Not for those with modest means, the China Club in the financial district of Singapore is fitted like the old imperial palace. I was there for lunch hosted by Cisco System, a super-rich American IT company, and took this photo just before the food was served

Humble, with little to be modest about

IN A PREVIOUS existence as a newspaper journalist, I once complimented a fellow reporter for writing almost as well as I. She said I was the biggest egoist she has ever met.

I don’t deny I am an egoist. Those who are sure of themselves, who don’t suffer fools, complexes or neuroses, who can laugh at others and at themselves — they are egoists.

Of course there are imposters, but you can spot the difference. It sounds contradictory but an egoist is humble. Take myself. When I think that despite all the countless permutations that evolution and circumstances throw at me, I am what I am (and I am not speaking behind a burning bush like some tribal deity with global pretensions), I feel truly humbled — I could have been worse, like many other life forms in the news room!

On the other hand, a faker isn’t humble, he merely carries an air of false modesty which initially caused you to suspect he was more than what he assumed to be. But underneath, he’s just a lamb in wolf’s clothing.

Look at China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping — beneath his squat, lamb-like stature lurked a big wolf. In his old age, when all his superiors were already dead and he alone was the top canine of the pack, Deng would tell visitors he had no public role other than that of chairman of the Chinese Bridge Players Association. He was self-effacing because he knew and was prepared to show his strength and push through his agenda, in defiance of even former boss Chairman Mao Zedong. Before Mao's death in 1980, a “criticise Deng Xiaoping” campaign was launched. When a group of admirers met Deng in a Beijing restaurant and began applauding him, he admonished them to continue “criticising Deng Xiaoping”.

An egoist like Deng or myself is humble but never modest because we simply don’t have much to be modest about, to re-phrase the words of another egoist, Winston Churchill.

Egoists look at life and the world, and break out in laughter — spontaneous, unrestrained and loud, laughing at themselves, at difficult situations, and at difficult people. The egoists are confident there is no situation or person they cannot handle. But, occasionally, there are situations and people they indeed cannot handle. So, instead of being bemused, they act amused. What else can they do? They will not whine or pule, for then they bring themselves down to the level their enemies wish them to be.

In fact, laughter is their unexpected and most potent weapon — it discomfits hostile folks and encourages friends.

So that he is never at a loss, the egoist prepares himself thoroughly. He reads up, he talks to SMEs, he checks facts. Don't be fooled when he puts on a show of doing nothing and assumes a leisurely air. Inside his cranium is a dense pack of research data on the work he's engaged in. A knowledge-primed man always exudes calm superiority whether at a Powerpoint presentation or the watercooler.

[P.S. SMEs are, of course, Subject Matter Experts — you know that, right?]

So, with his head well-prepared, the egoist can afford to follow his heart and instinct, agreeing with Pascal, the mathematician, philosopher and confident egoist, that

The heart has its reason which reason does not know.

Egoists can out-talk most people. But what’s the point? You see, egoists don’t have to prove anything because they are self-confident and self-revolved (they are the centre of the cosmos). They realise they’re all that they’ve got, and if they don’t treat themselves well, no one else will.

They live a detached, unruffled life, with no demands and no expectations, and thus, no disappointments.

Egoists have no ego — they live completely for the moment, mindful of the moment, moment to moment, for the moment is all that is authentic and meaningful. Nothing lasts, so they don’t brood over an unforgiving past or a fickle future.

A poem I had to study in secondary school describes the outlook of such an individual,

Thus, scorning all the cares
That fate or fortune brings,
He makes the heaven his book
His wisdom heavenly things,

Good thoughts his only friends,
His wealth a well-spent age,
The earth his sober inn
And quiet pilgrimage.

Integer Vitae, Thomas Campion


The above was first published on Sept 23, 1980, in the New Nation, an afternoon yellow rag now defunct. I used to write a personal column in the paper, under the pen name, Hsiaoshuang, rambling about culture, China and current affairs. China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiaoping) was then alive and kicking, and with Mao inside a glass cage and the extremists inside a jail cell, raring to launch his economic reforms.

Then came June 4, 1989 when Deng showed his true wolf nature by unleashing army tanks that pancaked student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, locking up the survivors and replacing the moderate government with a more reprI vetted the wire reports of the bloody slaughter of students by the soldiers and tanks, I was driven to hysteria. Why were all the dictators so strong, so invincible that nothing could  stop them? Deng and his underling Li Peng could squash those puny young people in Tiananmen Square, and no one would raise a protest. It was the most depressing week that I had experienced.

Today, with Deng and the old leaders dead and cremated, and the massacre in the square largely forgotten in China, the people are now in hot pursuit of Deng’s make-money-not-politics ideal.

— August 20, 2005

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Not for diners with modest means: the China Club in Capital Tower, Singapore