One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century
1915 - 2006
[see also Tamils: a Trans State Nation
The Strength of an Idea
The Ideas Man
Janadas Devan, 24 February 2006
Recalling the courage of the Old Guard in fighting the
pro-communists in the early 1960s, Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said
that 'Rajaratnam was the archetype'. 'He fought back
ferociously, indefatigably, never losing much sleep on the
consequences and penalties if we lost.'
Mr S. Rajaratnam himself was modest about his role. After he
retired in 1988, he said: 'My contributions were very
abstract. There are no buildings I can point to... I was
there helping to shape people's ideas, attitudes.' But he
was 'there' at a crucial time - when ideas did matter, when
hearts and minds did have to be won, when spirits had to be
steeled and the legitimacy of the new state established. He
was 'there', present at the creation, when ideas did have
the force of acts.
It is apt thus that Mr Lee once called him the 'drummer'.
Just as when soldiers, marching into battle, were given
heart by a drummer playing a tattoo, Mr Rajaratnam's ideas
gave heart to a nation in its formative years.
He provided the bass line - the insistent, continuous ground
bass that pounded away slowly and gave form to the entire
structure: 'Independence through merger', to explain the
aims of the People's Action Party (PAP) enroute to merger
with Malaysia in September 1963; 'Malaysian Malaysia', the
PAP's battle-cry while in Malaysia; and 'Singapore - the
global city', the conceptual framework that has guided the
country for more than 40 years now.
Mr Rajaratnam's politics first took shape in another global
city, London, in the late 1930s. He arrived there in 1936 to
study law, but drifted slowly to journalism. He cut his
teeth meeting writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Dylan Thomas,
talking to leading socialist thinkers like Stafford Cripps
and Kingsley Martin, and participating in the activities of
the Fabian Society and the Left Book Club.
Whatever attraction Marxism may have had for him, was
shattered in 1939 when the Soviet Union concluded a pact
with Nazi Germany to rape Poland.
'Amidst the intellectual confusion that followed, Rajaratnam
took a closer look at Soviet policies, separating ideals
from practice and his doubts about Marxism as a political
alternative increased,' write Professors Chan Heng Chee and
Obaid Ul Haq in their introduction to Mr Rajaratnam's
collected essays and speeches.
An indication of where Mr Rajaratnam's sympathies lay in
this period is suggested in the title he later chose for his
columns in the newspaper Singapore Standard in the 1950s -
'I Write As I Please'.
It echoed the title that the staunchly socialist but
fiercely anti-communist George Orwell used for his columns
in the 1940s - 'As I Please'.
Anti-colonial but also anti-communist; socialist but
non-Marxist; radical, but against the use of violence - such
were Mr Rajaratnam's positions when he returned to Singapore
in 1947. They were not positions widely shared in the first
political group he joined, the Malayan Democratic Union
(MDU). His friends then included Eu Chooi Yip, Lim Kean Chye
and PV Sharma, all later exiled to China.
He found his proper metier when he joined Mr Lee and others
to form the PAP in 1954. That, like the MDU, was a united
front party, but with one crucial difference - the
non-communists went into it with their eyes wide open,
knowing who were the pro-communists with whom they had made
Mr Rajaratnam was to recall this period in PAP's First Ten
Years, the first account of the party's history written by
an insider. 'Communist adventurism is tactics calculated
either to destroy a party or force it, by conspiratorial
tactics, into becoming a tool for communist objectives,' he
wrote. He was determined the non-communists did not become
Though a founder member of the PAP, Mr Rajaratnam did not
assume any official party position till 1959. As a
journalist, he felt he could not identify openly with a
All this changed after the PAP won power in 1959, and Mr
Rajaratnam, as Minister of Culture, came to the fore as
Singapore's chief ideas man.
'We do not regard culture as the opium of the intellectuals
or as something to tickle the fancies of gentlemen and
gentlewomen,' he wrote with typical verve in 1960.
'For us the creation of a Malayan culture is a matter of
'It is as essential for us to lay the foundations for a
Malayan culture, as it is for us to build hospitals, schools
and factories and provide jobs for our rapidly expanding
But as Mr Rajaratnam was to admit later, the PAP had
'underestimated the significance of racial, cultural and
communal factors in the politics' of the region - a bitter
lesson that he, together with the rest of the Old Guard,
were to learn in the two years Singapore was part of
Mr Rajaratnam, together with then PAP chairman Toh Chin
Chye, was instrumental in two crucial decisions the party
took during those years: the first, to contest the Malaysian
general elections in 1964; and the second, to form the
Malaysian Solidarity Convention, a grouping of like-minded
parties dedicated to the principle of a Malaysian Malaysia.
