“Some Men and a Red Box; A Woman and Her Handbag”
Sai Siew Min
Mr Heng Swee Keat showed off his writing chops when he penned what I thought was the most skillfully-written tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew when the latter passed away in March 2015. When Mr Heng served as Mr Lee’s Principal Private Secretary (PPS), his workday revolved around the latter’s “red box.” Mr Heng’s FB post culminated in a fitting tribute to his former boss:
“(the red box) symbolises Mr Lee’s unwavering dedication to Singapore so well. The diverse contents it held tell us much about the breadth of Mr Lee’s concerns – from the very big to the very small; the daily routine of the red box tells us how Mr Lee’s life revolved around making Singapore better, in ways big and small.”
Symbolic language has always appealed to me and as Mr Heng’s post went viral in a jiffy, this was a case demonstrating effective use of the symbol, to the extent, that it is not Mr Lee but his red box that assumes the main character of the story. Wielding the red box as symbol, Mr Heng successfully transformed the mundane into the memorable. Some commentaries I came across wrote that besides telling us how hard Mr Lee worked, Mr Heng’s post also revealed a lot about what PPS do, not a small matter considering that several Cabinet Ministers, including Mr Heng himself, were former PPSes. Mr Heng’s story could be re-titled “Some Men and a Red Box” which would still capture well what he wants to convey. So now we know how hard all our political leaders worked, thanks to the red box.
The story of the red box does not end with the diligence of our political leaders or even of Mr Lee’s absolute dedication to Singapore. The symbolism goes much further and deeper into Singapore’s colonial past. As Mr Heng’s points out in his post:
“(The red box) is a large, boxy briefcase, about fourteen centimetres wide. Red boxes came from the British government, whose Ministers used them for transporting documents between Government offices. Our early Ministers had red boxes, but Mr Lee is the only one I know who used his consistently through the years. When I started working for Mr Lee in 1997, it was the first time I saw a red box in use. It is called the red box but is more a deep wine colour, like the seats in the chamber in Parliament House. (my emphasis)”
In short, Mr Lee’s red box is not just his personal workbag; it is an unmistakable symbol of state power and given Singapore’s relationship with Britain, of colonial state power. A handy Straits Times listicle, “Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s Red Box: 5 Things About the Boxy Briefcase” (published online, 31 March 2015) reinforces this interpretation. It provides some historical notes on the origins and use of the red box in Britain before ending with Point 5 on India’s use of a red box or rather a red box equivalent. Point 5 is ambiguous because Indian ministers do not really use red boxes. Perhaps with a nod to how India has been decolonized, Point 5 advises that the Finance Minister in India no longer uses a red box but still continues the practice of holding up a leather briefcase —any leather briefcase — to be photographed by the media on Budget Day, which is how red boxes are used ritually in Britain.
The same listicle also informs us that “Mr Lee’s box features the words ‘Government Of Singapore’ and replaces the British monogram with the national coat of arms of Singapore” but stops short of saying anything about the public role of the red box. Unlike the British red boxes or even the red-box-like Indian briefcases, Mr Lee’s use of the red box had been kept out of the public eye. Had Mr Heng not told us about Mr Lee’s red box, I believe Singaporeans would never know it existed. As Mr Heng points out, some of our early Ministers outgrew the red box but not Mr Lee. No one else in the Singapore Government was using the red box. Now that Mr Heng “outed” the red box, a question comes to mind: was Mr Lee conscious of the profound symbolism attached to the independent leader of a former British colony going about his normal workday carrying a haloed article of British state power?
Sufficiently intrigued by the British red box, I googled it. Seconds later, to my utter amazement, several newsy articles about the red box popped up, culled from major British newspapers and tabloids available online. These could have dialogued with Mr Heng’s compelling piece. Yes, Mr Heng’s story could have been just another red box story. Contrary to the impression conveyed by Mr Heng’s use of the past tense to describe how “red boxes came from the British government, whose Ministers used them for transporting documents between Government offices,” the red box is very much alive as a symbol of state power in Britain today. Judging from these newspaper articles, symbol and substance seems to have merged. To the British, the red box is not just symbolic of state power; it seems to constitute state power, literally. For instance, in 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron was spotted by a passenger leaving his red box behind in a train car. The passenger was so indignant he took a photograph commenting that “it was just sitting there. I could probably have run off with it if I’d wanted to. But instead I took a photo…There could be any number of state secrets in that box. What would have happened if someone, for whatever reason, opened the window and chucked it out?” (Mirror, 9 September 2013; Mail Online 9 September 2013) Responding to the expose, former Deputy Prime Minister Prescott, was in full “tsk-tsk-tsk” mode, “I’m staggered that a prime minister should be so slack about looking after government secrets. The box could have contained detailed confidential intelligence about Syria…The guy needs to get a grip.” (Mirror, 9 September 2013)
If Mr Cameron treated his red box shabbily, the British public gasped at the incredulity of red boxes being chauffeured around while their owners walked or took the tube, ostensibly to look austere without compromising national security! The Telegraph calculated in 2014 that one in eight trips by official cars was made to transport ministers’ briefcases alone! (The Telegraph, 6 January 2014) I wonder what Mr Lee, famous for his frugality, will say about the VIP treatment bestowed upon these red boxes.
Then there were stories that shed light on how ministers regard their relationships to the red box and by extension, to power. Tom Harris, a minister sacked by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had this to say about his post-ministerial predicament: “No red box, no driver, no private office— life as a sacked minister sucks.” (The Telegraph, 7 October 2013) Note the order of gravity. The Daily Mail also carried a report in 2013 that around election time, red boxes have a habit of “disappearing mysteriously” because their owners had to contend with their inner devils when they had to yield them to their successors. Thankfully for Mr Lee, he did not have to deal with this situation. To solve the “pilfering” problem, the British government permitted outgoing ministers to buy a “momento red box”. Not the real deal but a really good “dummy.” (Mail Online, 1 April 2013) There cannot be a more eloquent commentary on the trappings of power. Perhaps Mr Lee kept his red box simply because there was no better replacement? After all, a BBC article with the tongue-in-cheek title “Thinking Inside the Box” tells us that in 1997, the British government tried to create a computerised red box. The computerised version apparently resembled the old-fashioned red box but “ opened to reveal a laptop screen….it used fingerprint technology to ensure only the minister it was intended for could open it, and information was to be transferred through a secure government intranet.” But the computerised red-box proved too unorthodox and after protests from civil servants and ministers, the experiment to replace the red boxes died. (BBC, 23 March 2010) Yet Mr Lee could have learned from others less attached to their red boxes. One of my favourite red box stories concerns a female minister Ruth Kelly in a dated piece published online in the Independent in 2004. The title of this piece says it all “I don’t have the choice of taking red boxes home. I have four children, and they want their mum.” Ruth Kelly didn’t have one red box, she had three. (The Independent, 29 March 2004) Then again, given what we know about Mr Lee’s relationship with his spouse, he faced a more amenable domestic situation.
Which brings me to another accessory of power in British politics — Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s handbag. Mrs Thatcher’s handbag provoked a new verb in British English. “To handbag” means “esp. of a woman: to batter or assault with a handbag; chiefly fig.: to subject to a forthright verbal assault or strident criticism; to bully or coerce in this way.” The figurative use of “handbag” as verb has been associated with this oft-cited comment by Sir Julian Critchley, a prominent Thatcher critic: “she can’t look at a British institution without hitting it with her handbag’. Treasury figures published last week show how good she has proved at handbagging the civil service.” Mrs Thatcher’s handbag(s) — she had several— were legendary. Her speeches were designed to fit her handbag and she once said that “anything I want to keep quiet is normally in my handbag so it is not left lying around. Things do not leak from my handbag.” (Cited in Ludmilla Jordanova, The Look of the Past, p. xxi) Compared to the public stately role served by the red boxes in Britain, Mr Lee’s subdued use of his red box comes closer to how Mrs Thatcher used her handbag. The two objects were both accessories of power yet were intensely personal belongings. As forceful personalities, no-nonsense type of leaders whose only political principle appears to be patriotism, Mrs Thatcher and Mr Lee share much in common. British historian Anthony Stockwell recounts that Thatcher, marvelling at Singapore’s progress once asked Mr Lee how Singapore did it to which Mr Lee replied: “we have applied the lessons which the British first taught us and then themselves promptly forgot.” (Anthony Stockwell, “Forging Malaysia and Singapore: Colonialism, Decolonization and Nation-Building” in Wang Gung-wu (ed.) Nation-building: Five Southeast Asian Histories (Singapore: ISEAS, 2005), p.213.) If Thatcher “handbagged” her political foes and anyone who stood in her way; we can imagine Mr Lee “red boxing” his.
