In April 2015, to mark the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern Singapore, Writing the City invited Singaporeans to pen a 300-word reflection on what this towering figure had meant to them.
Mr Lee will be remembered as an intellectual, a visionary politician and a statesman who earned the respect of governments around the world. He will also be remembered as a formidable and pragmatic ruler who laid the foundations for the prosperity of Singapore today.
But we asked: what did Mr Lee mean to you personally? How did his vision for the country affect your personal or cultural sense of identity – perhaps even the way that you think of yourself as Singaporean?
This is what you told us.
A LOVELY LIGHT
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!”
You resolved to give us freedom;
Your foes you gave a fight!
With iron grit and steel in soul –
Oh what a lovely light!
A people born, an unwanted child;
Abandoned – an orphan’s plight.
You lit their candles; you gave them hope –
Two million lovely lights!
A free fair land for all,
You led with all your might.
You served the people that you led –
Oh what a lovely light!
“Never fear! We WILL survive!”
Your words set spirits alight.
A lion’s resolve to guard his cubs –
Oh what a mighty sight!
In fifty years, a little red dot;
A nation shining bright.
A lighthouse in a tumultuous sea,
Singapore, a Lovely Light!
He burned his candle at both ends,
Like it wouldn’t last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh my friends –
He gave a lovely light!
(Author’s note: the first stanza quotes from ‘First Fig’ by Edna St Vincent Millay)
THE SINGAPORE SONG
If I was asked to describe Singapore in less than ten words, I would say “A safe city with a medley of cultures”.
Tending to a growing nation is no mean task; bringing about a paradigm shift while maintaining the nation’s cultural identity is a gigantic one that requires an enormous amount of thought and intellect. Singapore is a nation that is home to people of many races. Integrating a mélange of people into a single society, without supressing the individual identity of each of these races is something that can happen only in Singapore and the man behind it is Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Several people abroad believe that Singapore is a rigid nation with no space for freedom. However this is far from reality. Singapore is a nation that believes in respecting each person’s private liberty as compared to excessive freedom that infringes on the liberty of others. In Singapore, unlike other nations a person can walk home safely in the early hours of the day without feeling unsafe. Singapore illustrates the popular quote ‘Your right to swing your umbrella ends where my nose begins.’ And this image of Singapore is due to the no-nonsense approach of Mr Lee towards unsocial activities.
Hence Singapore is a safe and modern city that retains its old world charm. I am proud to be a person who lives in Singapore and thank the country and Mr Lee for what it has given me. A Singapore without Mr Lee would probably not be as safe and advanced as it is today.
Singapore is like a beautiful song where the Singaporeans formed the orchestra with Mr. Lee as the conductor, leading forward the sopranos, the altos and the contraltos’ to produce a beautiful melody known as the modern day Singapore.
In 1998, Indonesia experienced one of the worst riots it has ever seen. The riot was meant to oust President Soeharto, but turned into a racial riot, where the indigenous people robbed, killed, raped and tortured other races, mainly the Chinese. My parents witnessed it firsthand and experienced what fear really was – they not only feared for their lives, but their children as well. From then on, they prioritized safety above all else.
Needless to say, Singapore was the most obvious destination for our future education. Decision was made based on the leader most important of all – Mr Lee Kuan Yew. My mother felt that with an accountable and great leader, the safety of her children is ensured. The Ethnic Integration Policy was a policy that Mr Lee Kuan Yew believed was necessary and we should hold it with austerity. Due to his policy, I never felt differentiated, in fact, I found a niche in the area of differences. As such, I was able to make friends with people of different races that would not have been possible without Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Furthermore, thanks to him, I can experience a better quality of life where fear is far from my mind and enjoy the life in Singapore, allowing me to focus on my studies and need not worry about in-bred terrorism like in Indonesia.
All in all, the quality of my life, the continuous ideal of safety and the acquaintances that I have forged are all thanks to the founding father of Singapore and the person who has given me life-changing opportunities, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.
So wherever you are, from the deepest of my heart, I thank you, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
I grew up with a full time housewife and I am very thankful to Mr Lee for that.
His leadership helped Singapore achieve a good economy, and that has allowed my father to be able to have a stable job. As a result, my mother could spend time taking care of the family and me. Being able to grow up with my mom instead of a domestic helper is a privilege that I am grateful for. Growing up with my mother around has shaped my beliefs. I strongly believe that family is the anchor and most important people in my life. Even until now, I will return home for dinner instead of eating with my friends, and return home immediately after school to spend time with my mother. This habit is cultivated not because I was forced, but because I believe that family is indispensible, and this, I have to thank Mr Lee for.
