To All Who Have Responded to My Piece on Mr Lee Kuan Yew

I would like to thank all of you who have taken the trouble to respond to my piece on Mr Lee Kuan Yew, published on my website on 30 March.

As a political commentator who necessarily comments on sensitive, controversial and even emotionally charged topics, I expected, indeed welcomed, the wide range and diversity of views expressed in your responses.

I am aware that some of you were upset, and hence owe you an explanation. My explanation will be by way of a small incident related to what Mr Lee had said about me as a political critic.

In April 2013, American columnist, Tom Plate, author of ‘In Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew’, said in the Afterword to his book (reproduced in ‘The Straits Times’), that when, during his lengthy interview with Mr Lee, he asked, ‘Do you have any self­criticism?’, Minister Mentor directed him to my political writing. Mr Plate must have been shocked, as he had described me as the ‘most persistent’ critic of the PAP.

I myself was speechless with astonishment. Mr Lee’s actually equating ‘self­criticism’ with what I had written about him and the PAP, could only mean one thing—that he was in agreement with my views! Indeed, he not only agreed with them, but was authorising Mr Plate to quote from them. It took me a while to absorb the sheer incredibility of it all. But I had never been so deeply, humbly moved in my life. I suppose that even if Mr Lee had not shown this approval of my writing, I would have continued with it. But the fact that he did has made it easier for me to be frank and outspoken all the way.

If readers had been upset in particular by the timing of my piece, coming at a time when emotions were still raw, I can only say that I had little choice. Since it was to be a eulogy of sorts in my role as political commentator, it could not be posted too long after Mr Lee’s demise.

The timing factor was also behind my decision, out of respect for Mr Lee, to turn down all requests from the media, both local and international, for radio and TV interviews, during the period when he was critically ill.

I must say that whatever the factors influencing my political writing in the future, I will be encouraged by Mr Lee’s endorsement of it, to strive always to be clear­eyed but balanced in my analysis, firm but respectful in my tone.

Political Commentary

If Only—To The Memory Of Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015)

You transformed little, obscure, resource-poor Singapore into one of the most successful economies in the world. If today Singapore is described in breathless superlatives—‘best’, ‘richest’, ‘cleanest’, ‘brightest’—it is all because of you.

If only you had done so without so much human cost. If only the high ranking of Singapore in international surveys on economic development were matched by a similar ranking in surveys on human rights.

Your ruling style was distinguished by its efficiency, purposefulness and determination. Once you had established your principles of governance, you followed them with relentless energy.

If only this single-mindedness had not blinded you to the need for change in the evolving political landscape of Singapore. It was extremely painful for concerned Singaporeans to see how the hard reality overtook you at the General Election in 2011, and you had to step down.

You have been described as a great leader. In the many tributes to you, your qualities of greatness were singled out for special mention—your courage, your strength, your vision, your fearlessness, your passion for doing the best for your people.

If only you had shown one more attribute of great leadership—the ability to acknowledge mistakes made and the humility to say sorry for policies that had caused pain and hardship to others.

You were such a wonderful husband and father, the consummate family man. Although you kept your family life private, Singaporeans got to know about it through many engaging anecdotes and family photographs, after your death.

If only this deep sense of family closeness and love had been paralleled by a sense of compassion for the families of those political dissidents who were jailed for decades or had to flee into permanent exile.

You are much admired for your immense love of and devotion to your wife. Singaporeans must have been very moved when they read about how you cared for her in her illness, how you read her favourite novels to her. You had once been reported as saying that if there were an afterlife, you would hope to meet her there.

It must be the wish of even non-believers like myself, that you have been granted this dear wish of yours, your ultimate reward.

Published Work

A New National Slogan for Singapore’s 50th Birthday

The following is a selected chapter from my latest book, ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore’, launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish.

When Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959, he set a trend that, simply because it came from him, had to be followed by his successors. This was the marking of a new premiership with a slogan. Under Lee Kuan Yew, it was ‘A Rugged Society’, under Goh Chok Tong, ‘A Gracious Society’, and under the present Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, ‘An Inclusive Society’.

Mr Lee not only set the trend for a national slogan, but its very form, that is, a short phrase comprising a noun for the total aggregate of the nation, its people and their national aspirations, preceded by an adjective that could change, depending on the preference of the new premier. Indeed, through the adjective he could announce to the people his specific goal for them and what he hoped to achieve during his term in office.

The ‘Rugged Society’ of Lee Kuan Yew was appropriate for an era when the society was going through its most trying times, and ruggedness, with all its correlates of toughness, discipline, resilience, perseverance and determination, was certainly called for. The frequently heard, stern exhortation those days was ‘Work hard, depend on yourself,’ followed by the grim reminder: ‘Nobody owes you a living’. There was no dearth of reminders. ‘If you don’t move forward, you’ll move backwards. And if you move backwards, you’ll go under.’

