SINGAPORE: CEO of Ang Chin Moh Funeral Services and founder of Ang Chin Moh foundation, Mr Ang Ziqian, has been involved in his family’s business since he was 13, from helping out in the office to working his way up to CEO.
A few years ago, along with the Lien Foundation, he embarked on a campaign to encourage people to talk about issues like end-of-life care, planning their will, and their funerals.
The campaign included dialogue sessions, and even included discussions at getai performances in order to de-stigmatise death. One of his aims was to encourage people to join the funeral services industry as professionals, amid a severe manpower shortage stemming from this stigma.
However, infrastructural issues continue to fuel negative perceptions of the industry. As Chief Executive of the Mount Vernon Sanctuary, Mr Ang is now also dealing with the eventual demolition of the premises to make way for a housing development. Most other funeral facilities, including Ang Chin Moh, are in industrial parks.
938LIVE's Bharati Jagdish spoke to Mr Ang “On the Record” to find out why he thinks people must stop rejecting the presence of funeral facilities and death-related establishments within housing estates, and how integrating death within communities can help us.
TAKING OVER THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Mr Ang: The key to joining the funeral profession was to help my father. He devoted all his time, his family time, to helping grieving families. My thought then was to help him, and by doing so, I could help relieve him from this 24/7 job. I find that serving grieving families is very noble, and it is very meaningful as well. I think I have always been instilled with values to help the community. Funeral services help the community. We deal with the living, but take care of the dead with care, compassion, and dignity. Through funerals, we help the families overcome grief and manage their life, to cope and continue their life. And we help the departed transcend to the next world.
Bharati: You mentioned compassion earlier. Some might say the funeral business can be rather cut and dry. There’s a list of things to do and you just do them. How does compassion come into play on your part?
Mr Ang: Every funeral is unique to the family. So we do not use a one-size-fits-all solution to help every single family. We listen to them. The important thing in executing a funeral service is to listen to the hearts and the needs of the grieving families. We listen to the family on their needs and we learn about the life that the departed had.
For instance, if a grandma has passed on, I will always ask questions like, "If you think about your grandmother, what do you remember?" They might say, "Oh, my grandma is a good cook, and she always liked to cook curry chicken." And this, we will note and we will make sure that one of the dishes catered in the next few days will be curry chicken. This will help to invoke memories. Beautiful memories between the next generation and the departed.
Bharati: Some might ask, why make such a big show out of death?
Ang Ziqian: The funeral ceremony is a ritual. It is no different from other rituals. For instance, we have baby shower, graduation ceremony, and also marriage ceremony. Rituals help us to move, from one transition of life to another. It’s not about how fancy or how simple. Funerals are unique to the family. So some families choose to remember their loved ones and funerals are reflective of a person's life journey. And if that means it needs to more elaborate than the rest, then, I think we have to do that, because that means that it's a meaningful funeral for the family.
Bharati: You’ve talked about this as a noble profession. But let’s face it. It’s also about making money, isn’t it? How does it feel to be making money out of someone else’s loss?
Mr Ang: You could make the same argument when it comes to hospitals – is it right for hospitals to charge the sick? Funeral service is an essential service to the community. and for this service to continue, you need to constantly invest in facilities, training and also the infrastructure in order for the company to be able to manage and sustain its costs in order to maintain this essential service.
In fact, the funeral business is not as lucrative as what many may think. It is because in most businesses, we are able to project supply and demand. Are we able to project deaths this month, as compared to last year, in November? We're not able to. But nevertheless, the operational cost is very high, because, it's a 24/7 service. You have to have full-time staff rostered day after day whether or not someone passes on. So operational costs are very high.
Bharati: You’ve often talked about the stigma associated with working in this business, so much so that you have a manpower shortage in the industry. As you were growing up, what did your friends say about the kind job your dad was doing, about the business your family was in?
Mr Ang: When I was young, I felt that many classmates stayed away from me, because they knew what my dad was doing, and I was often ostracised. I had no friends, no one dared to shake my hand because they were worried that I would transfer the bad luck to them and their family. So since young, I've felt that nobody actually understands the funeral profession. And when you talk about funeral profession, no parent will allow their children to choose this non-mainstream profession.