Mr Lee helped to develop Singapore from a developing to a developed country that is recognized by countries all over the world. This has been a great advantage for my father, who works overseas. As Singapore is well known, my father is being viewed as a foreign talent and accepted by other countries. He is then able to earn enough money to support the family, allowing my mother to take care of the family in Singapore. In addition, Mr Lee’s strict laws helped to create a safe Singapore. My father can then focus on his work overseas without having to worry about us all the time. I have to thank Mr Lee for the roof that I have above my head, the loving family that I have, and the safe environment that I can live in.
Thank you Mr Lee, wherever you are, rest in peace.
Yu Ting Ng
A LETTER TO MR LEE KUAN YEW
Dear Mr Lee,
They say a life is best appreciated in retrospect. With your recent passing, I had collected a wealth of information about you. It wasn’t cold data though; for I can remember my parents talk about “老李” with an inflection that I wasn’t quite used to – they appeared cautious, somewhat terse even. Now I see how real the tensions they have lived through were; the tensions you lived through.
As with all men of valour, you responded to the crises and challenges with clarity of purpose that would make you out to be the leader and change-agent we needed. I have seen that footage of tears in the university while studying political science; but now, as a leader, I feel those tears with intensity – leaders know when things go to rot and they sense the hefty price that lies ahead. Yet you hunkered down and paid the price. The world has seen many leaders serve their self-interests or refuse to step aside graciously; but not you.
As a woman, the scenes of family life, the stories about you and Mrs Lee; they moved me deeply. You were an unusual amalgam of honesty, ferocity and devotion; an amazing yin-yang balance.
Sir, you have given us a wonderful legacy. You showed us that dreams are important, values are crucial, and hard work is essential. You showed us that we have to live and work with heart, head and hands. Thank you for being such an excellent example of what it means to live well and strong in whatever season one is in.
Rest in peace, sir.
Ho Yim Tee, Jenni
THE BILINGUAL POLICY
“I’ve done what I had wanted to, to the best of my ability and I am satisfied.” The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said this in his book ‘One Man’s View of the World’. And indeed, Mr Lee, Singapore’s true founding father, has ‘walked’ his talk. The Bilingual Policy has been Mr Lee’s boldest and most radical policy as many debates on this topic have taken place within and outside of the Parliament House.
Just imagine how segregated Singapore would be if different groups of people were to continue using different languages? The Bilingual Policy was one of the policy’s that united Singaporeans. Indirectly, it was the very one that made all Chinese have something in common and that is learning Mandarin. It ensured the different speaking dialects could communicate with one another because ‘language barrier’ was no longer an excuse. The Bilingual Policy Mr Lee created, hence standardized and created a sense of identity for everyone including you and me.
Apart from that, I feel that the Bilingual Policy has helped to narrow down the generation gap between the old and new generation. With the Bilingual Policy, students like me are required to learn Mandarin. Therefore with the older generations mainly Chinese speaking, learning Chinese enables students to communicate more fluently with previous generations, understanding their thinking and way of life better back then. For example, my grandmother is ninety years old this year, and with the Bilingual Policy that requires me to learn Chinese I am able to communicate and even seek her advice on certain issues effectively.
The importance of bilingualism truly struck me when I started to open up towards my grandmother. So, I would really like to say “Thank you Mr Lee Kuan Yew. You have changed the world and you have, shaped my identity.”
Natanya Ng Zhi-Ying
A COUNTRY RATHER THAN A LEGACY
Dear Mr Lee
I did not know you as a person so I shall address you as an era.
I cannot comprehend what you went through, I have not seen war unfiltered by camera lenses nor have I suffered oppression from foreign powers.
The dedication, hard work and vision to lay down groundwork for a future Singapore is laudable. For a country that has gained a reputation of being individualistic, that mindset is sadly a novel concept.
The images of riot and unrest, poverty and strife, a leader crying over the lost prospect of something bigger – all of it made up your fabric.
You were the mythical portrait of a Singapore that overcame odds both natural and man-made, a battle hardened force of nature that defied logic and history.
Does that lead to my inability to criticise? Rendering me mute against the tidal wave of accolades and awe?
Your actions were done under circumstances that we were foreign to us but sometimes it felt excessive and cruel.
Opposition was stifled, either due to necessity or fear, and instability was rampant for a recovering colony taking its first unsure steps towards nationhood.
You laid down the foundations for a country as best as you can and we are eternally grateful for that.
But you will not define us.
We will make a Singapore that reflects who we are, a Singapore not obsessed with adding floors to skyscrapers, but widening the entrance so more can get in.
