During history lessons, you will always find me tucked into a comfortable position and dozing off contentedly. I was never a history buff. The first of Stalin’s five-year-plans were… David Marshall did a certain something when he was in a certain political party and then after that… Franz Ferdinand, if let’s say he wasn’t shot, and he didn’t die… You would lose me right about here.
So you get it, I didn’t really participate much in history classes. Neither was I conscious for very long. I drew mind maps at the end of term to try to memorize some of that dreaded content and then hopefully pass my exams. I wasn’t exactly your model student.
And then there were some lessons on the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Like many people my age, we were born into an era where the man had already performed his magic and built up the nation. All that was left, it seemed, was to carry on the legacy. I do wish I had listened a bit harder in history class, because right now, I only know three things about him with absolute certainty:
- He watched as Japanese soldiers beat a man up during the occupation years.
- He teared when Singapore was on the brink of independence.
- His wife passed away recently, back in 2010
That is basically all I can say with absolute certainty. Sure, he also founded the PAP, that one we all know, right?
I’m saying all this very casually, not because I have no respect, and certainly not because I have nothing better to say. I’m being casual with it because part of me believed that this great man would never see his deathbed. This is a man who vowed to rise from his grave if anything bad happened to us. He was the exuberant speaker in his heyday. We would see his face on the TV screen, his movements in real life, his words in books, and his voice on the radio. Of late, we even see him appear on viral memes on facebook and twitter, portraying him as the “badass” we all know him to be. He was everywhere, and though of late his appearances have become less commonplace, he would still pop into vision now and then like the sun peeping out on a cloudy day.
I am twenty-one this year. It is a pretty idealistic age where we tell ourselves to let go of our childish ways and look forward to the future. I believe that like most people my age, we will feel some sort of sadness at his passing. Sure, there will be some youths out there who will be totally indifferent, and I understand that. He may have built us up in the past, but his efforts may not seem as relevant today. Some people call this unappreciative and heartless, but it’s just the side effect of a generation raised in relative comfort.
It was a Wednesday, and it was rumoured that our founder had passed away. This was not inconceivable; he had been in intensive care for more than a month by then and his condition had deteriorated. There were WhatsApp messages spreading around and some news agencies even confirmed his death. I felt an immediate pang of sadness, though it wasn’t just sadness. It was also emptiness, one that couldn’t be explained in a few words. This was a man I only knew three things about, a man who I didn’t think much about, a man that I took for granted all this time. And yet, my heart sank there and then.
Thankfully, those rumours proved to be untrue. Anger at the authors of such a hoax gave way to some measure of relief. The man wasn’t gone after all, not yet, at least. Not yet. But then you can’t help but feel, that the clock was ticking, that at one point such news would prove to be true. And then what?
And then we brace ourselves for what is to come. As a nation, we have always had things go our way. Virtually nobody wore masks during the SARS outbreak. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami didn’t touch our shores. The Bird Flu, Mad Cow Disease or Ebola was either well controlled or unheard of here. We have had no major terrorist attacks, and our airport has been voted the best in Asia for as long as anyone can remember. There is a lot that has gone our way, so much so that we forget that there was a time when things didn’t go our way.
“Lee Kuan Yew had raised Singapore out of the slums into the first world wonder that we are.” This sort of statement brings with it some baggage. He is a man that had been questioned for his actions, a man who stood by everything he did and denied his critics their time in the sun. We always take this kind of success story with a pinch of salt, and don’t appreciate this the same way our elders do. Perhaps in the annals of history, he will always be that force of change and progress; one man who fought against a thousand ideals to forge what he felt was best. Perhaps this is true, but to my generation, I believe that he will always be the guiding hand that rode above all criticism, the assuring figure overlooking it all.
I don’t know whether to feel proud of his legacy, or sadness at his waning health. I am at a loss as to how to feel about these things simply because I always believed him to be with us through it all. When I was younger, my family would huddle together in front of our television on the ninth of August. And he would be there; smiling and waving at the crowd during the National Day Parade. Every single year, he would be there. His hair would grow whiter and maybe thin out a little, but he would be there. I always believed that this one man would weather all storms as he had in the past, and prove everyone wrong time and again.
After the storm has past, perhaps he will prove us wrong. One day, he may be gone but within this generation, his ideals will be stronger than ever. Because Mr Lee, the single biggest gift you have granted upon us is hope for the future. You have fought for us tirelessly and given more than just your life. You’ve had to make many tough and unpopular decisions just to give us what we have today. Sure, we may not yet be perfect, but you have given our people the platform to work towards it. Whether someone else could have done a better job or not is irrelevant. Because beyond just politics, you have shown us what it means to be Singaporean, and by and large, we owe this identity to you.
This is a man that goes beyond the history textbooks. He has reached into our lives from beyond history itself, and given us more than we could ever hope for. Thank you, Mr Lee, for everything.