Narrative of Singapore from the people’s point of view

Journalist and writer Lee Hui Min shared her thoughts on her new non-fiction book, “Growing up in Lee Kuan Yew’s Era”, in a dialog session held last Friday at the Art House.

Years of pent up emotions about local issues spurred Ms Lee to express her thoughts through the book, something she could not do during her years with the local press.

This is especially so given that her book delves into the nation’s policy legacy of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

People had asked Ms Lee if she wanted to reconsider writing the book, or at least publish the book overseas, a sign that the fear among some Singaporeans of anything to do with the government still exist today.

Lee Hui Min at her initial book launch.
Lee Hui Min at her initial book launch.

In the book, Ms Lee describes Singapore from the eyes of a young girl growing up in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic public housing estate, and being put through a “ruthless” education system. She also shares her thoughts on various national issues such as elitism, religion, and freedom of speech.

In the forum at the Art House, Ms Lee took the chance to clarify her stance on Singlish which she covered in her book.

As some may have come to a wrong conclusion after reading an article in the Straits Times about her book, she clarified that she had no issues with Singlish and instead love the style of language as a “rojak” of local languages.

Ms Lee said she was actually writing about the erasure and “forced cleansing” of the dialects, and the “Speak Mandarin” campaign which she says have resulted in an awkward Singlish environment.

Ms Lee revealed that since the publication of her book, Malaysians who have read the synopsis scolded her online because they felt that she was tarnishing the good name of Lee Kuan Yew, and was being ungrateful of the good work the government here has done for its people, while Singaporeans jump to the conclusion that the book was a collection of praises about the former leader of Singapore.

The book has been nominated for an award in China and feedback received by the publisher has been largely positive.

Comments from overseas readers have been saying that the book is a refreshing view in understanding Singapore, and that it is a much more down to earth look at Singapore compared to the books by Lee Kuan Yew himself.

In response to the good feedback from overseas readers, she wished that more Singaporeans would choose to read it as it was written for them and hope that her book would inspire more Singaporeans to write about their story about growing up in Singapore.

Lee Hui Min’s book can be purchased online via the publisher (link) or the e-book at  google store (link).

Edit note: The session was held on Friday, not Saturday as previously written. 


Two short extracts translated from Chinese to English from “Growing up in Lee Kuan Yew’s Era”,

<<If Edison was a Singaporean>>

“If Edison was a Singaporean, he would never be successful”

This phrase was blurted by my secondary school teacher during our revision class just prior to the examinations.

We all know how inattentive Thomas Edison was during class at school, often being thought by the teacher as a dull student. Edison eventually stopped schooling even before graduating from his elementary school.

“Edison never passed his examinations, and was kicked out of school, the reason why he was able to become an inventor is because he was in America. Over there, there are many different opportunities and options for him to choose from. In Singapore, everything is judged based on grades and university degrees, as smart as you may be, without qualifications, you can never think of moving ahead in life!”, the teacher spoke with great vigor, trying to exhort those students who failed to do their homework, with little or no motivation to study and stubbornly refuse to study hard till the very end.

There isn’t anyone who have been to America in the class, and the impression of America by the class is largely based from images from the television or movies. To us, America is a free, beautiful but yet unfamiliar country. Listening to what the teacher had said, we felt utterly helpless. Even our parents have not even taken a flight before in their life, not to mention the dream of becoming an inventor in such a far away land.

With so many restrictions,  Thomas Edison will never be able to succeed in Singapore

<<The ministers have their pay increased again! No… but it decreased later!>>

Singapore’s prime minister and the ministers have the highest salary among the world’s politicians. The prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong’s annual pay is four times more than the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

Former prime minster, Lee Kuan Yew explained during that year when the ministers’ pay was fixed,  that the raising of the ministerial pay is to attract the smartest individuals into parliament. He said, he discovered that the top graduates of Britain’s leading universities, Cambridge and Oxford often take up the other professions to earn big bucks and never dabble with politics. Therefore, he believed that there is a need to attract the brightest talents into the government with a promised high pay, and also explained that the high pay is an important factor to prevent the officials from getting involved in corruption.

Due to the fact that we did see the gradual improvement of our life during the Lee Kuan Yew era, we believed the governing ability of the ruling party and to a certain extend, accepted this ideology.

However, moving beyond the year 2000, the growing difference of wealth between the rich and poor and recurring problems with the society and economy made the model of high pay for the prime minister and ministers, the target of public opinion during the 2006 and 2011 general elections. Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong also realized that if the problems are not solved, this will be a never ending topic for discussion among the electorates. After the 2011 elections, the ministerial pay took a “great cut” after a round of reviews was concluded.

Although the public was given the impression of sincerity by the government’s initiative to reduce the ministerial pay. But as the pay remains on the high side, therefore, this topic will continue to be a political nerve of the Singapore electorate.

Apart from this, not everyone is acceptable to the idea that a government is kept free from corruption by the use of granting high pay. Under the World Corruption Perceptions Index, New Zealand, Denmark and Finland along with some other Norwegian countries are placed above Singapore in ranking, and the political leaders of these countries are taking back a pay at an amount far less than the ministers in Singapore are paid. This proves that high pay does not necessary equate to the best solution for a corruption free government.