Taking notes 66: When the political is personal and the personal is political


by Sanjay Perera

For those who are unaware of the drama in Singapore please see: “What Has Happened To Lee Kuan Yew’s Values?”

Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) was familiar with literature and so his reference to Shelley and derelict reminders of past grandeur (read: “Ozymandias”) regarding the home he wanted demolished. But the social media imbroglio between his children, over honouring the wishes in his last will and testament contra attempts to gazette it as a heritage site/monument, conflates family squabbles and politics.

However, it is the literary aspect of this fracas that should be noted as it has lessons for all.

There are points of interest in an influential story by Edgar Allan Poe: “The purloined letter”. It is a remarkable tale of ratiocination that bears repeated readings over time. Due to its complexity only some aspects of it will be examined.

Basically, Poe’s tale of deduction has political and intensely personal dimensions. A personal letter in a royal personage’s boudoir is stolen by a Minister of the state and he casually places another one in its place. The indiscreet letter he acquires would anger her husband and the Minister realises it could allow him to gain control of the lady; its disclosure could have an impact on affairs of state. For several months he uses the power over the lady to wield considerable political influence “to a very dangerous extent”.

A reward is discreetly offered for its return and the Prefect of police would like to get hold of the letter for reasons beyond a sense of duty. A thorough police search is made of the Minister’s apartment when he is out.

Amateur detective Dupin decides to try and solve the mystery of where the letter is hidden in the Minister’s home. So he visits the Minister whom he knows to acquire a lay of the land and see if there are any clues as to where the letter could be secreted.

He spots what he believes to be the letter. It is kept in the open for all to see but is disguised in the form of another document. It is hidden in plain sight and is hard to notice by those looking for it in the usual or most obscure hiding places in its original form.

Dupin makes another visit to the Minister and has ingeniously arranged for distractions to take place. His timing goes well and the distractions (such as sounds of a gunshot and a mob shouting) occur causing the Minister to look out of his window. In that moment, Dupin switches a fake letter for the actual one which he in turn steals from the Minister.

The Minister is unaware of the switch and Dupin leaves without any difficulty (he is aware that if he is found out he may not make it out of the apartment).

The Prefect of police sees Dupin a month later and says the reward for the letter has doubled. Dupin asks for a cheque of 50,000 francs as a reward from the Prefect and says he can give him the letter which the Prefect can then return to the lady and receive the even bigger rewards awaiting him. Dupin gets the money, the Prefect the letter, the lady her letter, the Prefect (probably) his reward, but what about the Minister?

[Credit: eNotes.]

In a masterly twist, Poe tells us what Dupin writes in the fake letter he substituted at the Minister’s. He writes in French this: “If such a sinister design isn’t worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes” (quoted from a play by Crébillon, Atreus and Thyeste).

The classical reference is to Greek mythology regarding an internecine struggle between two brothers which has disastrous consequences for all. But why does Dupin write this? We discover that the Minister had done him a bad turn before and Dupin awaited his chance to pay him back.

Dupin hopes the Minister will know that it is he who did the switch if he can link the words in the substituted letter to the context of a past event. What becomes of the Minister? He doesn’t know he possesses an ersatz tool of influence and when he tries to assert himself next in the power game, may discover he has overplayed his hand; this could lead to his downfall.

Dupin’s motive is not so much mercenary as personal: he wants revenge for a wrong done to him and uses the political setting and players to score his personal victory. In that sense, no one in the tale goes unscathed and the moral ambiguity of the narrative is what makes it so effective.

(The entire story is narrated by someone else who is not central to the action but shapes how we perceive it).

A key feature of Poe’s story becomes a trademark in much fiction to come particularly at the turn of the twentieth century—the unstable narrator.

[Credit: kevinnecessary.]

The saga unfolding before us today consists of many narratives that appear in the form of Facebook posts, emails revealed, citations from documents, notes, remarks picked up by the media, statements by some who were involved in drafting different versions of LKY’s will and comments by public figures.

Finally, this may all come down to a fight in the courts. But it will not end there.

Yet this is a variation of stories of yore: it fits into an archetypal narrative from myths and tales which show the strength and reliability of fiction as a social benchmark that can embed ineluctable tropes in the consciousness as it points out truths about human beings and what serious readers/writers in our time have come to accept as the problematic nature of all narratives.

What does all this mean for Singapore? LKY made self-reliance a principal feature of public policy. There was nothing sentimental about him in the public eye. Yet others have become sentimental about his house. But no one waxes sentimentally about self-reliance as it is meant to be accepted stoically.

The underpinning schizophrenic tendency of capitalist societies in general and Singapore in particular comes to the fore in this controversy.

LKY is also on record stating concerns over costs that would be incurred in maintaining a house that is quite old and has unreliable piling; he also said other homes could not be built high around his and wanted other properties to be able to do so when his place was torn down which should lead to the value of the area going up.

He was ever the realist. Moreover, LKY and his generation of leaders were particular about not wasting funds on questionable public projects.

Different views will abound about trying to gazette a home that was not meant to be gazetted. A person’s bedroom and bathroom are not always meant for the public gaze nor political capital to be made from it, but that cannot be avoided when the state decides that it is somehow a good thing.

This is particularly so in an age of pornographic scrutiny by the (social) media of everything one says or does and when scatological entertainment evermore keeps people glued to their screens. Even a disgraceful attack on LKY after his demise made reference to a sexual act by a misguided youth which led to his fleeing the country after court action.[1] Notwithstanding, some argued that it was ‘freedom of expression’ and that there is no reason why such depictions should be frowned upon.

Is privacy then something that can be respected in public life or is it up to a government to decide that? And can family fights remain private when public monies and instruments come into play to determine what should be kept and made open to the public? As public figures battle in court over private matters are there no public implications nor political fallout as a result? Where does self-interest end and the public interest begin on the matter of going against LKY’s will? Who determines that and how is it determined? In fact, can it ever be determined?

[Credit: partiallyexaminedlife.]

One thing is clear: by the time of the next elections the electorate will be asking what has been done for them and what fair and equal opportunities have been given them. When you are struggling to make ends meet, nostalgia well placed or otherwise, may not help.

LKY was ever the pragmatist and so are many of the citizens of the state he helped build. What the government has done since the last election will determine how ballots are cast in the next one.

Expenditure in maintaining a house for a man who preferred his country’s survival, stability and success to self-aggrandisement or paying inanimate (read: house) lip service to his public service may not be the best strategy to win votes.

Some are aware of this and so there is a suggestion that surfaced recently to keep the house’s basement dining room which hosted meetings of historical interest (implying removal of the superstructure) and have a heritage centre to go with it.

One option for those intent on gazetting the place is to have a park there without preserving the basement either: but that may be too much for those who cannot let go of physical reminders of the past. And this may yet miss the point of what objections against such ideas focus on.

As LKY stated repeatedly: a successful Singapore is a legacy worth preserving; but symbolising the struggle for Singapore’s political and national survival by a basement hideout no matter how useful these things can be in times of crises may not be the answer. That suggestion alone shows how the Freudian core in the country’s psyche plays itself out every time a social or political nerve is touched.

[Ozymandias, credit: darkqueencometokrynn.]

The rationalisations given as to what private matter constitutes the public interest and what different parties claim is the actual state of affairs will always be open to interpretation. There is no overall fixed and determining linear narrative that can absorb the different versions of the truth and accusatory statements that have been made openly and which also operate quite pointedly at a subtextual level. A close reading of the words and allegations bandied reveal much more than legal contention.

Despite people inevitably taking sides on the matter, surely Singapore is much more than these disagreements. The collective aspirations of its people and its preservation go beyond the Who’s Who of Singapore and their supporters. The country also includes those who don’t care for social media and don’t trust the mainstream media and have no one in particular to speak for them.

A Singapore that works and does right by its people and is a positive example to the world is what the country should be. And for that to be fully realised and for it to move forward unfettered—the task of cutting away symbolic umbilical cords to patriarchal figures of the state is required. Stories may indeed be told about this one day. And it is not the powers that be or other self-interested parties who will determine those narratives.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.–Hamlet, III. ii., Shakespeare

End note:
[1] The youth was charged for offending religious sensitivities in a series of offensive remarks not for his attack on LKY.
[Note: Philosophers for Change is still in hiatus and may have only a few remaining essays to publish this year. This piece first appeared here: When the political is personal and the personal is political. Lead picture credit: stackexchange.]
The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.

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