Friday Sep 18

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Get to know Shalani, a Bruneian charity worker in Australia.

shal only

Editor's Note: When preparing features, I usually stick to a balanced ratio of words to photographs. Photographs help us put ourselves into the story. They supplement the images we paint in our minds about the narrative. However, every now and then, it is good to break with convention, especially with a storyteller like Shalani.

I know Shalani personally. (He's a fun guy to be around; people who know him would agree 100 percent.) He's involved with HeartKids Australia, and I am pleased to share a snippet of his journey with you through this Q&A. Find out more about HeartKids Australia here or connect with them on their Facebook page.

What do you do?

Sorry to open this with a statistic, but the easiest way to explain this is by using one: Childhood heart disease is the single biggest killer of kids under the age of 1 in Australia. That’s a fact that not many people know. Now officially, I’m a Fundraising Manager for HeartKids Australia, a charity that focuses on fighting this disease by funding vital medical research and providing much-needed support services for these kids and their families – in a nutshell, I do what I can to raise as much money and awareness, so that I can help the real passionate heroes and geniuses to deliver these services and medical advances.

Describe yourself in a few words.

I rarely get asked that question, so I’m not really sure how to answer that. I guess, I am what I love. Which would make me: My Family & Friends. Thien-Thien. KFC. PS4. Friday nights. My hair. Batman. Oh and KFC. (all to varying degrees but that’s pretty much it)

Would it be fair to say you are involved in 'Charity' work? Or is there now new market terminology for the work that you do?

I would definitely say I am involved in charity work. Neck deep in it in fact. But to be honest, I don’t care what people call it, there’s always going to be a bad stigma associated with it, whether it’s “look, it’s those annoying people on the street asking for money”, or “I bet you THEY take most of the donations anyways and almost none of it goes to the beneficiary”…or even “Soooo, do you like… even get paid??”

But the way I see it is that, if I can get paid just enough to live and be directly involved in becoming ‘the change you want to see in the world’ (I wish I invented that quote but I didn’t), then I’ll be doing alright.

How did you get started in charity work?

I’ve been in the charity sector about 9 years now (Writing that out sounds very scary to me). After I finished my Masters (incidentally, that’s like the 3rd(?) time I’ve ever actually mentioned to anyone I have my masters, so me just dropping that point right now is definitely on purpose - gotta use it sometime right?) I was feeling a little disillusioned with life in general. I’m sure a lot of kids and younger adults who finish school go through a version of this in their lives, and I was no different. Mine was specifically about heading in the direction of having a desk job that didn’t matter. Not that I dreamt of being a famous food blogger, or rock star, (or batman) or whatever else I thought would be along the lines of “do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life’, I just felt like there was no direction in my life. Like what I was going to do did not matter.

I met with a job recruiter anyways, ready to face my fate, and he who was feeding me all these mundane jobs: one was for a marketing coordinator for a signage shop. Another was hotel liaison (not sure what it involved really but I’ve never liked the word ‘liaison’ :p) can’t remember the rest but that goes to show how boring they were.

Then the recruiter dropped some papers and a fundraising role fell out of it. I just saw ‘charity fundraiser’ on the job role, and I was intrigued. In a about a millisecond, I weighed the options in my head and the one that stood out the most was “I can do my bit for social responsibility and all that crap, and even go home and feel better about the work I did that day, and even be a douche and tell my friends “I saved a life today, what did you guys get up to today??” … AND get paid for it??” – So I went for the interview and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s not the noblest of reasons and I will always be the first to admit that – in my industry, there are a lot of super passionate people, and I would be at the lower end of that scale if I were being brutally honest - but sometimes, even the most un-noblest reasons, for the noblest of causes, is still a lot better than most things I could be doing.

Three life-lessons learnt from your involvement in charities so far.

Damn. That’s a tough one. I just find life lessons and experiential advice is tough to give when sometimes words don’t really do justice compared to experiencing it yourself. I’ll always be the first to say that I’m the last anyone should be taking advice from … But that being said, I would say:

If you’re going to do it, do it because you want to. And in some cases, because you need to. No one is going to thank you for it more than the guy who gave them a discount on the second hand barely used new iPhone that they just sold you. You are always going to meet more people who are sceptical of what it is you do, than people who admire and respect (or even I daresay are inspired by) what you do. And if you think making money for big name brands was hard, it will never be as hard as doing it for a ‘good cause’ so you need to do it because you actually do give a shit. There are of course other reasons and other things you could do this for, but without you wanting to do it to change a few lives or do a little good in the world, then you’re just going to hate it.

One of my biggest ‘irks’, is when people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for the third TV they don’t use, or thousands of dollars for a hand bag, or a new phone, that’s never going to see the light of day …. And not many people bat an eyelid (that’s not what irks me – what people buy is their own business.) – What really irks me is the level of scrutiny people give when they support or donate to a good cause. Like, I would rather give $10 to a homeless guy where there is the chance he or she will spend it on drugs instead of food, instead of a Chanel hand bag where I know it isn’t going to feed a starving baby. (although I’m sure a Chanel bag would definitely complement my style) – I guess what my life lesson here is, even when you do it because you want to, or you have a calling… Remember most people don’t have the same level of passion as you do. And that is usually followed by people who are always trying to find a reason to not give. Which is ultimately followed by the same people trying to diminish what you do. Not all people are like this, but a fair few are, enough to get on your nerves and make you question what you’re doing.

This is cliché (but clichés are clichés because they’ve been true so many times after all), don’t ever give up. The rewards aren’t monetary, they’re not even usually associated with career progression, but you do go home reminded in the fact that the world is in some way a little bit, even in the tiniest way, better with you in it. It does wonders for your soul and confidence. And as I mentioned before, you get to say outrageous things like you saved someone today and not be a complete liar (still makes you a douche but after the long hours with no monetary or career acknowledgments, all you have sometimes is the douche comment.)

