Last Monday morning, I woke up early to try catch the sunrise at Coogee. It wasn’t to be. The clouds were thick and grey, low over the horizon. For the briefest moment, I saw a silver of orange in the far horizon, then it was obscured.
As I walked back to the car, I glanced at my phone and saw an email from my aunt in DC. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, had passed away at 3:18am Singapore time, about when I was struggling with my camera and the light. The gloomy weather seemed wholly appropriate then.
It’s odd. Along with many other Singaporeans who have taken to online forums, blogs, and social media vocalizing their bereavement this past week, I’ve been surprised at the extent of my sense of loss. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life now living outside of Singapore, and can’t honestly say that I’ve kept up with politics back home. I took the opportunity though, to re-read his tomes, starting with The Singapore Story. I’ve read it a couple times over the years, but this time I had a much fuller and deeper appreciation of his and his team’s struggle. It took true visionaries to bring Singapore to where it is today, and testament to this fact is the long list of world leaders who have, over the past week, written touching tributes about the full life of Mr. Lee.
Maybe it’s my upbringing in a Chinese school (established by the government in 1956, in the midst of the Chinese Middle School Riots to allow non-communist students to continue their study) that critics’ charges that Mr. Lee and his government was needlessly autocratic never resonated with me. In fact, his government’s policies about the length of young men’s hair or chewing gum paled in comparison to the rules we had to subscribe to in school: girls’ skirts had to be at least an inch below the knee; their bangs had to be an inch above the eyebrows; white canvas school shoes had to be white washed with no stripes; boys had to wear neutral colored underpants. We also had detailed regulations about the type of watches we could wear, down to the specific design and size, as well as bags that we could carry – backpacks, in dark colors and brand patches had to be less than 5% of the surface volume. In any case, my classmates and I survived school, and I can’t say that we were the worse for those rules. If anything, we now chuckle fondly about the times we were punished for the many little infractions we managed to chalk up.
So, last week was a sad week for Singapore and Singaporeans. But, it was also a heart-warming week. In recent years, the online chatter has been that of complaints – about our lack of civil liberties, about the dominant one party, about whatever lah. But last week, the previously silent majority spoke up, and by gosh, the outpouring of acknowledgments and gratitude to his life’s work was phenomenal. Mr. Lee’s life-long dream was to work towards a Singapore where its citizens felt pride as one people, one nation. Last week, we paid tribute to his memory by doing exactly that. I spent many hours poring over the dozens of well written and thoughtful eulogies by world leaders, respected journalists, citizens, and his family.
This week and onwards though, it’s time to put the goodbyes aside. The best way we can honor his memory is to try to live life as he did.