These young change-makers in Singapore are driving social change through their chosen platforms, from virtual reality to art

Nazhath Faheema

Earlier this year, a video of a woman hitting a gong loudly and repeatedly while a man conducted a Hindu prayer routine went viral. While many were quick to condemn her for what appeared to be an act of intolerance, social harmony activist Nazhath Faheema has a different take. 

“Any situation calls for a deeper analysis. We have a responsibility to go through that process as we cannot just be emotional about it or it becomes more divisive,” says Faheema, the founder and president of hash.peace, a youth-led advocacy group that aims to foster social harmony.

In fact, she suggests that “gong lady” might benefit most from having a friend reach out to her. This act of reaching across the aisle, one conversation at a time, lies at the heart of her advocacy. Inspired by her role as a Muslim Youth Ambassador of Peace, an initiative led by Jamiyah Singapore, she launched hash.peace in 2016. The group aims to contribute to social harmony by sparking conversations and developing relevant programmes.  

It starts by talking to each other with genuine good intentions, she says. “It helps to move the needle from tolerance to understanding because you can be tolerant but still carry prejudice. To clear prejudice, you need understanding, which you achieve by talking,” says Faheema, who is currently a postgraduate student at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies pursuing a Master of Science in Asian Studies. 

In a recent hash.peace-organised intra-ethnic Zoom conversation on the diversity of the Indian community, for instance, participants began discussing the origins of the term mama shop, which refers to a sundry store in Singapore. While the term is derived from the Tamil word for uncle, maa-ma, it can sometimes take on a derogatory meaning.

“People were having a human-to-human discussion on whether or not this word had an effect on them, and this allowed participants to gain a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives,” Faheema reflects. 

In her personal capacity, she discusses these topics as widely as she can, whether it is via direct messages with individuals on Facebook or via her popular TEDx talks on multiculturalism and inclusivity. She even had the chance to converse with the UK’s Prince Harry when he participated in an iftar meal at the Jamiyah Children’s Home during a visit to Singapore in 2017.

While she is optimistic that fostering dialogue can help to break down barriers, she is realistic that this process takes time—in the case of one of her Facebook exchanges as it can sometimes take months for them to reply to each other. She says, “You need patience, that is the commitment to the work. If you care about it, you have to do it.”

Her hope is that society will evolve so that issues around racial and religious harmony need not always be handled by the law. “Can we not immediately look to the government or the law and can civil society, for example, a collective body of arbitrators or experienced people in society handle them instead? We have grown as a people and have made progress in other ways but if we keep taking an adversarial stance, to me, that’s not progress.” 

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Lim Si Ping

Digital designer Lim Si Ping is a fan of science fiction, not for the escapism, but to gain insights into what the future might look like. After all, what is depicted in these shows has become reality on multiple occasions. For instance, the Star Trek communicator inspired the flip phone, while Stanley Kubrick depicted a chess-playing computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey even before such a supercomputer was even invented.

These days, what fires up Lim’s imagination are shows that depict the ethical impact of technology, like how DNA is manipulated in the movie Gattaca. “There are many philosophical questions to consider as we dive into this realm of technology. For instance, when programming artificial intelligence, we have to think about the consequences as well.” 

A digital designer at architectural firm Gensler’s digital experience design team, Lim uses technology to create immersive environments with the architects. Based in New York City, her team is currently working on showcasing the capabilities of 5G technology for the greater good at American network operator Verizon’s next-generation Innovation Center in Boston. A case study involves demonstrating how the low latency and high bandwidth of 5G can allow doctors to deliver precise robotic-assisted healthcare procedures to underserved locations. 

“I create digital experiences for people, and I hope to create awareness of social issues or for them to consider things they never thought of previously,” says Lim. For example, the 5G showcase could help to debunk misconceptions that people might have about this new technology. 

A recipient of the 2014 DesignSingapore scholarship to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Design and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, Lim also embarks on personal art projects and collaborations via her artist moniker Handson. 

She once performed a large-scale live drawing in sync with dancers and a live DJ performance in front of an audience of 6,000 at an IBM’s conference in Las Vegas. Up next, she is producing an interactive art installation for Singapore’s iLight Festival in 2022.  

Lim is particularly interested in how digital design can be used to transform the quality of life and even contribute to greater understanding of various issues in urban life, such as surveillance or overcrowding. In one project, she tracked the data from 30 participants and incorporated details she discovered into a book. “It showed people that it is very easy to track down who you are at an intimate level through a simple Google search. The goal was to create awareness about data surveillance,” she says.

For another interactive art installation, in a study of personal space, she tracked spatial data to create algorithmic patterns that change as more people come together. Lim hopes to bring this art installation to a music festival to observe how crowds interact.

She says, “As technology rapidly advances, I ask myself, how can I reconsider things that we put out into the world and what people might use it for. How can it benefit people, and can I do something better with it?”

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Eugene Soh

Chan Hon Meng, better known as Hawker Chan, the world’s first hawker to be awarded one Michelin star, plates and presents his signature soya sauce chicken rice to a camera. Over at a nursing home, a resident views this scene through a virtual reality (VR) headset and exclaims that she can even smell the mouth-watering dish. To her delight, when she removes her goggles, there is a piping hot plate of chicken rice on the table, as if Hawker Chan himself had served the dish right up to her. 

This is one of the VR activities that technology artist and designer Eugene Soh has conducted for nursing home residents to allow them to continue to experience the world. “These experiences can help to relieve their sense of social isolation and keep them engaged from the comfort and safety of their chairs,” says Soh, who founded social enterprise Mind Palace to create VR experiences for nursing home residents and dementia patients. Other activities include a walking tour of Chinatown and a collaboration with charity Cycling Without Age to bring VR rides to the elderly during the pandemic. 

Soh, who is also the founder of Dude Studios, a creative tech studio focusing on creating VR, augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence content, is a self-taught computer programmer. He first garnered attention after his photograph, The Last Kopitiam, a tongue-in-cheek riff on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, went viral in 2012. The interest led to galleries and companies getting in touch for collaborations, sparking the launch of Dude Studios.

This year alone, Soh, aka Dude, has created tech‑led content for various companies, including a Chinese New Year Instagram filter game for Lego, a newspaper tracking filter for Netflix Indonesia and an AR installation for The Seletar Mall. A partner of Spark AR, a global network of content creators chosen by Facebook, Soh is particularly noted for his elaborate filters such as a series of Facebook filters for Kindness Sg that will teach users the sign language gestures of phrases such as “thank you” and “you’re welcome”.

“I can’t bring myself to make a normal cute filter. I like to torture myself and go for the complicated ones; there has to be a twist somewhere,” he quips. He first got involved in working with nursing home residents when a former journalist friend asked him to bring his headsets to the home. Since then, he has been continually experimenting and improving the content he can offer to the elderly.

Last year, he debuted an immersive VR room where images and videos can be projected directly onto the walls so the elderly can “travel” to different places or revisit nostalgic memories with ease. He also worked with occupational therapists to create a guided exercise programme for residents.

“The installation also solves the hygiene issues of using VR goggles and proved very useful during the pandemic. Whether they want to exercise or ‘visit’ the Great Wall of China with friends, they can do it,” says Soh. 

“I hope to encourage their social interaction and foster a sense of agency for them to make their own decisions. Hopefully it will be helpful to them, and they will get healthier and stronger.”

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Daryl Yang

Social media may be a powerful medium for individuals who wish to spread awareness about worthwhile causes, but Daryl Yang is not content to stop at reposting infographics or catchy slogans. 

An experienced advocate for a range of social issues such as speaking up against sexual violence in schools and LGBTQ inclusivity, his aim is to help young people feel empowered to create the change they want to see. 

“While social media activism is important to raise awareness and bring people together, we also need to get involved in the spaces where change happens,” says Yang, who is currently pursuing a Master of Laws at Berkeley Law in California, with a specialisation in public interest and social justice under the esteemed Fulbright Program. 

He became a campaigner by accident when a 2014 letter he wrote defending a set of FAQs by the Health Promotion Board on youth sexuality, which included LGBTQ topics, went viral. Since then, he has been actively involved in various social justice causes and works to inspire and encourage active citizenship among young people.

