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How the past reminds the present of its origins


SINGAPORE is an ageing society. That is good, because it attests to this country's success in providing the food, peace and medicine that enable people to live longer.

A country has another dimension, however. It is a conversation between the generations. The conversation takes place most intimately in the family, but there are other forums as well where the past reminds the present of its origins, only to be reminded of the inexorable language of the future.

Politics and religion are two such forums.

In July, I received a card carrying an invitation to meet members of Singapore's Old Guard. The occasion was the launch of a book, Lee's Lieutenants, at City Hall Chambers.

On the appointed evening, I said to the taxi-driver:" City Hall, please." The cab rolled past the place, and when I asked the man why he had not stopped, he replied that we were not yet at City Hall MRT -- next to Sogo, he added by way of explanation.

I burst out:" Singapore, the past, history, that City Hall." He looked at me aghast, wondering what had transformed a docile passenger into a flaming partisan of the past, especially since the passenger was not ancient enough to belong to that past.

History illuminates City Hall Chambers. The past was resplendently present at the gathering.

Mr Eddie Barker, the former Law Minister who is featured in the book, was one of the luminaries present. He held an unlit cigarette in his mouth as he looked for a place to smoke. Waylaid at every step by admirers requesting his autograph on the chapter about him, it is unlikely that he managed to leave the scene before the ceremony was well over.

My attention was diverted by an unsuspected presence. I turned to greet Mr Michael Fernandez, the student and labour activist who spent nine years gaining a degree in politics from" Changi University", as he called it.

I asked the former inhabitant of Changi Prison if he could be considered part of an alternative Old Guard.

"No," he replied without batting en eyelid." I was guarded too well."

Then he added, modestly:" I was only on the fringe."

Modesty being the hallmark of achievement, his humility sobered me.

Later, in the company of young people, I raised a toast to the past because, without the past and its uncertainties, there would be no present and its certainties, essential and precious though the latter are, I think and believe firmly.

WHAT is true of politics applies to religion with a difference. Its home is the eternal, but the path to that destination is paved with the slippery dust of mutability.

The generations need to converse, and exchange travellers' notes, if the great pregnant silence of eternity is ever to be heard.

That is why it was good for the United Nations Association of Singapore to organise a gathering on the theme --" A Society for All Ages -- Lessons from Religion and Life" -- to commemorate 1999, the UN-declared Year of Older Persons, in August.

Two things stood out simultaneously about the meeting.

One was its approach to the elderly from the angle of religion, and the other that the audience consisted overwhelmingly of junior college students, not the most obvious of people to be interested in the subject.

Surprisingly, though, the speakers and the audience had interests in common.

The keynote speaker, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed, noted with a hint of humour that" human beings tend to get closer to religion and to God in the later part of life", before he went on to discuss the religious dimensions of ageing as they impinge on society, including the young.

Dr Tham Seong Chee, the association's president, explained how the aged could benefit from the social resources released by religion, the young being the repository of the values that safeguard those resources.

Speakers at the seminar explored the theme from the perspectives of their particular religions: Dr Phyllis Chew (Baha'i), Dr Ang Beng Choo (Buddhism), Rev Robert P. Balhetchet (Christianity), Associate Professor Kow Mei Kao (Confucianism), Dr S.N. Tagore (Hinduism) and Haji Maarof Salleh (Islam).

The students in the audience responded robustly at the Q&A session and later.

Kok Chee Ian of Raffles Junior College wondered to me about how the aged who professed no religion could be incorporated into a society for all ages and religions.

(For that matter, how can the young who profess no religion be encouraged to cherish the old?)

Lonneke Smit of the Overseas Family School thought that some speakers had not been specific enough in their remarks.

Her schoolmate, Zubin Menon, revealed a healthy streak of scepticism when he queried the gap between what religions preach and what their followers actually practise.

Their responses showed that the deliberations had provoked the young sufficiently to make them question age-old arguments and contest conclusions.

Therein lay the meeting's success, for the old can never leave a legacy for the young more valuable than the urge to question the ways of the world which eternal youth inherits from the eternally old.

THAT is why the conversation between the generations continues in Singapore.

I caught a snatch of it in a lift a fortnight ago.

A little boy in his father's lap said" Hello, Papa, Mama, koko, Uncle" before beginning a rapid commentary on, well, almost everything under the sun. The vicarious uncle was I, who had never met the family before. My inclusion in the familial conversation pleased me immensely.

Soon after, I asked a classmate of my son why he was sitting quietly by the school field when others were playing there. Was he angry?

No, he said, and explained that he had just eaten a banana, and wanted to rest for a while.

As I nodded and turned away, the nine-year-old looked at me and said with sudden solemnity: "Take care of yourself."

When the young bless the old, reversing the usual direction of blessings, it is proof the conversation between the generations is also a form of benediction.

Let us continue it.

©Copyright 1999, Singapore Press Holdings Ltd
Original Story

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