My latest book ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore‘, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Singapore next year, was launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish. Below is a transcript of my speech.
Good evening everybody. I want to begin by thanking all of you for taking time off from your busy schedule to be here this evening, to help celebrate the launch of my latest book. It’s such a pleasure for me to see a large gathering, like this, of family, friends, ex-colleagues in education, fellow writers, fans, well-wishers, supporters. Also, very importantly, the ardent, secret admirers who will not be named!
I would also like to express my deepest appreciation to all those at Marshall Cavendish for making this event possible. It’s just so amazing how much hard work, sustained effort and meticulous attention to detail go into the production and launch of a book. I had the easiest job—all I had to do was write.
I am sometimes asked this question: ‘Of all your books, which is your favourite?’ and I have always given this coyly teasing answer: ‘My next one’. Well, after today, I think I’ll have to say that this book will be my favourite. The reason is that it came about in the most unexpected way, and was written in one continuous torrent of furious, manic energy and enthusiasm that I’ll probably never experience again.
In June this year, Violet Phoon of Marshall Cavendish approached me to do a commemorative book for the occasion of Singapore’s 50th anniversary in 2015. My immediate answer was No. I didn’t think that my hard-hitting political commentaries would be at all appropriate for a celebratory event. You see, I had got into the habit—bad habit!—of equating the nation Singapore with the ruling party, the PAP, (probably because the PAP has been around for so long), and hence of perceiving the 50th anniversary as yet another PAP-dominated event. Violet patiently explained that I didn’t have to tell stories only about the PAP; I could also tell my own, and other Singaporeans’. Suddenly I realised that writing such a book could be an exciting challenge—documenting, commemorating and celebrating the lives of ordinary Singaporeans including myself, at a time when we pause to take stock of our lives in a much-loved country that we were born in, or had adopted.
Significantly for me, it was nearly 50 years ago that I adopted Singapore, after leaving Malaysia. Right from the start, I had felt completely at home among fellow Singaporeans who had readily welcomed me into their midst. Indeed, through the years, in my different roles as teacher, writer and political critic, I’ve had nothing but warmth and understanding from them, especially during that tempestuous time when the PAP government was enraged by my political commentaries, and for a while, family and friends actually feared I would be thrown into jail, sued into bankruptcy, forced to flee into exile.
What a lot has happened since then, and what a lot of stories to share—stories about experiences that could be fearful or funny, exhilarating or exasperating, deeply moving or profoundly disturbing, in short, tales expressing a wide range of emotions that would resonate well with Singaporeans simply because they reflect our essential ordinariness, our humanness, as we relate to each other and the powers that be. So my book would be a celebration in the broadest sense of the word—it would celebrate life in its totality, its rich diversity, the ups and downs, the shadows and bright spots. And what better occasion to share these experiences than on a milestone birthday that belongs to everyone.
So I sat down and began to select, from my wealth of experiences as educator, writer and political critic, what could suitably go into the book.
Or rather the experiences selected themselves. You know, I’ve come to believe, in an almost mystical way, that when you open your mind and heart in gentle surrender to the creative process, it takes over and does marvellous things! Suddenly from the vaults of memory, experiences from the past leaped out, demanding to be written and shared, like children clamouring for attention.
Here are some examples. I was a young teacher newly arrived from Malaysia, nervously facing a class of unruly teenaged boys. I was trying my best to introduce myself when suddenly a boy from the back shouted out the F word at me. In stunned silence, the class watched intently to see my reaction. I don’t know how I managed to retain my composure and to say, coolly and calmly to the offender: ‘Alright, now that you’ve told me your name, what’s your question?’ The class erupted in laughter. I had won them.
Another example. Twenty years ago, my articles provoked the wrath of then PM Mr Goh Chok Tong. Suddenly, to my shock, I was in the midst of a political storm. But right from the start, I was aware of the support of ordinary Singaporeans who, even if they feared to support me openly, were only too glad to do so privately when they met me—in the streets, in supermarkets, in restaurants. There is an incident from this period that I must have told many times, but I’ll tell it once more because it will amuse you.
One day, shortly after the eruption Mr Goh’s fury, I was in a post office in Holland Village, when I heard somebody call my name. I turned round and saw a young man standing at attention and holding his right arm out stiffly in front, in the manner of a Heil Hitler salute. Then he said loudly and sternly, ‘ Give it to them, the bastards, give it to them!’ Again, just this year, my Open Letter to the PM elicited the same warm encouragement (though not in the same dramatic fashion) from total strangers I met in public places. I must tell you about an interesting email regarding this controversy. It came from a close friend who pretended to give me a good scolding in classic Singapore English. I immediately replied in cool, classic Queen’s English. I will read you our fun correspondence. This was what my friend wrote:
‘So you criticise PM Goh twenty years ago because effective divide and all that, and now you criticise PM Lee because mistrust crisis and all that. So in twenty years’ time more, you criticise new PM Lee, grandson of Lee Kuan Yew, is it? People got seven-year itch, you got twenty-year itch, is it?’
