REMEMBERING LEE KUAN YEW: ONE YEAR ON

How will we remember Lee Kuan Yew when SG100 comes?

Commemoration must take full measure of the man, not reduce him to a historical cliche

When SG100 rolls along, I will be in my twilight years, assuming I'm fortunate enough to still be around.

As one of the elderly Singaporeans in 2065 who have a living memory of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, how would I want the founding Prime Minister to be commemorated in the centennial celebrations?

I hope he will not be reduced to a vague notion as Singapore's grandfather, a distant patriarch whose rough edges are smoothed over by a few bullet points summarising his greatest achievements.

Instead, the full measure of the man deserves to be remembered: his triumphs along with his failures, his strengths together with his flaws.

This is not to say Mr Lee should not be rightly celebrated. But in our eagerness to do so, have we inadvertently placed him on the road to becoming a cliche? His quotes routinely appear in the speeches and writings of officials and academics. His benign visage peers out from banners, stickers and all forms of artwork. Within months of his death, there were two portrayals of him, in a movie and a play.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Perhaps it is inevitable for all great individuals to be lionised with the passing of time: George Washington, the patriot who won the American revolution on the battlefield; Mahatma Gandhi, the ascetic who gained Indian independence through non-violence.

And so it will be with Lee Kuan Yew, the anti-colonialist who wept at separation from Malaysia but steered his unlikely nation from Third World to First.

But to be so one-dimensionally perfect was not something Mr Lee sought. He refused to allow any monuments of himself to be built, and invoked the cautionary tale in a 19th-century poem about an Egyptian pharaoh whose broken statue in the desert is all that remains.

When I was a student in the 1990s and 2000s, Mr Lee had already stepped down as Prime Minister. However, he never became a post-partisan figure akin to Mr Nelson Mandela, who in his later years evolved into a genial elder above reproach. Instead, Mr Lee remained in active politics, attracting supporters and critics - as all politicians do - by not mincing his words.

It is not for nothing that one of the books about Mr Lee is titled Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. He clearly relished a debate and dealt with detractors head on, be they political opponents in Singapore or foreign newspapers.


Visitors snapping photos of a mural depicting the late Mr Lee, made out of nearly 5,000 Singapore flag erasers, at a tribute event on Sunday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

There were missteps for sure, like his remarks in the 2011 polls that opposition voters in Aljunied would have an electoral cycle to "live and repent", which some analysts say played a part in the People's Action Party's (PAP) first GRC loss.

Perhaps it is inevitable for all great individuals to be lionised with the passing of time: George Washington, the patriot who won the American revolution on the battlefield; Mahatma Gandhi, the ascetic who gained Indian independence through non-violence.

And so it will be with Lee Kuan Yew, the anti-colonialist who wept at separation from Malaysia but steered his unlikely nation from Third World to First.

But to be so one-dimensionally perfect was not something Mr Lee sought. He refused to allow any monuments of himself to be built, and invoked the cautionary tale in a 19th-century poem about an Egyptian pharaoh whose broken statue in the desert is all that remains.

Recognising these warts does not diminish his legacy. Rather, it adds flavour to the understanding of a life lived for Singapore, an understanding that would beall the poorer if it shies away from controversy, something that he never did.

That is why, in my view, recent government guidelines on the use of Mr Lee's name and image should not be interpreted as an attempt to whitewash his record, as some are insinuating.

Instead, this move seems to be more about preventing the commercialisation of Mr Lee than censoring opinions about him.

When The Straits Times was working on a book on the PAP's history, he told its writers they should take in dissenting voices: "If you're going to tell my side of the story, then you might as well not write the book. This has to be your book."

Here was Mr Lee acknowledging his version of events should not be taken as the final word, and future generations should weigh things up and draw their own conclusions.

Mr Lee died last year just as Singapore was gearing up for the SG50 festivities and many events took on a tone of remembrance and gratitude. I hope the heartfelt sentiments can be sustained and transformed into curiosity to explore and discuss Mr Lee's legacy fully.

And then perhaps the young ones in 2065 would be interested enough to ask an 80-year-old like me what it was like to live during a period when Mr Lee was alive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'How will we remember Mr Lee when SG100 comes?'. Print Edition | Subscribe