S. Rajaratnam: Writer, Thinker, Dreamer
By Judy Goh
Throughout history, people from all walks of life have contemplated the questions: What makes a man? Or more importantly, what makes a man, different from others before him?
One such curious man who is worthy of scrutiny is none other than one of our founding fathers, S. Rajaratnam, who is perhaps best known for penning our nation’s beautifully-crafted pledge to the youth who recite it every day. He was Singapore’s first foreign minister and is revered as a harbinger of politics and nation-building in Singapore. A school has been named after him (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University). However, not much is known to the masses who do not study beyond secondary school social studies or Singapore’s history.
Yet, with the debut of S. Rajaratnam: The Singapore Lion, an on-going exhibition at the National Library Building Level 10 Promenade and Irene Ng’s biography of the man himself, the makings of this impressive figure has been placed under the microscope and magnified.
A dedicated team has put together an intricate exhibition of S. Rajaratnam’s life and works from primary sources and photographs. Samples of S. Rajaratnam’s notes in his own handwriting are on display, along with foldout boards chronicling the young S. Rajaratnam’s ventures from birth in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) to law education in London, World War II and beyond in a captivating, chronological layout of a timeline. A plasma screen has original video footage and a photo montage of S. Rajaratnam with narration on loop. Near the back, a collection of books S. Rajaratnam owned stand in pristine condition beneath glass, neat annotations made by his own hand covering each page.
S. Rajaratnam was as much of a literary great as a formidable politician, testified to by his days as a journalist for various local and global news corporations, as well as a vociferous debater. To celebrate his achievements in these areas, his political commentaries and articles, speeches, fictional works (his short stories have been published in anthologies) and newspaper articles featuring him have been catalogued and bound into books, accessible at the exhibition also.
From the exhibit, I was sure of three things.
1. A great man knows himself.
S. Rajaratnam, since he was a young migrant, befriended people from all walks of life. His primary school classmates were of various races and religions, his college friends from left-wing parties with ideologies vastly different from those of colonial rule. This eventually led to his vision of a ‘Singaporean Singapore’ where people from backgrounds of Technicolor lived harmoniously.
Family was an issue, as he reunited with his family in Singapore to much disapproval at his non-Hindu bride. This aside, his identity was shaped by societal forces beyond his control. Nevertheless, he took control into his own hands when he made the firm decision to give up his career in journalism to join the People’s Action Party (PAP) as a full-time politician and candidate for parliament.
2. A great man has character.
S. Rajaratnam knew how to voice his thoughts coherently through speech and the written word; his thoughts were profound with knowledge. He read extensively and annotated his books with concepts ranging from social contract theory between the government and its citizens, to fighting imperialism, to turning Singapore into a ‘global city’. From experiences in London, where he studied and dropped out of law school, he reportedly praised the economical theory described in Marxism of but became wary of Communism, which he observed to be a paradoxical doctrine.
3. A great man has ambition.
S. Rajaratnam didn’t just know how to express himself and was knowledgeable about the world, but he dreamed a little bit more.
Nationalism paved the way for Singapore’s nation-building through the creation of national symbols such as the pledge, flag and anthem, which was to bond Singaporeans with a sense of identity. He preempted the phenomenon of globalisation early in the twenty-first century and sought to turn Singapore into a ‘global city’, a term he had picked up from British historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s book Cities on the Move. His foresight and determination to make those dreams a reality was what made his contributions to Singapore so significant.
S. Rajaratnam was a great man, no doubt. His life works were the result of, in my opinion, understanding, thinking and dreaming, in addition to putting his ideas into effect. Will you be the next one?
Be inspired by S. Rajaratnam: The Singapore Lion. The exhibition will run till 4 May 2010 30 June 2010 (extended!)
Judy is a second-year student at the Victoria Integrated Programme. As an aspiring writer and avid reader, she enjoys events organised by the National Library. She also occasionally contributes articles, interviews and reviews to the monthly publication What’s Up, a local students’ newspaper. Read her past review of ‘Behind a Cultural Cage’ here.
About the exhibition... One of Singapore’s foremost visionaries, S. Rajaratnam (1915-2006), the ‘Ideas Man’, was best known for bringing visions to reality. A founding member of the People’s Action Party, Singapore’s first Minister for Culture and the first Minister for Foreign Affairs, he took office during a tumultuous period in Singapore’s history. His contributions, such as shaping a national identity and putting Singapore on the world map, continue to exert concrete influence in Singapore today. Bringing together materials from various agencies, this exhibition aims to provide a clearer glimpse into one of Singapore’s most monumental figures. This exhibition is organised by the National Library of Singapore in conjunction with the launch of The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S. Rajaratnam by Member of Parliament (Tampines GRC), Irene Ng, and with the strong support from Singapore Press Holdings Limited, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, National Archives of Singapore, National Museum of Singapore and MediaCorp Pte Ltd.