The image of the Rugged Society was provided by Mr Lee himself. In the newspapers and on TV, whether talking to the crowds, arguing in a debate, confronting adversaries, the image of Mr Lee’s aggressively thrusting jaw, frowning brow and pugnacious raised fist, became deeply imprinted in the people’s consciousness. It provoked awe, fear, admiration, and most of all trust. For Singaporeans could see that it was precisely Mr Lee’s living up to the austere demands embodied in his slogan that enabled him to solve the problems then plaguing the young nation, allowing the people to live and work in safe surroundings. Mr Lee began his task by cracking down on troublesome elements, namely the gangsters, Communist sympathisers, mischief-making racists and unruly trade unionists. Then having cleaned up the political and social environment, he went on to consider the basic needs of the people, providing subsidised, affordable housing with modern sanitation, schools and public amenities. Over the years, he took the city state, once so poor and vulnerable, from one level of material prosperity to another.

When the prosperity moved on to a non-material form, namely, culture, Mr Lee insisted on the need for culture of the rugged kind, coining the phrase ‘cultural ballast’ (ballast being the heavy substance such as gravel, lead or coarse stone placed on the outer surface of a ship’s hull to ensure stability) For a time, the coinage was taken up and passed around by the educated masses who never stopped admiring Mr Lee as the consummate wordsmith. All the while, he maintained his tough stance, coming down hard on those who opposed him and got in his way, especially his political critics. He never relinquished his knuckleduster.

But the Rugged Society had its costs which became evident with the rise of a new generation. Mr Lee must have realised that with the emergence of a younger, better educated population, a change of ruling style was necessary and in the 80’s, he was ready to have a successor. The new Prime Minister was Mr Goh Chok Tong (who, Mr Lee later revealed to a startled public, had never been his choice). As a leader, Mr Goh was completely different from Mr Lee in style and temperament. While Mr Lee was tough-talking and belligerent, Mr Goh was mild-mannered and urbane. More significantly, Mr Goh’s philosophy was totally different, as conveyed by his slogan, ‘A Gracious Society’.

Indeed, ‘gracious’ was a complete U-turn from ‘rugged’. The slogan emphasized the need for a society to acquire qualities that would have been decried in the earlier era as not only irrelevant but detrimental. When Mr Goh quoted the elder Mr George Bush’s promise of a ‘kinder, gentler society,’ Mr Lee must have been tempted to retort, ‘It was toughness and roughness that got us where we are!’ But the qualities Mr Goh advocated were of a much higher order on the human scale, including courtesy, considerateness and compassion, which Mr Goh must have considered as ultimately the true marks of a civilised and mature society.

They also included qualities of refinement of mind and manners, such as the love of reading and of the arts. Mr Goh had on more than one occasion bemoaned the absence of the reading habit in Singaporeans, compared to, say, the Japanese. Moreover, the reading preference of Singaporeans was a very narrow one, limited to material of a purely utilitarian and functional nature, or with low intellectual content, as shown by the predominance in bookshops of books on business and managerial skills, computer programs, trade manuals, sports and beauty magazines, gossip tabloids etc. Mr Goh called on Singaporeans to emulate the Swiss, the best example, in his opinion, of a highly civilised, urbane and cultured society, the best model of ‘gracious living’. In terms of the well-known Maslovian hierarchy of human needs, ranging in a pyramidal structure from the most fundamental at the base to the highest at the peak, Mr Goh’s values would have occupied the peak, far above Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s at the base.

Now many had wondered about the major slogan switch by Mr Goh. Was it a deliberate attempt to show his determination to be free of the powerful Mr Lee? After all, he could not have forgotten Mr Lee’s cutting remark that if he, Mr Lee, had had his way, Dr Tony Tan would have been his choice for premiership. Neither could he have forgotten all the ungenerous speculations during his term about how he was being just a transitional stand-in, a ‘seat warmer’ preparing the way for Mr Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, to take over. It must have been a matter of pride, dignity and self-assertiveness for Mr Goh to come up with his particular slogan.

His successor Mr Lee Hsien Loong saw fit to make a significant change in the national slogan that would take it in a different direction. His ‘An Inclusive Society’ shifted the focus from the people to the government, that is, it made no mention of the qualities desired in the people as the previous two slogans did, but instead implied the attribute desired in the government, that is, an all-enveloping magnanimity that took into account everyone in the society. Inclusiveness meant precisely that. No group would be excluded on any grounds, whether of race or religion, socio-economic status or cultural background; no individual would be excluded, whether highly or lowly educated, whether young or old, married or unmarried, whether able-bodied or handicapped. It was a far-reaching humanism that could not have been a more commendable goal for any government.

There was hence a very significant slogan change, because for the first time, the focus was on government duty rather than people responsibility. Thus it became much more purposeful in tone, and much larger in scope. It did not reject the two previous slogans, for it obviously assumed that the qualities enjoined by them should continue to apply accumulatively in the on-going development of the society. But its refreshing feature was its recognition that only the government had this power of inclusiveness, the power to unite all the different segments of society and ensure that everyone, without exception, would benefit from this power. The slogan implied that, in acknowledgment of this reality, the government would carry out the consequent responsibility. It was a rare and laudable combination of realism and idealism.

