Monday, September 21, 2009

Rajaratnam, keeper of the faith

Sep 20, 2009

The Pledge is the enduring legacy of the late minister, to whom Singapore was worth fighting and dying for
By Irene Ng

As any writer knows, first drafts are subject to revision. Good writers hone, sculpt and polish their drafts to make sure that their final versions sparkle. Mr S. Rajaratnam, who drafted Singapore's national Pledge, was a very good writer. Before he joined politics in 1959, he had distinguished himself as an influential newspaper columnist and a short-story writer.

He understood the power of language and of ideas. And the idea he loved most was: A Singaporean Singapore where its citizens transcend their boundaries of race, religion and language, and unite to become one people.

The Pledge and its origins have been much discussed recently. The subject is of particular interest to me as I am writing Mr Rajaratnam's biography for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. In the course of my research over the last five years, I have gained a deeper appreciation of how the Pledge came about and why it stands as Mr Rajaratnam's enduring legacy to Singapore.

Before the then Foreign Minister put his mind to the wording of the Pledge in 1966, the initial idea, as envisaged by the then Education Minister Ong Pang Boon, was that the Pledge would be recited by students in classrooms and during flag-raising ceremonies.

The original idea arose, in fact, as a sort of administrative compromise, given the constraints of schools. It can be traced back to October 1965, shortly after Singapore's separation from Malaysia. The Education Ministry wanted to inculcate national consciousness and patriotism among students in schools by assembling them for a flag-raising ceremony to the strains of the National Anthem. However, the mass singing of the anthem, to be accompanied by a brass band, required a large field or assembly hall. Many schools lacked such facilities. Even those with the facilities could not carry out the flag-raising ceremony daily because of the tight curriculum.

In a letter dated Oct 20, 1965, Mr Willie Cheng, the Ministry of Education's principal assistant secretary (administration), proposed that the flag-raising ceremonies be carried out in the classroom instead, where students would salute the flag. In a response dated Oct 22, 1965, Mr Kwan Sai Kheong, acting permanent secretary and director of education, wrote that Mr Ong had suggested, as a compromise, a pledge of two to three lines to be recited in the classroom, in place of singing the national anthem.

On that basis, two earlier versions of the Pledge were produced.

The first, dated Dec 17, 1965, was by Mr Philip Liau, adviser on textbooks and syllabuses. He used the American Students' Pledge as a reference: 'I pledge (reaffirm) my allegiance (loyalty) to the Flag of Singapore, and to the country for which it stands; one sovereign nation of many freedom-loving people of one heart, one mind and one spirit, dedicated to a just and equal society.'

The second version, dated Dec 30, 1965, by Mr George Thomson, director of the Political Study Centre, read: 'I proudly and wholeheartedly pledge my loyalty to our flag of Singapore and to the honour and independence of our Republic whose banner it is. We come from different races, religions and cultures, but we are now united in mind and heart as one nation, and one people, dedicated to build by democratic means a more just and equal society.'

Both versions were submitted to Mr Ong on Jan 26, 1966. His senior staff preferred the first version, considering it shorter and less abstract.

It was no surprise that Mr Ong then turned to Mr Rajaratnam, a master stylist known for his strong convictions on building a common national identity. In a letter to Mr Rajaratnam dated Feb 2, 1966, Mr Ong asked him for comments on the two versions and for 'whatever amendments you wish to suggest'.

By the time Mr Rajaratnam reverted with his earliest draft dated Feb 18, 1966, the Pledge was completely transformed. While the first two versions were all about pledging loyalty to the flag and country, Mr Rajaratnam's was about pledging to shared ideals, to a vision of Singapore that was, to his mind, worth fighting and dying for.

And while the first two versions used the personal pronoun 'I', Mr Rajaratnam opted for the collective 'We, as citizens of Singapore'. Defying the evidence before his eyes, he imagined a nation pulsating as one people. Only he would have the boldness to envision a people giving voice to such ideals in unison, declaring their identity as 'citizens of Singapore', as opposed to 'the Malays', 'the Chinese', 'the Indians' and so on.

More profoundly, he changed the entire premise for the Pledge as originally conceived by the Education Ministry. It was not just a few lines to be recited to the flag. It was a promise made to oneself, to each other and to future generations.

