Boston and Singapore : Two generations of ties

Old phrases can often be misleading to an outsider.

If you’re a Boston Brahmin, the tree you cherish more than any other is not a fir, a redwood, an elm or a maple.

It’s your family tree.

Who you are here depends in large part on who your forefathers were. And in case you’re wondering, the Boston Brahmins are not Brahmins, either.

The purely tongue-in-cheek term, coined 150 years ago, described true gentry, rather than the crass commercial johnny-come-latelies.

In this predominantly white, majority-Irish city, you couldn’t simply become a Boston Brahmin; you had to be born into the role. And it wasn’t enough to be an old-money aristocrat, either.

You had to be refined, intellectual and dignified. But above all, you had to be eternally discreet.

The historic city has a series of interesting links to Singapore. With education being a major part of its culture, its universities have attracted at least two generations of Singaporean students.

Among them was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Many other prominent Singaporeans who have distinguished themselves in academia, policy-making and the public sector were educated at Harvard, MIT and other historic Boston colleges.

Not surprisingly, it was Boston’s unique student culture and lifestyle that Singapore once hoped to emulate in order to become the Boston of the east.

The city’s rich commitment to education is a faithful reflection of the fact that it was home to America’s first public school. Boston authorities refer proudly to their city as “America’s college town” and it continues to draw students not just from American cities but from around the world as well.

The other identifiable link between Boston and Singapore is tourism, a major part of the economy of both cities.

Visually, too, tourists find an immediate connection between Boston and Singapore. Our own Duck tours, which draw so many overseas visitors, actually started in Boston, the first city to use amphibious vehicles to treat tourists to a unique experience both on land and on water.

Honouring the link between the two cities, an estimated 17 Singaporeans took part in Monday’s ill-fated Boston Marathon.

And the tragedy at the finish line inspired Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong to post a Facebook message about the attack.

“Very shocked to hear about the explosions at the Boston Marathon,” he wrote. “I was in Boston in 2003, and remember participating in the event then (did the half-marathon).

“To runners, the Boston Marathon is considered the ‘holy grail’ of marathons. It's a wonderful, inspiring event - the entire course is full of fans coming together to cheer the runners along, especially near the finish line.

“It saddens me when I think of how many of these spectators have been injured by the blast. My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this horrific incident.”Apart from Boston’s connection to history and sport, it also has a strong link to politics.

One city address that occupies a place in history is 83 Beals Street, a graceful home with cream steps, railings, balcony, a manicured lawn and flagpole.

It was once home to the country’s most illustrious political family, the Kennedys. It was here that the late President John F. Kennedy was born in 1917 and it was in this neighbourhood, famous for the rattle of tramcars, that he spent his childhood with his siblings.

Today, Boston is much more than just a port or a tourist attraction or a city known for its financial services. It is a central hub for medicine, while education is a major part of its culture, contributing more than US$5 billion (S$6.1 billion) annually to the city’s coffers.

The city’s Logan Airport, however, made its own sombre mark on US history in 2000. Its notoriously lax security systems were a major factor in the airport being used by 10 of the hijackers who changed the world on Sep 11 that year.

One day, there will perhaps be a plaque commemorating yesterday’s tragedy. But for now, the city must grieve before the healing process begins.

However, Boston must know it is not alone as it seeks comfort. The city’s Boylston Road has many elements in common with Orchard Road. Not surprisingly, therefore, the marathon tragedy touches our hearts with sorrow too.