What if Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew had swapped place?

By Dr Lai Kok Fung

About a year ago, on a crisp spring morning, I strolled into a square with four bronze statues in Cape Town’s V&W Waterfront. I had seen these statues in passing before, but since I was on a leisurely walk in search of breakfast, I decided to investigate a little more this time. I soon realized that these are statues of four men who were part of a proud moment in South Africa history. They were all recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for their achievements. Respectively, they were Albert Luthuli (1961), Desmond Tutu (1984), F.W. de Klerk (1993) and Nelson Mandela (1993).

Luthuli, a president of the African National Congress from 1952 until his death in 1967, was less known outside South Africa. The other three gentlemen need no further introduction. Collectively, they brought down a system of government that was faulty and inhumane, and created the Rainbow Nation.

As I stood in admiration on how this nation with so much past sufferings has been blessed with so many great men, a strange thought crossed my mind: What if Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew had swapped place in history? What if it was Nelson Mandela who negotiated the merger with Malaysia, and Lee Kuan Yew who ruled post-apartheid South Africa? I quickly concluded that this would have been disastrous. The specific circumstances at that point of history required and had produced leaders of certain character and temperament for the respective countries.

The thoughts, however, lingered in my mind for a long time. A few weeks later, I was suddenly overcome by a ludicrous idea to turn this into a fiction. Slowly, a story began to take shape: a subservient engineer on a SQ flight to South Africa wakes up to find that these two men have swapped place, and must summon all his courage to save his family in this new alternate reality. I titled the story “Harry Mandela”.

Substantial part of the story was written on iPad during my frequent air trips: in airport lounges, during flights, in hotel rooms. Since then I returned to South Africa a few more times on business. During this period, Nelson Mandela was hospitalized and finally departed.

Unlike growing a start-up, writing is largely a solitary exercise. I need not worry about raising capital, recruiting, motivating people and responding to competitions. Most importantly, there are no external and market circumstances beyond my control. The critical resource is my brain, where the story is conceived and executed.

I decided to write the story in Chinese, a language I have more intimate mastery. I realize that this may limit the readership, but do hope that better writer(s) can help to translate the story into English.

In the process of writing, I sought opinions from many friends. Besides the professional advice on the craft of story telling, I am also frequently asked: will I get into trouble by writing this story? My well-meaning friends are familiar with the history of defamation suits in this country and have shown genuine concerns.

I shrugged off these concerns and decide to go ahead and publish the story. Perhaps, as I immersed myself in the struggles of the main character of the story, his choice has had a profound impact on me. After all, the story was written in the first-person narrative.

You can read the story here: 哈利曼德拉 (http://sgoutsider.blogspot.sg/2014/09/blog-post.html)


About the Author

Dr Lai Kok Fung is currently CEO of BuzzCity (http://www.buzzcity.com), a Singapore-based multinational company specialized in mobile advertising. He is also adjunct professor in the school of computing at the National University of Singapore. His writings on innovation are collected in a blog titled Innovation (http://sginnovate.blogspot.com).