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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > S.Rajaratnam


Uncle Raja's Views, as I see them - S. Jothiratnam, 10 April 2006
Rajaratnam - the Foreign Policy Architect - Susan Long, 2006

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

Sinnathamby Rajaratnam
1915 - 2006

[see also Tamils: a Trans State Nation
- Singapore - Malaysia & The Strength of an Idea ]

The Ideas Man
Janadas Devan, 24 February 2006

Recalling the courage of the Old Guard in fighting the pro-communists in the early 1960s, Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that 'Rajaratnam was the archetype'. 'He fought back ferociously, indefatigably, never losing much sleep on the consequences and penalties if we lost.'

Mr S. Rajaratnam himself was modest about his role. After he retired in 1988, he said: 'My contributions were very abstract. There are no buildings I can point to... I was there helping to shape people's ideas, attitudes.' But he was 'there' at a crucial time - when ideas did matter, when hearts and minds did have to be won, when spirits had to be steeled and the legitimacy of the new state established. He was 'there', present at the creation, when ideas did have the force of acts.

It is apt thus that Mr Lee once called him the 'drummer'. Just as when soldiers, marching into battle, were given heart by a drummer playing a tattoo, Mr Rajaratnam's ideas gave heart to a nation in its formative years.

He provided the bass line - the insistent, continuous ground bass that pounded away slowly and gave form to the entire structure: 'Independence through merger', to explain the aims of the People's Action Party (PAP) enroute to merger with Malaysia in September 1963; 'Malaysian Malaysia', the PAP's battle-cry while in Malaysia; and 'Singapore - the global city', the conceptual framework that has guided the country for more than 40 years now.

Mr Rajaratnam's politics first took shape in another global city, London, in the late 1930s. He arrived there in 1936 to study law, but drifted slowly to journalism. He cut his teeth meeting writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Dylan Thomas, talking to leading socialist thinkers like Stafford Cripps and Kingsley Martin, and participating in the activities of the Fabian Society and the Left Book Club.

Whatever attraction Marxism may have had for him, was shattered in 1939 when the Soviet Union concluded a pact with Nazi Germany to rape Poland.

'Amidst the intellectual confusion that followed, Rajaratnam took a closer look at Soviet policies, separating ideals from practice and his doubts about Marxism as a political alternative increased,' write Professors Chan Heng Chee and Obaid Ul Haq in their introduction to Mr Rajaratnam's collected essays and speeches.

An indication of where Mr Rajaratnam's sympathies lay in this period is suggested in the title he later chose for his columns in the newspaper Singapore Standard in the 1950s - 'I Write As I Please'.

It echoed the title that the staunchly socialist but fiercely anti-communist George Orwell used for his columns in the 1940s - 'As I Please'.

Anti-colonial but also anti-communist; socialist but non-Marxist; radical, but against the use of violence - such were Mr Rajaratnam's positions when he returned to Singapore in 1947. They were not positions widely shared in the first political group he joined, the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU). His friends then included Eu Chooi Yip, Lim Kean Chye and PV Sharma, all later exiled to China.

He found his proper metier when he joined Mr Lee and others to form the PAP in 1954. That, like the MDU, was a united front party, but with one crucial difference - the non-communists went into it with their eyes wide open, knowing who were the pro-communists with whom they had made common cause.

Mr Rajaratnam was to recall this period in PAP's First Ten Years, the first account of the party's history written by an insider. 'Communist adventurism is tactics calculated either to destroy a party or force it, by conspiratorial tactics, into becoming a tool for communist objectives,' he wrote. He was determined the non-communists did not become tools.

Though a founder member of the PAP, Mr Rajaratnam did not assume any official party position till 1959. As a journalist, he felt he could not identify openly with a political party.

All this changed after the PAP won power in 1959, and Mr Rajaratnam, as Minister of Culture, came to the fore as Singapore's chief ideas man.

'We do not regard culture as the opium of the intellectuals or as something to tickle the fancies of gentlemen and gentlewomen,' he wrote with typical verve in 1960.

'For us the creation of a Malayan culture is a matter of practical politics.

'It is as essential for us to lay the foundations for a Malayan culture, as it is for us to build hospitals, schools and factories and provide jobs for our rapidly expanding population.'

