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Mon, Feb 01, 2010
The Straits Times
Lest we forget Raja and his ideals

By Zakir Hussain

PAP MP and writer Irene Ng was going through a stack of papers in former senior minister S.Rajaratnam's home five years ago when she came across a heart-rending speech in which he wrote about death.

Mr Rajaratnam, who was by then bedridden in his Chancery Lane bungalow after a series of minor strokes, had written about the 'Cyborg' problem.

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'The Cyborg problem arises because modern medicine, surgery, technology and so-called miracle drugs can prolong the process of dying not by just a few weeks or months, but spread over many years during which a human being is transformed into a cyborg - a corpse which simulates life...and a brain drained of its humanity,' he wrote in that type-written speech in 1990.

He added that he had told his wife Piroska, when he was about to have a heart bypass in 1984, to do everything possible to enforce his right to die, if he became a 'cyborg'.

He wrote about meeting death bravely - 'as dignified human beings and not as mindless cyborgs which have taken possession of our bodies' - Ms Ng recounts in a new book on Mr Rajaratnam.

Titled The Singapore Lion and published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), it will be launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday.

As the first of a two-volume biography, it covers the life and times of the founding People's Action Party (PAP) member and party ideologue who became Singapore's first Culture Minister and Foreign Minister. It ends in 1963 when Singapore entered Malaysia.

Volume 2 will take up his story from the Malaysian years, Separation and Independence to his ground-breaking role in carving up diplomatic space for Singapore.

On the day she spotted that speech, Ms Ng also found a sheaf of research material on dying with dignity. She could not sleep that night.

The following day, May 10, 2005, she shared this depressing knowledge of Mr Rajaratnam's wishes with Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, one of three trustees of his estate.

Professor Koh assured her that the next time their friend was rushed to hospital, he would be allowed to pass on without 'heroic medical intervention'.

Mr Rajaratnam died of heart failure on Feb 20, 2006, three days before he turned 91.

As she stood next to his coffin at his home, Ms Ng resolved to do her best to produce a biography 'which would capture accurately his extraordinary life and all that he stood and fought for'.

'So that people would not forget,' the 46-year-old writer-in-residence at Iseas pens in her foreword to the book.

A bond with Raja

MS NG first met Mr Rajaratnam more than 20 years ago, when she was a young journalist with The New Paper.

She was struck by his patience and his helpfulness in giving her useful quotes and background for articles on Asean and on political developments in Singapore and the region.

But even more striking was his love for the country whose separation from Malaysia he had resisted ferociously.

'I was struck by his passion for Singapore, and as I got to know him better, I began to admire the man and his struggles for his ideals.'

She found him a very reserved man who, once she had hit the right buttons, was glad to go on at length and share his strong views, especially on the need to transcend the confines of race and culture and the importance of creating a common national identity.

'He believed this with all his being. I believe he saw in me an opportunity to shape young minds, including mine,' she says.

During their chats, Ms Ng also discovered how keen Mr Rajaratnam, a Jaffna Tamil, was to ensure that the younger generation shared his unhyphenated vision of a Singaporean Singapore, as opposed to a Singapore based on separate communal identities.

'He believed in the ability of Singaporeans to transcend their racial, cultural and religious classifications to create a shared national identity to which they give their primary loyalty. For him, this was an act of will and faith.

'It was hard not to be inspired by him,' she tells Insight in an interview at the Parliament Library, where she spent many hours doing research on his early speeches.

More crucially, the former senior political correspondent felt a bond with him and his ideas.

'I suppose my own background played a part,' says Ms Ng, who was born in Penang but came here to study in 1980.

'Being a former Malaysian, I had felt the repercussions of living under a political and social system based on communal politics. I did not take the Singapore system for granted,' says the sociology, English and philosophy graduate from the National University of Singapore. She later obtained a master's in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

'I admired the fact that, despite the severe trials which tested their resolve, Singapore's founding leaders such as Mr Rajaratnam fought zealously for their vision of a nation that is based on justice and equality for all, regardless of race, language or religion.'

Idea for book grows

WHEN Ms Ng spoke to those around her, especially younger people, about Mr Rajaratnam and his ideals, she was struck by how few of them remembered who he was or what he stood for.

'Had it not been for men like him, Singapore might well have gone the way of communal politics, just like our neighbouring countries.

'It may still do so one day in the future if we are not vigilant. It is not a given,' she cautions.

In her visits to Mr Rajaratnam over the years, she witnessed his health deteriorating. 'He began to lose his memory and was visibly alarmed at this. He tried to fight it by writing down all he could remember, such as the name of his wife Piroska on her portrait photographs on the wall, and copying entire passages from the various books in his vast library, by hand, into notebooks,' she writes.

Ms Piroska Feher, a Hungarian who left for London in 1938 to learn English, met the young Mr Rajaratnam there. They married in 1943. She died in 1989, aged 75, from pulmonary pneumonia.

The couple were childless. Ms Ng reveals in her book that Mrs Rajaratnam was hurt by her mother-in-law telling her she could not accept half-caste progeny. She also confided in their domestic helper that she once had a miscarriage.

Mr Rajaratnam's scrawls, Ms Ng notes, reveal his abiding preoccupation with ideas relating to race, religion, national identity and Singapore's future as a united nation.

