The Singapore Story

Last night I finished reading the first volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography – The Singapore Story. The book had such a poignant ending that I had to just close the book and just sit for a moment to feel unburdened. After all the months of fighting that LKY and his political party endured against opposing powers, he found himself in an unenviable position – that of a leader of a country that was pushed out of a federation and left to fend for itself, and I felt for him.

Lee Kuan Yew

The Singapore Story is the first of two volumes that LKY has written about his life and political career. The first book talks about how Singapore gained independence, or rather, how it was forced into it. Strange but true. The second book, From Third World to First, talks about LKY’s efforts in turning Singapore from an isolated backwater into one of the most livable cities in Asia. It is all the most impressive because at the time it was handed independence, Singapore was a third world nation, a small weak country with no major industries and no sense of self-reliance. At the time it was dependent on its neighbouring state even for its water supply.

Although there are many inspiring lessons from his leadership, there are few particulars that I liked about the book. First, I was quite impressed by LKY’s grasp of English. It definitely helped that he was schooled in English from an early age. His higher education in England also contributed to this fondness for English. And the book showcases his impeccable English and his expansive vocabulary. I found myself grabbing the dictionary multiple times throughout the book. One only has to watch his interviews available online to see how fluently he spoke English. In fact, it was only later during his political career that he started learning other languages such as Chinese and Malay, in order to better communicate with the citizens of his country.

There are two major events that can be said to have shaped LKY’s thinking and his political philosophy. These two events affected how he designed his political career and the principles on which he built Singapore. One was his time in England where he saw the British (his country’s colonisers) in their home land. And second was the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War II. I feel it is not simply a coincidence that some of the most vivid and harrowing chapters of the book are that of LKY’s description of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. His authoritative streak in his government policies probably came from his observation of his oppressors and adoption, in parts, of their methods.

The book does get a bit dense in a few places. Singapore faced a lot of strikes in the 1950s, notably of which were the Hock Lee bus riots. Effectively, this period was also the time when LKY’s legal career took off. But I found that the author spent a lot of time describing these strikes, and how LKY helped the students and workers get their due against the establishment. Later on in the book, the author also describes in painful detail the tension and power-play between the communists parties of both Singapore and Malaysia and LKY’s own political party, the PAP.

By the time the Malaysian PM pushed him out of the Malaysian Federation, it was evident that they were quite intimidated by LKY’s popularity and his unwavering focus in bringing Malaysia together. There are lots of poignant moments in the book, especially the speech that he gives in the Malaysian Parliament and the press conference he was forced to have when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia. One can watch snippets of these events online and it gives a clear sense of the pressure and responsibility that LKY faced at that time.

Singapore today is the envy of Asia, if not the world. And although criticized for some heavy handedness in his governance, LKY has definitely achieved brilliantly what he set out to do – make Singapore into one of the best cities to live in. Although this book does not chronicle how he did that, but it sets the background of how LKY found himself in that position and what events in his life influenced his thinking to turn Singapore into the place that it is today.

If you are a fan of biographies, then you will definitely love this book. It stretches a little too much in the middle. But I urge you to stay with it. And it will help you understand one of the most important and respected world leaders of the 20th century.

Never Grow Up by Jackie Chan – Book Review

What can you say about Jackie Chan? He’s not only a great martial artist and a movie maker, but also a very good human being. You just can’t not love the man and his antics on screen. A veteran of over 200 movies with an equally impressive number of broken bones in his body, Jackie Chan has transcended language, political and cultural barriers to become one of the most recognised movie stars in the world today. In his own words, he is well known in the remote jungles of Africa as well as isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean (Vanuatu).

But I have a very strong feeling that not much would be known of the man outside the movie. One thing is well known, that he has been injured a lot, judging from the bloopers that he places at the end of his every movie. Some of this injuries have been life threatening. So it is only natural that one would be curious to understand what drives Jackie Chan to place his body under such extreme stress just in order to get that perfect stunt. This book promises to reveal that and much more.

The way to never grow up is to love what you do. I love movies. Making them keeps me young at heart. Most of the time, I forget how old I am!

Although the Chinese version of the book was released way back in 2015, it is only now that the English version is out. And just like the man and his movies, this book is a likeable memoir, honest, unflinching and entertaining. The book starts with his early years in Hong Kong, his initial schooling and his “dark decade” in the famous China Drama Academy (CDA). It was during this decade that his parents had moved to Australia leaving him at the mercy of the infamous Master Yu Jim-Yuen, who ran the CDA. According to Jackie Chan, his parents signed him off for ten years to study and stay at the boarding school. And so the foundation of the man who was to become a world famous martial artist was laid in this school. Luckily, because the school focused on drama, opera and fighting rather than the traditional academic subjects, Jackie Chan found a natural outlet towards the world of movies and acting.

The book traces his initial struggling days as a stunt extra along side other greats, notably Bruce Lee. He was an extra in the blockbuster Enter the Dragon, with a screen time of less than ten seconds. But his intensity and passion towards performing dangerous and risky stunts ensured that people kept in mind his young reckless kid who was good at combining action with comedy, leading to a whole new genre of movies.

The book describes his initial break as a lead actor and his swift rise to become a superstar, first in China and then across the world. Jackie Chan wistfully remembers his godfathers who gave him that break and a free hand in creating action sequences the way he liked them to be.

Jackie Chan also writes about his marriage and his child. This is where the pain is evident. Jackie makes it obvious that he has neglected his family for long, especially his son. From the chapters on his family, it made me feel that there is still an unspoken tension between Jackie Chan and his son. The imperfect portrait of a star who has “more dollars than sense” is kind of heart-breaking. According to the book, Jackie Chan does not know how to read and write. But then after his unbelievable success as an international movie star he hasn’t felt the need to.

…I do regret not learning to read and write or do math. When I grew up and went to America to make movies, everyone was using credit cards, but I couldn’t possibly. At the time, you had to fill out a credit card slip to pay for things, and I didn’t know how to write. Every time I signed my name, it looked different. Store clerks would compare the signature on the slip with the one on the card and didn’t believe they matched…Currently, I have an unlimited black card in my wallet and could buy a jet plane with it. It’s blank without a signature.

But I did feel that underneath the friendly nature and the ever-smiling face, there is a semi-dark egotistical human being. His extravagant shopping sprees and his seemingly childish revenges (on the sales girl who ignored him when he wasn’t well off, and his friend who swindled him of 3million dollars) are just two examples. But does that reduce me love for Jackie Chan? Not a bit. Maybe it is a cultural thing and I’m definitely not the right person to judge him for his flaws.

And what introspection of Jackie Chan would be complete without his jaw-dropping stunts, both for the audience and for him? He mentions in the book that there is probably not a single place in his body that hasn’t been wounded during the action sequences of his movies. One of the ugliest ones was his jump onto a tree in Armour of God, where effectively fractured his skull with blood gushing out of his ears and nose. Today at the age of 63, he keeps on making movies and entertaining people through his antics. But deep within, he probably knows that he has abused his body more than he should have.

My ankle joint pops out of its socket all the time, even when I’m just walking around, and I’ll have to pop it back in. My leg sometimes gets dislocated when I’m showering. For that one, I need my assistant to help me click it back in.

It is evident that through his journey, initially in the Chinese film industry and then in Hollywood, Jackie Chan has learnt a lot. It is this learning attitude that the book brings out nicely. At the end of the book the veteran Jackie Chan has two pointed appeals. One to the Chinese film industry to keep on learning from the West, and incorporating the best film making techniques into the beautiful tales from the East. The second appeal is for the national treasures of countries to be restored safely into the country of origin, helping preserve the ancient culture and dignity of those relics. Apparently, his movie Chinese Zodiac was an effort towards the same, and it did result in the return of some of such Chinese relics.

The book is peppered with classic Chinese philosophy, right from the way the Chinese prefer to raise their children, to their approaches to work and life. And it is clear that Jackie Chan does not want to be seen as the perfect movie star, husband or father, and he makes it evident that he learnt as he grew old.

I liked the memoir for its honest outlook about a flawed yet likeable human being. After all, who among us is perfect? Pick this book up to find out what lies beyond the two hours of carefully edited screen time of a movie, the pain and the passion that goes into making a Jackie Chan masterpiece.