But as Mr Rajaratnam was to admit later, the PAP had 'underestimated the significance of racial, cultural and communal factors in the politics' of the region - a bitter lesson that he, together with the rest of the Old Guard, were to learn in the two years Singapore was part of Malaysia.

Mr Rajaratnam, together with then PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye, was instrumental in two crucial decisions the party took during those years: the first, to contest the Malaysian general elections in 1964; and the second, to form the Malaysian Solidarity Convention, a grouping of like-minded parties dedicated to the principle of a Malaysian Malaysia.

Mr Rajaratnam was not prepared to trim his sails to accommodate the Malaysian wind. There could not be any compromise on fundamental principles, he believed, especially on the demand for a 'Malaysian Malaysia'.

That brave stand made Separation all but inevitable. Though he was at first reluctant to accept the break, he finally agreed, realising that the price of idealism was to go it alone.

Mr Rajaratnam, like other Singaporeans of his generation, got their identity cards (ICs) late in life. It turned out to be an IC they least expected - Singaporean, not Malaysian.

One of this extraordinary man's most significant contribution to Singapore is that he went on to tell us what that IC meant.

He was Singapore's first and last politician-bard.

Rajaratnam - the Foreign Policy Architect - Susan Long, 23 February 2006
Singapore's first and longest-serving foreign minister S. Rajaratnam was probably this country's greatest storyteller yet. He succeeded in explaining Singapore to the world, and Singapore to Singaporeans themselves.

When he first took up the post of pioneering foreign minister in 1965, there was neither official policy nor foreign embassies with fully-staffed desks to support him. In those teething years, he operated as, he would recall later, a 'one-man army', making up his job as he went along.

His greatest achievement, says Professor Chan Heng Chee, Singapore Ambassador to the United States, was his ability to communicate Singapore's foreign policy then - 'our place in the world, what we are, what we hoped to be in 1965, and why we were doing what we were doing'. 'That was extremely important because Singapore was a new country, a new actor on the world stage, and you have to explain yourself to your neighbours, to the world at large,' she says.

In many ways, he enlarged Singapore's space and importance. After Singapore was severed from its natural hinterland Malaya, he coined the term 'global city' to describe his vision of a city plugged into the world. That was in 1972, decades before the term 'globalisation' became fashionable.

Except for Mr Rajaratnam, the 'global city' was not just an abstract conception. It was a narrative that served at once to explain Singapore to Singaporeans and give them a sense of direction.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh noted that after overcoming doubts over the legitimacy of Singapore's birth, he worked hard at establishing Singapore as a 'strong and valued' founding member of Asean in 1967.

Up until 1980, he charted the young country's diplomatic relations with the wider world, travelling around vocally championing the rights of small nations.

Those were the treacherous Cold War years, where it required great suppleness not to take sides and yet maintain friendly relations with the United States, Soviet Union and China simultaneously.

His was the steady hand that steered the Singapore ship through the Cold War, as well as in the dangerous waters of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) period.

But President S R Nathan noted that despite his courtly demeanour, silken manners and soft voice, Mr Rajaratnam never hesitated to be combative, when necessary.

He played a major role in negotiating with some of history's toughest guys like the Khmer Rouge, rallying the regional nations to take a stand against the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 and cobbling together a coalition.

Mr Kishore Mahbubani, former Singapore permanent representative to the United Nations and now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, recounted: 'He exhibited raw courage and was the bravest man I've known - even when the odds are against him.

'In the NAM meeting in Cuba in 1979 to discuss Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, he was in a room full of Soviet supporters - Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro.

'He single-handledly fought all of them.'

Such an unflinching response led to Singapore playing a leading role in shaping Asean's response up to a decade later.

According to Mr Rodolfo Severino, former Asean secretary-general and now a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: 'His personality and his ideas were very important to what Asean has become.

'He was very resolute in having Asean move together as a region. He was also, from the beginning, an adherent of the market system, which at that time was not the policy of most Asean countries, but which eventually we all adopted.'

What was exceptional about Singapore's first foreign minister was his vision, foresight and ability to see things which few could.

He had no patience for little details, only big ideas.

Mr Chia Cheong Fook, former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1975-87), who worked under him, said: 'He wasn't interested in administration, in ordinary matters of staff, in logistics, in details. He was interested in ideas and how to promote Singapore in the international community, the United Nations.

