7 hits that tell the story of S Rajaratnam

Posted: 22 Feb 2017, 1000 hours (GMT +8)

Andrea Pang

Who would have thought that marrying hip-hop with political history would enable the story of one of America's lesser-known founding fathers to be shared with packed theatres of musical goers, captivating thousands of people? Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton brought Alexander Hamilton out of dust-covered history books and onto the Broadway stage. This is a guy who wrote his way out of circumstances from the get-go...it doesn't get more hip-hop than that", explained Miranda.

Singapore too, had a powerful wordsmith and leader in S Rajaratnam, who passed away on 22 February 2006. Whether it was in his capacity as a young student, Singapore's first Minister for Culture or our first and longest-serving Minister for Foreign Affairs, Rajaratnam wrote significant pieces such as internationally acclaimed short stories, feisty newspaper articles, pivotal speeches, and our monumental national pledge!

What if we too experimented with today's popular songs to tell Rajaratnam's story? Taylor Swift, anyone?

1. The Visionary – Up&Up by Coldplay



First in the mix is Coldplay's Up&Up, which features the band performing amid clouds in a song about envisioning a better world, and never giving up on turning that dream into a reality.

Up&Up captures Rajaratnam's role as the visionary and "ideas man" amongst our pioneer leaders. As he told guests at Lee Kuan Yew's 60th birthday celebration in 1983, he was never put in charge of Singapore's finances "because that is not one of the things I do best – and that, believe me, is an understatement". What excited him, and what he did have a flair for, was formulating ideas to guide Singapore's development that were way ahead of his time. He did not casually come up with these ideas, of course. They stemmed from his personal experiences and the vast knowledge he built up immersing himself in books on history, politics, sociology, philosophy, literature and more. He even amassed a personal collection of about 3,000 books over the years!

Some had doubts about Rajaratnam's forward-looking ideas. However, he wasn't afraid to put forth and pursue them. The only direction he believed Singapore could and would go was up and up.

S Rajaratnam working in his office in the 1950s. (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

2. The Multiculturalism Advocate – If I Ain't Got You by Alicia Keys



Alicia Key's If I Ain't Got You expresses the fervour with which Rajaratnam pursued the idea of multiculturalism. And "Baby" is that brainchild of Rajaratnam and his team – a Singapore based on multiculturalism. It was something Rajaratnam was passionate about – a "Singaporean Singapore", where people of different backgrounds shared a common sense of belonging and commitment to this nation.

As the song goes, "some people think that the physical things define what's within. I've been there before, that life's a bore, so full of the superficial". Rajaratnam felt that what defined Singapore was not our small physical size or our economic wealth. It was our diverse people living in harmony. He asserted that to survive and thrive, we had to build a nation where "being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice".

While this is an accepted notion today, imagine how difficult it must have been to advocate such an ideal years ago, amidst Singapore's post-independence struggles. Still, Rajaratnam fought for a multicultural Singapore from the beginning of his political career, as Singapore's Minister for Culture from 1959 to 1965.

Minister for Culture S Rajaratnam delivering a speech at the opening of Kota Raja Community Centre on 2 June 1963. (Source/Ministry of Information and the Arts, National Archives Singapore)

The fact that he penned our national pledge centred upon the idea of Singaporeans standing united "regardless of race, language, or religion" shows his strong belief that this must be at the heart of all we do. Rajaratnam drafted the pledge in 1966, at a time where tensions between racial groups were high. There was a pressing need to unite our people, and inspire commitment to Singapore if we were to survive.

Everything means nothing, if Singapore ain't got our multiculturalism.


3. The Freedom Writer – Read All About It (Pt. III) by Emeli Sandé



In Read All About It (Pt. III), Emeli Sandé sings of how we can bring about change by raising awareness of issues in the press, because "it's ‘bout time we got some airplay of our version of events". This was exactly how Rajaratnam contributed to the fight against colonialism.

Rajaratnam had the gift of articulating his ideas with wit and clarity. His drafting of the pledge is one good example. He could put into words what many only thought and felt. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that words were almost always his weapon of choice in the fight for causes he championed.

He developed a strong anti-colonial stance when he lived in London from 1937 to 1947, and as a "sheltered Malayan village boy", was exposed to London's vibrant political scene. He had left for London to pursue his studies in law, but when the war interrupted financial support from home, Rajaratnam turned to writing and journalism to support himself. He returned to Singapore in 1948.

Rajaratnam was the associate editor of the Singapore Standard when Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee approached him to support the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union's strike against the colonial government in 1952, as the government had failed to meet the union's demands for salary revisions and pensions. Rajaratnam agreed to help them, and wrote many punchy articles on the strike, attacking the colonial government for their unjust treatment of the postal workers. With Rajaratnam's help, everyone read about this injustice, and concessions were eventually made to the union.


Minister for Culture S Rajaratnam delivering a speech at Singapore National Union of Journalists' luncheon at Cathay Restaurant on 20 February 1964. (Source/National Archives Singapore)

His flair for writing was not limited to political pieces. Rajaratnam was also a gifted literary writer. He wrote many radio plays and short stories in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, one of his short stories, Drought, was included in a compilation published in New York, alongside illustrious writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby fame!


4. The Anti-Communist – No by Meghan Trainor



Meghan Trainor sings of rejecting her would-be suitors with No (#talktothehand). Rajaratnam was similarly uncompromising in opposing the communists. As he did with the colonialists, Rajaratnam frequently wrote editorials during his time as a journalist, fiercely criticising them. He was against how the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) used violence to force people into opposing the colonial government. This led to him being repeatedly threatened. As he recounted in Leaders of Singapore, "The Communists were so wild with me they set fire to my desk, twice." Still, he continued writing.

