A glimpse of the best that we can be

I spent a few days the week after Mr Lee Kuan Yew died speaking with people in the large crowds paying tribute to the founding Prime Minister. I was struck by how nice everyone was.

If you have ever been with Singaporeans in a crowd - rush hour at an MRT station, for example - you will know that as far as politeness in a group is concerned, there is a size limit.

Past a certain point, people feel anonymous. And it is the same in real life as on the Internet: Where anonymity begins, civility ends.

This time, it was different. I've reported on crowds before, such as at political rallies, and I'd be lucky to get one in three people I approached willing to be interviewed. No one owes me an interview, but often I will meet with an eye-roll or a dismissive wave of the hand. Maybe my cold approach needs work.

This time, though, almost no one turned me away, whether at the tribute centre in Bedok Central or along the funeral procession route in Bukit Merah Central.

I guess some of that openness might have to do with grief, the need for humans to reach out and talk about their pain. But what also struck me was the respect that individuals showed one another, even when they numbered in the thousands.

I spoke with a family with a boy in a wheelchair. He had a broken ankle. Dad was too embarrassed to push him forward, through the throng lined up along Jalan Bukit Merah. He did not want to cause a fuss. I will just stay back here, he said.

Then someone noticed him and motioned for him to move forward, then another person did the same and, soon, Dad, son and the rest of family were reunited at the front.

It wasn't quite the parting of the Red Sea, but it looked miraculous to me. We tend to be passive givers - we give way when asked. This was proactive giving. I'd never seen that in the flesh before.

Loss muted the innate selfishness in all of us, at least for a few days. The best part was that it was infectious. One act of kindness cascaded down the line. And it made people feel good, both those doing it and those watching. That act of generosity fitted the occasion.

I've read articles by writers who have tried to give a name to the feeling that brought Singaporeans out of our shells, bursting that bubble of privacy in which we encase ourselves.

Some call it patriotism, others call it piety, others, respect. Some say it is about being obliged to give thanks to the architect of the nation.

But what they missed by not being there, on the ground, was the sense of people not wanting to be alone. I have friends who joined the thousands queueing at Parliament House. They went because the crowd was huge, not in spite of it. They wanted to look at others and say, wordlessly: "I feel the same way."

Another thing happened with Mr Lee's passing. It opened up evaluations about him as a historic figure and, indirectly, the kind of Singapore he left behind.

The Western press mostly sang from the same old hymnbook - they admire the GDP growth and the clean streets, but it's too bad Asians aren't smart enough to have all that without turning the city into Robotopia.

Whenever I read that, I always feel like the Singapore Tourism Board missed the chance to create a Horror Asia For White Folks theme park, where every bias and stereotype is confirmed in the most edutainingly scary way. Have a mug of Antiseptic Beer, watch the Oppression Parade march down Main Street every day at noon, stay for laser show at 7pm.

Singaporean teenager Amos Yee also exercised his free speech, but as his Christianity-bashing, anti-Lee Kuan Yew rant on YouTube and subsequent arrest for making offensive remarks has shown, this nation does not lack its own colourful critics.

The case instantly divided people into two groups - those who feel Yee must be dealt with and those who say he's just a kid, give him a break.

It's fascinating to be faced with a case that asks us to choose the kind of Singapore we want to live in, post-Lee Kuan Yew: One that thinks that Singapore still rests on fault lines or one that thinks that we are more resilient than that.

The problem is that there is no safe way of testing which hypothesis is true. Singapore is not a lab; it is our lives.

But in the outpouring of affection and respect for Mr Lee that I witnessed, and how it united people young and old, across lines of race and religion, I saw what shape our lives could take. In that moment, it felt as if nothing was beyond reach.


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