For freelance hospitality training facilitator Tan Sok Kiang (also known as Sok), serving as a volunteer guide at local places of interest, agencies and organisations has helped her rediscover Singapore, after living overseas for close to 20 years on various job postings.
Since coming back to Singapore on her husband’s job posting – along with their pet dog, Spike – she has contributed her time at places such as the National Gallery of Singapore, the Istana Heritage Gallery and HortPark. Through these experiences, she has gained many insights about home that she had never known before.
“I found out that there are ongoing biodiversity studies here, through a programme at the Singapore Botanic Gardens,” she said. “I’ve also learnt what the Presidential Standard represents, how there was a nutmeg plantation in Prinsep, and also about the lifestyle of Pulau Ubin’s islanders on a visit there! These [volunteering] activities are meaningful, and are – to me – a form of social contribution.”
Sok (back row, third from right in yellow T-shirt) with members of the weekly HortPark volunteer gardening group that she belongs to
Living away from home
Sok’s overseas postings started in the early 90s while working in the Sales and Marketing division in the hospitality industry. During that time, her company posted her to places like Jakarta (Indonesia), Tokyo and Chiba (Japan), and Hangzhou and Shenzhen (China), where she lived for about five years. After marrying her husband in the late-90s, she left her full-time job to work freelance in her current role. The couple lived in various cities in Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and China from 1998 on his overseas job postings.
Sok (second from right) at work as a hospitality trainer, pictured with her Shanghainese co-facilitator and co-ordinators from Beijing
There were aspects of home that she missed and appreciated more when overseas. “I missed Singapore’s law and order, and cleanliness,” Sok said. “These cannot be replicated elsewhere. To keep our connection with home, I tried to attend every National Day celebration organized by our Embassy or overseas consulate.” She also got to know a group of Singaporean ladies living in the same apartment compound in Shanghai, and they continue to keep in touch in Singapore, after each of them returned home.
Despite the wonder of experiencing new places and meeting new people, moving from country to country still took different tolls on Sok.
“Every move is not easy,” she admitted. “There was the physical challenge of packing up, because we literally moved our ‘home’ with every new posting. I also have to deal with the anxiety of starting over again in a new place, and the emotions of leaving friends and the places filled with fond memories.”
Re-adapting to life back home by giving back
Sok had mixed feelings when she was first told of the relocation to Singapore. “I was anxious and apprehensive. My greatest fear was being unable to integrate back to society, especially after being away for so long. Singapore has changed dramatically, without a doubt. Evidently, the experience would be different from actually living in a place and just being a visitor.”
Coming home also meant that she had lots to learn and re-adapt to. “When I first returned in 2016, I was unable to order a coffee with evaporated milk, without sugar at a hawker center because I did not know the correct vocabulary to do so,” she recounted. “It took me a while to realise that it’s called a kopi-C kosong. There were also other areas like learning to navigate the new lines of the MRT, and even driving here. I have a valid driver’s license, but I dare not drive in Singapore nowadays since there have been many changes to our roads and traffic regulations.”
Despite the challenges Sok faced during her assimilation, she decided that a mindset shift would help her better ease into life back home.
“I came to terms that I am unable to return to what things were like in the past,” she explained. “So, I decided to be more bold in asking questions about the new developments here. In telling people, ‘I don’t know enough about this, so please tell me more!’, it puts less pressure on me to find my own way around.”
With this new frame of mind, Sok decided that one of the best ways for her to learn more about Singapore would be to volunteer at local places of interest. Volunteer work was something familiar to her, as she started doing so when she lived in Penang, Malaysia in the late 90s, where she helped the International Women’s Association with their charity events.
She first signed up to volunteer at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and is now a certified volunteer guide who conducts a guided Heritage tour every last Sunday of the month. “I really appreciate our ‘City in a Garden’, an everlasting gift of our founding father, [the late] Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew,” she said. Sok also participates in Fort Canning and HortPark’s weekly gardening group, is part of National Gallery Singapore’s volunteer programme, ‘Best Friend of the Gallery’ (BFG), and recently completed a docent training programme at the Gallery.
Sok at the Istana Heritage Gallery, where she volunteers as a guide
The Value of Volunteering
Aside from rediscovering Singapore through volunteering, Sok has also had the chance to widen her social circle. “The volunteer groups are a great combination of people from all walks of life, made up of local Singaporeans and foreigners who are working, living and studying here. We’ve shared best practices with each other, and this in turn allows us to learn a lot more.”
She also has a newfound respect for older volunteers that she’s met through her various experiences. “Many of them are still very fit and mentally capable, and are a great source of talent and knowledge. Instead of just labeling them as ‘seniors’, I hope our social perception towards them will change and that as a society, we will become more inclusive.” Like these young at heart volunteers, she hopes to continue doing more, jokingly adding that she “refuses to retire”.
Sok has this to say to those who are keen to contribute their time as volunteers, “Volunteer at places and causes that you genuinely care about and are interested in. You’d feel a great sense of contribution through giving back to society in a meaningful way. And like me, you’d also be able to discover many insights of Singapore, old and new.”
Volunteering was Sok’s way of assimilating back to life in Singapore. Do you have a similar story? Share it with us at email@example.com!