~ By Kumaran Pillai ~
In an exclusive interview with TOC, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha lets his hair down and speaks candidly about himself, his outlook, his beliefs and he has a message to his supporters and well-wishers. He was grinning ear to ear especially while answering questions 2 & 3. And he looked serious and uncompromising when he talked about the issues and the message he wanted to convey to his supporters. He spoke about the communitarian versus the individual model and how sometimes the individual alone cannot cope with the stresses in life and hence would need the support of the state. He said that fiscal prudence was necessary but should not be at the expense of thousands of people being disenfranchised and left behind to fend for themselves.
His model of economics and social justice resonates well with what most modern thinkers believe, to implement policies that are fiscally conservative yet socially liberal. He speaks of citizens as stakeholders as opposed to thinking of them as economic digits. He sees people, young and old, male or female, the educated and the less fortunate as assets and needless to say, he has very good people skills and an infectious smile.
But, these are things that we already know about him. So I asked him questions that were rather inquisitive and personal. However, he said he will share his personal journey face to face with anyone who comes by his office. Below are some of his answers and the values he upholds. I have a feeling that I have not asked him all the questions yet. At least for now, that’ll be my excuse for another story another time.
An insane schedule, smiling all the time and being recognized - so, how has life been since May 2011?
It's gratifying to be recognized for what I do and for what I represent. My main experience has been with people contacting me to help them with regards to the bureaucratic brick wall they run into. They call me regarding the everyday issues and challenges that they face. It is sad to see so many people feel disenfranchised that they need a spokesperson. They need someone who can serve them with a smile and that's what been keeping me busy.
You have a PhD, you're eloquent and incredibly smart. What do you say to people who are intimidated by your presence?
After doing my PhD in 2002, I realized that, what I know is very little compared to the infinite knowledge of the world. It is very nice to be told that I am eloquent; I am not going to pretend that it is not. I like reading and I like literature. I enjoy the written word and I enjoy using it in my speech. It continues to surprise me that anybody would be intimidated by me. I like people and I like talking to people, just chatting away. So when people don't talk to me so openly, I take it that they don't want to share their personal stories with me. But, I guess I need to work on that aspect.
Do you see yourself as a charismatic, motivational or an organizational leader?
This is a trick question. I have always been inspired by charismatic speakers and I suppose it also goes back to my love for writing and language. It's always a pleasure to hear someone speak so well and at times I try to emulate them. I do a lot of social work by profession and I need to do a lot of motivational speeches in the course of my work. I need to talk to people, guide them and kinda show them the way out of their problems. As for being an organizational leader, I am becoming a better organizer than I used to be. It all comes down to juggling time; there is so much to do and so little time to do it in. I have learnt how to work smart and learnt all the techniques of organizing a team. So I suppose I have elements of all of those three in my makeup. But, if I have to choose one, then, I would rather choose to be an organizational man cos that is what I need to do to build the party to take it forward.
You are an activist, a politician and a lecturer. Where do you find the time to chill with your friends?
The reason why I am an activist and the reason why I am a politician are because I like life. I want extend the benefits of this life to everybody, to live life, to be dignified and to enjoy it. I have not abrogated my own life for this and I still preserve my space to enjoy life. Sometimes, like what I said earlier, it comes down to time management. I take time off to refresh and renew myself, otherwise things can become stale. I sometimes meditate and try to relax so that I can remain focused.
How many books have you read and what kinda books do you read?
One reads in different ways, some for work, some for pleasure, and some for information. Sometimes you skim read, or speed read for particular information, or hone straight in on a particular topic. So it’s difficult to estimate how many books one has read.
I grew up reading books. My father has a huge bookshelf and when I was in kindergarten I used to take book down and pore over them, looking at the pictures. I remember my first history book, called The Tides of History. Essentially it was a coffee table book so lots of pictures which I would look at even before I could read the text.
Another prize possession in the home was an autographed copy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography I tried to read that even when I was very young but of course the prose proved too dense for me.
So essentially I was always reading. Difficult to count how many books I’ve read over the years but lots I suppose.
I tend to read biographies; theoretical stuff on economics and the other social sciences; social work, of course since that is my field. There’s a few novelists I like: Robertson Davies whose Canada; Iris Murdoch; Murakami. I have devoured everything that Alfian Sa’at has written: he has a genius’s take on life. I also read all the Hannibal Lecter ones by Sam Harris.
I like poetry, well, some poetry. Egveny Evtushenko is a favourite poet, he’s Russian, so read in translation; Alvin Pang; Lee Tsu Pheng is very haunting.
I have read lots of books on histories e.g. Freedom at Midnight, which is about Indian independence; books onb the great crash of 1929; The Fajar Generation and all the other Singaporean histories.
On religion; Philosophy of ethics, of being. Currently I’m reading a book on Sufism (Muslim mysticism) and the autobiography of Christopher Hitchens, the noted anti-religionist. Variety, as they say...
My cousin, who is Australian but recently posted by his company to Singapore, gave me some interesting books in the pop psychology/history genre which I am also browsing through at the moment.
You are always quoting someone or some little trivia about politics. Where do you get all that information from and how do you store this info in your head?
Well, I suppose it comes back to my interest in history, which was ignited by my father’s bookshelf. He was a historian, in fact has written a fairly wide range of history texts: so his bookshelf was filled with history. I also love language and so I remember great prose.
I am a master of useless information: little bits of historical and biographical trivia seep into my head and lodge there. It’s interesting, isn’t it, what we know about the neurological basis of knowledge acquisition and retention now shows that we grow our knowledge in networks of patterns rather than in a linear fashion. This means that one’s information, useless of otherwise, grows exactly like the branches of neural networks in the brain, propelled by electrical currents which make patterns, links and frameworks. Perhaps this explains why people suffering dementia have good long-term but poor short-term memory?
Between teaching, politics and social activism, what is your first love, and why?
I seemed to get into politics as a kind of obligation. I don’t believe politics is something one enjoys but rather a duty that one accepts because of a kind of inevitability. What our poor, our elderly, our disabled citizens experience, if fact all those who have a limited contribution to make to society, is troubling, extremely troubling. The PAP’s philosophy is a Spartan, almost brutal one that regards such people as a drain on the system, who have no right to make a claim to live with dignity. It is an appalling philosophy and one that originated in the mind of Lee Kuan Yew, although thankfully he is gradually departing the political scene. This is so despite ministers’ recent attempts to put an acceptable gloss on their utilitarian philosophy, it has filtered deep into the body politic.
In fact activism too was a kind of obligation. As a young student in the UK I took part in Anti-War marches across London, collecting signatures to stop various international excursions against tribal peoples, supporting public sector workers who were campaigning for better conditions for their clients. Back in Singapore, the work I did with TWC2 stemmed from a kind of mystified disbelief that people could treat domestic and other foreign workers in the way they did.
Today I am concentrating principally on my teaching and political work. Teaching was something I stumbled into. My father, my aunt and myself, all teachers, at one stage said we would never be teachers and all ended up in teaching. I enjoy teaching, I like facilitating a class to pursue its own learning, and I like doing the research that supports learning.
But they are none of them my ‘first’ love, as it were. There is a marked attraction in the monastic life, the Himalayan meditation life – and I love reading and writing - so I suspect were I to settle down to such an existence, I might be tempted to say that would be my first love.
You have a huge fan base, what is your message to them?
I think if there are people who resonate with what I say, it’s because I have managed to articulate what lot of us, a whole generation if fact, have been feeling for some years now, the sense of alienation, the sense of a lack of control over the future, and a lack of cultural stimulus. Also, a deep-seated outrage at the kind of values the government has inculcated in our community which are so anti-humane.
So to speak of a fan base may be stretching it but I think people may identify with what I say because we feel it together.
My message to them and to all of Singapore is to aim for a far higher standard of human existence rather than one that is directed solely at material gains, important though they are.
And to persevere even though change appears to take so long. Change is a slow process but it is utterly inevitable. And there is a kind of inevitability about the struggle too: as the American intellectual, Noam Chomsky said: If you do not work for change, then you guarantee it will never come, but if you do, at least you allow for the possibility that it might.
This is my last question, what is your key value proposition to skeptics?
Believe in the existence of worthier human attributes than those that merely seek after material and status goods. Societies are never built on the material alone, on the physical superstructure, but in the deep substratum of human existence. If we ignore that, we ignore the potential for instability in the nation. In fact history is full of examples of empires whose decline began precisely at the point where the material came to be prioritised over everything else.
It was getting very hot and sticky at the alfresco café along Bagdad Street and both of us decided to go across the road to have Nasi Padang for lunch. There were few other little things that I learnt about him. He is not fussy about what he eats but enjoys a good meal. But then again, who doesn’t?
He spoke about political marketing and strategy, about old school politics and what is no longer relevant. He said what is necessary is to extend the core values from one segment to new segments of the society. This was a very long discussion and so I’ll leave it at that and shall not dwell on it any further.
After 2 ½ hours of chatting non-stop, we were beginning to be consumed by the fear that there was no end to the topic of politics. So, I decided to return home to pen this down, while Vincent went away to a bookshop to fill his head with more trivia or to be politically correct about it, more information.
Vincent turns 42 today and from all of us at TOC, we wish him a happy birthday!
Next week, I will do a piece about Mr Eric Tan who contested in the East Coast GRC under the WP ticket. He shares with us his passion for politics, his values and his next steps.