It has been well over a year since I last updated this blog (for reasons I may or may not one day divulge), and as I sit here in my living room watching the funeral procession of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, I can’t help but put pen to paper or, erm, fingers to keyboard.
Singapore lost her founding father six days ago, on March 23, sparking a week of mourning. And mourn we did, with half a million people queuing for up to 10 hours to pay their final respects to his body at Parliament House, and another 850,000 visiting community sites to pay tribute to a man who is – I say “is” because he still is – well respected, not just in Singapore but across the globe in both Eastern and Western worlds.
The Internet has been split. First came tear-jerking tributes written swiftly by local media outlets and everyday Singaporeans. Half a day later, writers and journalists from the other side of the world had caught up. Some of them were kind, with tributes that addressed what he had done for our tiny island-state. Some were somewhat balanced, acknowledging his merits while bringing up his iron fist and authoritarian style of governing. And some, were just plain nasty, harping on his… unpopular decisions, such as him using the Internal Security Act, endorsing capital punishment, banning chewing gum etc.
Then finally came the rebuttal to Western liberalists who lament that Singapore’s success came at the cost of basic liberties like freedom of speech or… the right to chew gum. Written by an expat who had spent a 14 years in Singapore, a former NMP writing for The Independent and a Singapore resident who chose to make Singapore her home, these commentaries paint freedom in a different light.
Freedom, they say, isn’t simply the right to speak as you wish, spray paint graffiti on walls, own guns or chew gum. It’s the ability to walk on the streets without being afraid of getting mugged, to have women return home late at night alone without worrying too much about getting raped, or to get into a cab without being afraid of getting cheated.
Of course, there’s a wide spectrum of stories out there, but it’s hard to keep track of the many quotes, stories, opinion pieces, commentaries etc floating around on the web.
On a local front, we lauded him for taking Singapore from third-world to first in a single generation. But we admired him even more for the love he had for his late wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, who passed away at home in 2010 while Mr Lee was in hospital.
Their story is one that would melt the heart of any. Secret marriage, matching intellects, and a loving dedication to each other that drove him to read poetry to her every night for years when she was bedridden from a stroke.
It’s funny, but when I was a young girl in the 90s, I recall adults grumbling about Mr Lee’s “dictatorship” when he was ruling from 1965 to 1990. Somehow, over the years, as he softened, so did people’s views on him.
When his love story with Mdm Kwa emerged, we started to see Mr Lee Kuan Yew as more than just a politician. He was human.
And now, more stories of his kindness have sprung up – many from those of the Pioneer Generation, revealing actions that could not have been of a cruel “dictator”.
I read about the old man whom Mr Lee had helped in court decades ago, his kindness to journalist Chua Mui Hoong when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and most touching of all, the letters he wrote to the late Mrs Patricia Ng who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer back in 2003. Perhaps that last one was particularly moving for me, as I was close friends with her youngest daughter back then and had attended her funeral.
The best gauge of a person after he has passed isn’t from the laws he had passed, the public speeches he had made or the books he had written. It’s the personal memories people have of him. And so far, most or all personal anecdotes circulating on the web to do with Mr Lee are indicative of a kind, warmhearted man.
Sure, now isn’t the time for people to reveal scathing memories of their interactions with him, but that wouldn’t have stopped the most vengeful of people. And, yes, he has made unpopular decisions. But as he said during an interview with the New York Times in 2010: “I’m not saying everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.”
I don’t know about you, but Mr Lee Kuan Yew as he is portrayed today strikes me as a man capable of great love – for his family, and for his nation. And if there was just one thing we can learn from him, it’s his ability to have such love for the things that matter to us.
We cannot deny the love he had for his wife, and we cannot deny the love he had for his nation. If he did things that people disagree with, I somehow think he did it for the good of the country; I don’t believe he was the sort to chase ambition, fame and glory.
A taxi driver once told me the People’s Action Party (PAP) used to rule with the love for the country – and I can’t help but think he was talking about Lee Kuan Yew and his generation of leaders.
In the past week, his death has probably brought out more kindness in Singaporeans than the Singapore Kindness Movement has in its 18 years of existence. People bringing food and water for avid queue-ers, staying up late to ensure everyone is well-fed and watered, letting the handicapped and elderly in ahead of them before the priority lane was set up, and the list just goes on.
Strange things happened this morning. Pedestrians waved “thank you” to us with a smile as they crossed the roads, and a cleaning auntie at Tampines Round Market thanked me for visiting the food centre.
I’m not sure if people are feeling particularly benevolent to their fellow countrymen in this period of our nations’ mourning, but I really hope it lasts.
It would be nice if Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy were more than our economy and sky scrapers, but a kind nation capable of great love.
Perhaps the best way to commemorate Mr Lee’s legacy is to live life with love, be it for our family, our country, our jobs, our neighbours or wherever our passions lie.
People question, how has Lee Kuan Yew affected you in any way? Well, apart from owing my entire life as it is to him, Mr Lee is an inspiration to be tenacious (even in chasing lofty dreams that involve making a country lacking in natural resources a first-world nation); to be brave in making tough, unpopular choices; to be kind even if there is no gain to be had, political or otherwise; and to love.
Now, as I watch the cortege travelling through iconic landmarks of Singapore, and thousands of Singaporeans lined up along the route chanting his name, throwing bouquets, singing “We are Singapore”, shouting “We love you”, I can’t help but think many would agree.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy: 21 Times Lee Hsien Loong totally nailed the whole social media thing, 18 Awesome Street Snacks from Singapore’s Past and The Infinite Amount of Times Singaporeans Really Looked Out For Each Other. Or click here for more Singapore stories.