Lee Kuan Yew – A Tribute

April 07, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

I spent the first 17 years of my life in Singapore. In my early childhood, I recall sitting at a dinner party, where Singapore’s founding father, and first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was being discussed. As always, people were speculating on his leadership, his firm grip over the tiny island. 

“Say what you want, but really Singapore will be nothing without him.” I can hear the words replay in my head like it happened last week. 

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Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away peacefully two weeks ago on 23 March, at 3.18am, at the age of 91. I was writing a paper around 4am that morning, and I refreshed my Facebook newsfeed, only to see Singapore’s Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s official statement, declaring his father’s passing. I sat still for a minute…a Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew? I couldn’t imagine it.

Singapore spent the week of his passing in mourning. I wish I had been there to witness it – people queued up for almost 10 hours in Singapore’s scorching sun, for one or two seconds in the Parliament House to pay their respects to the late Mr Lee. This nation of almost six million people were unified in their grief. Race, background, religion and other individual differences between  Singaporeans were sidelined, as people gathered together to both, share their sorrow and celebrate the life of this incredible leader.

On Saturday, 28 March, I went to the General Consulate of Singapore in Hong Kong to pay my respects, and write condolences in a book, as most overseas-based Singaporeans were doing over the last week. What I saw during my visit was painfully touching. First, remaining true to Singaporean behaviour the consulate, was very efficient in handling the large groups of people who came to pay respects, segregating the crowd in two waiting rooms, and providing everyone with queue numbers. People present at the consulate were from many different ethnic backgrounds. I instantly felt a bout of homesickness. Elderly couples clutched each other, parents were wheeling their children in prams, and single individuals were sitting patiently. But all the waiting was done in a sombre silence, many people holding white roses, and even more people holding back their tears.

A friend asked me why I even bothered to go to the embassy. “Oh, I didn’t know you knew Lee Kuan Yew personally!” he joked, sarcastically (ignorantly).

I know simply going to the consulate and signing a condolence book may seem rather inane, but the act provided an indescribable sense of closure for everyone there – including myself. People were heaving sobs while writing, young men who had taken part in Singapore’s National Service were saluting Mr Lee’s photograph, and elderly couples were ever-so-slowly kneeling down to lay their white flowers.

Then on Sunday, 29 March, was his funeral. I was walking in Central while live-streaming the funeral on my phone, rapidly refreshing the page and cursing my bad network. When the funeral finished, a siren was played throughout Singapore, and a minute of silence followed. I stood still to honour the minute, while people in Central rushed all around me. Following the silence, the nation recited the pledge, and lastly, sang the national anthem. During Singapore streets were lined with people, waiting patiently in the relentless rain, for his casket to pass – for their last goodbye.

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It rained the day Mr Lee died, and it rained during his funeral. Singaporeans were commenting on Facebook posts, saying that even the heavens are crying for him. I called my father on Sunday evening, and he said the oddly rain stopped 15 minutes after his casket was taken away, an oddly poignant coincidence.

Mr Lee is rightfully credited for devoting his life to the small, proud nation. He is a man who created one of the world’s most successful economics. This man built a country in his lifetime. Put it into perspective, and you’ll realise how remarkable this really is.

Throughout the week, I read Mr Lee’s obituaries from global news organisations (e.g. The Straits Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, TIME, etc.). Some stories were repetitive, some slyly critical, some with a unique stand. But none denied the brilliance of this man, and the significance of his role in turning Singapore from a “kampong” (a Malaysian enclosure or village), to one of the world’s most successful cities. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen Singapore transform myself. In the early 2000s, the nation was still somewhat bare, and was known for nothing more than being a tiny little dot on the world map, housed comfortably in a corner of South East Asia. Today, Singapore is the model global city, embodying success as an outcome of perseverance. The city’s growth and prosperity continues to burgeon and thrive.

Yet, after Mr Lee’s passing, I was frequently asked the following questions multiple times (just paraphrased):

“How can you live in a city which is so controlled?”

“Haha Singapore, didn’t they like, ban chewing gum?”
“Isn’t it impossible to survive where there’s no freedom?”

My answer is simple: no it isn’t impossible, living here is a privilege.

I can walk the streets at 3am without fear, because the punishment for crime in Singapore is also a successful deterrent. Or I can stroll through green parks with my little sister, and not groan about stepping into trash, because people are motivated to keep the streets of Singapore clean. Am I happy about everything? Of course not. I do have complaints about several things. But for the most part, my life here has been thoroughly comfortable, largely due to the rigid policies Singapore has upheld all these years – policies brought into a system Mr Lee created.

Singaporeans are cushioned with support, and empowerment welfare surpassing what previous generations. Students are provided with scholarships, the education system is at its best, young families are given compensation and the job market is also moving towards giving local workers more opportunities. In 50 years, every survival essential (electricity, clean water, safety, housing) has been met in Singapore, thanks to the government Mr Lee founded.

(And chewing gum is not illegal. It just can’t be bought or sold, but it can be brought in and happily chewed.)

This year, on August 9, Singapore turns 50 years old, and I wish Mr Lee could have seen that. It was indeed a dark week for any Singaporean. But look at the world’s reaction over this passing: world leaders from countries all over the globe arrived in Singapore for his funeral to pay their respects, every major news organisation wrote an obituary for Mr. Lee and individuals around the world mourned for the loss of an extraordinary man. The impact of his passing was unlike that of any other leader or celebrity, which speaks volumes for the respect he commanded, globally. I hope his legacy continues to be revered, as it should be.


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