2020: Year In Review

Let us get that out of the way, it has been quite a year.

As it (finally) ambles to a close and muted celebrations commence, the mood would probably edge towards a sense of cautious thanksgiving instead of raucous partying.

Coincidentally, it is also the year that I turned 30, and given all that it has happened since then, this was a chance to take stock of what has happened and the major lessons one can take away from the events.

The year had started normally enough, with various economists, political analysts and soothsayers of various ilk predicting a period of cautious growth. Despite global trade relations and political roadblocks between the big powers, it was widely thought that rising trends of nationalism and right wing politics are not likely to affect the trade winds and globalisation in general. In fact, the general sentiment was more optimistic than the previous year, and businesses were gearing up for an exciting 2020. This was so despite the discovery of the first case of Covid-19 on November 17, 2019.

Even while flying back from China towards the end of 2019, there were no signs that things would take a swift turn downwards at short notice. It wasn’t too long however, that the world realised that it was facing a battle to curb the spread of the virus. Things moved rather quickly after that. China became the first country to institute a major “lockdown”, and as the virus spread, different parts of the world started to take on various iterations of movement control amongst its citizens.

As Singapore entered into its version of movement control, locally known as the circuit breaker (CB) in April, it became apparent that we will all be affected. Work had to be done remotely, we could no longer meet our friends and extended families. Everything that we took for granted was suddenly lost to us. For some, it was a massive shock and life as we know it was irrevocably altered.

Ironically, the CB had been relatively beneficial to my physical and mental health. I was able to get fitter, because of a copious amount of running (and the pubs weren’t open). There was also more time for me to go back to reading long form literature, poetry and political / economic commentaries in various forms. It gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my family members, and I understood the importance of mental health as the society dealt with a multitude of changes.

On the work front, moving towards a full “work from home” (WFH) mode took on a whole new meaning for many, me included. Despite being a millennial, I strayed towards the antediluvian end of the spectrum and found it hard to adapt to a full WFH mode. I always enjoyed going to the office and getting work done, with my home and personal life distinctly separate from what I did for a living. WFH threw everything into disarray. Suddenly, the desk where I read leisurely or caught Netflix after a long day became the very desk where I had to spend 8–10 hours a day getting work done. It was a little jarring as I had to adapt (as did many of my colleagues). What were the major lessons from this episode?

I learned the importance of staying connected to your colleagues. Teamwork is vital to the success of any organisation, and it is important to maintain the camaraderie even if the everyone is physically apart.

Not everyone is cut from the same cloth, and everyone will adapt differently to communicating offsite. In times like these where telecommuting becomes a necessity and not a choice, there will be some who have more troubles adapting to working off-site. Not everyone is as technologically savvy, and technological issues will inevitably arise. Some of us will struggle to get up to speed with the mental necessities of dealing with the sudden change in lifestyle, and may become irate about the whole process.

It was a major lesson for me in empathy, maturity and kindness.

2020 was also a growth year for me professionally. It was a year where breakthroughs were made on multiple fronts, and while there were many moments were I felt that I had reached my limits, I have to thank my managers and my colleagues for giving me the impetus to push, survive and eventually thrive. On this front, it was a year worth looking back on.

However, this was also a year that made me think about the sort of society that we want to create as the fog of the pandemic slowly lifts. Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequality in society. It was undeniable that different socio-economic classes were affected differently, and a large part of the buck was borne by individuals who were on the lower end of the economic spectrum, but were at the same time, deemed “essential”.

It is my hope that we (as a society) can reconsider how we treat other human beings and the planet. I hope we can realise that a large part of the inequality is structural and not economical, and that we can as a whole, do much better in uplifting the lives of those who do not have the same privileges as we do.

A corollary to this trend, is that there has never been a greater disparity between the haves and the have-nots. To a large extent, the capitalist dream, the idea that anyone with determination can achieve a life better than the previous generation, now rings hollow. Hong Kong is a prime example of this. The average young person will never in their lifetime be able to purchase a home in central Hong Kong. The sense of anger and helplessness is palpable because they feel that they have no future. Coincidentally, it is also this sense of anger and helplessness that is fuelling the rise of right-wing politics globally. As political figures prey on the feelings of anger and helplessness, society will become increasingly divisive and we will inevitably make the slow march towards protectionism and irrational international relationships. The last time that happened, the world sleepwalked into the rise of fascism and proto-nationalism, culminating in two devastating wars.

Lastly, this was a year where I was able to re-evaluate what it meant to be happy and successful.

Success ought to be multi-faceted, and should not be conventionally defined. I did well in school academically, but compared to my peers who took up scholarships, attended top-tiered universities globally and now work in the top government agencies, law firms and investment banks, I am decidedly ordinary.

However, I lead a life that brings me contentment and time to explore my hobbies, and a job in a firm staffed with people who are genuinely invested in your career.

The pandemic has given us a chance to re-address the balance in our lives and more importantly, in our society. In the hope that 2021 will be better, let us not forget that while we have a lot to be grateful for this year, it was also extremely challenging for many and lifelong lessons were taught and hopefully, learnt.

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