Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Commentary: Mr Lee Kuan Yew's death a shared Singapore moment

This commentary appeared in The Business Times yesterday

I hadn't thought I would be moved as much, but I am.

As a student of history, I have always viewed great men with a certain wariness, conscious that how history would come to judge such men could be very different from the time when they were alive, or at their passing. History can be fickle - as fickle as the shifting mood of each generation. But I would dare venture that Mr Lee Kuan Yew's greatness in history is assured - if not to the world at large, then certainly to Singapore and Singaporeans.

I belong to what I call the "straddle" generation. I grew up in the years Mr Lee was Prime Minister; in my young adulthood, I witnessed the transition of leadership to the second generation.

My family went through the Lee Kuan Yew transformation. My father was Straits Chinese, and my mother, an immigrant from China. One grandfather drove a cab, the other had a farm. Still, my parents received an English education and became teachers. I am old enough to remember moving from a wooden house in rural Bukit Timah to a brand-new HDB flat. In school, I struggled with learning Chinese under Mr Lee's bilingual policy, and protested when I had to spell my name in hanyu pinyin. I was interested enough in politics as a schoolboy to go listen to Mr Lee's fiery election speeches in Fullerton Square.

I served national service - the bedrock of his defence policy - dreading the experience while it lasted, but cherishing it at its close. In the reserves, when family and work commitments beckoned, the thought of seeking a deferment arose before each annual in-camp exercise; yet, almost every time, I put on my greens and went - just as he would have expected me to do.

As a journalist, the last major news event in which I covered Mr Lee was the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis of 2003. The younger ministers were handling the crisis, but Mr Lee, then Senior Minister, called a press conference to make this point: Singapore was threatened, so he had to speak. He had fought many battles, but Sars could prove a deadlier foe than any Singapore had faced. Every Singaporean had a part in the fight, and one careless slip could cost everyone dearly. The Government would not hesitate to take tough action against anyone breaking quarantine laws and endangering others, "so let's get a grip on ourselves", he said.

It was vintage Lee Kuan Yew.

The youth of the 1980s and early 1990s chafed at the restrictions on civil liberties, real and perceived, imposed by the Singapore system. Years later, we all saw things with a clearer eye. Like pre-sent-day critics, history will judge Mr Lee on the changes he had wrought, but they must do so in the context of what he had achieved for Singapore. And what he had achieved is well documented: an economic miracle, a nation forged from nothing - accomplished in apparent defiance of history.

The tributes that have poured in from around the world from global leaders and those in the Asia-Pacific are extraordinary. Defying Singapore's small size - just a little red dot, as some would remind us - Mr Lee stamped Singapore in the global consciousness.

Singapore has no right to be here, but we are, and I am reminded of that each time I travel with my red passport. In his defiance of the odds history threw at Singapore, Mr Lee made being Singaporean mean so much.

So I stood, with thousands of other Singaporeans, along the street outside the Istana to watch the flag-draped coffin bearing his body make its way to Parliament House, where he would lie in state. Where I was, the crowd clapped and cheered, then maintained an impeccable silence; in other places, they called out his name. Each generation has its own defining memories, but in the soft morning sunshine on Wednesday, all Singaporeans shared a moment in history. They will again do so on Sunday, when the nation comes together to bid Mr Lee a final farewell.

And history will be judging, too, how Singapore and Singaporeans move forth from here.


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