Superstition and politics

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By Augustine Low

In a couple of weeks, we usher in the Lunar Year of the Horse. The superstitious among us have started looking up the zodiac to see what the Wooden Horse portends.

Superstition cuts across cultures, races and religions. It is human nature to covet that good luck charm, to stick to a particular routine if it bodes well, to be wary of omens which warn of pitfalls ahead.

What about the political arena? Does superstition have a place in the running of a country?

It’s amazing the number of Singaporeans who have heard the story about Lee Kuan Yew being told by a revered monk that the country’s fortune would continue to rise only if every citizen were to carry a bagua – the eight-sided fengshui symbol. This sparked off the brainwave of minting an octagonal one-dollar coin so everyone in Singapore will end up pocketing an eight-sided symbol. And to top it off, let’s also have octagonal road tax discs so every car has to spot one.

There are also tales about the 50-dollar bill, the Merlion and the Singapore Flyer, amongst others. Fact or fiction? Truth or rumour?

In the book “Hard Truths,” Lee Kuan Yew brushes off the one about the eight-sided one-dollar coin: “People spin these yarns! It doesn’t bother me.” In fact, he declares he is not a believer in any of the stuff: “Utter rubbish! Utter rubbish! I’m a pragmatic, practical fellow. I do not believe in horoscopes. I do not believe in fengshui.”

Incidentally, when the Monetary Authority of Singapore introduced the Singapore Third Series coins last year, the one-dollar coin, despite undergoing a re-design, still retained its octagonal frame. Strange that it should keep its unusual shape these past 30 years. The same goes for that road tax disc.

Even if Lee harbours superstitious beliefs, is there anything untoward? If he had Singapore’s best interests at heart and was willing to go to great lengths to secure and safeguard the country’s prosperity, there is no wrong, surely.

Superstition among political leaders is not rare. It has been widely reported that during the Ronald Reagan presidency, virtually every major move and decision made in the White House was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make sure the planets were in favorable alignment. Suggestions that certain days were bad for the President led to the cancellation of speeches and press conferences and the curtailment of travel.

Barack Obama is also superstitious. He plays basketball on every election day because it is said to bring him luck. The only time he failed to do so, he lost the New Hampshire primary election. And before presidential debates, he habitually dines on steak and potatoes.

Superstition is everywhere in China. The number 8 is considered lucky, so it was no accident that the Communist Party chose 8pm, August 8, 2008 for the launch of the Beijing Olympic Games.

Back home, you may recall that last November, PM Lee Hsien Loong tweeted that he found a surprise visitor in the Istana in the form of a barn owl “which had flown into the building overnight, and perched itself comfortably high up out of reach”. In the native Cherokee culture, as well as many other Native American cultures, owls are a very bad omen.

Soon afterward, Singapore’s first riot in 40 years broke out, ending the year on a bitter note. The riot also stole the thunder from the ruling PAP, which held a weekend convention to launch its new manifesto. The public interest was focused on the riot, not the PAP manifesto. On hindsight, we could see the owl as indeed a bad omen, or we could still dismiss it as plain coincidence.

Whatever the case, whether or not one is superstitious, it’s hard to disagree with the late Dr Goh Keng Swee who once said that it is better to be born lucky than smart.