Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

What Papa's death taught us about ourselves

S'poreans have respect and empathy for one another and should retain such behaviour

I am Lee Kuan Yew's daughter. I was brought up in a rather undemonstrative family. Papa's death was indeed a painful event for me, but I will not show my pain to the world. So I was amazed at the outpouring of emotion that usually phlegmatic Singaporeans displayed on my father's passing.

My father never sought popularity. Whilst not arrogant, he was openly dismissive of rogues, charlatans and crooks. And though he had a great rapport with regular people - he began his political career representing postal workers and his base was always the unions - he never suffered fools gladly, especially if they were pretentious and high-ranking. As everyone knows, he was not cuddly.

And yet when he died, Singaporeans cried as they would for a loved one. Never demonstrative himself, he elicited demonstrative crowds in the hundreds of thousands who thronged Parliament House and the 18 tribute sites the People's Association organised.

On the last day of the lying in state, I received a phone call from an old classmate who told me his wife was crying because she was unable to pay her respects in time. I could not help, for how could I justify helping a friend's wife jump the queue?

The next day was the funeral. The casket was carried by eight high-ranking officers, two each from the army, navy, air force and police. It was raining cats and dogs at the time we were to leave Parliament House.

We proceeded with the ceremony anyway, just as Papa had decided to do in 1968 when it rained cats and dogs during the National Day Parade. And just as he and his Cabinet members stood in the rain that day, his family walked through the rain at his funeral.

I saw schoolchildren drenched despite their ponchos, their faces contorted by crying although it was impossible to see any tears through such heavy rain. Tens of thousands of regular Singaporeans, including children and the elderly, stood in the rain, some with inadequate umbrellas or ponchos, others bareheaded and seemingly oblivious to the rain. The roar of "Lee Kuan Yew" was deafening.

A friend of mine, a neurosurgeon who competes in Ironman events, stood for four hours in the rain with his two daughters. He e-mailed me about it after the funeral. I e-mailed back: "Why didn't you spend that time training?"

He replied: "I wanted to show my solidarity with the nation in mourning his passing and have my daughters grow up remembering that poignant moment of the multitude who gathered at the roadside to honour him. The rain brought out the best in Singaporeans."

I asked another doctor friend who had been involved in Papa's care since 1996: "What does LKY's death tell us about Singapore and Singaporeans?" I added that I did not trust my own feelings on this issue because my view of Papa would be coloured by my being his daughter.

My friend replied: "LKY transcends all spectrums, hence this great spontaneous outpouring of grief and remembrance. He is regarded as among the world's greatest statesmen, and would have been even more recognised if he had been born in a larger country. Luckily for Singapore, we had him.

"His insistence on honesty, character, integrity and incorruptibility is now more clear and resonant than ever. His speeches made decades ago find a refreshing relevance in today's world. It is unlikely that there will ever be anyone quite like him again in our lifetime."

We are all aware how the Western press, cynical about Singapore's democracy, and rather condescending about our economic success and our law and order, has ascribed all our achievements to my father's authoritarian rule. If he had been such an authoritarian, how did the public suddenly like him in death?

Indeed, in the last few weeks of Papa's life in the intensive care unit, I, my brother Hsien Yang, his wife Suet Fern and their children were receiving e-mails from hundreds of strangers enquiring about Papa's health and conveying their good wishes and prayers. Indeed, we have been receiving such letters for years, strangers writing to us out of the blue to convey their good wishes to Papa.

Hsien Yang and I warned the State Funeral Organising Committee preparing for the lying in state that the turnout may be bigger than they had planned for. But when the time came, the outpouring of sorrow and the massive crowds who queued for long hours to pay their last respects were beyond even what we had anticipated.

I don't think Singaporeans suddenly woke up on March 23 and decided they loved and were grateful to Lee Kuan Yew. His death was the occasion, not the cause, for the expression of feelings that were always there.

We need not be concerned about impressing foreigners. Papa thought he was answerable only to his own people. Even then, he wanted to do only what was right, regardless of whether it was popular or politically correct. It is now apparent that though he never courted popularity, most Singaporeans know how much he did for them and that he devoted his life to his country.

As he himself put it towards the end of his life: "I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There's nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."

I was educated in Chinese-language schools up to the equivalent of the O levels. My anti-colonial sentiments are hence somewhat stronger than those who attended English-language schools.

I watch with despair when Singaporeans buy into the dismissive views of some Westerners about Singapore. And I was very happy to see Singaporeans reject Western journalists who wrote dismissively of Papa and the response of Singaporeans to his death.

We must keep our heritage and respect the culture and language of our different races and be proud of Singapore. Never be impressed by the white man who thinks he is superior to you. We are no less and probably more capable than he is. If Papa and his Old Guard colleagues did not believe that, they would not have fought for independence and built up this country.

We should walk proud with no chip on our shoulder, and retain the mutual respect and empathy that we now know we are capable of. It will make life a little easier and our interaction more pleasant. We should do this in our everyday life without the need of some tragic event like Papa's death to bring out our better selves.

Papa's death revealed a lot of good things about Singapore and Singaporeans. There will never be another Lee Kuan Yew. Let's not miss the chance to learn the lessons Papa's death taught us about ourselves.

If there were any unresolved conflicts within me since Papa's last serious illness and subsequent death, writing this article has exorcised them. In the coming days and months, I will have to start planning for my own life after Papa - and so must my fellow Singaporeans.

suntimes@sph.com.sg