Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Speech at the Launch of the English Edition of Chasing Rainbows on 16 July 2015

16 July 2015


Mdm Choo Lian Liang, 
Ms Sim Ann, 
Ladies and gentlemen, 

I am delighted to be here to launch the English edition of Chasing Rainbows.  The original book 《追虹》 was written by Lian Liang.  I have known Lian Liang for 30 years – she interviewed me on TV, she produced programmes for me, she gave me tactful advice when I didn’t quite gave the answers in the right ways.  I knew her as a veteran in the Singapore television industry and an accomplished writer.  Later, I got to know her daughter, Sim Ann, who was in the Civil Service, and persuaded Sim Ann to leave the Civil Service for government.  But I did not know Lian Liang’s personal background, or family story.  

In 2010, Lian Liang gave me a copy of her book 《追虹》. I read it from cover to cover.  It’s a fascinating story about her family history, about the struggles of her forebears; four generations – great-grandfather, grandfather, her mother and herself.  I referred to it in my National Day Rally 2010 when I spoke about the contributions of immigrants to Singapore.  I am sure many other Singaporean families will have similar stories, but I am not sure how many will have stories which are as dramatic, as comprehensively researched, and as beautifully presented as Lian Liang’s.  

It is a four-generation story with many twists and turns, beginning with Lian Liang’s great-grandfather from Chaozhou in China.  For those of you who speak dialects, that’s Teochew.  He failed an Imperial examination, left his village and family, and set sail for Singapore to find work.  But in Singapore he didn’t find work, he went to Pengerang in Johor, and found work there as an odd-job labourer.  Through hard work, he saved, bought land, started a business and brought his wife and younger son to join him.  That younger son was Lian Liang’s grandfather, who became a successful, rich businessman, plantation owner and a village leader.  He had a daughter, who was Lian Liang’s mother.  Lian Liang’s mother was bent on getting educated, a rare privilege for girls at that time.  She came to Singapore on the pretext of seeing a doctor at a clinic at Middle Road, just downstairs from here, and against her father’s wishes, she got herself enrolled in school, first in Kajang in Selangor, and later in Nan Hua Girls’ School in Singapore.  

In Singapore, Lian Liang’s mother met and married her father, who had been a teacher at Chinese High School, and was then working in a newspaper – Nan Chiau Jit Poh (南侨日报), whose premises were at Cross Street.  The family lived in two shophouses along Middle Road, just down here.  The father, Chu Chi Chok, was also a political activist, as were many idealistic young, passionate, Chinese educated men at the time.  Their home was therefore, frequented by left-wing, pro-communist intellectuals engaged in the anti-colonialism struggle, like my home.  One of her father’s students was Fong Chong Pik – “The Plen”, who was later his co-worker at Nan Chiau Jit Poh.  And as the book would reveal, Lian Liang believes that the Plen must have recalled meeting her when she was a toddler at 74, Middle Road.  Later, Lian Liang’s father was detained by the British during a crackdown on Nan Chiau Jit Poh employees for left-wing activities, and he volunteered to be repatriated to China with his family, including Lian Liang.  He went back to China but unfortunately and ironically, he was accused of being a rightist and fell afoul of the regime just before the Great Leap Forward.  He was sentenced to hard labour, sent to the desolate wilderness of Heilongjiang, near the Russian border, and died there in the labour camp.  Her mother then with great resourcefulness and determination, escaped to Hong Kong, and managed by the skin of her teeth to get Lian Liang and her brother out to Hong Kong, and later back to Singapore.  As for how she did it, I will not tell you anymore, so as not to spoil your pleasure in reading the book.  But in Singapore, Lian Liang grew up, became educated, found a career, became a television producer, and that is when I met her.  And today, in the next generation, the family has done well, and there are many successful brothers, sisters and cousins in the next generation.  

Lian Liang’s story is a micro-example of how Singapore came to be.  It is a story of one Singapore family, tracing its roots back to China, with one person setting off in search of a better life, but it’s a tangled root tale – not just roots and branches but it comes back, interlaces; you are not sure, it breaks free, finally it blossoms.  It is set against the wider backdrop of a tumultuous period – a period where there was immigration from China to Singapore in the 19th century; the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation a dangerous time even for civilians, and time of great privation and hardship.  The post-war period – the anti-colonial struggle and the fight between the Communists and the non-Communists; China’s Great Leap Forward – great upheavals under heaven, upsetting and turning upside down many lives.  But ultimately culminating in Singapore, after many twists and turns.
With such a gripping story, it is no wonder that the Chinese edition of the book quickly sold out.  So I am happy that the book is now translated into English by Sim Ann, who has inherited her mother’s skill with words, not just in Mandarin but also in English!  I think I chose the right chairman for the bilingual translation committee (National Translation Committee).  I am also happy that we are launching the book at the National Library, not far from Middle Road.  In fact on Middle Road, near many of the places where this history and story played out.  It is also a place where Singaporeans study, research and document their own personal stories of their families and their histories, so that future generations can read about them and learn about the lives which they led.  I hope many more Singaporeans will read it in English, especially younger Singaporeans.  May it inspire them to find out more about their own family histories and how the earlier generations slogged and built Singapore to what it is today, because knowing what our parents and grandparents went through puts our own lives in perspective.  

Young people I meet today sometimes tell me they are anxious about their future.  I find this worrying, because if we look at Singapore today, we are at a much higher level than before, we have so much more than what our parents and our grandparents had.  We have more resources, are better educated, and we have many more opportunities to achieve something special not just for ourselves, but for Singapore.  We should aim high and with confidence.

As Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said “The sky has turned brighter. There is a glorious rainbow that beckons those with the spirit of adventure.  And there are rich findings at the end of that rainbow.  To the young and the not too old, I say, look at the horizon, find that rainbow, go ride it.”.  Mr Lee Kuan Yew was not so young when he said those words, but he chased the rainbow all his life.  Lian Liang’s book shows how earlier generations chased that rainbow, and found that pot of gold in many cases.  Not without hard work, but they lived their lives well, and left something lasting and valuable for their children, for their country, for their future.  So I hope young people who worry about their future, who are sometimes beset by angst, who are anxious that life has become harder, take heart, chase that rainbow!  Be inspired by this book, do well, and do us all proud.  Warmest congratulations to mother and daughter, and actually to the whole of the new generation, who should be chasing rainbows.