre Public Event

The Social Presencing Theatre experience was also featured in the Good Space, Singapore, our event host:

Presencing Institute

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