Even the heavens wept for Lee Kuan Yew

Even the heavens wept, with the rain coming down on Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral. That couldn’t prevent people from pouring out on the streets to pay their respects to the departed leader.  “Lee Kuan Yew! Lew Kuan Yew!” the crowd chanted in thunderous ovation to the founder of the nation. Vindication or nostalgia, it had to be one or the other that surged forth in this vast outpouring of affection.

The old man once said he would rather be feared than loved — or words to that effect — but even his canny old heart would have been warmed by the surge of affection and the attendant numbers. More than a million people paid their respects to him at Parliament House and the community centres. More than a million people in a nation of 5.47 million!

Hats off to the thousands who waited eight hours or more to pay their respects at Parliament House. That was how long it was taking on Friday when I turned back from there and paid my respects instead at a community centre the next day.

I didn’t join the crowds today either, preferring to watch the live telecast to get, ahem, the total picture. Channel NewsAsia did an excellent job, and the eulogies, music, everything about the funeral was worthy of the man – solemn and deeply moving.

After the telecast, I have been trying to channel the grand old man, trying to imagine what he might have thought of the whole affair, but of course he is too cerebral, too astute, for me.

So, speaking for myself, this is what I think:

  1. Lee Kuan Yew instilled a certain mindset
  2. He read English literature with his wife, so the outpouring of public affection might have reminded him of a certain poem by Browning.

First the mindset.

A Business Times article seems to have gone viral, “By gum, the West is wrong about Singapore”, it proclaims, bashing the Western media for almost invariably referring to the chewing gum ban and using words like “antiseptic” and “too well organized” when writing about Singapore. Right on! More power to the Business Times. Nobody should be belittle the little red dot. The bearers of backhanded compliments can shove them up their … wherever.

The reason I am referring to the article is something else.

Read the article closely and what do you see?

An ambivalence about democracy.

The writer writes:

What the people want, the people will eventually get – that is both the beauty and horror of democracy.

The Prime Minister liked the article on Facebook. That’s how I came to read it and I thoroughly enjoyed the verve with which the writer wrote, so unlike the straight reporting and commentary we see.

But clearly the writer doesn’t regard democracy as an unmixed blessing. Why else talk of “the beauty and horror of democracy”?

Lee Kuan Yew famously said: “I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man-one-vote is the best. We practise it because that’s what the British bequeathed us and we haven’t really found a need to challenge that.”

The Business Times writer says in the last paragraph of her article, “I have my reservations about what this country will become”. That’s exactly what the Economist said in an article on Lee Kuan Yew headlined, “The wise man of the East”. “The Singapore model may yet prove unsustainable even in Singapore,” it said.

Perish the thought.

Now about the poem.

I was reminded of The Patriot, a poem by Robert Browning, as I watched the crowd chanting Lee Kuan Yew’s name at the funeral procession. That is how the poem begins, with a crowd cheering their leader:

It was roses, roses, all the way,
With myrtle mixed in my path like mad:
The house-roofs seemed to heave and sway,
The church-spires flamed, such flags they had…

But that’s where the similarity ends. The Patriot in Browning’s poem dies dishonoured; Lee Kuan Yew was laid to rest with full state honours, amid a great outpouring of public affection.

But he endured growing criticism in his final years and receded into the shadows. We hardly heard of him since he resigned from the Cabinet in May 2011 after the People’s Action Party lost six of the 87 constituency seats in parliament in the general election, when its share of the vote fell to 60.1 per cent, its lowest since independence.

The remembrance follows four years of relatively little news of him.

It’s significant he left just when everybody was getting on Facebook and many on Twitter.

He welcomed email but he might not have been cut out for social media where Buzzfeed reigns – and Kim Kardashian.

“I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.” And what is social media but a daily popularity poll with its trending hashtags, likes and shares?

Lim Kuan Yew was said to be paternalistic and Singapore a nanny state.  I won’t go into that, but generally speaking old-timers like me grew up at a time when society and culture were both more hierarchical. Not just in Singapore but across the world, at least in cultural terms.

We spoke of “highbrow”, “middlebrow” and “lowbrow” books and newspapers, music and entertainment. Joyce was highbrow, classical music was highbrow, the Reader’s Digest was middlebrow, tabloids like the Sun were lowbrow. Such distinctions assumed some things were superior to others. Now such distinctions are not drawn anymore; when did you last hear of highbrow and lowbrow? They are gone with the wind, like Lee Kuan Yew.

He will always live in our hearts. But he was born in another time. We are grateful he made Singapore what it is today. Rest in peace, Mr Lee. God bless Singapore.

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