Saturday, March 21, 2015

LKY - why it's so hard to say goodbye

Since news of MM Lee Kuan Yew's worsening condition broke a few weeks ago, the nation has waited with growing dread. 

Why is this so? He's already 91 and has been frail for sometime. It's a ripe, old age, he's led a full life and he clearly misses his wife. He hasn't even been involved in politics for many years now, so his death will not impact Singapore in a big way. And yet, it somehow does.

A friend wrote on his FB: "More bummed out about ‪#‎LeeKuanYew‬ health than I realised. He looms larger in my psyche than I gave credit for." Why do we feel this way?

My parents and many of their time spoke of LKY with total deference. He created an economic miracle - this little red dot that was nothing, became a force to be reckoned with within one generation. He and his pioneering team achieved the impossible, armed with just extraordinary vision and sheer willpower.

My generation was less starry-eyed. After the 1980s, rumblings of discontent started. LKY was too controlling. Too hard-hearted. He ruled with an iron fist. Two main things I personally found disturbing about him: 1) He would mow down anyone who disagreed with him. It was terrifying, paralysing even. I suppose that was the effect he wanted and it worked. 2) He glorified himself at every opportunity (which he called Truths with a capital T) and saddled me with this debt of gratitude that he insisted I could never finish repaying in my lifetime. It was a Messiah complex that didn't sit well with me.

I know I wasn't the only one. However, back then, even mentioning any unhappiness with the Man (and the Party) was taboo. So people kept their grumblings to themselves. But then, the Internet age came about. Gradually, people realised that they could get away with saying anything (almost) without fear of the ISD knocking on their doors at midnight and ferrying them all away. Suddenly, all the pent-up frustrations burst forth like a dam. The sheen of LKY started to look a lot less shiny as people focused on his flaws. In a sense, it's like a teenager who has been made to obey instructions all his life, and facing freedom, decides to release all his resentment against his parents, his teachers, all authority.

But if we are to be honest with ourselves, we should know that in the midst of poking and picking at what the Man did wrong, they do not discount what he did right. And what he did right looms infinitely larger. Some may say, but he did it all for power! I say, sure, maybe part of it was, but if you examine closely all the work that he did, hours that he poured into working the ground, it cannot be the only, even the primary reason. If he simply wanted power and money, there were much easier ways to achieve those.

And there are those who would curse him now because they say he has ruined many lives. I don't believe for a moment that these people truly care about the so-called ruined lives. (It always strikes me as ironic - those with vested interests accusing others of having vested interests). It's the need to blame someone for your discontentment and what better way to do so than create shock value and rally other petty minions. If you would curse someone you barely know so easily, it reflects on your lack of humanity, not his (and such people seldom care for others so much as they care about themselves). You can disagree and still be respectful. So grow up already.

No matter how much I disliked LKY's style, I cannot deny that he has done more for this country than I could ever envision, even in my wildest dreams. Here is a man who transformed a tiny nation in all aspects - a peaceful city with many trees and green spots, where most Singaporeans own a home, where public services work efficiently, where corruption is an anomaly, and so on and so forth. The achievements in each of these areas are so massive and ahead of their time that sometimes, I think they have set an impossible standard in the minds of Singaporeans, so that we have come to expect perfection in everything and each mistake or breakdown becomes magnified a thousand times.

Perhaps we have always known this but it hasn't taken centrestage in our minds because it's always easier to focus on what's troubling us now. It took LKY at his deathbed for the spotlight to readjust itself and for us to finally come to terms with the enormity of the man and his legacy.

LKY is the ultimate patriarch of a slightly dysfunctional family, sometimes implosively so. In a nation where we are often accused of being identity-less, he's the figure that binds us in our past into our present. That's why letting him go is harder than we thought it might be because it's almost like giving up a little part of who we are.

And so I acknowledge that I need to put my adolescent days behind me and release this security blanket. Like Bertha Hanson who wrote so eloquently in this piece, I wish him a good death. As for the rest of us, it's time to let go. Thank you, LKY, for all you've done.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Words Go Round by NAC Singapore Writers Festival

The past few weeks have been exciting for us. We were part of the National Arts Council's Words Go Round 2015, which is an off-shoot event under the banner of the Singapore Writers Festival.

Schools can book authors for talks or workshops and we were booked for three sessions:

The first was a creative writing workshop at CHIJ Kellock (Primary). According to the teacher, the workshop was very popular and the girls had to ballot for places. Wah! We hope they had fun.

When we conduct these workshops, we often find that the kids start out hesitant at first, unable to think beyond the usual composition style and structure. But eventually, they loosen up and you can almost see the moment when the creative switch gets turned on "ding!" Once they realise they can be as wildly imaginative as possible, that's when the ideas start to flow and we get some really great stories.

The second session was a talk for p4-6s at Bukit View Primary. This talk was lots of fun. The kids were super interactive and when it came to Q&A, so many hands shot up we couldn't get to everyone in time! Love it when we meet so many students enthusiastic about reading and writing.

Finally, we conducted a school talk at for the Riverside Primary p3 kids. What a wonderfully vibrant sea of shades! Also a wonderful audience with many questions. I wish we had time to do Q&A for our other school talks. Kids often ask very intriguing questions. One boy asked why we called the character Danger Dan when he was supposed to save Singapore!

