Remembering Ann Wee December 12, 2019 18:31

We received the news on December 11th that Ann Wee had passed away that day, aged 93. She was last in the office a few weeks earlier to chat about the sequel she was writing to her 2017 memoir with NUS Press, A Tiger Remembers.

Ann was a cheerful and inspiring presence to all of us at the press. More than being a delightful author to work with, and a frequent attendee of our book launches and events, she was an inspiring model of how to live: seeking to cross cultural borders, moving out of her comfort zone, first observing carefully, then seeking to help, rarely judging, always ready to learn. An Older Person With Attitude, she was the very opposite of preachy:

“When some elderly person claims that, by virtue of his being old he also has wisdom to share, run for cover. He is almost guaranteed to be on the verge of bombarding you with his opinions, which by virtue of his immodest claim, you can be almost certain will be a collection of personal biases and prejudice.

”I have said ‘he’, and it is true that I have met this more often in older men. But what of the occasional older woman with this self delusion? Watch out! She has the Queen Bee Syndrome, and the rest of us in that hive had better stop buzzing around and listen....”

Ann had a presence for sure, but she was was never Queen Bee.

When asked about her memoir, I am apt to say that it is the single best book I know for appreciating Singapore’s transformation over the last 60 years. That might be quite a claim for such a slim and personal volume. Ann certainly knew the statistics and policy narratives of Singapore’s astounding economic development, of its journey from Third World to First. But the stories she tells in her book are stories of people, within their families and social circles, among their colleagues, sometimes in life crisis, sometimes just dealing with the complications of life, work, family or bureaucracy. Hearing these stories is to understand what better education, better health care, better living conditions, expanded opportunity and social change really mean. It yields a far more powerful insight than the one that comes from marveling over Singapore’s changing skyline, impressive as it is.

The single passage of A Tiger Remembers I most admire is Ann’s dedication. Here she does make a judgement, she lets us know what is important to her. You might be tempted to interpret this as a conservative sentiment, even traditional: yet notice how it is tempered with a deep and seemingly so natural understanding of diversity and of difference.

“To the family in all its 101 different shapes and sizes. With its capacity to cope which ranges from truly marvellous to distinctly tatty: still, in one form or another, the best place for most of us to be.”

We will miss Ann!