When news broke on the night of March 18 that there was a death hoax about Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew circulating the web, the first thing that came to my mind was how he would’ve reacted. Actually, he would probably ask the sorry soul to sit down and shut up. Then, he would laugh in the face of those naive enough to believe the rumours.
See, Mr Lee was never one to mince his words. In The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew, a collection of his best quips, he was quoted saying, “I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.” Blunt honesty, as I’ve observed, isn’t something Singaporeans take too well to.
So, when I was tasked to pen a personal piece about the venerable Mr Lee, I knew it wasn’t gonna be easy. After all, I am a Singaporean woman who has both benefitted from and bemoaned his policies. The man was known for his restrictive (albeit effective) iron fist, and it is nigh impossible to find someone who feels indifferent to his leadership style.
No doubt, to see the nation Yewnited (stole this pun from a friend – it is brilliant) as one, regardless of political affiliation, is pretty damn heartwarming. Since March 18, my social media feeds have been overflowing with well-wishes and declarations of love and loyalty for our founding father.
And yet – I don’t say this lightly – it is imperative that we take a step back and refrain from getting caught up in the furor, and therefore developing a misplaced sense of self-righteousness. Sure, in the same vein that one is affected by the sheer ephemerality of life, I too am affected by Mr Lee’s passing. But I also approach this sadness with an astute sense of self-awareness. It’s crucial we don’t blur the line between being respectful and jumping on the emotional bandwagon. At the very least because the latter wouldn’t do justice to the life of an honourable leader.
Still, there are a couple of lessons I glean from Mr Lee’s leadership. For one, he made radical courage extremely cool. To stand by one’s opinions, even if (especially if!) they’re unpopular, is no mean feat – and he managed to do so with grace and tenacity. How deeply one must believe in one’s ability, in order to withstand the judgment of an entire nation. Admirable would be a sore understatement.
Additionally, he also taught us to never, ever, settle for less than the best. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you think the education system is too rigid, find time to carve your own niche by experimenting with various opportunities; if the arts scene is lacking, find a way to contribute to its development. By actively changing our surroundings, we refuse to settle for a Singapore less than what we would love to live in.
Yes, these were the things I thought of when news broke that Mr Lee was in critical condition in the ICU. I might not be extremely torn up about it, but I suppose to be made fully aware of my mortality, his reverence, and my country’s vulnerability all at once is merely human – something he would approve of.
However you feel about the man’s policies and principles, this much is clear: to paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, if we have seen further, soared higher, and achieved greater, it is because we have stood on the shoulders of a formidable giant.
And ain’t that the hard truth.
Text: Grace Yeoh
Main image: Singapore Press Holdings Ltd