Monday, 23 March 2015

Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew

Before dawn today Lee Kuan Yew, widely regarded as the founding father and chief architect of modern Singapore who had served as prime minister for more than three decades, died at the age of 91.

His eldest son and incumbent prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, gave the Singaporeans and the rest of the world an emotional address on television. He spoke in English, Malay and Mandarin Chinese, all in one go, as an apparent attempt to showcase the cultural diversity of the city-state.

Perhaps the late Mr Lee is best remembered as the founding father and chief architect of modern Singapore, although it remains a subject of debate what such descriptors actually mean. Obituaries in the global press seem to focus more on his achievements in securing independence and prosperity for the city-state, which is more or less comparable to Hong Kong in size but of which the landscape is far less dramatic. While the press haven't lost sight of the firm controls and restrictions that somewhat characterise the general visitor's impression of Singapore, the prevailing tone remains positive. Check out some of the obituaries and news reports on the prominent media worldwide:

BBC news

The Wall Street Journal

The Guardian

CNN

The New York Times

Al Jazeera

The Economist

Some more reads from the local media:

The Stand News

Apparently I don't know enough to make any meaningful comment on Mr Lee and Singapore, which I have only visited once for some personal research more than fifteen years ago. All I can say is that Mr Lee is just as controversial as any other great men and women who had their names engraved in human history. Anyone can make his or her own judgment, but I take the liberty to refrain from doing so simply because I don't think I have enough information or knowledge to jump on the bandwagon. Silence out of recognised ignorance is perhaps the best tribute I owe Mr Lee. May he rest in peace. Condolences to his family and the Singaporeans.

One achievement of Mr Lee's rule in Singapore does impress me remarkably though. Notwithstanding the fact that Singapore and Hong Kong share great similarities in history as British colonies with comparable strategic locations and values, they turn out to be remarkably different in terms of political system, socio-economic structures and everyday life. The English language, for example, has never enjoyed the prominence and permeability in Hong Kong as it does in Singapore. To me, the mediocre standard of English among the people of Hong Kong after all those years of compulsory education, and their reluctance to use English as a means of expression rather than a recognised ticket to success and higher social status, is by all means puzzling and incomprehensible. This is clearly indicated by the number of page views of my English posts, which is significantly lower than those in Chinese. More interestingly, curious viewers whom I have never met have asked why there are English posts on this blog from time to time, which are mostly seen as a form of boasting rather than a personal choice of expression. In fact, why not? Why can't we be good at more than one language at the same time? Like millions of people here, I started learning both Chinese and English at a very young age, and isn't it perfectly natural to be able to express myself in both languages after almost forty years of continuous learning and usage? What is it so special to warrant a fuss?

I wonder if anyone here in Hong Kong has bothered – or will do – to conduct a comparative study on such a conspicuous difference by looking into the deep-rooted cultural and social milieu of Hong Kong and Singapore, among other factors, that have made the cities as they are today. Presumably, the predominance of ethnic Chinese in the population of Hong Kong, which has always exceeded 95%, compared to less than 80% in Singapore, should have a role to play, but this hypothesis will need truthful and accountable evidence to substantiate. Rather than lamenting over the deterioration of Hong Kong here and there, it is time to learn from the experience of Mr Lee's Singapore in English education if we still think it is important to raise the standard for our long-term competitiveness and sustainability.

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