A tribute to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Who I am today, has much to do with the environment that I grew up in, and he was the central force in shaping that environment. Other than highlighting some of the personality traits that I respect and find admirable about him, I’ve also given it a more personal slant by including how some of my values run parallel to his. It is by no means a comparison to a legend that I seek, but an attempt to express how much of an influence and inspiration he has been, and will continue to be, in my life.
23 March 2015, 03:18 hours.
Most, if not all, Singaporeans will remember this day. A legend, after all, has passed, heralding the true beginning of a new age for Singapore.
I have a friend who has a bad habit of using abbreviations that are alien to me; I often let him go on and on with his messages and then try to figure it out on my own along the way. So far, I’ve managed to ‘decode’ those abbreviations successfully.
No one who’s a born and bred Singaporean would have any such trouble with ‘LKY’. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, a man who imbued passion into the things he cared about, and a man who glowed from within when he was with his wife. I beg your pardon?! For a man whose name had been associated with labels such as ‘visionary’, ‘iconic’, and many other flattering and unflattering terms, a man whose uncompromising candidness, iron will and demand for excellence is as well known as his razor-sharp intelligence, a man whom presidents – past and present – of the most influential nation in the world sought actively for counsel and discussions when he was but a man (albeit a powerful one) in one of the smallest countries in the world, isn’t my description – passionate and devoted to wife and family – too unglamourous?
Well, I think LKY would not care for such things.
There are many, many things that I would like to share about him…about his influences on me and millions of Singaporeans. The respect that I have for his ability to see reality for what it was and the gumption and determination to do something about it. Perhaps quite a few people may manage to do the first, but it takes a rare man or woman to attempt the latter. The admiration that borders on adoration for his passionate speeches. The resonance I feel in my heart for many things that he said regarding leadership. The turmoil of envy and happiness that I feel every time that I watch clips of LKY and his late wife, Mdm. Kwa Geok Choo, together.
Ultimately, accolades – and many internationally – have been made, and countless Singaporeans, regardless of race, language, religion, or political beliefs, have expressed their gratitude to him for his significant role in making Singapore into what she is today. Much has been said, and yet…could mere words ever be enough to express the gratitude that we hold in our hearts?
When I woke up on Monday morning to hear the sad news, my heart sank and what followed was a general loss of ability to do anything except follow the news regarding LKY and his very full life throughout the day. There was also an instant when I thought, ‘Oh LKY, what would we do without you?’ I know, totally irrational and uncalled for since LKY had already stepped down from the Cabinet in 2011. The fact that there was no significant dip in the Straits Times Index (STI) after the news broke was an indication of how much faith investors have in the legacy that LKY has left behind. After all, the cogs of an efficient system would not just stop upon the death of one man, even if he was the man integral in the setting up of said system in the first place.
Unlike the Fat Bunny who, at about eleven years of age, shook hands with LKY, and without the fortuitous opportunity nor the interest (then) to attend one of his live speeches, as DBS did, I’ve never had any personal contact with him to justify the grief in my heart. That tells you how much of an impact this man and the team that he led has had on our small island. I can only imagine how our pioneer generation, those who slogged together as a people alongside the People’s Action Party (PAP) in support of LKY’s vision, feels.
Among his virtues and faults, a few struck a chord with me. His conviction about the direction that Singapore should take post-WWII, his integrity and pragmatism that led to the establishment of one of the least corrupt governments in the world, his passion for his life’s work and the commitment that he showed in following things through, and his devotion to his wife. Seems like I haven’t included any of his faults in my list at all, but becoming a pot or a kettle holds no appeal to me. Authoritarian, combative, iron-fisted, anyone?
From the stories I’ve read and heard about LKY, a common thread kept emerging. There was only one conviction that he adhered to in his decisions concerning the nation, and it was that everything must be for the good of the nation, for the good of the common people. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of how he provided means for us to be self-reliant so that we can create better lives for ourselves, because you need to understand Singapore’s history – how we really had nothing except racial tension and social unrest, high unemployment rates, zero foreign investors, and dilapidated housing, etc. – to truly appreciate what our schools, our financial institutions, our residences, our infrastructure, and our harmonious racial relations mean to us today.
His public demeanor likely gave the impression that he was someone who made up his mind, and then that was that. However, there are those who have worked with him stepping out to say that that is a common misconception. He sought the opinion of others, and he would relinquish his original position should he find that a different way would work better or be more beneficial to Singapore. That was truly exceptional, for a lesser man (or woman, for that matter) might have very well stuck to what he knew was a mistake in judgment just to satisfy his foolish pride.
Search for any of his speeches online and tell me you remain unaffected after watching his performance. Yes, they’re as entertaining and spellbinding as a theatrical performance. He. Was. Just. Such. A. Darned. Good. Orator. I love the words he chose, the preciseness of them, and the way he delivered them. He was dynamic, sarcastic, wry, and so very fiery. Call him combative all you want; to me, he was a sexy man, especially when he was burning that energy trying the persuade the masses to buy into his vision during his campaigns, or to direct a scorching dressing down at one of his opponents.
Perhaps he would not have swayed towards politics were it not for the Japanese invasion of Singapore during the WWII. No one, I believe, could have remained unchanged after undergoing war and witnessing all its accompanying atrocities. No matter because war was what happened, and standing up to free the people from colonialism and to build a sustainable nation were what he decided. Survival was at stake. He didn’t choose the times! The times chose him, and he took the mantle of responsibility thrust upon him and set about wearing it to the best of his abilities. No whining about how tough his luck was to be born in such a time, in a place with no natural resources. Rather, I would guess that his thoughts were more of, ‘If not us, then who?‘
We would do well to emulate this attitude in life. Do what you’re passionate about, and be passionate about what you do. The former is an beautiful ideal that not everyone has the luxury to fulfill. As one whose family was often counting the pennies, I do understand the reality that sometimes, dreams need to be put on hold for many years because certain things are more important than yourself.
So you may need to be pragmatic about your career and life(style) choices, but that’s no reason to slack and not put in your best. I didn’t like the administrative aspect of my duties when I was a salaried worker, but I did them well enough for my colleague to be stunned when I told her how much I detested that aspect of my job. Ability and passion are two different things, after all. I might not have liked certain aspects of my job, and I had serious problems accepting the various erroneous decisions that the company made and that led to several run-ins with the management, but I signed on the dotted line to become an employee of the company, and I accepted the role assigned to me knowing full well, if not the tasks, then at least the duties and the responsibilities that came with it.
If you’re currently in an unhappy working environment, my suggestion is to do something about it. Have a frank discussion with the colleague(s) that you’re having problems with. Try to find some value in your work, no matter how small or insignificant that you may think it is. Do some self-reflection and attempt to see things from others’ or a bigger perspective and be patient when trying to convey yours. It may take a few tries or even a few years to get it across.
I tried everything mentioned above, and honestly, it wasn’t easy. I failed. Mostly because I’m not the most patient with people who are supposed to be leaders but have proven themselves to be naught but selfish bast***s who couldn’t care less about the people working in the ranks beneath them. I can accept differing opinions, and I can even accept decisions that include motives that will see the decision-maker reaping in certain benefits. But not when the decision made will only see one person or a certain group of persons benefiting at the expense of others, and those others invariably belong to the lower ranks. And definitely not when the decision may have certain short-term gains but neglect the long-term benefits or even have a detrimental impact on the longevity of the company.
In case you’re wondering whether I’m inclined to get off my high horse, I have made certain decisions that would have been to my detriment had my proposals been approved. They weren’t, because I was not the sole party that those decisions would have affected, and I had the least power among the group of people who were involved. I tried my best in pushing for progress in a company too entrenched in the old ways, and ultimately, that was all that mattered. I spoke up when I should have (and sometimes when I shouldn’t have), and I have no regrets.
I don’t see doing things the way that I’ve always done, and hopefully will continue to do, as being noble or self-sacrificing. I just want to try to do the correct thing. I know I’m boring. Emily and the schools that I attended did such a good job drumming this into me that I don’t believe I can do otherwise even if I try. I suppose LKY succeeded in his doctrine with me!
