He Bothers About The Others

“Chup ee khee si”, a common Hokkien remark. It means, do not be bothered. Let them die!

“Bu yao duo guan xian shi” is a typical advice in Mandarin. Do not meddle in other people’s business. Let them be.

But, on my way to work this morning, Yo-Yo Ma’s message sounded persuasive. Tantalising. Achievable. I have not been able to get it out of my head. Not that I have been trying to. But, his words have clung on to my grey cells. It is a message of inclusion, at a time when societies are focusing on the divisive and the negative. Yo-Yo Ma said ” Culture will turn ‘them’ into ‘us’.” When we recognise that the other person is just like us and is one of us, conflict will stop. When we realise we are all equal, discrimination will end. There will be no more recriminations, no more hatred, no more fights. He is in Sydney, on his world tour of thirty six concerts in six continents. He has brought Bach’s six suites for solo cello along. Through Bach, he wants to engage us in a series of conversations and collaborations to explore the ways culture and music can help bridge the world into a better place. He hopes that we will see the ‘us’ in the ‘others’. He is bothered about the others because he sees all of us in them.

As I settle comfortably on my recliner sofa after dinner, my mind drifts back to Yo-Yo Ma. He is much more than just a cellist. He is one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen. Actually, he is even much more than that. He is a great human being. Pablo Casals too thought of himself as a human being first, as a musician second, and only then a cellist. To be human first. Humanists consider every action they take and every word they speak are in the service of their fellow human beings. Their common thread is their innate empathy and compassion for all. It is never ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is always about our obligations to one another, as human beings. They are above primal instincts. To them, it is not the survival of the fittest that ensures our survival, it is the survival of the planet that ensures our survival. For such great advocates of human dignity, it is an abuse of power if we were to remain silent when faced with confronting issues that threaten what is good in mankind. We all have the power to stand up to stop an injustice. From a small voice in the wilderness, a revolution can grow. It is through culture – the music, the story-telling – that inspires creativity and deep learning which helps us understand ourselves, understand one another and understand our environment. Above all, it is their choice to be human first. That was the message I got from Yo-Yo Ma.

I was lucky to have witnessed first-hand Yo-Yo Ma’s charitable, empathetic and caring side in Singapore. This was at a concert on November 11, 2016. The SSO concert opened with Sollima’s double cello concerto, titled Violoncello, Vibrez! with Yo-Yo Ma and Ng Pei Sian. When both cellists were on stage, Yo-Yo Ma asked Pei Sian’s parents to stand up from their seats. As the old couple reluctantly stood up, he told the audience of their struggles and perseverance to support not one but two sons’ ambition to be professional cellists. The living legend understood the selfless struggles the parents faced to help their twins pursue their love for music. The audience gave a rapturous applause to Pei Sian’s parents, but I was madly applauding Yo-Yo Ma for showing us his humanity. This is a great humanitarian. The maestro has an extra long list of achievements. The winner of 18 Grammys, he was the first to perform at Ground Zero on the first anniversary of the 911 tragedy. That solemn heart-pulling moment was served by Bach’s Sarabande from his Cello Suite no. 5, the most sombre, austere and profound of all. It is music for peace, for humanity. At the peak of his amazing career, Yo-Yo Ma whilst basking in the audience’s obvious love and adulation for him, revealed his humanity when he chose to divert the crowd’s applause to Pei Sian’s parents instead for their unwavering and unconditional support for their sons.

