Tamils of the 20th Century
1915 - 2006
[see also Tamils: a Trans State
- Singapore - Malaysia & The Strength of an Idea
The Ideas Man
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
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
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
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
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
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
| Rajaratnam - the Foreign
Policy Architect - Susan Long, 23 February
|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
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
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
Up until 1980, he charted the young country's
diplomatic relations with the wider world, travelling
around vocally championing the rights of small
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
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
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
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
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
'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.'
Raja's views, as I see them - S. Jothiratnam, 10
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
Out of this period, certain salient points emerged,
which have helped to mould the outlines of my own life
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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'
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
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
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
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
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.