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It's time to let him go

DEVOTED HUSBAND: A tribute by Singapore illustrator Lee Kow Fong, titled Into The Garden, In Hands.


    Mar 30, 2015

    It's time to let him go

    AFTER paying my respects at the Ang Mo Kio community tribute site on Saturday afternoon, I was looking at some photos on my phone while queueing for lunch at a hawker centre when I sensed someone peering over my shoulder.

    "Do you think Lee Kuan Yew knew how much the people loved him?" a middle-aged woman waiting behind me asked in Mandarin.

    I turned to face her. "I don't know," I replied. "I have been thinking about this the past few days too."

    She nodded and said: "We are so used to criticising him. I think many people went down to Parliament House because we are sorry we haven't shown him our gratitude all these years. But now he's gone. This is life, full of regrets."

    I thought about her words for a moment. "He may not have known, but I don't think it mattered to him whether Singaporeans were grateful or not. He didn't serve to win our gratitude," I said.

    We continued chatting, two strangers united in grief.

    All over Singapore this past week, I am sure this scene has played out many times in different corners of the island, be it under the scorching sun on the Padang, in coffee shops or online in the privacy of our homes; Singaporeans united (or Yew-nited, as some have coined) in our unbridled grief over the passing of a man whom most of us have had a love-hate relationship with all our lives. The finality of his death hit those who loved him, hated him and even those who were neutral about him.

    I have never been a big fan - but you do not need to be a fan to respect what he has done for this country. There are some things he has said and done that I do not agree with, and I know many of my friends feel the same way. But that has not stopped us from giving credit where credit is due and we do feel a deep sense of gratitude towards him.

    Even then, for the longest time, he was just that - a founding father, a name I revered and feared. He became a normal human being in my eyes only when I learnt more about his love story. This was a husband who read to his wife every night when she was bedridden in the final years of her life.

    I thought: "How scary can this man be if he can love with such tenderness and devotion?" That was when he grew in my heart.

    By now, you must have heard about Mr Lee's red box. But what about his knife? According to an employee at Taiwan's The Grand Hotel, where he would stay whenever he visited Taipei, his personal secretary would always carry a knife, not for security, but for Mr Lee to cut his fruit. He would carefully cut the fruit, give them to his wife, before cutting another portion for himself.

    When the news came on Monday, my first thought was: "Finally, they are reunited." I can picture him reading poems to her again.

    On Friday morning, as I walked out of Parliament House after a five-hour queue, all I felt was an overpowering sense of emptiness. The man is really gone. Where would Singapore go from here?

    In my family, while my mother has never been shy about expressing her admiration for the man, my 75-year-old father has always been in the anti-LKY camp. Although he was actively involved in People's Action Party grassroots activities in the 1950s ("I've sat in meetings with LKY. I went around hanging posters during elections and hid the ones from opposition parties."), he became disillusioned about politics in the early 1960s and distanced himself from the party.

    Growing up, I have lost count of the number of times my father repeated his criticism of the decision to close down Nanyang University (Nantah) in 1980. There he goes again, I would think to myself. Move on, papa, I begged him, impatiently. I have graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in Chinese studies. The closure of Nantah did not rob me of the chance to continue studying my mother tongue or affect my life. Let go, please.

    So I was most taken aback when my father left a comment in response to a friend's Facebook tribute on Monday. "You can disagree with some of his policies, but you cannot deny his contribution to Singapore," he wrote in Chinese.

    It was the first time I heard him say something objective about the man. When I went home for dinner on Saturday, he had another surprise for me.

    "Let's observe a minute of silence," he announced in Cantonese before we began eating. "I'm still unhappy about Nantah, but he's dead. Nothing matters any more. I've let go."

    After dinner, I went to the tribute site in Ang Mo Kio again, this time with my parents. I asked my father if he wanted to sign the condolence book. He sat down and wrote five Chinese words, yong yuan huai nian nin (We will miss you forever).

    Looking at the crowds of people at the site, and the lonely figure of my father staring intently at the wall of photos of Mr Lee, I recall something I read about him.

    Asked once how he wanted history to judge him, Mr Lee replied without missing a beat: "I'm dead by then."

    He has also been quoted as saying: "I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader."

    He may not have sweated about small matters like whether the people love him or how he would be remembered, but I would like to believe, he knows now. And I think even the man himself would have been surprised and humbled by what he has seen this past week (and he has seen a lot).

    Thank you for giving your life so that others could enjoy theirs. Singapore will be fine. Now go, Harry. She is waiting.

    The writer is news editor of My Paper.

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