Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Father and Son

This morning's straits times (26 Feb 2015) is about getting a new haircut and a new start. After his son, Jaycee Chan, spent 6 months in jail in China for sheltering drug users, Jackie Chan "flew to Taiwan for a quick reunion with his son" on the fifth day of CNY. He was promoting his movie Dragon Blade in Chengdu at that time.

It is reported that the "father and son had an all-night chat" and Jackie Chan said, "I haven't seen him for too long. I feel he's matured this time...We didn't talk about unhappy things. It was all family chat. We talked into the night and didn't sleep."

Lesson? Three short ones actually. Here goes…

1) They say you don't get to choose your parents. Well, neither do you get to choose your son (or daughter). They come to you as they are just as you are when they are born to you. A village chief was once asked by a tourist, "Are heroes born here?" and the reply was "No, only babies are born here." How true. Parents don't give birth to heroes just as a father don't get to shop for a perfect son. There is just no perfect birth (or a hero's birth). There is only a nurturing relationship that is perfecting itself along the way.

2) What counts is the time you spend with him. This is self-evident. Fatherhood is a priceless gift. It makes the difference. Fatherhood is like a home your son can always return to anytime he desires for unconditional love, affirmation and renewal. Fatherhood is therefore not a hobby. It is not a weekend sport. It is not a staycation where you only allocate portions of your time for a really good time once in a while. It is in fact a spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime between the father and the son. The journey transforms both of them deeply. If a father really wants to mentor his son, start by assuring him that he will always be there for him, come what may, rain or shine.
3) It is never too late to nurture the father-and-son bond. The hair affair between Jackie Chan and his 32-year-old son taught me about the vulnerability of both of them. We are all flawed. And just like in a marriage, we need each other to complete us. Let me end with these enduring words from a father: "Last night my little boy confessed to me some childish wrong, and kneeling at my knee he prayed with tears: "Dear God, make me a man, like Daddy - wise and strong; I know you can." Then while he slept I knelt beside his bed confessed my sins and prayed with low-bowed head, "God, make me a child like my child here - pure, guileless, trusting thee with faith sincere, I know you can." Cheerz.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Never waste a trial.

Last weekend a nation mourns. I too mourn for LKY. But last weekend, I spent it in the hospital. A loved one was a patient there. My family and extended families were there too. We shared the time together and renewed our bonds. It was a touching moment and tears were shed.

The point of this post is not about what transpired last week in the hospital but what transpired in our hearts. The theme is nevertheless this: "Never waste a trial". Nobody wants to go through hard times. Nobody needs to be told that it is to be avoided at all costs. Between toiling in paradise and toiling in hell, we choose the former in a heartbeat.

Now, I can see celebration and victories as bonding time too where families come together and rejoice. That is all good for the soul and the heart. When everything goes swell, we count our blessings and are grateful. We are happy. But a life of smooth sailing is as illusory as a cloud that never rains or a man that never ages or a gale that never blows. I can thus expect good times and bad in this life. They are an inseparable pair like twins struggling for life through the birth canal. What good is one without the other right?

It is often thought that good times pass faster because we lose all sense of time when we are immersed in a celebration. But bad times drag its feet and leave an inconsolable trail behind. So, what good is one with the other then? 

Here I am reminded of the loose platitude: "Trial grows you." This is of course true. Trial grows and strengthens you provided you are not overcome by it. But what about those going through it with a hope too thin to grasp on to or with a pain too deep to find relief? What is there for those who are suffering and for those who are suffering together with them? What is the message that this  megaphone of pain is blasting about? 

Never waste a trial. That's what I've learned this weekend. The national mourning and my personal sadness have been a gift both to the nation and to my soul. It has shown me the anatomy of a trial. And I have had a glimpse into the body of sorrows and the elements of pain. I realized that the growth in a trial is not just a platitudinous, feel-good sentiment but an enduring declaration of my faith in love, unity and hope. And these words ring so true during such times: "Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God." And I guess what makes Him God is the many things in this world that breaks His heart. 