Mr Rajaratnam was not prepared to trim his sails to
accommodate the Malaysian wind. There could not be any
compromise on fundamental principles, he believed,
especially on the demand for a 'Malaysian Malaysia'.
That brave stand made Separation all but inevitable. Though
he was at first reluctant to accept the break, he finally
agreed, realising that the price of idealism was to go it
Mr Rajaratnam, like other Singaporeans of his generation,
got their identity cards (ICs) late in life. It turned out
to be an IC they least expected - Singaporean, not
One of this extraordinary man's most significant
contribution to Singapore is that he went on to tell us what
that IC meant.
He was Singapore's first and last politician-bard.
Rajaratnam - the
Policy Architect - Susan Long, 23 February 2006
|Singapore's first and longest-serving foreign
minister S. Rajaratnam was probably this country's greatest
storyteller yet. He succeeded in explaining Singapore to the
world, and Singapore to Singaporeans themselves.
When he first took up the post of pioneering foreign
minister in 1965, there was neither official policy nor
foreign embassies with fully-staffed desks to support him.
In those teething years, he operated as, he would recall
later, a 'one-man army', making up his job as he went along.
His greatest achievement, says Professor Chan Heng Chee,
Singapore Ambassador to the United States, was his ability
to communicate Singapore's foreign policy then - 'our place
in the world, what we are, what we hoped to be in 1965, and
why we were doing what we were doing'. 'That was extremely
important because Singapore was a new country, a new actor
on the world stage, and you have to explain yourself to your
neighbours, to the world at large,' she says.
In many ways, he enlarged Singapore's space and importance.
After Singapore was severed from its natural hinterland
Malaya, he coined the term 'global city' to describe his
vision of a city plugged into the world. That was in 1972,
decades before the term 'globalisation' became fashionable.
Except for Mr Rajaratnam, the 'global city' was not just an
abstract conception. It was a narrative that served at once
to explain Singapore to Singaporeans and give them a sense
Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh noted that after overcoming
doubts over the legitimacy of Singapore's birth, he worked
hard at establishing Singapore as a 'strong and valued'
founding member of Asean in 1967.
Up until 1980, he charted the young country's diplomatic
relations with the wider world, travelling around vocally
championing the rights of small nations.
Those were the treacherous Cold War years, where it required
great suppleness not to take sides and yet maintain friendly
relations with the United States, Soviet Union and China
His was the steady hand that steered the Singapore ship
through the Cold War, as well as in the dangerous waters of
the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) period.
But President S R Nathan noted that despite his courtly
demeanour, silken manners and soft voice, Mr Rajaratnam
never hesitated to be combative, when necessary.
He played a major role in negotiating with some of history's
toughest guys like the Khmer Rouge, rallying the regional
nations to take a stand against the Vietnamese invasion and
occupation of Cambodia in 1978 and cobbling together a
Mr Kishore Mahbubani, former Singapore permanent
representative to the United Nations and now dean of the Lee
Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, recounted: 'He exhibited
raw courage and was the bravest man I've known - even when
the odds are against him.
'In the NAM meeting in Cuba in 1979 to discuss Vietnam's
invasion of Cambodia, he was in a room full of Soviet
supporters - Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein and Fidel
'He single-handledly fought all of them.'
Such an unflinching response led to Singapore playing a
leading role in shaping Asean's response up to a decade
According to Mr Rodolfo Severino, former Asean
secretary-general and now a visiting senior research fellow
at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: 'His
personality and his ideas were very important to what Asean
'He was very resolute in having Asean move together as a
region. He was also, from the beginning, an adherent of the
market system, which at that time was not the policy of most
Asean countries, but which eventually we all adopted.'
What was exceptional about Singapore's first foreign
minister was his vision, foresight and ability to see things
which few could.
He had no patience for little details, only big ideas.
Mr Chia Cheong Fook, former Permanent Secretary in the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1975-87), who worked under him,
said: 'He wasn't interested in administration, in ordinary
matters of staff, in logistics, in details. He was
interested in ideas and how to promote Singapore in the
international community, the United Nations.
