The mood leading up to National Day has been nothing short of subdued.
The ‘brownface’ saga where local YouTuber Preeti Nair and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, published an online rap video allegedly containing offensive content last week, has cast an ominous cloud over whatever patriotism the incessant blaring of national day songs have managed to fuel.
Amidst the furore, however, former Member of Parliament (MP) Dr Chiang Hai Ding acknowledges that racism exists, but believes that Singaporeans will “vigorously defend our multi-racial way of life”.
The 81-year-old told The IAS Gazette: “(We need to) be aware of the sensitivities of the various people of our mosaic nation so that all can live in peace and harmony.”
The multi-racial factor was one of the most important reasons why the born and raised Malayan decided to take up Singapore citizenship in 1967.
Having lived through the British colonial rule, the Japanese Occupation, and the Federation of Malaysia era, Dr Chiang, who went on to serve the nation for the next 25 years in various capacities, noted that Singapore “would practise multi-racialism and meritocracy”.
Cautioning that those who wish ill of the country will exploit differences to destroy it, the strategy is to use education, moral suasion and laws to keep them in check, he said.
The former History professor, who had previously rejected the offer twice to stand for elections and then an ambassadorship, became interested in contributing to the nation after the 1969 racial riots.
Hundreds were killed in Kuala Lumpur after the ruling Alliance government had lost its two-thirds majority in the Malaysian Parliament as well as control of the key state of Selangor in the General Election that year.
Worried that the unrest would spread to Singapore, the former MP for Ulu Pandan from 1970 to 1984 said: “I decided to stand for the by-election in 1970 because I believed that to bring about such a society, I would have to stand up and play a part.”
But this new chapter was never an easy one.
Revealing that his biggest challenge was his poor language skills, the English-educated Dr Chiang was perplexed by having to give speeches in three different languages – English, Malay and Chinese.
He described the experience as a “stomach-churning” one, despite having engaged both Chinese and Malay tutors.
“I tried to memorise my speeches in Chinese and practised at home. My efforts sent my sons, whom I sent to a Chinese-language school, rolling on the floor with laughter,” he recounted.
“I survived and I discovered that the public appreciated the fact that I was attempting to address them in, not one or two, but three languages.”
There were two occasions, however, that rooted Dr Chiang in his identity as an MP. One was during his campaigning period in 1970 while the other was when a resident came by to request for her son’s release from prison.
The former was a houseboy with little formal education. He had no resources but he wanted to help.
“He eventually found himself a job where he would fetch water from the shops opposite my branch office so that we could make coffee or tea because our office at Holland Road did not have running water then,” shared the octogenarian.
“Later, I asked if I could help in any way but he said he did not need anything. He just wanted to help in any way he could.”
The latter was a couple who were so determined and desperate to secure their son’s release from prison until the point that they joined the party.
While the father of four eventually failed to deliver the request, he was glad that the story had a happy ending.
“Years later, their son actually came with his widower-father to thank me for helping. But in actual fact, I had failed to do so.
“(But I think) that made me realise that even if don’t succeed, people do appreciate the fact that you tried to help them.”
“YOUNG PUNK” POLITICIAN
After one year of his stint as an MP, Dr Chiang was offered an additional role – the High Commissioner to Malaysia – which kickstarted his journey in the civil service.
He eventually went on to serve as ambassadors in 18 different countries within a span of 18 years after taking a break in-between to pursue the private sector.
For the greenhorn politician, the biggest challenge he has had was one with Singapore’s closest neighbours – Malaysia and Indonesia.
Describing himself as a “young punk” as compared to his predecessors who were twice his age, Dr Chiang recalled that emotions were still running high six years after Singapore’s independence.
“The leaders of the two countries – Singapore and Malaysia – were still arguing about each other publicly as if we were one country.”
When asked if he felt stressed when he had to shift from being the ambassador to the European Communities to ambassador to the Soviet Union (SU) during the Cold War era when tensions were high between USA and SU, instead, the man took it in his stride.
“It is part of a diplomat’s job to move from one place to another. You’ve just got to prepare yourself for each different country.”
While he jokingly reminds us that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country”, Dr Chiang also emphasises that a country’s foreign policies do not change from one country to another.
“For example, our country’s foreign policy was that we are non-aligned and non-communist. It is to maximise the number of our friends, and to promote good relations with all.”
His greatest wish this National Day?
“I hope to see a contingent of seniors because we form a huge chunk of the population and the number increases year by year,” said Dr Chiang, who currently serves in the People’s Action Party Seniors Group.
“We want to be included.”
Although he has marched the parade regularly in the 70s, Dr Chiang, ironically, has never watched it proper. Instead, he greeted the audience.
But when he manages to get tickets from time to time, the part that he loves watching best is the state flag flypast and the military parades.
The patriot said: “It is a spectacular show, and it brings home the point that to be an independent and sovereign nation, you have to be prepared to fight.
“The British and Japanese did not fight for us. To keep our independence and sovereignty, we must be prepared to fight.
“If you have no defence, you give a walkover. When you’re prepared to fight, people think twice about fighting with you.”