Ismail Kassim: Tribute To Lee Kuan Yew – Part II

Part II: My teacher, my guru

I was at my most audacious when I named the fourth chapter in my A Reporter’s Memoir as Lee Kuan Yew and I.

My purpose was not to claim intimacy to a great man but rather to attract readers to browse through my book.

I also felt that I could justify the chapter title as I regarded him as my greatest my greatest teacher, my guru who opened my mind to the big world outside the school.

Excerpts from A Reporter’s Memoir: No Hard Feelings Published in 2008

‘’The brush-off with the civil servants was just a sideshow. By the time I became a teacher on 2 January 1961, the real life drama was just beginning.

Imagine a youth just out of school after his ‘O’ levels, with a mind still half-filled, and whose only redeeming quality is that he can and likes to read.

Imagine also, no television, no English football league, no bowling alleys, and no internet. In short, there were very few distractions except for Rediffusion, radio stations, the cinemas, and club competition football at Farrer Park.

My interest in politics began to stir. I realised that it was more than about which party was going to win power. The pay cuts had shown in a very personal way its impact on my family and me. Of course, all the talk about liberation struggles and freedom fighters in other parts of the world and the struggle between communism and democracy also played a part in fuelling my imagination.

Before I knew it, I was caught in the political turmoil and found myself carried along by its currents, in the same way that many Singaporeans nowadays get caught with World Cup fever or Premier League Football and would go out of their way, even feigning sickness, just to catch the action live.

Singapore was then one huge stage. We became absorbed in the high drama of the political life and death struggle that would, we know, determine the fate of our little island that has often been lightly dismissed as a cross between a bullet and a pill, or to borrow a more contemporary description, as “the little red dot.”

Events were unfolding before my very eyes.It was like being in the front row of a prize boxing fight. For an 18-year old youth, it was just not possible to remain unaffected by all the heat and tension of the struggle within the PAP between the non-communists led by Lee and the group dubbed as pro-communists front men led by Lim Chin Siong. I began to attend political rallies held by both sides.

So great was my interest that I was not satisfied with just listening to their speeches live, I would also listen to the news, and then read in the papers what I had heard the previous night.Reading the news first thing in the morning just to catch the latest news became a habit.

This drama played on night after night for years.

The best and the greatest of them all was Lee and his weapon of choice was reasoned logic, simple and clear to even an O level student, yet elegantly structured with a certain rhythm that struck a chord in listeners and readers.

Throughout 1961-67, he was an indefatigable politician making speeches almost every other day, everywhere from street rallies to overseas

In particular, I remember his series of 12 radio talks in 1961 on the inside story of the struggle for control of the PAP between the group of English-educated non-communist nationalists, and the pro-communist group. He described the cooperation between the two groups as a united front.

It was Lee at his best as a storyteller that gripped many Singaporeans to their chairs night after night.

In those tension filled days, I think I read practically every speech, sometimes twice over, always marvelling at the way his logic flowed along. Often I would read slowly, verbalising every word,relishing the cadences and the elegant turn of phrase. It was a source of constant joy.

The speeches were also very informative and provided a continuous flow of knowledge to a mind that was then only half-filled but malleable. It was my initiation into the world of adults and politics, human conflict and ideology, colonialism and independence, democracy and socialism and communism.

Many of the ideas that I came across when I listened to or read his speeches were new to me. They were novel, stimulating,opened up my mind, and stretched my imagination.

In terms of intellect, no teacher or public figure that I had come across could match him. No one also, before or after him, could command my total attention in the way Lee could with his speeches.He was persuasive. Even listening and reading his speeches were enough to shape my attitude towards many public policy issues.

Imagine reading word for word, speech after speech, week after week, month after month, for five, six, seven years. You would not be wrong if you conclude that it could be the equivalent of a correspondence course for a liberal arts university degree.

I think that was how I unconsciously learnt the rudiments of how to write simply and plainly and how I began to appreciate the beauty of the English language, with all its colour and nuances.

I suppose I was lucky. I was at the right place and at the right time. Just by being absorbed in the drama, I managed to get the best teacher available for my post-O level education’’ Page 52 to 55

‘’To me, the way Lee out-manoeuvred the communists over the merger proposals showed him at his most brilliant. It was political poker at its best. Of course, if you want to be unkind, you can describe it as Lee at his most cunning.’’ Page 58

‘’I think Lee was at his most idealistic during the ’59 to 65’ era, especially in his quest for a more equal and just society, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliations, a society where only the man counts and not any of his born-with affiliations.

‘’Nothing seemed impossible then. No goal was too high or too difficult. If necessary, change the world, and turn the environment upside down.

‘’After independence, he became pragmatic and realistic, a very different person from the one who was willing to climb any hill, face any obstacle and brave any danger.’’ Page 61

‘’The Lee that I knew as a young man, the fiery leader out to reshape the world according to his ideals was no longer around. An older and perhaps wiser Lee, who now all too readily accepted the realities of the world, has replaced the younger Lee.’’ Page 64

In conclusion, we must judge Lee by the standards of his contemporaries. He was indeed an extraordinary man shaped by the circumstances of his time.

At a time like this, we should remember his contributions, and for the time being, forget whatever might be his misdeeds.

I take this opportunity to express my condolences to the PM and the Lee family.


Source: Ismail Kassim

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