Beautiful People – 2: LEE KUAN YEW

By Rei Tanotsuka, 18 May 2020

“I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.” Lee Kuan Yew

Why feature a deceased PM of Singapore in a Beautiful People’s series? Because Lee Kuan Yew truly embodied the essence of a beautiful human being, one who is as flawed as he is “perfect”. At a time when strength and mental acumen were not adjectives of the Asian stereotype, he carved out a new statute for the world to acknowledge – The Thinking Asian Man.

I won’t spell out the “facts” of LKY because you can Wikipedia that, plus frankly, it’s not particularly interesting. A bio is dead data, what is interesting for me was his vision in turning a small island, a multilingual, multifaith, multicultural chimera into a country that birthed a citizen body which became patriotic. This is no mean feat. Look at places like Australia, America and Britain, where generations of different races claim a heritage pertaining to those countries but racial division is rampant and if truly pressed to the core, the only children who would attest undying allegiance, would probably be the white ones. Us coloured children of the West, are acutely aware that we are adopted and will always be the first in the firing line should things go awry – witness the recent onslaught of racism against Asians under the guise of COVID-19. No Western leader thus far, has achieved comparable success in ameliorating the race issue in the same league as LKY.

Difficulties in being perceptive, the gift of prescience.

I have always wondered, why some people seem to be able to predict outcomes better than others, and for me, I rest on the juncture of broad factual knowledge married to deep self reflection.

Let me give you an example of my own feelings of being an “aware” person. I taught children (7-8 year olds) for 16 years, within this time I have been given classes which tested me as a human being, a teacher and a “soul” for lack of a better concept.

I am acutely aware of the dominating characteristics of the West. This is not bias, but a substantiated fact. Western rule had brought into its reign, 80% of the our geographical inhabitable space, concomitant with the promulgation of their faith, language, scientific, economic and political theories.

It is not hyperbole to say that during this time, other races have indeed been subjected to a racial hierarchy. Anyone who contests this is either disingenuous, incredibly stupid or so racist that they can’t even fathom that treating people qualitatively differently is “racist”. So how do I as a teacher (a leader in the microcosm of a class) retain a pedagogical jurisprudence that is fair ie. recognise the very real conundrum of dominance between the races, yet not “penalise” a child for a trait that could be argued to be a cultural legacy?

I have had multiple classes where there is ONE biracial child among the Japanese children who all attended English nursery schools so they were all bilingual, language ability could not be argued as a crutch. You would not believe me if I told you that every single time this class profile happened, the lone biracial child would inevitably become the MOST TALKED about student of my class, yet this was a recurring phenomenon.

Whether the biracial child had a higher academic ability or a much lower one, didn’t seem to matter, THEY as human beings, mattered. I will admit that circumstances can describe away the phenomenon I saw in my classes, so I am not going to argue that this is a concrete truth throughout all of Asia, however, these were observations in my classes and hence, my experiences.

Let me define dominant characteristics:

1. Volunteering often to be leaders in class projects.

2. During “show and tell” time where 3 presenters could each select 3 classmates to touch their toys or objects they were showing, the biracial child was either selected by 1 or ALL 3 presenters for the privilege consistently throughout the year.

3. During open day (parents could observe classes) the parents had all “heard about” the biracial child.

4. During class group activities, the other children would consult the bilingual child even though they ALREADY formed a group with OTHER children.

5. The Japanese children would quote the biracial child as a source of authority ie. “Justin said WE were allowed to….”

Now I will provide points to “debunk” my impulse to draw on history and genetics as an explanation:

1. The person who headed the entire school program is an American white man. Generally speaking, the biracial child is the result of a White father, Japanese mother and the father usually knows the Head Teacher on a social basis.

2. In some instances, the bi racial child is the offspring of one of the teachers in the school.

3. There has never been an instance of having say, one full blooded white child and a biracial, or even 2 biracial children in MY class. It has always been ONE biracial child among the Japanese.

That being said, the thing I found most affronting was that in my classes, the biracial child would generally rise to the position of class leader or the one other students most sought approval from, eventhough that child may not have the academic prowess to lead nor necessarily show the best “judgement”.

The part of me as a human being wanted to point out this “flaw” when the minds were young. Strength of character in determining what are valuable traits vs what are “accepted” traits of value, really is an indoctrinated outcome. If you reinforce a program with a Svengali like determination, you will end up with a certain result. I wanted the Japanese students to understand that this seeking of approval from the most “Anglicised” student, is a form of future subjugation and to understand early on, that Western nationals are as deeply flawed as their Eastern counterparts.