Ng Pei Sian and Yo-Yo Ma with maestro Shui Lan in concert

A day passed and the urghhling in me becomes less enthused about Yo-Yo Ma’s exuberance and trust in our propensity for empathy. Doubt creeps into my psyche about mankind’s readiness to accept our differences. After all, I have seen the ugliness of urghhlings for most of my adult life. Sure, there have been the odd few people of integrity and kindness whom I have had the good luck to meet along the way, but by and large, humans show their ugly side when they are able to hide behind anonymity. Strangers in public places who hurl abuse at us, those who sit behind their computer screens and vilify any race or religion they dislike, hideous customers on the opposite side of the shop counter, militants who will gladly blow anyone up including themselves, nasty soulless people who enjoy torturing animals, or bored, callous arsonists who light up thousands of hectares of gum trees and hundreds of homes and unfortunately, also animals including humans in their path. The world is littered with toxic folk with rancid prejudice, and devious minds with evil intent. Rather than it is never ‘us’ or ‘them’, it can never be ‘us’ with ‘them’. It is inconceivable that we can see the ‘them’ in ‘us’. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also sheer folly to think that the likes of me can even come close to understanding the minds of great men like Yo-Yo Ma. This may be the reason why I am finding this blog the most difficult to write. So, I cast my mind back to their Singapore concert. The magnanimous and generous Yo-Yo Ma gave two encores after the prolonged standing ovation from the audience. As he was already onstage, he borrowed Pei Sian’s cello instead of returning backstage for his ( Jacqueline du Pré’s) Davidov cello. Gasps of primordial orgasmic arousals could be heard when he began to play Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 Prelude . It was followed by Bouree I and II and then da capo to I, from Suite no. 3. Amidst wild applause, Yo-Yo Ma then went over to Pei Sian onstage and gave him a big congratulatory hug. The younger cellist instinctively kowtowed and knelt before the cello maestro. What happened next took everyone’s breath away. Yo-Yo Ma, the universally respected great cellist of all time reciprocated with a bow and at one point, knelt down on both knees to Pei Sian as a gesture of mutual respect.

Recalling the last scene onstage instructs me that Yo-Yo Ma’s vision of the world in which human beings are treated equally and with dignity, where age-old issues such as religious fanaticism, white supremacy, slavery, bigotry, misandry and misogyny no longer fester, can be attained if we all see the ‘us’ in the ‘others’.

Mutual respect from a great human being

Ysabechhum Not Ydbachhum

In Arabic, Ysabechhum means Good Morning, whereas Ydbachhum means Kill Them! A Palestinian labourer didn’t spell it wrongly when he posted a selfie next to his tractor, on Facebook wishing his friends a Good Morning. In his case, Artificial Intelligence got it wrong and sent the Israeli forces to arrest the poor bloke. A good reminder to all school children out there, pay attention during your spelling lessons! It may just save your life one day.

My sons were again asking me why I didn’t properly anglicise their names, especially knowing they would be growing up in Australia. I reminded them our surname was actually given to us by our old colonial masters, the British who ruled Malaya and Singapore from 1873 to 1963. It was some nincompoop Brit who failed to spell our family name correctly. And now we are stuck with it unless someone is resolute enough to change it. A name spelt without a vowel is simply too difficult for the western tongue to say let alone announce on stage. And so, my sons who are musicians have always had to put up with their names being badly enunciated on the radio or on stage ever since they were six years old. Why didn’t I give them names that are easy to spell and easy to remember e.g. Lang Lang and Yo-Yo. They aren’t being reasonable, how was I to expect they would have a career in the performing arts? If I did, I would have renamed them Elvis or Sinatra.

In the not too distant future, parents will have an easy job of naming their children. Big Data algorithms will discover through our biometric data what makes us excited and happy, and with 5G and super computer power, external computer systems can hack into our digital world and know what our desires, interests and preferences are. AI will know us better than we know ourselves. AI will definitely know our children better than we know them, having access to their Google or Baidu searches, Facebook, Twitter, Wechat, Whatsapp and Instagram accounts. AI would tell the parents, at a price, what careers will be ideal for their children. And if AI calculated that a child has the right aptitude and attitude to be a concert pianist or cellist, it could supply a short list of new catchy and more importantly, appropriate names for the parents to rename their children. Maybe Lang Lang the Second? Or Yo-Yo Two? Urghh, that would take the angst out of parenthood, wouldn’t it? It would be AI’s fault if their name was spelt wrongly.