The inevitable happened today- Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, passed away at 3.18 a.m. It’s as if the pent up breaths of a nation have been suddenly exhaled, the collective release of sighs that starts the process of grief.
Readers of this blog probably know little of Singapore’s history. Mr. Lee was our Washington, our Jefferson, our Lincoln. In our nation’s 50 short years of independence, he was both visionary and navigator, architect and moral compass.
Growing up in the 80’s, my knowledge of Singapore’s early tumultuous years were limited to text books and national education. I have no stories of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, no anecdotes of racial riots, no first hand experience of Singapore’s early struggles. Instead, my generation grew up with Singa the courtesy lion and Teamy the productivity bee, with a HDB roof over our heads, universal primary education, and with stories of our forebears drilled into us. My generation lived the policies of which Mr. Lee was a linchpin – we played and studied in public schools regardless of race, language, religion. We studied our socks off, tested in seemingly interminable examinations, even before we knew how to spell “meritocracy” and what it entailed. As my generation grew older, as did our horizon and perspectives. University modules and readings would present a different facet of our nation’s early years, perhaps as a reminder that to the victor belongs the spoils. Western media became louder and harder to ignore, and it was impossible not to hear about the perceived freedoms we have apparently given up in our march to first world nation. We were famously called the Disneyland with the Death Penalty, and often criticized for a multitude of lacks ranging from press freedom to chewing gum.
So you see, Mr. Lee was neither a stranger to controversy, nor one to avoid it. While he was in power, he did what he thought was right for Singapore, stuck with it, saw things through. He went after “troublemakers” with a bulldog tenacity, even if they were large Western media outlets with deep pockets. And when circumstances changed, Mr. Lee was not too obdurate to change course – case in point, Singapore’s two casinos. Through it all, his guiding principles for a meritocratic, multiracial Singapore never wavered and remained firmly entrenched in our national psyche. George Yeo, an ex-cabinet minister, aptly referred to a Latin epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It says “If you seek his monument, look around”. si monumentum requiris, circumspice. How fitting, I thought, for a man whose life work is Singapore.
Rest in peace, Mr. Lee.
Images credit: SG50