Plain and simple living…is so hard to do

In News Reports on March 30, 2015 at 8:48 am

And now the suggestions will start rolling in… on how to honour Lee Kuan Yew. So far, there seems to be a “re-name Changi Airport’’ lobby, a proposal for a sort of museum or for his Oxley Road home to be retained as kind of monument. What about his face on dollar notes? Or a postage stamp? Or just posters for mass distribution? Thankfully, no one has suggested a statue a la Stamford Raffles – methinks Mr Lee would have turned in his urn if that came to pass.

Of course, there is no need to do anything at all. Singapore, is after all, his monument. His imprint is everywhere, whether in infrastructure or policies or even governing philosophy. Some say it is enough that we honour him by sharing his values and passing them on, like the values enshrined in the National Pledge. The ultimate method, others say, is to honour him by ensuring that Singapore continues on its upward trajectory.

I would pick one value above all that we should imbue in ourselves and in future generations: frugality. Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam pointed this out, as did a myriad different people, including Mr Lee’s own family members. A waste not, want not approach to living. Maybe not the sort of austere lifestyle that he led in Spartan conditions, but a lifestyle that knows the value of being alive rather than the price of things.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything “designer’’ on him – or even really “new’’. He wore the same jacket and had the same red box for years. He wouldn’t change the cloth of armchairs in the Istana. He ate home cooked food, didn’t take expensive holidays and clearly disliked lavishness. He advised politicians like Mr Sidek Saniff to borrow, rather than to buy.  I looked at photographs of his living room and it reminded me of my family home – more than 30 years ago. In fact, it seems to me the only thing he wanted people to buy was a place to live, because home owners would have a stake in this country and its future.

How many of us can live as frugally, given the temptations that surround us? Yet, too many get into debt and are in too much of a hurry to enjoy the finer things in life. I don’t think he ever compared himself with the many millionaires and billionaires he must have met in their well-cut suits. But what about us? We look at some people’s clothes, bags and shoes – and drool. We want to upgrade all the time – not ourselves, but our homes. I sometimes think it is good that Mr Lee didn’t get around too much, to see the conspicuous consumption of this disposable people.

I know the usual arguments: that people must spend in order to power the economy ecetera and that it was Mr Lee who wanted all these bad things, like casinos, into the country. And how we should enjoy the fruits of our labour. I think there must be a distinction between growing fat on the fruits and having them pickled for a rainy day. If we want to build on his legacy, this is one trait we must keep.

It must permeate the political circles, the governing elite and down to the masses. It is right that politicians eschew ornamentation and civil servants understand the needed for understatement. As a people, while there are legitimate worries for the down and out, I think this need to be with the “in’’ crowd and our penchant for comparison must simply be reined in. As a people, we waste so much, including food and water. We use so much electricity and complain about the bill. We don’t need air-conditioning or even hot water – yet how did they become necessary instead of nice to have?

I am guilty too of waste, having forgotten the days of Bobo the elephant and water rationing and, yes, scooping water out of a big jar to bathe. Of buying new clothes only when Christmas and Chinese New Year rolls round.

(We forget the basics even as we talk about climate change, eco-conservation and eating organic food, you know, the trendy stuff.  I cannot forget how Mr Lee responded to a young woman a long time ago who asked him about Singapore’s role in guarding against climate change and other environmental concerns. He said that Singapore had been protecting the environment for years, by planting trees and its Stop Littering campaign. I think the young woman was hoping for something more esoteric and uplifting…)

Such small gestures. Pick up litter. Don’t waste water. Don’t spend money unnecessarily. Such basic traits that we might just be beginning to lose as a people.

So how can we keep them intact?

I have one suggestion (and it’s not another campaign) – and that is for us to pick up some traits from the West, yes, the West. You know how we always sniff at their “welfare system’’ and “unemployment benefits’’ and how they sap the value of hard work. Here, we don’t have the same scale of government welfarism, simply because we have our parents.

It bothers me that young working adults want to be treated like adults, when they are really children living under their parents’ roof. That is why they can afford the finer things in life early in their careers and why they suddenly find that forming a household not so easy. How can it be easy when young people have had free board and lodging until the day they get married and move into their own place (sometimes bought by their parents)? On the other hand, young people are “expected’’ to leave the nest when they start work or pay for their living at their parents’ home. It looks like a weird arrangement to us and seems to work against the idea of a traditional, Asian home. I think, however, that it is time to start thinking this way if we want ever stronger Singaporeans who will fight to live the good life on their own steam instead of relying on Mommy and Daddy.

We need, to use an awful phrase, a mindset change so that we can grow more resilient generations.

Why this talk about giving parents an “allowance’’ when their children start work? The children should be paying for food and board, not living for free, just as they would if they were living on their own. Single people in their late 20s and 30s, living with – or rather off – their parents should be ashamed of themselves. Toothpaste, toilet paper and utilities all add up you know.

We must stop thinking that our duty of care to our parents only start when they can’t look after themselves. And then applaud ourselves for being filial. It must start from our being independent of our parents money-wise when they are still able AND caring for them when they are unable.

That’s when I think we will start realizing the value of being frugal. That money from work is not “spending’’ money, but “living’’ money.

I am ending here because I am beginning to nag. But I hope you get what I mean…


In News Reports on March 29, 2015 at 9:26 pm

Life goes back to “normal’’ today

We don’t have to think about when is the “best’’ time to join “the queue”.

We don’t need to worry about wearing the appropriate mourning clothes.

