What Charlottesville means to UVA alumnus in S'pore

On my first trip to Charlottesville in 1984, I fell in love with the place, and have been ever since. In July, I took my son Mason for his first visit, just as I had done three years earlier for his older brother Bennett.

Visiting Charlottesville and the University of Virginia (UVA) means more than just showing my children where I went to college and law school. Time at UVA and Charlottesville gives insight into how I became the person I am.

Charlottesville and UVA are synonymous - you cannot uncouple one from the other.

UVA is a true public university. Its founder was Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of America, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States. He lived in Monticello in neighbouring Albemarle County. Townspeople and students mix freely.

Jefferson's words, "All men are created equal", are the hallmark of democratic governments worldwide. He considered authoring the Declaration and being the father of UVA greater lifetime achievements than being president. Our founder was not perfect. He owned slaves. He knew it was wrong yet believed it needed to be solved by the next generation.

Today, UVA is a multicultural, multiracial, secular and global melting pot of people and ideas. No doubt Mr Jefferson, as students and alumni call him, would be proud of his creation.

Two hundred years ago, Jefferson designed the Lawn as the centre of the university. An expansive green space surrounded by housing for students and faculty, it is the site of studying, picnicking, informal sports, and graduation ceremonies.

We revere the Lawn.

The University of Virginia's revered Lawn, behind which stands the Rotunda. On Aug 12, white supremacists descended on the university to march on the Lawn, and the writer, an alumnus, is proud of the townspeople and students who stood up to defend th
The University of Virginia's revered Lawn, behind which stands the Rotunda. On Aug 12, white supremacists descended on the university to march on the Lawn, and the writer, an alumnus, is proud of the townspeople and students who stood up to defend the statue of Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university, and his ideals. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

At the head of the Lawn stands the original library, the Rotunda.

On Aug 12, watching white supremacists, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan(KKK), marching on that very Lawn made me physically ill.

These two groups elicit such strong feelings in the US because they stand for slavery, murder, rape, terror and genocide. There are not "many sides" when it comes to the KKK and neo-Nazis.

The US refers to those who fought in World War II against the Nazis as the Greatest Generation. My grandfather was one of those more than 16 million US soldiers who fought for our freedoms.

As I am proud of my grandfather and his compatriots, so too am I proud of the townspeople and students who stood up to the torch brigade that night defending the statue of Jefferson and his ideals - our ideals - in front of the Rotunda.

Sadly, on Aug 13, the situation became even worse and tragic. We mourn the murder of Ms Heather Heyer. She deserves a memorial to celebrate that for which she stood and for which she died.

But what comes next for UVA, Charlottesville - and America?

The president of UVA wrote, "our community of trust and mutual respect can come together and further demonstrate and underscore our shared values".

The president in the White House stated that some who protested against the removal of Robert E. Lee's statue were "fine people". Lee was general of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.

I do not have the right nor the ability to compare race relations in US to those in Singapore, my home for the last 14 years.

However, I see how Singapore's leaders approach the subject.

Last November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that this year's Singapore presidential election would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, as there had been no such president since 1970.

The Straits Times reported this change was made because there is a fundamental need for the presidency to be multiracial, and that the time for such a change was before any problems show up.

"Every citizen, Chinese, Malay, Indian, or some other race, should know that someone of his community can become president, and in fact from time to time, does become president," PM Lee said.

This past week, I have been e-mailing UVA Professor Larry Sabato. We have corresponded regularly in the nearly 30 years since he taught me. He lives on the Lawn and witnessed these horrific events. Right afterwards, I asked: "What's next for UVA and Charlottesville?"

He wrote in reply: "Sometimes, it takes the face of evil to bring out the good in people. We will pull together and try to make sense of this, then work constructively with students and faculty to share the lessons with all."

A poem written by a UVA graduate in 1903 goes "I have worn the honors of Honor. I have graduated from Virginia".

With university presidents like Ms Teresa Sullivan and professors like Mr Sabato, Charlottesville citizens like Ms Heyer and UVA students who protected the grounds and amassed on the Lawn to show who we really are, I am certain those words will hold true for another century.

Those people are, to me, why America is great.

• The writer is the founder and CEO of APAC Advisors, and has lived and worked in Singapore since 2003. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia School of Law.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'What Charlottesville means to UVA alumnus in S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe