Caught in the middle: An interview with blogger Jeraldine Phneah
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Caught in the middle: An interview with blogger Jeraldine Phneah

Two days before Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away, on March 21, Jeraldine Phneah published a post titled, “A Middle Ground Perspective on Lee Kuan Yew’s death”.

In her article, Ms Phneah, a 24-year-old lifestyle blogger, wrote that she would feel sad, “but not extremely so” about Mr Lee’s death. She explained that Mr Lee did not deserve all the credit for Singapore’s success, that Mr Lee had lived a good life for 91 years, and that he did not exactly “sacrifice a lot” for Singapore.

Although she received a number of encouraging comments, many netizens accused her of insensitivity and ungratefulness, among other things. Ms Phneah published her response here.

I interviewed her over e-mail on Friday (March 27) on her experience writing this article. Here is the full interview.

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Carlton: Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you typically blog about?

Jeraldine: Hi! My name is Jeraldine. I just turned 24 years old. Many of my readers tell me they like reading my blog because they find my topics and views unique. In Singapore, most young ladies would rather write about beauty and fashion. I write about things which I find are important to me such as personal growth; success in school/work; current affairs; socio-environmental issues; relationships with others and travel. (Blog)

Carlton: You’ve received quite a bit of criticism for a post that you published on March 21, two days before Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away. It was titled, “A Middle Ground Perspective on Lee Kuan Yew’s death”. Can you briefly share with us what that was all about?

Jeraldine: The article is basically sharing with my readers that while I liked Lee Kuan Yew and respect him for many of his strengths and contributions to Singapore i.e. garden city, low corruption rate, we should also take note that:

  • Some of his contributions have been exaggerated;
  • He would probably prefer to die peacefully and quickly than have his suffering prolonged (given what he said previously);
  • He might not have done everything for solely altruistic reasons as they could have benefited him politically or personally as well. I see prime minister as an ideal career and passion for him – something he is good at; something he likes (he has served in every government – British, Japanese and when SG was independent) and something that pays well.

Carlton: What made you want to write the article?

Jeraldine: I saw people from two extreme ends writing about Lee Kuan Yew. The first group hated Lee Kuan Yew immensely, rejoiced in his death and hurled many personal attacks at him. The second simply idolized him and exaggerated all his contributions. So, I just wanted to contribute to public discourse as someone in the middle ground – someone who respected him but do not admire him to the extent which others do.

Carlton: One of the things you pointed out in the article was that “Lee Kuan Yew is given too much credit for SG success”. Do you think that Singaporeans don’t know enough about, or don’t sufficiently appreciate, Singapore’s other founding fathers?

Jeraldine: Yes of course. In my primary and secondary education, I rarely came across the contributions of the other founding fathers in PAP old guard or even Albert Winsemius. A lot of content was dedicated to Lee Kuan Yew, PAP (as a whole) and how wonderful they were.

Carlton: You’ve clearly taken the entire matter quite seriously and even wrote a lengthy response to the comments on your blog. I think most bloggers would have just shrugged off the criticisms. Why do you think it’s so important to review Mr Lee’s legacy objectively?

Jeraldine: I think it is important for people to hear from different perspectives and find out more information. Most of us growing up thinking that all is perfect in Singapore and with Lee Kuan Yew due to the one-sided narrative perpetuated by our history textbooks (which only featured good things about LKY and very little about his team) and state-controlled press (we are ranked 150 out of 183 countries). After LKY’s death, they continue to rely on the local newspapers to shape their perspectives about his legacy.

Like many young Singaporeans, my knowledge of Lee Kuan Yew was previously only formed by books written by him; history textbooks and local newspapers. I didn’t bother questioning authority and just accepted one narrative as absolute truth.

However, three factors helped change me and broaden my mind:

  1. With the rise of social media, I was being exposed to more perspectives and information about this.
  2. I entered university and took a Minor in Public Policy & Global Affairs. My interaction with many political science scholars and academics helped me see things from a different perspective.
  3. My international experience also played an important role. I lived and work in both Switzerland and Hong Kong. My experience in these places made me question and debunk assumptions told to me by my educators and the media.

You see, I don’t know if things like stifling of civil rights, press freedom and violation of human rights are all necessary for economic growth. Clearly, both Switzerland and Hong Kong lack natural resources yet they can do as well as us economically even with freedom of assembly, freedom of speech etc. You know my critics have responded telling me strange things like, “Why don’t you migrate to another country if you are so unhappy with Singapore?” (UM like how is that even relevant to what I wrote) or “Why don’t you compare Singapore to our Southeast Asian neighbors?” Since Singapore is a developed country I find that it will be more relevant for us to compare ourselves to other Asian Tigers or rich nations around the world. That will help us to continually improve the way we are doing things here.

Carlton: At the same time, you’ve received quite a lot of encouraging comments as well. Do you think Singaporeans will be ready to assess Mr Lee’s legacy rationally in a few days or a few weeks time?

Jeraldine: I guess it is really up to the individual. Do they want to continue relying on school textbooks and mainstream media to shape their perspectives and control how they think or feel? Are they willing and able to open their mind to new narratives and question fundamental assumptions and attitudes which have been ingrained in them since [they were] young?

Ultimately, I hope that Singapore can become a country where people are tolerant of diverging views (which of course don’t descend into personal attacks, spreading of falsehood) and where people learn to consider, respect and debate multiple perspectives.

Then again, not everyone wants the truth. They just want constant reassurance that what they believe in is the truth

Jeraldine blogs here.