I was born in 1980, when Singapore was already fairly developed. Though I hailed from a modest working class family, I never had to experience poverty growing up like my parents did. So in a way, I would not be able to fully appreciate what LKY and his generation of leaders had brought to Singapore, to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Still, I have always been interested in politics, and had devoured most of his books. I remembered my mother bought the two volumes of his memoirs when I was in secondary school, and I finished them in just a couple of days. They were great reads of course, and appealed to my intellectual curiosity – how he (his generation more precisely, but I will just mention him alone for simplicity’s sake) built and moulded a nation, and how everything tied in so neatly together – home ownership, NS, language policy etc etc etc.
I think it’s fair to say that he has been sort of a domineering, stern, grandfatherly figure. There’s (grudging) respect for his intellect and integrity, but always from a distance. There were some of his policies and ideas which I found (and still find) particularly distasteful, especially with regards to eugenics and the silencing of political opponents.
With LKY’s life hanging by a thread these couple of weeks, however, I began to watch videos of his media interviews etc, and reread some of his writings and quotes. It’s during these few weeks that I sort of began to see him as an individual, as a human being rather than a ‘superhero’. Here’s the young man, driven by idealism, who stood up to be counted, to change the world for what he believed in, for the betterment of his fellow people. A man with ideals, courage and steel, who got rid of the old colonial masters, who battled the Communists at the risk of his life, who started from a small opposition party and grew it into the dominating force that it is today, and who took Singapore from the abysmal depths of poverty and racial strife to become a first world city. A colleague of mine in China said he’s like the combination of Mao and Deng in China. I concur.
I also somewhat began to appreciate that underlying the intimidating aura of his is a genuine and noble man. There are a few of his quotes I find particularly touching:
“For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life… You see, the whole of my adult life… I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories” (what he said at independence. His anguish at abandoning and letting down the people of Malaysia who had believed in and supported him)
“At the end of the day, decisions have got to be made by adults, not teenagers, but it’s got to be made in such a way that when teenagers become adults and they look back on these decisions, they would be proud of the generation that went before them.” (on student protestors in the United States during the Vietnam War)
“It’s irrelevant to me what young Singaporeans think of me…I did what I thought was right, given the circumstances, given my knowledge at the time, given the pressures on me at the time. That’s finished, done….I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do.”
Growing up in Singapore, one would never imagine that the day of his passing will ever arrive, but now it has. I see a general outpouring of grief among my peers (a few folks from Singapore in my office have worn black as a sign of mourning). I see this as a healthy sign, that we appreciate what he and his generation has done for us, and we are determined to protect and build on his legacy.
I think the Singapore of today is ready for a new chapter, a new social compact with more social justice, compassion and tolerance. But as we strive towards the future that we aspire, there are some values we should do well to keep – integrity, resoluteness, a healthy mix of idealism and pragmatism, and very importantly an acute awareness that we have is so fragile that it could all fall apart if we are not careful.
May we be worthy of carrying the torch, and may we make it burn even brighter.