Saturday, October 20, 2007

What Do We Believe In

( Part I) Superstition or Common Sense

I was brought up in an environment which mixed up religious beliefs, superstitions, and common sense. It was not until I studied science that I learned to put more emphasis on facts based on scientific data to form my reasoned judgment on what to believe in. As I progressed I had not only to deal with spiritual feelings but I also had to handle emotional matters involving facts, opinions, statistics and fantasies in the name of creativity in my public life. I believe these are some of the stages many also go through in their lives.

Although I did not stay with my Mother until I was 13 years old, my mother’s beliefs and reactions have very great influence over my early life. My Parents molded my early life, character, values and philosophy. This affected many of the things I did. Some of Mother’s beliefs became my motivating and inspiring factors which made me do what I did. Some of her other beliefs became my fears. These inhibited many activities which I would have loved to do but did not do. Do not under estimate the influence your parents have on you.

After I studied science my new found knowledge changed some of my thinking. I no longer accepted, without question, what I considered as my Mother’s superstitions or “Grandmothers’ tales”. Some of these clashes were quite serious and required very careful handling to avoid serious arguments and explosions with my Mother and those who think like her. I notice many people, even today, are affected by these beliefs, superstitions and facts which we cannot ignore and ridicule in order to have peace in our society, with ourselves and others, espcecially our neighbours.

If my descendents are to know me better they must know how my early upbringing has affected my life and the struggle I had to go through to cause change. Sometimes these changes came with the exertion of great effort and at a great cost. Fortunately there were positive aspects to some of these beliefs which are sometimes classified as “family upbringing” and “Confucius teachings”. Where these are concerned there could be no arguments. Whatever my parents and elders said goes.

I will divide my articles here into three groups: (a). the positive ones; (b). the negative ones and (c). the in-betweens. I will start off with how these beliefs (a) and (b) presented themselves and the episodes that they created which made me what I am. Episodes in category (c) will be given in installments in the latter articles that follow.

(a) The Positive Beliefs

Our family was not wealthy and I know what poverty and sufferings mean from experience in my younger days. To break out of this vicious circle we have not only to work hard but also to pray for some miracles to take place. We needed these divine blessings which we believe will come upon us by doing good deeds to others. My parents taught us that good deeds go round and come back to you when you least expect it.

There is a Chinese saying that :

"Good deeds will be repaid with Good deeds,
And Evil with Evil.
If the deed seems not to have been paid
The time has not yet come.”

For this we must keep on trying to do good deeds. Some western culture also believes in this. Many also do good deeds and actively participate in charitable and social work helping others. We must also be always grateful to the many who have done us good and let us help others in return.

Surviving the Japanese Occupation and Thereafter.

Although my parents were not wealthy, they were very active in charitable activities throughout their lives. They continued to share with others the little we have even during the Japanese occupation. My parents had a large family to support but they even adopted a poor girl into our family. As young children we did not understand why my parents did what they did then. Looking back we were blessed in other ways. We survived the War and its terrible aftermath. We were able to accept the hardships that came with it. We were taught to be thankful for all the kind deeds others did for us. They are the good that comes back to us for some good we must have done. We do not have much but we never thought that we will be what we are today.

We therefore believe that doing good and helping others does pay in its own ways. We are concerned that this practice appears to be fast disappearing in our materialistic society of today where people consider rewards and returns first before service to others. Let us continue to do something about this important value of our culture. Let us not forget this in our pursuit for “success”. This is a good practice which we inherited from our ancestors.

Miracles can happen because of Fate?

Some people belief that if something is fated, it will take place irrespective of what happened in between. I believe that “God helps those who help themselves”. Even though it may be fated if we do not help ourselves enough through hard work certain things will not happened even though it may be fated.

Some examples of this belief.

1. I was born a sickly child. Either one of us would be sick when my Mother and I were together. If I was to survive I would have to be adopted “spiritually” by my late uncle. This happened and my Mother and I survived. Superstition, fate or did we really avoided the inevitable by following the priest’s advice?.

2. A Tibetan monk predicted that if I survived I would become “somebody” one day. That could only happen if I worked hard. This made me want to work hard and I did. If I did not work hard I would not be what I am today. All the hard work I did and the rewards I received can be the result of the returns from the good my parents have put in for me. My wife and I will continue to help others as our way of life even if no big deals come to us, no big evil will either. It is difficult to relate one event to another but we know the relations exist and that is good enough for us to continue to be helpful to others. I never worked for many of the achievements and bouquets given to me. I never expected any of them. This must be Providence’s way of acknowledging what we have done.

Superstitions & Negative Beliefs.

