The Reluctant Propagandist

And so I learned, early in my life, to be guarded about nepotism, and how I always had to work extra hard to be fairer than fair to everyone.

Very early in life, I learned that my maternal grandfather was someone ‘special’, and I, by proxy, would always be treated with ‘special’ care.

Take this little episode when I was about seven.

Finishing first in class in kindergarten, I got to receive a prize from the principal, who also happened to be my grandpa.

He was known affectionately to all of us little ones as Teochew Gong (Teochew grandfather), to distinguish him from my paternal granddad, the Hokkien Gong (Hokkien grandfather).

Some jealous parents dismissed my little achievement, questioning if I was truly smart, and if my good results had to do with my grandpa and the fact that the kindergarten was located just doors away from my grandparents’ house.

And so I learned, early in my life, to be guarded about nepotism, and how I always had to work extra hard to be fairer than fair to everyone.

Otherwise known as Mr Tan Lim Kwee, my grandpa was one of the first Singaporeans to be awarded the BBM or Public Service Star, a big deal back in the 1970s.

Born in Jieyang, China, he came to Singapore with my grandmother around 1938, and held different jobs – from oyster omelette hawker to restaurant chef and building contractor.

He was affectionately known as Lao Tan Chek – old Uncle Tan in Teochew.

But to most of us he was the respected community leader, the PAP loyalist, the peacemaker, the BBM honoree, the patriot, and the kampung chief.

He was the man who organised the countless National Day celebrations in our Geylang village and gave welcome speeches at community functions, the guest of honour at all kinds of grand openings, and the wise man whom feuding neighbours turned to for solutions.

Word had it that in the early days of post-independence Singapore, my grandpa rolled up his sleeves and lobbied residents from Geylang Lorong 23 to Lorong 29 to support the Men in White.

There was also a legend that his influence stretched all the way to Pulau Ubin, where he had helped the islanders settle some major disputes.

My Teochew Gong, who died at 95 in 2004, did not speak or write a word of English, struggled with Mandarin and spoke a funny version of Teochew-accented Malay.

But his language handicap did not stop him from performing his duties as the representative of the common people and they went to him because they trusted him to speak up for them.

For a humble man who went around all his life on a simple bicycle, there was much he could be proud of, and he was certainly a man ahead of his time, even when it came to the sensitive issue of race relations.

In Geylang, his immediate neighbour for decades was a large Indian family headed by a matriarch called Cheti. They were about the only minority family in a Chinese village.

Cheti was a feisty woman I feared out of ignorance. But I know my grandparents were very close to her family, and I remember her dearly to this day for treating my family members as if we were her own.

And growing up with such a high-achieving grandpa inevitably translated into family pressure to do what was right – and support the right side of politics.

It probably meant that even my late father, who harboured occasional left-leaning sentiments, dared not voice too publicly his true political beliefs.

All things considered, if my Teochew Gong was still alive today, he should be very proud of me, his direct descendant who has definitely inherited most of his political beliefs and loyalty.

While I have been openly vocal about certain government policies, I have also thrown my weight behind the ruling party, defending them and telling the whole world that I am a proud Singaporean.

My close friends believe I am a closet People’s Action Party member and one buddy even asked recently if my active participation in pro-Government projects means I will soon be getting my own BBM.

Cliched as it sounds, I would like to clarify that I am pro-Singapore and not pro-PAP, but to some people, there is no difference.

And I wonder often if my Teochew Gong himself knew the difference.

I am inclined to believe that he didn’t know, and he also didn’t care, because as far as he was concerned, he just wanted to help people.

And since I too don’t know for sure, I am quick to tell anyone who bothers asking that I am, really, just The Reluctant Propagandist.


This essay first appeared in the 2011 National Day Supplement of The Straits Times.