Last week, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, died at the age of 91. Selina Xu from Singapore, Senior Runner-up of the 2014 essay competition, writes about his legacy. Read more...
Everyday I wake up to the same monochromatic routine: brush my teeth and head to school on public transport; a day of lessons awaits.
When one grows up in a modern metropolis with all the comforts of life, it’s easy to overlook the convenience found in every nook and cranny of the hard-wires that sustain our ever-whirring technological enclave — the clean water that flows from the tap, the smartly efficient public transport that arrives every morning without fail in five-minute intervals, and my sprawling school campus which features on its wall both Western pedagogical maxims and Chinese adages in bold calligraphy strokes.
This is the Singapore I’ve been accustomed to for all my life.
“To understand Singapore,” Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said, “you’ve got to start off with an improbable story: It should not exist.” More often than not, for my generation of youths who were born in a cradle of first-world prosperity, the ‘Singapore’ described by Mr Lee - the tiny island-state which had independence thrust upon them and all the odds stacked against it - is an unfamiliar one. We view Singapore’s historical narrative, as articulated by our pioneer generation, with a mixture of fascination and fragmented understanding.
On 23 March 2015 came the chance to reflect and ponder on our past and future when Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away in the wee hours of the morning. The entire nation came together in mourning, collective remembrance and unimpeded commemoration of his life. The sense of loss was personally felt. For my generation, Mr Lee was more than former Prime Minister, Senior Minister or Minister Mentor — he was a father figure, both stern patriarch and great inspiration.
He most certainly wasn’t a perfect man (Who is?). Like children, we observed his flaws, but with absolute certainty, we knew he would never compromise Singapore’s interests. Here was a person for whom Singapore was his hearts-blood and brainchild and whose sweeping vision for its roadmap to success consumed him till the end of his days — there might have been times when we disagreed with him, but even his most ardent critics would find it difficult to doubt the depths of his fiery love for Singapore and his intense desire for it to survive and triumph. It strikes me as most rare to find a leader whose intentions you would trust unconditionally in an age rife with political demagoguery — he is more than a man of words, but a man of integrity and action. Because of that, Mr Lee transcends the contours of a great statesman. He becomes one amongst the ranks of a rare breed of leaders, who define an era of a nation and become everything the country stands for.
For many, Mr Lee was very much the embodiment of Singapore and its most constant and reassuring presence — many of us have never known a Singapore without him. From independence to nation building, we had him. Through modernity and globalisation, we had him. In all the years of turbulence, uncertainty and success, he had always been there.
Then, can I imagine a Singapore without him? The answer, contrary to what outsiders believe, is an irrevocable ‘yes’. The conviction behind my answer, I believe, is his greatest legacy for us. A generation of Singaporeans before us might have doubted if our nation could ever succeed on its own terms. But, Mr Lee demonstrated to my generation that the impossible could be transformed into the inevitable, through sheer force of willpower, strategy and uncanny timing. He gave us the greatest gift of confidence and faith in our capacities to thrive in a new world order.
As I am writing this on my Macbook, an hour after midnight, I am inching forward in a queue of around fifty thousand to pay my respects to Mr Lee who is lying in state at the Parliament House. The queue snakes around our iconic skyscrapers, along the Singapore River and spills across the Padang where we had our first National Day Parade on 9 August 1966. Remembering Mr Lee has brought out the most visceral and emotional responses from within us. As a people, we are grieving but strong. Volunteers are handing out free bottles of water, biscuit packets, canned drinks and umbrellas in case of bad weather; the heat is stifling but few leave the queue.
For many of us, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the Singapore story. But, though his death marks the end of an era, I’ve realised that it does not mark the final pages of our nation’s story. We have found and will continue to find strength from within ourselves for the story to go on without him. In the words of poet Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.