Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Doctor and a Gentleman

There has been a rash of books published by Singaporeans on Singapore in the last few years. Mr Lee Kuan Yew published his memoirs some time back, and the latest on him, which has stirred up not a bit of controversy, is actually out of stock in many bookstores due to overwhelming demand. Then there is the tome written by some former Straits Times journalist on the history of the PAP. Even President S.R. Nathan has weighed in with an account of his time with seamen. A month ago, I picked up another book, a thinner and more 'manageable' book, also on Singapore, but on a subject, or more precisely, on a Malayan Singaporean. Why a Malayan Singaporean? Because he lived till 1954, well before Singapore obtained self-government in 1959 and eventually independence in 1965. But Dr Charles Joseph Pemberton Paglar was, in his lifetime, very much a Singapore native, and the book "Dr Paglar: Everyman's Hero" by Rex Shelley (with Chen Fen) recounts the life and times of this hero of Singapore. Dr Paglar was a Eurasian, the offspring of an illicit relation between an Indian women and a British planter by the name of Pemberton. And as offsprings of illicit relations went at that time, he was sent away (abandoned is perhaps a better word here) to a convent in Penang (Malaysia) in which he grew up.

He was eventually adopted by Alexander Paglar and his wife, both of whom were Catholics and Eurasians. Dr Paglar migrated to Singapore in 1910, while still a young man, to further his education. He eventually won a Queens scholarship to study medicine in Britain. Dr Paglar later returned to Singapore and set up his medical practice. He got married, and became friends with the lowly and the royalty - specifically the Sultan of Johor, who made him his personal physician. The Second World War, while disruptive, did not change his routine - he still practiced medicine although medicine was hard to come by, for which he turned to the Japanese conquerors. Therein lies the controversy of his 'collusion' with the enemy. But the book attempts to explain his rationale for working with the Japanese, which was for the good of his own people and the poor and defenseless.

After the war, he turned to helping rebuild Singapore society, and in particular sports. He was very generous with his money and time. The Singapore Badminton Hall still stands as a testimony to his effort, amongst many other facilities. Alas his life in politics proved short-lived. He was elected to the Legislative council in 1951 but died in 1954.

This is a simple book. It doesn't dwell into great detail. For example, Dr Paglar was married 4 times, but the circumstances and reasons for his first divorce are hardly mentioned, and the narrative is also silent on his other marital relationships beyond a single sentence that hinted that he had a weakness for women. But otherwise, the book does introduce you to the man and his times in a short read. The other plus about this book is that it is filled with pages and pages of photographs, some of which show society in a now long forgotten era in Singapore's history.