So Mr Lee, I am addressing you both as a person and an era now, your passing was sad and I wish I had gotten to know you more. But more than anything, I want to thank you for creating a country rather than a legacy.
Nyi Nyi Thet
MAN OF PROMISE, LEADER OF FULFILMENT
Mr Lee was a man of not just promise but also fulfillment, going the extra mile to accomplish noble things outside of his scope of work. His hefty hands anchored Singapore as one of the top economies in the world.
Personally, however, it is not Mr Lee’s economic achievements I am grateful for. I am truly thankful for Mr Lee’s proposal and implementation of the bilingual policy – even if the man himself regretted it. It was a move that possibly sounded radical in theory in a time when Singaporeans were not as socially cohesive as they once were, but has substantially gelled us as one Singapore through the common communication medium that is English, while still staying rooted to our own cultures. The beauty of the bilingual policy lies in that there remains an inheritance of our own languages, while we gain the opportunity to learn English.
While it may be argued that not everyone is linguistically-inclined, it is because of this very policy that I was able to unlock my potential in Chinese language, and pride myself as a person strongly rooted in Chinese values. We often take for granted that being able to learn and converse in two languages is a right – contrary to that, however, it is a privilege; a privilege that would not have been bestowed upon us if not for Mr Lee’s patient guidance and persistence in championing the policy.
So, thank you, Mr Lee, for helping me to develop into a person who not only knows the workings of the English language, but also becoming a person who is appreciative of and roots for his cultural identity.
Li Wee Shyan
Singapore’s education system was once meant only for boys. It was the great leader, Mr Lee Kuan Yew who made it compulsory for girls to have an education too. I believe in equality of gender and that everyone has the right to learn and attend school. Because of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s actions, Singapore’s women need not have low income careers such as domestic workers and factory workers, but can attain more successful jobs. Poverty has decreased significantly as a result.
Singapore has achieved almost universal education both at the primary and secondary levels after years of great effort by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Education does not only teach us the various subjects like maths, science and language arts but also teaches us moral values that a person should have. This helps to nurture us and differentiate the right from the wrong. It teaches us to make the right decisions so that we will not be tempted to commit crimes in future. This stresses the importance of education and it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew who made education possible for everyone. Every child has to go to school today and a penalty is applied if they do not.
My dream is to be a doctor one day so that I will be able to cure the sick and help the needy. I will be able to save lives and I can donate extra money to charity. I aim to pursue my dreams and interests – all things which have been made possible for me by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. “If you want to reach your goals and dreams, you cannot do it without discipline.” This quote by Mr Lee has inspired me to have discipline and thrive towards my goal. Thank you Mr Lee for inspiring me and making my dreams in life possible.
Vivian Chia Yan Yi
“Few individuals significantly alter the course of history; fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state”. These were the words of Stanley Wolpert describing the achievements of Pakistan’s founding father, Mr. Mohammed Jinnah. Yet the same could be said for Singapore’s founder Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, who created a thriving metropolis from a sleepy town of about a million inhabitants.
Mr Lee was a visionary and a political giant of his time. The father of Singapore taught us that Independence and responsibility could be ours; and that with confidence and iron resilience, nothing is impossible. Always a perfectionist, Mr Lee drove Singaporeans hard and reminded us that diligence is essential in everything we do. To me, this diligence and competitive streak is what defines us. Our forefathers’ experiences of being a small, vulnerable island trapped in a rough neighbourhood enhanced our survival instinct, which remains an integral part of the Singaporean identity.
Mr Lee’s practical approach also shaped the pragmatic spirit. When she was expelled out of the federation, Singapore had no resources save for her people. Mr Lee saw valuable potential could not be put to waste and spent billions to educate and train the people into an intelligent and educated workforce. This pragmatic spirit is part of the values that forms our national identity.
Above all, Mr Lee proved that we can be both Asian and Western. The England-educated barrister learnt about the scientific advances of the west but never forgot his Chinese heritage and upright Chinese values and later adapted both to create a fusion of uniquely Singaporean values that defines the Tiger Parent in the heart of the Lion City.
So has Mr Lee affected my cultural and personal identity? Yes. Tremendously.
Oei Xing Yin, Agatha
Liang Yan Fung
Singapore has transformed from a small fishing port to a garden city. Within just 50 years, Singapore has upgraded from a third world country to become a first world country. This is largely due to the strong leadership possessed by Mr Lee Kuan Yew who also made the right decisions at the right moment along with a strong group of ministers which worked closely with him have contributed to the great success of Singapore.
Thank You Mr Lee Kuan Yew for your great contribution, without him there will be no Singapore.
Lim Jia Yi
A LETTER TO MR LEE KUAN YEW
Dear Mr Lee,
I didn’t know much about you then. All I knew was that you were the first Prime Minister as well as the founding father of Singapore. It wasn’t until I looked up videos of you speaking at the Parliament that I realised you were more than just that. I was amazed by the way you spoke with so much power and conviction. Most importantly, those impressive speeches were put into actions, as it is evident from the growth of Singapore. This has truly taught me to be a responsible person.
I then took the term ‘founding father’ and mused on it. A father is someone who cares and protects their child in every step of the way. Needless to say, you were the perfect embodiment. You didn’t just build our country, you continued to help us prosper, making sure that we are living in a safe and harmonious country, and for that I am forever grateful.
Above all that, you were also a doting father to your own three children, as well as a wonderful husband to your sagacious and demure wife. I also read that you were determined to learn Chinese even though you were already 32 years of age, and this strive to never stop learning new things is something so remarkable. If I were to face any obstacles, this ‘can do’ attitude that is inspired by you will always remind myself to keep going on no matter what.
Mr Lee, you were truly a phenomenon and as a Singaporean, I am proud to say that my role model is the founding father of my country. Thank you for everything that you have done and your legacy and wisdom will carry on in my heart forever.
I have blurry memories where you were taller, your face rounder. In my twenty years, you were first Senior Minister, then Minister Mentor. And then you began to move further from the public’s gaze. Like a banyan tree, you continued to cast your shadow. Your words echoed in our collective consciousness. Still, I watched with uncertainty as you grew more gaunt with each passing National Day Parade.
When your passing was first announced, I wasn’t exactly shocked. Oddly, I felt numb. When you were alive, people around me had always had an opinion about you. Some adored you, others had asked why you continued to cast a shadow over our present leaders. Now, everyone seemed to flock to the Padang, forming snaking lines to see you one last time.
In the end, I went to a Tribute Centre to pay my final respects. As I bowed my head before a large photograph of you, framed by white flowers, I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss. In life, I feared and respected you deeply. It was common knowledge that you were a formidable man. But now I was struck by your humanity – you were not just our first Prime Minister, but also a husband, father and grandfather. You once said you regretted the equal opportunities you’d instituted for Singaporean women – yet your wife was clearly someone you regarded as an equal. I saw how you did not spare some of your political opponents, but also how your wish was that your beloved home be not spared after your death.
You have left us physically, but I hope your indomitable spirit will not. I hope we remember the things you have done for Singapore – that we will neither grow complacent, nor live in fear of failure, but continue the good work you started, and build a Singapore we can be even prouder of.
My heart was heavy as I shouted “Lee Kuan Yew, We love you!” as his cortege whizzed past, draped in our national flag. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss at the demise of such a great leader. His wisdom and foresight in ruling the nation were admirable.
First, he left us the legacy of the democratic nation, Singapore. If not for his insistence on pursuing a democratic route for the nation, the openness and fairness of our national voting system where one man is given one vote would not be in place. Chaos might ensue.
Second, I am proud to be a ‘product’ of Mr Lee’s bilingual policy. This has given me an edge when articulating my ideas. As an educator, I am effective in teaching both English and Mandarin. In a recent teaching course I attended with Koreans, Japanese and Malaysians, my language skills were seen as outstanding as I could communicate freely in both languages.
As a girl growing up in Singapore, I got equal chances with the boys in my class to go to a local university. I feel that our system based on meritocracy has given me tremendous opportunities to excel and get jobs based on my qualifications and experience. For this I feel really grateful to Mr Lee.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, thanks to your leadership, Singapore became one of the most advanced nations with the world’s best airport. I have watched how the nation rallied together to grieve for you. You are a great man indeed.
Rest in peace, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
I remember watching the national day celebrations with my family, eager to watch the fireworks at the end, but my mother was interested in something else, bursting into happiness when the Mr Lee Kuan Yew was filmed making his way to his seat. He was weak and frail, but radiated an aura of liveliness and energy. Or maybe it was my excited mother, calling relatives, chattering about the rumours of him being critically ill being false.
This year on my birthday, I woke up to the saddening news of Mr Lee’s passing. Television programmes regarding his contributions to Singapore were aired and we students started learning about his achievements as a founding father. Though I was disturbed that the newer generations are only starting to appreciate what Mr Lee had done after he had left us, I felt ashamed for being one of those people. It never occurred to me how big an impact Mr Lee had on us. Without his determination and vision to modernise this country, I would not be where I am today.
