There’s been a flood of essays, tributes and photo stories on my Facebook feed since Lee Kuan Yew passed away. I found myself clicking on several of them and reading every word, spending a minute on every photograph. Odd, because I never followed politics growing up in Singapore, and more recently began nurturing a distaste for some of the government’s policies.
My dissatisfaction with Singapore’s problems – lack of a free press, prosecuting naysayers, lax immigration rules and so on – developed mostly as I lived abroad in Boston and studied journalism in the country with arguably the free-est press in the world. How can we be a democratic nation if journalists are not allowed to hold the government accountable to the people? I learned to think of Singapore, not as a democracy, but as a patriarchy.
Our patriarch, Mr Lee, reunited with his wife on Monday. For some reason, I’m kind of sad. He’s not my family or friend. I’ve never even seen him in person. But I greatly respect and am grateful to Mr Lee, even as I’m critical of him. Yes, we do not have much freedom of expression. But look at America, where people are so free to express their skepticism of vaccines that they’ve revived measles. Teachers are so free to teach students that evolution is not real. Yes, the one-party system can be oppressive. But it worked, and our one-party government gave Singaporeans access to clean water, affordable healthcare, rigorous education, dependable infrastructure, public transport, housing, safety … even a massive network of free public bathrooms that many take for granted until they’re backpacking in Europe. Government shutdown? Unthinkable. Whether Singapore can continue with a one-party system moving forward is a subject for another time.
We Singaporeans like to complain and criticize, myself included. But we have truly been pampered by our government and taking it for granted. I have not seen a public transport system in America that’s half as good as Singapore’s MRT and bus network. If you have no health insurance and need to see the doctor for a common cold, good luck finding a doctor that would charge you only $20 for consultation and medicine. Mr Lee and the founding government laid the groundwork for Singaporeans to prosper.
Now it’s time for Singapore to change. We’re turning fifty, and it’s time we worked on things like giving the press more freedom and recognizing same-sex unions. Can we do that without sacrificing the peace, stability and prosperity that Mr Lee gave his life for? Amid the change, there will be some seeking to advance personal agendas and vested interests. It is up to the electorate now, more than ever, to recognize such individuals or organizations.
Mr Lee was not popular, but only self-absorbed politicians would feel the need to care about their popularity. A policy-maker working with his people in mind would not care about how his methods or policies reflect on him, but whether they were good for the people. A policy-maker who cared about the well-being of his people would not pander to the whims of his people, especially not the whims of the rich, but have the guts to pass unpopular laws, if they proved to be vital for the nation.
Few politicians in the world can claim that they care about their nations like Mr Lee cared for Singapore. And I guess his devotion to our nation and us has affected me more than I care to admit. Singapore still has a long way to go and lots of things to fix, but for now, we are truly blessed to have stood on Mr Lee’s shoulders.
Thank you Mr Lee and may you rest in peace.