Sunday, 24 September 2017

Barker, Sin Nam & Halimah - Heroes in their own rights.

When LKY confessed to being a robber, it started me thinking about the people who had struggled and sacrificed for our nation. That is, the ordinary folks living among us. 

In 1996, speaking in Parliament, SM Lee said:- 

"I feel very guilty today about Mr Barker, my friend, Eddie. I robbed him of at least $30 million had he stayed in Lee and Lee. Had he gone into business with my brother, he would have had easily $60 million...He was honest. He was capable. He was honourable. I trusted him...His wife is not a lawyer. He had only his salary. Can I repay him now? All I could do was to ask the Prime Minister, "Will you consider giving the old Guards a little token of recognition? It is too late. By the time he retired in 1988, time had passed, his energy level were lower."

Back then, in the 1960s, EW Barker was earning about $2,500 and he was the sole breadwinner with four kids to feed. It was way below his pay as a much-sought-after lawyer at Lee and Lee. He can't even pay for his mortgage until his wife pleaded for a small raise. 

EW Barker gave up his millions and served regardless, and he had made a huge difference in the lives of the people in Singapore, from drafting the separation agreement, to establishing the rule of law, to building houses and beautifying our garden city, and to promoting the sports locally and internationally. He did all that rather anonymously, away from the public limelight. 

If not for the book written about him entitled "The People's Minister" by Susan Lim, Singaporeans would not have known about the depth and width of Barker's sacrifices. 

In the end, he died very much the same way he lived, that is, leaving an unspoken legacy that has and will continue to support, strengthen and deepen the multiracial roots and economic well being of our nation. 

He is one minister I truly and enduringly respect. 

I am reminded of EW Barker's life when I read today's papers. It tells a tale of two lives. One of whom is famous, our President, Mdm Halimah Yacob. And another, I don't think we will ever get to know had he not been featured today by the deft journalistic hands of writer Olivia Ho. 

His name is Thio Sin Nam and the article is entitled "Hands that built a city". 

Sin Nam may not be a law minister or a cabinet minister like EW Barker, but he is a true heartlander like EW Barker. 

Olivia wrote, "While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here." And Sim Nam is one of them heroes.

His is not a rags-to-riches story, but a rags-to-struggles-and-overcoming story. Sin Nam started working at the age of five as a construction worker. 

He said, "I work until I cannot get up and go to work." Sin Nam laid bricks for swimming pool, carried loads for condo, and poured cement for buildings. He worked with his father until he passed away when he was 12. 

After that, Sin Nam had to drop out of school to support the family with his mother. He regretted that decision but said, "I don't blame my mother for making me give it up. We were poor, it was what I had to do."

From there, Sin Nam and his mother slaughtered and plucked chicken for a living, working for up to 12 hours a day. 

Olivia wrote, "Once, he and his mother got a job carrying door frames at Great World. As there were no lifts back then, they carried the frames up the stairs from the ground floor to the ninth. They managed 25 frames a day and got $1 for each one."

Sin Nam and his mother lived in a rental flat at Kim Tian for close to 50 years until his mother suffered a bad fall and fractured a bone in her neck. She went into a coma and passed away shortly. 

Sin Nam's only next-of-kin is his estranged sister, but he discovered that she too had passed away when he went to the Columbarium to visit her mum's niche and saw his sister's niche there. 

Now, Sin Nam lives alone with his pet goldfish. However, he continued his mother's social work when she was still alive. His mother used to cook for the elderly in her block and stitch for the community centre. 

Olivia's article is a touching tribute to the ordinary folks who live extraordinary life. And I salute and am deeply encouraged by their struggles in quietude and humility. 

After living such a hardscrabble life, Sin Nam said: "I eat simply, I live simply. I have a job. I have the freedom of not having to worry about too much. I have enough."

This brings me to our newly minted first woman President Halimah. Personally, I wish her well, and regardless of the grievances voiced most publicly over the seemingly contrived system that has somehow contributed to her becoming our ceremonial head of state, history will still be impartial to her.

She will still have to prove herself this six years to connect with and unify the people, and that includes proving to her critics that she is not a "puppet president". 

In other words, it may have been a walkover to Istana, but the journey ahead for her in a race-reserved presidency will be anything but a stroll in Istana's sprawling lawn. 

Be that as it may, her journey is nevertheless off to a stellar start when she told the press that she had no plans to move out of her family home at Yishun. 

She has been living in it for decades, witnessing the birth, growth and independence of her 4 children in a five-room HDB house she has proudly made her cosy home and refuge. 

And her husband has this to say: "There is no need to move as the flat was as huge as a penthouse." 

I guess critics can call Halimah by any less-than-complimentary names or labels, but the one thing they can't take from her is how she had lived her life, that is, uncorrupted by the Midas touch of gold, wealth and extravagance. 

She is no doubt cash rich, but wealth is not going to uproot her life and family and it has not since the last few decades. If one thing is consistent about her, it is her richness in service, and her humility in living. 

I guess the wealth in a life is in the health of a state of mind and heart. No external embellishment can even come close to a soul who has found enduring contentment in life. 

That is undeniably one of the distinguishing marks of a People's President, and Halimah carried it with her since day one. 

So, whether you are a nobody like Sin Nam, or a somebody like Halimah, the common bond that extraordinary people share is captured in the words of EW Barker as I close:- 

"Life is what you make of it. There are some who inherit wealth only to squander it away, while others make their fortune on their own efforts by dint of hard work, determination and perseverance.

But happiness is not necessarily associated with wealth. The important thing is to have a purpose in life, a goal to achieve and the satisfaction of achieving it." Cheerz.

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