Today, many of us woke up to hear of the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Our first Prime Minister, the man whom we were in awe of, and at times in fear of, the man who transformed this little Red Dot and placed it on the world map. Cliches maybe, but undeniable that we cannot be what we are today without the man’s vision and leadership.
While in primary school, the year Mr Goh Chok Tong became our second prime minister, our English teacher had asked us to guess how many prime ministers Singapore had had. I guessed a hundred. Only when she said this is our second prime minister that I realised how young a nation we were, and how everything was not always the way it was. Over the years, this episode would resurface in my mind many times, as I encounter people who take all these we enjoy for granted, when only two generations ago, life was not so cushy.
The most recent time I appreciated our achievements was when my sister told me her helper was my age. All the “what ifs” flooded my mind. What if I wasn’t born in Singapore? What sort of life would I be leading? What if we had gone through with the Merger? What would we be today? I counted my lucky stars each time I encountered those who had less than me simply because they were born in a different place. The Singapore we live in today is a safe haven for children, women, and people from all walks of life and all skin colour to live and to dream, and to realise their dreams.
Perhaps as Singaporeans we have taken all these we enjoy for granted and as time passes by, and the memories of post-war rebuilding and the struggle for independence fade with each generation’s passing. People start to see what they enjoy as a given, and an entitlement.
Singaporeans know him, yet know not enough of him. Most are not familiar with Mr Lee’s insightfulness and strategies, the diplomat that he was, the amount of respect he garnered all over the world whenever he spoke. The sort of podium power he had on the international fora, the sort of footprints he left which paved the way for us. The world knew us because he walked ahead. That the world mourns with us today is testament to the impact he has left.
He inspired a generation of Singaporeans to stand on their own feet, strive for a future with their own two hands. As a nation, we did not need sympathy or handouts. As Singaporeans, our parents and grandparents took the same stance, valuing hard work, frowning on laziness and self-pity.In a region where things were complicated, we were clean. You didn’t need to provide coffee money to do anything here. In a region where minorities were side-stepped, the ideas of Mr Lee and the Old Guards allowed all Singaporeans to dream, and know that we can live that dream, and there is good chance of realising that dream.
We speak to our grandparents and they speak of Mr Lee with much gratitude. Speak to the younger generation, and sadly, there are some among them quick to pick on the policies of his time (sometimes without full understanding and knowledge). As Gen Y, I appreciate this place we call home. Even on bad days when dreams become hazy,things get trying, when the future looks bleak, I appreciate that this is a place where women and children are safe, where we have to have campaigns like “low crime doesn’t mean no crime” while our friends elsewhere worry about their lives each time they walk out of their front doors. I appreciate that in times when whole countries could go bankrupt, it was the prudence of the government that he built that saw us smooth-sail it through those storms and emerge unscathed.
Mr Lee has led a long and fulfilling life. I think it has been a tiring one, when there was a period that a whole nation depended on you. Imagine, being the breadwinner of a small family is already tiring, let alone being the father figure steering and spurring a whole nation. He could have used that brain and that leadership elsewhere, make big bucks lead a life of comfort, but he chose to dedicate his life to building this country, and working for a different bottom line. I wonder, if at the end, when he breathed his last, Singapore’s future continued to be on his mind, or maybe he was just glad to finally rest and be reunited with Mrs Lee.
Death is such a painful finality. Singapore will have to learn to stride on without Mr Lee, because the pragmatic side of him would have said to do so. Our hearts are with PM Lee. He lost his father and his mentor. As times change, so do policies. What he chose, he chose what he thought was best at that point in time.
He left us a lasting legacy, a nation we call home and proud of it. Hopefully, we will learn to look at ourselves again as one people, one nation, one Singapore and give up on the complaining, nitpicking and armchair critiquing. In death, the nation comes together again as one united people.
Thank You, Mr Lee, for the lifetime of work building our home, a safe haven, where I could dream big dreams and reach for the stars. A safe haven where I can start my own family, and safely bring up my child. A place where she is allowed to grow up with dreams that can be fulfilled and potentials that can be realised. This is Singapore, the place our grandparents and parents built together with you, because you believed and you led by example. Thank you.