Eternally Learning, Listening, Reading, Understanding, Trusting…
Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
A break from routine consisting of half work and half holiday gave me the opportunity to collect some more titles, read a few of them and have some very enriching interactions with like-minded friends. One of them, an ophthalmologist who is also a keen reader,
presented me with a little treasure, Ernst Gombrich’s Brève Histoire du Monde which was written in a matter of weeks and, since its first publication in 1936, has sold millions and is still as popular today as when it first came on the market. Its main appeal lies in the story-like approach which gives it a flow and a coherence which make for delightful, user-friendly reading, and I am almost done, a little more informed about how we came to be where we are today. My friend himself is reading the same author’s History of Art, apparently a classic on the subject.
I got a chance to finish The Cure by Geeta Anand, a former Wall Street journalist who gives a palpitating account of a man’s quest to raise nearly $100 million for research into a rare disease in order to save the lives of two of his children suffering from that condition. Continuing on medical themes, I picked up The Clay Pedestal by Mark Preston, which purports to be ‘A re-examination of the doctor-patient relationship,’ published in 1981 when the author was Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington.
That relationship, which must remain the pillar on which the whole practice of medicine rests, was already then undergoing undue and inappropriate stress for a variety of reasons. Ongoing developments in the field of coronary surgery provided a trigger for the author to engage in an objective reflection on this important aspect of medical practice. There is every reason now to continue revisiting it regularly being given the pace of change brought about by – amongst other things — newer knowledge and technologies, and their impact on perceptions and expectations on either side of the equation.
I was fortunate also to add to my collection a book about adaptation in nature, Helmut Tributsch’s How Life Learned to Live, which reminded me of d’Arcy Thompson’s opus on Growth and Form: why do living things and physical phenomena take the form they do? Thompson’s classic looks at the way things grow and the shapes they take. Analyzing biological processes in their mathematical and physical aspects, this historic work, first published in 1917, also became renowned for the sheer poetry of its descriptions by a great scientist sensitive to the fascinations and beauty of the natural world. A few decades ago I was able to hold it in my hands at the Mauritius Institute Library, spurned by my biology teacher Noel Asarapin at the Royal College Curepipe. Books that make one realize how much of beauty there is out there, if only we opened our eyes to the wonders of the creation and kept our minds equally open to all sources of pure knowledge. I do not know if Thompson’s volume would still be around.
Because only this morning we got to talking about the Carnegie Library in Curepipe, reminiscing about the leather-bound books that used to fill its shelves and which have vanished forever. There were treasures by such famous names as Thomas Huxley, in one of whose books there was an extract by Charles Darwin of his passage in our island, which must have been around 1835 as he was completing his journey of about three years aboard The Beagle, the outcome of which was an elaboration of the Theory of Evolution. This is today considered to be central to biological thinking and is even more relevant in our understanding of ourselves in the light of the strong and divisive prejudices that are being nurtured by religion, putting at risk mankind’s future.
This is where Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great comes in. Having gone through some of his articles before, I am looking forward to his examination of ‘How Religion Poisons Everything,’ instead of being a force for man’s good, as we are indeed witnessing in endemic fashion around the globe. I could also not resist putting in the basket a copy of the 200th Anniversary Edition of Common Sense, Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings by Thomas Paine whose ‘daring prose paved the way for the Declaration of (America’s) Independence’ from Great Britain, as the blurb on the back cover asserts. And we are reminded that, these days and especially down below here, we have to literally look with a magnifying lens for similar prose – and are unable to find it.
But the prize for me during this interlude from daily grind was the arrival of a copy, ordered from Amazon, of From Third World to First – The Singapore Story: 1965 – 2000, written by no less than the very person who was the central character of that story, Lee Kuan Yew. Being given that during the past two decades or so we have been saying that we want Mauritius to become the Singapore of the Indian Ocean, I thought that this first-hand account by the internationally respected leader of such a tiny country but great nation could contain some gems of lessons of relevance to our own future. And my first foray into that attractive hardcover edition has confirmed my anticipation.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I am saying is to quote some extracts from what I have come across so far, so that we get the flavour of the book and insights into the vision and character of the persona in the words of Lee Kuan Yew himself. It may be noted that the italics in these quotations are added.
He begins by saying the he wrote the book ‘for a younger generation of Singaporeans who took stability, growth and prosperity for granted’ but that he ‘wanted them to know how difficult it was for a small country of 640 sq km with no natural resources to survive.’ He reminded them that ‘public order, personal security, economic and social progress, and prosperity are not the natural order of things, that they depend on ceaseless effort and attention from an honest and effective government that the people must elect.’
But he is careful to point out that his book is not a prescription, a ‘how-to’ book. Rather, it is ‘an account of the problems my colleagues and I faced, and how we set about solving them.’ It is for us to draw any lessons, and adapt them for application in our context as appropriate. This was the line adopted by Lee Kuan Yew himself: ‘So I made a practice of finding out who else had met the problem we faced, how they had tackled it, and how successful they had been.’
But it wasn’t about a blind transposition of models that had been used elsewhere, as he underlines, ‘what guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was, would it work?’ adding that ‘if it did not work, or the results were poor, I did not waste more time or resources on it.’ He is humble enough to accept that he could make mistakes, but ‘…never made the same mistake twice, and I tried to learn from mistakes others had made.’
The theme of learning runs constantly, ‘as apprentices in the exercise of power… we never stopped learning because the situation kept on changing and we had to adjust our own policies.’ He acknowledges that ‘I had the advantage of several ministers who read widely,’ and he encouraged a mutual exchange, for ‘We passed interesting books and articles we had read to each other.’ Humility and reality surface again, when he notes that ‘When we started, we were innocent and ignorant but we were saved by being careful to probe and test ideas before we implemented them.’
For me this is one of the most valuable lessons that the book contains, because too often, in our hurry to get things done, we plunge in blindfolded as it were, causing harm in so doing. And the higher we are placed in the polity, the more damage that is done because in the natural order of things decisions made at that level of national functioning have a larger impact, affecting many more lives, and also the country at large, than decisions taken at lower levels.
That’s why it is important to remember that we do not know everything, and must consult wisely: meaning the right people, ‘capable men of integrity.’ And again, ‘I sought out able men and placed them in positions of authority to ‘administer an honest and efficient system’ in order to fulfil the ‘burning desire to change an unfair and unjust society for the better.’
Lee Kuan Yew praises his core team which was ‘outstanding,’ willingly acknowledging that ‘they were all older than I was, and were never inhibited from telling me what they thought, especially when I was wrong.’ And why did he welcome such a state of affairs? Because ‘they helped me to stay objective and balanced, and saved me from any risk of megalomania which could so easily come with long years in office.’
Perhaps that is why he ‘always tried to be correct, not politically correct.’ If he has ‘one formula for success,’ he says, ‘it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better.’ He ends his epilogue by reminding that ‘we stand a better chance of not failing if we abide by the basic principles that have helped us progress: social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all, and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job, especially as leaders in government.’ It is also our dream.
As we are still a work in progress, one day, perhaps, there may be a Mauritian story, correct but not necessarily politically correct, to tell. We will then have arrived, who knows…