'He always had his fingers on the typewriter, typing political speeches... He never practised his speeches before a mirror, he was not interested in posturing. He spoke from the heart.'

Indeed, Mr Rajaratnam became legendary for his firebrand speeches at the UN and NAM meetings, as well as opinion pieces in major international newspapers.

Mr Barry Desker, director of Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and a former ambassador to Indonesia, said: 'The most memorable of these pieces was a hard-hitting attack on the Soviet Union and its regional allies.

'The trenchant language, well-researched quotes from the Soviet and pro-Soviet press and radio broadcasts and his willingness to make a stark argument led the New York Times to describe his writing style as the 'purple prose' of Singapore diplomacy!'

Watching him win over foes and make friends for Singapore was a valuable education in the art of diplomacy, said President Nathan.

'He firmly believed there's no such thing as permanent enemies or permanent friends. He was always acquiring for Singapore the widest possible recognition, despite the smallness of our size, notwithstanding ideological differences,' he said with a fond smile.

'He always tried to convince Singaporeans of all generations about the permanency of Singapore, give hope and fire imaginations about its future. Even in times of prosperity, he tried to temper views that disregarded the vulnerability of Singapore.'
Uncle Raja's views, as I see them - S. Jothiratnam, 10 April 2006

The writer was formerly a lecturer in both the hard sciences and the social sciences in universities in the United States and Malaysia. Now living in France, he devotes his time to wildlife conservation.

Since the death of my uncle, Mr S. Rajaratnam, there have been bones of contention in the newspapers over what his views were, such as on multiculturalism, the forging of a Singaporean identity, materialism and the decline of intellectualism.

Before these bones fossilise, I would like to comment on them from my privileged perspective as one who, particularly from the 1970s onwards, was uniquely able to discuss the outlines of the emergent Singapore with him on a frequent basis.

I am particularly concerned that his sophisticated, subtle and complex views on these matters are being oversimplified and second-guessed at in recent public discussions. It is with the aim of giving you some flavour of the nature of his thinking that I have written this piece.

In the 1970s I was a boarder at the United World College (or Singapore International School as it was then called) and had much occasion to visit my uncle who, aside from being interested in seeing me, was also always keen to meet my various teenage girlfriends who came from all parts of the world.

For me, it was a great way to impress the girls, taking them to meet my famous uncle; for him, my dating patterns became a sort of second crucible of inter-cultural relations, next to his own marriage, and formed the basis of many discussions on the subject.

Out of this period, certain salient points emerged, which have helped to mould the outlines of my own life and attitudes:

I) One must always act as if race does not matter - that is to say, irrespective of race.

II) Race is not to be confounded with ethnic identity - the formation of a personal identity is vital for the psychosocial well-being of any individual, and essential components of this identity are a sense of ethnicity and an appreciation of history. A person must have a sense of belonging in order to be a sound, socially healthy member of society. At risk of overtaxing an old adage, a person without a cultural identity would be like a ship without a rudder.

III) It is not by ignoring race and ethnic identity that racial harmony is constructed, but by transcending the former while building upon the latter - in this construction, it must never be forgotten that what is being encouraged is the formation of an individual's identity within a communal context (which, even according to Aristotle, is a psychologically desirable entity), rather than some crude communal identity, which, as Adolf Hitler's henchmen can attest to, can all too easily be transmogrified into a dangerous, unthinking beast.

IV) The ideal model of that most elusive of quarries, multiculturalism, is not the overused, and rather inappropriate, metaphor of the all-effacing melting pot, but rather that of the stew pot, in which, to misquote a Parsi supplicant at the court of the emperor Akhbar, each component maintains its individual identity while simultaneously enhancing the flavour of the whole dish.

As even a cursory glance at his book collection would reveal, since his early days as a student, journalist and anti-colonialist thinker in London, my uncle has always concerned himself with an important triumvirate of interrelated issues: nationalism, nation-building and national identity. He saw this as a central concern first for the anti-colonial movement in which he was an active participant, and subsequently for the newly independent Singapore of which he was a Cabinet member.

He has of course written extensively on the subject, but to summarise his views with regards to the establishment of a Singaporean identity, Uncle Raja's position has always been that 'being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry, it is a matter of conviction and choice'.

