Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Mid-air Angst


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By Micheal Makri

Being economical makes sense when it comes with a bonus. I was flying from Manila and Singapore Airlines was my first option as I would have arrived in India in a day, but looking at the cost of the ticket I backed off. So I took Philippines Airlines from the Philippines to Singapore, then Jet Airways from Singapore to Guwahati via Delhi. This meant that I had to wait 22 hours at Singapore International Airport and 9 hours in Delhi International Airport. While trying to spend the 22 hours in Singapore Airport, I moved from one store to the next until I saw this life-sized statue of Lee Kuan Yew. I thought to myself this is the opportune moment to pay respect and tribute to this visionary who transformed what was once Asia’s drug den into the Singapore of today. Just as I was completing the prayer, ‘May your soul rest in peace…!’ a beautiful woman in her cultural attire came to offer me ‘From Third World to First’, the autobiography of Lee Kuan Yew. I bought the book and came back to the waiting hall. I devoured that book page-by-page and marveled at Lee’s narration of his experience in turning Singapore into what it is today!

As my departure time was announced I boarded the plane and it took off! Like most people I have a phobia about flying. Amidst many anxious moments, I could feel butterflies in my stomach. Reading Lee’s book again I asked myself what it would take to turn Meghalaya into Singapore. Every Meghalayan who has passed through Singapore or through that magnificent airport also sighs at the thought.

In the book, Lee Kuan Yew highlights that the ‘little red dot’ catapulted itself from a village with no natural resources into Southeast Asia’s jewel in but a lifetime. Our CM, MLAs, MDCs and other leaders in Meghalaya must read Lee’s autobiography as a concrete lesson in the ‘possible’.

I would assess Lee, the father and founder of Singapore, through the eyes of his book and see what we can learn from him. The first and simplest lesson is that we must not make compromises in the character we demand in our national leaders. Lee led an austere lifestyle though he was hardly poor, maintained a strict work ethic even in semi-retirement stage and backed his strong opinions with meticulous study. Can our CM, MLAs, MDCs and other leaders in Meghalaya do likewise? Can we the citizens of Meghalaya emulate this kind of uncompromising life? This is my first anxiousness.

Secondly, Lee cultivated talent and cited the ability of his first ministers. Independent Singapore still had Malaysian troops stationed in it, so he wrote how he immediately put the most talented in charge of national defense. On the contrary in Meghalaya, those who are talented and have capabilities are never allowed to be in the cabinet or to hold office. In general we are like crabs in a bucket. This contributes to my second angst.

Thirdly, Lee Kaun Yew was open to receiving knowledge and absorbing what he considered appropriate for Singapore and avoiding other societies’ expensive mistakes. He invited Israelis to discreetly train the first Singapore army and later emphasized the United States’ key role in Asia’s security. He reinvented himself, moving from an Anglophilic Harry to the Lee Kuan Yew that emphasized his Chinese heritage to the leader that pushed multi-ethnic Singaporeans to speak English to be competitive. Can our leaders with all their foreign trips and visits imbibe this attitude? Can we respect other cultures but at the same time promote our own through our language, our dress, our habits and manners? Can we learn from our mistakes and mistakes of our history? This formed my next angst.

And finally, Lee Kaun Yew showed how critical it is for a leader to have vision. We are fortunate to have many leaders who claim, at least during election time, that they are honest—yet reduction in corruption or improved governance alone cannot make be the vision for this State to progress! Lee had a clear vision of a meritocratic market economy cushioned by healthcare subsidies and universal home ownership. He believed in the stability created when citizens own their homes. Lee Kaun Yew also envisioned a racially integrated Singapore, enforced with both carrot and stick, and a clean, competent government supported by the willingness to pay higher salaries. This formed my greatest angst as I realize we don’t even have good roads for communication or clean and safe water to drink in most of our villages. So how can we expect the economy to rise? How can our economy be stable?

Perhaps it is too ambitious of me to equate Lee’s Singapore with a choice between our corrupt politics in the state and authoritarianism in Singapore. Lee criticized weak democracies that left themselves and other countries directionless and, in Meghalaya’s case, a soft people with short memories that too readily forgave their past leaders’ worst sins after getting a few hundred rupees during the election. Can we do something in the coming election while electing leaders for our state?

Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23, 2015 at an accomplished age of 91, but his clear and perceptive view of things will live on to influence the future of his island-nation, the Asian region and the rest of the world.

I believe, like me, many Meghalayans reeling from the maladministration of traditional politicians and the various leaders in our state have but this one angst “If only we had a Lee Kuan Yew.”It’s a pity that Meghalaya with so many able, talented, educated, people who are visionaries cannot do a Lee Kuan Yew. There is no reason why we should not have been one of the more successful of the Indian states and why we should not have been like Singapore or at least retain the old name ‘Scotland of the East’.

As I was about to land at Guwahati airport I jotted down some of the words of Lee Kaun Yew taken from the chapter, ‘From Third World to First’; On resting; “Rest on laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead….”.

On being a greedy and self-made VIP? I’m not interested in changing either my suit or my car or whatever, with every change in fashion. That’s irrelevant. I don’t judge myself or my friends by their fashions. Of course, I don’t approve of people who are sloppy and unnecessarily shabby or disheveled… But I’m not impressed by a US$5,000 or US$10,000 Armani suit.”

On his iron fist Yew says, “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.”

On being Singapore’s toughest guy, he says, “If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you. … Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take out my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”

On the Singaporean model, Yew says, “We knew that if we were just like our neighbors, we would die because we’ve got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It’s incorrupt. It’s efficient. It’s meritocratic. It works.”

On doing the right thing, he says, “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.”
Thus ended my economical flight from the Philippines to Guwahati with these angst, but they are worth it – Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography enthused me to do what I can within my limited capacity as a citizen of our beloved state. Its true, blessing comes and they come in a disguised manner.


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