Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed on.
The man, who had more fire in his little finger than the rest of us possess in our whole bodies.
I will not deify him, for there were people who suffered from his decisions. Singaporeans who were detained without trial, who were exiled and thus separated for decades from their family, due to ideological differences. He chose to see things in black and white, and would rather go the whole hog in totally eradicating all trace of threat, rather than leave room for mercy, perhaps because that may bring with it the danger of resurgence.
He rose to power from the strength of labour unions, but quashed them thereafter because he recognised how dangerous they could be to the incumbent.
Overall, in his own words, he did what he believed was the right thing to do at that time. And it was probably this constant unwavering self-belief, applied to all things, that has brought this nation this far.
He was not a man whom we could have in half-measure. It was all of him, Lee Kuan Yew, consistently; all or nothing. And on balance, our mudflat of a nation benefited from that. He had a clear vision for our country, and unwaveringly pursued it. With intelligent, well-researched advice from trusted colleagues, he and the Old Guard forged forward, working tirelessly, with no regard for self-gain, to earn a better life for this motley population of Singaporeans.
I like this photo, because I’d like to remember him this way.
With a mind sharper than any kris, and the iron will to tenaciously push his beliefs from drawing board to final implementation, his was not a personality for vacuous niceties, even when meeting with foreign heads of state.
He said what he meant, and meant what he said. Reading the Hansard circa 1960s-1970s gives a glimpse at how fiery he was, and how exciting Parliament debates were then. His cutting and pithy sayings are many, and whilst I do not agree with all of them, they certainly show how he has never minced his words:
Those who married spouses who are not as bright are tearing their hair out because their children can’t make it. I have lived long enough to see all this play out.”
“So when the graduate man does not want to marry a graduate woman, I tell him he’s a fool, stupid. You marry a non-graduate, you’re going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright. You’ll be tearing your hair out. you can’t miss.”
– Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (2012)
“If we had considered them serious political figures, we would not have kept them politically alive for so long. We could have bankrupt them earlier.”
– The Straits Times, Sept 14 2003
“I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore story: The Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
– The Straits Times, 20 April 1987
His oratory might have been loud, but his actions were louder, in some ways. Like many other Singaporeans, my family and I were personal beneficiaries from his belief in meritocracy, as well as his sheer will in institutionalising a clean government, rightfully decimating the corrupt along the way.
All through their lives, my parents have spoken of him in high regard. They were first hand witnesses, of the drastic progress he brought about. My parents were born in post war poverty, having to eat rice with weevils, sing God save the Queen and experience dropping out of school to work because they needed to support their siblings. He was their hero, the Cambridge-educated peranakan boy, who stood up to the British and would not be a second-class citizen in the land of his birth.
His policies made it possible for my parents to own long leases on their homes, for their children to get educated in some of the best universities in the world, not from legacy or hereditary right, but from hard work and the availability of background-blind scholarships.
Singaporeans do not have healthcare woes that the UK and US were (and in some sense still are) embattled with. No matter how poor, no one is denied basic care due to its in-affordability or subject to ridiculous waiting times.
His belief in multiracialism, and how we could never allow ourselves to go the way of our neighbour in the north, effected itself in the somewhat rudimentary and outwardly blunt racial quotas for HDB flats. It does not seem elegant, but it works. There is still some tension arising from different cultural practices of people living in such close proximity even today, but the alternative of insular racial enclaves that breed unfamiliarity and distrust, is certainly less desirable.
His forceful pursuit of economic success raised the tide level, and with it all boats floated higher. It is from our current privileged circumstances (including our sizeable economic reserves) that we can begin to focus more on social equity, and actively pull up those who have fallen behind.
Beyond all the miracles of nation building, Mr Lee, what touched me the most was your steadfast love for your wife. You married in secret, and loved her all your life. What an example for the rest of us in this generation. I always chuckle when I recall the story of how she’d chide you, saying “Can’t you see how frightened the man is?”, as you let it go on some poor sod. And you would ease up a little, because you were the man who always paid heed to your beloved wife. Your constant, gentle care for her as her health declined is legendary and very inspiring. Would that all our marriages finish so beautifully, through better and worse, through sickness and health.
Through it all, what hit me the hardest was how little you personally gained from it all. You fought for higher pay for ministers, so that they would not have to trade off massive pay-cuts in addition to the loss of privacy and the squalor of politics. But you lived simply, and this room in your personal home where you apparently spent a lot of time in, is almost spartan. It looks like you have not changed the furnishings since the 1970s. How many politicians, all round the world, past, present and future, can say that they maintained a home like this through decades of being in power?
Thank you Mr Lee, for all you’ve done for Singapore. Indeed, as PM Lee Hsien Loong said, what was always foremost on your mind was Singapore’s survival. Once without much of a fighting chance, we have since survived. Now we prosper, and going ahead we will continue grasping the baton tightly.
Thank you for always putting nation before self, taking on official speaking appointments even as your health declined, because you believed it was in Singapore’s interest.
As we mourn your passing, we know that what you would have us do as a nation, is not to indulge in maudlin sentimentality. That is not your style. You would prefer that we grieve with quiet dignity, and have our grief steel itself into the determination to do our utmost for our country.
The best way to remember your spirit is not in weeping, but in girding up our loins, putting our shoulder to the wheel, and working for a better tomorrow for all Singaporeans. We will mourn for there is sorrow, but more importantly, we will try to make you proud.