Sunday, October 29, 2006

Lessons from Beyond the Grave:What two Singaporeans teach us ( Part Two)

Dear Friends,

If Mr. Tan Jee Suan was a faceless Singaporean that most of us would not have heard of if not for his untimely death last week, the second Singaporean that I wish to present to you is the opposite. His is one of the most recognizable faces of our times.

He is David Saul Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister.

I like to acknowledge that most of this post’s contents are taken from Dharmendra Yadav’s blog

Dharmendra Yadav, 28, is Legal Counsel of NTUC Income Insurance Cooperative Ltd.

He conducted an interview with Marshall in 1994, whilst a student at St.Andrew’s Junior College ( Marshall’s alma mater,) and decided to make public this absorbing interview only this year ( 2006) as part of celebration of Singapore’s 41st National Day.

To questions like “Why did it take 12 years to release this interview?

he says,”It took 12 years for blogs to arrive!But, in all honesty, I was actually remiss. I recently met some members of the Marshall family and I recalled this interview.Last week, I dug out the transcripts. I felt the time had come to release this interview.”

For other nitty-gritty’s about the interview
link here.

I have taken creative liberty to only present parts of the interview which are pertinent to the issue of the day, ie what Marshall can teach us about Singapore now.

I will comment about what Marshall teaches us about "Noblesse oblige" after the interview proper.

Firstly, some biodata about David Saul Marshall.

Biodata of David Saul Marshall

Born: March 12, 1908, in Singapore.

Died: Dec 12, 1995.

Called to the Bar in 1937 after graduating from the University of London and Middle Temple in Britain.

A private in the Singapore Volunteer Corps, he was taken prisoner soon after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Worked in the coal mines of Hokkaido, Japan. Freed in 1945.

Married Jean Mary Gray, a former social work lecturer, when he was 53. They have three daughters and a son.


Was in private legal practice before he led the new Labour Front in 1954.

April 1955: Singapore's first Chief Minister.

June 1956: Resigned from the post.

1959-1963: Lost legislative seat in 1959 polls. Won Anson by-election in 1961.

Lost in 1963 election. Returned to law. But remained active in opposition politics till 1972.

1978-1993: Served as Singapore's Ambassador to France, then Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.

Oct 1993: Retired from diplomatic corps, worked as consultant to law firm Drew and Napier.

The Biodata and an article entitled "Shooting star of S'pore a legend in his lifetime", was first published by Susan Sim in The Straits Times on Dec 13, 1995.

Sim quoted Marshall's political biographer ,Chan Heng Chee, as saying , "Mr Marshall had gone into Singapore politics like a shooting star, and as in the nature of a shooting star, filled the sky with brilliance and disappeared".

Although only excerpts are presented here (for sake of brevity and focus), I strongly urge all to read the original interview in its entirety ( read the complete David Marshall Interview)

Excerpts of Dharmendra Yadav’s “Meeting David Marshall In 1994”
(Dr.Huang- Emphasis in red mine)


The role of youths! Ha!

In my time, I tried to educate our people in an understanding of the dignity of human life and their right as fellow human beings, and youth was not only interested but excited about what I consider things that matter. Things of the spirit; the development of a human being to his true potential in accordance with his own personal genius in the context of equal rights of others.

Today, youth is interested in getting paper qualification and, as soon as possible, shoveling gold into their bank accounts. It’s a different world, even the law…………………………….

But I am seen as a critic and I am a critic.

I am frankly terrified by this massive control of the mass media, the press, the radio, television, antennae, [and] public meetings. You can’t write a letter to the Straits Times; if there is a shadow of criticism, it’s not published. And the Chinese press follows suit. It’s a very dangerous position because experience proves that no one group of human beings has got all the wisdom in the world…..

And are youths the miasma of apathetic subservience to authority? But you say to yourselves, “Well, you know, what do we seek in life? We seek a rice bowl, full!”

It is full and overflowing, in fact. They serve you your rice in a jade bowl with golden chopsticks; not that it makes much difference to the taste of the rice. But you’re empty!

You’ve got technocratic skills and you are seeking more but internally you are empty. Money is your acid test of success.

I’ve got nothing against money. I’d like to have money myself! I’d like to have a house and a garden and dogs and a car and a chauffeur but, look, I’ve got a flat. I’ve got a swimming pool attached to the flat. I’ve not even got a car but I use taxis. I have a dignified way of life without being wealthy.

