What do you remember when you were 4? For me, not much but among the few early memories I can recall is a flight. Probably my first. I remembered my mum excitedly asking me to look down at the lights below. Yes, it was a night flight and we were returning from my very first trip to Singapore.
What do you remember when you were in Primary School? For me, apart from the wonderful memories of friends, teachers, family moments and my first school, were our regular visits to Singapore. I remembered being impressed with the Science Center, the roads from the airport lined with rows of bougainvillea waving to me (as if I was a VIP). I remembered the double decker SBS buses and how the buses came far more regularly then what I was used to back in Penang. I remembered how I sat on the top deck of 196 and went from Marine Parade (where my uncle resided) to Jurong East – yes, a bus trip that seem to take forever but for this Malaysian boy, it was such a thrill.
What do you remember when you were in Secondary School? Unfortunately for me, chief among the memories, was the death of my Dad. I remembered how my family struggled to cope with his passing. This, in addition to my teenage angst. Despite the struggles, my Mum worked hard and had the foresight of sending me to a Chinese medium school and also for external English lessons. “Because you are Chinese and English is important” would be her retort whenever I protested about the amount of homework I had.
It was in Secondary School that I heard, for the first time, remarks that disillusioned me a little – that there was a quota system for different races to enter the local University; that for the Chinese and Indian, the quota was low. I remembered asking myself, “Why? Why is it that I work hard and just because I’m Chinese, I can’t get in?” It was during these time, my cousins in Singapore were studying real hard to get into a school or course of their choice. It made sense to me – you want something, you work for it.
It was then that I remembered vividly one of the few advice my Chinese teacher gave (admittedly I usually don’t pay attention in class so what I remember is scarce) which stuck with me: “ Work hard and don’t stay here. Go where better and fairer opportunities await…Best place nearest to us? Singapore.”
What do you remember from your tertiary days? I remembered being relieved to be awarded an Australian scholarship to study in the University of Melbourne and not having to 2nd guess if I made the quota despite my good results. I also remembered one of my housemates who, despite getting straight ‘A’s in STPM (Malaysian version of ‘A’ levels) was denied admission to read Medicine in University Malaysia but was given Veterinary Science at an outpost of the University in rural Malaysia. His parents were so upset that they sent him to Australia while he waited for his scholarship application to study in NUS. He got the scholarship eventually and is now residing here in Singapore.
I remembered how over the moon I arrived in Australia but my joy was short-lived. Beer cans thrown at me while I was waiting at the pedestrian crossing, verbal threats hurled at Asians to ‘go home!’, graffiti on public washroom doors that reads, ‘Kill Asians’ (with a phone number in case you needed help to achieve that) and incidents in the University library where precious lecture notes of Asian students were stolen and thrown away during exam seasons. All these racial taunts made me realize, to my disbelief, that I had gone from a country where there’s ‘positive’ discrimination (what an oxymoron!) to one that has outright discrimination. Granted, the country was undergoing high unemployment but to treat a fellow human condescendingly out of prejudice and irrational fears only made the prestige of emigrating there fade into thin air. In fact, these encounters gave me the resolve to move to a country that will take care of its citizens even when the going gets tough.
What do I remember from my tertiary school days? I remembered saying to myself that enough is enough. I’m sick of being discriminated, of having lesser rights and treated differently just by virtue of my skin colour.
What do you remember as a young adult? Your first job? Your first office desk? Your first tie? For me, it was the joy of choosing which country I call home. I had studied my options carefully and knew that here, car and home prices are astronomical compared to where I came from. I knew that I would be staying in a little ‘pigeon hole’ of an apartment instead of a lush, landed compound. I knew that I wouldn’t have mountains, rivers, forests and lawns to run around (heck, I may not even get a balcony). But I also knew that I would have equal opportunities as long as I am willing to work hard, regardless of race, language or religion.
Friends would call me silly – “ You won’t be able to buy cheap houses and cheap cars!” Most would help me commiserate. Some would consider me daft for leaving Australia where work-life harmony is far better. “ Shops close by 5” they would say, “don’t need to work so hard there”…“Life is more relaxing, not so stressful!”
But seriously, how can one compare one’s freedom and rights to the price of cars and houses? How can one measure one’s dignity in terms of how vast and beautiful the natural landscapes? What good would all these be if my children had no equal rights and no access to meritocracy to carve a living for themselves?
What do you remember when you got married? For me, it was the joy of owning my first home together with my wife, Angie – a small but comfortable 3-room flat in Clementi. For me, it was also the certainty of a future which we can pursue together as a married couple, based on old-fashioned hard work, diligence and prudence. For me, it was the excitement of knowing that our children will receive a world-class education which will give them a head start wherever they may go.
For me, it was what Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and the fundamental policies he and his pioneer government had laid that had made all the difference. Don’t get me wrong, Singapore is by no means perfect. No country or political system is or ever will be. But matters most is that Singapore is governed on fundamentally sound principles – no favoritism, no corruption, equal rights, justice, meritocracy and multiculturalism. How else could a mosquito-laden swamp land with nary any natural resources at the Southern tip of the Malay Peninsular survive, much less rose to achieve a first world country status within one generation?
These days, whenever we fly, I let our daughter take the window seat. She loves it and would crane her neck to admire the stunning scenery below. No, not because I no longer like window seats but because I would like her to see and remember how small yet significant her Singapore is…As she watches the flickering lights below, she could also remember why her Daddy feels mighty proud to be a Singaporean and share his hope of how far she and her generation can bring this country further.
This country is first and forth-most, our Home, regardless of race, language or religion. Thank you Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. May you rest in peace…
In memory of the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (1923 – 2015). Photo Credit: Pepper See.
To read one of our favourite anecdotes shared about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, head over to this FB Page.