Should we hang the Singapore flag or not is a decision to be made in August only.

There is no black nor white. We’ll be talking about shades of grey.

Radio goes back to playing “normal’’ music we can easily identify

TV is back to its boring programmes

Traffic is as normal as the ERP is efficient

We’ll be reading about molesters, minor and major criminals in the news again

The Padang gets to grow its grass

We can go back to our whiny ways

The vocal minority will start vocalizing

The silent majority will keep quiet

Singapore carries on.

An era is over

In News Reports on March 29, 2015 at 10:55 am

It’s over. Seven days of mourning and shared sorrow. Who would have thought that half a million people would wait for hours, whether day or night, whatever the weather, to bid goodbye to someone? Who have thought we would queue along the roadside in the rain to watch his cortege go by, that we would yell LKY, LKY and strew petals on the road as he went on his last journey?

Singaporeans did it. Not because they were sheep or suffering from mass hysteria,  but because of a deep, abiding attachment to the man. They probably can’t even explain it, not by dissecting his policies in detail or by calculating the pros and cons of his leadership. To many, he was, in the words of his younger son, an “orang besar’’. Bigger than anyone they ever knew, who commanded every stage he was on, whether here or abroad.

This was LKY.

And so thousands carried umbrellas and wore ponchos just to watch the cortege whizz by. Others were glued to their television sets, picking out the dignitaries in the University Cultural Centre sitting silence for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s last entrance before an audience.

I was one of those in front of the TV watching the State funeral along with my mother. The pictures were grainy. The heavens had opened up after a week of humid weather, for Singapore’s chief gardener. The Lee family walked in the rain. The lines of uniformed citizens were drenched to the bone. I wondered about whether musical instruments used by the SAF band would be destroyed in the rain. I wondered if children would catch cold. I tried to identify the roads. Anything, anything. To stop myself from wallowing in the mood of the occasion. I didn’t succeed.

Who could? You watch fervently, hoping that the State flag wouldn’t slip off the casket, that the coffin bearers wouldn’t, gasp!, lose their grip and you wondered if Mr Chiam See Tong was all right in his wheelchair. You try to keep count of the gun salute and wish you could see the plane formation in the grey sky. You make out the lines on the Prime Minister’s face and saw his puffy eyes. All of us were trying to take in every moment of this time in history. We didn’t want to miss anything.

As the Prime Minister took to the stage to deliver the first of 10 eulogies, my mother hoped out loud that he would hold it together. For a while, we thought he would succeed without a hitch. He was in “political speech mode’’, that is, until he turned personal. He had to pause after he said he had tried to spend a quiet moment meditating alongside his father’s casket before the ceremony. I don’t know about you, but I cried. Not for the man in the casket, but for his son, who was so determined to carry out his national role of Prime Minister, that he never once said “Papa’’. (By the way, this is not an indictment.)

Every day over the week, I learnt something new about our first Prime Minister as people started trotting out anecdotes about their interactions with him. Today was no different. Former MP Sidek Saniff told of how Mr Lee advised him to borrow an overcoat from Dr Ahmad Mattar and a pair of boots from Mr Goh Chok Tong when he had asked him if he was equipped for a trip to China. Mr Sidek was also the most emotional, bidding farewell three times as he turned to the casket.

Long-time grassroots leader Leong Chun Loong recalled how he got testy when the firing of firecrackers was mistimed during a Chinese New Year event. You can’t run a country if you couldn’t get such a little thing right…(How like the man, I thought. The perfectionist. But isn’t it true that most of us try to run before we have even learnt to walk? We want to do the “big stuff” when we can’t even do the small things…)

Both President Tony Tan and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong told of Mr Lee’s great respect for office. When he was no more Prime Minister, he would always defer to Mr Goh and Dr Tan, like making sure that it was he who visited the President and not the other way round. Never mind that it was Dr Tan who wanted to pay him a visit while he was ill.

Mr Goh also said something that will probably set some quarters buzzing: that Mr Lee “never muzzled’’ anyone. He was a man of great intellect who put forth his views forcefully, but he was open to being converted if the arguments convinced him. Former Cabinet minister S Dhanabalan said much the same. Mr Dhanabalan seemed unsettled by descriptions of Mr Lee as a “pragmatist’’. He was an idealist too – or he would have simply courted the Chinese majority instead of pursuing the ideal of a multi-racial society, he said.

I think all of us listened especially closely to the last speaker, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who delivered the eulogy on behalf of the family. We know now what it was like to have a famous father. How Papa was seldom around and how they always took their family holidays nearby, like in Cameron Highlands. And how he found out about his parents’ secret wedding at Stratford-upon-Avon in England only upon reading his father’s memoirs. There were little vignettes of family life – like how they left birthdays “unmarked’’ until recently and how Papa and Mama were delighted to have another grandchild while they were in their 70s. Frankly, he sounded like a son who missed his father even before he died.

In my mother’s living room, I recited the pledge, hand on heart, and sang the national anthem. The State funeral had ended, and I left for my own home.

I could see the streets come back to life, slowly. People started emerging from their homes to do whatever they usually do on Sundays. My mother’s neighbor left his flat at the same time as I did. We wondered if our younger and not-so-young leaders were of the same calibre as Mr Lee…How? It was a sombre ride in the lift.

As I walked back to my home, I realized that I had not bumped into any cyclist or handphone-staring pedestrian on the pavement – because there weren’t any.

I also noticed something in the air. The rain was over. The air was fresh. One era has ended. A new one has begun.

Majulah Singapura.


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