'Unite with a new spirit' in post-LKY era

In a S'pore without Mr Lee, let words of national anthem lead the way

I was fortunate enough to get an invitation to yesterday's funeral service for Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. I know myself to be a rather sentimental person, so I went expecting to shed tears at some point.

All of the eulogies were heartfelt and some very touching, especially those by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his brother Hsien Yang and former senior minister of state Sidek Saniff.

But my eyes welled up only right at the end of the ceremony, when all the speeches had been delivered and the audience stood up to sing the national anthem.

"Marilah kita bersatu

dengan semangat yang baru;

Semua kita berseru,

Majulah Singapura, majulah Singapura!"

I've sung these lines so many times in my life, but yesterday the meaning of the words hit me hard. They call on Singaporeans to "unite with a new spirit" and urge the nation onward.

At the end of seven days of national mourning, Mr Lee Kuan Yew has been laid to rest and today will seem like the first day in post-LKY Singapore.

So much has been written about this moment, not just this past week but in the months and years leading up to it. What happens now? Can Singapore survive?

For me, the events of the past week have unearthed what seem to be two new certainties among the myriad variables that go into the answer to that question.

The first is the pleasant discovery that the Singapore spirit is alive and well.

We saw it all week in the unending queues of people waiting for hours in the hot sun and into the dead of night, just for a minute or two to pay their last respects to Mr Lee as his body lay in state at Parliament House.

We saw it again yesterday as thousands lined the streets in the pouring rain to greet Mr Lee's cortege as it made its way to the University Cultural Centre.

All week, people have been posting pictures online of Singaporeans in these queues being not only patient but also civilised, helpful and considerate, volunteering their time in aid of complete strangers, cleaning up after themselves, offering free food, flowers and water and taking only as much as they needed.

Going by the comments posted, these images have taken many people by surprise. In a week, Singapore seems to have collectively realised that, given the right circumstances, it can be the sort of idealised proto-Japanese or Scandinavian society that it constantly beats itself up for failing to emulate.

That leads me to the second happy discovery of the week, which concerns the notion of the ideal political model a country should adopt.

After years of increasingly intense debate about the failings of the Singapore system, many Singaporeans suddenly became proud of the unique way that their country is governed and run, whatever outsiders may say about it.

Two of the most widely circulated articles last week were plain-speaking commentaries by former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng and Business Times correspondent Joyce Hooi that took on Western criticism of the Singapore model head on.

If the much-vaunted political freedoms of the West mean anarchy, crime, failing public infrastructure and poverty, then we do not want it, both argued.

And do not mistake the Singaporean grumblings about higher freedoms to be proof that there was some terrible trade-off between economic growth and political liberty, or that its system has not worked.

In fact, it is quite the contrary. As Ms Hooi put it, "such has been the earlier success of Singapore that its people have the middle-class wherewithal to demand change, and the Government has the resources to provide it". You could almost hear the collective roar of approval.

When you boil it all down, what you get is a Singapore that got a glimpse of the good in itself, and became more secure about where it is in the world and how it got there.

It was a much-needed shot of confidence that will help this relatively young nation continue to overcome the increasingly difficult challenges ahead. My hope is that this is not a flash in the pan, and will be the seeds of the "new spirit" - semangat yang baru - we sing of in the words of the national anthem.

If we get it right, then the only thing we need fear, in this post-LKY era, is the inherent uncertainty of the future itself.

Some of these uncertainties - such as the vagaries of global politics and economics - have little to do with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, although he was adept at anticipating and dealing with them.

Others, however, may be a direct result of his departure.

Will the political system in Singapore change? Are there new fault lines developing that will splinter society? Will we re-examine those Lee Kuan Yew "hard truths" about nationhood and survival, and eventually discard them?

As a nation, we take our first steps today without our founding father. But they are firmer steps, I believe - his last gift to us.

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