On that point, it may be said to be the soundest and bravest of the national slogans. Its effectiveness will be assessed at the end of Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s term of office. Meanwhile, in view of the many problems that Mr Lee has faced and continues to face, it would appear that like the two predecessor slogans, his is clearly inadequate for the dealing of the many complexities experienced by the nation as it continues on its journey towards greater nationhood.

Indeed, the inadequacy of each slogan must have been obvious to its creator at the end his premiership. A Rugged Society? Did Mr Lee Kuan Yew reflect with disappointment that the material prosperity he had made possible had given rise to a spoilt, effete generation? When the Anti-Littering campaigns were launched, did he shake his head sadly over the emergence of a whole society of careless, lazy citizens who would not go to the bother of disposing of their litter in the provided dumps and bins? When he introduced the policy of very high salaries for ministers and civil servants, was he, in effect conceding that talent could only be enticed by big money, and no longer by the Rugged Society ideals of hard work, self-sacrifice and true service to the nation?

A Gracious Society? Mr Goh must have been dismayed by the rampancy of the peculiarly Singaporean trait of kiasuism that spawned a whole culture of selfishness, small-mindedness and exploitativeness, where there was little room for the social graces. When he famously divided Singaporeans into ‘quitters’ and ‘stayers’, chiding the quitters for leaving their countries to settle abroad, and commending the ‘stayers’ for loyally remaining at home, was he upset that Singaporeans were showing ungraciousness and disloyalty of the worst kind? Today, he must be appalled by the widespread use of vulgarities and obscenities in the social media. He could never now, as Senior Minister, talk about his early ideals of gracious living, without risking embarrassment.

What about the present Prime Minister’s slogan of ‘An Inclusive Society’?

The shock results of the General Election of 2011 had made the PAP government sit up and do some real evaluation of their policies to restore the trust of the people. One of their decisions must have been a return to the slogan, to give it new, concrete meaning. So in the years following GE 2011, Singaporeans have been witnessing a systematic effort, through major programmes, not only to improve the lives of Singaporeans through more jobs, more affordable housing, better transport, etc. but to to make sure that all needy groups that might have been neglected in the past, are now included. The elderly, the handicapped, children with special needs, children who through parental neglect or ignorance have never gone to school, the terminally ill who want to die at home, rehabilitated prisoners and many others once overlooked, have now come under the purview of a caring government that wants to be seen to be so.

Indeed, the caring arm reaches far and wide. For instance, those who had contributed to Singapore’s development in the past, and who are now entering old age, are being rewarded in a special programme called the Pioneer Generation Package that confers financial benefits in various forms. As for those civic groups agitating for protection of the environment or cultural heritage sites, even if their demands cannot be fully met, the government is prepared to listen and make substantial compromises. It is as if the government, in re-visiting its slogan, wants to give it full meaning.

That would also mean bringing into the fold certain groups that had been marginalised on moral grounds. They included single mothers who were not entitled to government-subsidised housing, because their behaviour violated the conventional sanctity of marriage, and homosexuals whose behaviour was not only immoral but illegal as well, being criminalised by laws of long standing. Today the official stigmatisation is gone, and the inclusiveness policy extends to them.

But despite all these efforts of inclusiveness, there is one deficiency that must be dealt with, for that vaunted term to have any meaning at all. For there is one group that is being strenuously excluded. It is the group of political critics who dare to criticise the government openly, through whatever means they can find. The issues often have to do with basic democratic rights of expression, open debate and public assembly. The government has had a long and uneasy relationship with them. In the past, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s knuckleduster approach simply got rid of them by destroying them financially or forcing them to go into permanent exile abroad.

Over the years, it became more and more difficult to resort to these extreme measures for a variety of reasons, including the appearance of of a stronger opposition, a new electorate of young, confident, vocal Singaporeans savvy in the use of the Internet, and in general, the distaste, on the part of the PAP leadership itself, for bad publicity in the world media. Indeed, if the PAP government returned to the old authoritarian ways they might risk making Singapore the new black sheep, replacing the now reformed Myanmar, in the ASEAN fold.

What seems to be happening is a determination on the part of the PAP government to exclude these troublesome elements from the national family. For to include them would involve an entire mindset change, leading to a virtual overhaul of the political landscape that the government is both unable and unwilling to undertake. For instance, shortly after GE 2011, when some ex-political detainees requested the government to set up a commission of inquiry to look into the allegations made against them, the immediate response was a clear No.

Political commentators like myself watching the event as it unfolded were dismayed. I thought that the government had missed the best opportunity to prove their sincerity when they promised major change which presumably included political reform. For if they had acceded to the ex-detainees’ request, they would have signalled to the people a genuine desire to practise the inclusiveness that was being preached. But it would have been a most discomfiting act to the PAP, unleashing a whole barrage of consequences that they would have no stomach for, such as the media publicity, both at home and abroad, that they dislike so intensely.

