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Sunday, March 29, 2015

So Loved

This post is the hardest ever to write. Some things are so deep... so rich... and so vast that words are not enough. I do not have enough skill with words to write a worthy tribute to a man like LKY. I know because once this piece was done, I still felt full and and unsatisfied. Words I write on a page often give me release. This post gave me no release. There is much I feel that I am unable to put into words. Not enough skill.

He is so loved, but he is not around to see it.

In his later years, he must have heard (and been hurt by) all the talk of his "mistakes". Dictator... ruthless... blah blah blah... For years and years, people like me read these comments and stay silent. Maybe we should have said something. Perhaps we should have defended him while he was yet alive. Yet, these comments seemed the height of ludicrousness. They were not worth reading, let alone rebutting.

His legacy stares me in the face everyday and everywhere in Singapore. That is the best rebuttal. The crowds lining the streets chanting his name as the cortège passed is the next best rebuttal.

Can anyone argue with what he has done and what he has achieved? Can anyone argue with the spontaneous outpouring of love that flooded into plain sight as a nation went down on its knees to assuage the pain of losing a beloved?

People who could not be bothered to attend any 2011 PAP election rallies braved the sun (fainted on the streets) and braved the rain (soaked to the bone... and probably will go down with flu). It is so odd that foreign journalists (especially the American ones) presume to judge his track record and strive to bring errrr... balance into the rhetoric surrounding his death.

Who asked you to bring any balance (you who interpret our actions through your own values and history)? Come live our story and then you will have the right to bring balance.

At this point, in this week, for these 7 days of mourning, we do not want balance. We want to mourn in peace. We want to mourn and remember the man who made us whom we are. Those who call him a dictator, do not know him as Singaporeans do.

He loved us, you see.

We love him back.

Mastered Himself
The person that is hardest to master is the self.

LKY mastered himself. He walked his talk all the time. His own kids attended Chinese schools because he wished to honour those who spoke Chinese. His own house is close to decrepit because he was frugal. He turned down a huge CIA bribe but asked for 10 times the amount for aid to Singapore. He exercised every day... well into his old age. Wow! How does anyone have such an iron will to do that?! LKY willed away from himself all greed... all self-pride... all lust ... and all corruption.

He made sure that his cabinet and his MPs did the same.

He could master himself... every bit of himself and therefore we trusted him to master us.

First Principles
He was a man of first principles. He never went starry-eyed about silly international rankings. He didn't set out to impress the world. That the world was impressed wasn't important to him. His concern was for Singaporeans... how to make our lives better... how to make us better.



He wanted us to be better. It is this fundamental attitude that ensured that we would not suffer any other PM after LKY to scold us nor berate us... but if it was LKY, we shut up and sucked it up, and were grateful.

That is love. We love him... plain and simple. If Western journalists cannot understand that love has no balance, then just too bad. Sure! He was badass! He was a Class A Badass that one felt safe to hide behind... and follow.

He had the ability to make us better than we were. A nation of air-conditioned sissies braved rain and shine to pay their respects. A nation of money grubbing materialistic and profit-oriented mosquito people gave away food, water and flowers for free. A nation of smartphone toting selfie takers lined the streets to see his cortège pass and whoa... we waved not a single smartphone. Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Even as he passed in death, he made us want to be better than we are. In his eyes, we saw our own potential for greatness.

And now, he is gone. Who else is going to tell us, a mosquito people living on a tiny island of nothing at all, that we can be great?

Goodbye Lee Kuan Yew. 
Thank you for my life.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Artificial But Real, by Rishi Budhrani

I found another piece that I liked in the outpouring of words and tributes to Lee Kuan Yew. This is written by Rishi Budhrani and I really liked the last sentence. Some people have the knack of bringing people together, even when they are gone.

I tried and tried to make my own words a tribute to him. It is very hard because when I get to about 5 lines I start to cry and then it all goes down hill from there.

