leekuanyew

Indian towns plan statue, museum on Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Many Tamil Nadu villagers credit late S'pore leader for improving their lot

NEARLY 7,000km away from Singapore, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, one town is planning to build a large brass statue of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and a memorial hall to remember him by. Another town is creating a museum on his life and achievements.

While people from these towns disagree on many issues, they are united in their views on Mr Lee.

Tamil Nadu, home to some 72 million people, has strong cultural and economic bonds with Singapore and its ethnic Tamil citizens.

But within Tamil Nadu are Ullikkotai and Mannargudi, among half a dozen towns and villages, that have forged even closer links with Singapore.

Many families, who once considered three meals a day a luxury, now live comfortably on money sent back by family members working in Singapore. They have swopped thatched-roof homes for double-storey residences.

In Ullikkotai, for instance, many homes have television sets, air-conditioners and laptops, in addition to toiletries and medicine such as Axe Brand medicated oil, sourced from Singapore.

All of them credit the change in their fortunes to Mr Lee.

"There is no one like him. He was a leader among leaders," said Mr P. Poiyamolzi, 45, a member of the state's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam political party and president of the panchayat or local council in Ullikkotai. He has visited Singapore a dozen times and has a brother working there.

To honour Mr Lee, Ullikkotai is planning to build a large brass statue of him and a memorial hall, while the neighbouring town of Mannargudi wants to dedicate a museum to Mr Lee.

"Usually, political differences hold up most decisions. On this project, there is no political division. We are all united," said Mr Poiyamolzi, of the statue plan.

The statue, the first in the village to be made of a leader in brass, is expected to cost more than 2.5 million rupees (S$54,400). Villagers are hoping to raise funds through contributions made in and around the village and from Singapore.

Work on the statue, Mr Poiyamolzi said, would start by the end of the month.

At the area earmarked for the statue, motorcycles, tractors and cars whiz by. Located next to a small river, the place is overrun by weeds and littered with rubbish, but the villagers have vowed to clean it up and ensure the tribute site is a respectful one.

Already 400,000 rupees in pledges have come in for the project, including from Singapore.

Mr R.K. Manivannan, 45, who worked for 18 years in Singapore, is giving 50,000 rupees.

"I cried when I heard of his death," said Mr Manivannan. 

He plans to put a framed photograph of Mr Lee next to those of his dead parents in the foyer of his house.

In Hindu families, photos of family members who die are placed in a prominent part of the house and garlanded with flowers regularly.

No leader has evoked such strong emotions in recent times in these parts. The death of Mr Lee was mourned deeply. Many heard of his death not from the news, but through family members who called them.

Banners and posters with condolence messages and photos of Mr Lee were put up in front of houses, shops and markets from the temple town of Thanjavur to surrounding villages. 

Many spoke of how businesses, from restaurants to cinema halls, were set up in the area with money made in Singapore. Banners are traditionally put up when family members die.

"The mountain is destroyed," read one banner in Mannargudi, while another in Ullikkotai stated: "He was the light in our lives."

Mr K. Chellapandiyan, a journalist working for Tamil newspaper Dinamalar, said: "In every home here, his death was treated like that of a family member. No other Indian leader has evoked this kind of familial affection in recent times."

In Mannargudi, residents are working to set up the Lee Kuan Yew museum. An organising committee has estimated that it will cost 10 million rupees, but it has yet to fix a location. People have already pledged 500,000 rupees for this project.

"He was a great leader of a small country. There is a lot of respect for him. We feel a big attachment to him. People here wouldn't have gone to Chennai, but they would have gone to Singapore," said Mr Manickam Durai, a local journalist and member of the organising committee.

"We want to show how he transformed Singapore through photographs, books written by him and a video. It should motivate the younger generation and they should know what he did for Singapore and Tamils."

Said Mr Ranjit Kumar, a local councillor: "We compare him to God, not as a political leader. There is no comparison to any other political leader."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg