From colleagues to friends. Farhanah enjoys a morning workout with her colleagues from Vouk Hotel Suites. Photo: Farhanah Azizan
Farhanah (second from right) on her last day at Bahang Bay Hotel. Photo: Farhanah Azizan
FOR YOUTHS with fast-paced lifestyles, Covid-19 has been a sobering experience; timelines are cut, and familiar patterns upended. Extended lockdowns and various limitations to mobility left many lacking options for passing their time.
Being in limbo leaves many wondering about their existence and their future, seeing it get bleaker every day. Not being able to be busy is a bigger challenge than one might think. As they say in Okinawa, Japan, happy are those who feel ikigai, roughly meaning “the happiness of always being busy”.
Penang Monthly speaks to four youths on how they have been coping, and how these trying months have affected their raison d'etre (reason of being).
The Importance of Family
For those in their 20s just starting out in life, identity is firmly interlocked with career aspirations. Take these away, and a deep sense of insecurity immediately sets in. Such was the case for Farhanah Azizan when she was retrenched in May last year.
The 28-year-old had been with Vouk Hotel Suites as an income auditor since 2017, but was part of the first batch to be let go. She had a hunch of that coming; after all, the hotel had suffered a severe financial blow at the pandemic’s onset. But when the news finally came, it still left her shell-shocked.
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Farhanah was compensated accordingly, but the experience was nevertheless traumatic. “It took a couple of days before it sank in; more shocking to me was how quickly my self-esteem was shaken,” she says.
She couldn’t decide whether she should find another job fast and before her savings dried up, or look for a way to upskill herself. A month of job-hunting landed her a hotel job, this time at Bahang Bay. “I had been lucky in that I always received on-the-job training in my employments, and this strengthened my skill sets; but I was now thinking that maybe it’s time I went for my ACCA. With that under my belt, I would have a safeguard, an insurance, against another trauma following a future retrenchment,” she explains.
Farhanah has always taken disappointments in her stride, preferring to adapt to things rather than plan her career step-by-step. “I’m in no hurry to settle down.” She has now resigned from Bahang Bay Hotel and moved back to her home state of Kedah to explore other career opportunities. “The hospitality industry is still far too unstable for my liking. But now I’ll be closer to family; they’ve been an incredible support system during my lowest ebb.”
Crises as Times of Change
Gabriel Choi. Photo: Gabriel Choi
Hong Konger Gabriel Choi knows a thing or two about seizing opportunities in a crisis. He had the misfortune of graduating in 2003, when the SARS outbreak swept through the region. “It was like being a licensed pilot, but without planes to fly. The job market was down and I was scrambling for work.”
Having faced destitution, financial security became Choi’s raison d'etre. He worked as a financial planner for AIG Insurance in Hong Kong; both the stress and excitement in meeting each monthly deadline ran high, propelling him to hit sales targets. The problem was, “the slate gets wiped clean again for the next year, and you start back at zero.”
Choi holds a double degree in commerce and international business, and a Master’s in Chinese business studies, and has now chosen to remain self-employed. “I spend most of my time charting out the next stage of my life. Where to now? What’s next?”
The plan, he explains, is to retire by 40. But his reasons have more to do with the changing environment once age catches up. “Will I be able to cope? Can I keep my energy levels from dropping?” What motivates him to keep active and to expand his horizons, he is aware, is the need to constantly improve his financial standing.
Designs from L'homme, Choi's line of bespoke ties. Photo: Gabriel Choi
When Hong Kong was rocked by the global financial crisis in 2008, Choi felt its effects. It was a stinging reminder of his days as a young, unemployed graduate. But he then also saw the opportunity to move into fashion designing, something he had wanted to do for the longest time. Choi founded L’homme, a line of bespoke ties which he successfully retailed at the SOGO Department Store and at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council at Wan Chai.
Choi moved to Penang with his mother when the latter retired in the early 2010s, under the Malaysia My Second Home programme. Penang was then abuzz with new developments and Choi sensed that the properties here would appeal to fellow Hong Kongers, “I started sending enquiry emails to local developers who were taken with the idea and from my work in insurance, we found a ready pool of customers. From Penang, I expanded my scope to KL, Melaka and Johor, doing marketing and promotion for the properties.”
His enterprise and enthusiasm saw the business grow; he was flying in and out of Malaysia on a weekly basis. But then the pandemic hit and Choi once again found himself asking “What’s next?”. Marooned in Malaysia and with extended downtime, the MCO gave Choi more reason to flex his mental muscles and to seek new challenges. “My passion has always been in investment funds, properties and the stock market; this I did throughout the lockdown period, I even signed up for a course in REIT investing.”
Pre-pandemic, Choi conducted property tours for prospective clients. Photo: Gabriel Choi
Robert Chua. Photo: Robert Chua
When Work Doubles as Playtime
For most of 2020, the world seemed drained of optimism and colour. After the initial shock following Covid-19, Robert Chua of the video production company Robert Visuals, began to think it a good time to push the boundaries of creativity in Penang.
