Mr Lee Kuan Yew, I have a confession to make


Photo Credits: Pok Pok & Away : The Passing of an Era | 29th March 2015.


Overheard from Yixun : 

I have a confession to make. Friends who have known me long and well enough will know that I used to be an ardent opposition supporter. I resented Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his high handedness. I resented the arrogance of the party he created. I even resented him for forcing me to always stop at the last petrol station in Malaysia to purchase some chewing gum and smuggle it home like a criminal. Basically I got caught up with what seemed cool for an angsty age: to disagree with the majority view and slam him for acting like the King of Singapore.

I am proud to say that I have read up more on politics and history since. Having also seen more of the world now, it dawned on me how much I underestimated the scale of his achievements. I had judged a man who ruled in a different era. I criticised him from my modern and comfortable home in a clean and safe neighbourhood. I neglected how, under his watch, Singapore not only successfully secured its existence in a tumultuous region, but also established itself as a leading financial hub in the world. Singapore thus, embodies not 1, but 2 miracles, for a place half the size of London and which started out with only 2 million people. In my course of study in the UK, I have also learnt to appreciate the ability of a government to make tough pragmatic decisions in the face of populism.

From today’s perspective then, it is so effortless to condemn him for his authoritarian governance. We often forget that the 1960s was a time when the Cold War was in full swing, and Singapore could well have been caught up with the ideological struggles. Even Malaysia’s fight against the Communists continued after our separation. For a small country in turbulent times, the struggle for survival was real and the quest to make it rich and prosperous was positively absurd, laughable even.

I had a conversation centred on Singapore’s politics with a foreign acquaintance a few weeks ago. He mocked me as a PAP stooge for singing the same tune as the government and emphasising the fragility of our sovereignty. I didn’t know Singaporeans live in so much fear, he said. US, UK, and Australia would assist us in a war, he said. Malaysia and Indonesia have little reason to be hostile, he said. I shot back: this is not about party politics. Look at World War 2 and look what happened the last time we relied on outsiders. Then I realised, this is the ideology Mr Lee espoused: not communism, not nationalism, but cold, hard pragmatism. I’m glad to say it has rubbed off on me.

To achieve all these in one generation is unreal, and to undermine his legacy is to foolishly assert that our status today is our birthright. It is not. How can it possibly be an entirely natural progression of events for us to feature regularly at the top of international rankings ahead of far more powerful countries, or to attain a GDP per capita of US$55,000? Nobody owes us a living. Not our former countrymen across the Causeway, not our former colonial masters.

Yes, in the past week some have deified and worshipped him like an omnipotent god. I cringed at titles like “Grandfather of Singapore”. But this is understandable of a society stricken with grief. Mr Lee certainly shouldn’t be given sole credit. Foreign policy was forged by Rajaratnam, compulsory National Service was of Goh Keng Swee’s design, the flats so many of us live in were made possible by Lim Kim San. Yet, what use is a group of brilliant men, if they have no direction from an uncompromising leader?

Today, we close the book on one chapter and open another. The systems and mentalities that he and his colleagues installed will undoubtedly start to unravel gradually as we enter and navigate a new era. I just hope that when that day comes, his spirit lives on in our hearts and his lessons endure in our minds. Rest in peace Mr Lee. We’ll take it from here.



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