Make your own happy endings

Life is not a fairy tale, with treasure always found at the end of the rainbow if you promise to do only good. But you have to stay the course and keep the faith

My 12-year-old niece is in a series of advertisements aired on Malaysian social media that revolves around the lives of a group of five schoolgirls.

Members of the multiracial cast play characters who are carefree and wilful. At one life-changing point, they filch things from a provision shop for a lark.

When they are caught and almost everyone else considers them pariahs, including their parents, one person does not shut the door on them.

She is their teacher, who feels let down, but reminds them that there are second chances in life.

Her support provides a sturdy pick-me-up for the gang of five, with the ad then fast-forwarding many years to a time when the girls - who are now adults - visit their saviour.

In the reunion, they reminisce about how their lives have turned out, but there is no indication if they have become high-fliers or if some among them are still struggling.

I have seen the ad - which is also on YouTube - several times, glad that the people behind it have told the story matter of factly and not resorted to sentimental gimmicks or included motherhood statements.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO  

The ad does not have any dramatic moments of, say, the girls being thrown out on the streets, rain pouring on them and the teacher, drenched and all, dashing to bail them out.

There is no annoying, heart-tugging music in the background.

The ad just expresses one sentiment: In life, you can make U-turns, but the road ahead will still be bumpy and things can turn out only half-right.

I prefer this far more grounded way to cajole people to pick themselves up. Life is not a fairy tale, with treasure always found at the end of the rainbow if you promise to do only good. But you have to stay the course and keep the faith.

I am turned off by a Singaporean ad which depicts a grandmother being shunted aside as other family members are busy with schoolwork or their careers.

One day, Ah Ma has an idea to make a dish for her grandson, with the hope that it can bridge the yawning gap between them.

She records her wish on her phone and it is transmitted by mistake to the family, who predictably get a sudden case of remorse.

Cue lovey-dovey hugs, tears in the eyes and everyone fawning on Ah Ma in a scene of redemption.

I wish the ad had stopped at the point of showing Ah Ma being ignored, with a voiceover saying: Have you thought about her today?

In my opinion, it is best not to peddle contrived endings, but to leave it to people to reflect, see similarities in the ad to what they experience in their lives, and come up with their own plans to turn things around.

Different people have different ways of picking themselves up and doing better. Some get a booster shot from religion, while others have mentors whom they seek out.

Some turn to self-improvement books and many make annual resolutions.

Lately, one of my favourite ways to get recharged is by viewing Susan Boyle's unforgettable audition in 2009 on the TV reality show, Britain's Got Talent.

Just like judge Piers Morgan, who visibly gets a lump in his throat when the then 48-year-old starts singing I Dreamed A Dream, silencing all the detractors, I still get misty-eyed watching the video, getting renewed confirmation that self-belief can win the day.

Boyle showed that by blowing everyone away that night.

As Morgan said to huge applause: "Without a doubt, that was the biggest surprise I have had in three years on the show. When you stood there with a cheeky grin and said, 'I want to be like (English singer and actress) Elaine Paige', everyone was laughing at you. Nobody is laughing now."

Boyle went on to achieve some success, but life is never a constant bed of roses, with more recent reports saying she has had problems dealing with fame and relatives and suffered health problems.

Personally, I find that music and books are among the greatest sources of inspiration, with characters or stories to remind me that one must not fear steering a new course.

Once, in my English class when I was in university, the teacher asked everyone what they got from the lyrics of Simon And Garfunkel's iconic hit, The Sound Of Silence.

To me, it is not being afraid to walk the path alone, even if others have been blinded by the allure of money and glamour.

In the quiet of night, the song plays in my mind - "Hello darkness my old friend/I have come to talk with you again" - as I seek a new spark to reignite my dreams.

But I like that I am in charge, not being spoon-fed corny messages from ads and that I can formulate my own happy endings.

There is another song - Bruce Springsteen's Blood Brothers - that throws me a lifeline when things are rough and stormy.

Its lyrics say we are not alone in our quest for survival - and the song reminds me of friends and those close to me who have been fellow travellers.

"Now the hardness of this world slowly grinds your dreams away/ Makin' a fool's joke out of the promises we make/And what once seemed black and white turns to so many shades of grey/We lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay/And it's a ride, ride, ride, and there ain't much cover/With no one runnin' by your side/my blood brother."

However, most of us are still around despite fighting, oftentimes alone, and with some bruises and more permanent scars.

But we are also more than hanging on. We are aspiring, wishing and wanting to do better for ourselves, our families and our country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'Make your own happy endings'. Print Edition | Subscribe