When I had my first girlfriend, her parents’ jaws dropped when they found out what business my family was in. I was always told to bathe with floral water, to wash my hands, feet and face, before entering the house. So this was the ritual when I met my ex-girlfriends' parents and when I went to their house, or even friends' houses. I attribute this to the taboo that we have in the cultures and traditions that we have. But I think that taboo is all about ignorance. If you have knowledge and information about a subject, it no longer is a taboo.
Bharati: Considering this, did you ever feel a sense of resentment that you were born into a family that did this for a living?
Mr Ang: I was not upset that I was born into this family, but there were certainly a lot of challenges growing up, because many people use their own lenses to judge you. Are you actually normal? Do you transmit bad luck? This is something that upsets me, but I think, maybe because we are born in a funeral director family, we are naturally attuned to serve community, therefore we are not so worried about how people perceive us. How our actions touch people's lives is more important.
I've always told myself since young, since I've been ostracised all my life, I need to do something to change mindsets, to give information, to give knowledge to the members of public, so that everyone knows that funeral service was actually an essential service to the community. And this is important for our mental well-being as well. When someone passes on, we are the first ones to help the family overcome grief, and help the departed to transcend to the next world. A meaningful ceremony really can help the family emotionally, and that is crucial to any funeral planning.
Bharati: You’ve been doing quite a bit in the last few years to remove the stigma in collaboration with other organisations – encouraging dialogue about death and dying – which of course includes end-of-life care, writing a will, planning one’s funeral – through even things like getai performances. Where are you seeing the most resistance when it comes to talking about such issues?
Mr Ang: Most people have the misconception that the elderly don't want to talk about death, because this may be too harsh for them. Actually, on the contrary, it is the children who, out of love and respect, don't have the courage to bring this subject up to the elderly. And we have a lot of elderly saying, “I want to tell this to my children, but I do not know how to, how to hint to them. Whenever I want to bring this topic up, they say no, choy, choy, choy in Cantonese, and they say we shouldn't talk about this subject.”
Death is the ultimate end point of life, but before that, we need to look at many aspects, like end-of-life care. And this is equally important as well.
Bharati: So, the elderly say they want to talk about such things, but their kids are the ones preventing them from doing so. Have you been able to observe whether or not that conversation among family members has opened up in the last few years?
Ang Ziqian: It is always easier for the elderly to bring up this subject as opposed to the younger generation. This campaign has helped both generations to talk about death. Usually, you do not talk only about death. You talk beyond death. You talk about what you like in life, what you dislike in life, what really represents you, and what are the hardships that you've gone through so far.
Death actually gives us an urgency to spark family conversations. And through such conversations about death, the family actually comes together. They tend to treasure one another and tend to put those nitty-gritty fights aside, and to really learn about a family member. So death is not the end. It's the start of conversations that bring families together.
Bharati: I understand that one of the reasons you decided to get involved in de-stigmatising death was to address the manpower shortages companies like yours were facing because people don’t want to be associated with such a business, but why else would you say it’s important to do this?
Mr Ang: I have served more than 3,000 families over the last two decades. What really pains me is when they come to my funeral home, they often have quarrels. They fight about who the caregiver is, the caregiver stress, where the inheritance should go. There's a lot of emotional baggage. This really pains me. It makes me think about what we can do to bring this a step forward, to prevent this rather than to wait for it to happen.
I think that through education, if the matriarch or patriarch has actually expressed his intention or her intention of how he wants or she wants the funeral to be, and how the assets should be divided, and what should be done, and the values that should continue to bind the family, this will solve all problems.
DYING POOL OF MANPOWER
Bharati: We mentioned manpower issues several times. How bad is the shortage?
Mr Ang: This is a serious problem. Since the first day I joined the industry, we've been facing challenges, because of the upbringing that we have. Most parents will tell us to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers. None of the parents will tell their children to choose non-mainstream options, like a funeral director.
When in 2004, when I took on the role of a management staff, maybe in a year, we only had less than 10 applicants. And out of 10 applicants, maybe only one is hired. And that one will not stay more than three months. Because, some of them, when they go back home and share with their family, the family members say, “Can you not join this profession? Can you resign? Or else we will no longer be mother and son.” And there's also peer pressure. The rest of their friends are professionals like accountants, bankers, lawyers, and they are funeral directors.
If Singaporeans choose not to work in this industry, and with the current situation that we are having, which is an increasingly grey population, we're going to face a problem in the future whereby when a funeral is needed, we may not have enough professionals to conduct this funeral. So if nothing is being done to attract new blood, Singaporeans to join this industry, the Ministry of Manpower will have to re-look at its policies, to how we can use foreign help to manage this.