I don’t see the necessity of owning a Mercedes-Benz and a swimming pool and a couple of mistresses. I think we’ve got our values all wrong.

You know $96,000 a month for a Prime Minister and $60,000 a month for a minister. What the hell do you do with all that money? You can’t eat it! What do you do with it? Your children don’t need all that money.

My children have had the best of education. In fact, I’m very proud of them. One of them is a senior registrar to two major hospitals in Oxford. Another of them is a consultant in European law to the Securities and Investment Board in the United Kingdom. They’ve had their education. There are no complaints.

I never earned $60,000 a month or $90,000 a month. When I was Chief Minister, I earned $8,000 a month. Look, what is happening today is we are encouraged to and are becoming worshippers of the Golden Calf.

We have lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service, helping our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking and understanding of the joy of the miracle of the living the duty and the grandeur. We have lost taste for heroic action in the service of our people.We have become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security. It’s like seeking a crystal coffin and being fed by intravenous injections through pipes in the crystal coffin; crystal coffins stuck with certificates of your pragmatic abilities.

(Dr.Huang-Other questions in the original interview included the following:)






Our lives are empty. We don’t understand the joy of living is not in the gold coins. It is not in the bank account. The joy of living is in human relations. We are not in appreciation of this miracle of life.


Recognise there is a lot of satisfaction in public service, foreign service, judicial service. A great deal of satisfaction in public service, even honorary public service in committees.

[If] you are totally engrossed in self-promotion, at the end of the day, you’ll find it’s dead seafood.

Try and give up yourselves to others.

I am so alien to this worship of the Golden Calf and the draconian attitude; the brutal attitude towards our fellow citizens. Here I ask people and, no doubt, if I ask you, “We’re all in favour so long as it’s not me having my bottoms cut! Yes, whip ‘em!”

Try to put yourself in the other man’s shoes.

And, of course, what have I got to say?

You, the young – you’ve got a fantastic, absolutely fantastic potential before you; economic expansion, heroic plans that the government has for the future not only the present. You are so lucky! No unemployment! Great potential even beyond your capacity to fulfill.

It’s an exciting country, Singapore. It’s a lovely country. And you have to make your own space for your own spiritual and intellectual needs and have the courage. Have the courage to serve your fellow men with integrity.

I’ll put it in one nutshell: have the courage to live, don’t be afraid!You know, I’m told I’m fool-hardy and always criticising, although I have such a gracious life. But fool-hardy or no, this is me; I am prepared to take what you give.

(Dr.Huang-end of interview)


By now, two French words would more than adequately describe what Singapore is lacking in the eyes of Marshall.

Noblesse olige.

Literally it means nobility is an obligation. It is defined as:

1. Benevolent, honorable behavior considered to be the responsibility of persons of high birth or rank.

2. the obligation of those of high rank to be honorable and generous (often used ironically)

John D.Rockefeller Jr said,"every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty" .

Marshall’s seemingly “naïve” idealism is refreshing. Now I know that there is at least one other bloke as naïve as myself.

How he treasured the dignity of human life and see the potential for good in the human spirit. Giants like him have more than the right to decry the suffocation of free human expressions via the “massive control of the mass media”.

Singapore’s MSM ( Mainstream Media) may have monopoly of the printing presses, but they do not have the monopoly of wisdom.

Although MSM has improved in recent times, much more unshackling of the media needs to be done before it can offer itself as a conduit to and from the people. It risks becoming irrelevant as the youths have already bypassed our MSM by getting information via the technological highway of the internet.

About Noblesse oblige.

It is so obvious to Marshall and to most of us. The ablest must feel privileged to serve the rest.Hence the term "public servant".

There is no need to overly reward these elites (presently not a good word), to "prevent" them from being tempted with corruption. To me, such attitudes are in themselves corrupt. Its assumption is that there are no noble Singaporeans who has the interest of the common people at heart. That all men are pre-programmed for ignoble deeds.

If Marshall considered $96000 and $60000 per month unfathomable, he will surely flip if he realises that the figures are actually higher.

I will say no more. Marshall’s own words from “beyond” should be sufficient in pricking our collective conscience. No need for me to meander on.