The part of me as a teacher, wanted to view the process in terms of knowledge accretion. Was it possible to use this leverage of having a “natural leader” to “impose” classroom management and to “teach” the other students at times deemed appropriate?

As a soul, I realise that I am not in a position to alter a collective consciousness that prevailed before me and will prevail long after I perish from the system. I am acutely aware that the “balance” of power does not lie in my jurisdiction. I am not karma on legs.

These are profound moments for people who are contemplative, for those who are not, it’s just another day in the kids jungle where instead of zebras getting to be the déjeuner de jour of lions, the Japanese once again get put in place by an American (the most numerous combination of biracial children were American fathers and Japanese mothers).

LKY’s vision sans bias

My experiences of trying to strike an equitable balance in something as small as a classroom already highlighted discrepancies within myself, LKY inherited a terrain that was historically Malay, populated by more than 70% Chinese and confettied with Indians who brought in a myriad of different devotions. I marvel at his chutzpah in tackling the biggest fixer upper in history and consoling his inner demons which must have surfaced when dealing with social disparities. There was no common language, culture or ideology. From a scratch of a line demarcating what is little more than a city, ONE MAN built a nation and a country.

LKY was the original baby daddy who was an instant surrogate to children which he had almost no biological links with, yet must now bandy together and play happy families… the caveat? They MUST genuinely be happy!

Speaking the lingo – Singlish

Anyone who knows a wee bit about the four little dragons will be well acquainted with Singlish, the pronunciation of Singaporean English as flavourful as the cuisine. LKY was prescient in demanding that Singapore’s official language be English in addition to Tamil, Mandarin Chinese and Malay. A country that has no natural resources, must gain a competitive edge through talent in the labour force. Engaging in the lingua franca for administrative purposes was imperative. It also served another purpose – English was not the native tongue of the 3 major ethnicities in Singapore hence LKY was playing no favourites, the Chinese, Malays and Indians ALL drew the language short straw!

Another bold move LKY made, was the creation of 3 organisations which created the architecture of Singapore, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Land and Transport Authority. By the 1980s, 80% of Singaporeans owned their own homes via the HDB flats! The best bit? Each residential precinct MUST CONTAIN the racial proportion of Singapore, roughly 70-20-10 mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians respectively.

It amazes me the pragmatic sensibilities of LKY, which so readily flowed from the original big daddy patriarch, that even up to the present day of 18th May 2020, NO WESTERN LEADER has even a smidgen of. We fear what we DON’T KNOW, mandated racial “cohabitation” within a region, forces us to acknowledge the “other” as human beings. It is inevitable that through seeing each other day in and day out, the novelty and trepidation will cease. This is the goal – to make everyone NORMAL.

LKY’s Singapore wasn’t flawless, but it stands a Burj Khalifa above EVERY OTHER COUNTRY if you factor in not only economic success (which it has also done well in) but overall harmony in diluting the fears of difference by adding the catalyst of forced racial cohabitation in binding us all. The seeing of unfamiliar faces regularly, results in the understanding of a “new kind of” similarity, the “other” inevitably becomes “us”.

Whenever I go home to Australia and hear of distinctive Vietnamese neighbourhoods, Middle Eastern areas and Greek zones, I feel that this is why I will never be like a biological daughter. Western governments don’t take the initiative to tell their children to get along by taking Melanie’s hand and forcing her to hold Fatima’s until the realisation hits – people are bonded by the pulse of existence. Instead, they take a laissez-faire approach knowing full well that the kids will not play together, yet they boast that this cavalier attitude is freedom. That’s why there are still ghettos in Oz and Asian persecution at the drop of a hat eventhough we’ve been there for around 170 years!!! Singapore? It took 50 years to turn a racially divergent society into one of unity.

Forest Gump said life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. He elucidated one point, but totally missed a grander one. It’s CHOCOLATE, that’s sweet enough!

LKY’s Singapore is a box of assorted chocolates high fiving each other and sharing the burdens of life together, few care if you’re a nut or rummed up raison, the fact that you are in this box is cause for celebration! So chew that gum but don’t spit it out, and delight that there’s a country that doesn’t require “guanxi” or the American version of lobbying, to get ahead.

Lee Kuan Yew’s beauty is manifested through his creation, the only man to birth a nation of 5 million people and not gain a pound, infact he lost enough pounds to become a sovereign nation post British colonial rule! It would have been a best seller :

“How to lose the pound by being independent!”

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