Eulogy by Mr Li Shengwu at Cremation Service of the Late Mr Lee Kuan Yew
Honoured guests, friends, and family.
When the grandchildren were very little, Ye Ye would take us on walks to feed the fishes at the Istana. We would perch on the edge of the pond, the ripples of our breadcrumbs breaking the mirrored surface of the water. He liked to have the grandchildren nearby as he rode his stationery bike on the green grass.
Sunday lunch with Ye Ye was an institution for our family. His voice and his hearty laugh would carry to the childrens’ table, talking about matters of state, recounting meetings with foreign leaders whose names we neither recognized nor remembered.
In a city of continual renewal, my grandparents’ house never changed. Always the same white walls, the same wooden furniture, the same high windows letting in sunlight. The food stayed the same too; Singapore cooking of a kind that would not be out of place at a good stall in a hawker center. Ye Ye and Nai Nai would take us on outings, to the zoo, to the science center, to National Day. I remember that when I was a child, I believed that the chief benefit of his position was that it came with a marvelous view of the fireworks.
Ye Ye loved his role as a doting grandfather. It delighted him, at each Chinese New Year, when the grandchildren would line up to greet him and receive hongbaos. After Nai Nai had her second stroke in June 2008, he continued the tradition, preparing himself the hongbaos for his grandchildren.
As I grew up, sometimes I would talk to Ye Ye about politics and the state. Always he spoke with the courage of his convictions; with a certainty born of long consideration. As you might guess, we didn’t always agree. At the dining table, he never argued opportunistically – he never took a position he didn’t believe for a tactical advantage. The facts were the facts – our beliefs should accord with the evidence, and not the other way around.
To grow up in Singapore is to grow up in his shadow; to see in our skyscrapers, our schools, our highways, and our homes the force of his singular vision.
History is full of plans for the total transformation of society. Plato’s Republic. Abbe Sieyes’ What is the Third Estate? The Communist Manifesto. Few plans succeed, and many cause more bloodshed than happiness. As such plans go, his was compassionate – even humane. His objective was that his fellow citizens, you and I, would know peace and plenty. He believed that education, open markets, and clean government would make the people of Singapore a great people.
That his plan succeeded is beyond dispute. It succeeded so rapidly, so thoroughly, that to my generation of Singaporeans, the poverty and instability of Singapore’s beginning feels almost unreal – like a fever dream chased away by the morning light.
He was our man of tomorrow. From the day he took office in 1959, he fought to bring Singapore into the future. In real terms in 1959, the average Singaporean was as poor as the average American in the year 1860. Today Singapore is one of the most developed countries in the world. The Singapore economy has advanced more in fifty years than the American economy has advanced in one hundred and fifty years. This is a pace of progress that is less like economic development, and more like time travel.
Once, at the suggestion that a monument might be made for him, my grandfather replied, “Remember Ozymandias”. He was, of course, referring to Shelley’s sonnet about Ramses the Second, the greatest Pharaoh of the Egyptian empire. In the poem, a lone traveller encounters a broken statue in the desert. On the statue, the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains.
I think his meaning was that, if Singapore does not persist, then a monument will be no help. And if Singapore does persists, then a monument will be unnecessary. And that assessment is accurate: His legacy is not cold stone, but a living nation. We could no more forget him than we could forget the sky.
It is often said that my grandfather built great institutions for Singapore. But what is an institution? It is a way of doing things that outlives the one who builds it. A strong institution is robust, it is persistent. It does not depend precariously on individual personalities. It places the rule of law above the rule of man. And that is the sacrifice of being a builder of institutions. To build institutions is to cede power – is to create a system that will not forever rely on you. That this occasion passes without disorder or uncertainty shows that he succeeded in this task. We are bereft at his passing, but we are not afraid. The pillars that he built stand strong, the foundations that he dug run deep.
The next task falls to us. I think my grandfather always saw my generation of Singaporeans with a mixture of trepidation and hope. We are children of peacetime, unacquainted with the long struggle to make Singapore a modern nation-state. We view stability, prosperity, and the rule of law as our birthrights, for good or ill.
We have our own visions for what Singapore will be. Some of our hopes may seem idealistic or far-fetched. But my grandfather’s vision must have seemed pretty outlandish too, when he stood in an impoverished backwater 50 years ago, and promised that it would become a modern metropolis. He showed us that, he showed us by example that with courage and clear thinking, Singapore can rise above its circumstances and be a light to the world.
Ye Ye, you started by fighting for Merdeka – for our right to rule ourselves. I found out this week that Merdeka has its roots in an old Dutch word, meaning a freed slave. When Singapore was cut adrift from Malaysia, you adopted an orphaned nation and made us all your children.
Ye Ye, you chose to forsake personal gain and the comforts of an ordinary life, so that the people of Singapore could have a better life for themselves, and for their children and for their grandchildren. That Singapore is safe, that Singapore is prosperous, that Singapore is – for this we owe a debt that we cannot repay.
Ye Ye – We will try to make you proud. Majulah Singapura.