Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Lim Hock Siew: Befriend a thousand books, and have the spine to stand by your beliefs

1. The Singapore government has banned this video (online since late last year), with the ban set to take effect from 14 July 2010 (see article appended below – Film ‘Dr Lim Hock Siew’ prohibited from July 14). How the government plans to police this ban is beyond me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqhr4wxUFws

2. The decision to ban this clip, more than 8 months after it was first released is strikingly odd, especially if you consider how the government-managed mainstream media covered Dr Lim Hock Siew early this year (see article appended below – Still dreaming of a socialist Singapore dated 19 Feb 2010). In fact, one writer wrote in to the Straits Times (see article appended below – An example for aspiring politicians dated 24 Feb 2010) after reading the article in absolute praise of Dr Lim, “…politicians of Dr Lim’s calibre are rare, and it behooves us to seek them out to help move the nation forward.”

3. In Janadas Devan’s (current op-ed / review editor of the government-managed Straits Times) commentary (see article appended below – Let others voices add to Singapore Story dated 28 Jul 2007), the son of former President Devan Nair ends his piece asking readers to “….tell stories, for it is the only way we can take possession of ourselves.”

4. My interim assessment is that the current PAP government is in a bind. A fly on the walls of cabinet may well conclude that it is a divided party, a view that has been bandied about for years. The Home Affairs and Law ministries are helmed by individuals who I opine are conservative and close-minded, and in my opinion of course, are not the best individuals to lead Singapore as we traverse the 21st century. Then there are others, who I am sure were convinced they could change the system incrementally from the inside like Community Development Youth and Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishnan who is quoted by Susan Long (see article appended below – What price politics dated 1 Feb 2002) ,

“Reflecting on the politicians he admires for their strength of character and ability to sacrifice for their beliefs, (Vivian) singles out former Barisan Sosialis stalwart Dr Lim Hock Siew, who spent 20 years in detention.”

5. Likewise there are others, bright and of character, like Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who allegedly said this of the 22 individuals who were labelled as Marxists and detained without trial under the PAP from 1987 (See The Online Citizen commentary – Was it a Red or White conspiracy? See http://theonlinecitizen.com/2009/05/was-it-a-red-or-white-conspiracy/ )

“Although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but not out to subvert the system ”

(P.S. – I have just finished reading the memoirs of one Teo Soh Lung, one of those incarcerated from 1987. This book I understand is not banned in Singapore and is on sale at Books Kinokuniya at Takashimaya.
Please visit, if interested – http://fn8org.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/hello-world/ )

6. A corollary view, one that has also been bandied about, so I lay no claim to originality, is that the old guard (and their anointed flunkies) in the ruling PAP, like the Communist Party in China, are actually tightening up on substantive political and social freedoms. The pressure of genuine and substantive political reform is being thrust upon them and they are increasingly uncomfortable at this prospect – since they have traditionally been the ones in charge. Whatever the explanation may be, I opine that the structural problems that exist within the ruling PAP have begun to stymie Singapore’s growth and development as a nation. I foresee the government (I am rather hesitant at using the word government because that includes the executive (civil service) and judiciary too. We have been blessed with honest public servants although some in the elite Administrative Service do need to be reminded of their political neutrality) will clamp down even harder in future, with honest civil servants called upon to do the old guard’s biding. The more liberal factions of the PAP (and some good friends of mine who are pro-PAP, and in some cases, for good reason) probably think nature, i.e. the death and increasing irrelevance of the old guard, will resolve this structural dilemma. I am not so sanguine. The empire will continue to strike back. With finesse and sophistication? Lim Hock Siew may not think so.

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Film “Dr Lim Hock Siew” prohibited from July 14
204 words
12 July 2010
05:45 PM
Channel NewsAsia
CNEWAS
English
(c) 2010 MediaCorp News Pte Ltd. All Rights Reserved

SINGAPORE : The film “Dr Lim Hock Siew” will be prohibited in Singapore with effect from July 14 under the Films Act.

It was submitted by Martyn See Tong Ming to the Board of Film Censors for classification.

The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts said the film is against public interest, and possession and distribution of it is an offence.

The film has also not been granted a certificate for its exhibition.

The ministry said the film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Dr Lim’s arrests and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1963.

It added that the government “will not allow individuals who have posed a security threat to Singapore’s interests in the past, to use media platforms such as films to make baseless accusations against the authorities, give a false portrayal of their previous activities in order to exculpate their guilt, and undermine public confidence in the government in the process.”

