I wrote about the distinctions I made between close friends, true friends and comrades some months ago.
After that article appeared, I received a sarcastic e-mail from a reader who said: ‘One would be extremely fortunate if one can count to two the number of comrades one has in his life. If it is so hard for an average person to find true friends, it is manifold harder for you because of your family relations.
‘It may be arrogant for me to call you child-like since you are older than me. But I have no better word to describe your friend-categorisation process.’
I often receive fan mail. Sometimes I hear from readers who disagree with something I wrote. But rarely do I encounter this degree of hostility and sarcasm. What’s more, the disgruntled reader re-sent the same e-mail two months later.
His reference to my family relates to the fact that I am the daughter of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the sister of current PM Lee Hsien Loong. The writer suggested that my ‘family relations’ may induce people to act friendly towards me.
He misunderstands the Singapore system. Being a member of the Lee family may mean that I do stand out, but that does not afford me any special power.
I cannot advance the career of anyone, other than the staff of the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), of which I am Director of. And even within NNI, if I allowed my close friendships with some of my staff to influence my appraisals of them, and consequently their pay increments and promotions, I would lose the trust of all my staff.
My friends – NNI staff or otherwise, doctors or something else – are friends because of mutual goodwill. We either share common interests or have in some way helped one another.
Take, for instance, the security officers (SOs) who have protected my father and family for decades. Some of them are my close friends – having remained so even after they left the police force.
The SOs are paid by the Government to look after us, but they often go beyond fulfilling their duties. And the goodwill goes both ways, for I have always helped them whenever they have approached me with their problems, usually medical in nature.
My father has always treated his SOs with courtesy and warmth. He and my family could have been just courteous to the SOs, rather than being warm and friendly as well, if we had been intent on maintaining a social hierarchy.
The SOs tended to be in awe of my father, but they readily accepted my late mother and me as friends.
In addition to doctors and SOs, my other friends come from varied backgrounds.
For instance, the friends I made while in pursuit of physical fitness, like my physiotherapist and sports trainer.
There are friends I made while doing fund-raising for charitable causes – wealthy people mostly. But more important than their wealth is their kindness and willingness to give to society.
There are friends I made because of my father’s various appointments over the past five decades. These include some of his principal private secretaries, special assistants and personal assistants.
And finally, there are the friends I made while pursuing various other activities, including writing columns and what I call ’tilting at windmills’ in pursuit of certain causes. This heterogeneous group, some of whom I have known since childhood, are also comrades, for we share the same aspiration – to make Singapore a better country and a better society.
My pedigree as Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter does bring me in contact with certain people whom I otherwise may not have known – including SOs, the odd millionaire and civil servants.
But my pedigree also isolates me from people with preconceived notions about my family and me, and from people with dubious reputations, including some extremely wealthy people whom I go out of my way to avoid.
I do not think, however, that my family connections alone can account for my having so many friends, close friends and comrades.
I have become friends and stayed friends with various people as a result of the conscious effort by all concerned to help each other, and also to help others when we can because it is the right thing to do.
Perhaps I have so many close friends and comrades because my family’s position brought me into contact with many good people whom others may not have had a chance to meet.
But I think the more probable reason is that I am willing to extend the hand of friendship, be it to colleagues or people I meet in the course of my life.
Perhaps my sarcastic letter writer short-changed himself with his cynical attitude towards mankind, which may explain why he has pitifully few close friends or comrades.
By Lee Wei Ling
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Straits Times, Published on Jun 3, 2012