Khaw Boon Wan citing Chinese opera Butterfly Lovers

From ‘Sengkang columbarium: Khaw Boon Wan takes questions from MPs’, 29 Jan 2015, article by Lester Hio, ST

.. Mr Seng will know a very popular Chinese opera, Butterfly Lovers, or Liang Zhu. It describes the period of old China when girls, unfortunately no matter how talented they were, were not allowed to join schools. So there was this very young, beautiful, talented young lady, Zhu Yingtai, who wanted to study, so she disguised herself as a boy and succeeded in attending the school for three years.

… People just assumed that girls won’t turn up, and because they made the assumption, they discovered it only later and (asked) ‘why didn’t you know’. So they thought this one looked a bit girlish – but it turned out (she was) a girl.

So it’s a similar situation here, that the officers assessing the tender just assumed that it must be a company affiliated to some religious organisation.

I’m no expert in Chinese folklore, but from Khaw’s storytelling, I would figure that the cross-dressing fable of Zhu Yingtai is more about the rise of women against male oppression and discrimination in ancient China than how to hoodwink the Government, which was what clearly happened here when Eternal Pure Land bypassed the system. You could reference Little Red Riding Hood getting conned by the Big Bad Wolf disguised as Grandma, but resorting to fairy tales doesn’t make you appear as learned and refined as citing Chinese opera.

Of course it’s too easy to simply apologise for an error, you need to impress, or bamboozle, your parliamentary mates with your in-depth knowledge of the Chinese classics to explain how you were deceived, and move on quickly by promising to ‘restore the planning objective’. By the way, Khaw was tipping his hat to Seng Han Thong before he started the parable, the same MP who once uttered in a televised interview that ‘some SMRT staff, because they are Malay, Indian, can’t converse in English well enough..’. Which reminds me of this Chinese saying 五十步笑百步, about a soldier retreating 50 steps laughing at those retreating a 100. It makes me sound more intelligent than if I just said ‘the pot calling the kettle black’.

Another minister known for his fine storytelling prowess, and I’m sure also a devoted scholar of Chinese opera, is Lim Swee Say. One of his favourites is the tale of two enemies and a magic lamp, as an analogy for the conflict between the opposition and PAP. In 2010, he enthralled his listeners with a tale of a deaf frog climbing a tower and becoming a champion among the ‘kingdom of frogs’, suggesting that we can conquer all as long as we don’t give a shit about what our critics think. Till this day, no one is able to verify if such a parable even exists at all, or Lim simply croaked something up. There is one about a frog in a well though.

Some references are too literal and deep for the layman to appreciate. WP’s Chen Show Mao cited a self-praising Tang dynasty analogy, comparing the PAP to Emperor Tai Zong and WP as wise counsel Wei Zheng. He should take a leaf out of his boss Low Thia Khiang’s colourful ‘明知山有虎﹐偏向虎山行‘, a rally cry to attack the ‘tiger on the mountain’ during the revolutionary Aljunied campaign. Others, like Lui Tuck Yew’s ditty about a village ravaged by poisonous mushrooms, are just mind boggling.

If you’re not equipped to recite, or make up, an entire opera (literally ‘wayanging’) by heart, proverbs could do the trick. Now this, even our PM is capable of. In a recent speech he quipped  ‘You must go after the tigers, as well as the flies‘ (拍蝇打虎) to describe Singapore’s zero-tolerance towards corruption. In 2007, he used 树倒猢狲散 (when the tree falls, monkeys scatter) to describe the WP’s no-show in Aljunied GRC during the election campaign (Looks like the monkeys returned with a vengeance, climbed to the top of the tree and made it their home). He even has swoon-worthy romantic poetry up his sleeve, recently posting on his FB ‘沉舟侧畔千帆过,病树前头万木春.’ to describe a withering tree in Upper Peirce Reservoir (thousand ships sail past, million trees springing from a dying one). Now there’s a pick up line for the ladies, guys.

Khaw’s ‘Mulan’-ish fable is refreshing, nonetheless, otherwise we’d be bombarded by more tales of monkeys, frogs, tigers and trees. As for this columbarium condundrum, he may be assuring the public not to ‘杯弓蛇影’ (see a snake in a cup when it’s actually just a reflection of a bow’). But I believe, like most people would whatever their religious inclincation, that “人在做,天在看”. (Heaven is watching).


One Response

  1. […] Model (SCM): Is this PAP’s Theory of Everything (ToE)? – Everything Also Complain: Khaw Boon Wan citing Chinese opera Butterfly Lovers – Singapore Notes: Life And Death Links – MIKOspace: Singapore – The Phobia of […]

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