EDITORIAL

Reflecting on mark of great leaders

Editorial updated on April 17, 2015.

THE desire for enduring representations of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew raises the question of how best to do so while bearing in mind his often- stated aversion to aggrandising symbols. Ironically, that aspect of his character - a preference for a focus on ideals and ideas rather than the man - itself propels popular support for public marks befitting his stature. Leaders of such calibre, after all, are rare and should be long remembered by future generations. Tangible reminders, it is argued, would resist the attrition of time better than just memories or mere abstractions.

Anticipating this in relation to historical things belonging to him, Mr Lee had had on many occasions expressed his and his wife's wishes for his 38 Oxley Road home to be demolished immediately after their death. In his will, he reiterated this wish, but added the proviso that his daughter Dr Lee Wei Ling could choose to continue living in the house, in which case the house was to be torn down immediately after she moves out. He and his wife had despaired over the thought that their private sanctuary would be open to the public. 

From another perspective, such a "reification" of the past could lead to a forgetting of the historical context - for example, when objects become purely things of curiosity or perhaps even "become shabby" over time, in Mr Lee's words. The house holds sufficient significance to be a heritage site, having been where the seed of his party was sown. But can one claim to stay true to what he stood for while not truly respecting Mr Lee's explicit wishes on this matter?

There have been other suggestions to honour Mr Lee by, for example, renaming Changi Airport or using his image on currency notes. There is wisdom in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urging the nation to "allow some time to pass, consider the ideas carefully, and make calm, considered decisions which will stand the test of time". While individuals, artists or groups are free to commemorate the late Mr Lee appropriately as they choose, the state is obliged to do so in "the right way" not just for present-day Singaporeans but also for future generations.

What ought to be considered are the enduring value of the meanings associated with key figures, the power of the content embodied by symbols, and the larger experience of nationhood associated with them. With these in mind, the suggestion of a Founders' Memorial deserves to be weighed by not just the committee appointed to study it but all Singaporeans. This has merit in not just recognising the unique contributions of Mr Lee, as a founding father, but also those of his core team. No doubt, there will be ideas about the aesthetics and scale of the structure but as important would be suggestions on the experiential dimension of the memorial. It should be an accessible space to rediscover and renew allegiance to foundational values and aspirations by different groups, each in their own way.

An earlier version of the editorial said the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had several times asked for his Oxley Road home to be demolished when no family member is living there. This is incorrect.  Mr Lee had on many occasions expressed his and his wife's wishes for 38 Oxley Road to be demolished immediately after their death. In his will, he reiterated this wish, but added the proviso that Dr Lee Wei Ling could choose to continue living in the house, in which case the house was to be torn down immediately after she moves out. The residential provision in his will is only applicable to Dr Lee. We are sorry for the error.