'He always had his fingers on the typewriter, typing
political speeches... He never practised his speeches before
a mirror, he was not interested in posturing. He spoke from
Indeed, Mr Rajaratnam became legendary for his firebrand
speeches at the UN and NAM meetings, as well as opinion
pieces in major international newspapers.
Mr Barry Desker, director of Singapore's Institute of
Defence and Strategic Studies and a former ambassador to
Indonesia, said: 'The most memorable of these pieces was a
hard-hitting attack on the Soviet Union and its regional
'The trenchant language, well-researched quotes from the
Soviet and pro-Soviet press and radio broadcasts and his
willingness to make a stark argument led the New York Times
to describe his writing style as the 'purple prose' of
Watching him win over foes and make friends for Singapore
was a valuable education in the art of diplomacy, said
'He firmly believed there's no such thing as permanent
enemies or permanent friends. He was always acquiring for
Singapore the widest possible recognition, despite the
smallness of our size, notwithstanding ideological
differences,' he said with a fond smile.
'He always tried to convince Singaporeans of all generations
about the permanency of Singapore, give hope and fire
imaginations about its future. Even in times of prosperity,
he tried to temper views that disregarded the vulnerability
Uncle Raja's views, as I see
them - S. Jothiratnam, 10 April 2006
The writer was formerly a lecturer in
both the hard sciences and the social sciences in
universities in the United States and Malaysia. Now
living in France, he devotes his time to wildlife
|Since the death of my uncle, Mr S. Rajaratnam, there
have been bones of contention in the newspapers over what
his views were, such as on multiculturalism, the forging of
a Singaporean identity, materialism and the decline of
Before these bones fossilise, I would like to comment on
them from my privileged perspective as one who, particularly
from the 1970s onwards, was uniquely able to discuss the
outlines of the emergent Singapore with him on a frequent
I am particularly concerned that his sophisticated, subtle
and complex views on these matters are being oversimplified
and second-guessed at in recent public discussions. It is
with the aim of giving you some flavour of the nature of his
thinking that I have written this piece.
In the 1970s I was a boarder at the United World College (or
Singapore International School as it was then called) and
had much occasion to visit my uncle who, aside from being
interested in seeing me, was also always keen to meet my
various teenage girlfriends who came from all parts of the
For me, it was a great way to impress the girls, taking them
to meet my famous uncle; for him, my dating patterns became
a sort of second crucible of inter-cultural relations, next
to his own marriage, and formed the basis of many
discussions on the subject.
Out of this period, certain salient points emerged, which
have helped to mould the outlines of my own life and
I) One must always act as if race does not matter - that is
to say, irrespective of race.
II) Race is not to be confounded with ethnic identity - the
formation of a personal identity is vital for the
psychosocial well-being of any individual, and essential
components of this identity are a sense of ethnicity and an
appreciation of history. A person must have a sense of
belonging in order to be a sound, socially healthy member of
society. At risk of overtaxing an old adage, a person
without a cultural identity would be like a ship without a
III) It is not by ignoring race and ethnic identity that
racial harmony is constructed, but by transcending the
former while building upon the latter - in this
construction, it must never be forgotten that what is being
encouraged is the formation of an individual's identity
within a communal context (which, even according to
Aristotle, is a psychologically desirable entity), rather
than some crude communal identity, which, as Adolf Hitler's
henchmen can attest to, can all too easily be transmogrified
into a dangerous, unthinking beast.
IV) The ideal model of that most elusive of quarries,
multiculturalism, is not the overused, and rather
inappropriate, metaphor of the all-effacing melting pot, but
rather that of the stew pot, in which, to misquote a Parsi
supplicant at the court of the emperor Akhbar, each
component maintains its individual identity while
simultaneously enhancing the flavour of the whole dish.
As even a cursory glance at his book collection would
reveal, since his early days as a student, journalist and
anti-colonialist thinker in London, my uncle has always
concerned himself with an important triumvirate of
interrelated issues: nationalism, nation-building and
national identity. He saw this as a central concern first
for the anti-colonial movement in which he was an active
participant, and subsequently for the newly independent
Singapore of which he was a Cabinet member.
He has of course written extensively on the subject, but to
summarise his views with regards to the establishment of a
Singaporean identity, Uncle Raja's position has always been
that 'being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry, it is
a matter of conviction and choice'.
