“For my cabinet colleagues and me, our families
were at the heart of our team efforts to build a
nation from scratch. We wanted a Singapore
that our children and those of our fellow citizens
would be proud of, a Singapore that would offer
all citizens equal and ample opportunities for a
fulfilling future. It was this drive in an immigrant
Asian society that spurred us on to fight and win
against all odds.”
from The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kwan Yew
HOW is it possible to interview a dead man? There are two ways of doing it – by reading his memoirs or by going to the site of his achievements. I wanted to do it by reading his Memoirs but it is in 663 pages and I hate reading thick books, as a rule, even if it is on the life of one of the greatest legends of the twenty-first century. The exceptions are the thick books of one of my most admired authors of our time – Thomas Wolfe like Of Time and the River, You Can’t Go Home Again, Look Homeward, Angel; and The Web and the Rock.
I did the interview by visiting the site of his achievements, Singapore, and by interviewing taxi drivers and sales persons in the mall. They are more likely to tell the truth than politicians and businessmen. I made the trip not by design but by accident three weeks ago when a friend invited me to join her and her group who were visiting Singapore; and the trip was for free. Nothing is more exciting than a free trip to a foreign land – free tickets, free expenses and all.
The first time I saw Singapore was on my first term as editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian, official student publication of the University of the Philippines, as a member of the Philippine Student Goodwill Tour of Asia of President Ramon Magsaysay. The idea behind the tour was to familiarize future leaders of the country with strides in national development among our neighboring countries and the orientation of their university students.
There was not much that impressed me then about Singapore. It was still a part of Malaya besieged by racial conflicts among Malays, Chinese and Tamils. Lee Kwan Yew was not visible in the radar screen to foreigners. He was nowhere to be found. Malaysia was under attack from a continuing insurgency challenge from the communists. Were it not for the British and Field Marshal Gerald Walter Robert Templer, Malaya would have been in the Chinese communist orbit together with Singapore.
What impressed me then was the University of Nanyang which nurtured the intellect and the orientation of their university students. Of course, the orientation was basically leftist, which was the fad of the times among Asian students. Since I am a Jeffersonian liberal democrat with readings of the works of brilliant revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Ilyich popularly known as Lenin, I tended to lean towards the brilliant intellectuals of the University of Nanyang in their revolt and rage against the graft and corruption of the government of Lim Yew Hock, leader of Singapore.
But what really impressed me most then was the conduct of the middle school students in their denunciation of graft and corruption as well as other erroneous policies of the Lim Yew Hock government. The middle school students refused to attend classes instead they got the tables and chairs in their classrooms, took them outside and burned them together with their books and notebooks.
The burning was impressive. It fanned the fires of a political revolution where students supported the labor federation in its denunciation of the misdeeds of the Lim Yew Hock government. Transposing those events to the Philippines, you cannot help feeling embarrassed with the conduct of our high school students, even our university students, of how removed they are from the political, economic and social problems of our country and our communities. They are inert, unconcerned and inconceivably deaf and blind to these problems. What a tragedy!
Interview with the dead man
From the air, aboard a Jet-Star jet liner, I started my interview with Lee Kwan Yew – the dead man. The view from the air of Singapore was quite impressive – a jungle of trees and skyscrapers appeared arranged in symmetrical fashion. I asked the dead man, how could this have been done? The answer came as fast as the question was asked, typical of Lee, “The answer is there at ground level.”
Landing at Changi International Airport and as you leave the plane, you immediately see order and cleanliness, giving you the immediate impression that the place is well managed and organized. As you get out of the tube, your first steps are on a well-designed very clean carpet as though you are entering a five star hotel. And as you look around greeting you as though with enthusiasm are the flowers of Singapore and their entrancing fragrance. Then for the tired and weary, you get to ride on the pedestrian conveyor which functions everywhere. Unlike the ones in Manila which seemed to have ceased to function like the head of the airport managers for several years back.
So I asked Lee another question, Is this what you mean when you told me in the air that the answer is at ground level? The dead man answered, “Don’t you have eyes and ears? Can’t you see and hear for yourself?” Very direct and forthright this man is, I said to myself, reminding me of a Lee media interview when he was still alive.
The western journalist asked him, “Sir, you are the leader of one of the most progressive countries in the world today, but how can you explain the fact that your country is one of the worst countries in the world in so far as human rights violations are concerned.”
He looked at the interviewer straight in the eyes and replied, without hesitation, “This is my country, not yours. It is none of your business.” Well said and well articulated. That is how a leader should react, in response to organized foreign intervention.
Then, the taxi ride from the airport to Hotel Victoria in the heart of the city was quite surprising when you come from Manila. The avenue is pretty wide, spacious and clean; the traffic was free flowing and you can see that there was discipline among the drivers. The avenue is lined with live plants, flowers and trees all the way from the airport to our destination. We did it in minutes.
What a striking contrast from where I come from – it was so unnerving.
I kept my silence for a while then I started interviewing the taxi driver.
“Are you from Malaysia or Singapore?” I asked the driver.
“I am from Singapore. I was born here. I would not like to be born in any other country. I love this country because of the wonders created here by one man,” he replied.
“Who is that man?” I feigned ignorance.
