DR. Lee Wei Ling could learn a thing or two about not taking herself so seriously. But then again, that’s tough advice to give to someone so grim and severe, someone whose personal motto must probably embrace either one or two of these words: “serious” and “should.”
It doesn’t help that she exudes a brooding, philosophical quality, wont to seeing the darker rather than the brighter side of life. One can almost detect a depressive bent to her voice—something I observed from a piece she wrote immediately following her father’s death. That’s only natural, given how her grief was still so fresh and raw. That was the last I read of her, until April 1st, when I caught this one snapshot from her Facebook page, through Bertha Henson, writer at The Middle Ground, who wondered if it was an April Fool’s joke:
i will no longer write for SPH as the editors there do not allow me freedom of speech. in fact, that was the reason why i posted the article on LKY would not want to be hero-worshipped
I imagine most other Singaporeans felt the same way I did, particularly if they weren’t fans of the Straits Times or Dr. Lee: Ooh, let’s hope this isn’t a joke, but for real!
Since then, there’s been a mountain of noise—a national spat between the country’s leading paper and the daughter of a revered statesman flying back and forth on Facebook. Colorful vitriol for sure, but equally choleric. So no, I hadn’t followed any of it until today, when The Straits Times spoke up—finally!
Alright, so Dr. Lee’s guilty of plagiarism—so big, bad, and blatant, it made for some serious lesson to students: Whatever you do, don’t plagiarize! It’s the greatest writing sin you could ever commit.
That seemed to be the thrust of Straits Times’s defence. Enough people have already gone up in arms against Dr. Lee since the Ivan Fernandez article broke earlier this morning. That choir of raucous, shaming voices doesn’t need yet another voice. I write for a different reason.
Dr. Lee forgets that her own father is equally the figurative father of Singaporeans. I don’t think the citizens of Singapore are so dumb as to forget that Mr. Lee didn’t care for all that personality cult, all the fanfare of hero worship.
We got that, Dr. Lee!
Many of us must surely remember the words of Li Shengwu, whose eulogy captured the ethos of his grandfather’s thinking so eloquently:
Once, at the suggestion that a monument might be made for him, my grandfather replied, “Remember Ozymandias.” He was, of course, referring to Shelley’s sonnet about Ramses the Second, the greatest Pharaoh of the Egyptian empire. In the poem, a lone traveller encounters a broken statue in the desert. On the statue, the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains.
I think his meaning was that, if Singapore does not persist, then a monument will be no help. And if Singapore does persist, then a monument will be unnecessary. And that assessment is accurate: His legacy is not cold stone, but a living nation.
Now, who’s to say then, that a 2.3-meter wide and 3.1-meter tall installation is tantamount to a monument, one reverberating with as much cultish hero worship as the 4,877 flag-emblazoned erasers used to fashioned it? Is it so wrong just because it happens to reflect the visage of a smiling Mr. Lee, or the fact that it’s called Our Father, Our Country, Our Flag?
Dr. Lee herself certainly didn’t call it a monument, choosing to give it this label instead: “acts of commemoration.” All good and fair until she writes this: “I would ask how the time, effort and resources used to prepare these would benefit Singapore and Singaporeans.”
In the name of practicality, no one can put her argument down, but did it not matter that the 110 Singaporeans, aged 17 to 35, who worked on this project, came together in a spirit of camaraderie and national kinship? Did it not matter that they had a happy and celebratory audience? That is, after all, the essence of commemorating:
celebrate (an event, a person, or a situation) by doing or building something
So where does one draw the line between doing and building something in the spirit of celebration? Think of those birthday parties that were held in honor of Mr. Lee in his gray but still healthier years, where he’d grace the stage, leaning forward in front of a grand birthday cake to blow out candles. How did those events benefit Singapore and Singaporeans? I’m not sure if they had made our trains run any smoother and better, or folks more gracious and courteous.
For her to cringe at any icon of her father—regardless whether they were, as she acknowledges, fashioned out of sincerity—feels all too self-righteous and high-minded. We all might as well bad-mouth birthday cakes and call them a waste of time and money. They certainly don’t benefit Singapore and Singaporeans, neither are they good for health. You can picture her giving the cakes (and us) that disapproving once-over: you know—and why don’t you know?—there’s nothing good about cakes: the sugar, the gluten, the fat, the this and that.
Not only is she a practiced killjoy, she seems to lack the requisite diplomatic grace of someone of her standing. Who, today, would dream of referring to China as the “Middle Kingdom” in what would have been a very public piece had her reflection been published? Free speech, she rants, I want free speech. But free speech is also responsible speech.
No one, for instance, speaks of Asia as the “Far East” anymore. In it’s heyday, the term was fine, but today, it is loaded with prejudice, as close to “Middle Kingdom” as you can get.
That whole episode of her first visit to China in 1976 may have made her cringe, but to an observant and sensitive reader, the revelation of her stone-faced reaction and her father’s own tepid response felt like words one would only share at the family table.
Even if she had insisted on telling it, there are those basic tenets of human relations and country-to-country diplomacy to uphold. One doesn’t just root for candor at their expense, and toss out tact and good taste. Dr. Lee only knows how to play the didactic game, not the discreet one—which is why her words have an odious, oppressive air about them.
They build walls and raise hackles. Sounds quite like Donald Trump if you asked me, except The Donald knew how to chill and have some fun along the way. He got spoofed making an announcement too on April Fool’s Day, so whacky you could scream. Alas, I was the fool to even think that Dr. Lee could pull a fast one on us that day.