If good times make for a light heart, then bad times make for an open one. It opens you up in so many ways. It changes you from within. No doubt you are still you. But it is a you that you will take some time to get to know. And you shall know him for your own betterment, trust me.

More importantly, you will see things differently or different. I saw things different. This weekend, I saw the frailty of men and that made it more endearing to me and not less. I saw their vulnerability and strangely I could identify with it. Shedding away the superman complex, we become wounded souls in a trial, silently nursing ourselves to tempered recovery. This rekindled my faith in the scripture that says, "For when I am weak, then I am strong." For tested toughness is to me the true measure of the worth of a man (and woman). It is also the measure of what makes us human.

In the same breath, I saw more of what we have in common rather than what keeps us apart. The brokenness mended my soul because I caught an image of myself in it. And it revealed a side of humanity I will never get to experience deeply in a perpetual house of rejoicing. I guess nothing joins our hearts more than pain and sorrow. It is the social adhesive that not only bonds, it heals.

But the healing is not immediate. It is a journey. And this journey changes the partakers as much as it changes the victims. To me, the most important change is that of distilled vision. I am forced to see things more clearly. The fog of impermanence dances away to reveal the core of what each of us has to confront in order to make an enduring change in our life. 

For some, it may be about letting go of a decade-old hatred. For others, it may be about coming clean with one's irreconcilable past. For still others, it may be about fulfilling a long-forsaken promise. For me, for this weekend, it is about keeping my heart and hands open, willing to learn and determined to take more out of this trial than it threatens to take from me and my loved ones. And the lesson it first seeks to impart is that where hearts are joined together in love and hope, a trial - however menacing it seems - is but a means to a united end. And this unity only makes us stronger, wiser and more resilient.

This is the gift of a trial and should you choose to unwrap it with courage and faith, you will find not a shovel but a ladder lying in your aid. So, never waste a trial.

Let me end the post this way. I recall a special moment in the hospital that Saturday morning. Before I left, I leaned over and embraced my loved one. I rested my lips quietly on the right shoulder and left a soft mark. It was a mark to remind me of our common humanity, our indivisible bond. And it is a humanity of shared pain and hope, of shared sorrow and joy, and of shared brokenness and unity. It is no doubt a mark to remind me of how vulnerable we are. Yet at the same time, it is also a mark to remind me of how much stronger we can be. Cheerz.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Farewell, our founding father.

…he was not a perfect father. He had his flaws. But he was the best I can ask for. He took me in when nobody wanted me. He fought for me and just me. I felt like an orphan then but he did not see it that way. He saw different. He did not blink when he said to me l will take care of you. He saw potential in me when there was clearly none. I mean I had nothing to begin with. I was a nobody. That can't be denied. There's nothing to argue about. I was a mess. I was hungry. I was abandoned. I was trouble. I was a wasteland. And even in that state of poverty, dereliction and uncertainty, he was not the least discouraged. I told you, he saw different.

He saw not what I was at that time but what he could make of me. He saw a story yet to be written. He saw a boulder yet to be sculpted. He saw at angle nobody bothered. So he fought over the communists for me. He said that they only have their own interests at heart. He also fought over my neighbors for me. He said that nobody understands me better. And when my English caretakers bade me farewell, he pointed at me and said resolutely, "I will treat him as my own." And he had done so ever since.

To be sure, he had his own family. He had three children to feed. And his financial resources were then stretched but thankfully for me, his emotional resolve remained intact. I can still remember the first day he brought me home. He was trembling. Amidst the joy, he was unsure of what the future holds. His composure seemed strong but his heart was racing. His wife fell in love with me the first time she met me. She told him that together they would bring me up, provide for me, and nurture me with love. It was actually the best day of my life. I felt really special. I felt hopeful.

Instead of seeing me as an added burden, they saw me as an added joy. Instead of seeing me as a broken vase, they saw me as an unearthed treasure. And instead of seeing me as a lost cause, they saw me as part of their reason for living. I couldn't have asked for better parentage, protection and care.

