In the midst of spring-cleaning last week, I pored over my old reporter's notebooks. Scribbled partly in shorthand, some of my old interview notes are incomprehensible now, as their context is lost in time.
But other bits of conversation leap off the ruled pages, evoking clear memories. Some stand out because of the power of the personalities, others because of the depths of experience behind their words, or just their simple sincerity of feeling.
Whose voices really matter in Singapore? Whose story counts? As we approach the country's 50th anniversary, these questions about which voices to feature in the Singapore narrative have taken on a national importance. A lot is being done to include ordinary Singaporeans, with space for crowd-sourced, ground-up input.
Thus, for example, anyone with an idea can tap into a celebration fund. And this month, the new National Gallery will launch "Voices of the People", a year-long collaborative project to get Singaporeans to express their hopes and feelings about their country through an interactive online portal and mobile art labs. These will be made part of a linkway from City Hall MRT station to the gallery.
But there are still concerns that the exercise will not be inclusive enough: that people at the margins, or those who lost the political struggles of an earlier era, may be left by the wayside during the year-long journey of jubilation. Instead of just complaining about it, these concerned Singaporeans are putting time and effort into organising alternative ways to celebrate Singapore's golden jubilee.
For example, a group of 10 activists, including my former colleague Tan Tarn How, have come together to form Project 50/100. He said it is meant to supplement and not counter the official efforts. Another member, Mr Alvin Tan - who is also on the SG50 committee - said he was looking forward to gathering "people stories, which may have been overlooked", including "people whose works might be at odds with the state".
One of the great privileges of being a journalist is that you don't need to have to depend on any museum or artist to curate a gallery of national memories. You get to do it yourself, meet people, ask questions and listen to them. As an editor, I do not get to do it as often as I would like, but I can still live vicariously through the reporters who go out daily.
Looking back, there are many snatches of conversation that would make it to my own personal Singaporean soundscape.
Of course, it would have to include the voice of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He is a reporter's dream assignment, not because you agree with everything he says, or because you forget how the political system he created has had a negative as well as positive impact on your own life. Just because, unlike most politicians, you know his views were really consequential. No fluff, no small talk or sentiment, no motherhood statements. But strong opinions - verging on obsessions - that one senses could eventually surface as laws and policies.
His core obsession surfaced through hours and hours of interviews when a group of us were working on a book about his ideas. "I did some sharp and hard things to get things right," he acknowledged. "Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that's all. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."
I could recognise a different kind of sacrifice when I interviewed Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang recently. I recalled another interview with him 20 years earlier. The context had changed somewhat, but his passion was consistent. He had been in the last batch at the old Nantah and had to grapple with its closure and what it signified for the Chinese-educated. As a Chinese-language teacher, he also saw first-hand the harsh effects of streaming. "I had to decide between doing nothing - just earning a living and living comfortably - wait for someone else to come forward, and the other option was to take the path that has turbulence."
As a political journalist most of my career, my notebooks are filled disproportionately with the voices of politicians and policymakers. One of my favourite newsmakers, though, didn't fit the same mould. Dr Tan Wee Kiat is chief executive officer of Gardens by the Bay.
He is practically bursting with knowledge about and love for plants. In an interview with The Straits Times for its Supper Club series, he said he goes on his golf cart around the gardens every day so he can see with his own eyes how the plants are doing. This also means he values the frontline, daily-rated workers who tend to those plants. "We try to be anti-status, anti-hierarchy. Within the organisation, it doesn't mean that just because you hold a higher position, you can drown out everybody. At the end of the day, it just means that everybody respects each other."
Another Supper Club interviewee, a former chief nurse, Mrs Tan Phaik Imm, made me think about the kind of commitment that makes a difference to the wider community. The pioneer generation nurse who worked from dawn to dusk, including visiting remote villages to give care, said: "When I'm given a job, it does not matter how many hours I have to put in. I just want to do it until I'm satisfied, then I go. The best part is that I feel happy doing it - making life a bit better for others."
Another pioneer generationer, dancer Goh Lay Kuan, expressed similar dedication. "When I see some wrongdoing, I will talk about it. This is my right. This is why I became an artist," said Madam Goh, who was among dozens detained without trial under the Internal Security Act in 1976. One would like to hope that today's Singapore is more accommodating of different visions.
Nothing beats the sacrifice of parents, and you occasionally come across stories that leave you awestruck. Too often, we hear tales of kiasu parents, but there are others for whom caring for a child, regardless of his prospects, is the ultimate calling. The parents of a 15-year-old whose medical condition leaves her trapped in the body of a baby come to mind. Paying for her medical bills have bankrupted them, but the father, Mr Teo Qi Kuang, said: "For me, as long as I return home and my baby can greet me with her usual cheerfulness, filled with so much love, it's a day well lived."
The kindness of strangers is not alien to Singapore. Last week's example of people passing the hat around to help a Vietnamese tourist reduced to tears by a Sim Lim Square thug of a retailer is but one of many in the past years. Many years ago, I met a Bangladeshi worker whose boss dumped him in a monsoon drain after he was injured in a worksite accident.
He received more than $100,000 in donations from well-wishers, and his visitors included a couple who brought him a birthday cake and let him use their mobile phone to call home. "I cannot believe how kind Singaporeans have been towards me. When they see me, my heart is not so heavy," Mr Mohamad Bashar said. Since starting out as a reporter 25 years ago, life has been a blur of such encounters. The voices vary in profundity and power.
Unfortunately, in the news business, not everyone who is wise is automatically deemed newsworthy - we probably under-report them.
Conversely, not everyone who is an important newsmaker may be as deserving as he thinks he is of people's undivided attention. SG50 will have to find its balance as it puts together a story we can believe in.
But beyond that, we are all free to choose our own collection of voices that inspire us to be better individuals and a better society.
This article was first published on Nov 9, 2014.
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