Being The Panda’s Daughter

By Lee Wei Ling, 28 Feb 2010, the Sunday Times

Recently, I have been asked to give talks, or just to meet and greet certain “VIPs”, more often than before. This is probably due to the fact that I began writing regularly for this newspaper in 2008. I have no doubt that when my name is heard, it is almost immediately followed by the thought, “she is LKY’s daughter”. I suspect many readers first read me because they were curious about LKY’s daughter, how she thought and felt, especially since some perceived me as anti-establishment.

I am Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter and I am proud of him. That does not mean I need to agree with every decision the Cabinet makes.But I am not anti-establishment either. On the contrary, I would like the establishment to make decisions that are correct for Singapore. When it makes a decision that I think is unwise, I try to give feedback and hopefully persuade the authorities to reconsider their position. Why else would I, a neurologist, agree to be part of the roster  for the Think-Tank column in The Straits Times or write in this space roughly every fortnight? I hope that by now people read me because they find what I write interesting and educational.

As for my family, I am aware that I am perceived by outsiders  including some members of my extended family – to be at the bottom of the totem pole among my nuclear family, including both my sisters-in-law. This does not upset me. We all have our own roles in society. I chose a role that is relatively low profile, but which gives me satisfaction since I am able to help and comfort my patients. The psychological rewards of being a doctor are almost immediate versus the longer timeframes for a public policy or business decision to bear fruit. But perceptions, whether accurate or not, do affect how people react to me. Many people think I have a “godfather”. But as my staff at the National Neuroscience Institute know, events last year proved that my family connections do not give me special protection.

Others may believe that I am powerful and have special privileges. But I am influential only if I, like any other writer, can persuade Singaporeans to a particular point of view. As for special privileges, what are they? Well, I can use the Istana grounds, as I have since my childhood. But it has been a while since I used the Istana grounds to jog or exercise, though I do take friends there for a walk once or twice a year. But perceptions, as I said, do matter. I know many people do not treat me the way they would treat others. I try to put them at ease by treating them as equals. In discussions, some who do not know me well may defer to me though I actually prefer robust debate. I cannot know everything, and most certainly cannot be right on every occasion.

“Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story,” the Desiderata urges us. I have a strong egalitarian streak, so I naturally would listen to the “dull and ignorant”. Just this past week, a friend of mine sent me a report from The Economist of a study of OECD countries: “One of the reasons people try to get ahead is to boost their children’s chances in life. And indeed the children of the well-off and well-educated earn more and learn more than their less fortunate peers. …My friend commented: “Whether you believe in nature or nurture, most apples do not fall too far from the tree. We (in Singapore) provide everyone with equal opportunities – in fact, more help is given to those from the lower end — but we cannot expect equal outcomes.”

I replied: “Yes, we all have different weaknesses and strengths. We are all also fellow travellers in transit in this present time and country. Here and now is the only certainty you and I know. That applies as much to Singapore’s billionaires as it does to the cleaning lady in my office. “The ideal that Singaporeans should strive for is a society where all are treated equally. Being treated equally does not mean being paid the same. But in our personal interactions with one another, unless we know or strongly suspect the other person is a bad person, we should try to treat everyone with the same degree of consideration. I use the word ‘consideration’ rather than ‘courtesy’ because I find ‘courtesy’ a somewhat phoney thing. I may or may not do good or harm, but I can still treat you courteously.”

In the fourth century, a great Chinese writer Tao Yuan Ming – who unlike most Chinese scholars, wanted no official position and preferred the seclusion of a life  was forced to take up a minor official position because he could not feed his family by farming. Less than than 80 days after he took up his position, a higher ranking official visited him. Warned to b courteous to the . higher official or he would get into trouble, Tao declared: “I will not bow for five bushes of padi.” Perhaps five bushels of padi was his annual remuneration. My close circle of friends understand when I say: “I won’t bow for 5 kilograms of gold.” It means I will not waver from my principles no matter what the cost.

A humorous aspect of being “LKY’s daughter” is that not infrequently, various people ask to meet me though they have nothing specific to discuss with me.  My mother used to say wryly of such people:  “If they cannot see the Panda, the Panda’s daughter may be an acceptable substitute.” Perhaps wanting to meet the Panda’s daughter is a reflection of the awe with which many view my father. That is a compliment to him, not a merit I won myself. Regardless of how perceive the “Panda’s daughter, I will continue to do what is right and just, until I’m physically unable to do so anymore.