He was a visionary, an extraordinary leader, a charismatic speaker whose speeches were memorable and invoked respect and passion. Today, Singapore paid her last farewell to her first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as the seven-day period of national mourning comes to an end. The past week had been somewhat of a historic moment in Singapore’s political history, with an unprecedented number of citizens and non-Singaporeans alike, paying their respects to Lee Kuan Yew as his body lay inside Parliament House during the lying in state. Since news of his passing was announced to the public last Monday, there have been an outpouring of emotions amongst the public as well as the international scene. Tribute centres have been set up all across the island, while world leaders all across the globe also paid their respective tributes to the man revered as the nation’s father.
Crowds paying their final respects to the late Lee Kuan Yew
Due to work and school commitments, I wasn’t able to join the queue at Parliament House to express my condolences for the late former Prime Minister, but that hadn’t stopped me from reading up on his life while in between classes or when commuting to work. I remember reading his memoirs, The Singapore Story, when I was still a teenager and was fascinated by his stories on his fight for independence and his vision for Singapore. With his astute leadership and capable comrades in his cabinet, Lee was able to transform Singapore into a bustling metropolis within 10 years after her separation from Malaysia. I was born at a time where Singapore was already an economic giant, a first world nation. Hence, it is hard for me to imagine what life was then for our forefathers. Those who belong to the pioneer generation, struck a deep chord with Lee, as they lived through the crucial transformative years, making Singapore what it is today. For us, the younger generation, it is important that we know where our roots belong. Dr. Mahathir, former Malaysia Prime Minister and Mr Lee’s long-time political adversary wrote on his blog that “his (Mr Lee) passage marks the end of a period when those who fought for independence led their countries and knew the value of independence”, and I couldn’t agree more. Many of those born after the 1980s (including myself) came into the world taking many things for granted. I can attest that a number of us have taken the notion of Independence as a natural right, and many of us would not be able to go through the hardships that the pioneer generation underwent. Singapore will not continue to prosper if we lose our instinct to what makes us tick, and history plays a big part in shaping such a bond. I hate to admit, but I see many my age being ignorant about many things about Singapore, past or present. Just a few days ago, I was at a job interview where I overheard a fellow applicant (who was a few years younger than me) remark that she didn’t know who Singapore’s second Prime Minister, Mr. Goh Chok Tong was. That comment really took me by surprise as I would have thought that certainly the social studies syllabus taught in secondary school would have at least namedropped Mr. Goh at some point in time. On the way to school after the interview, I could not stop but wonder if the new generation of Singapore can ensure its sustainability if pop stars and celebrities become more recognisable than your country’s own cabinet ministers. Not understanding the severities of your own history is akin to not knowing your own identity and I fear for my future if this was to be the new norm.
Members of the public waiting to enter Parliament House with the bustling metropolis skyline of Singapore that Mr Lee once envisioned in the background
That said, Mr Lee have more than done his share into making sure that the new generation of Singapore have at least something to learn from, with his books that shared his experience and helping us understand what our security, prosperity and future depended on. He was a very forward thinking man and had great foresight. I believe that many of his insights from his books will be used as a basis for many policies in the future. Though many policies will be unpopular, I cannot deny that they are mostly for the greater good for Singapore. One of Mr Lee’s quotes from former Senior Minister of State Sidek Saniff’s eulogy struck me the most, and I quote: “If you want to be popular all the time, you will misgovern”. As a pragmatist like Mr Lee, I couldn’t agree otherwise.
Then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew at a press conference with (from left) Mr George Yeo, Mr Sidek Saniff and Mr David Lim in 1996. Mr Sidek gave an especially heartfelt eulogy at Mr Lee’s funeral service today. PHOTO: BUSINESS TIMES
One of the articles I read during the past week was about the story of a friendship between four persons. They are: Lee Kuan Yew, Helmut Schmidt (Former Chancellor of Germany), Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (both of whom are former Secretaries of State of the United States). The four of them were once dreaded yet admired by many. They were seen as cold and power-hungry politicians, but for the last 40 years or so, had maintained a close and intimate friendship.
Mr Lee and Mr Kissinger’s friendship spanned over 4 decades and one that both men felt was rewards of their lives
In 2012, Helmut Schmidt travelled to Singapore to reunite with Lee for the last time. They met up for three days where they reminisced about the past and discussed world politics. I was reading excerpts of their conversation and it surprised me on how quick-witted and knowledgeable Lee was, many of his quips left me thinking about more. It’s an interesting read, and it makes you cherish the importance of friendship – true friendship, where one does not befriend another for something in return, but rather a relationship that was earnest and sincere. A truly exclusive and rare friendship in the complex world of politics.
Helmut Schmidt and Mr Lee at the Shangri-La Hotel in 2012 (Photo Credits: Straits Times)
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Mr Lee’s demise have brought about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly side of Singaporeans. The good is for all to see, and deserves to be applauded upon. It was comforting to see Singaporeans from all races, gender, religion and political background come together to pay their respects to Mr Lee. While the congregation of masses have led to a logistical nightmare for transport facilities and affected the business operations of many, it was really heart-warming to see how Singaporeans came united as one, just like how Mr Lee believed in multiculturalism, envisioning a Singapore today that is united regardless of race, language and religion. It was also heart-warming to see Mr Chiam See Tong, a veteran opposition figure and one-time adversary of Mr Lee in parliament, adamant that he climbed the steps to view Mr Lee’s casket despite his frail health, showing that despite their political differences, the two had mutual respect for each other’s integrity and passion for Singapore.
Mr Chiam paying his last respects to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the Parliament House – ST PHOTO
Also, kudos to the Armed Forces and the Police Force for their efforts during the Vigil Guards where the overwhelming response from the public resulted in a round the clock vigil at the Parliament House. Despite not having joined the queue there, I have read and heard enough testimonies to applaud the numerous volunteers and organizations who gave out refreshments and survival kits for those in line as the waiting time to enter Parliament House peaked to over 8 hours during certain times of the day. Lastly, a final mention to the cleaners who had to ensure that the civil district was ready for the state funeral procession despite the short time frame and having to endure the elements. While I think a part of Mr Lee might have found such acts to be overly sumptuous and a waste of man-hours and resources (such was his frugality), I also think that Mr Lee would have been proud of the Singapore that he and the Old Guard had built and nurtured.
Volunteers giving out water and other survival kits to those who were in line at Parliament House
The death of Mr Lee have (sadly) also brought about the Bad & Ugly side of Singaporeans. Small squabbles aside (most of which were misunderstandings and resolved instantly), the queues to Parliament House was otherwise orderly and organized. Outside of the queue however, a faux pas committed by a certain bakery chain in light of Mr Lee’s demise as well as the ugly side of some of the comments by a number of Singapore netizens on forums and social media tainted the solemn atmosphere which surrounded the nation. BreadTalk was met with lots of flak just hours after launching a Lee Kuan Yew commemorative bun soon after news of Mr Lee’s demise, forcing the chain to pull the buns from its shelves the very same day. The bun, named 李不开你, a wordplay on Lee’s Mandarin name, was deemed to be in poor taste among Singaporeans and myself alike. While BreadTalk have moved to remedy the situation by giving out free cake to those who were in queue at Parliament House as well as pledging a donation of $30,000 to Community Chest, the damage have already been done, with the company being labelled “insensitive”, “a profiteering firm” and “an opportunist”.
BreadTalk received flak for its “insensitive” release of a commerative bun of LKY
However, BreadTalk’s action still didn’t irked me as much as some of the comments circulating the internet. Though I agree that free speech is a right of any persons, I believe that respect is also a fundamental character that defines a person. Some of the content mentioned online were downright demeaning, insulting Mr Lee’s character even after his death. While I can understand that that are people who are unhappy with some of his policies or the iron fisted approach that he adopted in running the country, I see no point in making undignified attacks on a person as he lay on his deathbed. For those who were rejoicing at Mr Lee’s death (cue a certain A*** Y**), it simply shows how shallow one is. Though he might be misguided, his actions and words are condescending and reflects immaturity, a clear indication of someone who have not experienced adversity. Words cannot express my disgust at such behaviour and I worry for the future of Singapore should such behaviour start to plague the society. A*** Y**’s video have created an uproar with many comments circulating the social mediascape. My dear friend and former debating partner Iris, summed her thoughts in regards to the future of Singapore perfectly, and I quote “Hopefully the next generation of kids aren’t as gullible and is more discerning to what appears on the internet”. My exact sentiments, Iris.
The Other Side of Mr Lee
Mr Lee was probably known to be a no-nonsense leader while he was in office. However, he did have a soft side inside him as well, and his love for his soul mate and confidant, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo shows this softer side of Mr Lee. The lovers wed in secret while they were in the United Kingdom, a showcase of how modern the Lees were, even in the 1940s. Despite being together for over 60 years, the couple never got tired of each other. Her life revolved around him, and Mr Lee lived his life around her. Madam Kwa took care of every needs of Mr Lee, even to the minute details; she most famously interrupted a taping of an interview to touch up Mr Lee’s hair and makeup – such was her attention to detail.
Madam Kwa Geok Choo, watched as a makeup artist prepared Mr Lee for his public appearance at the 2001 National Day Rally – PHOTO: GEORGE GASCON
In the past week, I’ve read numerous accounts documenting the love between the couple. The two that stood out were Raul Dancel’s feature on Mr Lee’s photographer George Gason published on the Straits Times and the essay by Dr Lee Wei Ling (daughter of Mr Lee Kuan Yew) entitled A Love Story. Raul’s feature, sees Gason witness unguarded moments of tenderness between Mr and Mrs Lee; How Mrs Lee would lovingly comb Mr Lee’s hair before a photo shoot, how she would always be by his side when Mr Lee hosted important world figures, and how she would help Mr Lee go over drafts of his memoirs, correcting and critiquing his writings. She was fully committed to the relationship and he loved her deeply for that.
Mr Lee’s love for Madam Kwa was evident as he placed a kiss on his wife lying in her casket – Photo Credits: ST
In A Love Story, it wasn’t much of the content that was striking, but rather the picture that Dr Lee chose to accompany the essay with. The picture, which was taken on Valentine’s Day in 2008 sees Mr and Mrs Lee, arm in arm, in front of a twin-heart arrangement. The look of bliss truly permeated from within the couple, a testament to everlasting love. Their love story is one that lasted the test of time, and provides a learning curve to young budding relationships of today.
A Love Story and a picture that speaks a thousand words.
I admit that I did not live through the years where Mr Lee was Prime Minister of Singapore. I also admit to not having met the man at all. It is not wrong to say I did not know the great man, but yet again, with so many historical and academic accounts available for me to read and understand Mr Lee’s struggles into making Singapore what it is today, one could say I know well enough to comment on his legacy and life’s work.
While I was unable to make the queue at Parliament House, I did make a detour to the Istana after work last Friday, to view the tribute wall set up outside the palace gates. It was a poignant moment, as I wrote my condolences while observing the various tributes that were placed in honour of Mr Lee. I also attended the memorial service in school, where clips of Mr Lee’s engagement with students during NTU’s ministerial forums were broadcasted. Our Provost, Professor Freddy Boey, also delivered an emotional eulogy as he fought to hold back his tears.
I took time out from my busy schedule to attend NTU’s memorial service. Here, the 2,500 strong crowd observed a minute of silence as a gesture of respect to Mr Lee.
The biggest takeaway I had was from watching Mr Lee’s many memorable speeches, many of which are inspiring and conveyed with confidence and aplomb. His speeches in Parliament were well argued and substantiated, his rally speeches were strong and passionate. Yet the one speech and perhaps the most significant one of all, would probably be the one where he addressed Singapore on 9 August 1965 on our unexpected expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia. In what was a shock to many, Mr Lee’s emotional outburst clearly showed the anguish he had over the separation from Malaysia. His tears were a poignant reminder of what he strived for Singapore. How many of today’s leaders will give it their all to strive for something they truly aspire for? From listening to his speeches, it gave me new vigour to improve on my communicating skills, even as a former school debater, I’m nowhere near his stature when it comes to public speaking.
Mr Lee struggled to control his emotions as he announced, at a press conference, Singapore’s separation from Malaysia
At this juncture, I do however want to pay tribute to a group of others other than Mr Lee. The rest of the founding fathers – The Old Guard, of modern Singapore. I believe that while Mr Lee was the central and most important figure in modern Singapore’s history, Singapore would not be what it is today if not for the efforts of the key men he had around him during our founding years. Capable figures such as Goh Keng Swee, Ong Pang Boon, Othman Wok, Toh Chin Chye, S. Rajaratnam and other members of the Old Guard also gave it their all for this nation. With only a few of them outliving Mr Lee, it is important that we continue to cherish what the first generation of leaders of independent Singapore have done for our nation.
Mr Lee and members of the Old Guard photographed outside the City Hall after the swearing-n ceremony in 1959
I end this tribute with some of Mr Lee’s greatest quotes:
“I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.”
“Rest on your laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead.“
“At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.“
These quotes truly reflects his dedication and love for Singapore. He was a one of a kind statesmen, he was our Winston Churchill, our Margaret Thatcher. He did what was needed to be done at the point of time, and did so without regret. Mr Lee’s leadership have shaped Singapore’s history to become one that is marvelled upon, his views being sought after by even the most powerful of world leaders.
Mr Lee, Singapore is truly blessed and privileged to have you as our leader. While we will miss your presence, your legacy will forever live on in our hearts. I’m however comforted by the fact that you’re now reunited with the love of your life in the hereafter, so do rest in peace. Goodbye and Farewell.
Mr Lee at what would be his final NDP in 2014, similing as he takes a photo with fellow MPs