But let's not be deceived or naïve. It was definitely not smooth sailing along the way. The months, years and decades were tough, really tough. Although I was immediately accepted into his home and his close friends treated me with kindness, I was despised and made fun of by the world at large. I was also bullied by those who were stronger and tougher. They had weight, clout, size, resources, power, reputation and land mass. I was visibly puny, a little dot as compared to them.

But he took no notice of that. He took no notice of my apparent weaknesses and flaws. He told his wife many times that success is never giving up and never giving up is success. As best as he could, he shielded me from the raw, painful reality. At the end of a hard day, he would remind me that I was worth the fight, worth the struggle and he would stick with me to the end.

But many times, I can't really say that he was convincing to me especially during the early years. I saw how he fought for me and he was not always strong. In fact, at times, he was in tears, lost and even defeated. At other times, he was tough, too tough. He was unforgiving and uncompromising to a fault. Many feared him. I have a feeling that was what he wanted. He just needed to be in control. Most times, he appeared to me to be overprotective, even paranoid. To fight for my best interest, he had made some enemies along the way. Even after he retired, some of them could not let go of their hatred. Yet he took no notice of that too.

He was too busy bringing me up to care about himself and what others thought of him. He was too goal-driven. He was too result-oriented. He once said that when he is gone, history will judge him. And for good or bad, he has no qualms about it since he had done and given his best for me.

My relationship with him through the growing up years was as normal as any father-and-son relationship. He was a strict father no doubt who did things his way and I was put through a rigorous regime of education, ethical training, discipline in personal responsibility, and lessons in pragmatism and resilience. He never indoctrinated me. He hated dogmas. He said a clogged artery is the result of a clogged mentality. He always reminded me to flow like a river and make my own way. He told me never to be afraid to bend or meander or explore new territories to open new pathways. What was most important to him was what works. He told me that it is not the promise of success but actual success that he is pouring all his focus, resources and vision into. To be honest, sometimes, his singularity of focus, energy and stamina both scares and inspires me.

As I grow up alongside him, he never failed to celebrate all my milestones in life. He was there for all my firsts. He was there for my first Independence celebration and was there ever since that day to now. He was there the moment I came of age when I mature in knowledge, strength and influence. He was there for my regional graduation where I reached out to my neighbors and started a community for greater cooperation, security and prosperity. And he was there on that fateful day when he stood by with beaming pride to hand me over to a new generation of leadership. 

Now, as I stand before him, looking at him as he lies there motionless, I am filled with a sense of loss, numbness and pain. He has definitely made a difference in my life and memories of him will stay in my heart long after he is gone. I will always remember what he has taught me and the force of his character and strength will be the source of my guide and hope, always.

Although he is not physically around to lead me by the hand anymore, his legacy will nevertheless be my city on the hill and I shall pass it on to my children and my children's children. If there is one thing about him that carried me through all these 50 years, it is his undying passion to see me through. Over the years, his passion was undiminished. It endured through the toughest of time, criticisms and doubts. It overcame all.

As I look back, I just want to say that he took me in when nobody wanted me. He brought me home and I was accepted by his family and treasured by his close friends. He nurtured and groomed me in ways he thought were best for me. He held on to me in good and bad times and sacrificed his life to bring me up. He saw in me what others did not or refuse to see. And he never gave up on me. Even to death, he was faithful, tirelessly working for my wellbeing, security and growth till he could work no more. 

I will miss him dearly. Goodbye my founding father. Go to your eternal rest. Be reunited at last with your one true love. Cheerz.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Telling my children about LKY.

What do I tell my children about Lee Kuan Yew, our first Prime Minister, our founding father? What can I say about the man who is both revered and reviled by people all over the world. This is the man who once said that the Pope is wrong about rejecting human organ transplant, who predicted that homosexuality will soon be accepted in Singapore just as China had accepted it, who never had to change diapers for his children, who doesn’t care what young Singaporeans think about him, and who does not believe in love at first sight. On the latter, he said, “It’s a grave mistake. You’re attracted by physical characteristics and you’ll regret it.” Well, I can’t say that he is wrong about that. I do echo that view too. In fact, Kwa Geok Choo, his wife, was once asked on his 80th birthday in 2003 about what was the most misunderstood thing about LKY, and she replied, “I read somewhere that “few statesmen can command as much respect and condemnation simultaneously as Lee.” I will leave it to these writers to argue which one has most misunderstood Kuan Yew.”

