Credit: Ling Anne Hsieh

In Ling Anne Hsieh’s own words: “I don’t have just one trauma, I have like a Netflix series of trauma.”

Ling’s life may read like something out of a TV drama, but unfortunately for the 30-year-old, her troubled past is all too real.

But two decades and three kids later, Ling, who is the co-founder of local non-profit organisation Project Green Ribbon, is determined not to let these experiences be a chip on her shoulder.

Ling recalls to AsiaOne how her life spiralled out of control soon after a family secret was revealed — that the people she had called “mama and papa” were not actually her birth parents. Instead, her biological mum and step-dad were the “auntie and uncle” that Ling would often visit on the weekends.

“That was when everything crumbled for me,” says Ling, who shares that her mum’s family had given her up because her mum was just a teenager at 16 when she fell pregnant.

Ling when she was a child. PHOTO: Ling Anne Hsieh

Ling’s life was upended further when she was forced to move back in with her mum and step-dad at the age of nine. She found herself in a new home environment where she felt controlled, criticised and “blamed for everything”. Feeling unwanted and unloved, Ling rebelled.

She began running away from home, often living with friends and almost anyone who would take her in. In times of desperation she would resort to stealing clothes and food, says Ling, who also spent some years in and out of girls’ homes.

To find security and a place to sleep at night, Ling hopped from relationship to relationship during her teenage years.

When Ling was 11 or 12, she remembers staying with her then-boyfriend at his home — when she was raped by the 17-year-old. “I didn’t know what was happening at the time,” says Ling of the traumatic experience that she’s yet to process in therapy. The police eventually got involved, but Ling is not sure if he was ever charged.

Becoming a KTV hostess at 14

At 14, Ling was with a man who sold contraband cigarettes in Geylang, where she got acquainted with its seedy underbelly and lived from hand to mouth. In order to survive, Ling pretended to be a prostitute and would steal money from clients’ wallets before running out of the room.

When she met a guy named “M”, she thought she had found someone who could save her from her plight. “He was doing well at the beginning but I don’t know what happened, suddenly he didn’t have any more money, and I took the initiative to find a job.

“It was a very desperate situation because we had no money to eat at all,” says Ling.

That was when she stumbled across a job posting in the newspaper which advertised for the role of “guest relations officer”, which she later found out was a KTV hostess.

She got the job.

PHOTO: Ling Anne Hsieh

Ling shares how she became known as a spitfire who would quarrel with customers and refuse to do what she was told.

“All the mamasans in the industry know me as the one who would wear glasses, and they know that I’m very rude and very, very arrogant and demanding.

“I learnt that if customers touch me, I get $50; if they don’t touch me, I also get $50, so why [let them touch me]?” says Ling.

But her hardened exterior and tough attitude were a way in which the street-smart teen tried to protect herself.

Soon, her personal life unravelled as M began to demand every dollar that she earned.

“He would ask me to strip naked and check my body every day and ask me what I did,” recounts Ling. All the money that she took home went towards paying for his car and their meals.

When she fell pregnant with M’s baby, he first accused her of lying, then wanted her to give up the child to him.

She contemplated aborting the baby but couldn’t after finding out that it cost $2,000, an impossible sum for the 15-year-old then.

Ling eventually gave birth and described how she felt intense emotions of love wash over her the moment the girl was placed on her. But despite wanting to keep the child, the newborn was taken away from her by social services.

Meeting her husband

Unbeknownst to herself, Ling was also struggling with depression, and there would be days when she was “crying day and night”.

Driven by a sense of helplessness, she shares how she attempted suicide on multiple occasions between the ages of 12 and 18.

And her life might have turned out differently had she not met her current husband, Iskandar Mahadi.

Ironically, the pair met when she had just started working as a KTV hostess, and he was a customer.

One of the first things that she did, however, was to cry on his shoulders.

Ling describes how they did not hit it off initially due to his aloof attitude and “dishonesty” regarding his identity, as he had given her a bogus name.

“I’d tell the other girls that this guy is a liar,” she adds. But still, she felt oddly drawn to him.

The pair ended up bumping into each other on and off in the next five years at various nightclubs in Singapore, but their relationship was always purely “business”.

“It was like a transaction. I’ll have sex with you, and that’s it,” says Ling.

But Iskandar ended up being the unlikeliest person that Ling turned to for help one night when she was 20 years old.