Bharati: Since your campaign started three years ago, have you seen an increase in people willing to join the industry?
Mr Ang: Yeah. Now I receive on average, at least five resumes per month. And a lot of them are doing a mid-life career change. Some of them come from the nursing sector, some of them come from the engineering industry, some of them come from customer service. And I'm glad, because of the campaigns, more people have more knowledge of the industry and therefore they want to do something meaningful.
Bharati: But there is still a shortage?
Mr Ang: Generally, in the industry, there is a huge shortage because the average age in this industry is late fifties. So if we do not have help at this moment, in 10 years’ time when our senior generation retires, there's going to be a huge gap between the workforce and the increasing number of deaths in the country.
Bharati: So, what do you hope to do in order to fix this situation going forward?
Mr Ang: I mean, I can share our experience. We've changed the environment, we provide good benefits, we provide training to our staff, which I think is critical. The key thing here is to make everyone realise that it's a meaningful career. I think funeral service is a career that helps the community to overcome grief. And also as a professional serving the families, you tend to re-look at your own life and how you can impact lives around you. You tend to evaluate, and you tend to be a better person that way.
Bharati: In what way do you think you have become a better person as a result of working in this industry?
Mr Ang: I’ve developed a lot of empathy, a lot of care for people, and it is always people first before myself.
Bharati: I understand there are no formal courses in Singapore for people who want to learn to be professionals in the funeral services industry.
Mr Ang: You're absolutely right. There is no formal training in Singapore that offers courses that helps to groom you. What companies have in Singapore is we have in-house training. We engage providers from overseas who are experts in this field to train our people.
In the US, funeral service is a respected profession. You need to have at least a bachelor's degree in order to enter a mortuary science college. And it is a profession that has been supported by the association, and policy-makers, and also by the members of public.
The problem lies in Singapore. The funeral profession is a very neglected industry in Singapore. But is this service necessary? Yes, it is. This conversation has to come between the policy makers, academics and the funeral professionals. We need to work together to groom the next generation of funeral directors, if we want our Singaporeans to die with dignity.
Bharati: You mentioned policy-makers. What do you want government to do in order to help?
Mr Ang: To start a national conversation. Do we want our people to die with dignity? And if we want to, how do we address the infrastructure? How do we address manpower problems? How do we make mindsets change?
Bharati: But you're already doing this on your own. Why should the government get involved?
Mr Ang: There is only so much that individual philanthropic organisations can do. I would say that policy-makers have the resources, and when they set a direction and everyone can steer to that direction, it will be more rapid. The speed will be there, the support will be there. It is difficult to dance solo.
DEATH AND THE COMMUNITY
Bharati: I understand that infrastructure is an issue as well. For instance, you are also chief executive of the Mount Vernon Sanctuary. You’ve spent money sprucing this place up and intend to continue doing this. You’ve been given a lease extension of two years, but eventually, it will be demolished to make way for a housing estate.
I understand the government has plans for a new funeral parlour to be built at the current site, but there are no details yet. As it is, funeral parlours can be located only on specifically approved sites or as ancillary services to columbarium developments. And you have an issue with this.
Mr Ang: Funeral homes right now are located in industrial parks, and I'm always very ashamed to share this with foreign funeral directors. I'm always very ashamed to say that we are located in industrial parks. You need to pass the wood industry, metal industry, wrecked cars, before reaching the funeral home. This brings no dignity.
It's sad that in a first-world country, we have third-world funeral services. Because of the taboo and because there is no one to engage the community to correct and eradicate taboos, therefore, the Nimby Syndrome, or "not in my backyard" syndrome develops.
Bharati: We have seen a number of controversies over this, including one recently over a columbarium in a housing estate. People who were living in that area, or were about to buy flats in that area were upset that there were plans to build a columbarium nearby.
Mr Ang: I think that funeral facilities should be seen as part of the infrastructure within a community. It is no different from a police station, fire station, daycare centre, preschool centres. It is infrastructure that is needed within the community.
But we also have to look at this in a different light. Funeral facilities like funeral parlours, cemeteries, columbaria, are actually necessary. Because it reminds you of the reality of life. It brings more empathy in us. It humanises us. It teach us that death is the end point of life, so how can we, by recognising that, live our lives more meaningfully?
Bharati: But considering that the "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome emerges when it comes to such facilities, do you blame the authorities for leaving it the way it is, where most of you are located in industrial parks?
Mr Ang: First of all, I think it takes time to make a change. It takes a lot of courage to make change happen. But we all have to recognise that change is constant. If we do not make any changes at this moment, our descendants are the ones who will suffer.
I think that courage needs to be mustered from all stakeholders, to make these tough conversations, these necessary conversations more palatable, to create understanding among people, and why there is a need for infrastructure, like funeral facilities, in the community.
I think we need to educate. With education, eradicate taboos. When we eradicate taboos, we eradicate the NIMBY syndrome. The NIMBY syndrome is always associated with profits. For instance, if we have hospices in residential areas, some people may think that it will drive our property prices down.
But is it really true? I think that in Singapore we should have funeral facilities, just like hospitals, in the North, South, East, West and Central.
In the Design for Death competition, done by two foundations - Ang Chin Moh Foundation and Lien Foundation, we presented solutions that show the scarce space in Singapore can be shared between the living and the dead, not isolate it in a very far place, because one day, our descendants, or we ourselves, have to go to a very far corner of Singapore to pay our respects, and is that what we really want - isolation? I think isolation will only make the problem larger, and worse. I think we need to integrate them together. The dead and the living can cohabit within a common space.
Bharati: So how do you think this can be done in Singapore, when people will protest every time someone suggests a better integration of such facilities within communities? Should policy-makers allow such infrastructure within communities in spite of protests and hope that over time, it will become normalised and hopefully the taboo surrounding death will diminish too?
Mr Ang: I think we need to start a national conversation with policy-makers sharing their viewpoints and their challenges. And we, as funeral professionals, also share our viewpoints and challenges with the members of the public as well.
This will create an understanding where funeral facilities can be considered as infrastructure essential to the community. It takes time for change to happen. It takes courage to make change happen. It’s always better to be proactive than reactive. So in this society, we’re a first-world country, do we want to chase the next dollar or do we want to chase how to live a meaningful life. If we do not take active steps to give dignity to ourselves, no one will. If we do not have empathy, we’re no different from robots.
Bharati: How do you feel about Mount Vernon Sanctuary having to go in two years?
Mr Ang: To me it's very sad, after having invested so much, because these facilities not only help the grieving families, but it also helps the mid- and small-sized funeral business owners that don't have a funeral parlour. These things will happen, but it is also a true fact that Singapore needs funeral facilities.
For us, in Mount Vernon Sanctuary, we really pray every day that there will be new parcel of land out for tender to allow funeral companies that have local culture, to actually bid for it, and also to continue to serve the community. Because I think embracing the local culture and having the essence as a local company really matters a lot to the culture and traditions of Singaporeans.
Bharati: I understand that lease tenures are also an issue within the industry.
Mr Ang: Funeral companies, over the past many decades, have suffered from this vicious cycle. All leases are up to a maximum of three years.
Naturally, funeral directors are hesitant to invest in facilities, to spruce them up, to give the dignity to the families. And when that happens, it adds to the poor perception that the members of the public have towards the funeral industry.
The three-year limit was imposed by the landlords, and it offers the landlords flexibility, if they wish to terminate the lease. But this also means that there is no confidence instilled within the funeral companies, whether their lease will be renewed. There's a lot of uncertainty.
Bharati: But all business owners have a limited lease, so why should funeral services firms be treated differently?
Mr Ang: I think funeral service cannot be compared with other commercial companies. Funeral service is an essential service to the community. There are lot of intangibles in doing that, because now, what’s always on our minds is, "Will I get a renewal? Should I even invest?"
Bharati: How long do you think the lease tenure should be?
Mr Ang: I would think a minimum of 15 to 30 years. 30 years will be appropriate, but three years is actually too short. Do you realise that funeral facilities are the last place, the last opportunity for us to say our goodbyes, to show appreciation to our departed? If the funeral facilities have not been spruced up, because of the three-year short lease, this is going to be a terrible, emotional experience for the families.
Bharati: In spite of this, you made an effort to spruce up your place though, in order to attract the best staff, in order to give your clients the best experience as well. You invested a lot in the Mount Vernon Sanctuary as well and you open up the parlours for other funeral companies to use as well.
