While attending a very private ceremony, attended by a very small number of people, I was overwhelmed not only by the sense of history but also a deep sense of gratitude to God. I was possibly the oldest mother there.
Given that so few would have experienced this event I wrote 'Servant Leaders' to share with fellow Singaporeans. Straits Times Forum ran it as 'Respect those who serve us' (13th September 2013). It is unusual to have two words edited into five words.
As expected, the brickbats came from 'forummers' who imputed a less-than-honourable motive to my writing.
First of all, there is nothing wrong in being proud of one's offspring. I will not apologise for expressing my pride in his achievement.
To pretend that I was not proud of his achievement would be dishonesty and gross injustice to a young man who had worked very hard to overcome his physical, intellectual and emotional obstacles -- painstakingly, one by one -- over several years, and also the part played by his school teachers, special educational needs co-ordinator, music tutors, pastoral workers, etc. etc. who had implicit faith in him.
More importantly, if forummers cannot see what I am actually trying to say to, and about, the people that matter, then I am -- slowly but surely -- losing hope in the future of Singapore.
Respect those who serve us
ON SUNDAY, my husband and I were very proud parents as our only child was "admitted" to the roll of scholars at the oldest independent school in Britain.
What caught my eye was the place of the head porter in this ceremony - he led the party in and out of the venue.
During tea, I observed how polite the head boy and officers were to the catering staff.
These school leavers are likely to go on to become the movers and shakers of society, yet treated the servants with utmost respect.
What would the world be like if all leaders - political, commercial and intellectual - behaved in the same manner?
Contrast this to my frequent observations of how our domestic helpers are treated as "invisible" beings.
If we want the world to be a better place, then we must teach our children to respect those who serve us. If we need to bring in people to take up the jobs Singaporeans shun, is it because we have become too difficult to serve?
Respect, like charity, begins at home.
In anthropological literature we read of 'rituals of status reversal'. For example:
"Men use the authority vested in their office to misuse and abuse the incumbents of lower positions and confuse position with its incumbent. Rituals of status reversal ... are thought of as bringing social structure and communitas into right mutual relations once again." (Victor Turner 1969:178)These rituals might involve leader-designates being humiliated by the people over whom they are about to rule, or when there has been dissension so that the 'unity that has been sundered by selfish strife and concealed ill-feeling is restored by those who are normally thought of as beneath the battle for jural and political status' (Turner, 1969:184).
Some might say that these are merely symbolic and only entrench hierarchy. Be that as it may, this does not detract from the fact that my husband and I were suitably impressed by the good manners displayed by senior staff and pupils towards those who are usually considered of lower social standing. Eat your heart out, Max Weber.
To be fair, the editor kindly sent me a draft of his edit. But I was away at conference and was not able to respond to him before it was published. The original letter, for what it's worth here:
Last Sunday my husband and I were very proud parents as our only child, a special blessing considering our age at marriage, was ‘admitted’ to the roll of scholars at the oldest independent school in Britain. We were witnesses to a ceremony that has taken place for more than 600 years!
What caught my eye was not so much that the old school boy, a renowned banker, who laid hands on my son proclaimed words of authority in Latin, but the place of the Head Porter in this ceremony.
He led the party in and he led the party out.
During tea I also observed how polite the head boy and officers were to the catering staff.
I was hobnobbing with the elite of a very elitist school and leavers are likely to be the movers and shakers of society, and yet the lowest servants are treated with utter respect, and at times, ceremony. How marvellous is that?
What would our world be like if all leaders – political, commercial and intellectual – are all prepared to cross the road to help someone who had fallen into a muddy ditch? Metaphorically.
Contrast this to my frequent observations of the invisibility of some of our nameless home helpers.
If we want our world to be a better place, then we must teach our children to respect those who serve us. If we need to import people to run our services because Singaporeans are refusing to take on these jobs, is it because we as paying customers have become too difficult to serve?
Respect, like charity, begins at home.