Mr Rajaratnam's earliest draft which we have on record went: 'We, as citizens of Singapore, pledge to forget differences of race, language and religion and become one united people; to build a democratic society where justice and equality will prevail, and where we will seek happiness and progress by helping one another.'

When he wrote 'to forget differences of race, language and religion', it was not a call for collective amnesia. He was not enjoining the people to deny their differences. He was calling on them to disregard these differences in their quest for a Singaporean Singapore. As his speeches during that period show, he was not blind to the fact that these differences were deeply rooted. On the contrary, he was all too conscious of their potency after the trauma of the racial riots in 1964 and the Separation in 1965.

He was subjected to repeated reminders of the emotive power of appeals to these differences. During the years of merger, he was the strongest advocate for a Malaysian Malaysia, as opposed to a Malay Malaysia. Indeed, it was he who coined the slogan 'Malaysian Malaysia'.

What he did not foresee was that Singapore would be expelled. The Separation in 1965 was, as he put it, 'the crushing of my dreams'. 'I believed in one nation, regardless of race and religion. My dreams were shattered,' he said. In the wake of that agonising moment came another test.

Shortly after the Separation, a group of Chinese chauvinists, aware that their community now constituted 75 per cent, wanted Chinese language and culture to be the dominant consideration in government policy. Mr Rajaratnam recounted: 'They charged the PAP government with betraying Chinese language and culture. They believed that, in a predominantly Chinese Singapore, where the Chinese had overwhelming strength, the Government could be panicked into opting for Chinese chauvinism.'

The minorities, particularly the Malays, were fearful of what Singapore would be like.

When Mr Rajaratnam wrote his first draft of the Pledge, asking people to 'forget their differences', it was in the context of such anxious times. Disregard these differences of race, language and religion; do not let them stand in the way of becoming a united people, to the dream of creating a Singaporean Singapore, where justice and equality will prevail. Help one another to seek happiness and progress. Do this regardless of race, language or religion, we are implicitly urged.

This ideal permeates many of his speeches on the topic at the time. Indeed, he was the first minister to use the phrase 'unity in diversity' in the 1960s, enjoining people to come together while celebrating the diversity among them.

From available records, we can ascertain that the Pledge - as is used today - was finalised in July 1966. There is unfortunately a gap in the historical records on the revisions between Mr Rajaratnam's first draft, dated Feb 18, 1966, and the final one. But knowing how he worked and liked to work, in his days as a journalist as well as a politician, he would have refined it along the way, taking into account various views. As part of this process, he consulted the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

According to Mr Lee's recollection, as related in an interview with me, he had pointed out to Mr Rajaratnam that some words sounded too idealistic. Mr Lee also tightened the draft.

Unlike the Singapore flag which was discussed in the Cabinet in 1959, there is no record of any discussion in Cabinet on the Pledge. A search of the Cabinet minutes of meetings and papers in 1965 and 1966 revealed nothing on it. From this and available records, one can conclude that the final version was firmed up between individual ministers with input from Ministry of Education officials.

There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the final words, spirit and sentiments of the Pledge owed much to Mr Rajaratnam. Mr Lee rightly described him as 'a great idealist'. He was also a great visionary. Without such qualities, the Pledge would not have been the imaginative leap that it was. He had great faith in the power of the human will to overcome the differences of race, language, and religion, and to transform the separate communities into a nation.

After Mr Rajaratnam left the Cabinet in 1988, he became concerned with policies which appeared to encourage Singaporeans to assert their communal identities. In 1990, he spoke up against what he perceived as a dangerous form of Chinese self-assertion in the Speak Mandarin campaign.

While making clear that he supported the campaign just as he would for others encouraging people to speak 'Malay, Tamil, French, Japanese, or even better English', he took issue with the campaign's slogan 'if you are Chinese, make a statement - in Mandarin'.

This, for the nervous minorities, would carry the subliminal message that the Chinese are different, he warned. Had he been asked, he would have suggested this slogan instead: 'Make a Singaporean statement in Mandarin.'

Such episodes underscored the importance of Mr Rajaratnam's role as the keeper of the faith, a role which few others could play with equal conviction. He became an institution as a protector of the vision in the national Pledge - his enduring legacy to Singapore.

The writer is a Member of Parliament and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). The first volume of Mr S. Rajaratnam's two-part biography will be published by Iseas by early next year.

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