Celebrating Bonny Hicks' Passion for Life
● 杜维明教授 By Prof. Tu Weiming
Professor Tu of the Harvard University and Director of
the Harvard-Yenching Institute met Bonny Hicks once in
Singapore at the Conference on Thinking. He was deeply
impressed by her cultural outlook, particularly her
knowledge in Confucianism. On the occasion of the first
anniversary of the SilkAir crash, he wrote this article to
express his sense of sorrow and loss of a young lady whose
life was so eventful yet colourful.
In sharp contrast to Hobbes' cynic view of human
existence, Bonny Hicks exemplified a form of life that is
loving, caring and sharing. Even though she died at the
tender age of 29, she had lived colourfully, vibrantly and
True to the intensity of her passion for embracing the
vicissitudes of the lived experience that cosmopolitan
Jarkata and Singapore can offer, she was often in
betweenness: "Heaven can wait, but I won't !" Yet, she was
not in a hurry and she did not strike me as being restless.
My only face-to-face encounter with her, a brief
conversation after my presentation at the International
Conference on Thinking at the Singapore Convention Hall in
June 1997, gave me the distinct impression that she was
self-possessed and self-confident in a calm and unassuming
way. I at the time was unaware of her career as a model and
her highly publicised entrance into the Singapore literary
My knowledge about her life history is limited; I have
not yet had an opportunity to read Excuse Me, Are You a
Model? If I had, I might have agreed with her critique that
what she disclosed in her autobiographic presentation was
indeed "too much, too soon." What I have to say about her
1990 self-description, when she was only 22, is
inconsequential. However, I feel impelled to join her circle
of friends in sharing my sense of sorrow and loss on the
first anniversary of her sudden death in the tragic SilkAir
crash on December 19, 1997.
Bonny Hicks appeared to me to be the paradigmatic
example of an autonomous, free-choosing individual who
decided early on to construct a lifestyle congenial to her
idiosyncratic sense of self-expression. As "a Singaporean of
mixed parentage (English and Chinese) living in Jakarta" and
as a child growing up in a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual
environment ("My neighbours were Malays, Indians and other
Chinese dialect groups"), Bonny seemed to have learned to
cross cultural boundaries. While she found a comfortable
niche in the betwixt and between of dominant cultural
traditions, her longing to return to the roots that her
grandmother, through exemplary teaching, had planted in her
inner psyche, remained strong and persistent.
Her impassioned attachment to Granny (Porpor) enabled
her to build a bridge to a world where cultural
sophistication, without literacy and true communication
beyond words, is taken for granted. Although she was
nourished in the loving care of her Porpor's understanding
("the need to be independent, to explore, to travel"), she
had to transcend Granny's parochialism (that is, politically
incorrect racial attitudes) to be "colour-blind" and to see
people as they are. She was primarily a seeker of meaningful
existence, a learner.
In her constant search for the purpose that would give
her life meaning, she discovered Confucian humanism.
Specifically, she rediscovered that the Confucian way of
learning to be human involves active participation in
society rather than passive acceptance of the status quo.
Through reading and reflection, she realised that the
Confucian "learning for the sake of the self" requires
critical thinking and experiential knowing. That recognition
prompted her to recognise the Confucian roots in her soul.
As she began to embrace her heritage, she was able to argue
against those who condemned the Confucian tradition as
submissive. Once she decided to put into focus her purpose—
"the study and conscious practice of Confucianism"—she
embarked on an intellectual journey to become a college
student. Her letter to me (dated November 21, 1997),
together with the application essay, clearly indicated a new
selfhood in creative transformation.
...Confucianism in its totality is enlightening and
uplifting. It teaches one that learning to be human is
learning to be moral and above all, Confucianism celebrates
this life and believes in the perfectibility of the human
being... I now want to make that which has been implicit in
my life explicit."
The world that Bonny Hicks chose for herself may seem
incommensurable with the Confucian sense of situatedness.
Indeed, she so much cherished freedom of inquiry, movement
and association that it is difficult to imagine that she
would have chosen to lead a typical life of career, marriage
She did for a long while see Confucianism in terms of
submissiveness, obedience, and conventionality. However, as
soon as she recognised that behind the Confucian insistence
on responsibility, civility and decency is the primacy of
creativity and transformation as an integral part of one's
commitment to learning to be human, she put the idea into
practice not only as an interpreter but also as an activist.
Bonny Hicks' article, "I think and feel, therefore I am"
published posthumously in the Straits Times (December 28,
1997) strikes a sympathetic resonance in my heart and mind.
Her reflection on the Chinese character si ("thinking" or
"thought") was an obvious response to my address on the
World Conference on Thinking. It is particularly gratifying
to learn that her gloss on my idea tizhi (embodied knowing)
took on new shades of meaning readily accessible to the
"Thinking is more than just conceiving ideas and drawing
inferences; thinking is also reflection and contemplation.
When we take embodied thinking rather than abstract
reasoning as a goal for our mind, then we understand that
thinking is a transformative act.
The mind will not only deduce, speculate, and
comprehend, but it will also awaken, will, enlighten and
Si, is how I have thought, and always will think."
In a piece in memory of her Porpor, Bonny confessed that
she believed in life after death, that her Porpor continued
to live in another realm, that someday, she would be with
her again. "Right now," she reiterated, "I miss talking to
her, touching her, hearing her." Bonny made her debut as a
student of Confucian learning by submitting a letter to the
Straits Times challenging what she maintained was "the lack
of understanding of Confucianism as it was intended to be
and the political version of the ideology to which we are
exposed today." Her attempt at the archaeology of knowledge
to retrieve the contemporary message of Confucian teaching
lasted only a few months. Yet, since she ruminated on
Confucian humanism not only with her head but with her body
and soul, she was well on her way to becoming an articulate
transmitter of the Confucian way. I deeply lament her
untimely death but I truly cherish the fleeting moments
talking to her, reading her thoughts, and experientially
knowing, if only a glimpse, of her life of the mind.