“Of course, it’s Lee Kwan Yew! Look around everything here is Lee Kwan Yew – the cleanliness, the order, the flowers, the trees, the discipline and the economic development, it’s all Lee Kwan Yew,” the taxi driver replied.
I was taken by this attachment of the driver to Lee Kwan Yew. My companions in the taxi were listening to the lecture of the driver while affirming what they saw around as our taxi was coursing along on the way to Hotel Victoria.
The statues are all in the hearts and minds
The following morning I went around the immediate environs of Victoria Avenue to savor Singapore, the country and the city. It was interestingly pleasant like what we saw the day that we arrived – very clean, very orderly and disciplined, trees and flowers all around and wide pedestrian lanes just like Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, when I was there in 1956 and Paris, the city of my affection, which I had visited many a time in the past.
My interview with Lee continued responded by the sights and sounds of the City, just like the replies of the taxi driver, the day before. There was no paper, no leaf on the ground despite the proliferation of trees, no saliva. It was immaculately clean.
Walking around leisurely, I saw no statues of Lee or shrines celebrating his achievements and his greatness. I think the cleanliness, the order, the trees and flowers, the discipline, the continuing development, and the unending celebration of his achievements and greatness by the people are the living statues and shrines to honor the greatness of the man.
There were other taxi drivers, sales persons, attendants in the malls and bus stations, waiters and waitresses in restaurants who told me the same stories of Lee Kwan Yew and Singapore in many different words but singing the same songs like continuing refrains. I did not have to go to museums, Sentosa, Bugis, Disneyland, other tourists and historical sights to know Singapore and Lee Kwan Yew. It is all there in the air that you breathe, in the gentle drops of rain that tickles your head as you walk leisurely around the city in spacious pedestrian lanes, in the enchanting sights and sounds of the city.
It is also in the heart and mind of another outstanding leader, Jacques Chirac of France – a former Prime Minister, Member of the Chamber of Deputies and Mayor of Paris- who paid tribute to Lee Kwan Yew in simple but memorable words: “Mr. Lee has gathered around himself brilliant minds, transforming the most exacting standards into a system of government. Under his leadership, the primacy of the general interests, the cult of education, work and saving, the capacity to see the needs of the city have enabled Singapore to what I call ‘short cuts to Progress.’ ”
The trip to Singapore confirms my theory that it takes a leader to build a country – a leader with a vision, a blue print and road map, commitment to God and country, character, discipline and integrity to translate vision into reality. The evidence in the validity and viability of that theory is Lee Kwan Yew and Singapore enter-twined as one. A number of my friends argue that it is easy to build Singapore because it is small. My counter-argument is simple – the quality of leadership that builds countries and lasting institutions is not defined by the size of the country. Put a man like Lee Kwan Yew in France, Britain, United States, China and Russia and he can do just as well, if not better, as Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Deng Shiao Peng and Vladimir Putin.
The Philippines is only three and a half hours away by commercial jet from Singapore but in terms of development and the quality of our leaders, we are millions of parallax away from Singapore, as though comparing a bustling country in the twenty-first century to a colony of the primitives. The Lims who invited me –Christie and Baby with their niece Kitkat – were ecstatic about Singapore wishing to go back there again in a not too distant future.
In articulation of what I confirmed on that trip, I told my companions, as I am telling you now, that one day, in a not too distant tomorrow, a leader will emerge from within our midst who can build a country of our dreams, as good, if not better than Singapore.
Baby who has been in our law office for more than ten years said, “Sir, you are hallucinating again. The country is hopeless. You better continue writing your books and enjoy life with Ma’am (my wife that is), your family and friends. That is more realistic.”
I replied, “That’s what they told me when I ran for Governor of Misamis Oriental under martial rule; that I did even have a Chinaman’s chance but I got elected with a resounding majority. When I was in Parliament, my companions told me that I was suicidal and imagining things when I continued to argue that we could remove President Ferdinand E. Marcos, one of the most brilliant and accomplished President of our country. After that historic and engrossing canvassing of the results of the 1986 snap elections in Parliament, Marcos was gone in seven days after that upheaval in EDSA. The group of media men laughed at me at the Sulo Hotel in December 2000 when I said that President Erap Estrada, probably the most popular President of our country in our time, would not be around in May of 2001. Erap was gone in one day, thanks to General Angelo “Angie” Reyes and the people of Metro Manila.”
“You were young then and you are not that young now,” Baby replied.
“I am not transposing myself into the future. I am talking about the one in every million of Filipinos who have that potential to become that leader,” I answered. Christie and Baby smiled, unbelieving.
What I’m saying is that the word impossible exists only in the mind. As a great modern Chinese leader once said, “The most powerful instrument in the struggle for change to better the human condition is the human will.” The history of countries and the story of the world indisputably prove that. Great leaders, I keep on repeating, dream dreams for their countries and in so doing create their own seasons.
The dawn of a new season in this country is emerging because there are those who dream dreams for this country. And dreaming and realizing dreams have nothing to do with chronological age. In the undying words of the poet Samuel Ullman and General Douglas McArthur, “Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years; people grow old only by deserting their ideals.”
For the millions who share Baby’s skepticism about the future of this country, they should know that dreams never die, they only become reality.
(For reactions you can email email@example.com)