A friend I had dinner with a week or so ago stayed up to watch the live broadcast of the funeral service of Ronald Reagan in Washington’s National Cathedral. He was very impressed by how the United States paid its final tribute to the former President, the longest living president, by the details of the entire process, and by the generous praises heaped onto the actor turned politician and president. World leaders spoke one after another, and for a time, one might worry they might run out of words.
Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or rather Baroness Thatcher said on a videotaped eulogy, “We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man, and I have lost a dear friend.” Obviously, she had chosen not to mention the part her friend played in damaging the UK economy.
Other world leaders were all rather magnanimous in their praises. The President of the day described Reagan as “an enduring symbol” of their country through his love of their country. His speech followed immediately after Bush Senior who was described as almost overcome by emotion as he paid homage to his predecessor, saying that he learnt more from him than anyone he encountered in his years of public life. Bush Senior had been Reagan’s vice-president for eight years.
My friend concluded that Americans loved their former president very much and that the few hours he stayed up were very much worth spent and highly educational. Educational indeed, I responded, adding that I believed in life long and continuing education. As the evening went on and the subject resurfaced, I could not help offering my tuppence views on the matter: the Bush Administration did what it did for Reagan not because of the man but because he represented an institution – the American presidency, and hence American values. More importantly, there was an election coming up and Ronald Reagan was a Republican president. Had he died some other time, the script for his final farewell could have been different.
Nevertheless, I did acknowledge that Americans are good at leveraging on opportunities to instill civic-mindedness in the people. They have the infrastructure, the culture, the heritage and the experience. Americans are very good at making a big deal out of, for example, motherhood and apple pie and every time their stars and stripes flag flies and their National Anthem is sounded, they would all react with the appropriate demeanour whatever they happen to be doing. From a distance and as a non-American, I can only say that they have done well. Let me quickly say that I do not see a problem in this area in China, Mainland China or the People’s Republic of China to be precise. The problem lies in Hong Kong and the sooner one acknowledges it, the more chances there would be of solving the problem.
Not long ago, the local talk-shows, newspaper and TV were cluttered with discussion on patriotism, what it was, who were patriotic and who were not, what does one need to do to be seen to be patriotic, and so on. The noise level might have subsided, but the problem remains. Politicians and would-be politicians know better, for none of them are interested in solving the problems of their constituencies. The media did well to fan the moods of the people and the gullible and less convicted swallowed everything hook, line and sinker. The result was nobody would declare publicly that he was patriotic or admit that he was not patriotic. When was the last time you heard the question asked of an American President or a candidate?
Americans, however, do welcome guidelines and reinforcements from their political leaders. Indeed, one was given today on a subject none other than Father’s Day, 2004. Quoting a Congress resolution approved in April 1972, President Bush proclaimed today (our time) that June 20, 2004 was to be Father’s Day. He went on to encourage all Americans to express love, admiration, and thanks to their fathers for their contributions to our lives and to society; and directed the appropriate officials of the Government to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on this day. He also called upon State and local governments and citizens to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.
President Bush also said in his Proclamation that “A special bond exists between a father and his children. On Father’s Day, we recognize the important role fathers play in the American family, and we honor them for their strength, love and commitment.”
The White House surely retains good scribes and wordsmiths. Strength, love and commitment – any one of these attributes, qualities or virtues could be dwelled on and spoken of non stop; and they are not free standing words either, such that one embraces, leads to or implies another or all three.
Take commitment. A couple can stay together for a long time without commitment to each other. Indeed, that was for a while a very much in-thing and many relations are premised on such understanding. It was therefore refreshing when another young friend, Edgar – this is his real name – sent me an email one day in August last year telling his friends – and I am flattered to be included on his friends list – that he was driving from France to Switzerland along Lake Geneva when he was shot through the heart by Cupid’s arrow and there and then proposed to Wendy. The annals did not record whether Edgar stopped the car or the manner and fashion in which the proposal was made, except that a surprised Wendy happily accepted the proposal.
Before I go further, I suppose I need to tell you more about Edgar.
I first met him at work, which is not exactly a good start, because I do not normally keep friends at work. Staying in the same office for eight to ten hours a day is already an achievement in itself. Making friends at work could be too much effort, and besides, I worked in an institution where people got shifted like furniture. Did you consult your furniture when you last shifted them?
But I was new to the office and the job required me to sit through long meetings listening to people who pretended that they knew what they were talking about on an esoteric subject that nobody knew anything about but were too afraid to say so or never had the courage to admit. Edgar was there before me and should know more, so I thought. Besides, I needed someone to shift through stacks and stacks of paper and the constantly being revised or updated draft consultancy reports. My greatest achievement those days was to keep awake and look intelligent.
