A flag and a legacy

Tokyo – I remember being surprised by flags one day as I came to the office. A crumpled one clinging to the post over the staff entrance left me wondering. It was slightly cloudy, trains were on time, I was at the office, and I was quite sure of the need to be there that day, even if it were only perfunctory. The flag failed to flutter but the black strip under it tied round the post did. Did someone important just die? It was March 11. Then it dawned on me.

Four years had passed since the tsunami struck northeast Japan. Today, Japan is in its best moment, riding on the pro-growth Abenomics rhetoric, and cherry blossom buds growing fuller. The prospects are good, but the lack of respect was startling. We all understand protocol and the need to observe events, but to do things properly should be at the root of all meaningful actions. Otherwise, it’s just not worth doing.

Flags are symbols that command respect, and desecration can, in most countries, have severe consequences. Japan is one surprising exception; desecration is implicitly covered in the Japanese Constitution under freedom of speech, that is, people are allowed to disrespect the Japanese national flag. No other law exists to prohibit it, yet foreign flags are protected under Japanese law.

Scant respect for its own drew scrutiny at lunchtime from a security guard, peering overhead to see what had happened. Someone had apparently failed to iron it, or simply took it too quickly out from the washer. At least it wasn’t dripping or visibly torn. There was a slight breeze, and anyone who noticed as they walked past would inevitably feel a sense of shame or indignity, if they cared.

I raised the problem to a friend. The word “shame” was mentioned softly as people around me kept it quiet. It seemed as though they wanted this day to pass without issue and for the flag to hang in plain public view undetected. From the security guard’s actions, they just didn’t bother to correct it or even consider improving the situation. Any act to adjust the flag that was already hoisted would be incriminating, so just leave it as a doubtful entanglement hanging off the building, and lower it at the end of the day. Besides, it would be worse to leave this one pole empty if it took hours to iron out the creases, wouldn’t it?

Painful, appalling inaction and disrespect – the flag PAID the price of someone who simply followed the book without observing its substance, and everyone else who did not bother to do anything to change it. That the flag was probably only seen by company employees and visitors was its only saving grace, for it, not the people.

Contrast this with the formal, organized State Funeral for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. The media covered every inch, foreign dignitaries flocked to pay respects, and the people were understandably very emotional. You could see the bias among certain circles against this seemingly well-drilled regime, but the organization and finesse of the communications to the public spoke volumes of the people, its institutions and its government. The week-long run-up even included a faked government website release announcing his death.

Soon celebrating its 50th anniversary without its visionary leader but left with a legacy of friendships and connections that span the globe from the founding generation, the final day’s eulogies reflected the spirit of the nation; it sets aside time to remember, but remains ever ready to move on. Singapore’s anthem urges progress, its pledge aspires to a harmonious, prosperous future. Recognizing the constant struggle to survive, the endless marathon to stay relevant, and the journey ahead, this young nation and its people understands its needs and is prepared to pull together to build a better future.

The nation’s economic miracle is a legacy for everyone. The guiding light is gone but continues to shine beyond its existence, allowing others to follow, draw upon and make it travel further. Anyone blighted with internal struggles, nonchalance, or indifference bordering on conceit, can turn to this legacy to remember the constant struggle, the sacrifices made and the path that was painstakingly laid in a bid to remain competitive and relevant. A new journey will soon begin, toward inclusive, sustainable progress. Those already overtaken should take heed.

Of sniffles and snides

Tokyo, 23 Mar – I woke up this morning feeling tired and restless. Bereft of any desire to get to work, my feet trudged across the wooden flooring as I went about the morning routine. They somehow took a body that was slowly getting into gear to the train platform, when the arm, a perfectly programmed extension of the body, reached into the trouser pocket to retrieve my phone.

The commuter routine began. Masked, foggy glasses, jam-packed trains, intermittent stops. All part of the morning ride. My fingers worked the screen swiftly, scourging the Internet for news. My mind was racing through topics of interest that required updating and relayed them to fire the synapses into action. They were stopped by the Channel NewsAsia headline – Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had passed away at 91 earlier at 3.18 am.

As my train arrived, I felt insecure, shaken and struck by melancholy sadness that was tinged with a heavy dose of admiration and relief. Every sniffle around me, every listless eye peering out at the scenery whizzing by seemed captured by sympathy. It was over.

The past few days had been a Facebook timeline of tributes and prayers for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister. Famous words, unforgettable scenes, touching sequences. They all drew a picture of the person behind the face that all Singaporeans, and perhaps many Malaysians too, had grown so accustomed to seeing ever so often. The write-ups painted a demanding leader, visionary and inspirational, but also frugal and sentimental. The public domain was soon filled with messages and outpouring of sympathies for Mr. Lee from the world over. The world had soon overwhelmed this little red dot and its people. A week of national mourning in Singapore was declared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and going to work felt beyond me.

Yet by that time, my feet had already taken me past my transfer. I had scarcely anything to do besides meager tasks, but a subsequent inquiry revealed that the condolence books at overseas missions would not be open until the next day. They would remain so till the weekend to allow citizens and friends of Singapore to offer their condolences to Mr. Lee, the most influential Asian leader that I’ve lived under.

Just a few years back, he was still attending conferences and making trips across the world to cement Singapore’s position in the global arena. The tireless spirit has finally left its citizens with a huge void to fill and a legacy of a first class nation. The rise of this tiny island from a third world nation to the world’s third in per capita GDP is a story that will inspire generations to come.

As part of a largely non-English corporate propaganda churning unit, I was invariably tasked with drafting private letters to my fellow countrymen. Laughs turned to sniggers, sniffs sounded like snorts. Insensitivity is an understatement. A simple direct instruction was viewed as a blatant order to punish the eternally-contracted foreigner.

The public domain was already full of templates and expressions. A gathering of them would do the job perfectly, but the senses left my fingers as they clutched and clasped at my head, struggling to claw the right words out for someone else. The limbs worked, sometimes in a flurry, sometimes stationary. Three paragraphs settled, done, I left the office deflated and eager to find my own words.

I hope they will come to me in time, before my legs take me to the Embassy to stand before the condolence book ready to pen in my entry. My synapses and internal wiring would not be trusted to do a job that would end up entirely mechanical, devoid of emotion. I shall draw on my upbringing, education and childhood to express my gratitude, and then move on. Just like in Singapore, we stop, but only for a week to remember. Thank you Mr. Lee.

– updated 24 Mar