Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew at Cambridge and the Bridge of Sighs

CAMBRIDGE - The weather can't decide what it wants to do today, Sunday, March 29.

In Singapore it rained but here, half a world away, the sun shines in fits and starts in the midst of a spring shower. The only constant is the wind, so strong it turns umbrellas inside-out and makes the pub signs swing.

I can't decide what I want to do either. Or what to feel, for that matter.

I haven't been quite sure how to react since I heard the news on the evening of March 22, UK time. It would be too easy to avoid the issue and let the torrent of tribute flow on. People more knowledgeable, more eloquent, more considered have already weighed in.

Except for one nagging coincidence that put me in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, on Sunday. The unseen hook on an invisible line, drawing me back. Lee Kuan Yew's alma mater, flag still at half-mast, his name inscribed on the benefactors' list in the Porter's Lodge, gold letters on purple wood.

So I have to say something.

I have no tales of political heroism, no family memories or little red boxes. But Cambridge is under a cloud today, at least for me. The rain here is the rain of home.

I'm here for a Russian and East European studies conference. After one of the panels, I start talking with a Ukrainian scholar from war-torn Donbas about political and economic models.

"Where are you from?" she asks.

"Singapore," I reply, and her face lights up.

"Your country is wonderful," she says. "What is the secret of your success?"

There's an undertone to that question. It's not a trite, back-patting rhetorical quip rallied from one self-made man to another. It's heavy with all the portents and hopes of a country struggling under the weight of its conflict.

Once again, the man and his generation loom large.

In Fitzwilliam College on Sunday afternoon, the chapel is holding a memorial service for Mr Lee. There'll be speeches and a screening of the state funeral.

As I walk across the college grounds I pass several Singaporeans. Usually they're identifiable by their accents. This time they're identifiable also because they're all in black.

I'm not quite sure I can face up to the official mourning, so I decide to take a walk through the city, down the green Backs that he and his wife loved.

Today's Cambridge is not the Cambridge of the 40s, apart from the colleges. Those might just as well be eternal. I wonder what he would have thought as an undergraduate here for the first time, counting off the colleges along the river: King's, Clare, Trinity, St John's.

The water is spanned by bridge after bridge, the college lawns ending right at the edge. We know, from one of those black-and-white photos, that he once lounged on the grass with book in hand, a willow in the background.

Where was this spot, I wonder. I start comparing the bridge in the photo to the bridges I pass.

St John's college garden is open and I walk in through the massive iron gates. The daffodils and bluebells are in profusion. Would he have thought of Wordsworth, I wonder? Would he and his wife have exchanged a line or two of poetry?

One thing we do know is that he liked the Bridge of Sighs, so that is my object of the afternoon.


A Facebook post made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on March 26 about his parents near the Bridge of Sighs

The blustery downpour has kept the tourists at bay, but as I reach his vantage point, I see a group of Chinese visitors there. And on the ground, a few bouquets left for him, with that photo of him and his wife from their student days on top.

"These must have been left for Lee Kuan Yew," one of the tourists says, peering at the little memorial.

"Who's that also in the photo? Must be his wife," his companion asks.

"Yes of course, Ke Yuzhi," he says, giving Mrs Lee's name in Mandarin.

That two tourists in Cambridge, thousands of miles from Singapore, could name Mrs Lee so readily, speaks volumes.

When they leave, I take a moment to ponder the photo and the empty bridge I stand on. Perhaps this is a way to commemorate him. To take what we see and give it life, imbue it with memory and meaning. To remember how we got where we are, and talk about it.

This isn't just a bridge. It's a bridge with history.

These aren't just HDB flats and shiny skyscrapers and superhighways. These are the houses that our forefathers built, this is the wealth that we made. How did we make all this happen? What did we lose? What did we gain?

I'm glad that we started talking about it. In a way, it took something as momentous as this to get us talking about it. I can only hope we won't fall silent again.

This isn't just Singapore. This is Singapore with history.

The writer is a former Straits Times journalist and a member of a team involved in Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, a book on former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's world view. She is currently completing her doctoral thesis on Russian history in Oxford University.

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