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Friday, June 5, 2009

My take on the green, green grass of home

My take on the green, green grass of home
Although Peter Lim has had ample opportunity to emigrate, he has never wanted to do so

Mr Lim is not upset by people leaving, not because he does not feel for Singapore, but because he believes that no country should hold on to citizens against their will. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

I CAN still sing God Save The Queen, the British national anthem. When a male monarch is on the throne, I will have to sing God Save The King. If I still want to sing that anthem, that is. I don't.
I do want to be able to sing our national anthem Majulah Singapura without the aid of a song sheet. Am I embarrassed that I cannot sing by heart our national anthem? After all, heart is where loyalty to the nation should reside.

I am not embarrassed or apologetic. Blame not any lack of patriotism on my part, blame the timing of my birth. I was born in 1938, when Singapore was a British colony.

Between 1946 and 1956, when I was in an English-stream mission school, there was no flag-raising or recitation of pledge or singing of anthem. Yet, even now, I can recall stanzas like 'God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen'.

The lyrics of Majulah Singapura are still not in my instant recall, but they are in my bag. My Tous sling bag from Spain, which I carry around most days, has a page photocopied from The Straits Times.

On the page from Jan 22, 2001 is a story headlined 'How to sing the anthem' complete with the lyrics. I am working at memorising the words in both our national language and the English translation.

I was a British subject - not a citizen - up to 1963, when I automatically became a Malaysian following Singapore's merger with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak.

In my second last year in secondary school, I joined the Malayan Air Training Corps (MATC). It was an adjunct of Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) which had bases in Singapore. We were schoolboy cadets, learning a little military discipline and a lot about aviation.

My heart was set on becoming a fighter pilot with the RAF. There was no conscious desire to help defend Britain or its empire. What propelled me were thrilling schoolboy books about World War II.

My family was poor then and I would have had to travel at my own expense to England to try and sign up. It would not have been easy for a non-white, non-citizen to get selected for fighter aircraft training. But I was hopeful. Two Singapore-born men had made it as RAF pilots, an ethnic Chinese and an ethnic Malay.

Hopes rose when the MATC selected me for basic flying training. Then I was grounded, because I became short-sighted. I was devastated! That was in 1956, my last year in secondary school.

MATC commandant Johnny Behague, a wartime RAF wing commander who became The Straits Times' news editor, brought me into journalism after he heard that I had been grounded. I started as a part-time reporter, chasing stories after school when I should have been doing homework.

Then I won an essay competition and represented Singapore at the 1957 New York Herald Tribune World Youth Forum in the United States.

What an awakening about nationalism and geopolitics as well as the omnipresence of racial sensitivities and prejudices!

Back in Singapore, when I was interviewed by forum selectors, I was asked what I thought of the Chinese students' demonstrations against colonial policies that they felt were oppressive and anti- Chinese education and language.

I unthinkingly gave the colonial administration's line that the students were misled and were being exploited by communists or pro-communists. I hope I did not get to go to the forum only because of that!

In New York, in the company of 32 other teenagers from as many countries, I experienced passionate nationalism and powerful prejudices at close quarters. The animosity, even hatred, between the Arab delegates and Israel's representative was sad and scary at the beginning of our three months together.

Then, tentatively at first, picking up momentum at a snail's pace, friendliness between the Israeli and Arabs emerged.

One night, the Moroccan boy danced the rock and roll with the much taller Israeli girl and, spectacularly, swung her over hip and shoulder. She landed on her feet to boisterous, happy applause.

Their new-found friendliness had a dark overlay. I was told that when they got back to their respective homes, they probably would not be able to talk freely about how they had befriended an enemy even for just three months or less.

I had gone to the forum from Singapore where I had good friends who were Malay, Indian, Eurasian, European, Jewish and Chinese. Throwing racist taunts was part of our having fun together.

In America then - and even now - I had to be much more careful about how I talked about race. And America is the land of freedom of expression.

I say that without intending any disrespect for America. If I ever wanted to emigrate, it would be to the US.

But I have never wanted to emigrate, much to the surprise of many friends and even strangers. They asked numerous times: 'Why have you not emigrated?'

After Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965, I could write 'Singaporean' in the nationality section of bothersome immigration forms. I recalled my MATC days and my fighter-pilot dream.

I remembered that the People's Action Party (PAP) government disbanded the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force, whose pilots were all locals. And then it had to build up a Singapore air force. See what a confidence-boosting Republic of Singapore Air Force we have now. If only I were 18 again - and not short-sighted...

I was not angry when he said it, not angry only because he was a friend. But I felt a twitch of hurt when, talking about a National Day Parade fly-past by our fighter jets, he said with a distinct sneer: 'Did you know the pilots were all expats?'

I did not engage him on that point. But I would have said, if I did: 'So what? Foreign expertise and foreign help do get us going. And we will get there. We want to be home-grown but we also want to stay international.'

But that was years ago, when we had a new squadron of not-so-modern fighters.

Now our air force trains in top-of- the-line fighters and attack helicopters. But intensive training has to be done overseas, as we do not have much airspace. Being able to do it this way is a sweet mix of home-grown and foreign.

The Republic of Singapore Navy buys a new class of warship from overseas. The deal is that you build the first one or two, then help us build the rest of the flotilla. That is a sweeter mix of home-grown and foreign.

The Singapore Armed Forces has in their arsenal some awesome ground weapons, including those designed and made here. Singapore now exports such weapons even to countries from which we had bought arms. That is the sweetest - for now - mix of home-grown and foreign.

Here is another National Day Parade story from years back. What touched me most was the People's Defence Force contingent marching past. It was obviously not an elite fighting force. It was a bunch of volunteer soldiers. But I was so moved I decided to join the PDF. How would I fit that into my newsroom schedule?

While I wondered and procrastinated, the SAF remodelled the PDF. Modern warfare, the SAF felt, needed soldiers who were much more highly honed than PDF volunteers. But if there had been trouble and there was a general mobilisation, I know I would procrastinate no longer.

To many of us in Singapore newsrooms, Mr J.B.Jeyaretnam winning the Anson by-election in 1981 seemed to foretell trouble of one sort or another.

After the shock of the result and the inevitable aftershocks had subsided, I felt troubled hearing a government minister I highly respected saying more than once publicly that a working democracy did not need any opposition.

I was relieved when the Government demonstrated that it still believed Parliament had space for an opposition. So we now have Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated MPs. We continue to have elected opposition MPs.

We know that many Singaporeans who have emigrated have given as their main reasons the way the PAP leaders run the government, the restrictions on media and freedom of expression, the pressure on schoolgoing children and the emphasis on academic credentials.

Recently, at an Anglo-Chinese School Year of 1956 reunion, I was deeply touched hearing a former classmate say that he left Singapore almost totally disenchanted even though he was professionally qualified, that he spent years helping Singaporeans to emigrate, first doing it long-distance, then coming back on business trips to do just that.

Now he is home for good, or as good as it gets for people from my year, senior citizens in our late 60s or early 70s.

Has he come home because this is where he would want to die? No, he has come home because this is where he wants to live again.

I stepped down as editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay-language newspapers in 1987 and became chief editor of The New Paper. I resigned from SPH in 1990 for a different lifestyle, a change after 33 years in a corporation.

What was it about the atmosphere in Singapore that, in 1987 and then 1990, friends and strangers alike would shake my hand, offer empathy or sympathy, best wishes as well as compliments about my journalism, and ask: 'Are you going to emigrate?'

I knew and I know my preferred emigration destinations, in this order: San Francisco, Kauai in Hawaii, Sydney. But I have never wanted to emigrate.

That statement would not bring tears to any Singaporean's eyes, not even the most patriotic. But a mention of emigration reportedly brought Mr Lee Kuan Yew 'close to tears' during the 1989 National Day Rally, when he was Prime Minister.

I came across the report earlier this week when helping to work on Chronicle Of Singapore, a book to be published later this year jointly by Editions Didier Millet and the National Library Board. The book recounts Singapore's 50 years from 1959 to 2009 through summary reports culled from newspapers and news magazines.

The report on the rally says Mr Lee came close to tears when he wondered aloud why young Singaporeans were emigrating. Emigration never occurred to him and his generation, he said, adding the question: Wasn't this their country?

Emigration of Singaporeans does not bring me close to tears, not because I do not feel for Singapore, but because I believe that no country should hold on to citizens against their will.

For some new Singaporeans, it was love at first sight when they arrived as foreigners. Others fell in love much more slowly.

Citizenship is not marriage. But, like marriage, it can cause estrangement which can lead to desertion and divorce. Let it be. There will be re-marriage situations, and there will be new citizens, so long as Singapore remains desirable.

Once, as a journalist covering one of Minister Mentor Lee's overseas trips when he was PM, he told the media why Singapore was such a splendid home. I thought of the 1960s country hit Green Green Grass Of Home. I used that line in my report, and the editors put it in the heading on Page 1.

When I got home, a colleague laughed and asked: 'Do you know what Green Green Grass Of Home is about? You'd better hope that LKY doesn't!'

Now I know, thanks to what my colleague said in the pre-Internet era and thanks this week to Wikipedia, from which I quote:

'The song is about a man who has been away from home for a while. He tells that he is returning to his small home town in the country. When he steps down from the train, he touches the green grass. His parents and 'sweet Mary' are there to welcome him...

'Then comes a spoken section where the singer awakens in prison: 'Then I awake and look around me, at four grey walls that surround me. And I realise that I was only dreaming.' The man is, in reality, awaiting his execution, and he will return home only when he is dead and buried: 'Yes, they'll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree, as they lay me 'neath the green, green grass of home'.'

I do not intend to commit any crime for which I will be executed. But wherever I die, I'd like to be brought home for cremation and my ashes scattered at sea just at the boundary of Singapore waters.

Peter H.L. Lim was SPH's editor-in-chief (English & Malay newspapers). He is now a writer and media consultant. Having worked with A*Star, Mr Lim, 70, would like this kind of career: fighter pilot, research scientist, journalist specialising in science writing and editing.

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