Monday, April 6, 2015

Ripples and Reflections (The Mourning After April 5)

[Lee Kuan Yew. Ripples and Reflections.]

Apr 05, 2015
A glimpse of the best that we can be

By John Lui

I spent a few days the week after Mr Lee Kuan Yew died speaking with people in the large crowds paying tribute to the founding Prime Minister. I was struck by how nice everyone was.

If you have ever been with Singaporeans in a crowd - rush hour at an MRT station, for example - you will know that as far as politeness in a group is concerned, there is a size limit.

Past a certain point, people feel anonymous. And it is the same in real life as on the Internet: Where anonymity begins, civility ends.

This time, it was different. I've reported on crowds before, such as at political rallies, and I'd be lucky to get one in three people I approached willing to be interviewed. No one owes me an interview, but often I will meet with an eye-roll or a dismissive wave of the hand. Maybe my cold approach needs work.

This time, though, almost no one turned me away, whether at the tribute centre in Bedok Central or along the funeral procession route in Bukit Merah Central.

I guess some of that openness might have to do with grief, the need for humans to reach out and talk about their pain. But what also struck me was the respect that individuals showed one another, even when they numbered in the thousands.

I spoke with a family with a boy in a wheelchair. He had a broken ankle. Dad was too embarrassed to push him forward, through the throng lined up along Jalan Bukit Merah. He did not want to cause a fuss. I will just stay back here, he said.

Then someone noticed him and motioned for him to move forward, then another person did the same and, soon, Dad, son and the rest of family were reunited at the front.

It wasn't quite the parting of the Red Sea, but it looked miraculous to me. We tend to be passive givers - we give way when asked. This was proactive giving. I'd never seen that in the flesh before.

Loss muted the innate selfishness in all of us, at least for a few days. The best part was that it was infectious. One act of kindness cascaded down the line. And it made people feel good, both those doing it and those watching. That act of generosity fitted the occasion.

I've read articles by writers who have tried to give a name to the feeling that brought Singaporeans out of our shells, bursting that bubble of privacy in which we encase ourselves.

Some call it patriotism, others call it piety, others, respect. Some say it is about being obliged to give thanks to the architect of the nation.

But what they missed by not being there, on the ground, was the sense of people not wanting to be alone. I have friends who joined the thousands queueing at Parliament House. They went because the crowd was huge, not in spite of it. They wanted to look at others and say, wordlessly: "I feel the same way."

Another thing happened with Mr Lee's passing. It opened up evaluations about him as a historic figure and, indirectly, the kind of Singapore he left behind.

The Western press mostly sang from the same old hymnbook - they admire the GDP growth and the clean streets, but it's too bad Asians aren't smart enough to have all that without turning the city into Robotopia.

Whenever I read that, I always feel like the Singapore Tourism Board missed the chance to create a Horror Asia For White Folks theme park, where every bias and stereotype is confirmed in the most edutainingly scary way. Have a mug of Antiseptic Beer, watch the Oppression Parade march down Main Street every day at noon, stay for laser show at 7pm.

Singaporean teenager Amos Yee also exercised his free speech, but as his Christianity-bashing, anti-Lee Kuan Yew rant on YouTube and subsequent arrest for making offensive remarks has shown, this nation does not lack its own colourful critics.

The case instantly divided people into two groups - those who feel Yee must be dealt with and those who say he's just a kid, give him a break.

It's fascinating to be faced with a case that asks us to choose the kind of Singapore we want to live in, post-Lee Kuan Yew: One that thinks that Singapore still rests on fault lines or one that thinks that we are more resilient than that.

The problem is that there is no safe way of testing which hypothesis is true. Singapore is not a lab; it is our lives.

But in the outpouring of affection and respect for Mr Lee that I witnessed, and how it united people young and old, across lines of race and religion, I saw what shape our lives could take. In that moment, it felt as if nothing was beyond reach.


The worries that drove Mr Lee to write books

He worked tirelessly as he wanted the young to grasp what's critical to Singapore's success

Soon after The Singapore Story, the first of the two-part memoirs of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was published in 1998, a copy landed on my desk in the Straits Times newsroom.

I had not expected it. It was from Mr Lee, and was signed by him. He penned a simple message that seemed characteristic of him: "To Warren Fernandez, With my thanks for the attention to detail and to the broad shape of the book to make it reading friendly."

It was a kind reward for our efforts. I was one of several journalists roped in to assist him with the editing of his manuscript. This followed on from an earlier book on him that my colleagues and I had written, titled Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas.

Admittedly, as a young journalist then barely out of my 20s, being asked to critique the work of the country's founding father seemed a daunting task. So, when the opportunity arose, I asked him with some trepidation exactly what he was expecting us to do, and why he was taking such great pains with his book.

He answered matter-of-factly: "I want it to be read. No use if I write it and people don't read it. I want them to read it, especially the young, and understand how we got here."

This recollection came to me last Sunday when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recounted how Mr Lee had been relentless in his efforts to secure Singapore's future, including writing book after book in his final years.

"His biggest worry was that younger Singaporeans would lose the instinct for what made Singapore tick. This was why he continued writing books into his 90s," said PM Lee in his eulogy to his father at the University Cultural Centre.

"Why did he do this? So that a new generation of Singaporeans could learn from his experience, and understand what their security, prosperity, and future depended on."

Indeed, Mr Lee seemed determined to give his memoirs his best shot. He was assiduous in seeking out and responding to our critiques. Initially, I had wondered if he would really be open to our suggestions. But I soon discovered that each time we sent him our views, a revised version would come back in a flash.

"Is this better? Does it work now?" he would ask.

We replied: Could we have more details? More personal anecdotes? More context to help explain the point being made, and guide the reader along?

Again the revisions would come, with a similar response: "Does this work?"

Back and forth it went, version after version, so many that we sometimes found it hard to keep track of all of them. Mr Lee never seemed to tire of the process. And so over time, the caricature of the man as a fearsome leader, who brooked no dissent and was impervious to others' opinions, became less and less real to me.

So, you might ask, just what was Mr Lee so worried about that he felt a need to put all these thoughts to paper? Was it a concern that younger Singaporeans might not support his ruling People's Action Party as strongly as their parents had?

Obviously as a political leader, he must have wanted his party to continue to win support, but his concerns seemed to go much further. I came to this conclusion gradually as I pondered his responses to questions we posed him on various occasions. He would say often that his primary concern was not just the support for, or survival of, the PAP, but for whoever could deliver good government in the interests of the people of Singapore.

"Do people have good jobs? Do they get the education to prepare for those jobs? Can they afford to buy their own home? How will they defend those homes? How will they provide for their children? These are the issues that cut to the bone," I recall him saying, in words to that effect.

Beyond these were even deeper issues which he seemed especially concerned that younger Singaporeans grasped - not just intellectually but also instinctively - namely, just how unlikely a nation Singapore is, how deep the emotive pulls of race and religion can be, or how these latent forces can be so easily roused and whipped into a frenzy for political effect.

And how vulnerable a little red dot like Singapore was, and remains - even though, or perhaps especially as, it has prospered over the years - in a world where the positions of seemingly friendly countries could ebb and flow, and change without much warning.

So, as I watched last Sunday's solemn ceremonies to send Mr Lee to his rest, I could not help but wonder what he would have made of all that unexpected outpouring of grief.

To what effect, he might have asked, or just how does this help Singapore?

Clearly, many Singaporeans were deeply saddened by Mr Lee's passing. Many of us had hoped that he would hold out until August at least, to join in the 50th anniversary celebrations, especially the parade at the Padang, where he had made so many momentous proclamations. Indeed, it would have been fitting for him to be there. You can just imagine the cheers and applause that would have greeted him, judging by the response he received at past parades.

Perhaps that might have pleased Mr Lee. Yet, I can't help but suspect that he would have wanted more than just some fleeting feel-good moment on Aug 9.

Rather, he might have been more heartened by how his passing served to galvanise the country, including the young, into remembering some of the ideals he stood for, the no-holds-barred battles he fought, the tough-minded decisions he took, and yes, also the fallout that some of these entailed.

In a way, the events of the emotional week of mourning did more to focus minds on the real significance of SG50 than anything else so far. That was Mr Lee's parting gift to Singapore. Since he could not rise from his grave to fix problems he spotted, as he once proclaimed he would, he at least managed in death to rally his people around, just one last time, as he had so often done in life.

These sombre thoughts were running through my mind as the National Anthem sounded, and I watched on television the crowd in the hall, and outside, singing Majulah Singapura and reciting the Singapore Pledge.

How many of us know what it all means, or even how the anthem and pledge had come about, I wondered. I confess I had to look it up to be sure. I was reminded for my pains that the anthem many call the Mari Kita was actually composed in 1958 as a song for use by the City Council at public events. A shortened version was later adopted as a state anthem when Singapore gained self-government in 1959, and later became the National Anthem of our independent Republic in 1965.

It had deliberately been written in simple Malay to make it easy to remember, and expressed well the yearning for a "new spirit" of unity, amid the bitter divisions of race and religion in this disparate society. This would ultimately give rise to a new state founded on the principles of racial equality and meritocracy.

