Of Friends, Suicide and Life

A smile and a frown A few days ago, one of my secondary school classmates jumped off an apartment and ended his life—I learned about the sad news through an SMS from an ex-classmate.  Even though I was never especially close to him, it still came as a real shocker to me.  I remember seeing him at a mutual friend’s wedding dinner and handing him my name card so we could get in touch and catch up.  It was the first time I saw him since we parted ways in 1997.  I picked up strange vibes during our short chat near the buffet tables, but dismissed it as changes to his personality since our younger teenage days.  Little did I know that brief encounter with J would be my last.

So far, no one really knows why J chose to end his life.  No notes were found, although those closer to J had heard him making references to himself as a loser in life on several occasions.  Another friend observed that he had been trying to graduate from a local university for the past 7 years.  Yet another revealed that J had “serious issues with God and Life”.  Amen.

A year back, one of my fellow Singaporean batch mates at Carnegie Mellon leapt off the apartment to his demise.  C was a quiet and introverted but brilliant man who had moved to Singapore from China, won an overseas scholarship from one of Singapore’s many statutory boards and returned 4 years later as a Bachelors and Masters graduate from Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science faculty.  Later on, a mutual friend at the same statutory board revealed that C had struggled with a string of poor performance reviews from his superiors and was being counseled.  Unsurprisingly, the event was hushed up and the local media never caught wind of it.

Suicide: It’s certainly NOT the only way out!

Suicide - it's certainly NOT the only way out!

I have removed the original tagline because I vehemently oppose the accompanying message.

While J and C are but two in my sea of friends, I doubt there will be many of you folks who stumble across this article to claim to know more friends who have become suicide jumpers.  I have to say though, it ain’t something I’m proud about. Both J and C were smart, intelligent folks who were part of the elite and could have been in the top 5 to 10% of Singapore’s population in terms of academic track record, per-annum income, achievements at the workplace, yadda yadda, had they been able to veer away from the chasm that they were headed towards — knowingly or unwittingly.  Regardless of the circumstances, I consider suicide to be a highly irresponsible and selfish act.  J was the only son, while C was the only child, and I cannot imagine the anguish that they have put their loved ones through.  Suicide is certainly not the only way out – no matter how difficult things may seem.

C’est La Vie

In his book titled “Outliers“, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that outliers become outliers not just because of their own efforts.  It is because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances—and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. Putting my morally righteous stand on suicide aside, I’d also like to think that the reverse of what Malcolm Gladwell says can be applied in this context too; J, C, and a bunch of others from the elite—who find the transition from school life to the real life a constant uphill struggle and end up killing themselves or mooching around aimlessly—represent the outliers of the elite.  In many ways, Singapore’s socially engineered society—with our book-race-turn-rat-race herd mentality—has a larger role to play in their demise than we realise.

We’re just too caught up in being part of the majority to acknowlege it.

In remembrance of J and C, two of my friends that I wish I got to know better before it was too late.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.