The Prime Minister, like his predecessors, has a real abhorrence for the mess and noise that come with adversarial politics, and will shut these out as much as he can. If the PAP government is forced to make concessions, they will settle for the barest minimum, for instance, allowing mass gatherings only at designated, controlled areas such as The Speakers’ Corner, constantly watching to see that the participants do not go too far. In general, right from the start of its rule, the PAP leadership has had the ‘if you’re-not-for-me-you’re-against-me’ stance. If the adversaries are elected opposition members and sit in parliament, the government will try its best to ‘fix’ them (as the Prime Minister once stated, in an unguarded moment). If they are not in politics but are open critics of the government, the PAP will try to cow them in any number of ways, including using the defamation suit.

Yet it can be argued that this special group of so-called trouble makers so detested by the PAP, have a clear, useful role to play in society. In their agitating for change, they are drawing attention to certain deficiencies in government style and practice that would otherwise have gone unnoticed and unchecked. As GE 2011 had shown, when a government has been too long in power, it tends to become complacent and lax. It may get away with all its lapses with a majority that prefers to stay silent, but not with a minority that is brave enough to be vocal. Indeed, in the long run, the change that can come about through the action of this minority is the special strength of the democratic system.

But the government prefers to see them as a major hindrance to the stability and prosperity of the society. If the PAP had its way, the only political activity of all Singaporeans would be just once every five years, when they go to vote in the General election. The rest of the time, they should be busy making money, taking care of their children, advancing up the prosperity ladder. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in political terms, the PAP would like a perfectly homogeneous society forged in their image.

The danger of political homogeneity is best seen through an analogy from biology. As organisms evolve, they carry ‘rogue’ or mutant genes in their hereditary material, which through competition over time, give rise to new species, thus creating biological variety, diversity or heterogeneity. It is this diversity that saves a species from extinction. For if a species remained homogeneous, it could be entirely wiped out in the event of a natural disaster such as a disease epidemic. This was painfully clear in the case of the Potato Famine In Ireland, when a disease wiped out the entire crop that was not protected by variety.

The political dissidents are like these mutant genes in providing robustness to the political system, through its constant need to respond to them. Engagement with difference is always healthy, guaranteeing growth and development. In the event of a national crisis, it will be these very dissidents who would fight for their country, with the same passion that they had previously defended it against government misdemeanour and abuse.

The PAP government can’t seem to bring itself to acknowledge this positive role that political delinquents could play. Their predominant fear is based on the slippery slope theory. Allow the rogues freedom in this or that, watch them become bolder in their demands and finally, watch the situation spiralling out of control, and society going downhill! But this is a baseless fear. The PAP government has by now a very effective machinery of surveillance, control and punishment to take care of extreme elements, so that crime syndicates or terrorist organisations, for instance, can never reach the stage when they will destroy the society. Instruments of control such as the Internal Security Act, by which extremists could be detained and jailed without trial, would do the job very well. Again, the sophisticated PAP surveillance apparatus was very effective in dealing with the Jamiyah Islamiah terrorist threat in Singapore. Currently, no criminal or terrorist group has managed to plant itself on Singapore soil. So to conjure nightmarish scenarios of a society in chaos because of too much freedom being given to the people is to be disingenuous.

At present, the PAP government must be aware that the floodgates of change have opened, not only in Singapore, but the whole world. Almost on a daily basis, Singaporeans are aware of changes that have overtaken their society, some in the most unexpected ways. So, under the present circumstances is the present national slogan of ‘An Inclusive Society’ at all relevant? Should it be changed to reflect the changing needs and aspirations of the people?

If we are to retain the practice of having national slogans, I believe there is a case for its preservation, since it is the best of the national slogans so far in its highlighting of the role and responsibility of the government. That should always be the starting point of any government interaction with the people, whether it be through policies, rules or slogans.

But if it’s grossly inadequate, what can be done? Here’s a suggestion. On the occasion of Singapore’s 50th birthday, could it be simply revised to ‘An Inclusive Society Part 2’? Since Part 1 has already done a good job of thoughtfully including so many different groups (the newest group is animal lovers living in HDB flats, who may be allowed to keep pets under a new ruling), Part 2 could finish up the job by including a long neglected—and long maligned—group, the political mavericks and troublemakers who, after all, are true Singaporeans, true citizens of a nation they care for.

A rogue gene is a good thing after all. A rogue voice in politics can do some necessary shaking up. Mess and noise guarantee that the democratic process is kept alive. And a national slogan in two parts may not be a bad idea at all.

Published Work

A Writer’s Roller-Coaster Ride

The following is a selected chapter from my latest book, ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore’, launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish.

Once a young writer from the US whom I had met at a Writers’ festival in Hong Kong many years back, told me about something he had done, which made me actually blush with embarrassment for him. He had gone into a bookshop to see how his book, newly published, was being displayed. Annoyed that it was half-hidden among other publications in the display window, he immediately brushed aside its rivals to give it the most prominent spot in the window.

