My Principles Over My Life

Source: The Sunday Times dated April 18, 2010

Call me foolhardy but I won’t fund someone’s drug habit – even if my life were at risk

By Lee Wei Ling

In June 1996, I was in Cleveland Clinic learning about the surgical treatment of severe epilepsy.

The hospital had a 25m swimming pool but it was closed on weekends. I asked around and was told that there was a decent swimming pool at a nearby YMCA in a middle-class neighbourhood.

So I set out on Saturday morning, kickboard under my arm, and waited for the bus at the bus stop. When I boarded the bus, I told the driver which YMCA I wanted to go to. He said he knew the place and would tell me when we got there.

I noticed all the other passengers on the bus were African American, but that did not surprise me. After all, the majority of the people living and working in the area around Cleveland Clinic were African American.

Eventually, the bus driver told me where I should get off. But the moment I got off, I sensed that I was in a dangerous area. I stuck out like a sore thumb as the only non-African American around, and the kickboard under my arm attracted further attention.

There was indeed a YMCA nearby. As I approached it, two African Americans with dreadlocks walked towards me. I beat a quick retreat.

Out on the main road, a young African American woman approached me and asked if I was lost. Since there was no point pretending otherwise, I admitted I was indeed lost and told her that I had been mistakenly dropped off at the wrong YMCA.

‘I will take you to the bus terminal and help you get the right bus,’ she said.

As we were walking, she asked me how much cash I had with me.

‘Fifteen dollars,’ I replied and even opened my wallet to show her.

She then told me about her drug addict husband who was in jail, and how she was having a hard time paying for milk powder and Pampers for her children.

When we arrived at the bus terminal, she demanded: ‘Give me three bucks to buy Pampers.’

I was certain the money was more likely to be spent on drugs. ‘No, I won’t,’ I told her.

‘I have a gun,’ she threatened.

‘Anyway, after giving me three bucks, you still have enough money for bus fare to get home.’

I said nothing but kept my eyes on her, ready to act if she reached for a gun. We stood there staring at each other for what seemed like five to 10 minutes. Then a bus arrived.

I jumped in, she grabbed my hand, I yanked myself free and ran to the front of the bus where the driver, an African American woman, was sitting. The potential mugger did not follow me onto the bus.

Suddenly my luck changed for the better; this bus was headed for the correct YMCA. It stopped in a suburb filled with bungalows with gardens – and very few humans in sight. And the few I saw were white.

I eventually got to the correct YMCA, swam the requisite number of laps, then took another bus to the motel where I was staying.

I was not particularly perturbed by the woman’s attempt to extort money from me to buy drugs. I found it amusing that she thought I would give in to her so easily.

The next day, a Sunday, I needed to use the swimming pool at the YMCA again. This time, I boarded the right bus and arrived at the correct YMCA.

On Monday, I told the doctors and technicians at the Cleveland Clinic what had transpired. They were all flabbergasted and said I was mad.

They said it was highly likely that the woman did indeed have a gun, and if she had drawn it to shoot, no one would have lifted a finger to help me. Most said they would not only have given her the three bucks, they would probably have offered her their entire wallet.

I did not try to explain my reasoning. I doubted if anyone would have understood my sentiments on matters of principle.

I will not fund a drug habit – be it be $3 or $1 million. There is a Chinese saying: ‘I will not bow for five bushels of padi.’ Well, I will not bow or compromise my principles even if my life were at risk.

When I returned to Singapore, everyone who heard of the incident, including members of my family, thought I was either mad or extremely foolhardy. Some told me that they purposely carried around a few hundred dollars in cash, so in the event they were confronted by a mugger, they could appease him or her and not be injured or killed.

Perhaps I was foolhardy. But I was determined not to fund the woman’s drug habit even if she did try to shoot me. I still don’t think I made a mistake.

Of course, I would not advise everyone to act as I did. In 1996, I was very fit, and I had learnt karate up to the level of first dan black belt. Would I have been as determined to stick to my principles if I thought my chances of escaping unhurt were minuscule?

I can’t be absolutely certain, but think I would have. My system of internal logic works that way. As a result, some people, including my close friends, consider me eccentric.