What Don Quixote, Ganesh remind me

Source: The Sunday Times, Jan 2, 2011

We have it in us to fight injustice, achieve our dreams, no matter how dire things seem

By Lee Wei Ling

Ganesh is a Hindu deity with an elephant head. He is the patron of the arts and sciences. He is also Lord of Beginnings and the remover of obstacles. He is one of the best known and most widely worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon.

His image is found throughout India and Nepal. Various Hindu sects, regardless of affiliation, worship Ganesh. Devotion of the elephant god is widely diffused and extends even to Jains and Buddhists as well as beyond India. That is why, though Ganesh is not the most powerful god in the Hindu pantheon, his image is so pervasive. I have often seen a little figurine of him on the dashboards of cars.

I myself have a wooden carving of Ganesh that was given by the Governor of Maharashtra, an Indian state, to my father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. I took a fancy to the figure and it has been on my office table for the past three years.

In May 2008, I took it to show my mother who had been hospitalised for a bleed into the brain. As I had to rush off to see patients, I simply showed the statue to her and said: ‘Ganesh is supposed to remove obstacles that impede my missions.’

‘Poor Ganesh,’ my mother remarked wryly.

The nurses were changing shifts then, so there was quite a crowd around my mother. They must have looked puzzled, so my sister- in-law Ho Ching, who was visiting my mother then, explained: ‘Ganesh does not know what Wei Ling has planned for him.’

The statue of Ganesh is still on my office table. But he has not favoured me with assistance. Perhaps Ganesh knows I am an atheist and so do not deserve his help.

Just before Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a tiny figurine of Don Quixote which he had bought during a holiday in Spain. It was a figure of a scrawny old man with a lance in one hand, and a shield and a sword in the other.

The gift was accompanied with a note: ‘This unusual person, quintessentially Spanish. The novel Don Quixote De La Mancha is of course full of this person, whose futile fight for the dying ideals of a bygone golden age is nevertheless noble, honourable but ultimately hopeless.’

My father had given me an English translation of the novel. It is 6cm thick. In the introduction, I found the following statement: ‘W.H. Auden found in Don Quixote a portrait of a Christian saint, as opposed to Hamlet, who ‘lacks faith in God and himself’.’

In the next paragraph, Edith Grossman, who had translated the novel from Spanish to English, wrote: ‘Don Quixote says that his quest is to destroy injustice.’

I have often joked with friends about myself tilting at windmills, as Don Quixote did, as an analogy of trying to right wrongs in situations where success seems unlikely. But I am no Christian, and certainly am no saint. Nevertheless, I choose Don Quixote as my symbolic self because of his humble appearance and his passion for justice.

I replied to the friend who had given me the figurine of Don Quixote: ‘Even if he knew it was hopeless, he kept on trying to put it right. That is an admirable trait.’

That is why the signature song in the musical Man Of La Mancha, The Impossible Dream, is my favourite song. We all have our impossible dreams. How many of us really try with total determination and tenacity to bring it to fruition?

Did the group of men who transformed Singapore from a Third World into a First World country think their dream was impossible? The rest of the world certainly did. They themselves had moments of doubt but they kept on trying and they persuaded Singaporeans to strive for a better, meritocratic, multicultural, multi-religious Singapore. They certainly persuaded my generation that it could be done.

If they had not done so, the Singapore of today would not be the envy of many countries in the world, and the lives of Singaporeans would not be so pleasant that a recent survey found us to be among the happiest people in the world.

I like the passion in the song The Impossible Dream: ‘To dream the impossible dream/ To fight the unbeatable foe/ To bear with unbearable sorrow/ To run where the brave dare not go/ To right the unrightable wrong/ …/ This is my quest/ To follow that star/ No matter how hopeless/ No matter how far./ To fight for the right/ Without question or pause…’

The figurine of Don Quixote will stay on my table at home. He looks too frail to serve as a warning to anyone who has a meeting with me in my office. But he will remind me to fight on as long as I am convinced I am doing the right thing.

I am neither religious nor superstitious. These two figurines – of Ganesh and the Man of La Mancha – serve only as symbolic reminders to me to do what is right, and to continue trying even when there are obstacles.

‘Poor Ganesh’ may not have been as effective as I had hoped he would be because most people who meet me in my office do not know his significance. But it is enough that I know – and that together with Don Quixote, he is there to remind me to ‘Still strive with my last ounce of courage/ To reach the unreachable star’.

The ‘remover of obstacles’ is really oneself. Ganesh can be within each one of us, as can Don Quixote.