I guess all leaders helming a nation will inevitably invite criticisms of some forms. It clearly comes with the territory. These leaders understand that they just can’t be everything to everyone (or give whatever the people want whenever they want it) because that is a sure recipe for disaster. So, borrowing his wife’s tongue in cheek comment, LKY may be one of the most misunderstood public leaders in the world because he is undoubtedly a self-opinionated man with a relentless drive for results. Yet, one thing his most ardent opponent doesn't have the luxury or indulgence to say about him is that he is a wishy-washy statesman – indecisive, vacillating and a pushover.

In fact, if anyone was to push another over, it was LKY. In June 1969, he was invited to address the undergraduates in NUS. When he finished, one Professor stood up and badgered him about his government’s stand on pro-abortion policies. LKY then told the Chairman of the Forum to move on after allowing the feisty Professor some airtime. However, the Chairman, who was a young Singaporean Indian student, told LKY off with these words: “I am the Chairman. I will decide.” With that, he allowed the Professor extended airtime to ventilate his views. It was at this time that LKY had had enough of the harassment and physically pushed the Chairman aside and said, “I am taking charge.”

Now, I can’t say that that was uncharacteristic of LKY in his governance of Singapore from the time he assumed office in 1959 until the time he retired in 1990. For all the solid 31 years of stellar public service, LKY took charge of Singapore with a firm hand and transformed her from third world to first.

My children should know that the first PM of Singapore was a no-nonsense, stern and determined leader with an indissoluble passion for the well-being, security, safety, and the sustainable future of Singapore. He once said that, “Singapore is my concern till the end of my life.” And he had kept that promise to the end. It is no doubt difficult to understand this complex and multilayered man and to pin him down to one to two traits would not do him ample justice. But if I had to choose just one trait to characterize LKY to my children, it would without doubt be his down-to-earth, pragmatic way of governance. It is almost an obsession for him.

The dictionary define pragmatism or being practical as “of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas.”  LKY fits the definition to a tee. I guess John Maynard Keynes’s quote did not specifically apply to LKY when he said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economists.” In one of the sessions discussing about whether certain new model of economic theory apply wholesale to Singapore against its unique historical background, in particular, complete privatization of SIA and other government-linked corporations, LKY said, “The economists who say that have not sat down as we have, for the last 40 years, working out the different variables, the size of the market, the level of our technology, the entrepreneurial skills available, and what is the alternative.” The point is that LKY is definitely not a one-size-fits-all leader. Instead, he scouts around tirelessly for the right size for the right fit.

LKY is by heart a hardcore, result-oriented leader who embraces wholeheartedly these words by one of the leaders he personally admires: “It does not matter whether the cat is white or black, the main thing is it catches the mice.” According to LKY, that is “the whole Deng (Xiaoping) in one sentence” and that is in my view the whole Lee (Kuan Yew) in one sentence too. I sincerely believe that this is the one trait about LKY that had carried Singapore through the toughest of times. And LKY epitomizes pragmatism most consistently, glowingly and valiantly. My children would just have to read about Singapore history and the man personally to know why governing a nation from two million in the 1960s to five million in the 1990s takes more raw grit, guts and gumption than fancy theories, ideologies and doctrines.

In fact, a person like LKY who is only interested with what works (and not what sounds most demagoguery) has the thickest skin so to speak. He was not afraid to tell world leaders off when he found their opinions to be incorrect. And because he was often proven right by his astute observation and forecasts, world leaders just had to pucker up and listen to what he had to tell them. LKY was also the least concerned with what others think of him. Although his policies were not always spot on, he knew that he was not running a popularity contest when he took up the baton in 1959 to lead the divided government elected to manage an almost derelict island with no hinterland, no resources, and practically no hope.

