Mr Lee: My Perspective

Friday, March 27, 2015

My parents have always been mostly pro-government and growing up, I've been constantly been told that the People's Action Party had the best leadership in the country and that no other party could compare, at least for the near future. And Mr Lee Kuan Yew, they said, is a brilliant man who together with his stellar team of leaders transformed Singapore from almost nothing into what it is today.

I suppose, now, we'd say that he was a brilliant man.

Mr Lee passed away five days ago on 23 March 2015. Since then, the outpouring of tributes, of condolence messages, of grief, is unlike anything that I have ever witnessed before. It is probably safe to conclude that I have never seen Singapore in such a state of unity, where we are completely united by one common reason. Even in death, Mr Lee's influence never ceases to amaze. Over the last couple of days, I have been caught up with examinations in junior college but even then, the impact of Mr Lee's passing has been tremendous; there is absolutely no way one could have missed it, whether in Singapore or overseas. Up till now, I could not properly set time aside to consolidate my thoughts on Mr Lee Kuan Yew but to a certain extent, I am glad I didn't rush into it - I want to write something that accurately encapsulates some personal little moments where Mr Lee has made an appearance in my life.

Of course, there has already been so many tributes written on him and I fully agree with most, if not all of them, about how his legacy will continue to live with us - all around us in everything that we have today in modern Singapore - amongst other pretty generic yet still very true and sincere words of admiration for our first Prime Minister. Why, then, am I still adding on to the hundreds, thousands of messages? Because while similar, Mr Lee has made a profound impact on each individual and I would just like to recount some of the impressions he has made on me. Also, I believe that when I look back on my blog in future, it would be a timely reminder to think back about these moments and know that the historical figure that future generations will come to learn of was a living, breathing human being during my time. And that is such an honour, no less.

Of course, I do acknowledge that not every single one of Mr Lee's policies have been perfect and in fact, have caused many to suffer. In multiple General Paper essays (mostly because one of favourite topics to write about would be on censorship), I've cited the example of political exiles that have suffered under his political reign and the fact that we aren't even allowed to talk about things like that anymore in any form of public medium. While it is important to be aware of such instances so that we'd be able to learn from the past and these things aren't exactly discussed in our society, in this period of time, I do believe that such topics should be handled with more tact rather than blatantly criticizing the man lying in state at the moment.

As a child, I've always looked up to the top shelf of my mum's bookshelf in the study room. I couldn't reach them, but the book titles were always in clear view. They were the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, and they belonged to my mum. She was a self-professed "fan", and had a whole load of admiration and respect for him. As I grew slightly older, I did attempt to read them, but I remember stopping at one of the first few chapters and somehow I just didn't continue. Perhaps I still wasn't intellectually ready for a book of such a calibre and I never got to reading it anymore since then. I should soon.

One of my fondest recollections where Mr Lee's name would pop up during family conversations would be the times where my mum would chide my dad about how "every successful man, like Lee Kuan Yew, treats his wife very well" and the reason why my dad wasn't "successful" was because he didn't treat her well. I liked to hear it when she said it in jest and would laugh along. My dad would rebut saying that "behind every successful man, there is a good wife" and I'd be amused to no end. But I think these small things are very telling as to how Singaporeans, especially my parents' generation, genuinely do see him as a role model of sorts.

I suppose the closest I've ever gotten to Mr Lee would be in Hong Kong when I was eight. I got to see him up close in person, as a wax figurine in a wax museum. I remember very distinctly that his figure was across one of Albert Einstein and I wondered, "why would someone from our country be featured here?" At that point in time, and to be honest only up until his death, I don't think I ever realized the international influence he had and the respect he gained from so many others across borders. I was still genuinely surprised to find out that so many renowned international brands changed their Facebook profile pictures to a grey-scale one to commemorate Mr Lee's passing. At the museum, my mum offered to take a photograph of me with his figurine but I declined, rather taking photographs with wax statues of Angelina Jolie, of Jackie Chan, or glitzy glamorously-clad singers I don't even know the names of but took photos with anyway because they made for better photo opportunities. I did take one for my mum though, and as she stood beside her idol, I made sure to align the angle so that it would seem like he was looking into the camera and it would look more realistic. She was very pleased.

If there's anyone else I know who's a bigger fan of Mr Lee than my mum, it would be my grandparents, especially my grandfather. I remember sitting on the floor beside him on his bamboo chair and he would turn towards me, educating me on the history of Singapore, from his personal perspective. "你知道李光耀总理吗?以前,新加坡什么都没有,尤其是在战国时期。生活真的很困苦;但是现在我们能够这么舒服地过日子,全靠李光耀,真的。。。你们年轻人不会明白的啦" While he places too much emphasis on Mr Lee alone, rather than his entire team of leaders, these mini History lessons were something that I will remember for a long time to come because it's always the older generation who have truly experienced the impact of Mr Lee's brilliance and the first hand account is always very valuable. I do try my best to understand, no matter how my grandfather would dismiss it.

Every national day parade, the person whose entrance I look forward to the most, especially in recent years with his weakening health, would undoubtedly be Mr Lee. There's just something very special about him attending the parade every single year without fail, as Prime Minister, Senior Minister, Minister Mentor or even not as a Cabinet Minister. Seeing the crowd rise to greet him, and their reactions upon seeing this great man is always a heartwarming feeling. As one of the MPs have said previously, his absence this year at the SG50 NDP would be extremely poignant but I suppose his demise marking half a century of Singapore's independence is quite fitting and it marks the post- Lee Kuan Yew era. The future is blank, but not bleak and I think this serves as a reminder for Singaporeans to come together and work on a future we'd like to live in as one.

While I have on several instances questioned the credibility of my Social Studies and History textbooks (was it mere propaganda?) and I remember in Secondary Three or Four (those were my cynic years, though I was still staunchly pro-government) for a Social Studies examination, I wrote a piece against one of Mr Lee's speeches, perhaps because it was easier to argue and look for loopholes within it, one truly cannot discount the statistics and figures that define modern Singapore. Most recently, on the day of Mr Lee's passing, I had my History Common Test and one of the components would be Southeast Asia's economic growth and having to make comparisons between the SEA countries and Singapore stands out consistently in terms of actual numbers that reflect the effectiveness of his policies, however harsh they might have been. As a History student, it has always been such a pain having to memorize so much content to be used as pieces of evidence in our essays and normally I go with the motions, plainly studying for the sake of studying but with his passing on that very morning, it made me feel something more as I did the paper and I hope the emotional investment I felt would not just be a passing moment but something that stays with me.

I think what to me is really unsettling would be that future generations of Singaporeans won't get to see him in the flesh and he will merely be a historical figure to them. Definitely, they will be able to feel his impact all around in modern Singapore, as so many have said before but I think the appreciation they might feel will be starkly different and it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable having to come to terms with that. As the country mourns his passing and celebrates his contributions, it has been very heartwarming reading the accounts of kindness being shown when Singaporeans queue up to pay their last respects to Mr Lee at the Parliament House, and it's especially lovely considering Singaporeans and us queuing up have always been synonymous with the "kiasu" notion. I have newfound faith in my country, thank you Mr Lee for showing us a side of Singaporeans I've never witnessed before.

With that, for the final time, thank you Mr Lee.

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