The aftermath of a supernova – Goodbye Lee Kuan Yew

This week I wanted to write about our vineyard’s bumper crop of grapes which we harvested on Tuesday, the novel that I’ve finally completed and the massive wooden sculpture that Mark built in the garden. I tried to write but nothing came. Instead, I sat at my kitchen table this week with a bowl of fat figs, tearing at their soft flesh in a dull fog of tangled grief.

On Monday this week, Lee Kuan Yew died. In other words, for all of us Singaporeans, there was a death in the family.

Lee Kuan Yew, LKY, or The Old Man as many Singaporeans called him, was the founding father of modern day Singapore and reigned for 31 years, won 7 elections and continued to influence our politics until this Monday, when he died at 91 years of age.

He was our cranky, brilliant, ruthless and charismatic Asian father who hectored, chided and guided us our whole lives, pushing Singapore relentlessly over the course of my childhood from Third World to First.

By the time he stepped down in 1990, our tiny city state had become one of the most prosperous, orderly countries in the world, lauded the world over as an economic miracle.

Over the past week, tributes have poured in from around the world. These past few days we’ve seen US President Barack Obama hailing LKY as a “true giant of history”, British PM David Cameron recalling Margaret Thatcher always said that Lee Kuan Yew was the leader she admired the most in the world. Henry Kissinger said that it was one of the great blessings of his life to have had a friendship with the great man, and this weekend Kissinger will be flying into Singapore for the funeral together with Bill Clinton.

India has declared a national day of mourning for Lee Kuan Yew on Sunday with their flag flown at half mast and all entertainment withheld.

It’s all everyone in Singapore can talk about and my entire facebook feed is covered in eulogies from Singaporeans of all races and religions.

However in the corner of the Australia I live in, I grieve alone. Most people here have only the foggiest notion of who he was. “Nope,” my physiotherapist said, bending me into a pretzel. “Don’t know much about that guy.” Neither did my neighbours, the school mums I bumped into, or my friends in Melbourne.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Australians regularly goggle in disbelief when I tell them that we speak English as our first language in Singapore (their 5th largest trading partner). The Australian newspaper, even went so far to write a column criticising ABC for being so dumbed down that it had failed to cover such a monumental story. “Our ABC asks Lee Kuan Who?” the article headline goes. Which prompted an indignant retort from ABC today, saying in essence, oh yes we did, or at least we did more than any other Aussie media outlet.

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my views on Australia. How beautiful I think it is. How privileged we are to live there. How much I admire Australian values of love for community, environment, sport and work-life balance.

But of course it’s not an utopia. Take Australian insularity for instance, the schools my children go to do not offer Chinese as a second language option. Instead, they offer Bahasa Indonesia. This is sheer myopia. China is Australia’s number one trading partner. Indonesia is not even in the top 10. “Oh but we’re close to Indonesia.” some say. “It’s useful when we go on holiday.” Unfortunately, too many Australians only think about the existence of the world when its time for them to go on vacation. And don’t get me started on the sad state of opinion poll politics here. If I were to agree with Lee Kuan Yew whole-heartedly on anything he said, it would be these words “I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind – an inability to chart a course whichever way the wind blows, whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow.”

What most fascinates me about LKY are the paradoxes.

1.) Insignificance breeding significance.
All our lives Lee Kuan Yew told us how insignificant we were. Singapore was but a speck of dust on the windshield of the world. We had no natural resources, no common history, no common racial ties to bind us together. Because we knew we were insignificant, we had to work harder, faster, smarter and constantly look outwards at what other countries were doing to emulate their successes. In 1960, Singapore’s GDP per capita was US$428. Today it is US$56,284, higher than America’s and one of the highest in the world.

2.) Lack of freedom on one level and freedom on another.
The West has always been horrified by what they view as the loss of inalienable freedoms in Singapore. But yet most Singaporeans feel like they have much more basic freedoms than the West. As a young female, I was free to run down the streets of Singapore by myself to meet friends at whatever hour wearing whatever dress I liked without fearing for my safety. I could withdraw money from street ATMs at midnight without even looking over my shoulder. My parents never worried about me getting killed by a gun, taking drugs or being raped. As Lee famously said. “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.”.

3.) Hyperarticulation leading to Inarticulation.
Lee Kuan Yew was a champion debater, known for his articulation and wit. Watch him take on the American press when they ask him about Vietnam and marvel at how he dances, dodges and lands his killer blows. My favourite part, 7.45mins in, when an interviewer attempts to put words in his mouth and Lee Kuan Yew says “May I say what I mean myself in my own form of words? I think Americans have — I think it is a friendly habit of trying to help a person think for himself but I would rather do my own composition if I may.” He was our Original Gangster, even rejecting a US$3.3m bribe from the CIA with style, asking them to give Singapore US$33m in aid instead. However his style of leadership discouraged debate and critical thinking. Singaporeans have few chances to exercise their muscles of critical thinking without fear of recrimination or stern rebuke. Today Singaporeans lack soft skills in the workplace and struggle with expressing independent ideas and criticism.

In 2014, Singapore topped 131 cities globally to become the world’s most expensive city to live in, a pulsating city studded with Michelin-starred restaurants, monumental shopping malls, sky trains and futuristic parks.

Success however, comes with a price. In our case the trade off was a growing soullessness, sterility and obsession with material success. In a vacuum of ideology and ideals, most of us are motivated by the blunt instruments of greed and fear.

A Gallup poll in 2012 reported that Singapore ranked as the Least Emotional Country in the World with only 36% feeling either positive or negative emotions on a daily basis. The countries closest to us are Georgia, Lithuania and Russia. Emotions are just not an accepted feature of Singapore life. And don’t tell me that it’s an Asian thing because Hong Kong and China rank far, far higher than Singapore, in fact they are right smack in the middle of the list of 150 countries.

In fact, it could be precisely because we are so emotionally repressed and have so few avenues to express healthy emotion, that the death of Lee Kuan Yew has galvanised the entire country into a 24-7 spectacle of outward grief.

Right now as I write this, there are people who have been queuing for 8 hours to pay their last respects to the man. Most of my friends have been in that queue at some point this week. I’ve seen their photographs on Facebook, looking happy even though they are in the sweltering tropical heat. The line snakes for kilometres, extending all the way into Chinatown.

Was he perfect? No. Was he feared? Yes. Was he loved by Singaporeans? Indisputably. That includes me.

I belong to a generation brought up by absentee fathers and he was a substitute father to all of us. After having run therapy retreats for a few years, I observe that most people are more damaged by fathers that didn’t care than fathers that cared but were too harsh.

Yesterday at family dinner, we cracked open a bottle of our own wine to celebrate our harvest. Swirling the wine about in its glass, Mark asked our six-year old to sniff it and identify the notes. “It smells like strawberries and… maybe Lee-Kuan-Yew.”, she pronounced emphatically, uttering a sentence never heard before in human history. She must have overheard myself and Mark discussing his death and legacy this whole week.

I hope that Singapore finds its feet again. Even more so, I hope it finds its soul. Our great leader has passed and this week I mourn for our nation’s loss but in a balanced way, I hope. While I admire the man, I also see how things could be different. I do not want my wine to smell like 91-year-old authoritarian, but today I raise a glass to you Lee Kuan Yew, our supernova, our goliath-fighting David. Respect, love and gratitude.





All pictures from The Straits Times

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