It's sometimes a scheduling nightmare to conduct these talks (in between Lesley-Anne's lessons where she has to dash out of school after class, go for a talk and return for another class). Nevertheless, we're very grateful to NAC for the warm support they've shown us. It really goes a long way when the national body for the arts sends the message to schools that they support local writers.

Meanwhile, we were also featured in NAC's Once in a Garden City brochure, which showcases new releases in local literature for children and young adults.

Also thanks to Singapore Motherhood for featuring us in this article on what local authors and celebrities read when they were young (in Lesley-Anne's case, younger).

Now that Words Go Round is over, Lesley-Anne has to study for block tests, which started the day after the Riverside Primary talk. I told her, never mind, you can rest after your A levels...maybe!

Monday, March 2, 2015

The age of acceptance

The weekend of CNY, I received a head butt from the Goat - my pc crashed. It shouldn't have caused that much anguish because my pc had already started acting wonky a few days ago and I'd backed up my files. Except in a strange twist of fate, I backed up most of my files but inadvertently left out the ones I'm currently working on.

And when I bleated to my cousin (who's an IT engineer) for help, he came over and declared my hard disk truly dead. My files were gone. I had to rewrite an entire section of the annual report I'm working on.

That's when I decided that I hated technology and I hated Goats.

Even in this catastrophe, I realise it could have been much, much worse and in the past, I would have just berated myself and moved on. This time however, I found myself angst-ing over the situation more than usual and I wonder if it has anything to do with age.

My friends sometimes complain about how their parents have become increasingly paranoid with age, such that they whip themselves into a frenzy over the trivial things - like having family members over, or have irrational stress outbursts.

I see it too with my mother-in-law. Her sister was flying over from Perth one night and there was a thunderstorm. She woke up from her nap with great anxiety in her eyes and asked, "It's raining so heavily! How is the plane going to land?"

In the past, I would have just dismissed it as crazy talk but now, I'm not so sure I wouldn't be similarly afflicted in the future. Things that I would never have given a second thought in the past sometimes keep me awake now. Like losing a file to tech-heaven. Or maybe tech-hell.

It's not just anxiety too. I never used to think I had OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Sure, there are things I get slightly uptight about, eg I like all the books in one series to be the same edition. But in general, I like to believe I'm quite accepting of disorder. After all, I'm the one who can never keep a desk tidy.

For many years, I went for weekly aerobics sessions at a fitness centre. Then one day, I attended a step aerobics class (this was my regular class, mind you, not a first-time thing), and when the class started, I noticed that the step board was not parallel to the floorboards - it was just a little slanted. For some strange reason, the angular mismatch bothered me. I nudged it a little to the left, then it became too far to the left, so I had to nudge it to the right.

The whole time, I was huffing and puffing up the board, surreptitiously attempting to correct the wrong by jumping more vigorously on the board either to the left or right. I think it got to the point where even when it looked aligned, I was convinced it was just a few millimeter off. It drove me bananas.

And throughout the entire session, I kept having this inner monologue, "Stop it *huff*. Why are you *puff* doing this. Stop *huff* obsessing! Stop obsessing *puff* over the obsessing!" And finally, I thought, that's it. I've completely gone insane.

I've since stopped my aerobics sessions and no, it's not because of that loony incident. It's because my knees couldn't take the pounding any more. Another wretched reminder of aging.

Last week, I organised a CNY lunch for my writers. In the 13 years I've run my writing agency, the pool of writers had grown and this was the first time I'd organised a gathering for all of them. Since I'm very particular about engaging writers, I only take on people I know with proven abilities or on strong recommendations of friends. What inevitably happened was that my writers are mostly my peers.

It struck me as hilarious that when we heard that one of the writers was born in 1983, a spontaneous roar erupted over the dining table: "You were born in the '80s?" "That's so YOUNG!" In case your maths fails you, being born in 1983 means that writer is 32 years old. Which isn't considered that young in most circles (Incidentally, I started my business when I was 32. I thought I was totally mature then!). But in a sea of those born in the 1970s and even 1960s, 32 years old is practically a baby.

That lunch was the most fun I'd had in a long time. It's no surprise that I get along tremendously well with my writers but I didn't quite expect them to get along as famously with each other as they did. There they were, chatting about work, kids, food, with a familiar ease (some of them met each other for the first time that day). We laughed so hard I think my neighbours heard us. Somehow, the wavelengths just met. I told them I'd never wanted to run a large company because I hated managing people. If there's one thing I don't miss about corporate life, it's the drama. But then I met my writers and they made running my agency so darn easy and fun.

And you know what, I'm pretty sure that age contributed more than we realise. The unassuming intelligence, the sharp, wacky sense of humour, the genuine interest in others without suspicion or agenda, the adept ability to get things done without fuss. Much of it all comes from years of experience - from work and from life.

Perhaps that's what it means to age. To be so comfortable with ourselves that we don't even bother to pretend anymore. And that makes us interesting because we don't try so hard. To know that we don't know everything and that's okay, because what we DO know makes up for a lot (and there's always Google, anyway). To know that the ability to laugh at ourselves is what will keep us young, and the opportunity to laugh along with friends, priceless.

So there we have it. If I can't stop the aging process, at least I can spend it in the company of like-minded folks. We can wear our unglam glasses and curse fine print together. Or go to the loo 143 times as we drink our wine. Or commiserate about how our kids are not getting married/bearing us the requisite grandchildren/paying us enough attention. And because we'll probably forget that we did all that, we can do it all over again. Sounds like fun.

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