I haven’t yet said or really known what to say about Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. I was in Kuala Lumpur when he died and I had my own tiny grief party among my very good Malaysian friends, but being away I didn’t really know how to feel; in fact I felt even more disconnected than I usually do. after a while, I even stayed away from social media because some of the hate I felt from some of my countrypeople made me feel inexplicably sad and at the same time the repeated rhetoric of “you are our father, thank you for what you did for our country” also felt like knee-jerk mourning out of ignorance than anything else.
but when I arrived in Changi Airport yesterday evening, and saw the propaganda-soaked slideshows everywhere about how the man himself turned our port and airport into what it is today, I still burst into tears.
truth is, even those of us who know our history have a very complicated relationship with this man. because of what has been taught to us since we were little, many of us do consider Lee Kuan Yew Singapore’s father and because of the man he was, like it or not, every Singaporean has daddy issues. I’ve never been a PAP sympathiser, I have openly spoken up about my issues with the hypocrisy of our governing style and our embarrassing lack of human and civil rights, not to mention the joke that is our press and the clueless child that is our censorship board, amongst many, many other things. so why am I hit so hard by the death of the man who started it all?
I don’t know how many of you have read his book “Hard Truths”. my Uncle Glenn gave it to me and he, like my Grandpa, has a fascination with the man. Mr. Lee was older and had much less of a filter when the book was recorded (interview style) and he was very candid about what he felt our situation was when we split from Malaysia and what he felt we had to do to keep our island afloat in the middle of giants that could very easily sink us. was he paranoid? maybe. was it all self-serving? possibly. was he right? I don’t know. but he sure made it impossible for us to even contemplate the alternative.
I understand the polarised Singaporeans, the ones who are full of anger and the ones who are full of gratitude. they’re two different kinds of people. I don’t think I’m sitting on the fence, but I am in between. that’s also because I am part of a third group, those of us who have been fighting for a hypothetical Singapore that we don’t know if we would even be in the position to fight for had he not done some of the things he did. what could have been the alternative? Malaysia kicked us out, we didn’t “strengthen” ourselves LKY/PAP style and we might have found ourselves once again conjoined to our neighbours, this time maybe without any governance of our own and living under Syariah Law. another possibility: we get kicked out, he runs the country like a utopia with everything that we wish for, human rights, free speech, equality, and we either win awards for being the most enlightened society in the world or we become another failed Communist experiment.
I’m not saying I know, but no one really knows. he did what he thought was right, he did all he knew how to do. he had a vision and it might have been selfish or it might have really been the only way he saw Singapore moving forward. he crushed people who opposed him and no doubt he was a dictator who openly condoned eugenics and nepotism. I was always taught to speak my mind but no one had to tell me to be careful about what I say about Mr. Lee or his ruling party, the way he did things made fear a natural part of our genetic code. but many fathers are built that way. it doesn’t make it right, it just makes them human.
there has been this overflowing gratitude from Singaporeans now that he’s gone. some people are shocked by it considering how much we love to complain, but I’m not. most of us aren’t informed and that’s how he liked it. Alfian Sa’at has put out the hashtag #erasinghistory because it’s true, what the government has led us to believe is, much of it, far from the truth. we weren’t a “sleepy fishing village” that LKY magically transformed into a hub of godawful skyscrapers. we had a British infrastructure in place that he simply built on. my mother was born before independence and she can attest to that. we weren’t a swamp people who didn’t know any better. our education system was already here in 1959 and we still very much follow the British syllabuses. but when Malaysia didn’t want to gotong royong with us anymore, I think he panicked. and he needed to start history afresh for himself and his party because he didn’t know how else to take the blow and save his face. he’s a man and it was a very human thing to do. but was he qualified to run our country then, being just a man? who else would’ve done it who wouldn’t have been just a man as well? his opponents might have brought us to a different place, we’ll never know. but just like all screwed up relationships with fathers, most of the time we don’t get to pick ’em, and we just have to live with them. some kids can forgive when they are gone, some kids can’t. some kids can see all sides and understand where they were coming from despite the hurt they caused and just take it the way it is, because he was just a man not some patriarchal God, and these kids know better than to have higher expectations. the daddy’s girls and boys who considered themselves the ones in daddy’s favour will continue to put wreaths on his grave and champion all the things he did because they don’t see the things he didn’t.
he was a master of economics and he made us richer than we thought possible but we complain about what had to be done to get our GDP where it is. he also spoilt us and gave us everything we thought we wanted without having to ask, and made us bitchy, whiners. he also understood geopolitics like no other and every politician around the world tips their hats off to him for his smarts, foresight, hard work, determination, gumption, balls. he might have dealt with the threat of corruption through fear and bullying, but he dealt with it. he might have been a money-minded, tyrannous grinch but he advocated hard work over welfare because he felt that’s what made a disciplined, successful society. let’s be honest about this man. about the things he did and the things he didn’t. about the ways in which he tried to bring up his country that were laudable, questionable or outright wrong. he was a man and he made many mistakes and had many successes. I don’t know if he was a good man but he knew what love was, and in many ways he was great. there are many reasons that people the world over are celebrating his life.
I won’t miss him, that’s not why I cried when I came home. he had a fulfilling long life, I’m not sad because he’s gone. but it’s a similar feeling to why I mourned so violently for my own father, I cried for all the things we could’ve been, I cried for all the possibilities. there are things we will never know and never see because of the things we never got to choose. I cry for that, I cry for us and the end of this era that was his life.
but now, now we have a choice. he’s gone now and we no longer have to live with a self-appointed father/mentor. all us Singapore kids have our own feelings and the fact that many of us see the things he did as the foundation of what our country rests on (good or bad), means we cannot deny what a great and powerful man he was. but how long is the entire fate of this country going to be his sole responsibility? how long are we going to say Lee Kuan Yew brought this country to where it is (good or bad)? how long are we going to complain about the lies or truths of our history? when are we going to start writing our future?