Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Singaporean abroad: Mixed emotions as nation mourns Mr Lee Kuan Yew

I was on a soccer field watching a kids' game on Sunday afternoon, a gloomy, overcast day, when the news came.

"Lee Kuan Yew has died," I sent a text to my husband.

"I know," came the reply.

I consulted my feelings. Numbness. We had known for days this would happen.

It is the end of an era, I told myself.

Over the next week, I watched the outpouring of grief in Singapore with mixed emotions.

I swung from wishing I too was there to stand in line for hours to pay my final respects, to feeling grateful that I was here instead, far away, where I could connect with my nation's sense of loss through a filter.

If I were there, would I be overcome with emotion? Would I weep?

For until now, I had not shed a tear.

Yet, I was one of those who had grown up in the Lee Kuan Yew years.

I was born in January 1966, my mother's first child, a painful birth a few months after the painful birth of Singapore.

Growing up, I had no idea of the tumultuous creation of this nation. Life was what it was - my parents struggled, money was always tight, but we got by.

My brother and I were sometimes left alone at home while my parents worked, but the neighbours agreed to keep an eye out. I would watch in fascination as the grandma next door, a kindly Nonya with scarlet teeth, pounded and rolled betel nut into a leaf that she popped into her mouth and chewed, her mouth going around and around in circles. We learnt to ride a bike up and down our 10th-floor corridor in Block 63, Commonwealth Drive.

School was arduous, but somehow, the years went by and we got an education. Despite the isolation of our growing up years, I can be in any English-speaking circle today and not feel totally out of my depth.

When I was 11, we moved from our depressing three-room home to a spacious, light and air-filled five-room flat on the 23rd storey of a point block in Ghim Moh. We got a piano and I would practise while the sun went down in a fiery spectacle every night.

Nine years later, we moved to a maisonette in Pine Grove, which later became a condominium that had a pool and function room. My parents still live there, and it is where my children spent much of their early, happy, carefree years.

That's my story, one that I like to think mirrors Singapore's.

I grew up in a place that was nowhere, dreaming of the wider world. And because Singapore had the same dreams, whistling so the world came to it, I am here today, on the other side of the globe, preaching the gospel of the little red dot, whether or not I am aware of it.

I have thought of all this, the surprising trajectory of my life, while we waited to lay to rest almost the last of the old guard, and the first among equals.

It has awakened conflicting emotions in me, who grew up in the hardscrabble years under Mr Lee, a demanding captain who ran a tight ship and could never be accused of being a soft touch. He was strict, and that's what it meant to be Singaporean. You fell into line and followed the rules.

For me, personally, it meant becoming part of the system, to contribute to it.

It seemed apt that the sky would rain tears today. He was a father, grandfather and friend, after all, and not just to a nation.

Though it was well past my bedtime, I turned on my computer to witness his final journey through the wide and orderly tree-lined streets, changed beyond memory, while flag-draped mourners huddled under umbrellas from the incessant rain and chanted his name. Some unfurled banners, some even sang national songs.

A glimpse was all they had, a moment to call out a name that had dominated the last half century and wave a swift goodbye.

I am alone in my living room, connected to Singapore by the Internet as I watch his son, our prime minister, deliver his father's eulogy. Look around you, he says, if you want to see the monument Mr Lee built.

From the outside, it can be easy to dismiss Singapore - too squeaky clean, a nanny state governed by soft authoritarianism, a maverick success story.

But when has it ever mattered what anyone else thought? The important things are self-belief, hard work and vision. And those, too, are his monuments.

sharonl@sph.com.sg

Sharon Loh lives in North Carolina in the United States.