The Aftermath of MP Lee Bee Wah’s “Si Gui Kia” Story

 Still #notmyAhGong & a Nation Wounded

Love her or loathe her there’s no denying MP Lee Bee Wah provokes a reaction. The mere mention of her name rolls eyes and scrunches faces, eliciting feelings from disdain to disgust. Her recent exploits in Parliament have unleashed wrath and ridicule worth a hundred Facebook shares, a #notmyAhGong hashtag and even a video to boot.

At post-budget 2019, the MP-turned-trilingual storyteller-turned thespian, showed off her acting chops when she narrated the give and take relationship between ingrate Ah Seng (citizen) and grandfather Ah Kong (government). After ending her “Si Gui Kia” (ingrate in Hokkien) story, Lee slipped into the character of Ah Kong, looked right at speaker Tan Chuan-Jin with pain and anguish in her eyes and said, “Mr Speaker, my residents do understand we have a very good government – very carefully and cautiously manages our finances so that we can have budget and finance surpluses, and Pioneer and Merdeka Generation Packages.”

Singaporeans were not amused.  Insinuations that Singaporeans are ingrates had netizens like playwright Otto Fong write on FB: “Lee Bee Wah has taken the paternalistic tone of LKY and our previous colonial masters to new heights. Madam Lee, you are not my grandmother. PAP is not my father not my mother. Don’t pretend you cared for us as our grandparents and parents had – you are not worthy. You don’t get to scold us, you ungrateful, undeserving ‘public servant’.” Even state-media The Straits Times weighed in to remind Lee that paternalism is a dangerously complacent attitude for those in power.

Lee Bee Wah is not new to controversy. She is best remembered as the president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) but also for her unpopular endorsement and “purchase” of China-born players and Olympic medals. Singaporeans remained unmoved as murmurs of sell-out and traitor dampened the table tennis team’s win at the Olympics. Yet when she announced her decision to step down from STTA, she broke down in full view of reporters and sporting officials, as Singaporeans continued to remain unmoved.

Just what drives Lee to provoke such reactions and what does it say about us on the receiving end? A 2018 The Straits Times’ interview provides a clue.

“Si Bui Gia” story is not directed at the ungrateful Singaporean but her grateful self. However, she doesn’t know it.”

A Road Well Travelled

Lee is the first born of eight children who grew up in a Johor rubber plantation with no power and water. Her family later moved to Melaka town for her secondary and pre-university education. But here’s the snag—her father and the entire village idolised Lee Kuan Yew, which prompted him to send her daughter to Singapore for her tertiary education with just RM30 in her wallet. In spectacular fashion, she eventually found her way to the hallowed halls of Singapore’s Parliament working for the man her family and people worship, and the rest is history.

I have never met Lee, but I know gratitude when I see it. I suspect Lee’s “Si Bui Gia” story is not directed at the ungrateful Singaporean but her grateful self. However, she doesn’t know it. On a subconscious level, she is reminding herself how grateful and loyal she is to her employer. On a conscious level and as MP in parliament, this gratitude morphs into national pride but with a paternal subtext that screams—”We have a very good government and you should be grateful for it.”

So where did Lee go wrong? How did virtues like gratitude and loyalty get the veteran MP of 13 years on the receiving end of social media vitriol and ridicule?

“In one fell swoop, “Si Gui Kia” has flung open the gates of hell, belittling our life journeys and values”

Gratitude Misdirected

As a counsellor I sometimes guide my clients to a place of gratitude which helps them focus on the present to reduce anxiety, but this gratitude is never cajoled, influenced or god forbid, imposed onto them. It must come out of their own volition and timing. However, gratitude can also morph into unwavering loyalty/national pride and develop into behaviour that borders on feeling beholden to the benefactor. Whichever path gratitude takes you, it is deeply personal and derived from YOUR own journeys, and YOUR lived experiences, which develop into YOUR belief system for YOUR application.

I believe Lee’s “crime” lies less in her crass delivery than her audacious imposition of her story of gratitude and loyalty onto the rest of Singapore. It is in this imposition done in the most disparaging manner as a MP that Lee has failed to recognise and respect the different journeys, lived experiences and belief systems of others outside her own.

“Are our lives absent of aspirations, gratitude, sacrifice and hard work just because they don’t lead to positions of power and influence?”

A Nation Wounded

Beneath the public fury is really an outpouring of hurt, rejection and betrayal felt against a paternalistic government at its worst, widening the divide between government and people, and the haves and have nots. Singaporeans must be asking, “Do our life journeys matter less just because they don’t start without electricity in a JB rubber plantation?Are our lives absent of aspirations, gratitude, sacrifice and hard work just because they don’t lead to positions of power and influence? In one fell swoop, “Si Gui Kia” has flung open the gates of hell, belittling our life journeys and values and ignoring the day to day grind of Singaporeans competing for jobs, paying for rising healthcare costs, making ends meet and feeling like an alien in their own country? It’s not that gratitude is unimportant but struggling to make a decent living is a priority.

Perhaps Lee simply got carried away in national pride and found herself on the wrong side of the tracks over some emotional and sensitive Singaporeans? Perhaps I’m completely wrong in my take on Lee and I am emotional and sensitive?

Let’s be clear—Lee story was offensive and hurtful. In no uncertain terms must leaders recognise and respect the life journeys, struggles and values of the people they serve. In no uncertain terms must we remember our roots and remain grateful and humble, so we can relate to others from that same space of gratitude but with a big dollop of empathy.

Nonetheless I find Lee strangely endearing. She is crass but seriously true to herself. She tells ST she is friends with everyone except those from Workers’ Party, and that she doesn’t know how to wear makeup. Her HDB-auntie demeanour stacks up quite nicely next her stiff neck ex-army and scholar-tracked colleagues, and I bet she knows it. Theatrics aside Lee would do well to know the difference between show and substance.

Singaporeans are obedient and tame, and we don’t cause trouble compared to our neighbours. We certainly don’t expect our leaders to be a New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, but I just wish they would pause to ask themselves why they entered political office? I also wish they would take three deep breaths, close their eyes and for another three seconds imagine what it’s like to be on the other side—and then speak.