Being a true-blooded pragmatist, he can’t afford to be a people-pleaser. Neither a slave to any ideology, however promising they appear to be. He had to produce results and focus on what is most important at that time for Singapore and its citizens like pursuing economic growth, attracting foreign investments, ensuring a roof over our head, educating the population, building up a trusted stewardship government with no tolerance for corruption, nurturing the best talents in the civil service, maintaining racial and religious harmony, and shoring up the workforce productivity.

You can say that LKY gave the best years of his life to make Singapore what she is today and he wouldn’t have done it without the unswerving commitment of his trusted cabinet colleagues like Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S Rajaratnam and Dr Toh Chin Chye (to name just a few). And when he was asked whether it was all worth the effort and sacrifice in his 60 years of public service, he replied, “Well, it depends on what you think life is about. I mean, if I want to lead a happy personal life, then I would have remained a lawyer and a businessman and today I would be very much wealthier than I am. But I did not set out to do that. I saw a situation which I thought was wrong and I sought to put it right and I have the satisfaction of seeing better-fed people, better housing, everybody owning their own home, everybody having children who go to school, better health services, recreational facilities, all they could ask for in life…At the end of the day, what have I got. A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.

At this moment, I would expect my children to be wondering whether LKY had a soft side, that is, a more gentle and humane disposition. How is he as a husband and a father apart from being a visionary statesman?

Well, LKY has a love story too. He courted his wife Kwa when he invited her to his 21st birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Great World. The relationship was anything but traditional because Kwa was not only more than two years older but also academically smarter than him. She trounced him twice for first place in the RI’s first-year college examination. She also beat him to secure the much coveted Queen’s scholarship. Talk about women’s power! Admittedly, in his own words, he was initially “disturbed and upset” by Kwa. But subsequently he fought hard for her love and even convinced the mistresses of the colleges in Cambridge to take Kwa in. In his own words, he said, “…my greatest joy was when my wife won the Queen’s scholarship and I managed to get her into Cambridge immediately.”   

The loving couple then quite daring tied the knot in one of the most scenic places in England, namely, the Stratford-upon-Avon, that is, William Shakespeare’s birthplace. This is quite ironic because he once said that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford. What is important for pupils is not literature but a philosophy of life.” I guess pragmatism had to take a backseat when it comes to love (which, if you think about it, is  the ultimate philosophy of life).

After they graduated, they returned to Singapore in August 1950 and they worked together in a law firm and set up their own firm subsequently. Thereafter, LKY entered politics and Kwa became a working mother looking after three young children. If anything, Kwa in my book made the greater sacrifice because she personally groomed and presented Singapore with two great leaders. And she did all that behind the public limelight, unassuming, faithful and wholly supportive. If behind every successful man is his wife, then Kwa (the mother of Singapore) had indeed made the enduring difference!

Needlessly to say, Kwa became the love of his life to the very end. And I sincerely believe that the two love of his life is Singapore and his wife and that in fact says a lot about the former. Only kwa could have turned a stone-cold pragmatist into a hopeless romantic when he left this endearing note to his children recently, “For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.

In an interview, LKW was asked about what gave him the greatest sense of satisfaction and he replied, “That I’ve lived my life to the fullest. Given the circumstances, I did my best in politics. I did my best to bring up a family, which I could not have done alone. My wife did most of the nurturing. She’d go home every day for lunch. In those days traffic was light. So from her office in Malacca Street to my house was about five or seven minutes. My children were brought up as normal ordinary children.

I hope I have whet the appetites of my children to learn more about this extraordinary leader, Lee Kuan Yew, and there are no shortage of books – especially his own personal biographies – for them to plough through. For good or otherwise, LKY has done Singaporeans proud and he has lived his life his way and on his terms, and fortunately for us, we are the beneficiaries of his enduring and glowing legacy. He had indeed done his best for Singapore by dedicating his entire life to the cause of nation-building through meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. He may not be perfect but his passion for his country comes closest to perfection. For this reason, he will always be remembered as the founding father of modern Singapore and a very romantic one at that. Cheerz.