Monday, September 13, 2010

To love, to hold and to cherish

Sep 13, 2010

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was interviewed by Seth Mydans of The New York Times on Sept 1. We carry today edited excerpts of the interview

Mr Lee: When you are coming to 87, you are not very happy...

Well, you should be glad that you've got way past where most of us will get.

That is my trouble. So, when is the last leaf falling?

Do you feel like that? Do you feel like the leaves are coming off?

Well, yes. I mean I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality. I mean generally every year when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that is life.

My mother used to say never get old.

Well, you try never to think yourself old. I keep fit, I swim, I cycle.

And yoga, is that right? Meditation?


Tell me about meditation.

Well, I started it about two, three years ago when Ng Kok Song, the chief investment officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation - I knew he was doing meditation. His wife had died but he was completely serene. So, I said, how do you achieve this? He said I meditate every day and so did my wife and when she was dying of cancer, she was totally serene because she meditated every day. He gave me a video of her in her last few weeks, completely composed, completely relaxed. She and he had been meditating for years.

Well, I said to him, you teach me. He is a devout Christian. He was taught by a man called Laurence Freeman, a Catholic. His guru was John Main, a devout Catholic. When I was in London, Ng Kok Song introduced me to Laurence Freeman. In fact, he is coming to Singapore, and we will do a meditation session.

The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts. It is most difficult to stay focused on the mantra. The discipline is to have a mantra which you keep repeating in your innermost heart, no need to voice it over and over again, throughout the whole period of meditation. The mantra they recommended was a religious one. Ma-Ra-Na-Ta - four syllables. 'Come To Me Oh Lord Jesus.'

So I said okay, I am not a Catholic but I will try. He said you can take any other mantra - Buddhist Om-Mi-Tuo-Fo - and keep repeating it. To me Ma-Ra-Na-Ta is more soothing. So I used it.

You must be disciplined. I find meditation helps me go to sleep. A certain tranquillity settles over you. The day's pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there's less problem sleeping. I miss it sometimes when I am tired, or have gone out to a dinner and had wine. Then I cannot concentrate. Otherwise I stick to it. A good meditator will do it for half an hour. I do it for 20 minutes.

So would you say, like your friend who taught you, would you say you are serene?

Well, not as serene as he is. He has done it for many years and he is a devout Catholic. That makes a difference. He believes in Jesus. He believes in the teachings of the Bible. He has lost his wife, a great calamity. I do not think I can achieve his level of serenity. But I do achieve some composure.

Do you find that at this time in your life you find yourself getting closer to religion of one sort or another?

I am an agnostic. I was brought up in a traditional Chinese family with ancestor worship. I would go to my grandfather's grave on All Souls' Day which is called Qing Ming. My father would take me along, lay out food and candles and burn some paper money and kowtow three times over the tombstone. At home on specific days outside the kitchen he would put up two candles with my grandfather's picture.

But as I grew up, I questioned this because I think this is superstition. You are gone, you burn paper money, how can he collect the paper money where he is? After my father died, I dropped the practice.

My youngest brother baptised my father as a Christian. He did not have the right to. He was a doctor and in the last weeks of my father's life, he took my father to his house, for as a doctor he was able to keep my father comforted. I do not know if my father was fully aware when he was converted into Christianity. At that time he may have been beyond making a rational decision. My brother assumed that he agreed and converted him.

I am not converted.

But when you reach that stage, you may wonder more than ever what is next.

Well, what is next, I do not know. Nobody has ever come back. The Muslims say that there are 70 houris, beautiful women up there. But nobody has come back to confirm this.

The Buddhist believes in trans-migration of the soul. If you live a good life, the reward is in your next migration, you will be a good being, not an ugly animal. It is a comforting thought, but my wife and I do not believe in it.

She has been bedridden for two years, unable to speak after a series of strokes. I am not going to convert her. I am not going to allow anybody to convert her because I know it will be against what she believed in all her life.

How do I comfort myself? Well, I say life is just like that. You can't choose how you go unless you are going to take an overdose of sleeping pills, like sodium amytal. For just over two years, she has been inert in bed, but still cognitive. She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night. She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day's work, read her favourite poems.

What kind of books do you read to her?

The latest book which I want to read or re-read is Kim. It is a beautiful description of India as it was in (Rudyard) Kipling's time. He had an insight into the Indian mind and it is still basically the same society that I find when I visit India.

When you spoke to Time magazine a couple of years ago, you said Don Quixote was your favourite.