During that time, Ling had hit another road bump in her life when she sought refuge with a “much older” man who was introduced to her by a step-cousin. But it was no safe haven.

To “compensate” the owner of an aquatic pet store for allowing her to sleep in the shop, Ling gave in to his sexual advances.

“By then I had learnt to use my body, so of course, I slept with him. But I felt very shameful about it, I felt very disgusted by it.” At the same time, however, she grew increasingly terrified of his violent temper.

One night, armed with $50 from working at a KTV lounge the night before, Ling decided to make a run for it. But before that, she picked up the phone to call Iskandar, whom she’d coincidentally run into at the club the night before after not meeting him for years.

It was a bet that Ling wagered everything on, because he was “the last person on her list”.

“I took a plastic bag and pretended to throw rubbish at the back alley and I ran all the way to the main road with Iskandar on the phone with me,” Ling remembers. By then, he had told her that he was divorced, although she wasn’t quite sure if she believed him.

When Ling arrived at his place, she found out that his three kids were with him and asleep by then. Although the situation was inconvenient, he knew that she had called him as a last resort. That was also the first time that Ling saw a softer side to her future husband.

Ling recalls: “He asked me, ‘Are you hungry? Do you want to eat?’ which touched her deeply.

“Can you imagine how I felt, after the feeling of being in danger and someone just asks you ‘are you hungry’?”

Ling ended up staying over permanently after he asked her not to leave, but life was still far from rosy one year, one marriage and one child later.

‘We were just alive’

Ling and Iskandar in 2015. PHOTO: Ling Anne Hsieh

Ling quickly realised that her husband had his own demons to battle, describing him as an alcoholic who would often down “one Martell a night”.

Despite having a job that afforded him a decent lifestyle and even a chauffeur, Ling shares that “he was in a mess himself”, without wanting to reveal more. “I didn’t realise it at the time because I was in a mess too, and probably I was in a bigger mess than he was,” says Ling.

But with a baby on the way, Ling describes how she dreamt of a better life for all of them. “I felt that things had to change, and I didn’t want to do nights anymore.

“Even with the kind of money he had, it was not healthy and not sustainable, because we were not really living life, we were just alive.”

For a change, the couple decided to move to Malaysia.

At Ling’s insistence, Iskandar left his job and went cold turkey to quit his addiction. Throughout his struggle with sobriety, she stayed beside him.

But without any income, their lives took a turn. Once again, Ling found herself close to destitute. “I was only 21 and had no savings, and he had no savings because he splurged everything on alcohol and nightlife.”

As she was pregnant by then, Ling eventually made the choice to move back to Singapore so that they could receive financial assistance and their child could have citizenship.

Ling is hazy on the details but shares that the next two years were a tumultuous time with the combined effects of joblessness and homelessness, with a baby in tow. Ling shares that they were both “unfit for work” during that period due to their mental state.

The family stayed at a shelter and relied on government handouts before being granted an interim flat from the Housing Development Board (HDB).

‘Netflix series of trauma’

Of her mental health, Ling shares that she struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and “a lot of emotional trauma that I relive, again and again”.

“I will start to hyperventilate,” says Ling of the anxiety caused by reliving her past.

She finds it difficult to be alone, and the twilight hours between 5pm and 8pm are the most uncomfortable time of the day for her.

The period hits her the hardest as it takes her back to the many evenings where she would just be “taking the buses as long as I can while waiting for somebody to reply me, hoping that I’ll get a place to stay”.

But Ling shares that things are “better now” because her kids are usually with her at that time.

“I tell myself that I’m 30 years old and I am not that little girl anymore. But doing that is easier said than done. Because I don’t just have one trauma. I have a Netflix series of trauma that is interlinked. So they just trigger off like fireworks.”

Ling has sought therapy for the past 12 years and sees no shame in it. “I always ask people this question, ‘How do you look after your brain?’

“Regardless of who you are and what position you hold, every single human being goes through problems and life challenges, and it’s okay to be vulnerable,” says Ling, who shares that the biggest breakthrough in her search for healing happened only this year, after finally finding the “right therapist” for her.

Ling and Iskandar with their three children. PHOTO: Ling Anne Hsieh

Today, Ling and Iskandar live with their three kids aged three, five and eight in a one-room rental flat, with a BTO flat on the way.

