Even though it’s a solemn occasion, I can’t help but smile to myself at Tanjong Pagar Community Centre where I’ve come to pay my respects to Singapore’s late founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Because even in commemorating his death he commands order and discipline, two of Singapore’s well known characteristics, and two traits that are enmeshed in Mr Lee’s legacy of accomplishments.
As soon as I enter the building I’m immediately separated into one of two queues: one on the right, for those who want to sign a book, and the other on the left for those who want to observe a moment of silence. We’re instructed to make orderly rows before being shuffled two rows at a time, toward a big banner with Mr Lee’s photograph, where we are to pay our respects (without breaking formation).
As we step forward, an elderly man instructs us on how this will all happen: three bows that would follow his call, and one final bow facing left, where representatives dressed in the ubiquitous white shirt of government would also bow.
I raise my head from the final leftward bow, and immediately I’m directed to a photo display that I am to walk along, while staying in single file. It’s a collection of photos of key events and campaigns in Mr Lee’s political life. And as I linger to read rather than take photos of the photos with my phone (like most others), I’m eventually told to move along because I am taking too long.
This is Singapore. Efficient to a point where the softer side of life is sometimes buried. This has its pros and cons, but I’ve noticed that it belies the true kindness and empathy that’s here, if you scratch beneath the surface. And indeed, that surface has been peeled way back over the week-long mourning period. Countless stories of kindness and good have emerged, mostly relating to those who are waiting in an 8-hour queue to pay respects to Mr Lee as he lies in state at Parliament House.
But I digress.
As a teenager I remember going to the National Museum to see an exhibition about Singapore’s history. It was there that I first saw black and white footage of a young Mr Lee, in a scene which would stay with me for the rest of my life. It was a moment in 1965 when he announced to the people that Singapore would no longer be a part of Malaysia.
“For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life…,” he pauses for what seems like an age, “… you see, the whole of my adult life…,” his voice breaks, he pauses again, shakes his head, shifts in his chair, and fights to hold back tears, “…I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories…” he says, finally.
In the Singapore of the 90s, I’d never seen him express so much emotion. And this segment that was playing on a loop was mesmerising. I watched it a few times, and couldn’t help but tear up myself. I realised then that the country I called home was special. The man credited with making it that way was also special. And from that day on, my feelings about Singapore were forever changed.
It isn’t until this week that I see the same footage on TV again, and most recently on a huge screen at Tanjong Pagar CC just after I finish paying my respects. Even though it means disrupting the efficient flow of people, I have to pause to take it in. I get teary again, but for different reasons this time. More than two decades on, my understanding of that moment in history has deepened dramatically. Mr Lee was in his early 40s then – not far off my age. I can’t even begin to imagine the monumental sense of dread he must have felt in those moments, and probably for quite some time afterwards.
I wish so deeply that I could ask him about it. I would want to know how, after that, he found the resolve to embark on a mission to build a Singapore that defied all the odds… that disproved everything that history had shown him. How did he find the fearlessness to forge ahead with improbable goals, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. How did he allow himself to have such an audacious vision in the first place, and what did it take to convince others that it was true, and possible?
I’d like to believe that he had to dig deep inside himself to commit to going the distance. That he made an effort to calm the inner voice that constantly questions whether you’re doing the right thing. That he took everything that naysayers were telling him, and turned it into fuel to stoke the fire inside.
I’d like to think that he had good days and bad – the kind where you feel so disillusioned that you have to consciously devote energy to telling yourself that things will work out. And those other, empowering kind of days when things are falling so perfectly into place, it’s motivating to the point of euphoria.
What I would want to know most of all though is: did he ever feel like he’d accomplished what he set out to do?
I know that there’s no magic formula for success, but I do think it takes a certain kind of person to have such immense reserves of courage, grit and unwavering commitment that they can make the improbable possible.
And so, as I look at the photos at Tanjong Pagar CC, and when I happen to walk passed one of the countless displays, banners or screens around Singapore commemorating Mr Lee, what I see is “belief” personified.