Les Petits Contes

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A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tribute to Two Former PMs

I attended an event organised by the S’pore Federation of Chinese Clan Association and the S’pore Chinese Chamber of Commerce last night. It was held in honour of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. To commemorate their contributions to the Chinese community, two books were launched too, about their life and the Chinese community.

I wonder why Goh was so glum at the event. He looked like a sullen boy made to give a speech. He made a short thank you speech in Mandarin, looking very surly. Then he spoke in English, talking about how he never planned to be in politics. His usual theme: he came from a humble background and his father died when he was in Primary 4; he did well in school and found a great job he liked and out of the blue he was called into politics. He thought about it for 3 days, and accepted the challenge – he ‘’left a secure job for the uncertainty of politics’’. He wanted to tell his story now to encourage the young to step forward to serve the community. He had felt a sense of duty and obligation to serve as he had benefited from a government scholarship. He said he belonged to what people labeled as a generation of ‘’technocrats politicians’’ with no ‘’fire in the bellies’’, unlike his predecessors. But he did his best to fulfill his goal of making sure the government ran smoothly after the departure of Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister.

Goh had always admitted he had no oratorical skills, and repeated that last night. But by the end of his speech, I was won over and had forgiven him for his botoxed face, dour look and absolute absence of even the tiniest twitch of a smile.

I am not impressed by impassioned, fiery speeches with no substance. The ‘’hua yan qiao yu’’ of glib men. Goh’s speech was understated, simple, and honest. Poor delivery and diction of a technocrat, but fancy free and down to earth.

Then came Lee’s turn to speak. It seemed like a struggle for him to speak. Each word was delivered slowly and deliberately, with a slur. But he went completely off the cuff and spoke in coherent, fluent, un-accented Mandarin. When he continued in English, he repeated that he was not going to follow the script that has been prepared and given to the media. Neither did he repeat what he’d said in Mandarin in English. That was when I sensed his ‘’fire’’ and it seemed a bit more effortless in his delivery. His muscles seem to have warmed up. His faculty was sharp and ‘’present’’ as ever. He was thinking on his feet – lucidly and articulately. He seemed to have softened in his age, and qualified many of his comments with, ‘’what I am going to say must be unpopular with the older generation…’’

Despite all the less than flattering comments made over the decades about Lee, and the hard-hitting manner he has handled policies, issues and people, I felt a sense of respect and great admiration for him. Here is a man with ‘’fire in the belly’. No longer the great pugnacious ra ra theatrical debater of his youthful days, he now spoke with a softness in the voice and a semblance of physical weakness.

Yet he clearly cares about Singapore. Why else, at his age, and after all he has achieved and received, does he need to attend a gala dinner to pay tribute to him, and to receive a book about his contributions? (NB – the book is not a memoir or an autobiography to ‘’tell his story’’) Why would he need to spend a late Monday evening to attend a mass dinner, be served with lousy cold food, listen to all those fawning speeches from the organisers, and struggle to make 2 himself on stage?

I have no real answers, but the 2 men, with 2 contrasting ‘’oratorical skills and eloquence’’, moved me last night, somehow.

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