Been off the grid, away from the country for a week now, and came back to the news of a nation in mourning.
It's odd because when Singaporeans travel, we meet with people who have harsh opinions about our country.
People who have read about or visited Singapore often talk about the artificial, sterile or manufactured nature of the city.
They say the greenery is artificial.
The laws are artificial.
The policies are artificial.
The buildings are artificial.
The water is artificial.
The roads are artificial.
The harmony between the races is artificial.
Some might argue that this is true. Perhaps there is a superficial artificiality to the city. But beneath it all, there is a hidden reality that we must acknowledge.
We must acknowledge that the greenery may be artificial, but the beauty is real.
The laws may be artificial, but the safety is real.
The policies maybe artificial, but the peace is real.
The buildings may be artificial, but the sweat and blood that went into building them are real.
The water may be artificial, but the thirst for a better life was real.
The roads may be artificial, but the destinations are real.
The harmony may have been artificial, but the people are, and always will be, real.
We must acknowledge that the city may seem artificial, but the man who built it, was as real as they come.
There is an old adage that goes, ‘Done is better than perfect.’
As a leader, he got it done. As a people, if we want, it’s up to us to make it perfect.
I came back to a nation in mourning. And for the first time, in a long time, everyone on the island is doing something together. I guess some men have a knack of bringing people together, even when they're gone.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Red Box, by Heng Swee Keat

So much has been written about LKY in the past few days. Petunia can still write nothing. I have read, however. And cried. Of all that has been written, I liked Mr Heng Swee Keat's sharing the best. So, I decided to put it on my blog so that I can find it and read it in future. Again and again and again.
I am not sure if by doing so, I am infringing on Mr Heng's rights. If so, I will take it down and store it in my laptop to be read in private.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew had a red box. When I worked as Mr Lee’s Principal Private Secretary, or PPS, a good part of my daily life revolved around the red box. Before Mr Lee came in to work each day, the locked red box would arrive first, at about 9 am.
As far as the various officers who have worked with Mr Lee can remember, he had it for many, many years. It is a large, boxy briefcase, about fourteen centimetres wide. Red boxes came from the British government, whose Ministers used them for transporting documents between government offices. Our early Ministers had red boxes, but Mr Lee is the only one I know who used his consistently through the years. When I started working for Mr Lee in 1997, it was the first time I saw a red box in use. It is called the red box but is more a deep wine colour, like the seats in the chamber in Parliament House.
This red box held what Mr Lee was working on at any one time. Through the years, it held his papers, speech drafts, letters, readings, and a whole range of questions, reflections, and observations. For example, in the years that Mr Lee was working on his memoirs, the red box carried the multiple early drafts back and forth between his home and the office, scribbled over with his and Mrs Lee’s notes.
For a long time, other regular items in Mr Lee’s red box were the cassette tapes that held his dictated instructions and thoughts for later transcription. Some years back, he changed to using a digital recorder.
The red box carried a wide range of items. It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway. Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him – when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow.
We could never anticipate what Mr Lee would raise – it could be anything that was happening in Singapore or the world. But we could be sure of this: it would always be about how events could affect Singapore and Singaporeans, and how we had to stay a step ahead. Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.
We would get to work right away. Mr Lee’s secretaries would transcribe his dictated notes, while I followed up on instructions that required coordination across multiple government agencies. Our aim was to do as much as we could by the time Mr Lee came into the office later.
While we did this, Mr Lee would be working from home. For example, during the time that I worked with him (1997-2000), the Asian Financial Crisis ravaged many economies in our region and unleashed political changes. It was a tense period as no one could tell how events would unfold. Often, I would get a call from him to check certain facts or arrange meetings with financial experts.
In the years that I worked for him, Mr Lee’s daily breakfast was a bowl of dou hua (soft bean curd), with no syrup. It was picked up and brought home in a tiffin carrier every morning, from a food centre near Mr Lee’s home. He washed it down with room-temperature water. Mr Lee did not take coffee or tea at breakfast.
When Mr Lee came into the office, the work that had come earlier in the red box would be ready for his review, and he would have a further set of instructions for our action.
From that point on, the work day would run its normal course. Mr Lee read the documents and papers, cleared his emails, and received official calls by visitors. I was privileged to sit in for every meeting he conducted. He would later ask me what I thought of the meetings – it made me very attentive to every word that was said, and I learnt much from Mr Lee.
Evening was Mr Lee’s exercise time. Mr Lee has described his extensive and disciplined exercise regime elsewhere. It included the treadmill, rowing, swimming and walking – with his ears peeled to the evening news or his Mandarin practice tapes. He would sometimes take phone calls while exercising.
He was in his 70s then. In more recent years, being less stable on his feet, Mr Lee had a simpler exercise regime. But he continued to exercise. Since retiring from the Minister Mentor position in 2011, Mr Lee was more relaxed during his exercises. Instead of listening intently to the news or taking phone calls, he shared his personal stories and joked with his staff.
While Mr Lee exercised, those of us in the office would use that time to focus once again on the red box, to get ready all the day’s work for Mr Lee to take home with him in the evening. Based on the day’s events and instructions, I tried to get ready the materials that Mr Lee might need. It sometimes took longer than I expected, and occasionally, I had to ask the security officer to come back for the red box later.
While Mrs Lee was still alive, she used to drop by the Istana at the end of the day, in order to catch a few minutes together with Mr Lee, just to sit and look at the Istana trees that they both loved. They chatted about what many other old couples would talk about. They discussed what they should have for dinner, or how their grandchildren were doing.
Then back home went Mr Lee, Mrs Lee and the red box. After dinner, Mr and Mrs Lee liked to take a long stroll. In his days as Prime Minister, while Mrs Lee strolled, Mr Lee liked to ride a bicycle. It was, in the words of those who saw it, “one of those old man bicycles”. None of us who have worked at the Istana can remember him ever changing his bicycle. He did not use it in his later years, as he became frail, but I believe the “old man bicycle” is still around somewhere.
After his dinner and evening stroll, Mr Lee would get back to his work. That was when he opened the red box and worked his way through what we had put into it in the office.
Mr Lee’s study is converted out of his son’s old bedroom. His work table is a simple, old wooden table with a piece of clear glass placed over it. Slipped under the glass are family memorabilia, including a picture of our current PM from his National Service days. When Mrs Lee was around, she stayed up reading while Mr Lee worked. They liked to put on classical music while they stayed up.
In his days as PM, Mr Lee’s average bedtime was three-thirty in the morning. As Senior Minister and Minister Mentor, he went to sleep after two in the morning. If he had to travel for an official visit the next day, he might go to bed at one or two in the morning.
Deep into the night, while the rest of Singapore slept, it was common for Mr Lee to be in full work mode.
Before he went to bed, Mr Lee would put everything he had completed back in the red box, with clear pointers on what he wished for us to do in the office. The last thing he did each day was to place the red box outside his study room. The next morning, the duty security team picked up the red box, brought it to us waiting in the office, and a new day would begin.
Let me share two other stories involving the red box.
In 1996, Mr Lee underwent balloon angioplasty to insert a stent. It was his second heart operation in two months, after an earlier operation to widen a coronary artery did not work. After the operation, he was put in the Intensive Care Unit for observation. When he regained consciousness and could sit up in bed, he asked for his security team. The security officer hurried into the room to find out what was needed. Mr Lee asked, “Can you pass me the red box?”
Even at that point, Mr Lee’s first thought was to continue working. The security officer rushed the red box in, and Mr Lee asked to be left to his work. The nurses told the security team that other patients of his age, in Mr Lee’s condition, would just rest. Mr Lee was 72 at the time.
In 2010, Mr Lee was hospitalised again, this time for a chest infection. While he was in the hospital, Mrs Lee passed away. Mr Lee has spoken about his grief at Mrs Lee’s passing. As soon as he could, he left the hospital to attend the wake at Sri Temasek.
At the end of the night, he was under doctor’s orders to return to the hospital. But he asked his security team if they could take him to the Singapore River instead. It was late in the night, and Mr Lee was in mourning. His security team hastened to give a bereaved husband a quiet moment to himself.
As Mr Lee walked slowly along the bank of the Singapore River, the way he and Mrs Lee sometimes did when she was still alive, he paused. He beckoned a security officer over. Then he pointed out some trash floating on the river, and asked, “Can you take a photo of that? I’ll tell my PPS what to do about it tomorrow.” Photo taken, he returned to the hospital.
I was no longer Mr Lee’s PPS at the time. I had moved on to the Monetary Authority of Singapore, to continue with the work to strengthen our financial regulatory system that Mr Lee had started in the late 1990s. But I can guess that Mr Lee probably had some feedback on keeping the Singapore River clean. I can also guess that the picture and the instructions were ferried in Mr Lee’s red box the next morning to the office. Even as Mr Lee lay in the hospital. Even as Mrs Lee lay in state.
The security officers with Mr Lee were deeply touched. When I heard about these moments, I was also moved.
I have taken some time to describe Mr Lee’s red box. The reason is that, for me, it symbolises Mr Lee’s unwavering dedication to Singapore so well. The diverse contents it held tell us much about the breadth of Mr Lee’s concerns – from the very big to the very small; the daily routine of the red box tells us how Mr Lee’s life revolved around making Singapore better, in ways big and small.
By the time I served Mr Lee, he was the Senior Minister. Yet he continued to devote all his time to thinking about the future of Singapore. I could only imagine what he was like as Prime Minister. In policy and strategy terms, he was always driving himself, me, and all our colleagues to think about what each trend and development meant for Singapore, and how we should respond to it in order to secure Singapore’s wellbeing and success.
As his PPS, I saw the punishing pace of work that Mr Lee set himself. I had a boss whose every thought and every action was for Singapore.
But it takes private moments like these to bring home just how entirely Mr Lee devoted his life to Singapore.
In fact, I think the best description comes from the security officer who was with Mr Lee both of those times. He was on Mr Lee’s team for almost 30 years. He said of Mr Lee: “Mr Lee is always country, country, country. And country.”

