The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

Singapore mourns its founding Prime Minister

on March 30, 2015

It has been a unique week in Singapore. Today marks the end of a week long period of mourning at the passing of Lee Kuan Yew. 

You may have heard about it in the world news and not realised the impact this will have had. Same as I would have done had I not spent the last six and half years living in Singapore.

But even after this amount of time, what do I truly know about the history of Singapore. Not much.

I have several books about Asia, of Singapore and of Lee Kuan Yew himself. They are yet to be read and sit in a pile of unopened books taller than me. 

But in this past week just reading up on the constant feed of news articles about his political achievements, his love for his wife and about the man he was has shed some light on the more recent history of Singapore.

I’m not an experienced Expat, I don’t know how it works if you move on from one country to another after a couple of years or so. How much you could or would immerse yourself in local culture and governance. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s happening back in the UK. There is also that notion that whilst I am absent from the UK, just how much does current politics affect me. 

When the next UK General Election comes by in May, I again won’t be there to cast my vote even though I strongly want to urge all those who have the right to vote to exercise this right to vote. I haven’t experienced life in the UK under the coalition that was formed five years ago. What exactly do I know about how well they’ve done, or not.

And so, this week, I came to realise that the privileges I have enjoyed with living in Singapore have not come about by chance, even if my being here has. But has been carefully orchestrated by one man’s vision. A vision that has been realised in less than 50 years of independence away from British rule and a failed attempt at unification with Malaysia. 

Every 9 August, Singapore’s National Day, celebrates the formation of an independent sovereign state. There’s patriotism abound, a parade, jets flying overhead and fireworks. I especially enjoy this day for the fireworks which are rehearsed every Saturday six weeks in advance. I’ve viewed this public holiday as exactly that, a public holiday that has fireworks to round it off.

It was only when Scotland was voting for independence did I learn that 50 years ago, Singapore had independence forced upon it. Independence was not what Lee Kuan Yew asked for. He campaigned for Singapore to no longer be under British colonial rule which ended in 1963 and had hoped for a successful merger with Malaysia. It was short lived and break downs in relations were attributed to racial tension. The day Lee Kuan Yew had to inform the people of Singapore about the separation from Malaysia was an incredibly sad one for him.

Perhaps this is what drove Lee Kuan Yew forward to make Singapore all that it is. From a barely noticed island with a few fishing boats, kampong housing and no clean drinking water system. Many an article describes his passion for Singapore and a better life for its people. Taking patriotism to a whole new level that he lived and breathed Singapore. That in fact he was Singapore.

His achievements are plentiful and criticised in equal measure. What works well can also be cause for frustration in another sense. How he achieved his goals along the way is sometimes up for debate. 

Granted, Singapore is a small nation with a population of five million people. Some may say it’s an easier task to govern a nation smaller than Greater London. The political party in power has been the same one since Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister with the People’s Action Party which he co-founded. That in itself is a rarity for such a modern developed democracy. 

On the day I was celebrating turning 30, Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew took over as Prime Minister from Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Kuan Yew became Minister Mentor. He has always had some influence over the governing of Singapore. A steady presence a bit like the Queen but with a more active role in how things are done.

So it’s little wonder that Singapore is grieving the loss of its founding Prime Minister, its founding father. As his body lay in state at Parliament House earlier this week, people queued for eight or more hours to file past in seconds to pay their respects. It can be joked that Singaporeans like nothing more than to queue, and I have seen long queues of people for the most ridiculous things hardly worth the effort. But on the whole, not many are keen on spending much time in the outdoors heat and humidity. I was impressed with their dedication. It was a particularly scorching few days. The government responded quickly by changing the viewing of Lee Kuan Yew lying in state to a 24 hour operation and people still queued all through the night.

It’s funny for me to have known this man’s name all my life. I never knew it before and only realised about four years ago that the Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is the fabled Lee Kuan Yew of my youth, revered for his intelligence and capability across Asia. I never made the connection because of the difference in English translation of Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese.

I remember a few years ago waiting for a friend for coffee when the staff around me were getting rather animated at someone’s impending arrival. It happened to be Lee Kuan Yew arriving for his book launch, he passed right by me with an entourage of about 20 people. He also lived around the corner from us at our previous condo in his modest house guarded 24 hours by two officers and always with a police escort when he went anywhere.

Today, the day of his funeral, you could say there was some significance in the fact that it rained heavily all morning and throughout the funeral procession. I know the Chinese interpretation of this would be to say even the heavens are crying at the passing of this great man. 

As chance would have it, we were driving by near to part of the funeral procession route. We were locked in by other vehicles and so I got out of the car to join so many others in paying their last respects to Lee Kuan Yew as his glass hearse passed by. 

  

People were calling out his name and applauding their appreciation. Afterwards at home I listened to the eulogies that were read out on the live televised broadcast. All extolling his commitment to making Singapore the best it can be.

Of course, I could never feel the depth of loss the Singaporeans are feeling. But I do feel the sombre atmosphere all the same. 

And I do feel a greater appreciation of Singapore after hearing a quote from Lee Hsien Loong as he addressed the nation last Monday, that was taken directly from his father and highlighted many times through the week.

  

 

He has no regrets but I find it sad to think he has dedicated his life to building Singapore with all the sacrifices that must have entailed. In modern politics, that kind of commitment and belief feels hard to come by. In years to come, I hope complacency doesn’t unravel the foundations already laid down. 

And so it’s only right that I look upon this city state afresh and remember that someone’s dedication gives me a place to live that is safe for me and my children, beautiful to look at with both natural and modern architecture and a lifestyle beyond what I would have known in the UK. We are only passing through for a short while so we should consider all that is good rather than focus on the quirks of this nation. I’m sure they equally would find lots of things hugely disconcerting in the UK without even watching Jeremy Kyle reruns. 

So No, you can’t buy chewing gum unless you can prove to the pharmacist you have terrible halitosis. Yes, you would get thrown into prison and caned for vandalising a train. No, you can’t always have a really good random discussion with a Singaporean. Yes, there is a lot of character to Singapore if you look beyond the glossy high rise new buildings. 

I do like living in Singapore. Not all the time. But then again I would have those days no matter where I was in the world. That’s just life. You wouldn’t go on holiday otherwise. 

This August marks SG50. Singapore’s 50th National Day. It was always going to be a huge deal. And even more so now with the passing of such an important man. 

I think Singapore is entitled to one very big celebration, albeit a poignant one too.

  

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