An amazing parallel runs through the political careers of Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of the Republic of Singapore, and Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister. Both began their political career at the same time and stepped down as prime minister on the same day.
Both laid down their office on November 28, 1990. Both were succeeded by their deputies: Goh Chok Tong became prime minister of Singapore, and John Major of Britain.
There is a tide in the affairs of men Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Those lines from Julius Caesar certainly apply to Cheung Yip Seng, who loves Shakespeare. His musician father brought the family over on a ship from Penang to Singapore, where in 1963 Cheung, then 20 years old, got a job with The Straits Times.
Twenty-three years later, in December 1986, on a flight back to Singapore from Burma, the then deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong asked him to become editor-in-chief of the English and Malay Newspapers Division of Singapore Press Holdings, The Straits Times’ owner and one of the most profitable media groups in Asia.
He might not have got the job, though, unless recommended by the man who later became president of Singapore.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the Straits Times mentioned in Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly. It’s at the beginning of Chapter 4:
That year, towards the breaking up of the south-west monsoon, disquieting rumours reached Sambir. Captain Ford, coming up to Almayer’s house for an evening’s chat, brought late numbers of the Straits Times giving the news of Acheen war and of the unsuccessful Dutch expedition.
It’s interesting because Conrad was writing in the late 19th century about a Dutch trader living deep in the jungles of Borneo.
Looking at Chulia Street off Raffles Place and Boat Quay now, no one would know what it was like before. Chulia Kampong, unlike Kampong Glam, has vanished from the map of Singapore. So I was intrigued by the description given by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh in his novel, River of Smoke. The book, set in the 1830s, is about the opium trade between India and China which used to pass through Singapore.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his Chinese New Year message says:
Ultimately we all want to make Singapore the best home in the world for ourselves, our families and our children. We all want ours to remain an inclusive, meritocratic society where every child has the chance to realise his dreams and aspirations. We all want our children and grandchildren to enjoy many opportunities in Singapore and beyond, even as they remain rooted by a deep sense of belonging in Singapore.
He could have been speaking for everyone in Singapore — and for everyone who loves Singapore.
Gong xi fa cai! It’s the Year of the Dragon from tomorrow.
“The Year of the Dragon is likely to see more uncertainty in the global economy,” said PM Lee. So, here’s wishing everyone good luck.
To sign off, what could be better than a poem on Singapore?
Flash floods hit Liat Towers and other parts of Orchard Road, reported AsiaOne, but PUB, whose tasks include flood prevention, begged to differ. No floods in Orchard Road, just “ponding”: Pub, said the headline in Today. “Flooding” did occur in a section of Cambridge Road/Owen Road, according to the PUB website, but not in the Orchard Road shopping district, where there was only “ponding”.”The affected areas are mainly low-lying areas,” Today reported, quoting the PUB, as if that explained everything.
I loved this quibble over words, it’s so like Singapore. I haven’t seen anything on the latest “flooding”/”ponding” yet on The Online Citizen or Singapore Daily, which takes a break on weekends, if I am not mistaken.
There were no blogs, of course, in the Singapore described by Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazar (published in 1975) which I happened to be reading again yesterday.
Theroux, who taught at the university, had mixed feelings about Singapore. “The North Star Night Express to Singapore”, the chapter on Singapore, ends with the words, “Like me — like everyone I knew in Singapore — he had just been waiting for his chance to go.” “I had felt trapped in Singapore,” he says, complaining about government control and press censorship. But he also admits: “I felt kindly towards Singapore.”
It’s impossible not to love Singapore.
Even Theroux, the critic, feels an affinity for the place.
This may be my last post for about a month. I hope to be blogging again from the middle of November. So, before the hiatus, one last post about Singapore. Here is Melvyn Bragg writing about Singapore English. He is an eminent British journalist, who edited the recent issue of The New Statesman magazine, which included a poem by Ted Hughes about Sylvia Plath.
This is from The Adventure of English, Bragg’s history of the English language and its continuing evolution, published in 2003. He discusses Singlish in one of the later chapters and seems to quite like it. Here is what he says: