04 April 2009

Arresting a decline into the vinegar of crabbed egoism

In between the dizzying zorbs of Ms L's birthday celebrations, I have been reading a great deal today. I cherish those Saturday mornings where I have the luxury of 9-10 hours of sleep and reading online for a couple of hours.

By way of a few fortuitous clicks, I came across a private interview with the feisty David Marshall in 1994. It was my first modern-day encounter with David Marshall*. Uncannily, his sharp words sum up what I have been mulling over for the past month or so:

I am frankly terrified by this massive control of the mass media, the press, the radio, television, antennae, [and] public meetings. You can’t write a letter to the Straits Times; if there is a shadow of criticism, it’s not published. And the Chinese press follows suit. It’s a very dangerous position because experience proves that no one group of human beings has got all the wisdom in the world.
We have lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service, helping our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking and understanding of the joy of the miracle of the living the duty and the grandeur. We have lost taste for heroic action in the service of our people. We have become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security. It’s like seeking a crystal coffin and being fed by intravenous injections through pipes in the crystal coffin; crystal coffins stuck with certificates of your pragmatic abilities.
I take off my hat to the pragmatic ability of our government but there is no soul in our conduct. It is a difficult thing to speak of because it is difficult to put in a computer, and the youth of Singapore is accustomed to computer fault. There is no longer the intellectual ferment, the passionate argument for a better civilisation. The emphasis on the rice bowl!

Tell me I’m wrong, come on.
All youths no matter what race, no matter what country, goodwill flows from their hearts. They want to help the world, but by the time you reach 30, your goodwill like good wine turns to vinegar – the vinegar of crabbed egoism.

... In my time, I tried to educate our people in an understanding of the dignity of human life and their right as fellow human beings, and youth was not only interested but excited about what I consider things that matter. Things of the spirit; the development of a human being to his true potential in accordance with his own personal genius in the context of equal rights of others.

... What matters most in life is the right of human beings to live fully in the context of their own genius. In one word, perhaps, to fight for human justice. I once said humanity’s cry for human justice reverberates down the corridors of the centuries, and it is still crying for human justice.

It has often troubled me that in 12 years of social studies and civic and moral education in school, I was never taught my constitutional rights as a citizen, its intersection with criminal law, and how ISA sits among all of these.

Comfort and stability are important, but only up till a certain point. Beyond that, diminishing marginal returns rapidly and numbingly set in. It is a decline I would like to make some decisions to arrest in the coming months.

I highly recommend »reading the full interview for David Marshall's unabashed views on capital punishment and Asian values.

*My history syllabus in school curiously ended at the point once Singapore has gained independence, so my image of David Marshall is a black and white photo of him as Chief Minister in the 1950s.


  1. It's funny that you posted this! I had dinner with Ms. Unionist & Mr. Defining Justice post Tango's and we were talking about how we have "descended" into being the bourgeois, for all our talk during our political science days about ideals and such. Seems ideals may only co-exist with self when one only has $2 for a bowl of fishball noodles??

  2. i'm not sure if i fully subscribe to david marshall's views of living life to fight for human justice. what is human justice?

    he romanticized human rights. but what exactly is human rights? the right to protest? the right to write into the straits times forum within fear of reprisal? to what end are we seeking?

    fill the stomach first and then there's time to seek other "higher achievements." historically, all the cultured civilization eg. egyptian, chinese etc. all managed to achieve agricultural surpluses before they have "spare capacity" to indulge in other activities.

    what the govt should provide is a playing field whereby all the players are given ample opportunities to equip themselves. what they choose to strive for is a different matter. don't blame the govt for individual greed...

  3. @Anonymous: Your questions about the fundamental nature of justice and human rights are no doubt very valid. But it seems to me that being blasé abt everything is the cool way to be, and we (myself included at some point) have used this philosophical impasse as a convenient excuse for everday inaction. ("Oh, what is justice? I can't do something about this guy's greviences because I haven't figured out what justice is.")

    Of course to fill stomach first. But surely Singapore is beyond that stage now. Equip is one thing, express is another. I'm not saying that the govt is bad; I just saying that there is some way to go. Every govt has skeletons in their closets they prefer people not to ask questions, and a healthy society asks questions.