Wednesday, August 24, 2005

We had another 'Department sharing' at the Colbar this afternoon, before moving our party to the Ministry HQ for a formal seminar with distinguished guest, Prof T Koh, S'pore's most famous personality in our diplomatic affairs abroad. We also had another guest speaker, Dr K P Tan, but Koh was the man I had come to listen to.

As Koh spoke on our national history from the point-of-view of foreign eyes, I began drawing parallels between Singapore and Cafe Rene, the little food & beverage + "entertainment" establishment in occupied France featured in BBC's hit sit-com, 'allo 'allo.

The story of our international history revolves mostly around our one strategy that keeps us all alive and as an independent entity in this dog-eat-dog world: make friends with EVERYONE, great or small.

Cafe Rene operates and survives the German occupation in WWII in very much the same way. It opens it's doors to all and sundry and services everyone according to their needs. It is the one place where ordinary German soldiers, the maniacal Gestapo, ordinary French peasantry, the French resistance, the British Secret Service, and the Royal Air Force rub shoulders with each other every day and everyone still leaves alive and in one piece.

The harried proprietor, Rene Artois, is chiefly responsible for keeping the warring factions from tearing each other apart in his cafe, and he does this mostly by ensuring that their personal business interests stay alive every time they visit. The Germans entrust him with loot which they intend to sell for a large profit after the war; the local resistance gets him to acquire supplies and execute their mad plans against the Germans; he keeps 2 fugitive British airmen hidden in various 'secret' locations in the cafe; and the Secret Service agent helps coordinate anti-German activities in the cafe. Anyone who wants entertainment can always stuff cheese into their ears before the cafe diva delivers another badly-rendered cabaret song (paralleling the state of Singaporean entertainment culture at this time, I think); or if more intimate female companionship is preferred, there's always Yvette who comes with (no pun intended) her own flying helmet and a stick of celery.

Rene himself is under incredible stress trying to keep everybody happy while dealing at the same time with his own personal life that's falling apart at the edges. But unlike the other French peasants who get 'taken outside and shot' on a whim (both Germans forces and French resistance are equally trigger-happy) this fate is unlikely to befall him (actually it happens more than once but he finds a way to escape every time) as he proves himself useful to each faction, and he occasionally earns a small profit from his adventures as well.

Apparently, our foreign affairs department is likewise busy making friends all around the world, enticing them with trade or alliances in order to tie their fortunes with ours. As long as other countries pin their economic hopes on this "little red dot," and we do indeed make their dreams come true, that above all will be our major selling point, our key to survival.

To follow another analogy, the world is like a playground in which the players comprise both big guys and little guys. While we are busy making nice with the big boys in the playground, at the same time we're making friends with the other little 'uns so that if one of the big boys happens to turn nasty, there'll be the others who'll keep him in check, else all the little 'uns gang up with us and collectively our gang isn't as easy to pick on as if we were sitting isolated in a corner far away from everyone else. It's not easy being on everybody's side, but it's worked for us so far.

Service the rich, enrich the poor. Respect the strong, strengthen the weak. The people in the uppermost echelons of our society do this, so why can't we at the bottom follow suit?

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