By Carlton Tan
Edits by Howard Lee
A eulogy has strange powers. It brings the dead back to life as we listen, enthralled by captivating stories about what he did, who he was, and what he aspired towards. For as long as we listened, Mr Lee Kuan Yew lived; time was suspended and we re-lived his life as the founder of a nation, as a statesman, and as a father and husband. But just as surely as all eulogies must end, so must our moment of fantasy.
At the end of each eulogy, there is a farewell and an expression of hope for the future. We say our last goodbyes, for the last time, and dedicate ourselves to honouring the memory of the deceased. And with a finality we cannot express, we acknowledge that it is indeed the end.
Mr Lee is truly gone now, but his legacy lives on, and oh what a legacy it is. For seven days, we were serenaded with stories of his determination, his integrity, his kindness, his steadfastness. We heard the Singapore Story retold, again and again—the story of how one man took a tiny, vulnerable, island-state from the precipice of economic ruin to the heights of prosperity; how he quelled the unruly unions with a firm hand, bringing peace and stability; how he turned ethnic strife into racial harmony; how he gave everyone the opportunity to achieve their ambitions; and how he established an incorruptible government and imbued it with his personal values of frugality and integrity.
We also heard that Mr Lee was a remarkable visionary, an extraordinary leader, a charming statesman, a wise mentor, a loving husband, and a strict father. And he was also a gardener, a great boss and a fun person to interview. The hagiographers will retell his story, replete with the best anecdotes, and without the inconvenient details; and undoubtedly, many a reader will welcome the fascinating story.
But this is not the only narrative, nor should it be. Like the stuff of history books, Mr Lee’s life will be subjected to scrutiny. The academics will poke and prod, ask who he really was, what he really believed in, and whether he really was who he said he was.
In fact, this re-examination has already started, and so has the counter-blow. Questions of whether the Barisan Socialis was really going to turn Singapore upside down in 1963, Mr Lee’s true intention for merger and even the mud-flat to metropolis myth have been scrutinised and published. And what we have seen in response were headlines with cries of dirty, sneaky, historical “revisionism”.
More interestingly, as we edge closer to the next general elections, we can safely assume that Mr Lee’s legacy will be heavily politicised, if not already.
The ruling People’s Action Party, founded by Mr Lee, will have a field day using his story to merge the three narratives – of the nation, of the man and of the party he left behind. The nation will be Mr Lee, and Mr Lee will be the PAP. Just as no nation votes against itself, no nation will vote against the PAP.
Thus, the PAP will extol the virtues of Mr Lee’s ideals and point to his accomplishments as evidence; then they will emphasise how much they too stand for those virtues; and then they will make every vote for the PAP, a vote for Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Now, Mr Lee will not be bound to Tanjong Pagar, he will stand for election on the national stage. Will this win it votes? Only time will tell.
The opposition parties, too, will be forced to deal with this narrative, battling the relentless mainstream media juggernaut that has, for now, committed itself to lauding the picture-perfect legacy it had repeated ad nauseam for the one week of mourning.
What the opposition has to its advantage, of course, is that the PAP today is a very different party from what it was in his time. Mr Lee was a man of the people who connected with real needs on the ground, while the PAP under the current stewardship of his son has only demonstrated a growing disconnect that they have only now started to make amends. How quickly the PAP changes – ironically, back to the dedication to the people that Mr Lee has often been credited with – will determine how successful the opposition will be. Will the PAP do enough and soon enough, or will the opposition offer better alternatives? Again, only time will tell.
In view of this impending struggle for the minds of Singaporeans, we will be divided. The Lee Kuan Yew loyalists will throw their hands up in the air and call everyone a liar and a revisionist. There is only one Mr Lee, they will say, just as surely as there will be those who paint him as an absolute tyrant.
But what if Mr Lee was both? What if it was his ruthlessness and his authoritarian tactics that allowed him to make Singapore what it is today? What if it was precisely because he wanted the best for Singapore that he mistakenly repressed those he saw as enemies of Singapore’s good?
Inherent in this legend, then, is a story of compromise and of sacrifice—sacrifices which Mr Lee himself acknowledged, and said were necessary. And more than that, this is also a story of an imperfect man—a man who was not above making mistakes. Mr Lee said much the same of himself; we would be foolish to deny it.
And most importantly, at the end of these questions, we need to ask ourselves: Does this justify his actions, and are we comfortable with this as our legacy and be willing to make amends with the past? How do we make amends, and how do we pave the way for a better future?
There is no black and white to Lee Kuan Yew, and we should certainly not expect it to be. Like the rainbow he professes for us to chase, he is indeed a colourful – some say controversial – man. But to stay with the extreme narratives is to ignore the colours, which would make our lives more chaotic, but just as equally make it more meaningful and complete.
If we have withheld asking these important questions for the past week, then it is time to ask them now. The rain has ceased and we may now look at the rainbow. The future of the nation, as well as the true legacy of the man, demands that we do.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Asian Correspondent.