A Song Before Sunset

The Mr Lee of my youth

I grew up in the shadow of Mr Lee Kuan Yew; at times, almost literally, since we live a stone’s throw away from his home. It’s hard to describe how you relate to someone like that. My mother spoke of him with reverence, and my father, respect: rare occurrences, in our household. Whenever she brought him up, my mother would also add that he had gone to Cambridge, and give me a significant look.

Of course, anyone to whom all credit is given (and there’s an argument to be made that we under-rate the efforts of Lee’s contemporaries) will also get slapped with all the blame, and as an angry young — and not so young, now — man, it was very easy for me to turn Lee into the author of all my discontent. Over time, though, especially time spent working for the government, I’ve come to sympathise a lot more with the younger Mr Lee, who tilted at windmills and slew giants, and wasn’t afraid to reap a crop of unpopularity in order to do so.

Right now, social media types are swarming all over his history, and I suppose 2015 will be the year that the Lee Kuan Yew tribute becomes the Merlion poem of every aspiring Internet writer. So how would I choose to remember Mr Lee?

Probably in a way he wouldn’t appreciate: as a romantic.

No, not that sort

When I read that story about Lee the lover, I couldn’t help but wonder what other sides of him the man had. Singapore knew Lee the leader, who carried a hatchet in his bag and lurked in cul-de-sacs with his knuckle-dusters, the dirty street-fighter who wasn’t afraid to turn the genteel, Queensbury rules of the political arena into a brawl for livelihood and reputation. We remember him for his ruthless pragmatism, for his focus on growing the numbers, but we don’t often consider how much that relentless belief in endless and unlimited improvement must have cost him.

We sing that there was a time when people said that Singapore wouldn’t make it, except for him. What sort of mind, what kind of resolve, what manner of faith does that take, to hope against the world’s wisdom?

He cried when we were born, he harangued us when we strayed, he grew mellow in our current needy, greedy adolescence. Can his own children claim so much? How many of his sleepless nights can Hsien Loong and his siblings claim, and how many did he give to Singapore unstintingly? How many of the wrinkles on his face are theirs, and how many ours? What child had what father who believed so unreservedly in his potential, in his

If we remember him as the Father of Singapore, as it seems inevitable that we must, let us do so not because of the claim that he created us, but because he loved us as a father should, even when he shouldn’t have.

Mr Lee, thank you. Not just for what you’ve done, but for what it must have cost you.