Mr Ang: I have done many firsts in this industry because I believe that my objective is to reach out to all bereaved families in Singapore.
Bharati: Have you thought about what your own funeral would be like?
Mr Ang: I have thought about what my funeral is going to be like, and this is why I am so pro-active in advocating, in changing mindsets. Actually, I hope that, when I pass on, my funeral will not be in the HDB void deck. It'll be in a place where dignity will be able to take place. There are so few funeral parlours that meet the mark and standards for wakes. That’s why everyone goes to the HDB void decks.
Bharati: Why not? You said that the death-related facilities should be integrated into the community – HDB void decks are as integrated as it gets.
Mr Ang: HDB void decks also pose their own challenges, because it is a common space. The noise generated also creates inconvenience, but actually with funeral facilities, dedicated funeral facilities in the neighbourhood, this will address the sound issue, this will address the dignity issue.
Funerals in void decks are what we call “makeshifts” . If you are in a place, in a makeshift tent under the void deck, it is not conducive to hold a funeral. If you use this as comparison to Mount Vernon Sanctuary - it's located within a park, and the park is conducive enough for you to walk around the park to address your grief, so we need to look beyond the infrastructure. The environment is equally important, because this helps us emotionally.
Bharati: So as you mentioned earlier, more funeral parlours and facilities within housing estates would certainly help. Have you thought about how people are able to stomach funerals at void decks, but not funeral services companies or parlours next to their HDB block?
Mr Ang: I think they actually can’t accept both, but they don’t have a choice. The solution is clear - to allocate more land for funeral facilities - but are we ready for that? Are we prepared? Do we have the courage to do that?
ON BEING AROUND DEATH ALL THE TIME
Bharati: We were talking about what you’d like your own funeral to be like. Aside from the location, have you thought of any other details?
Mr Ang: My family always finds that I'm so fickle-minded, because I'm constantly changing the funeral arrangements I want for myself. Before, I wanted myself to be buried, but now I've a different thought. I want one-third of my ashes to be stored in columbarium. And one-third of my ashes I want to place in a bio-degradable urn, and then let it sail through the seas. And one-third of the ashes, I want to like to make into memorial diamonds, so that I can pass to the people who love me and whom I've loved.
Bharati: Why is this so important to you? Some may say why bother? You won’t be here anymore.
Mr Ang: Ashes are not about myself. Ashes are something that we leave behind, so that our families will hold on to it, and they'll remember you, not only yourself, but also your memories, the legacy that you leave behind, and the value system.
There's something for families to hold onto, but I think what is more important when I pass away is to pass down the values system that I have, the spirit that I have that I hope the next generation will be able to pick up.
Bharati: Emotionally, have you been touched by any particular funeral you had to handle?
Mr Ang: I've been touched by many, many funerals. The common denominator for all is the love between people. I can see the affection and the values being shared by the senior generation with the younger generations, and how they remember their loved ones. And this is something that brings the families together. We may leave behind our human shell, but we leave behind values. And that is something I think is very meaningful, and also very touching as well.
Bharati: Tell me about maybe one funeral that was the most challenging to handle.
Mr Ang: I would say deaths involving an infectious disease that is scheduled under our Infectious Diseases Act, are often challenging because firstly, we need to protect our employees, and we need to protect the diseased person, and also maintain confidentiality. Usually in such situations, only one family member that knows about the situation and keeping it from other family members, is something very challenging.
Bharati: What does it feel like to be around death all the time?
Mr Ang: Funeral directors are humans. We get emotional, but we cannot express it, because we have to maintain our professionalism in helping the family.
Bharati: Does this job ever depress you?
Mr Ang: No. Death is actually a part of life, and only when you recognise death is the end point of life, you tend to live your life more meaningfully.
It makes you realise that life is so short. Death is not only meant for the sick and the elderly. Everyone has an entitlement, including the young. So with death surrounding me every day, it gives me urgency to do things.
For instance, I started this foundation at a very young age, in my early 30s, because I do not know how long I will live. I want to change the industry, to change people, to make lives better for everyone. So we need not wait until the retirement age of 65 before we start to do community work. We can start at this moment. So death is actually a constant reminder to me that, "Ziqian, you need to move things faster, better, while you are young, while you have energy to do that, you need to inspire and empower people to join funeral industry.” So this has been my adrenaline every day when I wake up from my bed.