And now the grieving starts. I had a look again at the television broadcast of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of his father’s death. I saw it at 8am online – but you know how live streaming sucks. Now I see clearly how tough it must be to remain prime ministerial when it’s your father who has just died. Nobody would fault Mr Lee if he broke down in tears instead trying so bravely to hold them back. But he did. The son remained prime ministerial.
So many things have happened since the announcement of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death in the early hours of the morning. Flags are down half-mast, people are streaming in to pen their condolences in books that will be kept for posterity, the great and good the world over have sent messages. They praised him as a visionary leader whose counsel on geo-politics was sought and who cut through the chase. There was no bullshit about him.
I was taken aback when I read that Dr Henry Kissinger, now 91, recalled how Mr Lee’s first words on their first meeting was “You make me sick’’. It had to do with the US involvement in the Vietnam War and how some top American academics had wanted the country out. Mr Lee wanted the Americans to stay. “That took courage,’’ said Dr Kissinger as ST reported today.
Singaporeans can take pride in how world leaders regarded their first prime minister. Messages via official channels and even social media have come from world leaders, including Malaysia’s Najib Razak. The Brunei Sultan has already called at Sri Temasek where Mr Lee’s cortege has been placed for a private wake. Indonesia’s Jokowi is coming to the funeral on Sunday.
In fact, my worry is that with him gone, would the international glow on Singapore fade too? Mr Lee’s international stature had much to do with how much regard big countries had for this little red dot, as his successor Mr Goh Chok Tong himself testified. New leaders would stop by Singapore to take his counsel and I am still a little pissed that US President Barack Obama didn’t do the same. It is too late now for him to meet the man he described in his White House message as a “true giant of history’’. Harrrummph.
Major media have spewed forth obituaries, some positive, some negative. Even as they lauded his achievements as a pragmatic politician who took Singapore from Third World to First, they also highlighted the more draconian aspects of his “reign’’. References were made to detention without trial, political prosecutions/persecutions and the chewing gum ban. From the Western media was this tone: “Singapore is successful BUT’’, rather than “Singapore is successful DESPITE’’. A Foreign Policy commentator even called him the world’s “most successful dictator of the 20th century’’. I can’t decide if it was derogatory term or a backhanded compliment. Go read for yourself. The Economist called him the “wise man of Asia’’ while recalling descriptions of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty’’ and “Pyongyang with broadband’’. I want to harrrummph again…
Of course, there were obituaries and tributes that were “over the top’’, with nary a negative word. I guess we should expect this. Sometimes what’s said reflects a depth of feeling, sometimes, a sheer lack of words. After all, we are not used to expressing emotion, according to some survey. Also, it is not “nice’’ to say bad things about a man who is dead, however glad you are that he is. (Shut up, will you?)
Yes, I have been reading obituary after obituary. I can’t get enough of them. It is so interesting to have the man viewed through different lenses. Some facets have come out. I was so surprised to read Mr Lee Hsien Yang saying that the family bathed by ladling out water from those big dragon-motif salted egg jars, and that his parents did so for almost six decades until a shower was finally installed in the bathroom in 2003 after his mother had a stroke.
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Mr Lee was well-known for being frugal and for his distaste for ostentation. I remember once walking behind him with my eyes glued to a hole in the singlet he had on under his CYC shirt. This was no ordinary man who knew about ordinary things or cared about the material stuff. He once told me of how his refrigerator had been in family since forever and asked me what sort of fridges were on sale now. I don’t know Sir, I’ve never bought one, I told him. I felt like sinking into the floor…
Then there was former Speaker of the House Abdullah Tarmugi who said that Mr Lee was the only MP who always sent him a note explaining his absence from Parliament. Again, I went “my goodness!’’. You mean the rest of the MPs…?
Anyway, this was a man who stuck by the rules. It showed discipline and an inclination for order. Would that others follow his example.
Now we will be treated to (or is flooded with?) more black-and-white footage, some of which we’ve never seen before. We will be facing reams of text and old photographs. The older generation will have a fine time pointing out to the young ones who’s who seated/standing near the young Harry Lee. Old names will surface again, the likes of Ong Pang Boon, Jek Yuen Thong, Toh Chin Chye and other members of the Old Guard, both living and dead. Already, I hear the “silent’’ majority speaking up, talking of water rationing days and other hardships they faced while bringing up a brood of children. Now, as my mother would say, “people are born into air-conditioning’’ and still think life sucks because they can’t afford a new car or house.
I hope our young people are taking it all in. His many books on his ideas and thoughts can be heavy going but, surely, plonking yourself in front of the television to watch some local history isn’t too strenuous an exercise?
I hope they get to know the man. PM Lee said “we won’t see another man like him’’. I agree. Not here, not in the future, not anywhere.
I’m glad that we can boast that we had a man like him.
NOTE: President Obama did meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I apologise for my error and am swallowing my Harummph.