In order to make this choice, he felt that there must be a sense of pride in the achievements of one's country, and in order for there to be a sense of pride, a people must have reasonable knowledge of their own history and achievements.

This was as true when he first enunciated these ideas as it is today. Unfortunately, however, as my uncle already suspected in the 70s, an infirmity of sorts, a genus of historical amnesia, was beginning to menace our increasingly modern world, threatening especially to ravage industrialised, highly technological societies with a vengeance, and the prognosis, as he suspected, was not good.

Here again he was right: All his efforts notwithstanding, and doubtless due to their sustained economic success, large sections of the people of Singapore seem to have forgotten what - just a couple of generations ago - things here used to be like and have thus lost their sense of all that they have to be proud of.

It is hardly my place to presume to teach Singaporeans their own history, so suffice to say that it was from humble and meagre beginnings that in a scant 40 years this country has managed to wrest its current well-being.

In these ahistoric times, however, perhaps people do need to be reminded of the fact that even on the much tougher scale of qualitative as opposed to merely quantitative measurement, Singapore does measure up to the mark and does have something to be proud of.

One concomitant of this loss of historical consciousness has been a creeping materialism. This, I would like to point out, is not exclusively a Singaporean phenomena and was around long before even the forebears of this nation's founding fathers were twinkles in their fathers' eyes. One need hardly remind the reader that writers ranging from Ibn Khaldun, to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, to John Kenneth Galbraith, to the Existentialists have commented on it.

My uncle, for example, paraphrasing Roman philosophy, repeatedly noted that Singaporeans, while knowing the cost of everything, have failed to understand the worth of anything. This having been said, however, like Abraham Maslow, my uncle was keen to distinguish between a healthy, necessary and legitimate concern for material well-being and security that lies at the provenance of all biological beings, and grasping materialism.

As a corollary to this, he was also very much afraid that people in a materially successful nation would always have to confront the problem which eventually undid Achilles, that of confusing pride with hubris. This too is in some measure understandable, and is unfortunately something that all economically successful societies need to face at various stages of their development.

In the modern era, for example, the First World is particularly rife with instances of this disorder, from the attitudes of conquering colonialists, to Japan's position during World War II, to the United States' attitudes today.

Comprehensible as its pathology may be, however, it is a thing to be concerned about, and to guard against, as my uncle was at great pains to point out.

Some current commentators seem to be of the opinion that my uncle, who has been cast in the role of an idealist, was opposed to a concern for material things. This contrived contrasting of idealism with materialism, as if we were discussing the contents of some course in the history of Western philosophy, however, is patently inappropriate.

Although Uncle Raja was always a man of ideals, he also consistently maintained that without economic success based on political stability and streamlined administrative efficiency and transparency, Singapore would quickly sink back into the mosquito-ridden mangrove swamps out of which it had so recently arisen, and that especially in its early years, Singapore desperately needed these things.

Thus, alongside the other founders of this country, he worked tirelessly - explaining Singapore to foreigners and extolling its virtues abroad while at home helping to construct it along lines that he and his fellow Cabinet members judged best - in order to attain this sin qua non.

However, as his principled stand on regional issues at the United Nations or with regard to the lawfulness of caning a US national for flouting Singapore's laws showed, this goal was not to be obtained simply at any cost.

On the decline of intellectualism and of clear thinking, too, my uncle had grave concerns. He was deeply troubled by the phenomenon and saw a need for effective action.

He was, however, also aware of the deep roots of this decline, recognising that the underlying dynamic was a global one and that it formed part of the sweeping tide of history, the undesired consequences of steady economic growth, technological progress and the burgeoning raw consumer culture which drives societies today and has helped spawn its attendant shallow materialism.

Consequently, he was not ready to offer up ineffectual quick-fix solutions to this conundrum. Its apparent intractability bothered him greatly, especially in his later years, and I know he tried his hardest to read around this slippery problem, hoping to find some purchase.

Finally, I would like to add that in these recent weeks here in Singapore, I have had truck with many people, some of whom have asked me if I thought my uncle had any regrets about how Singapore has turned out.

To this, I am only able to reply that no father could ever be fully satisfied with his child's performance. No matter how sterling his or her achievements might be, there will always be, particularly in the eyes of a doting father, plenty of room for improvement.

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