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Excessive commemoration makes a mockery of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s capabilities as a statesman

By Ghui

It has been a year since Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. It would seem however that the legend of the man is as alive as ever. His death was marked by public outpouring of grief never before seen on the soil of Singapore for a leader. Television channels and newspapers covered all aspects of his commemoration; rehashing on a loop all the great moments of the man whose name has become synonymous with modern day post Colonial Singapore.

As the year progressed Mr Lee’s star did no wane. Rather, no effort was spared in memorialising him. For a nation that always sought to the future, it seemed that we were living in the shadow of the late Mr Lee’s grandeur.

In the lead up to his first death anniversary, the onslaught of commemoration upped an ante. Like déjà vu, it seemed as though newspapers and television channels have not moved on. Instead of reporting the news, it felt as though we were once more living in the past.

Don’t get me wrong. I will not deny Mr Lee his due. He was a fine politician who was able to steer Singapore from British Colony to Malaysia to independence. That he laboured hard and made Singapore his life long work is also undisputed. Not to remember him would not only feel wrong but would be tantamount to denying a very key part of our history.

But where do we draw the line between dignified commemoration and over the top histrionics that resemble the set of a Korean drama serial?

It would appear that even Mr Lee’s daughter, Ms Lee Wei Ling, is of the opinion that her late father would not have approved of the level in which certain events have reached so as to commemorate him.

While I agree with Ms Lee that some of the events are wince worthy, I am not sure that it would be fair or accurate to categorically state that Mr Lee was a man who did not believe in personality cults or hero worship.

As a man who zealously guarded his public image through the initiation of draconian defamation suits against errant press and critical detractors, I would argue that Mr Lee very much believed in the importance of public adulation.

That said, I do think that Ms Lee is right in that Mr Lee would have undoubtedly cringed at some of the events. Not because, he did not want to be placed on a pedestal but because some of the events seemed to have turned him into some sort of entertainment pop star which has trivialised the contributions that he wanted to be remembered for. By attempting to commemorate him, some events have instead turned his memory into some sort of pop art sideshow, which completely robs his legacy of the dignity that I believe he sought hard in life to attain.

In the displays of grief and onslaught of memorial efforts, have we lost sight of what it is we are attempting to preserve? Have we confused the rightful preservation of a key part of our history with cheering on a rock god?

Mr Lee was a long serving Prime Minister of Singapore who deserves his rightful place in history. However, that rightful place should not be obscured by fancy celebrations, which detract from what he really stood for. Mr Lee was a very tough strongman. He was as harsh as he was practical and his achievements though many also had a very high cost.

To remember his life and to justify his memory, we have to be fair. We have to be cognizant to both his stellar achievements and the price of his ruthless repression. He was a man of his times but he wasn’t a god. Nor was he some sort of Mother Teresa figure who lived among lepers. Mr Lee was not a saint and any attempt to commemorate him should not make the mistake of trying to deify him. Not only is that inaccurate but I would argue that it makes a mockery of his capabilities as a statesman.

So yes, I would agree with the sentiments expressed by Ms Lee albeit for different reasons.