Again in the 1960s, the left-wing Barisan Socialis mounted attacks on the People's Action Party (PAP). Rajaratnam had already left his job as a journalist and was then the Minister for Culture. He continued to counter the communists through writing, this time with pamphlets that refuted every one of their false claims.

Despite the repeated threats and accusations, Rajaratnam's answer as to whether to give in to the communists was always a resounding no!


S Rajaratnam speaking at a PAP election rally in 1959, when Singapore was facing the threat of communism (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

5. The Optimist – Shake It Off by Taylor Swift



The players, haters and fakers didn't dent Tay Tay's positivity. Neither did Rajaratnam allow the ultras from across the Causeway to weaken his confidence in Singapore's ability to overcome racial tensions. In the wake of the 1964 racial riots, Lee Kuan Yew had poured out to Rajaratnam his fears of even greater tensions. Rajaratnam convinced him to shake it off, and that they would be able to peacefully rally the races together. His optimism gave the team the courage to fight on amidst attempts to sow fear and hatred in our society.

Lee Kuan Yew always admired his close comrade's optimism, and described it as "a cup of ginseng tea" that reinvigorated the pioneer leaders to face the many challenges ahead of them, which included establishing Singapore's position on the world stage.


Lee Kuan Yew meeting Minister for Culture S Rajaratnam and other officers in 1959. (Source/Challenge Online)

6. The Diplomat – Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes



An intense series of negotiations between Rajaratnam and notoriously tough rulers such as Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein at Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meetings in 1979 bring to mind the powerful rock anthem Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. The song is actually about composer Jack White's battle against the pressures of fame, but some of the lyrics, particularly the opening lines, lend themselves to describing how Rajaratnam fought off attempts by certain members of the NAM to undermine Singapore's interests.

In 1979, Rajaratnam's role as Singapore's Foreign Minister brought him to the NAM Summit and preparatory meetings in Havana, Cuba, chaired by Fidel Castro. There, Rajaratnam spoke out against members' support for the new People's Republic of Cambodia government, which was founded after Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. This was important for a small country like Singapore, as support for Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia could send the signal that such acts of external aggression were acceptable.

The pressure to cave in to the preferences and demands of other nations was huge, especially since Singapore was a small and young nation confronting much larger powers. But even the equivalent of a "seven nation army" could not hold Rajaratnam back from ensuring that Singapore's security was not compromised. His courage paid off and the Cambodian coalition government retained its seat in the United Nations, with increasing support from member countries each year.

What's more, White once revealed that if he were asked to write the theme song for a James Bond movie, the famous guitar riff in Seven Nation Army is what we would have used. We can only imagine how cool and confident Rajaratnam must have been in Havana; dressed sharply in his suit and tie, confidently leading the Singapore delegation into the "lion's den", undeterred by the mammoth task ahead of him. Move over, Bond!

This episode is but one of many instances where Rajaratnam fought to secure Singapore's interests on the diplomatic front. As Singapore's first Foreign Minister after independence, he had to gain other countries' friendship, recognition and respect for our "little red dot". He did all this with no preceding experience to fall back on. He shaped the way we carry out our diplomatic relations, and is widely acknowledged as the architect of Singapore's foreign policy.

Minister for Foreign Affairs S Rajaratnam having a talk with United States Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz in 1974. (Source/National Archives Singapore)

7. The Devoted Husband – Clarity by Zedd ft. Foxes



Lastly, Clarity by Zedd (ft. Foxes) brings us to Rajaratnam's personal life. In this progressive house number, Foxes belts lyrics that speak of chasing love relentlessly despite how it seems may seem insane at times. Some might call Rajaratnam and his wife Piroska Feher crazy for enduring the challenges that they did to stay together – from the horrors of war to strong parental opposition. But the two persevered.

In 1941, they wed amidst the aerial bombings on London in World War II. On many occasions, they were forced to hide in separate bomb shelters and did not know if they would see each other again. Two years after the war, in 1947, Rajaratnam brought Feher home to meet his parents. Initially, they did not approve of her, but the couple persisted and Rajaratnam's parents were eventually won over by Feher. The two enjoyed a blissful marriage until Feher passed away in 1989.

Minister for Culture S Rajaratnam, Singapore's Representative in the Malaysian delegation to the United Nations, was met by his wife Piroska Feher when he returned from the United States in 1963. (Source/National Archives of Singapore)

*****

There can be only one Hamilton, just like there can be only one Rajaratnam. Through these songs, we get a glimpse of the man Rajaratnam was and his contributions to Singapore. In his eulogy for Rajaratnam, Lee Kuan Yew described his long-time friend's contributions to Singapore as largely abstract, yet crucial for a young nation; they were "not in brick and mortar, or concrete and glass, but in ideas, sentiment, and spirit". Indeed, his visionary ideas have influenced generations of Singaporeans, and his courage and optimism made overcoming many obstacles in Singapore's journey possible.

Suggested reading:

  • The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S Rajaratnam by Irene Ng
  • The Voice of a Nation: S Rajaratnam by Josephine Chew and Joel Tan
  • S Rajaratnam on Singapore: From Ideas to Reality, edited by Kwa Chong Guan
  • The Short Stories and Radio Plays of S Rajaratnam, edited by Irene Ng