There is a half-moon peeking through the silhouette of the trees as I write this. Quite fitting, I think, as we hover on the knife’s edge of an era gone by.
At almost five in the morning on Monday, half-asleep, zipping towards Singapore in the pre-dawn chill, I found out that Lee Kuan Yew had passed away. Someone in the car turned the radio on, and instead of the traffic news, there was a man’s voice talking about Lee Kuan Yew’s achievements. After two minutes, we heard the words fall like a blade in our shocked silence: We have interrupted our normal programming. Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, passed away at 3.18 this morning.
We said a few prayers for his soul and lapsed into sombre silence again. I simply couldn’t wrap my brain around it.
It is strange to be alive at such a massive milestone in our country’s history. The end of an era of blood and guts. The passing of a man who understood what was needed in those clouded times, and did the things that had to be done, unpleasant as they were. It is surreal to look upon the very last page of the very last chapter of this man’s life, which had been given in its entirety to Singapore.
Since that cold, sober morning, I’ve been oscillating between grief and a vague sense of unease. I was thoroughly shocked by my own grief; less so by my anxiety.
I was horrified, in my early twenties, to learn about things that had happened in this brutal era. Operation Coldstore. The graduate mother scheme, flavoured with eugenics. I knew little of Lee Kuan Yew except that he was terrifying, and he had sued other politicians for defamation. I formed a strong, if unbalanced opinion of the man.
As life and time spent in politics filled in the empty corners of my idealism, I gradually gained a more nuanced view of Lee Kuan Yew. I strongly disagreed with some of his choices and opinions, but I somewhat grudgingly admitted to myself that he had done a lot of good for the country as well.
It was only in my late twenties that my perspective on the man changed, when I had the opportunity to read his papers – interview transcripts, speeches, and so on – for a work project.
Grudging respect morphed into amazement as I sifted through vast tracts of his speeches and interviews. Reading his words which predicted geopolitical and economic events and patterns as early as ten years before they happened was a singular experience.
It was only then that I began to appreciate that tremendous brain, and the man who used that brain to shape modern Singapore. With fire and blood, yes, but also with canny foresight, razor-sharp analysis, and the ability to marshal that first Cabinet of extraordinary gentlemen who gave much of themselves to the country, as he did.
The turning point occurred when I chanced upon Lee Kuan Yew talking about his garden.
I was stunned.
For all the man had said about poetry being a luxury we could not afford, here he was, speaking poetry as he described his garden with passion. His love of plants shone through in that interview, and I finally understood.
He was just a man, doing the best he could with what he had. For better or for worse, the good and the bad.
There will be time enough later, when our hearts are not quite so heavy, to analyse, to debate, to plan our route ahead without him.
For now, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, I would like to thank you.
Thank you for steering us through those dark and bloody chapters in our story.
Thank you for making the choices that should have been far too heavy for any one man to bear.
And last but not least, because I too love green things that grow, thank you for the trees.
And so it is a farewell to arms, Mr Lee, for your fight is over. You have reached the last page of your story, but we will continue writing the story of this country – in so many ways, your story too.
Know that your life’s work will live on as we fill in each blank page of the chapters yet unwritten in our country’s history, with determination, with compassion, and with hope.
Rest in peace, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
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