Saturday, March 21, 2015

LKY - why it's so hard to say goodbye

Since news of MM Lee Kuan Yew's worsening condition broke a few weeks ago, the nation has waited with growing dread. 

Why is this so? He's already 91 and has been frail for sometime. It's a ripe, old age, he's led a full life and he clearly misses his wife. He hasn't even been involved in politics for many years now, so his death will not impact Singapore in a big way. And yet, it somehow does.

A friend wrote on his FB: "More bummed out about ‪#‎LeeKuanYew‬ health than I realised. He looms larger in my psyche than I gave credit for." Why do we feel this way?

My parents and many of their time spoke of LKY with total deference. He created an economic miracle - this little red dot that was nothing, became a force to be reckoned with within one generation. He and his pioneering team achieved the impossible, armed with just extraordinary vision and sheer willpower.

My generation was less starry-eyed. After the 1980s, rumblings of discontent started. LKY was too controlling. Too hard-hearted. He ruled with an iron fist. Two main things I personally found disturbing about him: 1) He would mow down anyone who disagreed with him. It was terrifying, paralysing even. I suppose that was the effect he wanted and it worked. 2) He glorified himself at every opportunity (which he called Truths with a capital T) and saddled me with this debt of gratitude that he insisted I could never finish repaying in my lifetime. It was a Messiah complex that didn't sit well with me.

I know I wasn't the only one. However, back then, even mentioning any unhappiness with the Man (and the Party) was taboo. So people kept their grumblings to themselves. But then, the Internet age came about. Gradually, people realised that they could get away with saying anything (almost) without fear of the ISD knocking on their doors at midnight and ferrying them all away. Suddenly, all the pent-up frustrations burst forth like a dam. The sheen of LKY started to look a lot less shiny as people focused on his flaws. In a sense, it's like a teenager who has been made to obey instructions all his life, and facing freedom, decides to release all his resentment against his parents, his teachers, all authority.

But if we are to be honest with ourselves, we should know that in the midst of poking and picking at what the Man did wrong, they do not discount what he did right. And what he did right looms infinitely larger. Some may say, but he did it all for power! I say, sure, maybe part of it was, but if you examine closely all the work that he did, hours that he poured into working the ground, it cannot be the only, even the primary reason. If he simply wanted power and money, there were much easier ways to achieve those.

And there are those who would curse him now because they say he has ruined many lives. I don't believe for a moment that these people truly care about the so-called ruined lives. (It always strikes me as ironic - those with vested interests accusing others of having vested interests). It's the need to blame someone for your discontentment and what better way to do so than create shock value and rally other petty minions. If you would curse someone you barely know so easily, it reflects on your lack of humanity, not his (and such people seldom care for others so much as they care about themselves). You can disagree and still be respectful. So grow up already.

No matter how much I disliked LKY's style, I cannot deny that he has done more for this country than I could ever envision, even in my wildest dreams. Here is a man who transformed a tiny nation in all aspects - a peaceful city with many trees and green spots, where most Singaporeans own a home, where public services work efficiently, where corruption is an anomaly, and so on and so forth. The achievements in each of these areas are so massive and ahead of their time that sometimes, I think they have set an impossible standard in the minds of Singaporeans, so that we have come to expect perfection in everything and each mistake or breakdown becomes magnified a thousand times.

Perhaps we have always known this but it hasn't taken centrestage in our minds because it's always easier to focus on what's troubling us now. It took LKY at his deathbed for the spotlight to readjust itself and for us to finally come to terms with the enormity of the man and his legacy.

LKY is the ultimate patriarch of a slightly dysfunctional family, sometimes implosively so. In a nation where we are often accused of being identity-less, he's the figure that binds us in our past into our present. That's why letting him go is harder than we thought it might be because it's almost like giving up a little part of who we are.

And so I acknowledge that I need to put my adolescent days behind me and release this security blanket. Like Bertha Hanson who wrote so eloquently in this piece, I wish him a good death. As for the rest of us, it's time to let go. Thank you, LKY, for all you've done.



Anonymous said...

Why do you always write things that make me cry...

A beautiful tribute and I agree with you. No matter what we dislike about LKY, he will always be the father of Singapore. Thank you for penning this.


Penny said...

Thank you for summarising my thoughts so articulately. I don't agree with all his policies but I respect the man deeply. He will be greatly missed.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you encapsualted the general sentiment really well: that despite his occasional high-handedness, LKY nevertheless looms larger in our consciousness that we could have ever expected- and not necessarily for the worse. A beautifful tribute Monica!

Kojakbt said...

Hi, you wrote a very objective piece on Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Are you ok if we repost this on TR Emeritus? Thank you.

monlim said...

Kojakbt: Thank you for asking and I appreciate your offer but I'll have to decline.

Gerous said...

I have to disagree about your argument that power isn't the primary motivation. I believe in LKY case he truly enjoyed his power and is unwilling to let go, so much so that he surposingly arrested innocent people using the ISD. IMHO he thinks that Singapore is his pet project and he will destroy anyone that gets in his way. He enjoy and love being in charge, much like Steve Jobs building Apple. In this sense, LKY did not sacrifice for Singapore. He worked and was rewarded handsomely for doing something he enjoyed tremendously. He has guided Singapore into what it is today. Singapore did not fail because it's his pride at work, his pride is what brought us from 3rd world to 1st. But we should also remember the 3rd world doesn't mean fishing village. Fishing village was temasek in 1819. He is not a miracle worker, he is a genius, but he did have a lot of help from a host of people who made Singapore into what it is today. We should give credit where it is due and not make the man into a myth.


monlim said...

Gerous: Yes, he had a great team working with him but even his team acknowledged that he was the mastermind behind many of the major policies. To dismiss him as simply a guide would be disingenuous and not giving credit where it is due.

Colonial Singapore was not a sleepy fishing village but neither was it a romantic haven as revisionist theorists would have us believe.

As for his intent, I feel that people forget that success, and hence his rewards, was not inevitable, in fact far from it. Therefore it would be folly to go down that route if power and money was his primary motivation.

Anyway, only he would know the answer to that question. At best, ours are both conjectures. Let's just agree to disagree. Today, I'm mourning the loss of a great leader.

Woon Liong said...

Hi Monica,

Thank you for your thoughtful post.
I too mourn the loss of a great leader. It pained me greatly to get the news of his passing early this morning even though I know it is best that he did not have to prolong his suffering any further further.
The nation owed much to Mr Lee - peace, safety and security, housing, green and trees, clean water, efficient and clean public service, excellent infrastructure such as Changi Airport..etc. Yes, he has assembled an able team. But I dare say that without Mr Lee at the helm, they would not have been able to get their acts together so well to create this miracle of Singapore. Mr Lee's commitment to making Singapore a better home for our people is total.

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