“Young people today are much more connected and informed than in previous generations. We care deeply about climate change, gender inequality, discrimination and poverty,” says Yang. “But how do you translate that into more concrete action or into actual change? How do you engage with political leaders or other organisations?”

He graduated from Yale-NUS College and the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours (with a minor in Anthropology) and a Bachelor of Laws with Honours. 

At Yale-NUS College, he co-founded the Community for Advocacy and Political Education, a student-run organisation which aims to increase political literacy and civic engagement in Singapore. One of the initiatives he spearheaded is its Parliament Tracker, which tracks parliamentary news and shares the hot issues discussed in the House in order to demystify the proceedings.

At NUS, he was also active in advocating against sexual violence and was involved in the 2019 sexual misconduct controversy when then-undergraduate Monica Baey spoke up about being filmed showering on campus. Yang and a network of students mobilised to lobby for greater accountability from the university’s administration, which later led to reforms in how NUS handles voyeurism cases. 

More recently, he completed a six-month consultancy with Aware, the leading women’s rights and gender equality group in Singapore, where he helped to develop a policy wish list on sexuality education as part of the organisation’s Reimagining Equality project.

Yang is currently focused on disability issues and has been working with the Disabled People’s Association Singapore to submit parallel reports to the UN on Singapore’s record on disability rights. “I see myself as playing more of the role of an ally by empowering people with disabilities to better understand the issues they face and how they can go about advocating and providing their perspective as activists,” says Yang.

His ultimate goal is to encourage more young Singaporeans to stand up for themselves—and each other. “There are many emerging social movements that are spearheaded by young people today, and I hope that we will recognise how all of our challenges are interconnected and work together to forge a future that is more just and equal.” 

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Tan Zi Xi

There is a whimsical cabinet of curiosities at Pip’s Playbox, a children’s art space at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. When curious little hands open the various cabinet doors to peer within, they discover cheery paintings of familiar animals such as turtles, bears and lobsters.

But look closer and one might just observe something interesting. For instance, the lobster has four claws instead of two, or the bear is standing upright instead of crawling on all fours. These are fantastical representations of what animals that have been affected by nuclear environmental disasters might mutate into, says artist and illustrator Tan Zi Xi, who goes by the artist moniker MessyMsxi.

Tan, who was commissioned by the Esplanade to create this installation, drew these quirkily surreal animals to introduce the concept of evolutionary damage to children. “When you notice something is not quite right, you might get curious and raise questions about the pictures. That is another layer to the artwork that I can share.”

Ever since she was a student at London’s Central Saint Martins, where she graduated with an honours degree in graphic design, she has been incorporating environmental messages into her work. “I have always been drawn to topics like over-consumerism and pollution,” she reflects. “When I create art, I think of the function behind the art so that from a doodle, it becomes something more meaningful. Instead of thinking about what to draw, I think about what to say about the issues I care about.”

For instance, one of her drawings from the series An Effort Most Futile (2009) features a female character trying in vain to rescue a seal that has gotten hopelessly entangled in plastic litter. It went on to inspire her memorable 2016 installation Plastic Ocean, which comprised more than 20,000 pieces of plastic waste suspended from a ceiling.

Her works can also be found in public spaces including Canberra MRT station, and she has collaborated with various brands including Converse, Facebook, Google, Kiehl’s and SK-II. 

She hopes her art will leave a visceral impact on viewers, as the scale of environmental damage, when communicated in statistics, is so large, it is often incomprehensible to an individual. “The messages out there about pollution and climate change can feel distant, especially to those who may not experience it first-hand. I hope my art gives them food for thought.”

What is unique about Tan’s approach is that she conveys these serious, urgent topics with a dreamy, light touch that is visually appealing and often strikes a witty note. For example, a collaboration with the credit card Frank by OCBC features an overabundance of home plants—a commentary on how people are increasingly growing their own greens in an ever‑expanding urban landscape.

She says, “Sometimes, communicating about nature does not need to be about the harsh reality. I think people are more receptive when you tell them there is something hopeful to look out for and that we can make a change. When you inject positivity, people are more drawn to it and hopefully, they will chip in to do their part.” 

See also: 7 Local Art Galleries That Represent Singapore Artists

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