Mortal, Myth, Monolith

On the Mortal: A Conversation with Too Many Asides

Why do you still hate him?

I would have loved to say that the unthinking asking of the accusatory question was its own answer, but it would both be offensive and incomprehensible. (Though one might suppose that the uncomprehended cannot possibly offend, it pays to remember that this is Singapore.)

My most patient answer to the understated accusation of callousness: It’s an ethical imperative.

Why not? Shrink yourself, come in under the shadow where I am, and let me show you.

He’s dead. Live and let live.

One more clichéd accusation and I will –

Dead? Well, I have never hated the mortal, greying flesh presumably capable of feeling pain and even affection, though I have never liked him either. Who is the mortal? You may think that his love for his wife amongst other well-publicized biographical nuggets, was admirable, but neither of us knew the mortal. But I know too well I did not know.

The Lee Kuan Yew I hate is the one I have been living and continue to live – he is scattered, invisible, overpowering.

The God of Crazy Things

Almost immediately after the death of the mortal, the corpse started to be milked for its use in the inscription of Singapore’s own creation myth into malleable collective memory, grotesque hands tugging at eroded strings of gratitude, regenerating them through the overdrive of the state machinery. The media, flooding with content about Lee the Great, galvanized everyone to renew their vows of awe and indebtedness. Schools teachers, unsurpassed if sometimes helpless agents of state-endorsed morality and conduct, were mobilized to be priests of praise rituals for kids, barely cognizant of death, to express their grief.

The mass bewailing is celebratory – the celebration of one man’s supposed achievement could hardly be distinguished from a celebration of his death. Explosion after explosion of exaltation clothed with standardized signs of grief haunted the city. It was almost as if years of preparation and anticipation had finally found an outlet for expression with the mortal’s mortality now evident. Even schoolchildren, not looking at all saddened, would call him a “hero” when interviewed by a TV station, as though Marvel had recently bought the rights to this fascinating character. Who would have the heart to hate the mortal with its corpse now perversely pilloried from the hospital to the Istana to the Parliament House by unreserved, undeserved praise distorting the freshly lost life ?

No indication of reservations in praising Lee the Great was taken kindly. Opposition politician Low Thia Khiang’s tribute to the mortal was attacked immediately, in uncanny resemblance to the reactions following the death of Lee, was akin to a delayed reflex action finally allowed to take place after prolonged suppression and eager anticipation. None of the devotees would accept that his willingness to pay tribute to a person despite his basic beliefs is a higher show of respect that their worship rituals. As those politicizing Low’s tribute began to accuse him of politicizing his tribute, a bemused observer could have concluded that, deployed properly, death is both a potent pre-election-campaign booster and a childishly brutal pre-emptive strike against political opponents.

If the devotees were a cult, the remains of its designated supreme deity, or perhaps its one and only god, might well be cringing in its grave altar. One could almost picture the corpse getting up one last time just to scoff at the ludicrous actions of the devotees he never asked for. But the corpse, once a man who made no apologies about crushing the opposition, can now only content itself with resting beneath the mass of prickly polyester laurels heaped upon his inert body. Perhaps he did die peacefully, but it would be a miracle if he could be dead peacefully as well.

If the corpse were allowed to remain a few more days, I would not be surprised if selfies with the corpse would be allowed due to popular demand (perhaps for an affordable fee, complete with subsidies for people now known as the pioneer generation), together with celebrity endorsements of Lee Kuan Yew as if it were the latest product of the designer label, PAP, and perhaps a pyramid would even be erected in the Padang for the purpose of housing the Lee mummy for posterity to enjoy. This is, after all, the sort of respect that some were unknowingly demanding – desecration via consecration, violation amidst the insistence on inviolability.

Certainly, high praise for the slippery signifier, Lee Kuan Yew, does not come as a surprise. Everyone know the massive affair the mortal’s death would be. What few would have expected was praise that would morph into a culture of manic mourning that defined non-participants as disrespectful ingrates. It was no praise, no remembrance. On March 23 2015, a deity called Lee Kuan Yew was born and the mortal Lee was soon obliterated by the memory of a manmade deity. A casualty of the very system he had played such a big part in shaping. There was barely any space for the genuinely saddened to mourn when the face of the mortal is turned into a ribboned head to be tattooed and replicated in various forms, a map imprint, a fantasy currency design, a stout logo, totally collapsing the distinction between ostensible tribute and parody. Once iconic, Lee is now a mess of icons in a new temple of rubble.

The mourning, frenzied but ultimately hollow, left me incredulous. But this, too, is not the Lee Kuan Yew I hate. Why hate a fictional character?

Kuan Yew

The Kuan Yew I hate is perhaps more successful than the mortal himself realized and the devotees would ever understand.

