Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My Short New Year Story.

It was the night before the New Year...

And looking over the bridge was a young man who wanted to end his life.  He had lost everything and was too disillusioned to live yet another day.

Then, something strange happened as nature came to life. His surrounding began to whisper into his heart. It was a series of  soft wooing to keep a flickering flame alight and a dialogue soon ensued.

Why end your life? Isn't life beautiful?” the rushing river below spoke.

Beautiful for whom? Too much has happened and I can’t go on anymore.”

A bubble floated up with this message, “Son, we can choose to hate the rain or dance in it.”

I am in no mood for festivities. I have lost my fortune, my goals and my dreams. I am well spent.”

Every child begins the world again,” the nearby shores cooed.

The young man kept quiet, musing. “I can’t face this world with my mistakes. I can’t wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. I am afraid I may fail.”

The leaves beside rustling, “Ultimately, we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom.

Well, you may be right, but what is freedom without hope.”

Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting. Don’t ever forget that,” the bushes and leaves crooned in unison.

Why am I talking to you guys? What do river, leaves and bushes know? I hate living. And nothing gives me more pleasure now than to end it.

At this moment, the moon brightened. “Son, darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

The young man gave pause and squinted. “Love? I am too exhausted to love life back.” 

The moon released a beam illumed with these words, “We can only learn to love by loving.”

Suddenly, the man shook his head and buried his face in his hands. Quiet and still…

The bridge then creaked with a word or two. “Our faces become our biographies. Face the world, start a fresh page, tell a new story.

How do I start? How do I face tomorrow?” the man sobbed.

Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible,” the moon and river echoed.

I guess you guys are right…sorry (sigh) But where do I go from here? What do I prepare for the New Year?

The cool nocturnal breeze gathered and swirled around the man. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.

Mm, cute point…maybe I should think this through. Maybe life still have some surprises for me at the bend. Thanks for the heads up guys.” The young man walked away from the bridge, surveyed his surrounding, and hollered, “Any parting shot for the New Year?

Life is beautiful,” was the returning chorus. Cheerz.

* Source: Daily Gratitude: 365 Days of Reflection (Photos and Wisdom to Enrich Your Spirit) National Geographic.

Friday, 26 December 2014

LKY is not perfect.

Let’s face it, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) is not perfect. And Margaret Thatcher was wrong to say that “he was never wrong.” He was in fact an unreasonable man because he once told those he led this: “Reasonable men adapt; unreasonable men change the world.” The impression he left then was that he was going to change the world and 50 years later, he had indeed changed it. His unreasonableness bore much fruits.

LKY’s world started with a little red dot and it was once condemned as an improbable nation. Now it is bursting at the technocratic seam with endless possibilities (and challenges too).  No longer just a little red dot, it shines brightly throughout the globe. I guess when it comes to governing a troubled, resource-scarce nation, Singapore under LKY comes closest to being a  shining city on the hill. And if Deng Xiaoping was to be believed that China under Mao had 70% of it correct, then in my view, LKY had more than 90% of it correct. You can go to the bank with that. And it is in line with what LKY once told an American magazine, “I am not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.” Now that’s hands-down pragmatism with an attitude.

As far as the eyes can see when perched on the Singapore flyer, our little island state has braved through all the odds to become a first World economy with strong fundamentals, an efficient civil service, and an above-board government. Of course, if we want to see the glass half-filled, we can start casting stones with issues like the ISA and the defamation laws in Singapore. We even have our very own political detainee who had served in detention longer in toto than the longsuffering Nelson Mandela (refer to this post: Singapore rebels).

I suspect the fault-finding sleuth would not stop there. There is also the government controlled media, the dominant one-party rule, the narrowly-focused meritocracy breeding entitlement and elitism, the one-track academic system, and the high costs of living. Just to name a few. But let’s turn our focus on how far we have come as a nation-state under his leadership. In other words, let’s look at our achievement in the last 50 years. Let’s separate the man and his methods and the “improbable nation” that he and his team had led over the years.

Now, the caveat is that no man is perfect. This is a fact, an established one. If you want to live an unblemished life, then find a hermitage in the middle of nowhere, away from people and their annoying habits, and live out the rest of your days as a monk.  And if hell is other people, so said Sartre, then dealing with a nation of them is going to be a journey into the heart of perdition.  LKY knew intimately that running a country is not like competing in a Miss Congeniality contest and he once said, “You must have convictions. If you don’t have convictions, you are going in for personal glory or honour or publicity or popularity, forget it.”

After all is said and done, underscore “done”, LKY was right when he said that history will judge him. And when asked how he would like history to judge him, LKY said, “I’m dead by then. There’ll be different voices, different standpoints but I stand by my record. I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”  

I guess that most of his vision for Singapore was realized. She has made it. And she has made us proud. This is one man who had given his life for a cause and he was uncompromising about it. He once told a public official who had failed him these words, “I don’t accept excuses; I only recognize failures.” On another occasion, his reply to a written note in answering a query he made was this, “I only need a one-sentence answer, why did you give me three paragraphs?” Surely, he doesn’t sugar-coat his words. He will defend his position tooth and nail. In an interview on the foreign press, he threw the gauntlet down by saying, “So when I say I’m going to fix that guy, he will be fixed. Let’s make no bones about it. I carry my own hatchet. If you take liberties with me, I’ll deal with you.” And his idea of regional diplomacy when push comes to shove was an ultimatum-like statement describing Singapore as a “poisonous shrimp” liable to kill its swallower.

So, if Apple had Steve Jobs, then I guess Singapore had her LKY. One is a corporate visionary; the other is an determined nation builder – a tireless innovator of institutional governance to be exact. His characteristic intransigence may be seen by many as unreasonable but he persisted nevertheless and we are now enjoying the fruits of his tough sacrifices.

There is actually many things that you can say about LKY. But one thing stands out most strikingly is that he was never one who coveted after popularity. He was more of a get-things-done kind of person.  One civil servant who worked under him commented, “He seemed to us like a force of nature. He was the leader of the pack, the alpha male…hard headed and hard nosed.”

His toughness can be seen in the way he dealt with foreign governments. When Bill Clinton intervened in the Michael Fay’s affair, LKY did not back down. He stood by his principles (only reducing the canning by two strokes from six to four) and later won the respect of the former American President with these words, “Why have I not met this man before?” If you expect him to curry favor with international leaders, then the only curry that is stewing in his pot is to do what is right and not what is popular. In 1968, he “turned down a direct appeal by then President Suharto to pardon two Indonesian marines who had been sentenced to death for planting a bomb during Konfrontasi that killed several Singaporeans.”

In the now famous incident in 1976, he met the Chinese Premier, Hua Guofeng, and told the Premier how he felt when he was handed a book that shed favorable light on the Sino-Indian War of 1962. LKY said, “Mr Prime Minister, this is your version of the war. There is another version, the Indian version. And in any case I am from Southeast Asia – it’s nothing to do with us.” Of course, you can take it that this man was self-opinionated, or even socially aloof, but one thing you cannot say about him: gutless.

So, have no misconceptions about LKY, he was stern, disciplined and a no-nonsense leader. At the time when he took over the reins of government from colonial rule in 1963 and later from its breakaway from Malaysia in 1965, LKY didn’t have the luxury of choices. It is either Singapore has got a future or it has none. Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. He therefore led Singapore with the force of a chastening storm. He once described himself as “very determined” and said, “If I decide that something is worth doing, then I’ll put my heart and soul to it. I’ll give everything I’ve got to make it succeed. So I would put my strength, determination and willingness to see my objective to its conclusion.”  

To the best of his ability and insight, he had led by example. He tolerated no special treatment for any of his own staff. SIA was directed not to delay its flight schedule just because a minister was late. The latter would just have to take the next flight. SIA also does not give upgrades to civil servants. LKY left no stone unturned when it comes to a clean government. He knew his leadership and Singapore depended on it, and at the same time, could not afford to be seen otherwise. He once said, “The moment key leaders are less than incorruptible, less than stern in demanding high standards, from that moment the structure of administrative integrity will weaken, and eventually crumble. Singapore can survive only if ministers and senior officers are incorruptible and efficient.

