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Chinatown 1955

Our Singapore – between the lines, the nation we all built

Chinatown 1955
Chinatown 1955

By Min Cheong

Some time ago, my father let me in on an exchange that took place between him and Lee Kuan Yew - a story I found fascinating for a myriad of reasons.

It was 1978, and Dad was a Captain in the Armed Forces. He was asked by the Permanent Secretary of Defence of that era, George Bogaars, to deliver a suitcase to LKY, who at that time was based in Harvard University.

After a flight and a train ride, my dad met LKY and presented the briefcase to him. The inspection of the document contained inside was almost cursory, but the conversation which ensued was much more intriguing and of consequence.

He invited my dad to take a walk with him in the varsity gardens, and sought his opinion on a matter of national security. After pondering over the issue for a while and coming to a difficult but necessary decision, he handed my dad two orange frisbees, saying, “Please give this to my sons”.

It was a story that to me was intimately revealing; epitomising LKY as an iconic statesman faced with profound challenges in the position and responsibilities he had taken on, as well as a man who was constantly preoccupied with love, concern and affection for his family. It changed the regard I held him in; compelling me to see him as a multifaceted person, not too different from the rest of us beneath style and status.

On another occasion, my dad shared his experience helping to establish the Air Force from - well, one could say - the ground up. He was tasked with scouring the boneyard in Arizona (Davis Monthan Air Base) for military aircraft we could use to get our Air Force up and running.

He returned upon selecting a batch of Skyhawks, and told me that Dr Goh Keng Swee was rather pleased, to say the least. After one particular meeting, Dr Goh left the conference room clutching a model of the Skyhawk, stating, “My Air Force!” with palpable pride and passion.

The civil servants of yesteryear were collectively the soul of Singapore. Their dedication, conviction, zeal, and - on many occasions - their absolute refusal to be sycophants, breathed life into the nation and fire from its belly.

I’ve told close friends how much my dad’s anecdotes have influenced my socio-political views; how deep my connection to this country has become (which is why I engage in such heated debates on policy with those around me - and I don’t often agree with the establishment), and how much more enchanted with our real national historical narrative I am as a result.

This is also why I was glad that in his eulogy, PM Lee heralded the contributions of his father and his father’s team - because my prevailing sentiment all throughout the week was that much as we have shown respect and demonstrated gratitude to LKY, we have in our somewhat unenlightened reverence of the man cast a light so bright on his legacy (perhaps a version that doesn’t truly embody all his deeds, at that) that many others who have contributed so significantly to our nation have had to contend with lying in the shadows.

So in his passing, while we mourn the loss of a leader who was - whether we agree with his policies or not - a visionary, force to have been reckoned with and formidable strategist, it’s as good a time as any to begin delving deeper into history to find our place in the world as Singaporeans.

Ask questions, such as - who was Albert Winsemius, how did he shape the nation-state, why did he never feature in our textbooks, and why is the only tribute to him a small lane in the Sunset Way estate that leads to a refuse dump?

Search for stories, because they’re all around us - in our architecture, landscape, cuisine, culture, geopolitical environment, political milieu, and most powerfully and heartwarmingly, in our collective experience and individual endeavours.

Because LKY’s team wasn’t just comprised of his Cabinet ministers and the civil service at large - it was a team of every single Singaporean who empowered themselves to make Singapore what it is now.

This is what our national rhetoric should be.