From true grit comes myths

Dear Mr Mahbubani,

I refer to your Straits Times article dated 3 Mar 2010.

You said the South African story shows the importance of choosing the correct moral heroes as though there was a conscious effort by the South Africans to choose Mandela as their hero. No such effort was needed for there is simply nothing quite like the story of Nelson Mandela. His moral heroism is so extraordinary and so plain for all to see, it inspires us from deep within. That is the difference between true heroes and hero wannabes. The former truly inspires while the latter depends on being chosen.

You pointed out the vast difference between the recognition for Mandela and for Rajaratnam even though both shared the same moral belief that all races should be equal. But Mandela gave 27 years of his life to imprisonment for his ideals and convictions. What has Rajaratnam to show for his convictions other than a comfortable career seated in lofty positions? Without taking anything away from him, Rajaratnam is simply not comparable to Mandela. The closest to a Mandela that we have in Singapore are Chia Thye Poh and Dr Lim Hock Siew who were imprisoned for 32 years and 19 years respectively for their unwavering convictions.

You claimed there has been very little effort to share the virtues of our founding fathers to our population. But the supposed ‘virtues’ of Lee Kuan Yew are constantly being expounded in all forms of media while those of Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam are also well mentioned in our history textbooks.

You claimed that the US has masterfully deified its founding fathers as though the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln require artificial assistance for the glorification of their deeds. In the first place, George Washington didn’t even care for glory for he gave up office and returned to the farms after having completed his work of establishing a strong, new nation that is America. Such unselfish demonstration of true dedication towards helping his people is something that MM Lee will never be able to understand let alone emulate.

You said that national myths do not surface naturally but are manufactured instead. But the true stories of Nelson Mandela and George Washington are no myths and to equate them to national myths is to whitewash history. Jefferson may have been a slave owner and the father of his slave’s children, but we need to judge him based on the circumstances of his times. Slavery was already a way of life for more than a century before Jefferson was born and wouldn’t be abolished for another century. Do we denigrate Singapore philantrophers and pioneers like Tan Kah Kee and Gan Eng Seng just because they had many wives? Or do we acknowledge that polygamy was not only socially acceptable then but was also a mark of social status in those times? Polygamy is still being practised today amongst Malays. Who is to say that Malays won’t abandon polygamy altogether a hundred years from now? When that day comes, do we go back in time and sneer at all those who are practising polygamy today?

It is time we stopped manufacturing the myth of the communist threat to Singapore and face up to the undeniable historical fact that the communist insurgency of 1948 never once reached the shores of Singapore and had always been confined to remote towns and jungles of Malaya. The supposed ‘tough’ opponents of the PAP were in fact, unarmed workers and students. It is really a joke to compare them with the might of the British Empire which the Americans had to face with real guns and cannons. What’s more, it was the British who faced up against these so called ‘tough’ worker and student opponents, not the PAP. What courage or steel does one require in a ‘battle’ fought by someone else?

While it is true that we cannot record every drop of history, what we do record must be true in order for us to build a true story. True stories are therefore not myths and when they become embedded in national consciousness, they become legends, not myths. The true stories of Washington and Jefferson are the stuff of legends, not myths.

The gulf between the wealth and poverty in South Africa persists despite the moral compass of Mandela. Don’t delude yourself by saying that we can build a strong nation around the moral strength of one man. The universal admiration and respect for Nelson Mandela didn’t translate to universal admiration and respect for South Africa. Similarly, even if Rajaratnam were to become universally admired and respected, it will not automatically translate to universal respect and admiration for Singapore.

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