I was initially rather unmoved by the passing of the man; it’s a personal tragedy for the family, but I figured… his time had come. His health had been declining for some time, and he had been separated from his late wife for several years now. To clarify, I don’t view death as a particularly bad thing – he had lived a long, full life, and had achieved much more than most of us ever would. I just figured that, well, it was about time for a good death.
With the immense emotional response on a national level though, I’ve found it difficult to remain totally detached from it all. The constant stream of shared articles on Facebook, the memorial packages being delivered in school, the immensely long lines for people to pay their respects as he lies in state – I’ve found myself thinking back about some of what he did.
This is what I ended up sharing with some of my students – I figured I should just record it somewhere.
I was born in 1984. Mr Lee was prime minister until I was 6 – by the time I really knew what a prime minister was, it was Mr Goh Chok Tong at the helm. For me, Mr Lee was sort of a legendary figure – someone who had done great things previously, who continued looming in the background (and sometimes at the fore), who often came up to say things, sometimes wise, sometimes not so wise. Someone to be appreciated, but not really someone who had affected me very much on a personal level. This hasn’t really changed, but two things in particular really resonated within me as I read about his life and contributions.
The first is his direct contribution to our low corruption rate. I had never really thought about it before, but so many leaders in developing countries tend to prioritise their own welfare over that of their people, accumulating personal wealth while their nations languish. On the other hand, we have Mr Lee, whom apparently the CIA had attempted to bribe back in the late 1950s. This was one man who did not indulge in material comforts – there was no shower in his house until 2003 (he continued with the traditional scooping of water from a jar at bath-time before that), and he refused to change furniture in the cabinet room such that “it got to a point where his colleagues were embarrassed that visitors might think the Singapore Government had no money”. Today, we have a civil service that is generally corruption-free (and where the black sheep are severely punished) – for this, I thank Mr Lee.
The second is his amazing work ethic. Mr Lee was born in 1923 and, at the age of 31, formed the PAP along with some peers in 1954. I find the age ’31’ to be especially striking since that is my age this year. The concept of working on something that major, to form a group with the intent of governing a city and steering it towards self-governance, is simply foreign to me. Shouldering the responsibility over the lives of more than a million residents is a burden I expect someone far older and wiser to take on. Yet that is what he did. He worked as prime minister until 1990, when he stepped down at the age of 67. He remained a part of the cabinet until 2011, when he finally retired (though remaining an MP) at the age of 88. Cynics might point to other motives like the high salary (though based on my previous paragraph, I highly doubt that to be his primary motivation) or the inability to let go of power, but be that as it may, I remain impressed by his ability and willingness to stay committed to his work through the decades. If had the option of an early retirement, I would likely have exercised it much earlier. For this amazing dedication to his work and cause, I admire Mr Lee.
This is still the mourning period; it is perhaps not kosher to dwell on negative criticism of a man who has recently passed. Mr Lee has garnered his fair share of criticism throughout his life, and at least some of it is likely to be valid, but I suppose that in no way invalidates the fact that this is one person who was at least somewhat worthy of admiration and has made significant contributions to the country.
May he rest in peace.