Anyone found in possession of or distributing the film, if convicted, will be liable to a fine not exceeding S$10,000 or a jail term of not more than 2 years, or both.

CNA/al

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Prime News
Ban on video recording of Lim Hock Siew speech
Cassandra Chew
451 words
13 July 2010
Straits Times <javascript:void(0)>
STIMES
English
(c) 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Limited
THE Government has banned a video recording of a speech made by former political detainee Lim Hock Siew, on the grounds that it is against public interest.

The video by filmmaker Martyn See, 41, gives a ‘distorted and misleading portrayal’ of Dr Lim’s detention under the Internal Security Act, said the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) in a statement yesterday.

Mica added: ‘The Singapore Government will not allow individuals who have posed a security threat to Singapore’s interests in the past to use media platforms such as films to make baseless accusations against the authorities, give a false portrayal of their previous activities in order to exculpate their guilt, and undermine public confidence in the Government in the process.’

The prohibition, which takes effect tomorrow, makes it an offence for anyone to distribute the video, entitled Dr Lim Hock Siew, or possess a copy of it.

Anyone who commits the offence can be fined up to $10,000, or jailed up to two years, or both.

Mr See told The Straits Times yesterday that the Media Development Authority had instructed him, in a letter, to surrender all copies of his video and remove any digital versions that are online.

The 22-minute video is available on video-sharing website YouTube <javascript:void(0);> and on his blog. It shows Dr Lim, 79, giving a speech last November at a book launch where he recounted his experiences as a political detainee.

He was arrested in 1963 under Operation Cold Store, a massive security sweep that put more than 100 communists and suspected communists behind bars, and detained without trial until 1982.

Mr See recorded the speech and uploaded the film to YouTube <javascript:void(0);> the next day.

In February, he submitted it to the Board of Film Censors for classification, ‘because the law says so’, he said.

He said he had not expected the ban as the law on political films was relaxed last year.

‘The amendments to Section 33 of the Films Act now allow for live recordings of an event held according to the law. The film Dr Lim Hock Siew fits that bill, and therefore I was confident it would not be illegal,’ he added.

The recording, however, was classified under Section 35(1) of the Films Act, which allows for the banning of any film that is contrary to public interest.

Only one other film has been prohibited under this category, in 2007. It was also by Mr See.

The film, called Zahari’s 17 Years, was a 50-minute interview with another former political detainee, Said Zahari. Mr See directed, shot and edited it.

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ST Forum
An example for aspiring politicians
226 words
24 February 2010
Straits Times
STIMES
English
(c) 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

I WAS moved by Dr Lim Hock Siew’s steely resolve to stand by his convictions and ideals, even after his ordeal against his political rivals, as reported in last Friday’s feature, ‘Still dreaming of a socialist Singapore’.

Today’s aspiring politicians can learn much from his story in their bid for public office.

Our young scholarship holders who have dreams of entering Parliament will do well to emulate Dr Lim’s admirable qualities. He is sincere, unflappable, principled and courageous; he provides a human face to the cold facade of political rivalry.

Men and women with such qualities should be accorded due respect by friends and foes alike.

Politicians of Dr Lim’s calibre are rare, and it behooves us to seek them out to help move the nation forward.

Their presence in all parties, and on both benches in Parliament, makes for healthier and more meaningful exchanges and debates, all to the good of Singapore.

Never let it be said that only one party has a monopoly on the best and brightest.

We have come a long way from the volatile 1960s. In future elections, I hope good sense prevails and that politicians of all stripes will set out to win the hearts and minds of the electorate with verve, fairness and respectability.

Lee Seck Kay

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Insight
Still dreaming of a socialist Singapore
Cai Haoxiang
2840 words
19 February 2010
Straits Times <javascript:void(0)>
STIMES
English
(c) 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

From student activist and PAP campaigner to Barisan Sosialis leader and second longest-held political detainee, Dr Lim Hock Siew’s story mirrors Singapore’s tumultuous history. Now 79, he bares his thoughts and feelings about his political past.

IT IS a sweltering day as you walk by the row of repainted shophouses along Balestier Road.

As you push open the glass doors and duck inside for a welcome draught of air-conditioning, you meet a group of elderly patients waiting expectantly to see their family doctor.

The name on the door plate of his office may not ring a bell for the young but to older Singaporeans, it jumps right out of Singapore’s turbulent political history: Dr Lim Hock Siew.

Enter his simply furnished room, and you see him at a desk stacked with books, stationery and newspapers. An eye chart is pasted on a glass cabinet displaying photos of him as a dashing young man.

