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Image credit: Shermaine Ng

Shermaine Ng: Paying forward gratitude

Shermaine Ng: Paying forward gratitude

How experiences can shape the person you become

Image above: Shermaine, centre, exercises with young and old at Strong Mind Fit Body

In his first piece for Leading Change, Kevin Tan – 2017's LCJB winner for Asia – profiles Singaporean change-maker, Shermaine Ng. He discovers how a crisis in her teens set her on a path to volunteerism and how this, in turn, made her the young woman she is today.

When Shermaine was 14, her family went through a financial crisis.

“My dad’s business partner ran away with money. My parents had to rebuild the business from scratch,” she says.

To help reduce the family’s burden, Shermaine took up a part-time job at the local fast-food joint.

“You are more conscious of the amounts that you spend, even till the cents,” she explains. “You just want to pull your weight.”

But the experience made her realise that compared to others she “was very privileged”.

“Experiencing that [relative poverty] – while going to a school where every student is so privileged – allowed me to see this contrast. That transformed into the desire to pay forward my gratitude.”  

Learning

This proved to be seminal in shaping Shermaine’s outlook on life and volunteering, making her “more resilient”.  

“Volunteerism filled me with a lot of hope. Knowing that there are so many different people with different lives filled me with hope and gratitude.”

At ­17, Shermaine joined the inaugural cohort of Youth Corps Singapore – a national organisation that supports youths with a passion to serve the community.

As part of the programme, Shermaine led a Youth Corps team to collaborate with the Vietnam Environmental Administration (VEA) on an awareness project.

Young people posing for a photo in an office

Shermaine with her fellow Youth Corps Singapore members. Image credit: Shermaine Ng

This taught her how to work with community partners to implement projects.

“Youth Corps provides the necessary tools and knowledge to implement projects. It was not explicitly taught to us that way. But with the benefit of hindsight, I have become more aware of how much moving forward with social change requires synergy, between the government and its people.”

Managing emotions

Shermaine describes herself as “an emotionally extroverted person”.

“I can get emotionally attached to a beneficiary or an idea or a cause,” she explains. “That kind of emotional attachment can paralyse rather than empower you.”

For example, in the early days of volunteering, Shermaine says sometimes she felt helpless because she lacked knowledge and experience.

“Increasingly, I have learnt to manage that, to use emotions as a way to connect with people. If I could wind the clock back, I would remind myself of that.”

She has since learnt how to manage such feelings, and to be in touch with her emotions.

“It is okay to experience and express emotions, to be an emotional person and venture into social and community work,” she says, adding that she would never want to suppress her emotions or blame herself for not being able to control them.”

Putting into practice

In March 2016, Shermaine co-founded a non-profit initiative, Strong Mind Fit Body with her sister, Shereen.

Two young women on children's play equipment

Shermaine and her sister, Shereen, Co-Founder of Strong Mind Fit Body

It was funded by the Housing and Development Board – Singapore's public housing authority – with one of their “Good Neighbours Project 2016” grants. Now renamed the HDB Friendly Faces, Lively Places Fund, the initiative encourages residents to start their own community-bonding projects.

Strong Mind Fit Body brings young people into a space together with the elderly to do strength training.

“So when we do that, there is this intergenerational bonding element,” she explains, pointing to one benefit of their work. “More importantly”, she adds, “We use strength training as a means of keeping everyone empowered to take care of their own health – whether it is the seniors or the youth.”

In this way Strong Mind Fit Body achieves both a health and a social benefit.

Young people, children and seniors exercising in a park

Bringing the generations together. Image credit: Shermaine Ng

The project would not have been possible without financial support from government agencies.Shermaine points out that the Singaporean government is keen to work with people on the ground.

“People on the ground like you and I can do things that they cannot do. They don’t have the same rallying influence as compared to us reaching out to neighbours,” Shermaine says, “We can catalyse this by working ground-up as well, simultaneously.”

"Every person counts"

When asked what she has learnt from her community work, Shermaine says, “Every person counts.”

“Even a person’s presence at a meeting. An opinion that I might not agree with initially, makes me more inclined to maximise the team’s potential, the community’s potential. This makes me more effective as a leader,” she explains.

Shermaine’s community work and leadership experiences have reaffirmed her belief in the “power of we”.

She says, “We may not be prominent individuals but when we come together, we can do amazing things.”