Blind gratitude is not gratitude

I refer to the 21 Mar 2015 Straits Times letter “Gratitude an important virtue” by Madam Chang Choon Kheng.

Madam Chang wrote:

THE creation of the hoax website falsely announcing former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s death, at a time when he is critically ill, shows that some of us have forgotten the virtue of gratitude (“Concern mounts amid outrage at rumours”; yesterday).

Contrary to Madam Chang’s assertion, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death hoax may not necessarily show that some of us have forgotten gratitude but may instead show that some of us have become more discerning about whom to be grateful to and for what.

Madam Chang wrote:

Given the situation Singapore was in soon after independence in the 1960s, Mr Lee had no choice but to rule with an iron fist, to ensure law and order in Singapore.

Mr Lee had already locked up all so called ‘communists’ during Operation Coldstore in 1963 which according to our ambassador to Australia Mr Burhan Gafoor, had completely shattered the CPM underground network. Konfrontasi with Indonesia also ended prematurely with the toppling of Sukarno by Singapore friendly Suharto just one month after our independence. Separation from Malaysia also severed the tension between the leaders of the two countries that was at the root of communal violence then. What else was there that gave Mr Lee no choice but to rule with an iron fist?

Our situation after World War II was much worse than after independence. Yet our former British colonial rulers never ruled Singapore with Lee’s iron fist.

Did Mr Lee have no choice but to detain Mr Chia Thye Poh till 1998? Did he have no choice but to detain Dr Lim Siew Hock till 1982? What difficult situation persisted from 1966 to 1998 or from 1963 to 1982?

Madam Chang wrote:

He did what he knew he had to do at that time.

Before winning power, Mr Lee fought for press freedom, after winning power Mr Lee suppressed press freedom. Whatever that Mr Lee knew he had to do had nothing to do with consistent moral values that transcended situations but had everything to do with Machiavelli self interest and self preservation.

Madam Chang wrote:

Looking at where we are now, we have to acknowledge that Mr Lee and his team have done much to make Singapore what it is today.

We can’t just look at where we are now and assume it was all due to Mr Lee and his team. We must also look at where we were before, the conditions that we were bestowed with, the citizenry that we were blessed with and the actual details of our journey before we can give the right acknowledgement to the right persons.

According to Dr Goh Keng Swee, there were four conditions that helped Singapore prosper:
(1) Excellent geographical location
(2) Excellent Victorian principles of free trade and enterprise
(3) Excellent British colonial adaptability honed over more than a hundred years since 1819
(4) Prosperity of our neighbors

So according to Dr Goh, where we are now was largely due to the continuation of excellent British ways of doing things which Dr Goh described as priceless. Thus, if Madam Chang acknowledges Mr Lee’s team mate Dr Goh, she should also acknowledge Dr Goh’s words of wisdom and acknowledge that much of why we are where we are today has more to do with our priceless colonial inheritances than Mr Lee or his team.

Madam Chang wrote:

I am a pre-school teacher and I am tasked with teaching our children virtues. Being grateful is a very important one.

The importance of being grateful means that one must exercise due care and diligence to pinpoint exactly who to be grateful to and for what. By attributing all that we should be grateful for to one person, Madam Chang risks being ungrateful to everyone else by failing to recognize their fair share of contributions. If we strip Mr Lee of the contributions by others, what little is left for us to be grateful about?

The key events that are closely identified with Mr Lee were our failed merger with Malaya, Graduate Mothers Scheme, Stop at Two and suppression of press freedom, hardly anything that we should be grateful about.

Madam Chang wrote:

When I teach the children in my class what gratitude is, I will tell them about the history of Singapore, to show them that we must be grateful to our leaders who worked day and night so that we could live comfortably today.

The Singapore history that Madam Chang tells must go beyond Mr Lee Kuan Yew as there were others before him like Tan Kah Kee, Tan Kim Seng and Tan Tock Seng who helped cement Singapore’s status as the leading centre of business and entrepreneurship in the region and helped lay the strong foundation upon which independent Singapore could further prosper. If Madam Chang only tells the tall tales of Mr Lee but not the true tales of other Singapore patriots and pioneers, she risks being ungrateful to so many others that all Singaporeans are indebted to.

Does Madam Chang think Singapore could have prospered if everyone lazed around while Mr Lee alone worked day and night? Even Mr Lee himself admitted in 1965 that it was ultimately the citizenry’s mettle that mattered. How does Madam Chang know Mr Lee worked day and night? Did she have special privilege to enter the Istana Palace to witness Mr Lee working day and night?

Madam Chang wrote:

Before we complain about anything, we must remember that the peaceful and clean city we enjoy today came at a high price – the sweat, tears and blood of the older generations. They persevered and had the “never say die” spirit which we should learn.

Before Madam Chang compliments anything, she must remember that Singapore was already peaceful and prosperous during British colonial times and that the high price of older generations included that of those who came before Lee. The sweat, tears and blood of Lee’s generation cannot compare with that of those who came after our founding in 1819. It was our earliest pioneers who literally carved a city out of the jungle and turned Singapore into the prosperous port city that Lee and his team inherited.

Madam Chang wrote:

Now that Mr Lee is critically ill, I feel sad that we may soon lose a good man. But I am also heartened that there are many who appreciate him, as shown by the many good wishes sent.

Madam Chang will not feel so sad if she can better understand the truth behind what Mr Lee did or did not do.

Madam Chang wrote:

I thank Mr Lee for all he has done in the past. He has indeed left a legacy for us. May we pass this legacy to our children, and be grateful for it.

Much of what Madam Chang thanks Mr Lee for is attributable to others. When stripped of these legacies due to others, there is nothing much left about Mr Lee to pass on to our children or to be grateful about.


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