This Kuan Yew is too massive to describe, but one could start with the creators of the aforementioned deity — not everyone who appeared saddened by the mortal’s death, but those who appeared saddened as they created a totem for their own pleasure and tried shoving it down every Singaporean throat. (Perhaps this is the pleasure afforded to some by exceedingly successful authoritarianism.)

This Kuan Yew is the unquestioning attitude so many Singaporeans have towards the grand narrative of how the PAP brought about Singapore’s progress (progress has only one definition, apparently), the mass of unthinking people who indulge in their own failure to think as a predisposition to being balanced and moderate, the gratitude imperative that plagues the country and defines dissatisfaction as a failure to appreciate how oppression has benefited Singaporeans (but of course it’s never known as oppression!), the city of sedition-defamation-contempt-sensitivity-allergy-atrophy, the ridiculous degree of state influence that people generally accept as normal even when it involves the most banal activities ranging from top-down orders for SG50 “celebrations” everywhere and anywhere to mandatory mass mourning, the failure to understand that Singapore is perfect for those able to thrive in such a culture and a hell for those who are simply born without the constitution to survive painlessly in Singapore.

How do I hate thee? I can’t even count the ways.

Am I not guilty of deifying Kuan Yew too, in attributing him so much influence? I certainly hope not. The Kuan Yew I hate is neither mortal nor deity. The Kuan Yew I hate was a human leader who had too much power; he is also the lasting effects of this power that can be felt as I write this, as you read this. The Kuan Yew I hate is a mix of the mortal depersonified and the country personified. The Kuan Yew I hate, I wish I could not hate.

Enough of this verbose sacrilege! Enough of this waste of words to justify your loathing! Oppies are always so ungrateful. Haters will always hate! Let’s agree to disagree. Without Lee Kuan Yew, we won’t be here today! (I don’t want to be here.) He’s already dead! (NO!) If you hate it, just leave. You don’t know how lucky you are … I understand your position, but … Given Singapore’s situation, it is necessary … This is not the right time to criticize him. I don’t know why I’m wasting my time commenting … No place is perfect,

See, that is the Kuan Yew I hate. But, perhaps, if you would just be literate –

Forgive me for I’m not blessed to love or fortunate enough to be indifferent.

The Oedipal Fantasy of Father Figures (A Slice of Satire)

Kuan Yew is so powerful that he can be right when he claims to be wrong.

Kuan Yew is language.

But for the record, Kuan Yew has never quite said that bilingualism was wrong. He thinks that Mandarin has been taught in the wrong manner, but this is in no way an admission that bilingualism was, at its core, wrong. What a great chance to aggrandize the legendary status of Kuan Yew though! He is now such a great leader that he is not afraid to say that he is wrong.

Kuan Yew, so full of wisdom as always, has denied Singapore of its unborn/undead Conrads and Nabokovs. “Nobody can master two languages at the same level,” he claims, citing his daughter. Perhaps not the same level, if it was ever really about mastering them at the same level, but how about mastering two languages nevertheless?

“It doesn’t matter what level [students] reach, they will like the language [if the lessons are engaging], it’s fun and later on in life they’ll use it,” Kuan Yew says about the teaching of Mandarin.

Why bilingualism, still? But let’s first ask ourselves, what bilingualism? For it is not simply a matter of learning two languages. Even if English as the first language is a given, there have always been only limited choices for one’s second language.

What is the state’s definition of a language learned? We have English as the first language, and we have Mandarin as one of the second languages. “Mother tongue,” they call it, with unabashed intimacy even if most mothers at one point in the past merely spoke dialects. But the supposed tongues of our mothers seem to come from a world so different that we have difficulty making them our own while the tongues that really belonged to our mothers were cut and banned from pubic broadcast. A seconded language rather than a second language. And yet, we have to submit to a stepmother tongue while gazing towards China, perhaps an ex-motherland. We are told we need to have a Stepmother Tongue for a disowned motherland. And despite all these familial but unfamiliar posturing, it is for the sake of business, we are also told. Speak the language of the Hans. Little Hans fearful of severance, embracing surrogate mothers, pleasing fathers.

And the first language is, for those who are brought up by people who speak no English, not the first language they speak; and for many others, it is in fact a second English to the Singlish that they have picked up. But Singlish is wrong, we are told. We have to learn Standard English, when there is no single standard for English. And it is the language of business too.

It would seem then that there we are handicaps when it comes to languages of persons. We only have languages of functions. Language is always reducible to a function, a prosthesis of bankrupt selves instead of being integral to these selves and enriching them. And languages are always borrowed, like the toolbox one might borrow from one’s neighbor. We can master English without being a master of English—in other words, without taking ownership of it, not to mention being one with it. Perhaps our bilingualism is nonlingualism. I have suspected for some time already, that I am semi-illiterate, if not fully so.

All for the greater good, surely. The state only needs businesmachines, not businessmen and certainly, certainly not people of language, people who can decide to be who they are. Except perhaps for the few who can be held up as evidence that Singapore has a really vibrant literary scene.