When it comes to giving to charities, are people generally open-hearted? Or have you found that the opposite is true? Is there research to back this up?

People, generally speaking, are open hearted and good. Essentially we all want the same thing. Walk around and ask anyone if they would pay $100 to save a life, and you’ll find 90% of the time the person saying ‘yeah sure’ (and the other 10% of the time you’ll meet an interesting character you’ll probably want to tweet about). The problem is that we have so many issues in the world, and differences of opinions and mindsets, we all have different ways of trying to ‘do’ good.

With HeartKids, everyone will want to help these kids living with (and many dying from) heart disease, but one person may want to donate to an actual family but not research. And another will want 100% of the money they give to go to the kids without a thought of how or who is going to administer that. Or someone will want to volunteer their time, even though in some cases it makes it more expensive to manage and train volunteers. Or someone will give lots of money for tax purposes. Or some will give money, because it makes them feel better at the end of the day – the thing is there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these scenarios. The problem is managing them all in a way where everyone will be happy with their donation and support, and the way it was handled. The reality is, that’s really tough to do without it costing a lot of money (which is also a part of my job: keeping the costs lower, so that more money goes to the beneficiary).

But I have to say, that the people that are super passionate, who want to remain anonymous, and give purely because they know that these kids, or animals, or the environment, or whoever it is going to, really need it. They’re not ‘better people’ than any of the ones I mentioned before, cos making an effort to give is more important than how much … but I have a special spot for them. I love those people. And I am so surprised by how many of those people I meet every day. (Just last Xmas time, someone gave $10k, because he thought kids with heart disease need it more than he did. He said he loved to drink and smoke and do all these things that these kids could and should never do, and he was fine – for now at least – and said it just wasn’t fair on them. He wanted no big thank you. Nothing. Respect.)

Regarding research, there’s a lot of it out there, and they all basically point to the fact that people in general are giving more than ever before, whatever their reasons. Year on year it’s been growing. Whether it’s been because of more marketing or whatever, more people have not only given more times on average, each one of them have been giving more money too (i.e. the amount of donors have increased, and the average gift of what they give has also increased).

Interestingly, I did a research paper in uni through my masters (4th mention) and I did a comparative study between Brunei and Australia, and although Australia and the UK are known to be quite giving countries, you’d be happy to know that Brunei was pretty up there too.

Share a few highlights from your journey with HeartKids to date.

This is a little hard for me to answer because every day is a learning curve for me. I had a corporate desk job a few years ago, and I realised that it was quite the cushy, laid back job that had a bunch of deadlines here and there which I was fine with, but it wasn’t until I spent a long time in the fundraising industry that I realised that even though the level of stress and work and sleepless nights is about the same (arguably more) you are able to feel like you’ve achieved much more in the fundraising sector. Knowing that what you do has some direct and indirect impact on potentially supporting someone that really needs it does wonders to your psyche.

I think I mentioned it before, but the highlights happen when you choose to focus on the goodwill that every day people have. The people that you meet on a daily basis, that give thousands of dollars to a charity and want nothing in return, or the many different people who are always trying to find a way to help your charity, or more importantly, proactively trying to do what they can to do a little bit more in their lives to help others. These unsung heroes – and they are, as they do the things they do to help and not beat their chests to their 4,000 FB friends how awesome they are – are the highlights I have in my career.

Do you miss Brunei?

I absolutely miss Brunei – I’ve been away since I was about 11, but that place is always home to me. I just came back recently and although a lot has changed, the place and the was like I fit in, like a jigsaw. I am not well travelled as much as most Bruneians I would imagine, but I’ve done my fair share, and in my line of work, you meet a lot of people from all walks of life and cultures, and I can truly say, I’ve never met anyone that are like Bruneians. I guess you can truly say we’re really one of a kind.

I love telling people I’m Bruneian too, that always makes tickles me (it’s usually followed by a “funny. You don’t look middle eastern.” Or, “that’s awesome….. uhm. Where is that?”

I miss a lot of things, which go without saying. The food (thien2, roti jons, nasi katok… the list is endless), the people (my family and friends, even the casual way people are smiley and friendly there – when you live in a big city like I do, on-street smiling is a bit of a rare commodity). ‘Escape rooms’, which I got into the last time I was there, I miss that. I miss going to the kedai runcits and getting the bulletin and a hundred plus. I miss lazing at home on a Sunday, watching astro while the aircon is blasting and watching your family snooze around you.

You’re always going to miss the things you love.

What advice would you give the 16 year old you?

There’s a lot of advice I would give my 16 year old self, but there wouldn’t be a point, I wouldn’t have listened to anyone much less myself - but assuming my stubborn 16 year old self would listen I’d tell him:

Eat more chicken rice. You are REALLY going to miss that. Drink more water. It will feel like it, but high school is not the end all, be all of life. It will get better. And more fun. Speaking of high school, get a haircut. Middle parting your hair is called a ‘bum part’ for a reason. Buy some Google stocks. And maybe Facebook. Enjoy having knees that don’t hurt. Spend more time outdoors. Don’t be such a puteri lilin. And finally, call your mum (actually all your family) more. WhatsApp doesn’t come out for a long time.

What do you see yourself doing in three years?

Mate, I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow night… but I’m happy just plugging away doing what I wanted to do all those years ago in that job recruiter’s office – just want to do a job where I get paid enough to live my life, go home and not be completely irritated by what I achieved that day, make a difference, (I hate this phrase and you’ll notice I’ve been trying to avoid it all throughout this Q&A, but alas, I ran out of similar phrases) … and ultimately be able to sound like an over compensating douche to my friends while remaining stoically confident.


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