This article was contributed by Dr William Wan, 77, the previous General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. Passionate about making a difference to Singapore, Dr Wan contributes to several non-profit organisations and is also an advocate of active ageing. He sums up his journey thus far as such: 

“A life lived in multiple chapters – from adversarial litigation to mediating kindness. Now breaking the silver ceiling with spring in the autumn of my life.


I’m Not Retired, I’m Refired! 

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream another dream.”  C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

My friend, Mary (not her real name) was an active volunteer and worked very closely and enthusiastically with my wife in the social service run by our church in Washington DC.  For years, we were under the impression that she was single. Then one day, she called to say that her husband had just passed away.  

“Would you please conduct the service for my late husband?” she requested. “It will be with full military honour and the Chaplain of the Air Force will work with you.”

I didn’t know that Mary was married, let alone that her husband was a colonel in the US Air Force. I found out later that as soon as he retired, he became a recluse. He would not answer any phone call or entertain any visitor. He would not step out of the house, preferring to spend his days in his own room, with the curtains drawn. He did that for 30 years before he passed on. At the funeral service, there was hardly anyone there except his family because he had completely cut himself off from his friends.

That encounter made me realise that it is easy to shut down upon retirement. The late colonel was clearly empowered by his clearly defined role, structured days, regular income, built-in social network and a sense of good health. Retiring led to a sense of multiple losses: identity, network, income, a sense of self-worth leading to lack of fulfilment, isolation and uncertainty. This state of mind obviously resulted in his lack of enthusiasm for life in general.  

Having spent a lifetime practising law, teaching at universities, managing a businesses and leading non-profit organizations, my jobs too have become my identity as they gave me my sense of purpose. My conversation with Mary about the pain caused by her reclusive husband made me determined not to go down that route of downward spiral. “There must be life after retirement”, I reflected. That’s when I coined the idea of “refirement” – to find something else to be passionate about to keep going on the upward path. Refirement is a mindset change for me, an opportunity to reinvent myself by adapting positively to the inevitable changes.

Refirement is both about reinventing myself for a different job, and about actively looking for volunteering opportunities. 

I have conventionally retired more than once – from law practice, from being a minister of a church, from the academia and from running a business. Each time I retired, I reinvented myself and quickly adapted to the new environment and learnt new skills to refire myself – to continue to do things but to do them differently in a different season of my life.

During the years of active employment, I have also volunteered. During my sojourning in North America as a pastor and academic, I volunteered as a chaplain and consultant on race-relations with the Ottawa Police Department for ten years. During that period, I also volunteered on the committee to look after the refugees from Cambodia leaving the “Killing Fields” of their homeland under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and writing a column “Out of my Mind” for the Chinese Community Newspaper.

Back in Singapore, I rediscovered volunteering when I retired from another season of law practice. For more than a decade from 2010, I served as chairman of the Prison Fellowship Singapore where I raised funds for the work of reaching out to offenders and ex-offenders with friendship and hope, interacted with them upon their release from prison, walked the difficult journey with some of them as they seek to be reintegrated into society. I also wrote a book to create awareness of the work. 

My volunteering with Prison Fellowship provides me opportunities for social interaction, and a sense of purpose which help maintain my mental and physical health. It allows me to give back to my communities by sharing my experience, skills and expertise. 

Volunteering transforms my fear of retirement to the joy of refirement. Through this charity and other volunteering opportunities, I found that I receive more than I give. There are many blessings in volunteering that embrace the joy of life for the betterment of others.

Prof James Houston, who is 100 years old, taught me in graduate school in Canada in the ‘70s. He retired in the ‘90s when he was 70 years old.  He then refired as a volunteer emeritus professor. A prolific writer of more than 30 substantive books on spirituality and theology, Jim, as he is fondly called, continues to research, write, lecture and mentor.  Until recently, he was still globetrotting to meet his former students and to inspire many through his incredible lectures that stimulate the mind and feed the soul. His regular routine puts many much younger to shame!

I want to be like him to be able to volunteer into my 90s! That will give me another quarter century. I am refired by the thought of the potential and possibilities. It means that I need to continue to keep fit in body, mind and spirit. There is indeed a positive feedback loop. Having an active working life, according to many studies, keep us mentally and physically fit. It delays the onset of age-related diseases including dementia. Being socially active and connected through work gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Thinking about being refired itself is positively motivating.

To be absolutely clear, retirement for me doesn’t mean that there’s nothing meaningful left for me to do. By directing my focus to a new passion in volunteering, it becomes easier to avoid negative stereotypes associated with ageing. All these studies and insights point to the same thing — that ageing really is nothing more than a state of mind. The real challenge is coming to truly believe in ourselves and to be refired by a passion to continue contributing to our society in different but even deeper ways. Refirement is a powerful motivational mindset to break the silver ceiling.

That is why I am not retired, I am simply refired.


Kickstart your volunteering journey with the Silver Guardians programme, where senior volunteers are trained by the Agency for Integrated Care to support Active Ageing Centres. Sign up here:

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