Digging up the past, in search of a deeper sense of self: Desmond Lee on the Bicentennial and its lessons
SINGAPORE: To know our past is to know where we came from, why we have the kinds of languages, cultures and faiths we share today and, more importantly, learn about how we can draw strength from the examples of our forefathers, as we face the challenges ahead.
That was the connection made by Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee, as he mulled over the significance of Singapore’s bicentennial year, in relation to his own personal heritage.
He said he often gets asked a certain question whenever people see him for the first time.
“Some people may think, ‘Are you really Chinese?’ I get that kind of question quite a lot,” he says. “And so, of course, very early on, in my childhood, I would ask these kinds of questions too.”
As it turns out, Mr Lee has Peranakan ancestry, from his mother’s side. “We traced it back to Malacca,” he says. “When I visit my family for weddings and birthdays, we speak the Baba language. And you have to speak it, otherwise you won’t get food! It’s really just part and parcel of the culture.”
Mr Lee also learnt that his paternal grandfather came from the southern Chinese city of Quanzhou in Fujian province. The elder Lee came to Singapore to work as a labourer, and he and his wife had a very large family of 12 children, one of whom, former Cabinet minister Lee Yock Suan, is Mr Desmond Lee’s father.
These roots matter to Mr Lee. He said: “Not everyone is interested in history. But our past, our origins and our roots are certainly important. They give us a sense of the ancestry of our people.
“And so, while history may not be everyone’s cup of tea, we hope that during the Bicentennial year, more people will begin to explore at different levels, that little bit about themselves, that little bit about their forefathers, and that little bit about the Singapore of yesteryear. I think that presents an opportunity for us to add a deeper dimension to our identity.”
2019 not only commemorates the 200th year of Singapore’s founding as a British colonial trading post by Sir Stamford Raffles, but also the 500 years before that when the island - then known as Temasek - was a thriving sea port.
Mr Lee says lessons can be learnt from the past, particularly how the Singapore of old was always open to new concepts and new people putting down their roots.
It wasn’t always smooth-sailing, but this sense of openness to trying new things made Singapore what it is today, says the father of three. “Of course, there were clashes and dark days, but that multiculturalism, that openness to people, to trade and to ideas, stood Singapore of the past in good stead, and I believe that some of these ideas and values will put us in a good position tomorrow.”
Entrepreneurs and founders of small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, can also learn from Singapore’s forefathers, says Mr Lee, and he cites the late Naraina Pillai as an example of an inspiring entrepreneur.
Mr Naraina came to Singapore from Penang in 1819. He spotted an opportunity in the new colony, and established a brick factory, and became the first contractor in Singapore to be involved in the building of homes.
But he also went beyond that, and diversified into the cotton business, selling his goods at a bazaar in Cross Street. His cotton business became the largest and best known in Singapore, but all that came to naught, when a fire razed his enterprise to the ground, leaving him heavily in debt.
It took him five years to pay back his creditors and start from scratch, all over again.
“Mr Naraina never gave up,” says Mr Lee. “He partnered with other people, sought help, and re-established his business. I think this is very inspiring. It may have happened a very long time ago, but he embodied the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
But history comes alive not just through our stories and memories of persevering pioneers - it also takes tangible form in the objects left behind.
Mr Lee received hands-on experience of this, a few years ago, when he took part in an SG50-themed archeological dig at Empress Place, with the staff and students of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
He literally unearthed some rare finds - ceramic pottery, and some parts of a celadon plate - from two metres below the grassy grounds of Victoria Concert Hall.
“I was told that it was one piece of a larger piece that could be traced back to Imperial China,” he says. “To feel and touch what was used back in the 14th century, by these ‘early Singaporeans’ - that for me, was a very special experience. I feel very strongly about archeology, in giving people - especially young people - a direct connection with the past.”
In the months to come, Singaporeans will be able to see other precious artefacts, dug up from another archeological site in Fort Canning.
In conjunction with the bicentennial year, an exhibition space called “Artisan’s Garden” will open at the Fort Canning Centre in June, allowing visitors to view objects that reflect the activities that happened on Fort Canning Hill, between 1300 and 1400.
Visit bicentennial.sg to check out the calendar of events and activities coordinated by the Singapore Bicentennial Office and their partner organisations.
This article was adapted from an interview with Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee on 938NOW’s new weekly interview series, “Question Time”, which airs every Friday. To listen to the interview, go to facebook.com/938Now/ or download the MeRadio app.