Thinking Aloud

He knew we'd be all right

That the country continues to thrive - and innovate - is the greatest tribute to Mr Lee

This time last year, we were fitful, restless. A part of us braced ourselves for an inevitable announcement. So this is it then.

It would be our "Where were you when Kennedy was shot" moment; when man landed on the moon. when the Twin Towers fell.

Where were you?

Only this time, it wasn't about an event over there, but one of the few significant moments that stay with you. And, when looking back years from now, it would be one of the milestones that you count on the fingers of one hand.

Yes son, it was that big a deal.

Yet also in the back of our minds this time last year, was the hope that this man, with his iron will and determination, would once again prove us all wrong.

And that within a matter of days, he would pull out of it and all our lives would return to normal.


And people would wonder what the fuss was all about.

There'd been false alarms with almost annual regularity.

Rumours would hit the market, there'd be a quiet but frenzied search for information.

Then calm when a picture would emerge of him, frail no doubt but in the company of a visitor, or an appearance at a forum packed with admiring business leaders from here and abroad keen to know from him the secret to the country's success, the impact of China's rise, India's place in the world, the United States, trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea... One more question please... Can we take a picture?

This time it was different.

There is no faulting the intent of what is being done to commemorate his passing. And it is right, in this first year, that the appreciation of his contributions and the impact this had on the lives of everyone here continues to be acknowledged, and that the scale be kept modest.

Not a short routine hospital visit for tests, but a stay that stretched for weeks after the initial disclosure that he had been taken ill.

And over that lengthening period, people started to come together.

Curious, concerned. Drawn to the hospital in the hope and belief that their collective will, energy, thoughts and prayers could be focused, laser-like, to energise and nurse him back.

There was, bar the die-hard detractors, a sense of national unity, togetherness, a new-found understanding and an almost sudden realisation among young and old alike, that we got to be here, and have remained intact as a nation, largely as a result of what he and his pioneering generation of leaders and colleagues managed to achieve despite the odds.

And so there was no better time than that present moment, for an appreciative population, to pay him back by turning up in numbers, at all hours of the day and night, to will him back from the precipice.

But this time last year, it just didn't happen.

He'd decided to move on. Not because he didn't appreciate the gestures and the effort.

But because he knew that we would be all right without him here.

As we had been, in fact, for the many number of years since he stepped away from centrestage.

"Get on with it," he would likely say. "And don't drop the ball."

It is a fitting epitaph.

No frills, no fuss. Move on lads, there's nothing more to see here.

He gave of his time, perhaps more than was necessary. It was a good innings. It was tiring and it was, finally, time to rest. Deservedly. No one should begrudge him that.

Yet, as we know from experience, the failure to express appreciation when we ought to have gnaws away at us.

It's a deep and bitter regret that people addressed by showing up, whether in queues that stretched into the dead of night or in the downpour when the heavens opened up at the funeral, to nod, salute, contemplate, bow, clasp hands in prayer - any final gesture to say that I do appreciate, and wish I had said and done something sooner.

One year on, and the sky hasn't fallen in. The country remains intact. No one raided the reserves, investors didn't flee.

And the grumbling, a sure-fire sign of a return to normalcy, has resurfaced.

So now, on the cusp of the first anniversary of his death, there are no fewer than 100 events lined up - although not all may be public-access.

A connection, real or symbolic, can be found or, in some cases, will somehow be made, between events and something that he stood for and accomplished.

There is, in truth, little on this island nation that didn't escape his attention. Hence events at which trees are planted are a nod to his drive to green Singapore.

Outdoor activities like a planned brisk walk are billed as a reminder of his commitment to healthy living. Throw in the backdrop of the new city skyline and the narrative will include how Singapore had been dramatically transformed.

Hold anything on water, in a reservoir or cleaned-up river, and it reflects an appreciation of how he pushed for waterways to be cleaned up and transformed for leisure and recreational use.

There is no faulting the intent of what is being done to commemorate his passing.

And it is right, in this first year, that the appreciation of his contributions and the impact this had on the lives of everyone here continues to be acknowledged, and that the scale be kept modest.

No over-the-top mega event displays, like in the old Soviet era, or present-day North Korea. No need for a group or organisation to overstretch the imagination and slap an LKY label on to something, if only to show that, yes, we too have not forgotten that it's one year on.

It would not be too far off the mark to suggest that if he were somehow able to shape events this coming week, he would prefer that nothing be done.

A private remembrance among family, perhaps. Or a quiet coming together of longtime friends to reflect on his life and times.

What then for the rest of us?

By all means attend, take part and enjoy the events that will be out there this weekend and the week ahead because I think it would be discourteous to ignore the moment.

But the grandest tribute to him and his generation of leaders is that the country continues to exist and thrive; is not a failed state devoid of leadership, direction, energy, opportunity, and is not weighed down in mourning and moaning about the passing of a man, and men, of a particular generation.

That we have been able to move on, one year after, and that we remain intact, forward-looking, and continue to innovate, and nimbly and imaginatively navigate challenges, is not just a tribute to that league of extraordinary gentlemen and what they enabled for the country, but to everyone else in between - from as far back as you care to go.

Because, lest we forget, in commemorating and reflecting on the man that is LKY, we celebrate the Everyman too, and what we and our predecessors were able to also bring to the table because of what he did.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'He knew we'd be all right ThinkingAloud'. Print Edition | Subscribe