Thinking Aloud

A fair shot at work, even for those who are different

Work can transform and redeem a person, especially those suffering from afflictions

Two weeks ago, I dropped by the National Gallery Singapore on a Saturday afternoon to find snaking queues outside each of the galleries showcasing the works of Japanese avant garde artist Yayoi Kusama, 88, the woman whose polka dot, pumpkin and infinity net paintings and installations have drawn huge crowds not just here but in museums around the world.

Kusama is remarkable for many reasons, not least because she has struggled with mental illness all her life. The polka dots that cover many of her artwork, and which played a starring role in a series of performances entitled Happenings that she staged in New York City during the late 1960s, were inspired by hallucinations she experienced since childhood. Those hallucinations caused her to see everything around her - from walls to windows to furniture to even her own body - as covered in polka dots.

Since 1977, she has stayed in a mental institution in Tokyo - the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill. From there, she goes each day to her studio located nearby where she spends the day painting.

Kusama's life testifies to the power of work to transform and redeem a person, even one suffering from afflictions - in her case, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, neuroses, depression and suicidal thoughts - that might otherwise have proven debilitating.

A tour of her exhibition here with counsellors and volunteers of the Caregivers Alliance, a charity that supports caregivers of the mentally ill, confirms the role that work plays in restoring a sense of well-being to those with mental illness. It is important for their self-esteem, one of the counsellors tells me. Another explains that work can be therapeutic. The repetitive action that Kusama used to create many of her artworks, for example, allowed her to work through her obsessions and fears.

Kusama herself had this to say in a 1997 interview which broke all rules of political correctness: "In my work, I'm giving a system to my life. I'm providing meaning, stage by stage, step by step. I want to make a book about my illness and my work, to make scholarly documentation of how my sickness connects to my work.


"That is something only I can do. A really crazy person, of course, wouldn't think about such a book. That's the difference between myself and those crazy people who don't have ideas about being artists.

"I feel I'm lucky, fortunate to have this sickness and all its ideas. You know, there are two things you can do about an obsessive-compulsive illness. One is to overcome it by giving up the compulsions, but the other is to embrace and accept their demands. Fortunately, mine can be satisfied with this artistic production."

Kusama is indeed fortunate to be able to mine her disease for artistic inspiration but she also fought long and hard for the freedom to work on her own terms. Born into wealth in central Japan in 1929, her family discouraged her from becoming an artist, considering it an "unladylike" profession. They pressured her to enter into an arranged marriage and to spend her time collecting art instead.

I hope that there will always be some employers who can find room, in their organisations and in their hearts, to give people with special needs a chance to work. Attitudes are changing and with some nudging from the Government, it seems that the number of such job openings is going up.

She refused. She left for America on her own when she was in her 20s, choosing the hard life of a struggling artist - cold and hunger were frequent companions in her early days - over the stifling comfort of home. That probably saved her life, for she later reflected that if she did not have her work, she did not know how she would have coped.

Reading about her life brought to mind the people who even today have to fight for the right to work on their own terms. A few months ago, I found out that a young man I know, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, would most likely not be able to join an organisation that he wants to work for due to his mental illness. This upset me greatly because I know two other people who live with bipolar disorder and who have - with the support of family, colleagues and employers - been able to work and hold down good jobs.

Those who suffer from mental illness, just like those who suffer from physical ailments, can be treated. With proper medication and support, their illness can be brought under control and they can live and work as well as anyone else. In some cases, as in Kusama's, they may even outshine their peers.

I suspect those with mental illness are not the only ones who face hurdles when it comes to employment. Anyone with a disability - whether physical or mental - will have to struggle against prejudice. Those on the autism spectrum or with other mental development issues that cause them to behave in ways that others find odd, will also have a tough time.

I recognise that such individuals are not easy to manage. Years ago, I met a young woman whose father made it a point to hire a few people with special needs in his factory. She too worked in the factory as a manager. On bad days, when these staff with special needs acted up, running out of the factory with little warning, she would have to chase after them and persuade them to return. It was both stressful and tiring.

Still, I hope that there will always be some employers who can find room, in their organisations and in their hearts, to give people with special needs a chance to work. Attitudes are changing and with some nudging from the Government, it seems that the number of such job openings is going up.

Near my office in Toa Payoh, the Alzheimer's Disease Association has opened the ADAcafe. It employs people with young onset and early stage dementia, so as to provide them with purposeful therapy, job training and meaningful employment. It is a way to enable these individuals to live with dignity and enjoy a better quality of life while being socially and economically engaged.

A similar concept was tried in Tokyo, where a pop-up restaurant hired people with dementia and ran for a few days in June under the name "Restaurant of Order Mistakes". It proved to be a hit.

Another group that has for years struggled to secure employment and find acceptance in the community are former convicts. They have made some headway, though, with help from supporters of the Yellow Ribbon Project.

One former jailbird who has made good is lawyer Darren Tan, who lit up social media last week with a speech he delivered at the NUS Law School welcome ceremony for freshmen. Mr Tan, who spent close to 11 years behind bars for drugs and gambling activities, was the first person with a criminal past to be admitted to NUS Law School. He graduated in 2014 and now works at TSMP Law Corporation.

Mr Tan and former inmate Kim Whye Kee, an artist, are founders of Beacon of Life in Taman Jurong, which reaches out to help at-risk boys and youth.

In his speech last week, Mr Tan recalled that he had been "a very dubious applicant" to law school.

"I had been convicted thrice for major offences, spending a total of almost 11 years in prison and receiving 19 strokes of the cane. I had never stayed out of prison more than a year in between my imprisonments," he said.

"I applied to study law while I was still serving my last sentence... The faculty members had brought the admissions test and interview to me in prison. I was given a fair chance as any other applicant."

A fair chance, that is what everyone seeks, and it is what everyone - regardless of illness or troubled past - deserves, a chance to work and excel, a chance to contribute and make a difference to the world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'A fair shot at work, even for those who are different'. Print Edition | Subscribe