A coming of age for 'good life kids'

An hour before Mr Lee Kuan Yew's body left Parliament House, the hipster cafes of Tanjong Pagar were busy with the usual young crowd, though the flowing tops and short-sleeved shirts were in more sombre shades than usual.

Later, I recognised some of those same 20-somethings nearby as we stood in the rain at the junction of Cantonment Road and Neil Road, waiting for the arrival of a man most of us had never met.

Our generation are the lucky ones. We are the "good life kids", as our elders remind us in dialects that the late Mr Lee did not quite manage to eradicate.

We knew this well before the past week, of course. We had Social Studies lessons and the stories of our parents, stories so distant that we imagined them in sepia: night-soil carriers, kampung games, a life before television.

But perhaps it was only with Mr Lee's death that that history has become real to us.

"When he was still around, you just didn't grasp what he had done," said researcher Raymond Khoo, 29, who was also at the same rain-lashed junction.

"His passing made us more curious about him, and made us realise how much he did."

Like other 20-somethings to whom I had spoken, while Mr Khoo was sad about Mr Lee's death, grief was not his greatest reaction: "It's more that we're grateful that he has contributed so much."

In a sense, we grew up in a post-Lee Kuan Yew age. I was two years old when the prime ministership passed to Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990. The improvements we have seen in our lifetime are small in comparison: the disappearance of non-air-conditioned buses, say, or the rise of Marina Bay Sands.

As 29-year-old Lin Wei Liang, who works in human resources, said: "I haven't been through the tough times. What we understand is really from the books, from the news, from our parents."

But precisely because my generation do not know - cannot know - the vast changes which Mr Lee wrought, we can only marvel at them in retrospect.

What were we trying to do, this past week, with our mourning Facebook statuses?

For a generation whose life experiences feel more like current affairs than history, perhaps there was some selfishness under all that emotion and reflection.

In our own way, we strove to become part of this historical moment, to stake a claim on a chapter of the Singapore story that we had always thought about in the past tense.

And so we gathered, yesterday morning, on that rain-swept corner.

The crowd perked up as the first police motorcycles sped past. As the cortege drew into view, flags rustled urgently.

A cry went up - "Lee Kuan Yew! Lee Kuan Yew!" - but then the coffin passed, just like that, and silence fell in its wake.

Even before the vehicles were out of sight, people began to peel away from the barricades: Old men shaking the rain off their sandals, families in matching raincoats.

But a few of us lingered a little longer. There was Mr Lin, sharing an umbrella with his girlfriend. There was a young man with a stylish quiff, staring ahead, smartphone forgotten in his hand.

We kept peering down the road, watching as the procession disappeared into the distance, as if still unsure what exactly we had come to bid farewell to.

Something far greater than us had come and gone, and was even now fading into the rain.

But perhaps in bearing witness to its passing, we too became part of something greater. This was history, right before us, and for once - for perhaps the first time - it was a history we could call our own.


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