Previously, to me, Mr Lee was simply an important figure to Singapore. To older generations, Mr Lee was their second father. Perhaps if I had existed decades before I was actually born, I would have loved him as much and cultivate a deeper appreciation for his achievements. However, I was born into a generation that’s lucky to live in his success, but unfortunate to miss watching this revolution unfold.
Mr Lee serves as a great inspiration to me. He served as a perfect role model for Singaporeans to follow; a living proof that anything is possible, revolutionising Singapore from a poor fishing village into a rich, bustling city just from his vision. He has given me hope that all our dreams are achievable and nothing is impossible.
Darren Suen Wei Jie
What if I had had the chance to meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew? I know that as I stood at his door, I would have felt like my primary school self, inching into the school principal’s room. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Mr Lee was a formidable but distant figure to me, making speeches on television just like my own principal did at assembly. Even though I barely grasped what he was saying, I respected him as the leader who had brought us progress – even before 1965.
If I’d been asked to walk into his room, my steps would have grown impatient, like those of a headstrong teenager. Because as I grew to understand our history I’d realised how Mr Lee’s decisions had tangible effects – whether it be the rigour of memorizing Chinese idioms or the intense focus on examination grades. Just like the wannabe rebellious student who pseudo-nonchalantly bows her head when her principal walks by, some of the respect I’d had for Mr Lee had begun to turn into silent resentment.
But I know that once I sat down opposite Mr Lee, I would see him more like an indomitable supervisor. I would better appreciate the difficulties Mr Lee faced in making farsighted decisions within the limits of what he’d had, regardless of how such decisions would be received. I would also see what had dawned painfully on me during Mrs Lee’s funeral; that unknowingly Mr Lee had grown old and frail, and that he was just as human as I was. With that, I would finally be able to honestly thank Mr Lee and tell him how I would continue growing to appreciate all that he had done for us beyond 2015.
OUR FOUNDING FATHER
Our founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a legendary man of iron and guts who shaped and transformed Singapore from Third World to First World. An astute man of acumen and frankness he never failed to stir emotions wherever he went and in whatever he undertook.
“For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.” These last words to his children offer a glimpse of his tenderness to his beloved wife and made me feel sad. This was a strong, determined man who never succumbed to political strife – but he was also a husband whose grim facial features were merely a façade to his loss and grief.
Old footage of how the young charismatic LKY drew crowds to rallies in the rain shows how intricately these history-defining events are intertwined with our lives and this can’t help but bring a sense of nostalgia in me.
Love him or loathe him, his passing has sparked something in the people. The unaffected Singaporeans, often labeled as keeping a blasé attitude, have made their feelings evident. His death drew long winding queues of people waiting for hours to pay their respects – like a clarion call for Singapore to unite and to bind in spirit!
The enduring legacy he leaves is one that is assured; the life and opportunities that I inherit is one I take pride in. So while Singaporeans mourn the passing of this zealous and passionate giant of a man, we must also celebrate his life as a nation–builder who makes me proud to proclaim “We are Singapore… Singaporeans”.
Sng Keow Hong
HERE IS A MAN
Here is a man who bore such love for his country, who cared so dearly for its people and who took such pride in its independence, that he was willing to devote a great part of his life to raising it up. Had he at some despairing moment during the war let himself fall to the hoax of an exultant shore, or chosen at a juncture of quiet comfort to rest there forever and leave matters of the country to chance, or even, having taken up office and realizing the arduousness of bringing up a vernal nation, retreated to the back-end of the cabin, Singapore might never be as it is now.
Here is a man who has risen above the masses; for he who strives passionately for himself is great, but he who strives passionately for others is greater.
REMEMBERING SINGAPORE’S FOUNDING FATHER
Founding Father of Singapore;
Born of early last century;
Brought us into this new century;
Of happiness, modernity and prosperity.
O Founding Father of Singapore,
We shall not forget – nor will we forget!
Singapore – an island of mudflats;
Now centre of business, banking and housing flats;
Swamp transformed into a metropolis state;
Growing still at astounding rate.
O Founding Father of Singapore,
We shall not forget – nor will we forget!
You gave Singaporeans what you promised;
You neither stay too long nor take too much;
You neither show fear nor favour;
Nothing can make you waver.
O Founding Father of Singapore,
We shall not forget – nor will we forget!
Your body is now lying-in-state;
Your uphill task is done;
Your laughter and cry we hear no more;
Rest on, rest now in peace.
O Founding Father of Singapore,
We shall not forget – nor will we forget!
Osman V P Mohamed