Then the day came when he could no longer read or write, and she felt an increasing burden to tell his story. 'Deep within, there was also the long-held desire to write a book, as with most journalists, but that desire became stronger and irresistible as Rajaratnam became weaker,' she recalls.

In 2001, Ms Ng was elected as an MP for Tampines GRC. After leaving Singapore Press Holdings and spending a stint at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, she joined the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) in 2003.

Her commitments made her doubtful as to whether she could fit in a book.

But as her old friend faded away and became a shadow of his former self, she resolved to get cracking.

In May 2004, she approached Iseas director K. Kesavapany with a proposal to write the book. He said they should first speak with President S R Nathan, who was one of three trustees of Mr Rajaratnam's estate.

Mr Nathan, who had worked closely with Mr Rajaratnam as his permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry, was supportive.

'He said that the book should be targeted at the masses, and should not be an academic book. I was relieved when he said that in Mr Kesavapany's presence, because I had also wanted the biography to be written for the general reader,' Ms Ng says.

Mr Kesavapany describes Mr Rajaratnam as one of his heroes when he joined the Foreign Service in 1972.

'Working closely with him, I was inspired by the richness of his thoughts and by his vision of a multiracial Singapore.

'I was struck by his fearless advocacy of Singapore's national interest. So when Ms Ng approached me with her proposal to write his biography, my heart leapt up at the opportunity to record the life and work of this great son of Singapore,' he says.

Ms Ng also received the blessings of the other two trustees - Mr Rajaratnam's relative Dr V.K.Pillay and Prof Koh - to work on the biography and gain complete access to all of Mr Rajaratnam's papers.

Piecing together the past

MS NG started work on the biography in January 2005. By this time, whenever she dropped in on Mr Rajaratnam, he could no longer recognise her.

But she found that an effective way to elicit a glimmer of life in his eyes was to say anything with the word 'Harry' - as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had been known to him since they met in 1952.

'Can you remember Harry?' she would ask. 'Harry,' he would reply, a smile playing on his lips,' she writes.

To piece together fragments of his life, she spent hours at the National Archives in Fort Canning going through many oral history interviews of Mr Rajaratnam and early leaders.

She visited King's College in London, where Mr Rajaratnam had studied law but did not graduate, to retrieve his university records.

She explored British colonial papers at the Public Records Office in Kew and the British Library in London, ploughed through declassified British and Australian documents and combed Singapore's Culture Ministry files, Cabinet papers and newspaper clippings and speeches.

Then there were the boxes upon boxes of private papers Mr Rajaratnam had left behind.

'At times, I felt like a detective, piecing together clues from personal fragments he left behind - letters, receipts, income tax slips, photographs, notebooks, tattered pieces of paper.'

She discovered his hitherto-unknown talent as a fiction writer, his attraction to leftist ideals as a student, his passion for drama, and his rebellion against his parents' notions of race and culture.

In all, she traced his growth as an anti-colonial journalist, party politician, propagandist, thinker and mobiliser.

'I spent hours watching video footage of Raja at work, observing his body language, listening to his voice, imagining the emotion of the moment.

'His strong voice accompanied me in my car, as I played and replayed CDs of his speeches flowing with his spirited ideas,' she says.

Ms Ng also had access to files of the Special Branch, the predecessor of the Internal Security Department, which had described Mr Rajaratnam as a Trotskyist after the war and later as an anti-British, anti-government agitator - and Cabinet papers that shed light on how robustly he argued his views.

Through interviews with Mr Rajaratnam's family members, friends and former colleagues, she gained new insights into his fighting spirit.

It inspired the title of the book.

'He was fearless in overcoming the grave challenges which threatened to destroy the country. He had that never-say-die spirit, that spirit which fights to the end and never gives up,' she says.

'He gave confidence to people to fight on when they were overcome with fear about merger and fighting the communists. To me, he personifies the Singapore spirit, the spirit of a lion. So he is the Singapore Lion.'

Putting it in writing

DRAWING on her experience as a journalist, Ms Ng decided to adopt a narrative style for the book.

She read best-selling biographies of world leaders such as India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Britain's Winston Churchill and spent many hours in the biography section of bookstores.

Ms Ng wrote the drafts of the first five chapters of the book while on a three-month fellowship at the University of Edinburgh.

One challenge was deciding which portions of her research to use and which to leave out, as there were contradictions exposed by fresh information.

After much writing and rewriting - often till 3am or 4am - she completed work on the book late last year.

It helped that she had 'a wonderful husband who understood my irregular hours and focused bursts of writing'.

Her husband Graham Berry, who she met while in Edinburgh and married in 2007, would cook her meals and remind her to rest and hear her out.

The author hopes that her book will bring a great statesman and his ideas to life for a new generation of Singaporeans.

Noting the current public debate on immigrants and inter-marriages and the impact on national identity, she says Mr Rajaratnam's convictions would prove instructive.

'Raja himself had so many conflicting identities - born in Jaffna, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), raised in Seremban, schooled in Singapore, then 12 years in London - but said it was an act of will to be known as a Singaporean and to identify with Singapore.

'That message deserves to be reinforced today.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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