I suppose Singaporean writers, at least those in my generation, could never be so brazenly self-promoting!

Apart from the need to help our publishers promote our books, we are impelled by something that may be called ‘writer’s vanity’, that is, we want to have only good things said about them. We bristle at negative reviews, glow over good ones. And the one that is one hundred percent complimentary puts the writer on cloud nine for days.

I was lifted to such heights, years ago, by a review that, very oddly, comprised only one word: ‘Unputdownable.’ It was an ugly lexical concoction, an unwarrantable forcing together of different grammatical items—a prefix, a verb, a preposition and a suffix. As a rather old-fashioned teacher of English and literature, I would never have permitted such linguistic licence. But I forgave the infraction because I liked the flattery.

So with great care and eagerness, I unpacked the tributes contained in that one word. Firstly, it meant that I had fulfilled an essential requirement for novelists, as stated by a highly regarded writer and essayist, E.M. Forster who insisted that a good novel must tell a good story. Well, I concluded that since the reviewer could not put down my novel of more than 300 pages, I must have told a good story. Secondly, I reasoned, in addition to the good story, there must have been literary merit as well. For the experienced reviewer, if he found none of that after the first few pages, would have put it down. Thirdly, by using a single word, followed by an exclamation mark to emphasize his approbation of my book, he must have intended to draw attention to it.

I had thus argued myself into a state of blissful delirium that lasted for days.

But bouquets come with brickbats. Once I was in a bookshop, browsing through a magazine. A young man, looking very stern, walked up to me and said angrily, ‘I don’t like your writing. Why are you so biased against men? Why are the males in your stories portrayed in such a bad light? So you are one of those detestable feminists?’ I don’t remember what, in my surprise and shock, I had said in my reply. I only remember that days later, I had a well-prepared speech in my head that would be my answer to his questions, if we happened to meet again and he came marching up to give me another scolding.

It was an awkwardly defensive and diffuse speech which probably would not have pacified my critic: I was not against men, indeed I counted men as among my good friends, I was no aggressive, cigar-chomping, bar-crashing, bra-burning feminist, I was just feeling sorry for the poor abused women I remembered from childhood, I had actually made honorable mention of men here and there in my stories, and so on and so on.

But the criticism that sent me on a stomach-churning coaster-roller ride came, not from an individual, but an entire community in Singapore. Thankfully, a very happy event, which I counted as among the happiest in my life, had taken place prior to the hostility, as if to soften it in advance. And ironically, it was that very event that had set off the animosity.

It was the selection, in 1981, of my book of short stories, entitled ‘Or Else, the Lightning God’, by the Cambridge Examinations Syndicate as a literature text for students. I had not been officially informed about the decision, and only knew about it when a journalist from a major newspaper called me to ask for an interview. I shrieked in great excitement into the phone, probably alarming the journalist, ‘What? When? Why? Did Cambridge say why they chose my book? Did they like it? When is it going to be used in the schools? Tell me, quick!’

It was the best thing that could happen to a writer who was also a literature teacher. Perhaps the greatest thrill was in knowing that my stories might be studied not only by students in Singapore, but almost worldwide, for the Cambridge language and literature syllabi, as I understood, were more or less the same for students in the other Commonwealth countries.

For a while, I envisaged students in Nigeria or India or Sri Lanka who had never been to Singapore, indeed, might never have heard of Singapore, reading, with a mix of fascination and puzzlement, about people and happenings in an entirely different cultural and geographical setting. For one thing, I had written the book purely for a local audience and had liberally sprinkled local expressions throughout, especially in the dialogue, such as ‘tolong, tolong‘ uttered in despair by a very sick man who thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of a servant girl he had raped and who had subsequently died from a messed-up abortion.

How would my young non-Singaporean readers react to tales about the Chinese practice of conjuring ghosts up from the grave; the travails of a poor bondmaid (there is no word in the English dictionary for unwanted female children subjected to a certain system of bondage in Asia ); the young girl who surreptitiously stole a bit of durian (a tasty, creamy fruit native to SouthEast Asia) and was punished by her rich relatives who forced her to eat huge amounts of it until she became ill; the old, illiterate Hokkien woman angrily calling the curse of the powerful Lightning God upon her disrespectful, highly-educated daughter-in-law.

As I was borne along on a stream of elation at what I would regard as one of the most significant events in my life as a writer, I had no idea that resentment was building up against me in the Eurasian community. The cause of their anger was one particular story in the book, entitled ‘Kenneth Jerome Rozario.’ It is about a Eurasian schoolboy who comes from a broken home, lives with an aunt who has little time for him, gets his girlfriend pregnant and has to leave school. The story ends with him sitting on the ledge of a high-rise building, his legs dangling over the edge. There is a blissful smile on his face as he listens to a gently mournful song coming from his radio, inviting him to a happier world. His family and girlfriend are frantically pleading with him not to jump.

The community resented, not the negative portrayal of one of their own, but my inclusion of a dialogue between two Chinese teachers in Kenneth’s school, one of whom makes disparaging comments about Eurasian behaviour and propensities. I wish I had been given the chance to explain that in a work of fiction (unlike a work of non-fiction, such as a social commentary), the views expressed by the characters in dialogue are not necessarily those of the writer, but are there to serve some literary purpose, such as to delineate a character more sharply, contrast him/her with other characters, provide a local flavour and authenticity, reinforce the writer’s use of irony, etc.

The complaint against me was taken right up to the Minister of Education, together with a request for the book to be withdrawn as a literature text for the exams. I was not told about the matter, and only found out indirectly from a newspaper reporter who had come to know about it. I was very upset. Suppose that rare honour and pleasure of having my book studied by students in all the schools in Singapore was taken away from me? Suppose I had alienated my Eurasian friends, one of whom I had known for years? Most of all, I was angry that a simple literary device had not only been badly misunderstood but made the subject of a complaint that was taken up to the highest levels.

For a while, I was furious enough to wallow in the peevish self-indulgence of exaggerated rhetoric: So will the Indian community also make the request to the Ministry to withdraw my book because another story tells about a Mr Velloo who is poor, shabbily dressed, quarrelsome, his mouth permanently reddened by his ceray chewing? Will the Teochew community complain too about dialectal bias because one of my stories is about a proud Hokkien patriarch who refuses to allow his daughter to marry into a Teochew family?

But, to my great relief, the incident ended happily for me. Indeed, I could not have wished for a better ending. What happened was that the Ministry of Education had dealt with the issue in the most sensible, diplomatic, and best of all, professional manner. They had decided not to accede to the request to withdraw my book, but at the same time were quick to assure the complainants that the matter would not end there. The Ministry’s inspectors would in future conduct workshops and training sessions to help literature teachers deal with sensitive topics, such as race, religion, sex, moral traumas and social taboos, exemplified in the lives of individuals, are a staple in literature. They would hold discussions for a clearer understanding of the literary devices used by writers to handle particularly complex themes.

I had no part in all these decisions and learnt about them only much later. But I was deeply impressed by the Ministry of Education’s solution to a tricky problem. It was an ingenious move. In one fell stroke, it did the following things: defused the situation by taking away the racist element, turned a potentially divisive, emotion-charged issue into a purely academic one, pre-empted all such incidents in the future, indirectly freed Singapore writers of unnecessary constraints, and lastly, and best of all, established the basis for a sound approach to the teaching of literature in schools.

So my little book had taken me on a giddying adventure—up into the clouds of elation, down in a hard landing of anxiety, exasperation and annoyance and then back again on a smooth ride of self-pride and contentment, that continues to this day.

I am sometimes intrigued by the parallel universes that those esoteric, weird quantum physicists tell us about, where all possible outcomes of events can take place, where, for instance, John Kennedy had not been assassinated, where Singapore is still part of Malaysia. I don’t want to think of the parallel universe where the ‘Kenneth Jerome Rozario’ incident, as I have come to think of it, had an unfortunate ending. If it is true that small incidents can be the spark for a conflagration, the mishandling of a minor issue could have snowballed into a crisis. It could have been exploited by racist elements, become an openly divisive issue, and damaged the fragile bonds of our multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. In that kind of dreadful universe, the joyous celebration of a national 50th birthday would not be possible.

Published Work

The BKBC Interview

The following is a selected chapter from my latest book, ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore’, launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish.

The following is a hypothetical BKBC, that is, bo kia, bo chup interview. This is a Hokkien expression that is literally translated as ‘not afraid, can’t be bothered’, to convey recklessness and defiance

Interviewer: Let’s be clear right from the start. I’m a BKBC interviewer! I’m not afraid to ask you any question, even the most sensitive. And I don’t care if you’ve never been asked the question before in any of your previous interviews! Are you ready?

Me: Yes.

Interviewer: Are you sure? I warn you that my questions can be really garang, so aggressive you’ll squirm in your seat, and Singaporeans who are listening in will say, ‘Aiyoh! So daring!’

Me: I said I was ready to answer all your questions.

Interviewer: You’ve said many times that we still live in a climate of fear in Singapore. For this interview, there will be no fear—neither from you nor me! A no-holds-barred interview. Hurray!

Me: Please begin your questions.

Interviewer: Ah, so BKBC interviewer meets BKBC political critic. I remember that you once began a speech by describing yourself humorously as very mm-chai-see. Hey, I love that expression. I think it’s an even better description of daredevilry than BKBC! So shall we use it too—

Me: Do cut out all that stuff, and start asking your questions.

Interviewer: Alright, alright. Here’s the first question. Are you completely anti-PAP and want them out of power?

Me: No, I’m not completely anti-PAP. Indeed, I’m completely pro-PAP when it comes to certain things, for instance, their commitment to the leadership principles of hard work, discipline, competence, responsibility and incorruptibility, which has resulted in their having done so much for the country. I’ve never heard of any political party in the world that came into power, making this pledge to the people, and working hard to honour it.