My point is, don’t be an entirely passive player in your own happiness. If you can’t do what you love right now, at least have some pride in the things that you have to do and do them properly, if not well. It doesn’t matter if you’re a retail staff, a road sweeper, a CEO of a gigantic MNC, or an average salaried worker. It doesn’t matter if you’re a blue-collar worker, or a white-collar executive. It doesn’t matter, and it shouldn’t. If even LKY took his responsibilities seriously enough to bother about the smallest things in our lives, then I don’t see why any of us can’t put in effort to do what we’re doing properly.
And if you see things that are not right, please do not sweep them under the carpet and pretend that you didn’t see them. The fact is, we live in an interconnected world, so why should we wait for somebody else to do something when those things are happening right before our eyes? Again, if not us, then who?
The last thing in this post that I want to bring your attention to is a simple story of a couple who remained devoted to each other through the bad and good times.
A formidable match. That’s what I think when I look at the late Minister Mentor and his late wife. Mdm. Kwa Geok Choo used to beat him in school! LKY once said that he didn’t believe in love at first sight, but I bet he was intrigued when the same name kept popping up to claim the top place for Economic Science and English in school.
They always looked so happy together, and they radiated a kind of joy that made others (me, at least) go ‘Aww~’. It’s not difficult to imagine the love and trust they had for each other; that kind of bond tends to be forged when two people come together and stay together in tumultuous times. Other than the romantic aspect, I share a similar bond with DBS. We’ve never let each other down, and we’re honest with ourselves and with each other (sometimes brutally so), and yes, we’ve faced some tough times together because of the family.
I believe a lot of people give up on relationships too easily these days. There’s always someone who’s more, or less of some thing or another around the corner. We have too much of the good things in life to be appreciative of the things that are important and/or truly good for us. A relationship is not about the unwashed dishes, the uncapped toothpaste, or common interests. It’s about similar values, honesty with yourself and your partner, respect and acceptance of your partner’s perspective, so much love that you’d make an effort on the dishes, the toothpaste, and your partner’s interests, and even more love that all that effort would not feel like a chore at all. Notice that I didn’t say love for your partner, because love should include self-love.
What happens should your needs differ from your partner’s? There’s no one-size-fits-all method, but for me, I would try and try and try and try to work things out with my partner, assuming that he is of a like mind. You’d think that I’m ridiculously naive, but after going through some disastrous relationships that crashed due in part to my youth and willfulness, I would probably say that my eyes are wide open with no smoke or stars in them. Yet, I still believe that love conquers, if not all, then at least more things than what cynics give it credit for.
Many things I’ve mentioned above are not meant to be preachy (okay, maybe they are a bit) and I certainly am not dictating how you should live your life. They serve as a reminder, perhaps to others, and certainly to myself that, as much as we have in our lives right now (and I don’t mean only the physical assets), our children and their children and generations that come after could have as much, or more, or less. Just as our present is built upon events past, their future has the present as its foundation. Again, if not us, then who?
The man who brought about our prosperous society is no more. But with his death, it’s been the first time in years that I’ve not heard a single complaint about Singapore and her ruling government party from Singaporeans. When you think about it, our complaints might have been of a very different nature should there have been no LKY. So…by all means, friends, continue to be critical, keep voicing your concerns, but do be mindful that what is good for yourself or some people may not be the best path that Singapore should take. Stand back gracefully if that’s the case, and oh, do mind your manners even when you’re airing your views.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew,
THANK YOU for all that you’ve done for the people of Singapore. It is because of you and your able team that we feel proud and very, very fortunate to be Singaporeans. We will neither forget you nor the lessons that you’ve taught us. We’ll certainly continue to complain since we’re champions at grumbling, but we will not rest on our laurels and become complacent in our endeavours to let our nation remain the best place to call home.
I have to make sure that I don’t give in to complacency, and I have to believe that others won’t. If you’re still with me after over 2,800 words, I beseech you to reflect again upon the phrase, ‘If not us, then who?’.
P.S. Although I’ve painted quite a beautiful picture of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew above, nobody is a saint. For a more comprehensive and all-encompassing perspective, I urge you to read his various memoirs and refer to the many (news) resources online. You may like to start with the links below.