Go ahead, play the tune in your mind: Mari kita (come let us all), rakyat Singapura (people of Singapore) sama-sama menuju (proceed together towards) bahagia (happiness); cita-cita kita yang mulia (may our noble aspirations bring) berjaya Singapura (Singapore success). Marilah kita bersatu (come let us all unite), dengan semangat yang baru (in a new spirit), semua kita berseru (as together we proclaim), Majulah Singapura (Onwards Singapore), Majulah Singapura.

The same goes for the pledge, as MPs recalled recently how Mr Lee had once rushed to the House to speak after he read a newspaper report which led him to feel he had to make clear to all that the lofty ideals expressed in the pledge were noble aspirations to be strived for, but which would not be made reality simply by repeated assertion.

That, I figure, is what Mr Lee worried about. He wanted us to not just know the words and mouth them, or buy his books and not reflect on them. He wanted us to realise just how much work it would take to live up to the ideals, safeguard what had been built, and secure our future.

For unless we did, the words and books, the anthem and pledge, the battles fought and won, the global metropolis built from mudflats, would simply not endure. And that, as Mr Lee was wont to say, would be that.

He wasn't afraid to show his true colours
Open display of grief shows Mr Lee's qualities mattered more than his actions
By Han Fook Kwang 
Editor At Large

If Lee Kuan Yew were able to see the tens of thousands who waited for hours in line to pay their last respects to him, what would he think?

A sense of gratitude, no doubt, but perhaps also surprise at the open display of emotion.

In life, he wasn't one who sought adulation, once proclaiming it was better to be feared than loved.

His public persona reinforced the image of a hard-headed, no-nonsense leader who didn't care much about whether the people approved of his ways as long as he believed they were in the country's interests.

In turn, many did fear him, even if they also respected what he achieved.

How then to explain the widespread show of emotion at the passing of Singapore's founding Prime Minister?

Even those critical of the current government and its policies joined in the mourning.

A friend related to me that within his social circle, some of whom were openly anti-government, several were in the crowd that waited in line for hours.

Such a spontaneous response from so many, young and old, including those ambivalent towards his record, could have come only from an instinctive grasp of the man and his achievements.

In the moment of grief, who he was mattered more than what he did.

Of course, the two are intertwined.

He achieved much because of who he was.

But I believe the "who" made a deeper connection because of three qualities that defined who he was to Singaporeans.

First, and which has been widely pointed out, was his frugality.

He lived in the same house for 70 years, keeping it in largely the same condition. He wasn't interested in doing it up to keep up with his neighbours.

He wore the same jackets, preferring to patch them up rather than buy new ones.

Singapore was lucky to have a leader who wouldn't have known what to do with the money had he been tempted to go the way of many other corrupt leaders.

Even luckier that his wife shared his frugal ways.

This made a deep impression on the people, especially during the earlier days when he was actively in charge, and they could size him up at close quarters.

His frugality made people see him as part of them, not someone apart and distant.

Second was his strong and determined leadership.

Everyone knew who was boss in Singapore when he was around.

You didn't need to understand his arguments or even agree with his policies.

You felt the force of his conviction and personality.

This, too, made a lasting impression during the years when the people needed someone strong to chart the country's future.

Third was his passion and commitment to Singapore, his lifelong project.

I don't need to explain this because, of all the qualities he displayed, this was the one most universally acknowledged.

Singaporeans could instantly relate to these three qualities of the man at an emotional level.

But the way they responded also says something about themselves, a people who have sometimes been given less credit than they deserve.

You know the usual complaints: that they are spoilt, always complaining and don't know what is good for them because of so many years of peace and abundance.

They might be some or all these things but there is also a Singapore spirit that has developed over the years, a shared understanding of what the country means to them.

I think this also includes knowing which leaders have their interests at heart.

It is fashionable these days to say that old-style leaders like Mr Lee are no longer relevant because the people want a different kind of ruler.

Indeed, arrogant, top-down and self-serving leadership would be instantly exposed in today's 24/7 news cycle and social media.

But the new media landscape also means that political leaders here and elsewhere are judged endlessly - for what they say, their body language and the action they take in response to the issues of the day.

Many find it hard to cope with this ceaseless exposure and suffer the consequences of their character being put on public trial.

Under this sort of scrutiny, it is almost impossible to put on a false front for long without being found out for who you really are.

Lee Kuan Yew would have thrived in these conditions.

He was the type of leader who would welcome the public examination because he wasn't afraid to show his true colours, warts and all.

It doesn't mean he would use the same tactics and policies because circumstances and expectations have changed and the old methods might not work.

But being who he was, he would likely find new methods and policies in tune with present-day needs and expectations.

There's a lesson here for leaders everywhere.

No comments: