Letter from America: Singapore International Foundation, and Medford Book Club: A Reprise
By David Fedo
Early in October, I was unexpectedly invited to serve, in Washington DC, as one of seven panellists on the broad topic of "What's Next, Singapore?" This "dialogue", as it was called, was sponsored by the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), and was to be similar to dialogues held earlier in Bandung, Indonesia, and Kuala Lumpur; a fourth event is scheduled for November in London.
The catalyst for these programmes is the publication this year of SIF's Singapore: Insights from the Inside, Volume Two, a book of essays by 50 current and former expatriates, edited by Richard Hartung. I had edited an earlier Volume One, with 31 writers, published just before I departed from Singapore in 2012, after five years as an expatriate living and working in the country.
Travelling to Washington, the capital of the United States, is always a treat, whatever the occasion. With its many classically-themed buildings and historic monuments, not to mention the great museums, restaurants, parks and green spaces, the city is one of the most attractive urban centres in the world. It is also a walkable city which, given its choked vehicular traffic, is a very good thing.
The Singapore programme was scheduled in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill – the chamber in which it was held was reputed to be the very place where, in the early 1970s, the famous/notorious Watergate hearings were conducted, and which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Lots of old ghosts were swirling about in that room!
SIF asserts that its goal is to "build enduring relationships between Singaporeans and world communities, harnessing these friendships to enrich lives and effect positive change." This claim seems to be justified. The focus of these wide-ranging activities, initiatives and services has been on projects involving healthcare, education, the environment, arts and culture, and livelihood and business.
In his opening remarks, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, the SIF Chairman, elaborated on this theme in relation to the Singapore-US partnership. He referred to a number of programmes, including Singapore Internationale, where "artists and arts groups from Singapore presented their works in various cities across the US and embarked on collaborations with their counterparts." Little By Little is another arts and cultural exchange while, according to Ambassador Ong, in a programme of a different kind, the SIF partnered with the Rotary Club of the State of Rhode Island to provide 17,000 needy Cambodians with access to clean drinking water.
Over the years, the SIF can point to numerous additional exchanges, fellowships and educational programmes that have improved and enhanced the lives of both non-Singaporeans (in the US and elsewhere) and Singaporeans alike. "We are committed," said Ambassador Ong, "to taking our good relations forward with the American community, as we consider 'What's Next, Singapore?' for the next 50 years."
That feeling of goodwill prevailed that night in Washington. Jennifer Lewis, an SIF Governor, served as the panel's knowledgeable moderator and queried its members, who included Hartung, the aforementioned editor of Insights; Matthew Herrmann, SIF's first representative in Washington; Elizabeth Weise, of the USA Today newspaper; and Christian Hogan, Managing Editor of New America.
The dialogue among the panel and members of the audience, although lively, produced no real surprises. Issues involving housing and Singapore's diverse population came to the fore. One concern that emerged was that of foreign workers who are perceived by some Singaporeans to be taking jobs that native Singaporeans believe are rightfully theirs. The panellists believed that the government is trying to find a balance between the challenge of maintaining a pool of talented and skilled employees, wherever they may be found, and insuring that employment at all levels is available to eligible Singaporeans. Education practices in Singapore were referenced. Not surprisingly, a commitment to transparency by the new government was deemed to be essential.
With so much discord and turbulence in today's world leading to tragic results, the goal of the SIF – to bring about bilateral understanding and respect from nation to nation and people to people – is more important, and even more necessary, than ever. Let us applaud it when it happens.
In QLRS's issue of October 2014, I wrote about the syllabus of my Medford Book Club readings that year. (Medford, a suburb just north of Boston, is a city that traces its founding back to 1630; it's where I live.) The focus was on books written by authors associated with Boston (Henry James' novel The Bostonians, and Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express, as two examples), and books that had some specific connection with Boston (The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, as two other examples).
This year I have chosen to focus on two great 20th century American novelists: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom arrived on the literary scene in the 1920s, a period which is often called the Golden Age of the American Novel.
Fitzgerald's reputation, since his death in 1940, has risen significantly over the years. The Great Gatsby (1925), by far his finest book, is now acclaimed as a classic; many call it one of the best novels ever written by an American. Its narrative of the derailed dreams of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, conveyed in exquisite prose, is a riveting tale of betrayal and loss. (Leonardo DiCaprio played Gatsby in the most recent overhyped movie of the novel.) Tender is the Night, the next best of Fitzgerald's novels, is good, but doesn't come close to Gatsby.
Hemingway, most of whose papers, manuscripts and hunting trophies are housed in Boston's John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, lived longer and produced more novels. In my view, his first, The Sun Also Rises (1926), is the best; it's a moving account of American expatriates in France and Spain. But A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), both war novels, are well regarded too.
As I wrote last October, it is heartening to see adults willing to forgo the television sitcoms and actually read books – and then be willing to leave their houses, condos and apartments and make their way to a library to discuss them. This is amazing in a country where, according to America's National Endowment for the Humanities, only 55 per cent of its adult population actually read a book for pleasure in any given year. (No wonder Donald Trump has become a serious candidate for the Presidency.)
At my first Book Club meeting this month, there were participants, young and old, from a variety of backgrounds. Not surprisingly, all were women – women vastly outnumber men as readers in the US. As was true last year, the members seemed willing to engage in dialogue with each other, but were also willing to listen. Other than giving the context for (and background to) each book, and asking some questions, I try to say as little as possible. Which I believe is, like walking in Washington DC, a good thing.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 4 Oct 2015