Earlier this month, on May 14, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew addressed the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong. He told the audience what he had said to Deng Xiaoping when Deng visited Singapore in 1978.
Deng had congratulated my father on the progress Singapore had achieved. My father replied: 'We are the descendants of the landless peasants of the southern provinces. You have the zhuangyuan (the top candidates in the imperial examinations), the literati, artists, the cultured and the talented. Whatever we have done, China can also do - and do better.'
Deng did not reply. When he returned to China, he established special economic zones. In 1992, when he visited Shenzhen, he declared: 'We should learn from the world, especially Singapore, and do better than them.'
I disagree with my father that the huaqiao (overseas Chinese) are inferior to the intellectuals of China. He has long believed that those from Jiangsu region are descendents of the top mandarins who were sent to rule over or retire in this well-endowed region. Jiangsu is often called 'the home of fish and padi' because the land is fertile and the fish, abundant.
My father thinks that the genes for intellectual ability multiplied in this region. I doubt the theory because men who are good at passing examinations based on memorising Confucian classics do not usually select their wives and concubines according to their intellectual abilities, but rather their beauty.
The genes for academic intelligence are thus soon diluted. Furthermore, most of the mandarins and their families would not have faced adverse and dangerous situations, the acid test for courage and resilience.
Resilience in psychology refers to the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and catastrophes. It also includes the ability to bounce back to normal after a setback. Commonly used synonyms for resilience include 'hardiness', 'resourcefulness' and 'mental toughness'.
What the ancestors of the huaqiao might perhaps have lacked in academic ability - or more accurately, the opportunity to receive an education in the Chinese classics - they more than made up with their courage and resilience.
It took courage and a sense of adventure for our ancestors to make the dangerous journey to Nanyang (the South Seas or South-east Asia). The journey was extremely uncomfortable.
If an epidemic broke out on board the ship, many would die. Those who made it to Singapore were quarantined on St John's Island the duration of their quarantine, depending on the diseases they were suspected of carrying.
Thus the early immigrants from China to South-east Asia were selected for courage, resilience and physical fitness; plus an ability to survive despite the difficult circumstances.
All this must have involved some degree of intelligence, though that intelligence may not have resembled classical academic intelligence as measured by standardised tests.
My paternal great-great-grandfather travelled from his ancestral Hakka village of Dapu to Xiamen, from where he set sail to Singapore in a tongkang. A small sailing boat with two square sails, a tongkang is not very seaworthy in a storm.
After arriving in Singapore, great-great-grandpa worked for a shopkeeper and later married the shopkeeper's daughter, also a Hakka. Eventually, he earned enough to return to Dapu and buy himself a minor mandarinate (class 8).
His wife, however, had never been to China and had no desire to leave Singapore. So she hid her children, and her husband returned to China alone.
To our wise great-great-grandma, my family owes our good fortune. None of my nuclear family has any desire to visit our ancestral village of Dapu.
The Chinese immigrants who arrived in Singapore after 1920 came in steamships, which were faster and safer than tongkangs.
The newcomers were called sinkek, which means 'new guests' in Hokkien. Upon arrival in Singapore, their village associations would provide them with temporary lodging and other bare essentials.
My paternal grandmother considered the sinkek inferior Chinese compared to the Peranakan (which means 'children of the country' in Malay). When I spoke to my father in preparation for this article, I understood why she felt that way.
The Peranakan, in her view, were the descendants of the earlier, tougher immigrants who travelled to South-east Asia at a time when sea migration was an extremely hazardous affair.
All four of my grandparents were descendants of the earlier waves of immigrants. The customs, food and the language of the Peranakan - also known as Nonyas or Babas - was influenced to some extent by Malay culture.
Those who migrated later, the sinkek, faced fewer hazards, but life was not a piece of cake for them either. Those who survived and thrived under such conditions must have been resilient individuals.
Hence, I do not think the Chinese in South-east Asia are inferior to Chinese in China, including the descendents of intellectuals in Jiangsu.
My ancestors may not have passed imperial examinations. Indeed, all the womenfolk among my ancestors were not schooled. But their children, my uncles and aunts, have done well in life, as have their grandchildren.
Personally, if I had to choose between pure intelligence and resilience, I would choose the latter.
I myself am resilient but not outstandingly intelligent, and I am hopeless at art of any kind.
My father risked his life to join forces with the communists to eject our colonial masters - and then fought the communists. He and my mother knew how ruthless the communists would have been if he had lost.
Indeed, some of the wives whose husbands joined my father in the fight for independence were very cold towards my parents. But when the PAP came into power and Singapore flourished, these wives became friendly again.
That China will overtake Singapore some day is a given. With a population of 1.3 billion versus Singapore's 5 million, it is but a matter of time. As I have no children, I do not worry too much about this eventuality.
But for the sake of my brothers' children and those of my friends, I can only hope that Singapore will be successful in attracting foreign talent and that these foreigners will make Singapore their home and add to our resilience.
Source: The Sunday Times dated May 30, 2010