Mr Lee Kuan Yew with his wife Mdm Kwa Geok Choo and son PM Lee Hsien Loong (courtesy of PM Lee’s Facebook)
At 3.18 am this morning – the stillest hour of the pre-dawn night – Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew slipped quietly away to join his beloved wife Kwa Geok Choo. 91 years of age, he was surrounded by his family and loved ones.
Mr Lee’s last port of call was Block 7 of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). This was the same “transit point” where my father-in-law earlier departed from one-and-a-half years earlier. Coincidentally, both Mr Lee and my father-in-law were warded around the same time back in 2014. My wife and mother-in-law saw Mr Lee and his family several times at SGH while they were visiting my father-in-law back then.
Interestingly, my son Ethan expressed how Mr Lee looked like my father-in-law or “Ah Kong”. In a way, Ethan isn’t very wrong – the emotions expressed by many Singaporeans today are akin to that of losing a father or grandfather.
A towering and imposing figure – both physical and metaphorical – Singapore’s longest serving Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew (also known as LKY and Minister Mentor or MM Lee) left an indelible mark on Singapore’s cultural, economic and political landscape. Founder of Singapore’s dominant political party the People’s Action Party or PAP, Mr Lee was also our country’s longest serving Member of Parliament.
A giant amongst men, and a political supremo with few peers, Mr Lee’s national legacy is legendary. Anybody who has spent time in Singapore would have read, heard or experienced how Mr Lee and his cohort of pioneer generation leaders transformed Singapore from a tiny fishing village to the economic miracle that it is today.
Indeed, the national narrative of Singapore’s success is so well told that it has become ingrained into our psyche. We rose from third world to first in a single generation. Our airports, ports, IT infrastructure and workforce are all world class. We have one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. Our foreign reserves are unmatched. Crime rates are incredibly low and we can safely walk the streets at night.
Mr Lee’s stellar achievements did not come without costs. No stranger to controversy, he ruled with an iron fist, and suffered no fools – a domineering, and some say patriarchal, leader.
During his many terms as Prime Minister, Mr Lee dared to do the unthinkable. He pushed for radical policies like the “Stop at Two” population control policy (which my brother and I became a national statistic for).
Some chaffed at his adoption of Confucian over Western ideals, prioritising nation above community, community above family, and family above self. Others thought that he was old school and conservative in a world awash with change.
I recalled how Mr Lee made Chinese Singaporeans embrace Mandarin in favour of dialects at work or in school. It felt weird to see Hong Kong drama serials dubbed from Cantonese to Mandarin. Like it or loathe it, the policy led to a linguistic shift with each successive generation of Singaporeans.
Those hailing from English speaking households – like yours truly – also suffered under Mr Lee’s relentless push for bilingualism. Looking back, I now realise the wisdom of this. Back then, however, it felt painful to be forced to master a second language.
Mr Lee also championed special privileges for graduate mothers – much to the chagrin of the rest of the population. This was met with fierce resistance not just by non-graduate mothers but graduates themselves. Thankfully, this policy was quietly abandoned.
I will always remember how fiercely Mr Lee fought for his ideals and beliefs.
During parliamentary debates, he brooked no arguments and wouldn’t hesitate to pummel political opponents into the ground. A brilliant orator par none, Mr Lee wielded his words like a weapon – sharp, incisive and targeted to inflict maximum damage.
Over the decades, Mr Lee’s irrepressible style of governance won Singapore both fans and foes on the international media arena.
A public communicator previously working in a cultural agency, I was made painfully aware of the unfavourable monickers which liberal-minded Western media and cultural pundits gave Singapore. We were labelled, amongst other things, as a city where chewing gum is banned and where public caning is favoured – a “cultural desert” nicknamed by William Gibson as a “Disneyland with a Death Penalty”.
While Mr Lee’s views may not always go down smoothly, he did give Singapore his all. It is not improbable that he spent virtually every waking moment thinking of ways to grow, nurture and shape Singapore into the thriving city that it is today.
I remembered bumping into Mr Lee at the Istana back when I was involved in launching “Singapore: The Encyclopedia” on September 2006 (then President S R Nathan was our guest of honour). My colleagues and I were taken aback when we saw MM Lee walking into the Istana in the evening, just as we were about to start our event.
We were then informed by staff at the Istana that MM Lee comes in to work at night. Apparently, he often toiled to the wee hours there.
My final encounter with Mr Lee was at a gala dinner. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the exact details of the event. Already into his mid 80s, he looked frail then, weakened by age. He was accompanied by Mrs Lee, who had to travel around on a wheelchair after she was immobilised by a stroke.
Despite his physical condition, Mr Lee walked resolutely to the stage, stood un-assisted, and shared with great knowledge and insight on the geo-economic forces shaping our economy. Although he spoke slowly and haltingly, he could still hold court with his audience.
Perhaps my strongest memories of LKY came in the form of his delivery of the National Day Rally speech as Prime Minister. Forceful and authoritative yet charismatic, his spoke with a steely and confident demeanour. Huddled around the television set, my family members were mesmerised for the hour or so, intently absorbing every word.
As we mourn the death of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew this week, let us remember him for who he was – an idiosyncratic iconoclast who dared to speak the hard truths and make the hard decisions; a loving husband and doting father who was faithful his whole life to his wife and his country; a courageous leader who did far more than what many of us could have imagined.
Rest in peace, Mr Lee. You have done all you could to build this home of us called Singapore. It is time for you to join your true love in eternity. #RememberingLeeKuanYew #RememberingLKY #ThankYouLKY
Special thanks to my friend Alvin Lim for tagging me for this post. You may wish to read his Lee Kuan Yew story here.