Monday 21 December 2015

Lee Wei Ling: My life as a newspaper columnist

By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Sunday Times, 20 Dec 2015

For those interested in the private world of writing and incidental public life of a columnist, here is a slice of my experience.

At the conceptual stage of a column, every word appears tentative and short-lived. Although I would have read the final version after my editor e-mails it to me, I am always curious about how the article would appear in the permanence of print. When I finally see the page, it is as usual just a solid block of text. It has meaning, of course. But what I intend and what the reader infers might well diverge.

Recently, I turned to the letters page and read advice from a Dr Yik Keng Yeong who said it's "good to exercise but don't overdo it". My column on Nov 15 was as much on a personal preoccupation with fitness as it was on "letting go". That was my headline for the article but it was not used. Anyone who knows the Chinese language and culture would get my not unsubtle point, I felt. "Letting go" refers to fang de xia, meaning the ability to let go of all that is transitory. That refers to not just objects but also physical fitness, position, power, and all that exist as distractions as we work towards our own "salvation".

My aim as a columnist is to not just dissect facts but also to share my own philosophy. For example, "salvation" in the above context is what I see as a release from the cycle of suffering. This accompanies all mortals who have not reached that level of spiritual attainment where we no longer are bound by desires that trap our thoughts and emotions - the Buddhist ideal of compassion with detachment.

I had been researching climate change for my column over a few weeks, as agreed with my editor. It was to be filed before he and I leave Singapore for a break. We agreed to maintain the frequency of the column during this time as it had been resuscitated only recently. The long absence of an article from me since May 3 was because I did not have any thoughts worth sharing. Even though I might accumulate many facts and track many discussions on a topic, if I have no unique insight or perspective to share, I decline to write.

That's what happened with the topic of global warming. I amassed information but my perspective is basically pessimistic. It appears to me that most countries will never try hard enough to prevent environmental degradation. In the not-too-distant future, Homo sapiens as a species will make our planet inhospitable. Without more to add, I dropped the topic.

Amid my private musings, there is also a public dimension to column writing. For example, my friends and my readers probably already know that this year has been a challenging one for me. I have to confront life without Papa. What was new to me was the solicitude so many Singaporeans and even non-Singaporeans extended to Papa and even me. It first started to sink in when people unknown to me sent me letters, cards, even books (usually those proselytising Christianity but also on other subjects as well).

Often, there is no attached mailing address or contact details. Some do give contact details, but it was only in the last two months - after I had recovered somewhat from the events in the earlier part of this year - that I tried to thank those strangers, where contact information was available.

One interesting person serves to illustrate how even non-Singaporeans have shown goodwill towards Papa and me. Earlier, I was looking at how I could utilise my 2014 annual leave, which would otherwise be forfeited after April 1 next year. Quite by chance, I e-mailed someone working for a tour company. The company is in the United States and I e-mailed a "David" who was the contact person for this tour company. I signed off the e-mail as "Dr Lee Wei Ling".

The reply caught me off-guard. David asked: "Do you happen to be related to a famous statesman who recently died?"

I was surprised because Wei Ling is a common name for Chinese girls and Lee is one of the most common surnames in the world. The equivalent of "Tom, Dick and Harry" in Mandarin is "three Changs and four Lees". Maybe the combination of Lee Wei Ling preceded by "Dr" would be less common. But which everyday American would bother with Singapore or the daughter of Singapore's founding premier?

Subsequent e-mails drew more surprises. I inquired about exercise facilities on the cruise ship. The response: "There is a gym that is not heavily utilised. Unfortunately, we cannot allow you to run back and forth on 20 meters of corridor." The only way anyone unknown to me would know of my habits is if they had read about them or listened to my eulogy for Papa.

Unable to restrain my curiosity further, I asked: "Most Americans are very insular. How would you know of my father or me?" His reply: "I am a half American and half New Zealander. In New Zealand, Mr Lee Kuan Yew is well known. Also, I have read some of your articles."

So, I sent him two columns: "What keeps me rooted to Singapore", and "The day Michael Fay saved me from prison". He said: "Thank you for sending me your articles. I have read the first one. I have seen the title of the second one as the title of a chapter in your book and wondered which Michael Fay it was. (There is a Sir Michael Fay who is a New Zealander.) Most Americans think Michael Fay should have been caned and perhaps if we had similar laws in USA, we would have less criminals."

What are the odds that others on the cruise would also have some inkling of all this? Generally, I value my privacy. My mug shot does not appear in my column. I have requested to remain visibly anonymous, even as I willingly bare my heart and thoughts to all readers.

In a subsequent e-mail, David suggested that I use "Ling Lee" on my name tag on this cruise as there were thousands of Ling Lees and only one Lee Wei Ling on Google.

I agreed as I was certain that once "Singapore" was raised, "Lee Kuan Yew" would automatically follow. Papa was the symbol for Singapore internationally. Not infrequently, one encounters people who know of Lee Kuan Yew but not of Singapore. I prefer to be judged for what I am, and not as LKY's daughter.

The cruise takes place in mid-December and, with any luck, no one on board (with all due respect to The Sunday Times) would have read this column.

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