Musing #8 – Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew

I am deeply honoured and proud to be part of the Youth Corps Singapore vigil group that kept vigil next to our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s casket last night (27th March 2015). To say that it was emotional and inspiring would be too much of an understatement. I am deeply grateful for what we have today. I reflected a lot as I saw the throngs of people, some handicapped, some too frail… and they still queued many hours just for seconds to pay their respect and show their gratitude to this great man.

I remember being told by my Commanding Officer that nothing in Singapore is natural. The water we drink needs to be imported, the concrete that is used to construct our homes and offices, are imported, the sand we use to reclaim land, they too are imported…The list goes on. The scarcity of resources for Singapore’s survival and prosperity is a constant reminder for us that all these things we have now have been fought for by Mr Lee and his team.

Firstly, the issue of water is one that deserves mention. We have gotten so used to the fact that we have clean, potable water that could be drank straight from the tap, that we do not even remember or realise that this is painfully fought for. Water had to be rationed in the early years of independence. Then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman once told British High Commissioner, Antony Head, that if Singapore does not do what Malaysia wants, he can just “switch off” the water supply.  Knowing the importance of water to Singapore’s survival, Mr Lee made sure that the water supply agreements were included as part of the Separation. He had the foresight for the agreement to be endorsed by the United Nations, preventing foul play by the Malaysian authorities. It is amidst such a volatile environment that NEWater is invented to better secure Singapore’s water supply. Not just NEWater, Mr Lee cleaned up the Singapore River, and envisaged the damming of the mouth of the Singapore river to create a freshwater reservoir, today this is the Marina Barrage. Today, as we shower and drink, let us not take this precious water for granted. Today, as we cycle along the beautiful waterfronts of Singapore, let us be reminded that underneath the sapphire and emerald waters, are pools of crimson red blood.

Secondly, the issue of security. What the new generation of Singaporeans do not understand is that we are a small state in a volatile sea, surrounded by potentially and historically hostile neighbours.Today, the facade of guaranteed security appears to be so strong. Indeed, so pervasive that it has come to be taken for granted. I think there is a need for us to remember that we are a small state situated in churning waters. It was not purely a case of conflicting ideologies that caused the Separation in 1965. The Malaysian authorities then had predicted that after separation, we would never survive on our own and with bloodied heads and broken bones, we would crawl back… But now, on their terms. Director Kah Kuang reminded us that should we not have a credible SAF, would other nations pay heed to what we have to say? The issue of Pedra Branca, would not have went to the International Court of Justice for mediation. Remember, it was only 4 years ago that the KTM Railway Land that stretched all the way to the heart of Singapore, Tanjong Pagar, belonged to Malaysia. How can a nation have her land, owned by another country? Mr Lee, with his unwavering dedication and foresight for Singapore, did his best to secure this land. Just before he stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, he negotiated the 1990 Points of Agreement for the return of land to Singapore. One point in the agreement was that Malaysia would relocate their Checkpoints, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) operations from Tanjong Pagar, central Singapore, to the Woodlands Checkpoint. How can foreigners be allowed to enter all the way into central Singapore before they are cleared immigrations? However, the Malaysian side had different interpretations of the agreement and they said they had “changed their minds over the relocation of the Checkpoints, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) operations”. It is with this danger of becoming second-class citizens in our ‘own’ nation, and being intimidated by hostile neighbours that Mr Lee and his team strove to make Singapore work.

Let us also not forget one of the darkest periods in Singapore history. As we merged to form Malaysia in 1963, Indonesia waged a war of confrontation, i.e. Konfrontasi against us (and Malaysia at large). