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Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: We've not forgotten, just living his ideals our way

Unsentimental youth are carrying on as usual, just as Mr Lee Kuan Yew might have done so too

A year ago, we might have queued for hours, stood in the pouring rain, craned our necks for a glimpse of a man who had become a living myth even before we were born.

Yet if not for the media's constant reminders, I wonder how many of the 20-somethings who marked Mr Lee Kuan Yew's passing then would have remembered the anniversary of his death today.

In my social circles, at least - both online and offline - it seems unlikely that many would have noticed.

At most there might be some sombre Facebook statuses today, or a reflective tweet or two.

I suspect that even our Instagram shots of last March's national mourning are now buried too deep to unearth, under layers of novelties and new concerns.

This shouldn't be surprising.

After all, a short attention span is one of the many ills which allegedly plague my generation.

Older and wiser cohorts imagine us living our lives as an endlessly scrolling social media feed, sans patience, dedication and other pre-Internet virtues. Even the label "millennial" conjures up cliches of the fast-moving digital life. In our world, trends surface and die as swiftly as hipster cafes.

So who would expect us to remember the death anniversary of a man whom we knew only from textbooks? The easy accusation to make, in the light of this, is that we are ungrateful and self-absorbed.

But there is a kinder interpretation. Instead of attending tribute events on weekdays, we will be in our offices and workplaces, getting on with work. In our spare time, rather than visiting a memorial wall, you might find us propping up local enterprises with cafe visits and flea market bargaining.

It isn't that we've forgotten Mr Lee. It would be impossible to do so, when the whole island bears his signature.

But whatever we might feel about his legacy - be it respect, admiration, ambivalence or disagreement - those feelings are not tied to a specific date.

Some might call it selfish. But the reality is that in contrast to the image of us being a frivolous generation, we are keeping calm and carrying on.

Isn't this what Mr Lee would have wanted - not least from a generation commonly considered as being too soft?

He was not known for being a sentimental man - at least not for matters outside his immediate family.

And it is unlikely that he would have wanted younger cohorts, who never truly knew him, to venerate him as some distant figure.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament last April: "Mr Lee was very careful never to allow a personality cult to grow around him, much less to encourage one himself."

Instead, that famously practical man would probably have exhorted us to get back to work and carry on as usual. And the understandable need for remembrance might have seemed unnecessary to him.

The late Mr Lee made it clear that he neither needed nor wanted a monument, said PM Lee.

"It was not monuments but ideals that were his chief concern."

The ideals cited were noble ones: multiracialism, equality, meritocracy, integrity and the rule of law.

But perhaps my generation's unsentimentality, on the anniversary of Mr Lee's death, is another way in which his ideals live on.

As Singapore's architect, he was always ready to make the necessary sacrifice and dispense with whatever was unhelpful to getting on with the business at hand.

In this moment of remembered grief, my generation seems pretty much untroubled by any need to cling on to the past, or allow it to cloud our view of the future. It is precisely in such practicality that we see an echo of Mr Lee's own clear-eyed approach.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'We've not forgotten, just living his ideals our way'. Print Edition | Subscribe