I believe what I am going to say here is still being practiced by many, especially the senior citizens, as part of our culture, tradition or religious beliefs. My Mother was a strong follower of Buddhism. She did not like to slaughter life animals for food and ate only vegetarian food at least twice a month. My father abstained from beef. My Mother released pigeons during certain religious festivals and we do not eat birds. In the family the meat we ate came from fish, pork and poultry. Only the chicken and the ducks had to be slaughtered and this was done by the maid. During the war years I had to do the slaughtering of poultry too. Psychologically could this be the cause of my frequent illness during the war time? Or was it due to malnutrition, overwork physically and lack of medical care and medicine or all? This question was never asked because there were no means to prove one way or the other. The fact was I was real sick and my Mother was not really comfortable either. Our Mind can play a lot of tricks on us if we do not know how to control it. I have learned to control my mind in various ways since.

Other events that add on to these superstitious beliefs include the following incidents or coincidences.

1. My second brother died when he was two years old. Apparently he was bitten by our pet tortoises. He developed a fever from which he never recovered. The 4 tortoises were sent to the Ayer Item Temple in Penang. My Mother vowed not to eat tortoises after that.

Later my grandfather was down with cancer and he had to drink turtle soup. My Mother had to be the one to boil the soup over a kerosene burner. The kerosene burner exploded and three persons caught fire, my Mother, my cousin and my brother. All three were admitted to the hospital with severe burns. My cousin died within two days. My grandfather died two days later while my Mother and brother were still in hospital. Fortunately they recovered. This was a terrible experience which is hard to forget especially the scene at that time of the fire and the screaming. This event left a very big impression on us all, especially my Mother. What really happened? Different people gave different interpretations but we cannot escape from the superstitious belief that a vow had been broken. Turtles and tortoises are related and my Mother should not have cooked the turtle soup herself.

2. When I was a forensic chemist I had to help in the scientific investigations. These included matching blood of the victims or suspects with those found on the exhibits submitted by the police. I had to take blood samples from some “accused murderers” who had stabbed their victims to death with knives. At one time I could not understand why some of these “cold blooded murderers” shivered and trembled when I pricked their fingers with just a tiny needle when they could use a knife to stab another man to death. I expected murderers to be tough guys. I was wrong. Some were not murderers with intention.

These cases usually happened during important Chinese festivals, especially during the Chinese New Year period. Most of these people were from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates where they live very close together. Many wanted peace and quiet by themselves when they sent their “gods” away for the New Year or welcome them back after the year has begun. Any misunderstanding, however small, could be interpreted by some to disrupt the peace and bring bad luck for the year. So strong is this belief among some people that they can loose their cool or control of themselves by doing things which they otherwise would not have done. They even commit murder without them realizing it, something way out of their character. .

3. When I was Chairman of the Citizen’s Consultative Committee of a certain constituency I had to help the Member of Parliament ( MP ) to attend to the needs of the people there. Whilst it is not possible to meet all requests from the citizens because of our laws and regulations there were certain requests we could ignore only at the risk of hurting members of the constituency. I am referring to the culture of our people due to their different religious and racial beliefs. We are a multi racial and multi religious society. Every citizen, especially the community leaders must respect other people’s beliefs and not ridicule them. We expect our grass root leaders’ personal sensitivities to be respected by the people too but this sometimes does not happen.. Respecting each others’ beliefs is always a challenge everyone of us in our multi-racial and multi-religious society constantly faces.

Besides the racial and religious beliefs and practices other human requirements like attending religious festivals, weddings and funerals etc our grassroots leaders have to give “face” by attending the functions they are expected to attend. There are many of these functions for grass root leaders to attend. Grass root leaders, who are volunteers, have to balance their time to attend to these activities with passion and sincerity without hurting the concerned parties. To the materialistic society we are fast moving into, how to get enough people to continue providing voluntary social and community service without self interest will always be a challenge to us all. To keep ourselves as a united community we must enjoy the trusts of those we work with by working hard and showing good examples of ourselves. Be sensitive to other’s beliefs and practice besides their needs as some of our dedicated grass root leaders do. Make out a list of the things we must never do. Respect each others’ beliefs and do not practice the “Do as I tell you but not do as I do” approach. Do not act as if you are the only clever one around the joint. This is tantamount to insulting other people’s intelligence, an act which is not acceptable in modern times. In a multi racial and multi religious society we must always be aware of this if we want to keep our peace. This cultural and religious divide is not easy to close. Special effort is needed to keep the gap small. Added to this we have to keep the gap between the rich and the poor manageable if we are to keep the peace we have and need. Remember every action from us counts. This is a secret that others can learn from us.

Do good to others and good will come to you.

Dr. Lee Kum Tatt

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