After The Elegies

Early yesterday morning, Singaporeans woke to sombre news. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, our first PM and Singapore’s founding father, passed away this morning at 3.18 a.m.

The sense of loss is palpable everywhere. The state machinery too is doing its part to give people the chance to mourn and pay their last respects – flags will fly at half-mast and a state funeral will be held on Sunday.

In truth, the mourning began long before his death. Many well-wishers from all over Singapore left messages of hope and cheer, with the best of motives. Yet, with every announcement of his deteriorating condition by the PMO also came more orations and more tributes which were written more and more like eulogies as the days passed. In a way, watching how Mr. Lee was repeatedly eulogized before his death was strange, and at times just a little grotesque. I wonder how the man himself would have felt about it all.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s necessary to think cynically of the events leading up to Mr. Lee’s passing. Perhaps we didn’t know it, but maybe many of us just needed time to come to terms with the idea of a Singapore without Mr. Lee. That was inevitable, because the man was a legend in life as he will remain in death. His legacy is unquestionable – he played the key role in turning Singapore from a backwater swamp into a glistening city state, with a famously low crime rate and ever-growing economy. Heck, without him I might not even be typing this now. There were others we shouldn’t forget too – Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, S. Rajaratnam and many more. But Mr Lee provided the original vision of a state where people could succeed on their own merits instead of being judged by colour or place of birth, and he led those who took up his call to arms.

Like all great men, he didn’t leave history an unblemished record. He often trampled on free speech and political liberties while upholding eugenics and capital punishment, all in the name of progress and growth. Many will remember only how his political opponents were hounded into bankruptcy and destitution. And even when Singapore was well on the road to economic success in the 1980s, the ‘Marxist conspirators’ – really just social workers with a cause – were locked up without trial and made to watch as the legal profession was stripped of its power.

I may disagree strongly with much of what he did, but I can’t help harbouring a certain admiration for his gutsiness. Unlike the cowardly dictators who litter the junkpiles of history, he never flinched from dirty work. He openly spoke of his belief that hatchet-work and realpolitik was critical for progress. As Mr. Lee himself said, no one ever accused him of being failing to speak his mind. If nothing else, he was one of those rare honest men.

Some of his opponents have fallen into petty recrimination, even in the wake of his death. And there are others who will try and whitewash his mistakes, and harness the power of his legacy to their own political manipulations. I for one hope that the vast majority of us succumb to neither temptation. We should be deeply saddened at his death, not simply because he was an illustrious human being but because he was human. Like all of us, he made mistakes. Like any imperfect human being, he deserves to be remembered for the good he did, though we may acknowledge his mistakes. Having been a public figure doesn’t rob him of that singular dignity.

What is even more important is how Singapore will move forward after the eulogies and elegies are over. It will be tempting to hijack the story of his life to justify one political narrative over another, whether that means villifying or glorifying him. Instead of such pettiness, we need to speak softly and civilly to each other (as is appropriate in a time of mourning) and reimagine Mr. Lee’s Singapore dream to fit the times. To truly build on his legacy, we need to be honest with ourselves about what does and does not work in our system and how we can change it for the better. The late Mr. Lee would be proud. In many ways he was a realist and progressive, admitting that there was an economic need for casinos years after he had staunchly opposed them; and telling journalists in his later years that homosexuality was not the state’s business to police. The way to achieve his vision of a democracy based on justice and equality for all will be through reasoned politics and dialogue, not the muck-racking and shadowy manoeuvring that has so often characterised our political scene as of late.

In the end, I hope we will make Mr Lee proud, and do his vision justice. He deserves no less. Thank you Mr Lee, and may you rest in peace.