In order to make this choice, he felt that there must be a
sense of pride in the achievements of one's country, and in
order for there to be a sense of pride, a people must have
reasonable knowledge of their own history and achievements.
This was as true when he first enunciated these ideas as it
is today. Unfortunately, however, as my uncle already
suspected in the 70s, an infirmity of sorts, a genus of
historical amnesia, was beginning to menace our increasingly
modern world, threatening especially to ravage
industrialised, highly technological societies with a
vengeance, and the prognosis, as he suspected, was not good.
Here again he was right: All his efforts notwithstanding,
and doubtless due to their sustained economic success, large
sections of the people of Singapore seem to have forgotten
what - just a couple of generations ago - things here used
to be like and have thus lost their sense of all that they
have to be proud of.
It is hardly my place to presume to teach Singaporeans their
own history, so suffice to say that it was from humble and
meagre beginnings that in a scant 40 years this country has
managed to wrest its current well-being.
In these ahistoric times, however, perhaps people do need to
be reminded of the fact that even on the much tougher scale
of qualitative as opposed to merely quantitative
measurement, Singapore does measure up to the mark and does
have something to be proud of.
One concomitant of this loss of historical consciousness has
been a creeping materialism. This, I would like to point
out, is not exclusively a Singaporean phenomena and was
around long before even the forebears of this nation's
founding fathers were twinkles in their fathers' eyes. One
need hardly remind the reader that writers ranging from Ibn
Khaldun, to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, to John Kenneth
Galbraith, to the Existentialists have commented on it.
My uncle, for example, paraphrasing Roman philosophy,
repeatedly noted that Singaporeans, while knowing the cost
of everything, have failed to understand the worth of
anything. This having been said, however, like Abraham
Maslow, my uncle was keen to distinguish between a healthy,
necessary and legitimate concern for material well-being and
security that lies at the provenance of all biological
beings, and grasping materialism.
As a corollary to this, he was also very much afraid that
people in a materially successful nation would always have
to confront the problem which eventually undid Achilles,
that of confusing pride with hubris. This too is in some
measure understandable, and is unfortunately something that
all economically successful societies need to face at
various stages of their development.
In the modern era, for example, the First World is
particularly rife with instances of this disorder, from the
attitudes of conquering colonialists, to Japan's position
during World War II, to the United States' attitudes today.
Comprehensible as its pathology may be, however, it is a
thing to be concerned about, and to guard against, as my
uncle was at great pains to point out.
Some current commentators seem to be of the opinion that my
uncle, who has been cast in the role of an idealist, was
opposed to a concern for material things. This contrived
contrasting of idealism with materialism, as if we were
discussing the contents of some course in the history of
Western philosophy, however, is patently inappropriate.
Although Uncle Raja was always a man of ideals, he also
consistently maintained that without economic success based
on political stability and streamlined administrative
efficiency and transparency, Singapore would quickly sink
back into the mosquito-ridden mangrove swamps out of which
it had so recently arisen, and that especially in its early
years, Singapore desperately needed these things.
Thus, alongside the other founders of this country, he
worked tirelessly - explaining Singapore to foreigners and
extolling its virtues abroad while at home helping to
construct it along lines that he and his fellow Cabinet
members judged best - in order to attain this sin qua non.
However, as his principled stand on regional issues at the
United Nations or with regard to the lawfulness of caning a
US national for flouting Singapore's laws showed, this goal
was not to be obtained simply at any cost.
On the decline of intellectualism and of clear thinking,
too, my uncle had grave concerns. He was deeply troubled by
the phenomenon and saw a need for effective action.
He was, however, also aware of the deep roots of this
decline, recognising that the underlying dynamic was a
global one and that it formed part of the sweeping tide of
history, the undesired consequences of steady economic
growth, technological progress and the burgeoning raw
consumer culture which drives societies today and has helped
spawn its attendant shallow materialism.
Consequently, he was not ready to offer up ineffectual
quick-fix solutions to this conundrum. Its apparent
intractability bothered him greatly, especially in his later
years, and I know he tried his hardest to read around this
slippery problem, hoping to find some purchase.
Finally, I would like to add that in these recent weeks here
in Singapore, I have had truck with many people, some of
whom have asked me if I thought my uncle had any regrets
about how Singapore has turned out.
To this, I am only able to reply that no father could ever
be fully satisfied with his child's performance. No matter
how sterling his or her achievements might be, there will
always be, particularly in the eyes of a doting father,
plenty of room for improvement.