But I can’t help being anti-PAP when it comes to a change I’ve noticed in the leadership. After nearly fifty years in power, there is a growing complacency and sense of entitlement resulting in the leaders taking the people for granted, pushing through policies without regard to the people’s feelings. If they persist with this attitude, they deserve to be out of power. But if they have learnt valuable lessons from the General Election of 2011, and sincerely go back to those laudable principles of the earlier years, continually adjusting to change through renewal and reinvention, then they surely deserve to be around for as long they are serving the people well.

Interviewer: Do you want the Workers’ Party to overthrow the PAP in the next General Election, and form the next government?

Me: No. The Workers’ Party has said, candidly and realistically, that it is not ready to form the next government so soon. But I would like to see a greater representation of the opposition in parliament with each General Election. Nobody wants to see one-party dominance entrenched permanently in the Singapore political landscape; it simply cannot be good for the nation in the long run.

Interviewer: Has the PAP ever approached you to join them?

Me: No.

Interviewer: Has the opposition ever approached you to join them?

Me: Mr J.B. Jeyaratnam—he passed away some years ago—did try to interest me in the party he formed shortly after he had cleared himself of his bankruptcy. But no, I wasn’t interested. There have been small overtures and feelers from certain members from the other opposition groups. But in general, I’m not at all inclined to get into politics.

Interviewer: Did you ever fear being sued, or jailed or forced to go into exile, like many other political dissidents?

Me: No. Never once did I think I would be jailed, or forced to flee the country. But in 1994, there was the fear of a defamation suit when my article ‘The Great Affective Divide’ angered Mr Goh Chok Tong. Fortunately the fear was unfounded, and in the twenty years since, I have continued to play my role as a political commentator.

Interviewer: Some Singaporeans believe that the PAP is leaving you alone and not punishing you, because it is serving their purpose beautifully! You see, when they are criticised for not allowing freedom of speech, they can say, ‘Look at Catherine Lim. She’s been a government critic for years, and see, nothing has happened to her.’

Me: That’s a silly conspiracy theory. The PAP works in a straightforward, forthright manner, not in any roundabout way. If they want to come down hard on you, they will do so. I think there are two reasons why they are leaving me alone. Firstly, I am an independent voice, and not linked with any opposition party, or any foreign organisation that is hostile to them. Secondly, they know I am no threat at all to them. I am no rabble-rouser, no provocateur, only a writer of political commentaries that I put up on my website for those who want to read them.

Interviewer: After your ‘Great Affective Divide’ kicked up a ruckus, one of the ministers called you a bo tua bo say. Now that was a pretty strong rebuke! How did you take it?

Me: Well, I suppose as a critic, I have to expect robust rebuttals, even name-calling. I should develop thick, durian-type skin! This bo tua bo say rebuke is the strongest in an Asian setting, for it means that you have no respect whatsoever for those in authority. It is bad enough when adults use it to scold a disrespectful child; it is much worse when leaders use it against adult members of the public. Because it means that you’re a real idiot for having no sense of your proper place in the social hierarchy.

Interviewer: All your commentaries have been critical of the PAP. Have you ever written anything in praise of them?

Me: Well, in my commentaries, I try to present a balanced picture, giving due credit to the PAP at the same time that I am criticising them. But yes, years ago, I wrote an article that was pure praise! That was when the terrible Asian tsunami caused our neighbour, Indonesia to suffer great loss of lives and destruction of entire villages. Our government went to their help instantly, calmly, without fanfare, without conditions, setting an example for the far richer and more powerful countries in the world.

I remember I was so impressed by the generosity of the help given. I was also impressed by the sensitivity and thoughtfulness shown by the government when they sent over personnel who could speak the Indonesian language, to ensure proper and tactful communication. Moreover, a year or so after the tsunami, there was follow-up action, to make sure, for instance, that the clinics that had been set up were functioning properly. There must have been many Singaporeans like myself who were just so proud of our government!

Interviewer: But you must admit that that was very rare, very exceptional praise from you. You tend to criticise, not praise!

Me: Yes. I suppose it is because praise doesn’t serve the same function as criticism does. It just ends there, whereas criticism draws attention to an issue that may be serious enough to need corrective action.

Interviewer: Has the PAP ever said anything good about you? Paid you a compliment?

Me: Gracious, no! But in April, 2013, I read a report in the Straits Times, that was a compliment of sorts, and it came from Mr Lee Kuan Yew—imagine! A friend had called me to direct me to the report, since she knew I often did only a cursory reading of the ST. It was actually a full-page excerpt from the ‘Afterword’ of a book by the American author and syndicated columnist Tom PLate, called ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’. Mr Plate wrote that he had asked Mr Lee to offer some self-criticism, and Mr Lee referred him to me! He must have been most astonished because he had called me ‘PAP’s most persistent critic’ in his book. I was equally incredulous. I was just so relieved that when Mr Plate quoted from the transcript of a speech I had given in 2012, a rather hard-hitting one, he did not reproduce some of the brutally blunt adjectives I had used for Mr Lee— ‘vindictive’, ‘ruthless’, ‘ a man trapped in a time warp’, ‘his presence more toxic than tonic’, etc. Instead he quoted the end of my speech in which I summed up the legacy of Mr Lee. I had said: ‘Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy will be so mixed that at one end of the spectrum of response, there will be pure adulation, and at the other, undisguised opprobrium and distaste. But whatever the controversies that surround him, everyone will agree that for a man of his stature and impact, neither the past nor the present holds an equal.’

