I woke up one day to find myself transformed in my bed into an ungrateful Singaporean.
Perhaps this is not quite as terrifying as Gregor Samsa’s rude awakening, but during the seven-day mourning of Lee Kuan Yew, I could not help but feel an almost Kafkaesque struggle against a surreal environment which gives no quarter to your worldview.
Amid the backdrop of the mediated deification of Lee Kuan Yew, critical analyses of Lee Kuan Yew were met with accusations of being exploitative and unpatriotic. For those, like me, who dared to explore Lee Kuan Yew’s flaws and questionable decisions, Glenn Greenwald’s article on misapplied death etiquette was a manifesto for lucidity and a bulwark against the rattling of the “too soon” crowd.
The dissolution of the public and the private
The crux of Greenwald’s article hinges on distinguishing a private individual from a public individual, and recognising the wider berth of critique the latter takes upon himself or herself when his or her decisions affect numerous people. Death does not negate the moral imperative to question a public individual.
If you had observed Singapore’s mourning hysteria, you would have noticed the deep internalisation of Lee Kuan Yew into private lives. From a man who tattooed Lee Kuan Yew’s image on his arm to people making police reports against Amos Yee, a teenager who criticised Lee Kuan Yew on a YouTube video, the sense of personal offence and anguish was palpable and unmistakable. The separation of the public and private spheres was made superfluous.
As I was trying to make sense of the sensorium of grief over Lee Kuan Yew’s death, I was intrigued by the parallel an astute friend of mine drew between the Dianafication of British society in 1997 and what happening in Singapore.
Princess Diana’s death by car accident was sudden and dramatic. Lee Kuan Yew’s death, however, was a protracted affair, more or less anticipated by everyone in Singapore. Nevertheless, Lee Kuan Yew’s death in the hospital, after a month-and-a-half-long admission, still struck a raw nerve — the very consciousness of a nation.
While the grief for Lee Kuan Yew was motivated more by a sense of filial piety than the grief for Princess Diana, what both incidents shared was the elevation of banal sentimentality. As Theodore Dalrymple described Dianafication, the British “had become emotionally incontinent” and believed “that holding nothing back was the way to mental health.” A similar externalisation of emotion could be seen in Singaporeans’ response to the death of Lee Kuan Yew.
The somewhat pathological commemoration of Lee Kuan Yew — seen in the pseudo-moralistic debate on whether one should wear black or white on the last day of mourning, the dedication of a workout to him and the consecration of a bun in his name — would have been harmless and amusing, if not for the infantilisation and degradation of public discourse.
The dark side of the equation of Singaporean-ness with the mourning of Lee Kuan Yew was the refusal to conscientiously engage with the questionable aspects of Singapore’s history, so entwined with Lee Kuan Yew’s life.
In his mostly laudatory tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, opposition Member of Parliament Low Thia Khiang opined that the People’s Action Party’s one-party rule should not be confused with Singapore’s success and that “many Singaporeans were sacrificed during the process of nation building and policy making and our society has paid the price for it.”
This piece of thoughtful insight, however, was whitewashed by a rather clumsy response by Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah: “It was not people who were sacrificed but the things which would have made us a lesser people, a lesser country than we are today.”
In another dubious whitewashing of Singapore history, ex-Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng went so far as to say that Singapore had never made any tradeoff between civil liberties and economic success. Apparently, the bankrupting of J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan could be left unaccounted for because, in his mind, they were not “formidable foes” of Lee Kuan Yew, and the detainment of political prisoners under Operation Coldstore could also be swept under the carpet because detention without trial was not unique to Singapore.
Current Nominated Member of Parliament Chia Yong Yong, however, took the cake for the most grotesque disregard for Singapore history and those who were left behind during Lee Kuan Yew’s rule:
“Some say that he was ruthless, unforgiving, unrelenting. But children of his political foes had rights and opportunities like any other children. They were able to enter professions, able to become lawyers, doctors, public servants. Because this is Singapore.”
I cannot help but feel that such feckless and witless comments would not have been uttered if not for the legitimising hysteria that was imbued upon Lee Kuan Yew’s corpse and upon the mediated retrospective of his life. He was everywhere – on round-the-clock television programmes, on advertising spaces in trains and bus stops and, needless to say, on social media.
Blogger and former Straits Times Journalist Bertha Hansen, sensing the emotionally-charged atmosphere of the aftermath of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, had urged people to “mourn now – and fight later.”
I felt, though, that stopping the debate about Lee Kuan Yew and ignoring the obsessive response of people to his death, even for a seven-day mourning period, was as good as privileging, and even validating, the state-led, and media-assisted, hagiography of Lee Kuan Yew.
With the conclusion of the seven-day mourning period, it seems Singaporeans will be well-protected from any criticisms of Lee Kuan Yew which the court of public opinion deems to be excessive. Among the three charges against Amos Yee, one fell under the Protection From Harassment Act. Apparently, Yee’s video “contained remarks about Mr Lee Kuan Yew which was intended to be heard and seen by persons likely to be distressed.”
This statement more or less validates the lugubrious game “patriotic” Singaporeans have been playing with Lee Kuan Yew’s remains.
The veneration of Lee Kuan Yew has been so absolute, I wake up in this new age to feel like a carrion commentator, though I am actually more concerned about the response of Singaporeans to the man than about the man himself.
As ever, taboo is the dark mirror of sacralisation, curbing free thought and free speech.