The 79-year-old doctor, in his white long-sleeved shirt, greets you with a soft, occasionally wheezing, yet otherwise firm voice. He is not in the best of health, having suffered kidney failure last year and taken a six-month break to recuperate.

As he is undergoing dialysis three times a week, he would have preferred to extend his break except that his clinic partner, Dr Mohd Abu Bakar, 76, was overwhelmed by the patient load.

So he returned to half-day work last month, seeing around 30 patients every morning, and plans to do so as long as his health permits. ‘It’s kind of an ethical obligation to look after them, and I can keep myself mentally occupied,’ he says.

The name of his clinic harks back to his socialist days as a political activist, first with the People’s Action Party (PAP) and then with its arch rival, Barisan Sosialis. It is called Rakyat, which means ‘people’ in Malay. It was set up by Dr Lim and fellow Barisan Sosialis leader Dr Poh Soo Kai in 1961.

Its consultation fees are no different from other clinics’ – $20 to $30. But Dr Lim charges a reduced rate for poorer patients and gives free treatment to the neediest. ‘I don’t deny help to those who need it,’ he says.

Dr Lim’s sense of compassion and empathy for the poor is well known. At a time when the unprofessional and unethical practices of some doctors are hogging the headlines, the mere mention of Dr Lim’s name evokes hushed respect among his peers.

Even pro-PAP Singaporeans who would be horrified by the prospect of a Barisan Sosialis government admit to having a grudging admiration for Dr Lim as a man who has the courage of his convictions.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, once singled out Dr Lim as a politician he admired for his strength of character and ability to sacrifice for his beliefs.

Like many of his former leftist colleagues, Dr Lim feels compelled to give his side of the story before time runs out.

In recent years, a cottage industry has sprung up providing alternative histories of Singapore. Books included memoirs by former communist underground leader Fang Chuang Pi, former Barisan Sosialis leader Fong Swee Suan and former Parti Rakyat Singapura leader Said Zahari. Just three months ago, the Fajar Generation, a book on the University Socialist Club (USC) of the then-University of Malaya, was launched.

In a nutshell, Dr Lim’s is a story of how an idealistic student activist joined and campaigned for the PAP in the 1950s and then fought against the ruling party in the 1960s and paid a very heavy price for his beliefs and convictions.

In 1963, he was arrested under Operation Cold Store and detained without trial for nearly 20 years before he was released in 1982.

A Home Affairs Ministry statement on his release had said that he was arrested under the Internal Security Act for his involvement in Communist United Front (CUF) activities.

Dr Lim refused to agree to any conditions that would have granted him early release and ended up in the record book as the second longest-held political prisoner after his leftist colleague Chia Thye Poh, who served 23 years.

Today, 28 years after his release, he still dreams of a socialist Singapore in which there is no exploitation of workers and the oppressed.

Political awakening

BORN in 1931 to a poor family, Dr Lim spent the 1942-45 war years helping his father sell fish in the Kandang Kerbau market. Both his parents were illiterate, but they encouraged their 10 children to study.

He was the only English-educated child in his family. As the top boy in Rangoon Road Primary School, he gained entry to Raffles Institution (RI) in 1946.

It was in RI that he picked up a book by the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru and became inspired by his socialist ideals.

Going on to study medicine at the then-University of Malaya here, Dr Lim lapped up the works of philosopher Karl Marx and economist Adam Smith, and books on the British Labour Party and Mao Zedong’s communist struggle in China. His political awakening was heightened by the anti-colonial struggles raging around the world.

As he recalls, most of the university students then were indifferent to politics. They were afraid of being arrested and preferred to pursue degrees and jobs.

As one of the best and brightest of his generation, he says he felt a deep, patriotic obligation to do something for Singapore and its people in the struggle against the British colonialists ruling Singapore.

He plunged into campus activism, becoming a founding member of the anti-colonial USC, which was formed in 1953.

In 1953, Dr Lim met the young Cambridge-educated lawyer Lee Kuan Yew, who was helping to defend eight USC students charged by the British for sedition because of an article in the USC’s journal, Fajar.

They won the case and Mr Lee was acclaimed as their champion. The USC rallied behind him and his associates when they set up the PAP several months after the sedition trial.

Noting that the party’s original Constitution showed every mark of a socialist, anti-colonial party, Dr Lim recalls that the USC members went around persuading various groups to support the PAP. The 1955 elections saw the 24-year-old Dr Lim stumping for PAP at mass rallies.

PAP was then identified with the working class and Chinese-speaking masses. But the facade of unity maintained by the motley crew of English-educated intellectuals, Chinese-educated socialists, professionals and trade unionists could not last.

The ideological differences began to surface. One episode in 1957 that stuck in Dr Lim’s memory was the plot by a group of radical unionists within the party to oust PAP strongman Ong Eng Guan and several others from the PAP leadership. They opposed Mr Ong as they viewed him as anti-left and an opportunist.

He felt then that the move was ‘most unwise’ as it would create party disunity and provoke a crackdown by the colonial government.

As he recollects, he and several USC members tracked down three of the prime movers – Mr Chen Say Jame, Mr Goh Boon Toh and Mr Tan Chong Kin – and sought to dissuade them. They failed. Dr Lim believes that what he did then probably aroused Mr Lee’s suspicions that he was in cahoots with the leftists.

The central executive committee (CEC) elections resulted in a deadlock with six seats going to the Lee group and the other six going to the leftists. Shocked by the humiliating defeat of his associates, Mr Lee refused to take office. Dr Lim says he tried to persuade him to do so – to no avail.

As it turned out, five leftist CEC members were arrested by the Lim Yew Hock government in an anti-communist operation – and Mr Lee and company were able to regain control of the party.

In 1958, they introduced a ‘cadre’ system in which only appointed members could vote for the CEC. This marked the beginning of the leftists’ disillusionment with Mr Lee, says Dr Lim.

Break over merger

WHEN the 1959 elections came around, Dr Lim says he and Dr Poh offered themselves ‘in good faith’ as PAP candidates. The answer was negative. ‘He did not trust us,’ says Dr Lim, referring to Mr Lee.

After the historic elections which swept the PAP to power for the first time, Dr Lim discovered that his party membership was not renewed.

From the sidelines, the government doctor witnessed the increasing acrimony between Mr Lee’s group and the leftists which was to lead to what is called the Big Split of 1961.

The two factions were locked in a monumental struggle over the issues of merger with Malaya, Chinese education and the continuing detention of students and unionists.

Racked by dissension, the PAP was on the brink of collapse after losing two by-elections in Anson and Hong Lim in 1961.

Concerned over the leftist challenge within his party, Mr Lee moved a motion of confidence in the 51-seat legislative assembly. The PAP survived when 27 voted aye but 13 dissident assemblymen abstained.

Expelled from the party, the dissidents formed Barisan Sosialis with other defectors from the PAP in August 1961. The party was led by Mr Lim Chin Siong.

It was at this juncture that Dr Lim joined the new party. He had to give up a scholarship for further study and quit the civil service.

The Barisan Sosialis then, he recalls, was a very formidable organisation filled with thousands of dedicated people and ‘scores upon scores of university graduates’, ready to form an alternative government.

As a CEC member, Dr Lim helped to run a ‘brain trust’ which consulted a group of more than 50 graduates from the then-Nanyang University and University of Malaya and prepared position papers.

‘We didn’t have a lack of talent. We had more talent than we wanted,’ he says.

In his recollection, the biggest issue that divided PAP and Barisan was merger with Malaya to form Malaysia.

Fearing that Singapore would fall to the communists, Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had proposed on May 27, 1961 that Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei merge with Malaya to form the federation of Malaysia.

Singapore would have 15 seats in the federal house of representatives, less than what it was entitled to on the basis of population ratios, but a debatable trade-off for Singapore’s exclusive autonomy over labour and education.

Although the leftists were committed to the ultimate goal of unification between the peninsula and the island, they argued that these terms for merger would make Singaporeans ‘second-class citizens’.

The main sticking point, as Dr Lim points out, was that there were ‘two sets of citizenship: one for Malaysians and one for Singaporeans. Singaporean citizens could not participate in Malaysian politics, much less be proportionally represented in the federation’.

The battle between both parties reached its culmination during the referendum on Sept 1, 1962, in which the PAP Government cleverly devised three alternatives for merger on varying terms with no option to say no.

PAP won by a large margin, with 71 per cent of votes in favour of its ‘Alternative A’ against just over 25 per cent who cast blank votes, which the Barisan called for to protest against the ‘sham referendum’.

Imprisonment

THEN came the big crackdown. On Feb 2, 1963, more than 100 leftists and unionists were arrested in a massive security exercise known as Operation Cold Store, aimed at putting communists and suspected communists out of circulation.

On the mass arrests which changed the power balance in Singapore irrevocably, Dr Lim reflects: ‘We lost not to Lee but to the British, who crushed the leftists for strategic, not security reasons.’

