Paying respect to the Pioneering Generations

When I was teenager from Vietnam, I received a scholarship to come to Singapore to study in highschool. It became one of the great opportunities of my life. I made many friends, and learnt a lot. Singapore has given me not only an education, but also an inspiration for a life time.

This last week Singapore observed the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of the nation. Much has been said about his life, his characters and his achievements. He was a great leader, a great man. I did not know him personally, but he had changed my life profoundly. As I was watching the live funeral procession on streaming, I paid my silent respect to Mr. Lee. May he rest in peace.

As I followed the events in this week of mourning, I was amazed by the lines of Singaporeans from all walks who turned out to pay the last respect to Mr. Lee. I was particularly touched by the elder citizens who came in numbers, despite their frailty, to see their Prime Minister for the last time.

One of the great humbling asymmetries of life is that we will eventually grow old and frail, and our frailty in old ages does not necessarily reflect our achievements in life. Many of these people were perhaps giants in their heyday; they were builders, teachers, soldiers, trademen, fathers and mothers, and they skimmed and made sacrifices to build the roads, the houses, the hospitals, the schools, the communities, the nation that I happily lived and studied in for many years.

The construction of a pedestrian bridge at Upper Serangoon Road, source:

A good house cannot be built with bad timbers. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was a great Prime Minister, and his citizens were a great people. These people, and the following generations, were truly the pioneers who built Singapore. They greatly deserve my respect, and I humbly paid my respect from the distance.

In many ways, I am reminded of my parents and my grandparents. They, too, were the pioneers of Vietnam in a tumultuous century of wars and conflicts. Their generations made many sacrifices for the future of our people. As I talk, and listen to their stories, I learn about their history, their sadness, and their hopes. Regardless of which side they fought for or which ideology they believed in, I come to see the nobility in their purpose, and I pay respect to that nobility.

In our societies, children are taught to “pay respect” to the elders because they are the repository of history, experiences and knowledge, and because it is a kind thing to do. But I came to realize that the extraordinary history of the last century has accorded another special meaning to concept of paying respect to the elders. They deserve my respects, because they were the true pioneers who made many sacrifices for my future.

There is a saying about memories lost in time like tears in the rain. General Douglas MacArthur famously said that old soldiers never die: they just fade away. But that fading can be postponed. A fire can be rekindled until it is finally gone.

When I was in highschool, I used to follow my teachers to old people’s home for volunteer services. We came to talk and listen to the elders there. Sometime we would bring them some food, like small amount of candies or snacks. Other time we would fold papers and make origami birds and figures. We did not do much, but our little actions seemed to make a difference. I sensed they just love to be around with young(er) people.

As I graduated from highschool, I strive to preserve this habit of keeping in contact with people, especially the older people. Whenever I have some free time, I post on Facebook, write emails or send postcards; I now love receiving postcards too. After I graduated from college and found a job, I can finally afford sending care packages on a regular basis. Time management is hard for a young graduate in a big city, there are many things to do and see, but I try to call my parents at least once a week.

Little by little can be done to rekindle a fire, until it finally becomes extinguished. What is lost in time, will not be found again.