Please read the complete interview. Thanks again to Yadav. Nice job!


Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan

PS. There are two other Singaporeans that will interest some of you.

Chia Thye Poh

Lim Chin Siong


Rowen said...

Nice to bring up david marshall's interview. Quite adapt with the current state of affairs.

nofearSingapore said...

Yes with so much elites in high places, it is timely to remind all that governance is after all about public service.


Robert HO said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Casper said...

Hi Dr Huang,

It is indeed a very good reminder about what public service was about and what is the responsibility of a leader.

Deterioration of committment to public service is everwhere. My pocket first culture is just as common in UK (look at all the donor scandal, Tony Blair helping out his donors in business deals, free villas from his 'friends' etc).

Unfortunately, another sad thing that I observed is that those real good guy does not last very long. (e.g. a decent policitians will stand no chance in Malaysia, those who make racist remark will be ensured an express train to the top).

Democracy assumed that the electorates are well informed and rational. The fact is the electorate are often not well informed (not very interested in long term issues anyway) and only interested in this weeks' living etc.

In a way, the electrorate is rational, albeit taking a short term view, and also selfish. What they are interested is what is in it for them NOW. In western social welfare state, it is the same thing - electorate wants social welfare because it provides them with safety nets etc, the fact that the debt these social welfare state builds up, and in a globalised world may well mean terrible life for the next generation is not their primary concern.

In Thailand, the poor will have no trouble electing anyone who promises them $10 or a guaranteed meal for a year. If that puts the country's development brake on, then so be it - it is the middle class who suffer, I have my food. Who cares then?
(They fail to see if the country progress, so will their life).

I therefore deduce that Singapore electorate are probably going along the same line - most people care more about their flat being renovated next year, who cares about what Singapore will be like in 5. Give me a 10% tax rebate now and I will guarantee that you are voted in. million dollar salary is not really their problem..

Democracy by definition means what the majority wants. So, if this is what the majority wants, what else can we say (To say otherwise would be undemocratic !!!)?

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Casper,

Thanks for your toughtful response.
Yes I agree that everyone ( from elected to electorate) is just interested in short term issues.

I admit that it is disappointing that in S'pore's blogosphere, it is difficult to sustain any interest in wider topics other than local parochial subjects like "Wee elite" saga, and most of these end up almost like a mud-slinging matches.

I try to be constructive and try to engage but I am in the minority.

The truth is that I do get eyeballs from presumably scholars and overseas students ( from good U's) but I know that once these people come home ( if they do), they get sucked into the establishment and whilst climbing up the ladder in some Temasek-linked company, I don't expect any of them to exert their influence to change the status quo. So it will be more of the same.
Elites getting elites' pay pocket and the rest eying them with envy and can do nothing except gripe and rant.


Casper said...

Hi Dr Huang,

Just have a few ideas. So thought I will share it here.

1. Singapore has always called itself Singapore Inc and maybe that should applies to its directors (aka. ministers). Maybe their basic salary should be reduced to $120,000 pa each with the rest made up of bonuses. Whether they qualify for bonus shall be:
(a) 50% of that based on hard, published targets which are to be validated by a NUS/NTU academic plus a representative from opposition.
(I thought of getting, say harvard academic etc, but thought that is too much interference to internal affairs).

(b)Every 2 years, their bonus is voted online or via a kiosk where those who votes are authenticated by the singapore smart card ID. ( I know singaporean are afraid to be identified, but Singapore is not north korea or Stalin russia..).

Off topic here but I think Singapore needs to regconise that not all human are born equal. Other than the parasites (which I think should still be provided with porridge and salt fish and salt vegtable dish everyday and a basic 3m x 3m room free of charge), an effort should be made to allow all these to live up to a reasonable standard of living, not via welfare payout but opportunities creations.

It also needs to regconise some handicap individuals who could do nothing more to improve their condition and provide the suitable opportunities for them. (e.g. one who can't walk can still very well take up a call centre job, and their wages can be adjusted beyond the market rate to ensure that a decent standard of living is achievable).

Crude Drawinist elitisim has took Singapore quite far but progress at all cost may be too expensive a price to pay for a civilised society...

Robert HO said...

RH: The deleted Comment may be found in Mr Wang's [the lawyer]'s post "Karmic Biscuits" Comments as well as my blog :

Quitter-in-waiting said...

Thank you Dr. H.

It is good for that Singapore netizens are reminded of the "humanity role of the government" every now and then. It does not matter if the people will forget the reminder before any action is taken, given our short attention span. With each blogger contributing similar reminders at different times, it will become a sea of reminders with regular waves of it. Then such important issues will (like repeated advertising) remain in people's minds.

Each reminder wakes me up from complacency to check the "humane" development on the governance of Singapore. Sadly, each observation seems to confirm deterioration rather than development. Thus my quitter-in-waiting status.

quitter-in-waiting said...

Btw, Dr H, sometimes I don't comment not because I did not find your write up interesting, but because other earlier comments already reflects my 2 cents and so I didn't comment to avoid flooding your comments area unnecessarily. Maybe there are others who share the same line of thinking? :-)

Nevertheless, I often look forward to reading new entries from you. Keep up the good work!

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Casper/Robert/quitterinwaiting:
I always welcome comments. I suppose Narcissists like myself bask in attention, so even posting comments like "I agree" would not be unappreciated. If not we don't know the hits we get are by people who found the blog by accident or are people like you guys who are concerned human beings.
Casper: Yes the mechanism for salary for public servants definitely needs looking at.

Robert: Thanks for your understanding. I am not a lawyer like Mr. Wang who knows what is defamatory or not. I will read your commnents at his blog.

quitter-i-w: even if you need to leave these shores, your mind does not have to quit thinking or loving the people here. Better if you stay and try to change things here. I am the same status as yourself and when it becomes unbearable, I will join the same queue. In the meantime, I can "tahan" ( ie tolerate) the nonsense but if sense the tide rolling backwards, I will change my opinion about this whole thing.
I try to keep this blog relevant to all thinking S'poreans who feel that the PAP should not be seen as all-powerful and all-knowing because they are not.
Increasingly ( maybe due to blogs etc), they are seen as more human and vulnerable and that is good. We will "help" them along and give them suggestions whether these are welcome or not. ( ha ha)


quitter-in-waiting said...

Dr H: We will "help" them along and give them suggestions whether these are welcome or not. ( ha ha)

I agree. Like opposition LTK's idea on grouping students by the abilities in each subject which is finally taken up by PAP with Tharman in education. Like Mr Wang's ideas on NS. Like the netizens demand for an unreserved apology from MP WSK (and perhaps also his daughter WSM). Like Alex Au still pushing for gay rights. Maybe these will happen someday, but the first step is to suggest/offer the idea.

I do not care which political party picks up on the ideas and pushes for them in paliament, kudos to the ones who truly listens to the ground. What matters is that suggestions are heard/considered and then implemented if found to be overall beneficial to Singapore.

Yes, you're right, when I finally leave Singapore, I am likely to continue to be concerned about its development because of the family and friends left behind. Then I tell myself that someone has to venture out first to set-up the life-line, so that it can be easily activated should the tide turn for worse. Perhaps it's a self-delusionary sense of sacrifice, but it does give one courage and determination to face whatever may come. :-)

whybegay said...

See what I wrote about Wee Shu Min at my blog.

Willie said...

The end of the cycle will come when a "noble man" arrives. We have been educated to worship materialism instead of values in life. Not too long ago, the "quality of life" use to be reading, relaxing in the park or beach with family and friends...small talk after dinner with parents and granny. Cooking together as a team used to be a part of the family dinner. What happened? Government run like a business has no feelings for human beings. This is what's happening all over the world where commerce and industry rule our daily lives. Now, eating with parents is a special occasion, see your mother is a big effort an disruption to your daily busy routine. Spending time with family is a remote wish especially if you are struggling to make ends meet by working over-time or having 2 jobs. Even your 70 year old mother cannot cook dinner for you anymore because she has to find a job as you cannot afford to give her money with your meager salary to manage soaring prices for basics like shoes, clothes, food, transport..etc. I often think of the egg that is laid by the same chicken a hundred years ago. What makes it more expensive in reality today? I must be should be rental, marketing,transpotation, packing and all. So how did ppl get their eggs a hundred years ago? I believe Singaporeans are looking for the "noble man" to make the "adjustments or change". This is NOT achievable until each of us instil changes in our outlook in life and reset our values of what is important in our lives. Then, only then we will vote for the right person who possesses the right values and virtues.