This year, Singapore turns 50. Mr Lee would have turned 92 this September. Mr Lee entered the hospital on 5 February 2015. He continued to use his red box every day until 4 February 2015.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew Has Left Us

I am too sad for my wordcraft. Let others write and speak. I will read and listen. I can bear to write nothing at all. My whole brain is numb.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Don't Be Sad...

... but if you are, I will cry with you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Kudos to ITE

Half-finished plane.

In February, Smelly Boy discovered that there was a competition called "The Amazing Flying Machine".  He wanted to take part but there had been no precedent nor provision for this in his school. So, Smelly Boy set about selling the idea to his friends. Then he sold the idea to the Teacher-in-charge of a particular CCA. Finally, he submitted a proposal to school management.

By the time this was all done up, they had busted the registration deadline by 1 week. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as you will later discover, their late registration was accepted. So, the team set to work. The Teacher-in-Charge kindly drove the boys to buy balsam wood. Smelly Boy built the plane.

The teams presented their creations yesterday.

Smelly Boy came home rather dejected yesterday. It appears that the ITE teams had built very "pro" planes that looked like they were made with REAL tools (and they had had since last year to build the plane), whilst Smelly Boy had built his plane with my sewing scissors, his pen knife and a bottle of glue.

On top of that, Smelly Boy's team had not had the time to properly prepare the presentation. So, they spoke off the cuff. Predictably, it was also not a very "pro" presentation.

After mooning about some, Smelly Boy smiled brightly and said, "55% of the points go to flight test". My team is good at flying model planes so we still have a chance to win if we score there."

I rather think he is too optimistic. The other teams had built their planes from proven designs found off the internet. Smelly Boy designed his plane from scratch, calculated the dunno-what aspect-ratio and the various weights and proportions. It ain't a proven design. It is my Smelly Boy's DIY.

"What if it does not fly?" I worried.