When he speaks about his nearly 20 years in detention, there is an edge to his otherwise calm voice.

Year after year, he recounts, attempts were made to break the spirit of prisoners through solitary confinement and interrogations, to make them confess their involvement in communist activities.

Dr Lim became a counsellor of sorts to the prisoners, encouraging them to talk about the physical and psychological abuse they faced during their interrogations. Some broke down in tears as they relived their experiences.

In March 1972, Dr Lim released a statement about his detention and his experience in being taken to the Internal Security Department (ISD) headquarters on Robinson Road two months earlier. He had insisted on being released, saying that ‘history had vindicated my stand’ that the 1963 merger would not work.

He says that ISD officers wanted him to issue a public statement that he was prepared to give up politics and devote his time to medical practice, and to express support for parliamentary democracy.

Dr Lim demanded to be released unconditionally, saying that he should not need to give up politics if there was parliamentary democracy.

He says that he was asked to ‘concede something’ so that his long detention could be justified. He replied that he was not interested in ‘saving Mr Lee’s face’, and would not issue any statement to condemn his past political activities, which he said were ‘legitimate and proper’.

When asked for the Government’s response, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman says: ‘Contrary to Lim Hock Siew’s claims that he was an opposition politician carrying out ‘legitimate and proper’ activities through the democratic process, Dr Lim was in fact a prominent Communist United Front leader who, along with other CUF leaders, had planned and organised pro-communist activities in support of the Communist Party of Malaya, which employed terror and violence in their attempt to overthrow the elected governments of Singapore and Malaysia.’

In 1978, Dr Lim was released from detention and placed in Pulau Tekong under certain restrictions. A government statement had described him as a CUF member who refused to give a written undertaking that he would not be involved in communist activities and renounce the use of force to change government.

Dr Lim’s view was that since he had never advocated violence, he should not have to renounce it. ‘It’s like making me sign a statement that I would not beat my wife,’ he says.

He spent four years on Pulau Tekong before it became an army training area. There, he read medical books and became the only doctor for the few thousand villagers on the island. In appreciation, grateful villagers would ply him and his wife with durians, prawns and fish.

Release

FINALLY, on Sept 6, 1982, the Government allowed him to live on Singapore island, on the understanding that he would concentrate on his medical practice and abide by various conditions.

Asked how he coped with the long incarceration, he puts it down to an unshakeable conviction that his political stance is right.

‘We were the leaders of the main opposition party, supported by the workers in Singapore, and we cannot betray our supporters. So we stuck to the bitter end. It’s a matter of intellectual integrity.’

Would he shake hands with Mr Lee? His reply: ‘It is for the oppressed to be magnanimous, not the oppressor. I’ll forgive him and shake hands with him if he admits to his error and apologises to me and my wife.’

Dr Lim’s wife Beatrice Chen, who is a nephrologist or kidney specialist, helps to treat her husband. She declines to be interviewed as she shuns publicity.

They met in 1958 when they were working together at the Singapore General Hospital, and married in 1961.

Dr Lim was detained two years later. For the next 15 years, they saw each other for half an hour each week, separated by a glass panel, and spoke by telephone.

‘The fact that we can see each other is a relief,’ he says. ‘Our common struggle was a unifying force. We understood each other. She kept on encouraging me, giving me moral support…it was very hard for her. She’s a great woman.’

The couple have one son, who is now working in the National University of Singapore. ‘He was five months old when I was arrested. When I came out, my wife was in menopause. I missed the joy of bringing up my own son.’

When Dr Lim is not seeing patients, he catches up on current affairs, surfs the Internet, and reads political philosophy – currently, Bertrand Russell’s A History Of Western Philosophy. He also paints as a hobby.

Step into his condominium home off Mountbatten Road, and you will be greeted by a visual feast of paintings – of scenery, flowers and women – all strictly non-political.

But one has a Chinese couplet which reads: Befriend a thousand books, and have the spine to stand by your beliefs.

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Insight
Let other voices add to Singapore Story
Janadas Devan, Senior Writer
1214 words
28 July 2007
Straits Times
STIMES
English
(c) 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Limited
‘FOR God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.’

So says Shakespeare’s Richard II. He gets rather grisly after that. ‘How some have been deposed,’ he goes on to say, ‘some slain in war, / Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; / Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed.’

So why would Richard II want to hear such tales? Well, in part, because he knows they prophesy his own: ‘For within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court.’

In the final analysis, that is why we tell stories, including histories. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ warned George Santayana. Actually, even those who do remember the past, like Richard II, can be condemned to repeat it. But since we cannot be human without memory, even that – the saddest of tales, the inescapability of tragedy, of death – is worth hearing.

We tell stories because we are human. We tell stories because there is no other way to remember ourselves. We tell stories so as to understand ourselves, our societies, our species. We tell stories to piece together past, present and future. We tell stories to stave off death. We tell stories.

THAT was one way of putting it – a rather portentous, though not irrelevant, preliminary to some mundane reflections on the writing and teaching of history in Singapore.

Firstly, the writing of it: Why should it be done? A good place to begin would be that famous Santayana quote. To understand what the philosopher was getting at, one must read his warning in its context. Santayana wrote in The Life Of Reason:

‘Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learnt nothing from experience.’

That applies especially to new countries. Singaporeans must have a history so as to avoid a perpetual infancy. It would be impossible to grasp our progress without memory. We cannot even begin to have a conversation about how we might move forward without knowing how we got here. A people without history are like ‘barbarians’, with instincts uninformed by experience. That is what Santayana meant when he said that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. They live in a perpetual present – now, now, now, ad infinitum – incapable of foresight because without hindsight, and thus condemned to a perpetual infancy. Why must we write and read our history? It is quite simple actually – to grow up!

Secondly, there is no such thing as a history without interpretation. Every report of ‘historical facts’ is ‘shot through and through with theoretical interpretation’, as another philosopher, A.N. Whitehead, put it. The notion of a history without interpretation ‘can only occur to minds… unable to divine their own unspoken limitations’.

For this reason, we should welcome varieties of historical accounts. It is good news that former Members of Parliament are writing their autobiographies. An account of Singapore without Mr Lee Kuan Yew would be like a play without a protagonist. An account without all the other players, big and small, who swelled Singapore’s progress, would be like a protagonist without a play.

Nor should we forget the protagonist had opponents. A slew of memoirs by senior leaders of the Malayan Communist Party have appeared recently – among them Mr Chin Peng, Mr Eu Chooi Yip and Mr Fang Chuang Pi (‘the Plen’). Senior figures associated with the Singapore left wing also have either written their memoirs or plan to do so – among others, Mr Samad Ismail, Mr Fong Swee Suan, Mr Said Zahari and Dr Lim Hock Siew. Each has to be a part of the main, a piece of the Singapore story.

Nor should we forget the play had an audience. There was a wonderful letter recently in The Straits Times Online Forum from Mr Tan Lye Huat. He spoke of his experiences growing up in Kampung Melaka and of how Malays and Chinese lived in peace there through some horrendous times. We need more such histories from the ground. ST Forum editor, Mr Kong Soon Wah, plans to start a new online feature – Down Memory Lane – to accommodate such accounts.

Thirdly, the notion that there can be ‘alternative histories’ is ridiculous. Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, as the late US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said once, but no one is entitled to his own facts.

Certainly, at any one point, history is bound to be a contested affair. Accounts will contradict, assumptions will differ, interpretations will clash. But to conclude from that that there must be different histories, existing forever in parallel universes that never converge, is absurd.

No historian, even one writing a self-styled ‘alternative history’, can write without a commitment to the truth. That ‘truth’ must necessarily be provisional at any one point, but historians cannot divest themselves of their commitment to it.

‘This is so, isn’t it?’ every historian or memoirist implicitly has to ask, pointing at the facts. A ‘Yes, but…’ has to be the desired response, with each ‘but’ leading to amendations and adjustments. A singular ‘Singapore Story’ may never be achieved, but one cannot not want to achieve it.

Fourthly, we will arrive sooner at a closer approximation to that singular Story if historians can gain ready access to more facts. Singapore should consider some version of the British 30-year rule in releasing official government documents.

Given the neighbourhood, it may not be possible for a Singapore 30-year rule to be applied as capaciously as the British one. The history of Singapore’s relations with its neighbours – even of events 40 years ago – can still be a matter of acute current controversy.

That said, there are vast areas of public policy – finance, economy, housing, labour, health, education – where official documents, including Cabinet papers, can be safely released. The most incredible stories about Singapore – the whys and hows of public policy – cannot be fully told without this material.

Finally, if we want our children to like history, we should get rid of the textbooks. They are worse than useless; they damage the imagination.

There is a reason certain historical accounts are so riveting even decades after their first appearance – the first volume of Mr Lee’s memoirs, say, or Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery Of India; Barbara Tuchman’s Guns Of August or H.G. Wells’ Outline Of History. They were written by excellent story-tellers. Get good story-tellers to write for our children.

Let us sit upon the ground and tell stories – of defeat and triumph, of tragedy and glory, of sadness and happiness. Tell stories, for it is the only way we can take possession of ourselves.

janadas@sph.com.sg

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What price politics?
By Susan Long.
1885 words
1 February 2002
Straits Times <javascript:void(0)>
STIMES
English
(c) 2002 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Since he joined the Government, questions have continued to rage in Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s mind. What price will he pay? Will he have to make any compromises? The Minister of State (National Development), who used to champion free speech, egalitarianism, and checks and balances on power, explains why fitting in has been a life-long worry for him.

EVEN when Dr Vivian Balakrishnan smiles, his brow appears furrowed.

He seems perpetually lost in thought and, more often than not, emotionally-overwrought. Every so often he frets over something, such as whether he is a ‘good enough’ father, ‘deserves’ his success in medicine or can ‘pay the price’ of his new political office.

But just when he gets irretrievably bleak and morose, the clouds dissipate just as swiftly and he bursts forth with a megawatt grin or an amusing anecdote. Then all becomes sunny and light again, at least for a while.

Indeed, his body language speaks volumes during the hour-long interview at his Maxwell Road office. Every now and then, the eye specialist-turned-Minister of State (National Development) clutches his knee to his chest and rocks himself back and forth, while dissecting each question like a surgeon.

‘I’m my own harshest critic,’ he expels suddenly, his eyes fixed somewhere in the distance, without addressing anyone in particular.

‘I kept asking myself, why am I doing this? Am I sure it’s for the right reasons? Am I sure I am willing to pay the price? Am I sure I won’t compromise?

‘I had to resolve all these in my mind.’

There is nothing flippant at all about the 40-year-old former chief executive officer of Singapore General Hospital.

As a vocal opponent of the People’s Action Party most of his adult life, he had locked horns with the Government over issues ranging from the social divisiveness of ethnic self-help groups to the use of Housing Board flat upgrading as an election carrot.

Fitting in has been a life-long worry of his, he lets on. It plagued him especially when a ‘very persuasive’ Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called him up last year to enlist him as a PAP candidate.

Then began an elaborate courtship which also involved Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who, he says, ‘patiently addressed’ all his reservations about entering politics.

‘I was very worried because I’ve had my fair share of public disagreements with the Government. I wasn’t sure if I would fit, ‘ recalls the long-time champion of free speech, egalitarianism, and checks and balances on power.

In the end, he says he was convinced that the party was not looking to make him compromise or lose his integrity.

Still, it took him eight months of ‘intense soul-searching’ and countless ‘sleepless nights’ before he decided to stand under the lightning and circle banner in the last General Election. Most of it was spent, in his characteristic fashion, vexing over whether he was worthy of the calling.

Reflecting on the politicians he admires for their strength of character and ability to sacrifice for their beliefs, he singles out former Barisan Sosialis stalwart Dr Lim Hock Siew, who spent 20 years in detention.

‘So I look at this guy, rightly or wrongly, this is a politician. He has paid the price for it. Am I capable of paying that kind of price?

‘Actually, you’ll never know untilyou are called to pay the price,’ he says, still looking tormented.

So, one month into his new job, has he resolved all his issues yet?

He broods: ‘I’d be lying if I told you I don’t still nurse some anxieties that I’m not the right person for the role. I am leaving a comfort zone, medicine, which I’ve spent more than 20 years in… Trading it in for something uncertain carries its fair share of risks.’

What about all the talk that he bartered for a government position before he agreed to run in the election?

‘If I entered politics to advance my career and compromised myself to achieve that, I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror,’ he says.

He knows there is talk that he has sold out.

‘If you go on the Internet, people say I’m a turncoat and traitor,’ he says solemnly. ‘My friends are worried that I will compromise or pay a penalty for not being able to compromise… They have warned me this is a difficult road.

‘Like I said, you can’t win them all, let the mainstream judge me on my own merits.’

Then, with a characteristic flash of defiance, he adds fiercely: ‘I refuse to be stereotyped as a rebel or a liberal. I don’t believe in labels and I refuse to be constrained by labels. I will call a spade a spade.

‘If that makes me ultra right-wing or a liberal, so be it. I am not going to take a position for the sake of it. I’m going to say and do what is right.’

But what about the general disappointment that the most critical and independent minds among the new PAP candidates have all been whisked straight into office, where their task will be to defend and explain policy, instead of raising divergent views and enlivening parliamentary debate?

‘You have to ask yourself: Why raise hell at the end of the day? Will it achieve a greater good?’ he says.

‘If, at the end of the day, I’m in a position to say what I believe and make a difference quietly, this may also be a good thing.’

Then, in a smaller voice, he makes this appeal: ‘Rest assured, I’m still the same person, my values have not changed.’

A WHISPER of a smile tugs at his normally terse countenance when he talks about how his parents fell in love while they were both teaching at Bukit Panjang Primary School in the early 1950s.

His Indian father and Chinese mother had to confront the pressures of a multi-racial relationship head-on and wed only years later, in 1960. He was the eldest of their five children, all born in quick succession.

Since his youth, he learnt to exert leadership – from having to organise his siblings to policing their Monopoly games.

For the most part, the Anglo-Chinese School student was a ‘quiet, good kid’. However, he remembers long arguments with his father – not about how late he could stay out, but about the state of the world and government policies.

The champion debater says his father, a man who was ‘not embarrassed to enunciate his views honestly and bluntly’, imbued him with ‘the ability to think, argue and ask why something is not the way it should be’.

As a child of mixed parentage, growing up ‘looking more Indian some of the time and more Chinese at others’, he spent his teen years trying to resolve his ‘Who am I’ identity crisis.

It was the PAP, he says, which finally helped him reconcile his identity through the Singaporean Singapore policy it espoused in the 1960s, which was that all races should consider themselves, first and foremost, Singaporean.

At National Junior College, he mucked around, played hockey, failed at least one subject in his first year, but did well enough at the eleventh hour to clinch the President’s Scholarship in 1980.

He chose to study medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to fulfil his mother’s dream, and grew to like it.

It was, he says, a humbling experience. He encountered many super-achievers who were ‘smarter than you, willing and able to work harder than you’.

Midway through, however, he decided not to predicate his happiness on academic grades and made a conscious decision to just ‘do well enough’.

The result: he had lots of spare time, which he used to run for president of the NUS Students’ Union, and headed it from 1981 to 1983. He even started dating his wife, Joy, about three months before his final medical examinations.

‘It was a happily distracted time,’ he says, his smile drifting back again.

After serving as a medical officer in the Singapore Armed Forces, he progressed on to post-graduate specialist training in ophthalmology and was admitted, in 1991, as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

He lectured at the NUS ophthalmology department for a few years before leaving to work at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London in 1993. He returned two years later as a senior registrar at the National University Hospital.

In 1999, he was appointed medical director of the Singapore National Eye Centre and, a year later, chief executive officer of Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

To relax, he says he assembles computers. He also runs – but mostly just before his individual physical proficiency test. He and Joy, a former teacher-turned-housewife, have a 13-year-old daughter and two sons, aged 11 and eight.

Ask him what kind of father he is and he confesses with a wince that having inherited a lot of his late mother’s austere and careful outlook on life, he is probably ‘too tight-fisted’. He is also ‘not around enough and too impatient’, he self-castigates.

The only good word he puts in for himself is that, because of his consistent belief that ‘life’s most important lessons are not found in textbooks’, he hardly ever fusses over grades.

WHAT is certain is that it is impossible to remain ambivalent about Dr Balakrishnan.

He has as many detractors who decry his strong-arm tactics and the hard-hitting changes he brought to SGH, as he has fans who applaud the much-needed winds of change and transparency he dared to introduce.

Under his stewardship, SGH saw medical breakthroughs such as the highly publicised operation to separate a pair of Siamese twins from Nepal, and the use of cord-blood transfusion to cure a five-year-old of a fatal blood disorder.

One lesson he has taken away over the years is that it is impossible to get ‘100 per cent support’.

He has also learnt that the vocal fringe does not represent the mainstream.

‘To deal with this group, there is no need to confront them head-on, just sit down, shut up and stand your ground, don’t bully, be reasonable and the solid mainstream can make their own judgment about who is right and who is wrong,’ he expounds.

Throughout his career, he has often been the youngest member of the management team he has been appointed to lead. His coping strategy, he says, is not to ‘knock someone else’s experience’ and to remind his staff that it is their ‘duty’ to tell him off when he is wrong.

Summing up his management style, the man who became a CEO at 38 says: ‘I am confident enough not to have you affirm my decisions as right.

‘If you’re willing to tell me when I’m wrong, when you agree, it strengthens your affirmation.

‘Just tell me upfront at the beginning. What I don’t want is an ‘I told you so’.

Written by singapore 2025

13/07/2010 at 6:37 am

Posted in Democracy

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