I’m living through a very special moment in Singapore’s young 50-year history. The nation has gone into deep mourning after we lost our founding father and a true titan of the 20th century, Lee Kuan Yew, on Monday.
In what I consider to be a rare personal display of patriotism, I’ve worn black every single day this week, shed many tears in airports, taxis, buses and planes, and spent 2 hours in line from midnight last night to get into the Parliament House where Lee Kuan Yew lies in state, to pay my last respects to the greatest founder I’ve ever known. It was a long wait because the rest of the country showed up to do the same – many people waited up to 8 hours. It’s the deepest and most painful loss Singapore has ever experienced.
This is an unprecedented time when our nation has been truly united, through collective grief, gratitude and pride. What’s emerging is an unexpected realization of national identity. Singapore, in remembering Lee Kuan Yew, has remembered how we were created from nothing. And so we have all taken a moment in our busy, humming lives to thank our founding father Lee Kuan Yew – for pretty much everything we have today.
From Mudflats to First World
Without Lee Kuan Yew, there would probably have been no independent Singapore. We likely would not have existed – no skyline as we know it today, trees lining our roads, vibrant food culture, modern living conditions, robust law and business environment, high quality talent, meritocracy, freedom from riots and racial strife, local, national and social security, clean air and water, squeaky clean everything, a world-class airport, high healthcare standards, jam-free road conditions despite being the most densely populated country in ASEAN. The list goes on and on. We defied all naysayers and did it in one generation.
Personally, being part of a startup now, I appreciate even more what Lee Kuan Yew did for us. I can only imagine how uncertain the path was when we were forced out of Malaysia 50 years ago, and how Singapore could have gone any other way and had every chance to turn out dull, sleepy and unremarkable. But we went the way we did because of the vision Lee Kuan Yew had, combined with his intelligence, foresight, gumption, resilience and above all, incredible dedication to this startup country.
I’m aware that he did not do it alone, and that he did it with a strong founding team. But I also understand that as in any startup, the founder is the person who sets the direction, values and tone, and that a strong founding team would never have been formed if it weren’t for a strong leader who could inspire them to follow him.
This week’s collective outpouring of grief and love – on social media, at the community memorials, and outside of Parliament House – has shown that it wasn’t just the founding team who followed this leader. The intelligent nation he built has as well.
There is a very strange phenomenon in Singapore: Singaporeans complain about everything, but when foreigners complain about Singapore to Singaporeans, that makes every Singaporean super mad. We can complain about it, but you can’t.
We complain because we grew up in a very privileged environment, compared to the rest of the world, and as a result have high expectations of everything. Inevitably, things fall short from that perspective: HDB (public housing) flat prices are too high, cars are too expensive, we have no freedom of speech a la the U.S. First Amendment, “Singapore got nothing to do” (i.e. it is very boring here), “Singapore not cool enough”. This list also goes on, because we compare ourselves to other first world cities and countries. It is the immigrant mentality to keep striving for the better. Over time, I think there was even a slight inferiority complex that developed from this constant comparison.
But if you’re not Singaporean, we think, who the hell are you to complain about our country? We get very defensive.
We get very defensive because, I think, ultimately, we are proud of our unique little country. And I think Lee Kuan Yew’s passing has helped many of us, especially the post-baby boomers who grew up in First-World-Singapore, to realize why we are so proud of it and do not need to apologize for all the things that Singapore is not. Our small population live in a tiny but vibrant, meritocratic and prosperous city-state, built over a mere 50 years and against all natural and geopolitical odds. We constantly punch above our weight, and continue to be so rich in resilience.
We speak in an accent and colloquial English (known as Singlish) no non-Singaporean really gets or could ever aspire to learn. We have unique foods and quirks. And above all we have a short but truly incredible history of startup nationbuilding, which for the first 31 years was led by Lee Kuan Yew. He continued to oversee the transition over the next 25 years, and never rested till the day he was warded in February. His lifelong obsession with defending and strengthening Singapore and Singaporeans has resulted in an absolute Asian miracle.
Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore
We are Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. He created our economy, culture and systems. A lot of the traits and values that Singaporeans exhibit and hold come from the systems we grew up in, which encourage these values – pragmatism, meritocracy, fairness, efficiency, equal opportunity, transparency, and even cleanliness.
So begins a new era without Lee Kuan Yew. We will no longer be guided by the watchful eyes of our protective, strong and intelligent founder. After this week of national mourning, let’s try not to forget the difficult path that’s been forged by Lee Kuan Yew. We will continue to evolve from here and be shaped by the future leadership of our choosing. He made us smart through a first world education and we’ve been off to a great start. Let’s try our best to choose wisely going forward. I believe we will and we can.
Once again, thank you Lee Kuan Yew. I am really, really grateful for everything you have done for us. You have been nothing short of extraordinary.