"Then, we will learn from this year's mistakes and put up a better fight next year, Mom," Smelly Boy shrugged and went off to disinfect his armpits.

Meanwhile... waaaaaaaah... way to go! ITE Boys!! May the best team win!!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sher North Indian Restaurant

I love North Indian food. It is no use trying to make North Indian food at home unless you're born North Indian. It is a cuisine that is impossible to master for anyone that has not been exposed to that cuisine through Mother's milk. The sheer confluence of spices is so complex that unless you've grown up with it on your palate, you have no way to sense make this cuisine.

I have given up making North Indian food at home. Mine is inedible.

I used to go to Shahi Maharani at Raffles City or Kinara at Holland Village. Today, I discovered that there is an even BETTER North Indian joint right in Sembawang itself. Oh good! The ulu little place I live in is beginning to develop some class. Some.

The food here is seriously good. We were served by a distinguished lady with steel highlights in her hair, back ramrod straight and genteel manners. I could not help it. I had to treat her with the respect I would give my best friend's mother when invited by the old lady to dine at her house.

The wall and pendant lights are so pretty! I also loved the deep dark orange on the walls.

We had Chicken Korma, Mushroom Masala and Rogan Nosh. Gee... I just realised that I know the names of my Indian dishes better than I know the Japanese ones!

Kashmiri Pilau

Saturday, March 7, 2015

P6 CA1 2015

This child scored 25/40 in P5 SA1. Overall his English marks were somewhere below the class average. This time, he is overall 2nd in class. If I can succeed in teaching a child to write, every other part of the English exam is a piece of cake... and I mean REALLY write, not regurgitate story lines and word lists.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Budget 2015

It is cough syrup. It feels sticky and cloying sweet on the tongue. Later, you will get groggy... before errr... you get well.

The sweets are there, to be sure:
(1) Silver Support Scheme
Elderly folks will have money to live on.

(2) Extra CPF interest
Working persons' retirement nest eggs will grow faster.

(3) Funding for Adult Education
People will be helped to stay employable through continually enhanced skills sets. Hopefully, the skills taught WILL have future demand.

(4) Funding for Innovation (Economic Restructuring) and Internationalisation
Our economy moves up the value chain to do smart work that earns more per unit of effort. Our reliance on low skilled foreign labour to grow our economy will listen. I don't envy those trying to turn the ship here. It is so extraordinarily difficult... and there is a chance that after throwing money at the problem, the ship has not turned.

(5) Healthcare subsidies and Child Education subsidies
Middle income families will have a little more leftover and saved up by the end of the month, provided they do save up the extras.

(6) Money from GIC, Temasek and MAS investments will be used for public spending
If SMRT makes money and Temasek pulls in the profits, the money will be ploughed back into public spending.

Then there is a hint of the bitter:
(6) Cars will be taxed more
How many more cars can this country take? There just isn't enough space. So yah... this is a good way to get revenue and reverse the trend of ever increasing car numbers.

(7) Personal Income Tax goes up
This doesn't affect a lotta people you know. Those who are rich have enough to spare. So spare and share.

See! It is like cough syrup... a lotta sweet to cover the hint of bitter. But oi... it is good for us. Cough syrup may not work to cure your flu because there are so many other things that play out when a body is ailing. Whether Budget 2015 will cure us and strengthen us remains to be seen. What if the economy stubbornly refuses to restructure? What people train and train and then they find that their new skills sets are obsoleted along with their jobs at the next retrenchment?

There are no perfect answers but at least Budget 2015 shows a government resolve to tackle decades old issues, that I have never seen in any prior budget.

Still, in a while, we will get groggy. The economic restructuring is gonna squeeze some sectors and force people out of work. Companies lower down the value chain will stop investing here. If our innovation and internationalisation efforts do not take off then well, people will be unemployed. There is also the risk that we are drawing down on too much of our resources.

Frankly, it is a scary budget but it has gotta be done. I think things will get a lot worse before they get better. But perhaps, that is just me.