And this was my reply:
‘In twenty years’ time, I will be in my nineties, and hence in danger of losing all my faculties. But the fine example of a nonagenarian like Mr Lee Kuan Yew still exhibiting mental sharpness, is both inspiring and deserving of emulation. So you may be right about the emergence, for the third time, of my political ‘twenty-year itch’ which, hopefully, may coincide with the 70th birthday of Singapore. However, being intellectual in character, it should not be put in the same category as that seven-year occurrence which, being of a base, sexual nature, is distinctly inferior, and unworthy of mention, much less of comparison.’
On the whole, I’m just so appreciative of all the support from fellow Singaporeans in my continuing run-ins with the government. You can have no idea of the deep sense of relief, reassurance and comfort that a political critic feels when she knows she is not alone.
And there are many examples, through the years, of how I have bonded with Singaporeans, from all walks of life, in cosy solidarity through a lot of commonalities. Such as a common attachment to the materialistic 5Cs (I confess I can’t do without creature comforts!), a common use of our rather delectable lingua franca Singlish, a common recognition of our kiasuism in its various forms, some laughable, some quite embarrassing, especially when they become excessive and invite that awful label, the Ugly Singaporean.
But just recalling factual events in my book, mere reportage, wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a compulsive storyteller with a runaway imagination to match! I wanted to exercise that hyperactive faculty by turning dry facts into tantalising stories. And the more rip-roaring the tale, the better! I wanted to marry fact and fiction in a glorious union, to form a new genre called faction that would be the defining feature of my new book. And now I’ll give you an example of a piece of faction, where I used 3 factual items that many of you here must be familiar with.
Factual Item Number 1: Do you remember that about thirty years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew proposed, to a startled Singapore university audience, that in order to solve the problem of a declining population, the government should consider bringing back the practice of polygamy? Mr Lee admiringly cited the example of a former Prime Minister of Japan, Mr Tanaka who spoke openly about his mistresses and concubines, and the children he had with them. Mr Lee moreover used convincing illustrations from the world of Nature: he said that only the most aggressive and virile lions and bucks in a herd got to sire the most offspring and achieve the highest status in the herd.
Factual Item Number 2: When he was PM, Mr Goh one day casually made a comment about Singapore men, that was quickly picked up and circulated. He observed that Singaporean men were kia bors, that is, they were afraid of their wives, were henpecked, were always under the wifely thumb. He even implied that the Kia Bor Syndrome was a national phenomenon.
Factual Item Number 3: Successful Singapore men, once they have achieved the 5 Cs of Cash, Car, Condominium, Credit Card and Country Club Membership, secretly yearn to have a 6th C to complete their happiness, namely, a Concubine. I’m absolutely certain that all you men in the room now, who are fifty five and above, have that secret yearning. Wives, do check that out when you go home this evening.
You can see how these factual items, each so provocative in itself, could all be creatively pulled together in a tale about Singaporean men. My hero’s name is Benny Tham, and he is in his late seventies. Benny has achieved the 5Cs many times over, but he sees himself as a failure, because he has not managed to achieve the ultimate 6th C, has never managed to taste the special delights of that rambunctious, prolific Mr Tanaka. The reason is that he is a confirmed kia bor, as he sadly admits. His wife continues to be domineering and vigilant; for instance, she makes sure that all the maids she employs are certifiably middle-aged, married and ugly.
But it is not jolly storytelling all the way. My tone becomes hard-edged when I come in as political satirist. As is well known from my political writing, my main grouse against the PAP is their harshness towards political dissidents, their relentless hounding of those who dare challenge them. I came up with a piece of satirical faction called ‘Surprise, Surprise’, which describes the fiftieth anniversary celebration in the national stadium. At one level, the story is a straightforward, innocuous description of one scene after another in the stadium; at another level, it is an indictment of this PAP intolerance. The indictment is only clear at the end of the story, with the description of the last scene, intended to startle, even shock the reader. I had tested the story on some friends, none of whom could guess the ending!
Another grievance of mine as a political observer has to do with the PAP’s controversial White Paper in which the projected population of 6-7 million by the year 2030 would have a large component, a very large component—40%—of foreigners. As a Singaporean deeply concerned about our nation’s long term future and the need for a sense of identity among Singaporeans, a true Singaporeanness, I can’t help wondering if the policy of freely granting citizenship to foreigners could severely compromise this national identity.
So I wrote a futuristic story called ‘ Singapore’s 80th Birthday’. It is the year 2045. Singapore is still under the PAP—do I hear a groan somewhere?!—but has been transformed beyond recognition. For it is part of a large political entity, called ‘The Co-Prosperity Sphere’ created and headed by China, now the dominant world power, the new hegemon, determined to increase her sphere of influence even further, especially in Africa and Asia, through a sustained campaign of soft-power politics, the politics of charm and magnanimity. Singapore is her ideal client state, the perfect protege, the poster child. For the President of Singapore is China-born President Zhi, who came from China as a young adult, gained citizenship easily, advanced rapidly and became the PAP government’s favourite candidate for public office. On Singapore’s 80th anniversary, celebrated in the most lavish way with big money from China, in a glittering mega stadium that is one of the best in the world, President Zhi makes a speech addressed to the world, to showcase China’s might. Sounds a little scary, doesn’t it? You can see that my imagination is in overdrive again!