I learnt that Edgar had joined our organization fresh from Imperial College of London University. Why would anyone from IC in his right mind join us? Well, I never did ask that question, so I wouldn’t know the answer, would I? But we had PhDs pushing pens in smaller offices all the time, and nobody asked them these questions after they joined.
We saw each other rather frequently during this period although we actually operated from different offices at the time. The group called itself a Task Force and Edgar was my only assistant. Between us, we had experienced the sometimes hilarious and comical moments precipitated by the fashion in which two team-leaders conducted their business. The two teams are part of the same Task Force and should thus be working together as one team on one single objective towards one goal and the same tight deadline, but sometimes they did not behave as such, which added spices to our otherwise tired and monotonous work-life. We learned a rather practical trick, a lesson on how to use the telephone to one’s advantage.
Consider a situation in which a senior officer was talking to you on the phone non-stop giving you her views and contradicting instructions one after another. You had no chance to reply, but courtesy required that you listened on until it became intolerable. This is how the trick works. You talked to the phone slowly and patiently as if you were talking to yourself, “Hello, hello, why has the phone gone dead suddenly? Yes, this is a bad line. Never mind. I’ll call her back.” You then cut off the line smartly, left the receiver on the desk and left your office promptly. Believe me, it always works.
We did meet the deadline. Our senior officers and team leaders said we had done a good job and the Task Force was disbanded. That was the summer of 1995.
Somehow, Edgar remained working with me afterwards, on another subject, so that we saw each other more frequently. I found out that he knew more about computers than I, which was not too difficult, but he volunteered to make a few house calls to fix my systems at home, which turned out to be difficult and was certainly beyond the call of duty. I recall he stayed quite late one night and had to make a return trip the following day. I also learnt that he came to Hong Kong from mainland China or thereabout without a word of Cantonese when he was seven and became the subject of one of the many success stories that Hong Kong can be proud of. I was somewhat impressed at the time that Edgar spoke Cantonese without any northern accent.
I took Edgar to a few Rotary club meetings. Then, one day he came to my office of his own freewill and accord and asked me to propose him for membership of my Rotary club. This time, I was really impressed, with myself. I thought to myself that this young lad’s presumptuous request must have been prompted by my dedication and devotion to service and by the manner in which I have been conducting myself in public offices. Obviously, Edgar had not known that one did not apply for membership of a Rotary club, and that Rotary membership is something that one earns for oneself through Service Above Self. At his age and with his experience, he would qualify for Rotaract membership, at best. But I had grown accustomed to his face and we had become friends. Thereupon, I made him a member of our Rotary club on the fast track, which began another chapter on Edgar.
In 1996, Edgar decided to leave our huge and faceless organization and on the strength of his declared work experience, joined the equity derivatives desk of a rather reputable fund houses. It was a thriving time, for the economic bubble was still growing and the Asian financial crisis was not yet on the horizon. We still saw each other, mainly at club meetings. Edgar was a reasonably active member. He attended many of the club activities.
Edgar then decided to prove his academic prowess or rather, to build up his name card, and applied for Harvard Business School. He made me sign some turgid forms and write long letters of recommendation that were part of his application. They believed us, and he headed for Boston around Christmas of 1998. On his return, he jumped on the high-tech bandwagon and founded his own dot-com business before settling in his present company as a sales director for a reputable garment manufacturer in 2002.
After his return from the US, he kept me posted of his strategic moves, and attended a few Rotary gatherings despite the frequent travel that his new job called for. Wendy came along to a few, which was how I knew Wendy, as a young lady who enjoyed life and fellowship, with enthusiasm and zeal. As Edgar got busier with more travels, we saw each other less. I believe we have not seen each other for two years or more. I had tried to make contacts with him in my last paid job, but we never met.
The August email was therefore a pleasant surprise, but still I have had no sightings of Edgar, until last April when I started getting a flurry of emails on the arrangements for the wedding. It is obvious that the young couple wanted to do it the big way; and why not. Life is to be savoured and enjoyed. The present moment, the present wonderful moment is the most important.
I am glad that Edgar and Wendy have found each other and between them have committed to each other to declare such commitments publicly and before their friends in Hong Kong and elsewhere. As I had said elsewhere, such determination and commitments deserve rewards. Rosita Magdalene and I wish them well and we look forward to the celebrations and to meeting their friends in September.