Lee Kuan Yew did many things. And it was all for me. A little dot in Singapore’s sea of humanity, just like how Singapore was, is, and always will be, a little dot on the world map geographically. Both Singapore, and I, may not have been important against the greater scheme of things. But somehow we’ve made it. I can go on about what I have and have taken for granted, like having my kid come home late at night without too much worry or parking my car in whatever street and whatever district because it’s safe, because Lee Kuan Yew had set things up so it would be so. But what I am reflecting on is what Lee Kuan Yew is continuing to do. Yes, present tense. Yes, the man is dead.
March 23rd 2015 at 0318hrs, Lee Kuan Yew died at Singapore General Hospital after battling pneumonia. It lasted about a week. It was sudden. Hours before being admitted to hospital, he apparently had been on his exercise bike as per normal, being quite a fitness buff. He’d been in poor health after his wife died. He was also 91. His Ever Ready batteries would’ve been running low naturally.
Day 5 of the period of National Mourning declared by the Prime Minister and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, has revealed another Singapore that is credit to Mr Lee. The Gun Carriage procession from the Istana to Parliament seemed like a rehearsal to the State Funeral on Sunday (29 March) with people not just crowding the street, but openly showing (rare for Asians) their emotions.
I looked at Instagram and those who queued overnight didn’t seem to care. Why. Because he had cared.
I am sure that bright star in the sky that appeared on Lee Kuan Yew’s death, shines extra bright over Singapore and the people who’ve gone out of their way to do something they thought they wouldn’t because of the person most refer to as LKY, “uncle Lee” or “Ah Kong” (grandfather).
I am moved by my own people. By their tears, their willingness to stand in the Singapore heat and humidity for 7-8 hours just for 30 seconds before his coffin, their random act of kindness to each other (including junior’s decision with schoolmates to go down to the Padang to help hand out water and snacks to people lining up to pay their respects – so proud). That says to Lee Kuan Yew, that what he has done has not been in vain.
Cynics and critics may wonder, is this akin to scenes from North Korea of the public outpouring for a ‘Dear Leader’ or a “Great Leader”? Wipe those smug looks. Sorry to disappoint. No one was bribed, cajoled or bussed in.
My encounters with Lee Kuan Yew have been brief. I once drove to the Istana where he has an office, in my beat-up red car, to deliver a VHS tape of a TV documentary that I can’t now recall (but it must’ve been something he wanted to check as he knew the power of the media). I briefly waited outside his door comparing my shiny black Doc Martens shoes with his Gurkha guard while Mr Lee finished his lunch which had been served in old world style by an Istana staff dressed in a white coat and a big napkin draped over one arm. As the staff-member exited, I was allowed in to the office. LKY was sitting behind a large wooden desk at work. I handed over the VHS tape mumbling “as requested” but I had wanted to also stop and say “for my mum, and the rest of my family, thanks for everything you’ve done.” I didn’t. I just thought the message and left.
A few years later, I was asked to accompany a team of freelancers who were doing a programme that called for an interview with one of Lee’s ‘old guards’ (first Cabinet members). My presence was just to lend weight and keep an eye on things. The interview with Mr Lim Kim San was at the top floor of the SPH building in Toa Payoh. The crew set up in the cavernous office. Then Mr Lim appeared, wheeled in on a wheelchair by his assistant — just the way Mr Lee Kuan Yew had moved around in his later years (but the media avoided showing it). When the crew had done their interview and needed to take some B-roll, I chatted to Mr Lim. If I could have done the same with LKY, the questions (and answers presumably) would’ve been the same.
I asked “don’t you feel proud looking around Singapore, with the tall buildings and all that has been accomplished ?” His reply “What’s there to be proud about ? It was a job that had to be done, and we did it.” I also asked “do you have any regrets?” The answer, “I have lived too long. My colleagues are all gone.”
Mr Lee outlived all his “old guards” and his wife whom he loved, loved, loved.
As the crew got ready to leave the office of Lim Kim San, I said my goodbyes to the man whom I had known as a little girl as the Education Minister. And then added “I’d like to give you a hug”. He smiled and opened his arms like a happy grandpa. It was a big warm hug.
Sending a big warm hug to Lee Kuan Yew.