Was the state wrong in the implementation of how Mandarin was/is taught (and it is a banal point Kuan Yew is making since everyone knows that interesting lessons are better than boring ones) or is it still wrong (willfully?) in its primary approach to language?

Harmony and Difference

Once upon a time, there was a storyteller. The moral of his stories were invariably about harmony. One day, someone regurgitated his plots and spun them, perhaps unintentionally, into tales of equality. This enraged the veteran storyteller who threw a hissy fit and yelled, “You are telling my stories wrongly!”

“But these stories are not yours.” one wished the second storyteller had retorted. “You are just another storyteller.”

As though the staleness of PM Lee’s National Day Rally about harmony (the racial and religious species, what else?) is not enough, many contribute their reverberations, adding stench to staleness. But suddenly, MM Lee seems strangely agitated about an NMP’s advocacy of equal treatment of all races?

Now, it might have seemed to many people to be quite politically correct to want all races to be treated equally. Surely, one might ask, the PAP which is so obsessed with racial harmony would have no problems with racial equality? As such, MM Lee’s strong reaction to Viswa Sadasivan’s view might seem rather odd at first. Is MM Lee against racial equality? Yes, if we assume that racial equality involves the equal treatment of all races. In a nutshell, MM Lee’s view is that the different races cannot be treated equally because the government has be sensitive towards minority races and take action or have policies that will reassure minorities that they will not be discriminated against.

And if we go on, we will be going in circles for the strength of Viswa Sadasivan’s point is precisely that if the government persists in the stance MM Lee has elucidated, racialcategories will become further entrenched. And Sadasivan probably has a problem with this because the emphasis on racial categories will ensure that the consciousness of race and of the perceived differences will always be present. Understandably, for a government that has played the race card for its strategic political benefit, any call to eliminate the need for racial categories is a travesty.

What we have are simply two positions but an uncannily common standpoint at their core. While Sadasivan talks about equality, MM Lee talks about non-discrimination, which in fact draws from discourses of equality. One says that there is no true equality if race continues to be visible, if the walls of race continue to be painted and repainted. The other says that, in practice, we cannot simply pretend that we have attained the ideal situation in which no one is bothered by what they consider to be race.

Perhaps it is not the difference in the two men’s positions that is significant. Perhaps the issue of equality as articulated by Sadasivan threatens to hit a sensitive spot in the discourse of harmony as propagated by the government. Suddenly, Singaporeans might be reminded that harmony is different from equality. It is possible for me live harmoniously with you even if I am (or you are) suffering social injustices. At the same time, you and I might be equals but we squabble from time to time. Which do you find preferable? (I do not mean that any racial group in Singapore is suffering injustices. This is just an illustration to distinguish the ideas of harmony and equality.)

Difference is an essential precondition of harmony. We can harmonize because there is you and I, because there is an other. With harmony is always the possibility of discordance; there is always a threat of sorts. If no one perceives difference, then the notion of harmony has to go. How painful that would be for someone who has built an entire city on that notion, who has made skyscrapers from the bricks of difference! More tragically, what would happen if people living in these glittery skyscrapers suddenly reject the buildings, the apartment-compartments, that have been built for them and in which they have been placed with a heavy hand. Worse, what if the inhabitants of the harmonious city decide to hire architects of their own?

Never throw away a child’s Lego set. It is devastating.

But is harmony not just harmony? Of course, but perhaps not. Perhaps harmony is not even harmony. The moment harmony is divided into types, with most types being invisible, there is silent disharmony. Or silenced disharmony. Racial harmony. Religious harmony. Why not gender harmony, for instance? Because, as a storyteller explains, many years ago, there were racial riots. And people died! So racial issues must be handled sensitively. Someone ought to send that storyteller to jail for sedition. For surely he is inciting riots on the basis of gender. What else? If we accord “racial harmony” importance because of racial riots, what is there to stop people from starting gender (or any other kinds of riots resulting in violence and deaths, something we fear so much?

The MM-NMP argument is ultimately not a racial issue. It is a political issue (as always). I feel as if I’m contributing staleness too. (But what else one have to offer?) When PM Lee warns of the danger of playing the racial/religious card (such as in the case of a group of Christians taking over AWARE), is he not playing the racial/religious card in a different way, not in the sense of being affiliated to any race or religion but in the sense of deploying race and religion to exact political benefits such as the restrictions on free expression on the part of the people. (Oh, but of course there is freedom of expression in Singapore, if you dare say this. Oh, but you are just been taken in by those Western ideals that simply don’t apply, if you persist in saying this. Of course we are democratic! .  . . We are not democratic because we are different from the West!)

I wonder if MM Lee remembered that he was telling someone from a minority race that he knew better what minority races need.

Bring people back to earth by all means, but please do not drag people down to hell.