When I first saw Lee Kuan Yew in person, my friends and I were fishing illegally at a reservoir.
“Lee Kuan Yew! Lee Kuan Yew! Lee Kuan Yew!” one of our friends shouted repeatedly as she came running towards us from a distance. The rest of us who were still fishing stared at each other in puzzlement.
“What the hell is a Lee Kuan Yew fish?” we turned to each other.
We always had endearing nicknames for our fish, so it was not surprising when all of us did not realise that our dear friend had meant Lee Kuan Yew, our first prime minister, the Lion of Singapore.
Realisation dawned on us when we noticed an entourage of body guards following the Old Man, as he ambled slowly toward our general direction. Immediately, we hid our fishing rods in the grass, and acted normal, like we were enjoying the beautiful reservoir view. Few steps away from us, a bunch of Chinese nationals, probably undergrads, stubbed out their cigarettes butts in a hurry, threw them into the bin, and sat facing the reservoir obediently.
I never expected to meet our Founding Father under such circumstances. It was indeed a comical experience.
I kept sneaking glances at the Old Man, whom everyone revered, feared and respected at the same time. He was wearing a pink polo tee. His movements were slow and deliberate. He sat on the stone bench with his entourage behind him, and he stared out into the reservoir, watching the pale, orange sun set behind the man-made body of water.
I wondered what he was thinking of. Perhaps he was marvelling at the creation of NEWater. Perhaps he was marvelling at his creation of a garden city. Perhaps he was simply enjoying the peace and stability he had created after his long tumultuous years as a prime minister. He came from a generation of men forged by war, shaped by strong convictions and a strong, iron will. That day, at that reservoir, I saw an Old Man who had been through difficult times, led our country through it; and the result: Not only did we survive, we also prospered.
If you have read the book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, you would realise that the more advanced and more powerful nations in this world were lucky to have fertile land and resources, allowing them to grow and dominate less fortunate civilisations.
But were there any exceptions?
Yes, the author says, Singapore.
A malaria-infested swamp land whose uneducated citizens lived in crammed shophouses, farming pigs for a living, with no resources to speak of. We even had to negotiate for water from our neighbour who constantly used it as a bargaining chip. To add on to that, communist insurgency in the region added fuel to a highly-flammable political situation. Racial riots, labour riots, strife…
Then came Lee Kuan Yew. A man thrown into politics after watching our colonial masters flee during World War 2.
Iron-fisted, draconian, controlling, elitist, his decisions and policies came down hard and fast, sometimes causing grievances, outcry or disputes. All critics were silenced fast, all dissenters were crushed. A highly-educated, street-fighting man. Lee Kuan Yew knows Singapore better than you do.
50 years later, we look back in awe. Damn, the Old Man was right all along.
Idealistically pragmatic. Ruthlessly dedicated. Lee Kuan Yew rallied the nation and executed on his vision with a firm, guiding hand. The Old Man was unstoppable. Even as an octogenarian, he still continued advising, jet-setting, giving talks, and giving opinions. We all felt safe under Ah Gong’s watchful eye.
50 years later, we look back in awe.
We now live in high-rise apartments, enjoy pretty affordable public transport, have good education, good medical facilities, clean water to drink, safe streets, job opportunities… the list goes on.
50 years was all it took to transform a spittle of an island into an economic powerhouse with prosperous citizens, efficient and easily-accessible amenities, and a socially-stable environment. Sometimes we get so comfortable, we start to take things for granted.
All it took was just 50 years.
Now, our entire nation mourns the loss of our Founding Father and web pages are constructed to celebrate his life’s contributions. Nobody can replace him. A deep, abstract sorrow permeates the airwaves. Here was a real man who devoted every waking hour to the building of our nation. But now, it is time for our dear Old Man to lay down to rest, while we, the sons and daughters of Singapore, must preserve the foundation he has built, and carry the torch forward.
You have lived a long and fulfilling life, Mr Lee. Rest In Peace.