Yes, I had just been given a new translation of the book.

But people might find that ironic because he was a fantasist who did not realistically choose his projects and you are sort of the opposite.

No, no, you must have something fanciful and a flight of fancy. I had a colleague S. Rajaratnam who read sci-fi for his leisure.

And you?

No, I do not believe in sci-fi.

But you must have something to fantasise?

Well, at the moment, as I said, I would like to read Kim again. Why I thought of Kim was because I had just been through a list of audio books to choose for my wife - Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, writers she has on her bookshelf. So I ticked off the ones I think she would find interesting. The one that caught my eye was Kim.

My wife was into literature, from Alice In Wonderland to Jane Austen's Persuasion, Pride And Prejudice, and Sense And Sensibility. Jane Austen was her favourite writer because she wrote an elegant and leisurely English prose. The prose flows beautifully, describes the human condition in a graceful way, and rolls off the tongue - and in the mind. She enjoyed it. Also Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. She was an English Literature major.

You are naming books on the list, not necessarily books you have already read, yes?

I would have read some of them.

Like a Jane Austen book or Canterbury Tales?

No, Canterbury Tales, I had to do it for my second-year English Literature course in Raffles College. For a 15th-century person, he wrote very modern stuff. I didn't find his English all that archaic. I find those Scottish poets difficult to read. Sometimes I don't make sense of their Scottish brogue. My wife makes sense of them. Then Shakespeare's sonnets.

You read those?

I read those sonnets when I did English literature in my freshman year. She read them.
Now I read (aloud to her) from an anthology of poems which she has, and several other anthologies. So I know her favourite poems. She had flagged them. I read them to her.

She's in the hospital? You go to the hospital?

No, no, she's at home. We've got a hospital bed and nurses attending to her. We used to share the same room. Now I'm staying in the next room. I have to get used to her groans and grunts when she's uncomfortable from a dry throat and they pump in a spray moisture called biothene which soothes her throat, and they suck out phlegm. Because she can't get up, she can't breathe fully. The phlegm accumulates in the chest but you can't suck it out from the chest, you've got to wait until she coughs. They suck it out, and she's relieved. They sit her up and tap her back. It's very distressing, but that's life.

Yes, your daughter wrote a moving column in The Sunday Times about the situation. She wrote that the whole family suffers, of course, but the one who's been hurting the most and yet is carrying on stoically is my father.

What to do? What else can I do? I can't break down. Life has got to go on. I try to busy myself, but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days when we were up and about together.

My daughter fished out many old photographs for this piece she wrote in The Sunday Times and picked out a dozen or two dozen photographs from the digital copies which somebody had kept at Singapore Press Holdings. When I looked at the photographs, I thought how lucky I was. I had 61 years of happiness.

We've got to go some time. I'm not sure who's going first, whether she or me. So I told her, I've been looking at the marriage vows of the Christians: 'To love, to hold and to cherish, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death do us part.' I told her I would try and keep her company for as long as I could. She understood.

What to do? What can you do in this situation? I can say, get rid of the nurses. Then the maids won't know how to turn her over and then she gets pneumonia. That ends the suffering. But human beings being what we are, I do the best for her, and the best is to give her a com-petent nurse who moves her, massages her, turns her over, so no bed sores. Well, that's life. Make her comfortable.

And for yourself, you feel the weight of age more than you have in the past?

I'm not sure. I marginally must have. It's stress. However, I look at it, I mean, it's stress. That's life. But it's a different kind of stress from the kind of stress I faced - political stresses. Dire situations for Singapore, dire situations for myself when we broke off from Malaysia. The Malays in Singapore could have rioted and gone for me (when) they suddenly found themselves back as a minority because (then Malaysian premier) Tunku Abdul Rahman kicked us out. That's different; that's intense stress and it's over. But this is stress which goes on.

One doctor told me, you may think that when she's gone you'll be relieved, but you'll be sad when she's gone. Because (now) there's still the human being here, there's still somebody you talk to and she knows what you're saying and you'll miss that. Well, I don't know, I haven't come to that, but I think I probably will because it's now been two years, two years and four months. It's become a part of my life.

She's how old now?

She's 21/2 years older than me, so she's coming on to 90.

[This is one of the more personal interview LKY has ever given. There is dignity amidst the sadness, a composure that he struggles to maintain, and a stoic pragmatism to what life throws up. There is an appreciation of good times and an acceptance of what has come and will come. There is also courage to accept the inevitable without succumbing to false hopes or fanciful wishes.]

No comments: