Lee Kuan Yew: The Long Shadow

Lee Kuan Yew


There has been a wide range of reactions to Lee Kuan Yew’s turn for the worse. Some are criticising the media for staking out SGH (it’s their job lah). Some Singaporeans are still cursing LKY, even now. Some have rushed to SGH; to kaypoh or pay respects, I am not quite sure.

Some – privately or publicly – are expressing hope that he will leave the land of the living with more haste. Some are grudgingly or gratefully acknowledging the things he’s done for the country, while others are sharing poignant pictures of Lee Kuan Yew with his wife and family on social media.

Some have, with blind optimism, expressed wishes for him to recuperate. Last night, there was a hoax purporting that Lee Kuan Yew has died, which fooled CNN and CCTV into running the story. Some opposition politicians, ex-politicians and “activists” have been busy making appallingly tasteless remarks about Lee Kuan Yew’s deterioration, too.

I glimpsed Lee Kuan Yew during a Parliament session late last year.

I was shocked to see him there, firstly because I thought he was too poorly to be in attendance in Parliament, and secondly because I was experiencing serious cognitive dissonance: seeing this larger-than-life figure, in the flesh, when that flesh was spent and frail, and strangely tiny, somehow. To many Singaporeans, he was still the bogeyman. At some point later in the sitting, his gaze swept the viewing gallery. Just for a few moments, he seemed to look right at me – and through me – with eyes like gimlets, still sharp as a blade. An interesting, partly subconscious internal dialogue then occurred in my mind about whether I should sit up ramrod straight and try to look as alert as possible (those seats are very comfortable) or duck for cover.

I was, of course, being very silly. He wasn’t the bogeyman. He was just an old man who had been to countless Parliament sittings, who was perhaps slightly bored, perhaps looking around to see how many members of the public turned up for the session.

Love him or hate him, the man has cast a long shadow on the nation’s psyche. Yes, he has a storied past, when it comes to dealing with political opponents. If you think he is alone in being ruthless and ruling with an iron fist, then you know nothing about politics and human psychology, let alone opposition politics in Singapore. In politics, here as everywhere else, nobody’s hands are clean. It goes back to the “for the greater good” paradigm, easily the most dangerous and brutal phrase that ever existed.

Sure, I do not agree with the ethics of some of the things he did, and the way he went about it. For example, the eugenics-flavoured graduate mother scheme has left a bitter aftertaste in history of our policy. Other events that happened under his leadership are polarising, particularly those involving the blue gate at Whitley Road.

I asked myself a terrifying question, not too long ago, after I had decided that a nonpartisan path was the most constructive one for me.

If I had been placed in Lee Kuan Yew’s shoes, at that juncture in history, say, in 1963, with that shockingly exceptional brain and the foresight it produced, and the future of a country hanging in the balance, all those lives depending on my choices, would I have turned away from the choices he made, the most polarising and bloodiest choices?

It was hard to admit, even to myself, but I cannot say with certainty that I would have chosen differently.

It is a damning answer, yes, but an honest one.

You see, I’ve been in the trenches, from the opposition side of the yard, and I understand, with painful clarity, the ethical sacrifices you make, all in the name of the greater good. Sure, no one does anything illegal, but morally above reproach? That’s a different story. “For the greater good” has seduced many well-meaning people into making choices that were, in hindsight, deeply flawed choices.

A relatively short sojourn in the trenches gave me searing insight into that tired old aphorism about having to break some eggs to make an omelette. I imagine the eggs you would have to break as the leader of a young country are very large indeed.

I am not defending the man or his choices. I am not saying we should fall to our knees and hail him as our immortal glorious leader. I am not saying we should whitewash the darker, bloodier moments in our history which occurred under his leadership. I am saying that we should be human.

You may not like Lee Kuan Yew or agree with his views, his choices or his words. It’s not about liking him. It’s not even about respect for him – it’s about self-respect. You cannot take the moral high ground while you are standing in muddied, ugly, hate-filled words of your own creation.

Being human is the very least you can do, whether you like the man or not. If you react with jubilation and unreserved glee at someone’s impending death, if you think you somehow have the moral right to celebrate the pain of a family at the passing of their father, their grandfather, then you have failed to be human.

If you say that you hate the man for the way he has done certain things in the past, but wish him ill on his death bed, does that make you a better person, or worse?

I wonder what it takes to see someone as an old man like many others, with a body light as a feather, soul about to fly away. I wonder what it takes to see him as a man as who has lived many years, and has to answer to death’s call, just like all of us have to, just like the family and friends who have answered death’s call.

I wonder what it takes to simply be human.









  1. Thanks, Samantha, that’s thoughtful. I remember when Thatcher died and many people celebrated in the streets, chanting, “The witch is dead, the witch is dead.” Whatever we do in this life, we all go out of it the same way, taking nothing with us, but some of us leave much behind.

  2. I cannot comprehend why any discourse on LKY has to entertain this idea of questioning his leadership or choices he made. His quote at the top of the article should put an end to that. Even in his later years, his wisdom is alert to the situation that would, and is unfolding. Could he be, given the situation he was in, the greatest leader that the world has seen? It is a possibility. Yet, sadly, we bicker and gripe.

    Yes, be human. Just be human.

  3. I do not concur with your views. You see. what we need, or rather what the world needs are benevolent men; ala Nelson Mandela. The world respects him and the people who followed him did so because he was a virtous man who fought against injustice and oppression.

    Yes, history is strifed with ruthless politicians but does that mean to build a modern nation, one has to be brutual and without morals? If that is so then great people like Aung San Suu Kyi, the late Dr. Sun Yat Sen and even Nelson Mandela himself would be and should be considered failures. Or what about George Washington or Teddy Roosevelt? Were they ruthless and brutual in their conquest for power and supreme reign? I am for one very sure they commited no atrocities that our Mr. Lee did. For the greater good? What about The Crusades? Many died, “in the name of God” and believed slaughtering innocents were for “the greater good”. Surely you, an educated person should have some kind of moral compass to know what my point is. But if you don’t, then I too would say you have failed as a human.

    To say those who wish him ill are no better humans or have failed as a human is a sweeping statement. Indeed no one should wish another ill but then again no one is a saint. Those who hate him have every reason and right to despise him. None of us are buddha or jesus christ, but I am very sure there are many other better humans than Mr. Lee himself.

    1. ‘Umkhonto We Sizwe’
      I believe you missed the point of this post. Also, please research before you post sweeping statements.

    2. Do you think Nelson Mandela is free from committing acts that are morally reprehensible earlier on during the AMC’s violent chapter?? Have you read his bio? While it’s healthy for us to be somewhat idealistic – to expect more from the people whom we have elected to govern on our behalf – we must not be naive.

  4. Beautifully put, Samantha. Yes, at the end of it all, it is about being human – acknowledging his humanity and our own.Thanks for a offering a very human perspective on the man.

  5. Dear Samantha,
    Thankyou for the Awesome Sentiments,Especially> Your this part:
    “Being human is the very least you can do, whether you like the man or not. If you react with jubilation and unreserved glee at someone’s impending death, if you think you somehow have the moral right to celebrate the pain of a family at the passing of their father, their grandfather, then you have failed to be human.
    As for me,is not abt his Name LKY.But his Dedication,Passion & Determination thats enough to say that he deserved to received Well-wishes & Prayers frm Great Singaporean Irregardless Of Race Or Religion.

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