Over the last 2 years as a volunteer museum guide at the National Museum of Singapore, I’ve always been stunned when visitors say they haven’t heard of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister. Even more so, if they were living, working or studying in Singapore.
On the day of his death, I was at the gym before work as usual and looked up at the TV screens. The ongoing telecast of Lee Kuan Yew’s life, spliced with constant updates on funeral arrangements, etc. on Channel News Asia contrasted with the music videos and entertainment news on the other screens. I looked around me, wondering how many other Singaporeans there were in the same space.
Singapore is a small dot on the world map, and with the falling fertility rate, Singaporeans have been an increasingly rare breed.
What does the future hold, once this man is not here? Will delicate balances, over the issues of race, language and religion, become more intense? Will old foes try to make a comeback? Will new groups rise up and try to wrest control of the island? It’s a frightening thought.
And yet Singapore has been here before. We’ve been at uncertain places in our history, over the last 700 years, long before we became an independent nation.
It is only in the last 50 years or so that we have made a name for ourselves as an independent country, punching above our weight in many categories on the world stage through sheer determination, doggedness and a steely resolve by our leaders to govern, and to govern well despite the many opposing forces. Things could have gone awry at so many junctures — the communists, the split that resulted in the Barisan Socialists… and yet because of the standards set by one man, and his unwavering adherence to those standards, Singapore is what it is today.
I like to say that no matter how cynical one is about Singapore politics, one can’t help but feel a certain sense of pride at what the country has achieved since 1965. Watching 40 years of National Day Parades compressed into 7 minutes at the old History Gallery, I, together with the visitors, laughed at some of the kitsch — a float by the National Productivity Board with a hairy man pinned on the front, the word ‘laziness’ written on a cross in front of him stands out in my mind. Yet I would defend any unjust criticism of Singapore, because I am proud of those standards set by that one man, and all that he has done for Singapore, and I am proud of what this country has achieved.
It is day 4 of a week of national mourning, and I’ve watched so many clips of LKY that like probably many other people who have been in Singapore the past week, I can almost quote him verbatim. “It really feels like the nation’s Ah Kong’s wake.” I texted a Singaporean friend in New York with photos of what I see around me. He is doing his masters on a government scholarship, and says he wishes he could be in the country at this time. Indeed, this week has felt like a historically significant one, sad and surreal, with the heft of the past and the weight of a nation’s grief heavy in the air. Everywhere I turn, the LCD screens that usually show bus timings, advertisements from banks, petrol prices, etc. have some form of tribute to LKY, whether it be the black ribbon with his profile in it or the photo that stands in front of his casket, his eyes brimming with tears, his hands clasped next to his face or clips from different stages of his life. Look right, a young politician arguing in parliament. Look right, an august old man with a gravelly voice.
At work, clothes colours have been muted, and each day, conversations inadvertently lead to ‘the man’. For a work project, I have also been going through the national archives, scouring through LKY speech after LKY speech for quotes on the use of English in Singapore. At home, my parents have kept the TV on Channel News Asia. LKY’s deep, passionate voice has literally been the first I hear each morning, and the last I hear before I fall asleep.
In short, it has been LKY on hyper surround-sound.
Today, I took the day off because I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept thinking I that I was hearing “Lee Kuan Yew! Lee Kuan Yew!” outside my window, as images of racial riots that I haven’t lived through run in my mind.
I want to believe I can have faith in this country’s future, want to believe that I will have the courage to stand up to protect the ideals of the national pledge. But I am worried. It is a 2-year-old worry, born when I learnt more about Singapore’s history while training at the museum and realised just how many points history could have turned the other way, and how many other brave men and women there were who had ideals and dreams, just different from what was seen as right for that era. It is a fear that has hit me each time I do a tour. It hits me in the stomach, usually after I talk about the first LKY cabinet, and the cadre of men with their hearts in the right places for the country. In this past week, it is a worry that has intensified, while interspersed with a feeling of being acutely Singaporean — one with no PR status that I can use to hide overseas in time of danger, and yet, one with a renewed sense of belonging, rootedness and responsibility to a country I genuinely love and would defend at all cost.