“I would say that we live with the bare minimum, but it’s a choice that we made, to do things right and properly and to seek help,” she shares.

Ling readily admits that theirs is not a success story by far and prefers to call it a constant “work in progress”.

“I don’t wish at all for people to think that my life is perfect or that I’ve gotten everything I wanted or that I’m somewhere, but it’s a journey. Life has no manual to it, and the only thing we can do is just keep breathing, and don’t give up.”

Starting Project Green Ribbon

To help themselves and others, the couple started Project Green Ribbon in February. The hope, shares Ling, is to empower others who are struggling mentally and emotionally like they were and still are.

“I hope that people are more able to understand and realise how important mental well-being is.”

(Read also “12 Singaporean Celebs Open Up About Their Mental Health Struggles“)

Registered as a non-profit organisation, the site and its programmes are currently run by Ling and Iskandar, along with a team of volunteers. One of their key initiatives is a platform called “The Unheard“, which provides an outlet for those struggling to share how they feel, in any way, shape or form.

“It’s more of validating people and giving them a sense of belonging,” explains Ling.

She shares that Project Green Ribbon’s next big event is on Oct 10, which coincides with World Mental Health Day. The event, titled “The Unheard Human Library”, aims to “create awareness and for us to move towards being an inclusive society, with ‘no shame, no stigma’, which is the slogan for the campaign”, says Ling.

The idea for Project Green Ribbon was cemented during a vulnerable time in her life last year. She ended up using the live-streaming platform, Twitch, to pour out her emotions of overwhelm. In her connection with people who were watching, she found solace, and the feeling was reciprocal.

“There were days that I turned on the computer and I was crying and sobbing because I really couldn’t deal with whatever I was feeling, and I had no explanations for it.”

One viewer’s simple response of “I understand” made Ling realise the impact she could have on another’s life.

In order to launch their big project, the couple, who by then were deeply interested in topics of personal growth and development, decided that they first had to have a website, which Iskandar taught himself to build through YouTube tutorials.

On her end, Ling spent hours writing emails to organisations requesting support for what they hoped to achieve. To her surprise, they responded.

“I sat down and emailed 100 organisations,” says Ling, who dropped out of school in Secondary 2. “I got the shock of my life when people replied me, when I was a nobody.”

‘We do things because there’s something in it for us’

But Ling is candid about what she feels is the core reason for starting Project Green Ribbon. 

“I didn’t start it because I’m so kind. If I say that to you, it’ll be a lie.”

Sharing her perspective of human nature, she discloses: “We do things because there’s something in it for us. This was basically to fill a void [in my life] and for a purpose that I needed for myself.

“The rest of it”, such as “hopefully getting a sustainable income and a legacy that I can leave for my kids”, are the “free gifts”, as she calls it.

“My kids know that mummy is not well, but they’ll know that at least mum tried,” she adds.

Being a mother has definitely been a game-changer for Ling, who grew up not liking children and never thought that she could “love a thing” so much.

“Everything I do is with my kids in mind. I don’t want them to end up like me. And I hope they get the opportunity that I didn’t.”

No light without darkness

With her own biological mother, Ling reveals that they are in contact, but some scars remain.

“I will never say that [our relationship] is healed. But I’ll say that things are always a work in progress.”

Despite getting put through the wringer in her life, Ling professes not to hold any bitterness, nor does she feel starved of the goodness of humanity.

“I’ve received empathy, I’ve received kindness and grace from people who were strangers,” says Ling, sharing how volunteers from a local church had helped her repaint her interim HDB flat and donated food and necessities for her children. “If I had not received all this kindness and love, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

She also credits the “darkness” in her life for enabling her to “shine her light even brighter” for others.

“I will say where I’m at now and what I’m doing now [are the highest point in my life], because of the purpose, which makes it so much more meaningful. I’ve never been this motivated in my life.

“I still have problems, I’m still in the battle zone and that’s the truth, and I don’t want to hide it. I just want to say that I’m human,” Ling reveals.

“I do have regrets, but what’s the point of getting into it when a lot of times, things (such as family history) were beyond my control? But what I will regret is if I don’t do something about my present, for my future and my children’s future.”

SINGAPORE HELPLINES

  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
  • Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
  • Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
  • Shan You Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 6741-0078
  • Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: www.eC2.sg
  • Tinkle Friend (for primary school children): 1800-2744-788

This article was first published in AsiaOne.