A Death, A Legend, A Son and a New Generation
Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed away and I am deeply saddened.
Our founding father is gone and I am not in Singapore.
I join my fellow countryman in mourning the loss of our great leader.
But what floods my heart too is gratitude. Every culture and people will have their legends, myths and heroes. These are essential in making them who they are. They outline the storyline from whom every person in that culture finds their place, both in time and in the world. They help them know who they are and how they got here. They help distinguish them from others. Mr. Lee is such a person for all of us.
With no war, political unrest or natural disaster to help define our identity, culture and cause, much of our “struggle for existence” was not over plagues, genocide, corruption, famine or violence. Instead, they are currently over things like transportation, wage gaps, immigration, overcrowding and better political accountability.
Mr Lee’s death is maybe the first thing that Singapore has ever been able to unite over. It is a blow to our national psyche that awakens deeper notions of nationhood, national pride, national identity and what it means to be a Singaporean. It is the one thing so far that may serve to galvanise and define us as a People; as One People. Maybe that is his gift to us.
I believe we would have loved Mr. Lee to be at the SG50 celebration, yet I would not be surprised if he didn’t mind missing it. He would not have wanted the celebration about him. He would have wanted it to be about just what he lived his life for; for Singapore and for her people. He did and would have wanted to make room for new leaders, and would be happy to see them lead, serve and be given honour. That is a mark of a great leader.
What is most poignant for me in this whole event is just how much Mr Lee was truly a man of his time. I see shades of him in the men of his time. Stoic, tough, stubborn, never doubting themselves and people of great passion. They will not bow down to others and their passions may even get in the way of caring for the feelings of others. But they were men who lived in a time of struggle, where emotions, sensitivity and care were luxuries that did not fit the calling. Mr. Lee was the one you wanted on your side in a fight. He was the one who fought for us, spoke for us, and whose voice stirred pride, identity and most importantly, hope for Singapore. Great leaders sometimes do that. They speak not out of the reality presenting them at that moment, but out of their deepest convictions, and in so doing, hoping that their convictions will become reality. They are prophetic. Mr Lee saw and hoped and used his life to turn just such a feeble hope into a reality for us all. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude (though i suspect he wouldn’t have cared much for it, at least openly).
I am usually not an angry person, but today I reserve special loathing for fellow citizens who malign Mr. Lee, calling him a despot, tyrant or dictator. If he had indeed purposed to be one, he must be judged to have failed miserably. Where is his mansion of gold? His harem of women? His private jet, fleet of sports cars and expensive suits and toys? Have we seen his house? His posessions? His schedule? What did he gain? When did he have time to spend his “ill gained wealth” or use his illegal power for himself? What was his vice? It is clear Mr Lee used his life to build Singapore and to love his wife and family. I suspect most detractors speak more out of meanness, spite and greed than real anger. A bad leader ultimately is not judged so much by the individual actions or policies that can be attached to his name. Rather, I think a leader is most judged by and hopefully most remembered for what he or she lived for. What did Mr. Lee live for? I think it is clear he lived for family and for country. Many attest to that and for that, we owe him thanks for setting a good example.
The thing I am most impressed with is the power of his decision to dedicate his life to make Singapore succeed. Perhaps it was a sense of responsibility because it was on his watch that Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia on 9 August 1965. Our founding leader cried on television in disappointment, but then later spoke steely words into our national heart that, “Singapore… will survive”. From that point on, Mr Lee did not allow himself to blame Malaysia for our plight, or make others feel sorry for ourselves. Instead, he took on the burden of the lives and welfare of the entire nation to make Singapore survive, and even thrive. It is his single-mindedness of purpose, his total commitment, coupled with his intelligence and leadership that make his story and life so remarkable. For choosing to lay down his life to serve Singapore, we owe him our admiration.
One final point. In all this, I see Mr Lee’s legacy in his son. Many people think that PM was Mr. Lee’s bid to retain power. People closer to this would know how much being in politics costs a person and his or her family. There are better ways to get rich and live a comfortable life. Just as Mr. Lee’s life was essentially a life of service, I see PM doing the same. In PM, I see a leader who is not there to carry on the great Lee name or as a lackey or puppet to extend his father’s control. What I see is a son honouring his father. I see a son doing his best to continue what his father lived his life for, that he would, as his closest disciple of sorts be able to carry his father’s burden as his own and to take it further. I see PM leading Singapore in a way that his father couldn’t and wasn’t called to do. I see him building bridges, serving with humility, candour and warmth. I see him trying his best not just to lead Singapore, but also connect with her people. PM, you have my support, respect and allegiance.
I see a son honouring his father and taking his father’s legacy to new heights. I think Singapore’s violent orphaning by Malaysia is in a way healed by a story of a father and a son. We are indeed not orphans anymore. We are whole. We have come into our own. We have fathers and we are sons. We have mothers and we are daughters. We are a people who can finally be a family because a father figure who has laid his life down for us is dead. We are a people who must now cross over this new river and to take hold of new lands of promise. We are a generation of dreamers and workers, lovers and jokers, loyal and adventurous, passionate and kind. We are a new generation ready to attack the challenges of our time with tenacity and unity. We will stand together, one for the other and all for the cause of the success of not just individuals, but of every part that makes us whole. We will be an influence in the nations around us, provoking not just envy in them, but showing kindness, service and friendship; the kind that empowers them to believe that their story is only getting better and that their children will inherit a land that is better than the one they live in now. May this be the mark, story and legacy of every Singaporean.
Thank you Mr. Lee. You lived a full and impactful life. I only hope to love Singapore like you did and serve her well too with the days I have. May you rest in peace.
Note: There should be no Lee Kuan Yew worship. He was but a man, with faults and flaws, and his legacy will overshadow his person. Indeed, no one is, or can ever be as great as his or her legend. People become heroes in life and legends in death, and legends become symbols that bear meaning beyond the actual events. Lee Kwan Yew will be a symbol not because he is most deserving, but maybe because we “need” one and he’s the best one we have. We honour him for his life. But his enduring contribution in the years to come may well be what he will continue to mean to us in our collective memory than just the stellar service of his political career.