The Sept. 4 issue of the Straits Times ran an excerpt of an interview with Prime Minister Lee Hsien loong, entitled 'Running the endless marathon'. When asked what Singapore sees in its future, PM Lee replied:
"There is no end in sight. We have a saying - 'the endless marathon'. In ten years, we hope to see a different Singapore, We hope it will be a Singapore possessed of greater culture, with a transformed economy and a new generation of political leaders who understand the wants, needs and habits of a new generation of voters."
The truth is, I respect Prime Minister Lee greatly, and believe that as a whole, the comment quoted above is on the right track. Though I may disagree with the proposed pace of political reform that would lead to such a future, I m sensible enough to understand that too much change, at too fast a pace, carries with it a risk of political instability that Singapore simply cannot countenance. One need only look northward to Malaysia to see the effects that political instability can bring about in many areas, including race relations.
In a broader, more semantic way, however, PM Lee's choice of the metaphor 'endless marathon' left me feeling... grim. as a writer, I have a healthy respect for the power of metaphor, and that particular one is powerful indeed.
I don't wish to take PM Lee's remark out of context -- he was clearly referring to the challenges that Singapore's government faces when he referred to an 'endless marathon'. As the government goes, however, so goes the nation, and a nation is composed of flesh and blood individuals. If Singapore as a political entity is committed to the idea of an endless marathon, then Singaporeans as individuals will be affected by it, and expected to operate under it as well -- where they run to reach a goal that will be forever out of reach, and consequently have embarked on an unwinable race that will consume the entirety of their lives. A chilling thought.
Perhaps I am misinterpreting PM Lee's analogy. Likely so. He's down in the arena, and I'm up here in the cheap seats. The history of the marathon is thus: Pheidippides, a professional runner, carried the news to Athens of the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. On arrival, Pheidippides shouted, "Rejoice, we conquer!" and then keeled over of exhaustion.
Perhaps PM Lee views Singapore's endless marathon in that light; as the government will never see the day where they can shout 'rejoice, we conquer!' and then take a breather (or keel over) due to the endless nature of governance, then it can never allow itself to fail, to rest, to stop. And as government is an abstraction, without lungs to burst or a heart to fail, or legs to give out, he would be right. But surely government should have a wider aim, beyond gazing into the murky medium-term future, beyond picking the path fraught with the fewest perceivable perils. For without a clearly understood, deeply cherished destination, there is as much (or as little) reason to stand still as there is to keep running.
Human hearts do give out eventually, for reasons emotional as well as physical. An endless government should always recognize the frailty of those it serves, who, each and every one, have very definite ends in store for them. And for all the material wealth Singapore's government has brought to its people, there are considerable portions of the population who long to be able to say 'Rejoice, we conquer!' in areas far removed from the purchase of a car or a condo. In areas such as the dignity and inclusion for foreign workers and domestic helpers; in areas such as legal equality for homosexuals; in areas such as draconically Darwinian education and the chronically poor.
Some were not fashioned to run a single step, much less an endless marathon, but everyone should have the opportunity to rejoice, in their own fashion.