The two objects, however, led very different lives as historical artefacts. Unlike Mr Lee’s red box which was transformed instantly into historical artefact just days after his death, Mrs Thatcher’s handbag made a difficult transition to life in a museum. One of her handbags is now on display at the Archive at Churchill College, Cambridge. But when it was first offered to the institution in the 1990s, the archivist reportedly turned livid. He said: “this is a storm in a handbag. It is ridicule and reticule. We haven’t got any handbags, and as far as I know, we are not going to get any handbags. We are in the business of conserving documents.” (Jordanova, The Look of the Past, p.xx)
Even Mrs Thatcher was not spared the sexism. Historians say that Mrs Thatcher’s handbags helped to channel the discomfit of the British public with a woman given unprecedented power, Britain’s only female Prime Minister to date:
Her handbag was for her a genuine symbol of womanliness was turned into a weapon when it suited her. Equally, it was used by those who resisted her forcefulness and deployed the idea of a handbag to put her down. An apparently trivial aspect of the look of the past offers rich insights into responses to Britain’s first female Prime Minister. (Jordanova, The Look of the Past, p.xxi)
There is also a play inspired by Mrs Thatcher’s handbag. Titled “Handbagged,” it is a fictionalized account of the weekly meetings between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher when the latter was in office for eleven years. The playwright, Moira Buffini reflected on how she came to create the play. Buffini is not a Thatcher fan and she wrote the play as she struggled to explain the complexity of the Thatcher phenomenon to her younger children who could not understand how her generation could celebrate the death of what looked like a “poor old lady incapacitated with dementia.” Buffini’s article is a fascinating read because she is completely honest about what or who Thatcher is and the range of reactions Thatcher provoked, particularly in Buffini herself. Thus, the playwright documents what autocratic power does to people in the most personal, emotional, and ordinary ways:
“She was a one-woman revolution, a villain, a conqueror, a witch, an icon, a horror, our saviour, our scourge, the Iron Lady, a huge foam-rubber puppet dressed as a man. In truth, Thatcher frightened me. As a teenager, I thought she was an evil person, implacable and deadly. She dealt in certainties, and I was certain she was wrong.”
Buffini also confesses about coming to respect— rather reluctantly— certain aspects of Thatcher as her research progressed. She writes:
“(Thatcher) was a giant. Her ministers were homunculi. She alone inspired our adoration and our hate. The strength of her will was astonishing. She was on top of every brief. She could have run masterclasses in Being Right and Not Listening. She alone was our government. She alone. How dangerous to democracy – and to the dramatist, how thrilling.
There was an honesty to Margaret Thatcher’s confrontational stance that politics now lacks. Our current government is demonising the poor and attacking our public services even more ruthlessly than ever, but they are doing so with a slightly pained smile, as if to remind us they are nice. And we are hardly protesting.”
Buffini could have been writing about Mr Lee and Singaporeans. But make no mistake for Buffini’s essay is not Mr Heng’s eulogy. Neither is this a grudging acknowledgment of “Mother knows best” by a once recalcitrant but now repentant child. Instead, Buffini ends with a flourish, striking a defiant note: “we were all political in the 1980s. The thing I admire most about Thatcher is that being such a fighter herself, she made fighters of us all.”” (Moira Buffini, “Margaret Thatcher Handbagged Me Into Respecting Her”, The Guardian, 8 April 2014)
In contrast to the colourful after-life of the Thatcher handbag, Mr Lee’s red box is an insipid object. It celebrates Mr Lee’s robust and loyal masculinity; it unleashes hagiographies and shallow nationalism. Then it falls silent, sitting elegantly in a gleaming glass case.
Historical artefacts do not exist outside of our stories and histories. Just with several punches of the keyboard, Mr Heng has created and given Singaporeans a much valued artefact. We can smooth over the narrative of Singapore’s passage from British colony to independent nationhood with proud proclamations of how we had done well under the sterling leadership of Mr Lee and the pioneer generation, against enemies both real and imagined. But the red box in this convenient narrative is also an incongruous symbol of nationhood because it reminds us that the colonial past is never really too far away. And so the moral of my red box story is this: once in a while, from the most unlikely of quarters, we get fragmentary glimpses of what we had collectively forgotten or suppressed, in objects that linger on, whose remarkable histories we fail to understand.
Sai Siew Min is a Taipei-based Singaporean historian. In between taking care of two very spirited daughters, she finds time to read, research and and write about Singapore history.