The most brilliant politician you never knew is on his deathbed. Hooked up to a ventilator – a contraption designed to replace the most basic of human functions – a withered 91 year old faces the inevitable. Alongside him, a nation awaits, heavy with the knowledge that for many, their world will never be quite the same.
To capture the essence of Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, you could point to the fact that Nixon once described him as a man who “might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladston” were he born in another country. Or the fact that Lee has served as a mentor to likes of Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping. Or, more recently, Obama’s assessment that Lee is a “legendary figure of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
These vaunted accolades are guaranteed a place in the historical chronicles. However, to judge a man by his accomplishments, certainly one who has left an indelible imprint on the national psyche of an entire country, one needs to really delve into the flavors, the rhythms, the rojak of Singapore life.
Which is to say – one needs to go back. Back to when Lee was in his prime and brimming with vitality, back to when Singapore was on the brink of taking the world stage, back before Marina Bay Sands or the Singapore Flyer dominated the landscape. Back to when I was in Primary 1. Sitting cross-legged on the floor with other squirming 7 year olds, while a music teacher patiently sounded out the notes to our very first lesson in productivity:
Good, better, best.
Never let it rest.
‘Til your good is better
And your better, best.
We sang this all the way home. It was an ethos that underpinned our collective spirit, echoing well into our later years. There were no A’s for effort in Lee’s Singapore. Instead, there was his institutionalized demand, pure and strikingly simple – for the best. Not your best, which was entirely subjective, and easily dismantled by the accomplishments of another. But the best. The kind that was unequivocable. The kind that topped lists compiled by the World Health Organization, the IMG, the World Bank, and the OECD. All biographers point to Lee’s near obsession with perfection, but few capture the true magic of his legacy. Most world leaders, narcissists by nature, dream of presiding over a well-educated and sophisticated electorate. A handful have had the wherewithal to build the infrastructure necessary for one. But Lee was the only one who possessed the brilliance and tenacity to achieve this goal in fewer than thirty years.
I had none of this perspective while growing up in 1980’s Singapore. Gently chided by courtesy campaigns, reminded to save for a rainy day, nurtured and buttressed by Lee’s unique blend of Confucian ethics and Western-style capitalist ideals, all I knew was my Singapore – a dizzying blend of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians, all jostling for recognition on that tiny island. And it was up to us – “you up-and-comers,” my Secondary 2 form teacher would intone – to sprint to the finish line once the baton was handed over. Except some of us viewed the race itself with skepticism.
“Don’t go wild with your imagination,” my English teacher wrote in the margins. “Very self-indulgent!” was scrawled on the next page, in angry red ink. This was the flip side of Lee’s Singapore. An emerging city-state with no natural resources, no agriculture, and a tepid-at-best relationship with her closest neighbors, Singapore needed doctors, engineers, teachers, and lawyers. There was no room for whimsy or creativity, a perspective neatly summed up by Lee’s maxim that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford. What is important for pupils is not literature, but a philosophy of life.”
And therein lay my big unspoken conflict. As a Singaporean, I reveled in our shared destiny, fiercely protective of my beloved little country that not only survived, but thrived against all odds. Yet the writer and dreamer in me felt cast out to sea, mere flotsam in the gritty ocean of nation-building practicalities. It is one thing to speak of my American immigration experience at 16 years of age. It is quite another to realize that at 11 years old, I already felt like an immigrant in my own country of birth. To experience this so viscerally as a child was simultaneously liberating and devastating. It all but sealed my fate as a perpetual nomad. Yet perversely, we all know that a nomad never becomes one of her own volition.
Now, decades later, an old man lays dying while I – 10,000 miles away – am strangely, deeply moved. My instincts tell me that I am not the only one, that my scattered cohort of former classmates who have relocated to Shanghai, Perth, New York, and London are likewise pensive. Because to contemplate the story of who you are necessitates the more prescient story of where you’re from. Singapore and Lee, two entities inextricably linked, means that I cannot process his impending departure without remembering what my own life was like under his stewardship. It is not hyperbole to say that Lee is our Abraham Lincoln. A man whose death, while not untimely, will be no less devastating for many Singaporeans.
You gave us a republic, Mr. Lee. No display of gratitude seems excessive in light of your tremendous legacy. But I’m happiest to report that your people – scattered and disparate as they may be – have indeed found poetry. In doing so, they may have uncovered the spirit of what it really means to be Singaporean at heart.
* Author is a Miami-based writer who is born and raised in Singapore.