Friday 10 February 2012

Don't let Singapore pioneers be a lost generation

Dr Toh Chin Chye spent a lifetime engaging young people, but few today know him
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 8 Feb 2012

'WHO is that man?' Dr Toh Chin Chye's eight-year-old grandson Shaun asked me.

'That man' was Mr Tan Soo Khoon, the former Speaker of Parliament and a long-time friend who called on Dr Toh regularly in the latter's retirement years.

Though the Toh residence was thronged for four days and nights by political giants who had stepped out of the pages of history - as well as young politicians who may go on to write the future - they were, to Shaun, just a wash of older faces.

Of course, no one expects a child that young to recognise politicians, or to recite their policy pets and peeves.

However, at some point, when our children become adults, we are aghast at what they do not know. Or perhaps our dismay is over what we have failed to pass on to them.

In the days since Dr Toh died on Friday, much lament has been made about how little younger Singaporeans know about the founding chairman of the political party that has shaped almost every aspect of life in Singapore.

I heard about this gulf between young Singaporeans and Dr Toh on Friday night from former MP Tan Cheng Bock. He had posted a tribute to Dr Toh online, which garnered surprise from young followers of his Facebook page. Some wrote that they did not know who Dr Toh was.

Twenty-two years ago at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the People's Association, Dr Toh asked: 'Where have the young people gone?' He felt then that young Singaporeans were shying away from community involvement.

The same question could have been asked last weekend at 23, Greenview Crescent. Almost no unlined faces were to be seen at Dr Toh's wake, except for a few accompanying their parents and some of Dr Toh's grandchildren's schoolmates.

On the fourth and last day of the wake, several busloads of students did visit with their teachers to pay their respects.

Yet engaging young people was a longstanding concern of Dr Toh's. In the 1980s, he was worried the younger generation was becoming depoliticised.

He actively sought out younger Singaporeans and got them involved in grassroots activities in Rochor, which he represented first as assemblyman, then as MP, for 29 years.

So great was his impact on the young people he met that many stayed close to him for decades even after he retired in 1988. A good number of those at the wake, now in their 50s and 60s, were first recruited into Dr Toh's circle when they were not much older than 20. He sought to pass his knowledge and experience on to younger Singaporeans, to help them appraise public policy critically.

For more than 20 years, this group looked forward to Dr Toh's weekly Beautiful Sunday sessions, named after one of his favourite songs. He would share readings and personal insights into policy work and generate discussions on Singapore developments.

When I wished aloud to have sat in on these sessions, Mr Robin Lim, 53, one of Dr Toh's long-serving grassroots volunteers, said: 'You should have come to Beautiful Sundays. Anybody could come. Dr Toh always wanted to meet young people.'

Dr Toh might have liked to meet financial writer Edwin Siew Kah Kin, 26, one of the few young people to visit the wake.

Mr Siew had read about Dr Toh a few days before his death, and then did more research about Dr Toh. He was surprised that such a key figure had not been in his social studies textbook when he was in school. He said: 'If young people were given a chance to be informed of Toh Chin Chye's contribution to Singapore, I am sure they would have shown more empathy and interest.'

Mr Siew would like to see more information about Singapore's pioneers in school curricula, and in the visual media like television documentaries.

Instead of paying their respects in person, younger Singaporeans have left tributes and well wishes on Facebook and other sites, tagged to the posts of older Singaporeans or political figures who were more familiar with Dr Toh.

In his life, Dr Toh made an immense effort to reach out to the younger generations. His efforts were later blunted by changes in technology and his frailty.

In his death, younger Singaporeans are looking for ways to learn more about a towering figure from a time before theirs. They search online, scanning blogs and social media posts.

They also turn to interlocutors who can bridge the gap between the generations.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock and former foreign affairs minister George Yeo are examples from the generations in between, who had the chance to exchange experiences with Dr Toh at the tail end of his career.

They have also established a significant online presence that younger Singaporeans follow. Mr Siew said he would like to see, and would trust, more information put up by such figures.

A rueful Dr Tan, after checking with me if I had seen his Facebook post, said: 'At least I have that open for (young Singaporeans) to talk about.'

Unfortunately, Dr Toh can no longer host his Beautiful Sundays. But there are those who knew him who can share his stories.

And other pioneers remain. Of the 10 members from Singapore's first Cabinet, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Othman Wok, Mr Yong Nyuk Lin and Mr Jek Yuen Thong are still with us.

We should trust that both sides are interested to connect with each other. We need only find a common language, or trusted translators.

Trying to share what little I knew with Dr Toh's grandson, I told him: 'That man used to be the Speaker of Parliament. The Parliament is where your Kong Kong (grandfather) used to work.'

Shaun frowned. My explanation was not good enough. I tried again: 'That man is your Kong Kong's good friend.'

Shaun nodded with understanding. Some things are clear to young and old.

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