With competitive salaries, institutional vigilance and integrity, and unsurpassed discipline, his cabinet and government have kept their noses and pockets clean. In fact, the CIA once tried to pay off his party with $1 million dollars to cover up an incident but LKY was a steel rod in the cinder block about it. As far as records go, LKY wore his signature PAP all-white overall unblemished, stain-free. And he wore it proudly. This tribute by a career public servant says it all, “It is worth noting that there is a distinction between systemic corruption and ad hoc corruption by individuals. We do not have systemic corruption.”

Although LKY is not religious (he only considered himself a nominal Buddhist), he was in many ways a god-sent. I say this because history has shown us that where there is a will (power and opportunity), there is a way (to corruption). In fact, I dare say that it is our default position. Our nature is simply and irrevocably to self-preserve and self-profit. The leaders of the colonial past and our post-colonial present, especially in most of the African states, have time and time again proven this personal axiom unswervingly true. I dread to think of Singapore being led by the likes of Idi Amin, Gaddafi or even the king of Swaziland.

LKY had toed the line from the start and he had made it clear that you cross it at your own peril. He was no doubt harsh about it but he was no less revolutionary in upholding the integrity and honor of government. I guess he could not be seen to be any lesser when he was leading a fragile, vulnerable and almost hopeless country immediately after Independence. You can say that it comes with the territory. And it was upon this sure foundation that he painstakingly built a multiracial, multireligious and multicultural first world cosmopolitan city-state.

Charles de Gaulle once said, “Leaders of men are later remembered less for the usefulness of what they have achieved than for the sweep of their endeavor.” LKY had indeed left a deep impact in Singapore and his legacy will sweep through history with a very broad and enduring stroke. And one of the things he will be remembered for by those who had worked with him is his very intense and probing curtness at the end of a question, “So?” What he meant was this: “So, what does this mean for Singapore?” Everything he did was subordinated to the best interest of Singapore.

Now, coming back full circle, LKY was not perfect. But I have a feeling that he would rather be right than perfect. And some may even say that he was too tough a task-master and that he led with more hard power than soft. But whichever way you look at it, I think LKY was a product of his time. No man is an island unto himself. Our decisions and actions do not exist in an ideological vacuum. When caught in the eye of a storm, we all act in a way that will get us out of it. LKY was no exception. As such, there will inevitably be some misjudgments, missteps and miscalculations. That is what being a human is all about: what’s more a human leader of a once very troubled nation! But what redeems us at the end of the day is a spirit of never giving up and LKY epitomizes that spirit most valiantly.

He once said, “By nature, I’m not a person who’s tied to theories. Theories should evolve from practice.” The editors of the book, The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew, expressed somewhat the same sentiments in their afterword: “Idealism is the stuff that youthful dreams are made of; experience is the most rigorous tutor of the art of the possible.” I guess if experience is a strict and tough teacher, then LKY was his most willing and promising student.

So, after all the polemic dust have settled, I guess the one thing LKY comes closest to perfection is his devotion to Singapore. His life stands as a testament to it. This is what he has to say in his own words, “Singapore is my concern till the end of my life.” And looking at Singapore now, that is, 50 years after Independence, it truly shows. Cheerz. 

* All sources and quotes from the book, The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew, and Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. His admission of being a nominal Buddhist is from the book, One Man's View of the World (@ pg 302).

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

My Christmas wish-list of reflection.

My Christmas wish-list of reflection.

1) Be grateful. This is the first on my list because the alternative is to be ungrateful. And to be ungrateful would mean that my Christmas wish-list will be endless. So, I can't complain. In truth, I have what I want and what I do not have is what I can do without. And to be grateful is to be able to live restfully without the things I can do without. There is actually no greater blessings than that. A mind at ease is always a heart at peace. This is a great reflection for Christmas as what money can't buy is not only priceless, it is also not for sale. 

2) Be happy for no reason. I wonder a lot about the pursuit of happiness and I get anxious every time I think about it. Is it not a cat-and-mouse game for life? If Tom and Jerry is any indication, doesn't the pursuer always lose out big time? And I heard that a lot of people go to their grave still haven’t found what they are pursuing after. So maybe the "pursuit" is the wrong word. I therefore need to replace it with the "enjoyment" or the "savoring" or the "relishing" of happiness. Maybe I don't need a reason to be happy. Maybe happiness is just one choice away and it is about making my mind up and not so much about chasing a mirage.