Film-making is for Chua an accidental passion, which he discovered while filming longboarders – another passion of his – one day. A greenhorn then, it took Chua a year to cut his teeth in the industry. He had majored as a student of business at the National University of Singapore.
“I had neither a mentor nor a guide; a lot of my learning was done online, taking notes of works created by international videographers, sifting through and unpacking the technical, artistic and cinematographic aspects… I wanted to know what ways I could make up to achieve the same desired effects, like holding the audience’s attention for longer than five seconds?
“I’ve never really considered myself a creative person, but love for the craft pushes me to improve and innovate. I’ve not gone a day without watching tutorials or looking up references since I started my company. It comes down to having sheer initiative and drive; a wish to produce works that are equal in quality to that of acclaimed directors. It’s the eagerness to reach that level that keeps me going. In a sense, my hobby has transformed itself into a job I love doing.”
Robert Visuals specialises in producing corporate advertisements and videos. Photo: Robert Chua
Still, Chua is not immune to creativity blocks – he has to deal endlessly with cost and general resource limitations when producing corporate advertisements and videos for clients. Overcoming them usually takes team effort. “In a way, every single project we have worked on has been an experimentation. The process tends to get messy, when we bounce ideas off each other, through movies, songs, music videos, etc. But the thing I love most is how inspiration shows up when you least expect it. A scroll through Facebook can spark off an idea to be built on, and this can go through numerous iterations before you get the final product. That’s how I overcome these blocks; I just remain receptive to my surroundings.”
Though the pandemic has forced shooting to stay indoors, Chua welcomes the challenge, “It’s a new area to venture into.” He adds that Covid-19 has also strengthened his ambitions – to expand Robert Visuals to Singapore sometime this year. “It is the next obvious step; I already have contacts there and the Singapore Dollar is worth three times the Ringgit. It’s now or never.”
The converging of two of Chua's passions, longboarding and film-making inspired the set up of his video production company, Robert Visuals in 2018. Photo: Robert Chua
Rebecca Vega. Photo: Rebecca Vega
What Day is it Again Today?
Personal adjustments were necessary when Rebecca Vega started working for IHS Markit in 2019. It was her first proper corporate job. As editor, she works the shift hours between 4pm and 1am. Pre-pandemic, having a work-life balance was still doable, she says. “I just had to schedule most ‘Life’ activities for the weekend instead.”
The first half of a workday was typically spent figuring out how many hours she’d need for sleep, and how she was to unwind and prepare for bedtime after a long day at the office. “It’s unlike merely working overtime on your daytime job; at least then you can find ways to shut down when bedtime came around.” To manage her night shift work, Rebecca created a routine. “I’d watch some TV after coming home, do a bit of journaling. Drinking camomile tea helped – I like holding the mug, it’s nice and warm and conditions me for sleep. But depending on the daily stressors, some nights this worked and other nights, it didn’t.”
With Covid-19, Rebecca now works fully from home. This saves time otherwise used getting ready for work or commuting to the office. “It has become a little easier now. I actually have some time to exercise during the evenings. I make use of my dinner breaks to go for a run, I did a lot of this before MCO 3.0; or I’d go to the gym in the morning. Exercise has really helped exhaust myself for a good sleep.”
Rebecca's current reads. Photo: Rebecca Vega
When a project needs urgent completion, Rebecca works for a little pass 1am, but has generally been disciplined in logging off on time. “My manager is strict about this; and because productivity levels increased last year, our CEO recently introduced Wellness Days to us employees. These are certain dates in the year marked out for us to take paid time off from work; essentially, they are extra days for annual leave.”
But the lines separating workdays from weekends are becoming increasingly blurred, Rebecca admits. “My weekends now don’t really feel like days of rest. A change in environment really does make a difference in shaping and influencing my thought processes, whether I am at work or at home.”
Rebecca has also started to learn embroidery. “I needed to do something creative with my hands.” Photo: Rebecca Vega
To maintain some balance, Rebecca focuses on activities she enjoys doing. “To be fair, I’m naturally curious about a lot of things. I’m currently reading Invisible Women, about data bias in our world and how this has made it statistically difficult to identify women’s needs. Podcasts like Heavyweight and How’s Work by Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel are also helping me make sense of how relationships are undergoing restructuring because of Covid-19.”
Social media as a lifeline have also gained in importance for many craving human connection, Rebecca included. Though she remains sceptical about privacy issues and data leaks: “I’ll be honest. If I did not have to use social media, I would not want to use it. But a lot of my best friends are no longer in Penang or in Malaysia; going online is how we stay in touch and in each other’s lives – it’s strange how it’s getting difficult to have a conversation with someone. Before this, you’d have their attention for about 10 minutes if you’re lucky before you lose them again to their phones; now, the pandemic has made it both easier and difficult to forge deeper human connections. Funny how social media is a double-edged sword, this way.”
Regina Hoo is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.