A reflective birthday – Thinking about Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore

Singapore Flag by RaymondBPhotos
Photo by raymondbPhotos via Flickr CC

I wasn’t really planning to write anything for my birthday this year – I did have a fun post about travels you should take in your 20s as I reflected about leaving my 20s behind last year, and I had 29 life lesson musings in the year before that.

This year, what with the passing of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew on 23 March, and the week of mourning leading up to my the state funeral on my birthday today, the general mood has been kinda somber all around. Writing it down is helping to straighten up the many thoughts rolling in my head somewhat.

I’d never met Lee Kuan Yew, nor can I say I was a particularly big fan of his – I was cognizant of politics and government in an era where he was already the Senior Minister, Minister Mentor and then finally just Mr Lee Kuan Yew. What I knew of his work was what we were taught in schools and National Education efforts that was all very positive in nature, almost propaganda-like some would say. I would later learn more and see the consequences of some of his policies as I grew older, but most of the time, he existed in the periphery of my mind.

So I was a little surprised to find myself heavy-hearted this whole week when his passing was announced, and actually heading down to the Lying In State and spending 6 hours in a queue without wanting to throw up my hands and complain all Singaporean-like. I’d never really cared before, so why now?

I’m still not sure how to answer that, but I have been much more reflective this entire week – The documentaries and news that have been rolling non-stop on the mass media and my social feeds reveal stories about our history and the man’s personal life I didn’t know before, but truly what I valued most is seeing my countrymen rally in a way I’d never seen before. Truly folk from all walks of life turned up to pay their respects; there was a sense of stoicism, graciousness and unity which is often lost in the face of other less desirable Singaporean traits like kiasu-ism and complaining about everything – we are a country of government campaigns and manufactured initiatives but this was more uniting than any National Day rally or SG50 campaign could do.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a Singaporean and the truly remarkable progress my country has made under his leadership – My mother tells me stories about attap houses and being poor in the early days of Singapore’s independence, something I will never truly understand myself because I grew up in a country of fortune that’s since been transformed; how genuinely lucky I am in the grand scheme of things, to be born and raised in a country that works so my biggest concerns are about bonuses and public holidays and not about whether my economy is going to collapse; to be successful into a system that’s prepared me to compete with the world, even if it isn’t quite so forgiving to everyone.

Closer to heart, Singapore has allowed me the privilege of travel, and while I often yearn to get away and fly off somewhere, just going on vacation, talking to people in other countries and learning about other cultures and histories has made me much more appreciative of my homeland. Singapore is not for everyone, but it is home to me. Perhaps this is what has made me less apathetic about my country.

So all in all my birthday was a quiet one – My present to myself today was to sleep in till noon, something I haven’t had the chance to do because of travels and work commitments on the weekends. Most of the afternoon was watching the live telecast of the state funeral at home and a simple family dinner to celebrate my birthday at night. A rather somber way to see in my 31st year, but perhaps a more contemplative one.

There is a sense that Singapore is in for big change as it celebrates its 50th jubilee this year and LKY’s passing is perhaps the tip of that iceberg. General elections are impending, and the people are more determined than ever to have their say. I’m curious to see where Singapore goes from here, let’s see what happens.

2 thoughts on “A reflective birthday – Thinking about Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore”

  1. I really enjoy reading your articles. I’ve visited Singapore last month; seeing the city in person and learning your history, I somehow felt envious. LKY made a exceptional contribution to your country and I hope Philippines can have that kind of leader too.

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