3) Hope is free. Some lunches are free like when I get a treat from friends. Others cost me when I am giving the treat. Even choices have consequences and it may reward or cost me dearly. But hope is different. Hope is free. It really is. It also rewards me for my patience and trust. Having hope means never giving up and never giving up changes many things eventually for the better. I guess hoping and wishful thinking share something in common: they are both delusional. But only persistent hope transforms that initial delusion into a rewarding reality.

4) Don't judge the Christmas tree by its glitters and streamers. I have learned that you have to give a life time to bloom. If time is about patience, I should take its lead. And if failure is not final, then neither is success. The trajectory of a life from birth to death is about character growth and that is the defining purpose of life. I therefore do a life the greatest service by believing in its potential. And in believing in it, I affirm my life and my own struggles.

5) Charity is clarity. I am reminded about the Dead sea. It is a closed drainage basin that does not allow outflow. Metaphorically, it takes in and never gives out and it ends up well dead. I have to always bear that in mind. I believe that giving opens my eyes to what is truly important. It also changes me because knowing I can make a difference is always empowering. The clarity that comes with charity is a life of simplicity, hope and abounding joy. But when I keep taking, my life is mired in greed, strife, envy and bitterness. Now you don't need a new pair of lenses to see clearer than that, do you?

6) Work is redeeming. I once tried to stay at home for a week and it was draining. I felt useless and jaded. But now, I work without end and I sometimes dread it. I guess we are “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” This is where I need to see it differently. I recall a saying here: "Make a life, not just a living". I should never forget that. I should look beyond the 9 to 5 and the dollars and cents. I should even look beyond the longed-for weekends. I should therefore treat each day, whether Monday or Friday, as an opportunity to impact lives through what I do. And in return, savor the growth and experiences that come with persevering to bless lives at work.

7) Disappointment is passing; relationship is forever. People will disappoint, especially loved ones.  God knows I have disappointed my wife (and children) many times over. But I love amiss if I expect more out of them than they can give. I must never forget that my loved ones are a gift to me and I must never take them for granted. In the same way that they have accepted me, I should accept them for who they are and not what I desire them to be. Recently my son did not do that well for his exams and I went into a tailspin. That is one good example of missing the "relationship" forest for the "grades" tree. I am of course wiser now. And I have discovered that when you love unconditionally, the subject of your affection will pleasantly surprise you in their own time.

8) The lighter side of life is always the brightest. I always wonder, how will my eulogy be like? What will people remember me by? Will I be eulogized as a serious person with little cause to be happy? Honestly, I dread living under the shadow of worries just to find out at the end of my life that most of what I had worried about never came to pass. What a wasteful way to live! For this reason (or fear), I choose to enjoy the lighter side of things. I choose to take life with a fistful of humor and look for the punch-line in all things. I choose to live and to let live. In other words, I choose to focus on the good that the light shines upon rather than the shadow that it casts.

9) Keeping the faith. I have resolved to hang on to my faith. It is the one thing that makes sense to me. In a recent thought experiment, I tried to strike out on my own without faith and I found out that I was indeed free to be what I want to be. However, I soon found out that what I wanted more to be without faith was to become what I had always dreaded. Somehow I noted that I was more arrogant in my thoughts and more self-centered in my actions. I am of course not saying that atheists cannot be moral. I am just saying that faith draws the line for me and it is personal to me. Needless to say, there are many ways to stand upright. But for me, I find my right angle when I am open to omnipotence.

10) The greatest Christmas gift for my children is our marriage. This is the last item on my Christmas wish-list and the one I hold dearest to in my heart. Let me start by saying that no marriage is easy. The marital vows challenge the parties to the core. But when two lives are joined together for a lifetime, this commitment is sacred and deserving of mutual sacrifices to make it work. Recently, I was one of the emcees for my in-laws' Ruby wedding anniversary. After 40 years (my own parents' is about 50 years), I observed that they still share a very special and inseparable bond. It is a bond that inspired not only their own children but many who have come in contact with them. Their love is an enduring testimony and it will always be the gold standard their children can draw strength and hope from. There is just something inexplicably magical about a love that struggles, stays and blooms together against all odds. And this magic is in the selfless devotion one intertwined soul offers without reservation to the other. It is indeed a priceless gift and the best gift this Christmas and for all Christmases for the children. Cheerz.