I suppose this was my ‘compliment’ to Mr Lee, and in referring Tom Plate, his biographer, to me, he was returning the ‘compliment’ (both compliments needing those strong, qualifying inverted commas!) But I must tell you, it made me very happy. Because Mr Lee never minces his words, and says exactly what he feels.

Interviewer: What is the thing that you dislike most about the PAP?

Me: What I consider their lack of empathy, their disregard of the people’s feelings and sensitivities. It seems to me that the PAP’s attitude is that as long as they provide excellently for the material needs, they have done enough. They believe that matters regarding freedom of expression and open debate are completely irrelevant, even a nuisance. They have punished political dissidents in the most horrific ways, such as incarcerating them for years, decades.

Interviewer: Was there any occasion when you were really angry with the PAP?

Me: Yes, the Mas Selamat incident, when a top terrorist escaped from prison with incredible ease. It wasn’t the carelessness, almost unbelievable, on the part of a government that prides itself on its competence, that enraged me. Three other things did. Firstly, the Minister in charge at that time simply and casually announced in parliament that he was sorry it happened. Surely the proper thing for him to do, for such a major lapse, was to offer to resign, out of respect for the people. Secondly, those who bore the brunt for the shocking incident were the ‘little people’, that is, low-level officers at the prison such the security guards who were penalised in one way or other. Thirdly, when, at long last, after a massive search in Singapore, Mas Selamat was captured (in Malaysia), it was revealed that after he escaped he had holed up with his relatives in Singapore. Everyone was shocked. What? If that was true, surely the Singapore police would have nabbed him immediately, as the first strategy in a manhunt like this would be to cordon off all relatives, indeed the relatives of the relatives. There would have been round-the-clock surveillance.

A very senior PAP official, in response to the queries, was reported in the newspapers to have said matter-of-factly that there were 100 of those relatives, implying that the number was too large to deal with. I almost fell off my chair in amazement. Surely he didn’t think that Singaporeans were so dumb as to think that this number was a justifiable deterrent to the search and capture of one of the most dangerous terrorists in the region?

The Mas Selamat incident had been most upsetting to me because it confirmed for me the government’s total disconnect with the people.

Interviewer: In one of your articles some years ago, you said something very provocative. You said that there was no real loyalty towards Singapore, and that in the event of a crisis, Singaporeans might quietly pack up and go. Now surely that was a terrible thing to say!

Me: I hope that things have changed. I don’t know. I’m still inclined to believe that a large section of the population has come to equate the PAP, the political party, with Singapore, the nation, because the party has been in power for so long. PAP equals Singapore, and vice versa. This is terrible! It could mean that if Singaporeans have any loyalty at all, it is most likely only loyalty to the good life made possible by the PAP. Just that, a self-serving loyalty. It is also a shifting loyalty, ready to move to where the good life can continue to be enjoyed. I am almost tempted to think that well-to-do Singaporeans who have second homes in countries such as Australia, UK and Canada, have this kind of long term plan. The Singaporean version of ‘the boat people’, the name given to those fleeing Vietnam during the years of the Vietcong war, remember? It is a most disturbing picture. Here is one instance where I’ll be only too happy to be proved wrong!

Interviewer: It is said that Singapore, small, vulnerable and without natural resources, can only survive if it is ruled by strong leadership, as shown by the PAP.

Me: I fully agree that no tiny nation-state like ours can survive without strong leadership. We saw that kind of leadership in the early years of PAP rule. But after nearly half a century in power, I don’t know whether PAP leadership can be described unequivocally in such terms. Indeed, I think that at present, after the shock of the General Election of 2011, and the post-election confusion, there is a lack of direction in the PAP leadership.

Interviewer: Here’s something to think about. Every National Day, it is part of the celebrations to have ordinary Singaporeans, hundreds of them, write their wishes on festive balloons or balls that are floated along the Singapore river or out to sea. Suppose for the 50th Anniversary, Singaporeans are told to do something different: write, with total honesty, in sealed messages that will later be burnt, how they really feel about the PAP, what they really want the PAP to do. What would your message be?

Me: For the PAP to sit up, review the growing problem of the disenchantment and mistrust of the people, and say with all sincerity and purposefulness, ‘Here’s our 50th Anniversary resolution—to acknowledge that there is a problem after all, whether it is called an ‘issue’ or ‘divide’ or ‘crisis’, and begin the hard work of solving it.’