The Active Voice of Lee Kuan Yew

SO much was said and written about Lee Kuan Yew following his passing on March 23. For the entire week of national mourning, the media was a deluge of all things Lee Kuan Yew—eulogies and tributes, his words and wisdom, remembrances that had a way of breaking down into choking grief. Words seemed to gather for the sole purpose of saluting his extraordinary life, and superlatives worked doubly hard. Even longtime critics and foes chipped in with their own acerbic reflections over the social media and proprietary Web spaces, celebrating not so much his life but its end.

Never have I surfed the Web so furiously or read The Straits Times so diligently. Day after day, over that week, the local press fed us features and footages that embraced, among a broad range of subjects, the political history of Singapore, and above all, her economic success story. The constant theme was this: Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore; and Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. The relationship was synonymous, metaphorical even.

Think of Singapore, and you think of iron will and resolve, unwavering discipline, and the mastery of “the art of the possible”—the very qualities that The New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen would laud in his March 23 piece, Can-Do Lee Kuan Yew.

“I put myself down as determined, consistent and persistent,” was how Mr. Lee once described himself. He was always actively chasing after whatever he set out to do, “chasing it until it succeeds.” Even his language was active in every sense of the word. In his eulogy to his wife Kwa Geok Choo on 6 October 2010, he shared how she had influenced his writing style: “Now I write in short sentences, in the active voice.”

The result: simple and clear prose that always gave his voice rhetorical power at the podium and formidable authority on paper.

I wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Lee had studied Professor William Strunk’s Elements of Style, that thin gem of a style guide, first published in 1920, which champions the active voice: “The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing.” That isn’t all:

when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.

Professor Strunk had offered numerous active versus passive voice examples to make his point, but let me share mine instead from a recent class with a Secondary Four student. Our task at hand: the 2014 ‘O’ Level comprehension exam, specifically the second passage about a climbing expedition set amid mountains, cliffs, and a thick forest. The first question required us to show three ways in which the writer emphasized the lack of visibility on the mountain. We could respond in two ways:

Passive Voice
The lack of visibility on the mountain is emphasized by the use of simile, color, and personification.

Active Voice
To emphasize the lack of visibility on the mountain, the writer uses simile, color, and personification.

Wordcount: 17 versus 16. Even though it may be shorter by only a word, the active voice comes through clearer, smoother. Having said that, I wouldn’t approach my answer in this stiff and staid way listing all my literary techniques up front. Here’s how I’d go about it:

The writer compares the fog with a candy floss, giving us the impression that the fog has blocked out most of the sunlight. Then, there’s the use of color, where purple—appearing as a verb (“purpled”)—makes us feel as if the world is on a slow path towards “blackness.” Lastly, the writer personifies the fog, making it muffle the fading sun so that the world is almost devoid of light.

But like a pragmatist that Lee Kuan Yew was, I’d advice you not to fret with dashes or brackets if that’s all too difficult. Make your sentences simple and clear; keep it in the active voice, one sentence to one point.

If we don’t quite know how to honor Mr. Lee, perhaps we could start just by writing simply and clearly, in the active voice.


You may also enjoy:
Prefer the Active Voice
.. GE 2015 – Don’t the Newspapers Just Love the Passive Voice?

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