But even this super-active imagination was of little use when it came to certain facts and opinions that I wanted to share with my readers. I am sometimes asked questions such as: Has the PAP ever approached you to join them? Has the opposition? When you got into trouble with the government, there were all kinds of rumours, about the secret police visiting you in the middle of the night, of the threat to revoke your citizenship, etc. Are these rumours true? Do you want the PAP out of power? Do you think the Workers’ Party will form the next government, etc, etc.
Obviously the answers to these questions don’t lend themselves easily to stories; they are best dished out straight, in a precise and unembellished manner. So I had to think of a different kind of faction to deal with these special conditions. I came up with the hypothetical interview which I called the BKBC Interview, BKBC standing for ‘Bo Kia Bo Chap‘ a Hokkien expression which means ‘completely unafraid, can’t be bothered about consequences’. So the ‘Bo Kia Bo Chap‘ interviewer, a bold, brazen, young person peppers me with hard questions which I answer with equal flamboyance and gusto.
But the noisy exuberance gives way, at the end of the book, to a gently reflective summing up of my feelings of deep attachment to the country that I had adopted, and that has adopted me, as I had stated in my dedication. The last chapter, entitled ‘With Love’, was inspired by a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning which begins with the lovely line: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ The chapter is thus a listing, a counting of the ways of my attachment to Singapore. I shall read you some of them:
All my recollections of the good things that happened to me when I first came to Singapore… All my recollections of all the kind acts of fellow Singaporeans… All my favourite hawker centres where I got the best chicken or ‘char siew’ rice, the best ‘nasi padang’, the best rice dumplings, that should put Singapore on the world gastronomical map… All the comforts that I probably could not have enjoyed living in big cities elsewhere, such as being able to drink straight from the tap, being able to call for a taxi after a midnight game of mahjong, and feel totally secure during the entire ride home.
The ways also include some dear, abiding images and memories:
My eyes mist over and there is a catch in my throat when I see this image, from so long ago, of our first Minister of Housing who visits the slum dwellers in Chinatown and sees a man lying on a plank bed, under a blanket. The man apologises for not being able to stand up to greet the minister because he has no trousers on. It is his brother’s turn to use the one available pair. The minister’s eyes well, and there and then he decides to embark on a massive housing scheme for the poor.
There is another mist-in-the-eye moment for me when I read about that marvellous young doctor who catches the dreaded Sars disease while attending to patients. He drives himself to hospital for treatment and knows he’ll never see his family again. He drives round and round the house, unwilling to let go of the sight of his wife and two young daughters waving goodbye to him.
‘Oh, I’m sorry I’ve forgotten to bring my wallet,’ I tell the ‘roti prata’ seller at the hawker centre. He says cheerfully, ‘Never mind, Ma’am!’ Then he lends me ten dollars for the taxi fare home.
I am in a restaurant having lunch with a much-loved, highly respected ex-president of Singapore, who has retired and is enjoying his retirement (I am referring to the late Mr Wee Kim Wee) We are sharing stories. He asks whether the buffet lunch includes tandoori chicken, clearly his favourite. I go to check. No, there is no tandoori. I mention this to the chef. Suddenly there is a look of bright purpose in the chef’s eyes. In fifteen minutes, somebody comes to our table with a big plate of freshly cooked tandoori. The president is obviously very popular, because at the end of our meal, we are informed that somebody has paid the bill.
I never celebrate my birthdays. Soon I’ll be seventy. An ex-student insists on getting together with other ex-students to organise a big party for ‘Old Teacher’. It turns out to be the biggest, rowdiest, happiest birthday bash anyone could have.
I am in a foreign country and waiting in the customs section. The officer sees my Singapore passport, exclaims, ‘Ah Singapore!’, then waves me on.
I am awarded a scholarship to do a PhD programme and allowed to take leave from my job in the Curriculum Department of the Ministry of Education. It is the happiest, though most demanding two years of my life. If I had not come to Singapore, that dream of post-graduate study would never have been fulfilled.
I am having lunch of my favourite ‘bak kut teh’ in my favourite cafe in my favourite shopping centre. The controversy over my bold Open Letter to the Prime Minister has not abated. A young couple comes up to me while I’m enjoying the steaming ‘bak kut teh’ soup, gives a strong thumbs up signal and says, ‘Carry on with your good work.’ Good work. Wow. I have never regarded my political writing in those lofty terms.
And of course I had to end the book on an unabashedly sentimental note:
Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred feelings of appreciation and love bloom in the heart of one who had eagerly adopted Singapore many years ago, and had had no idea then that the country would reciprocate with its own adoption, in the fullest sense of the word.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.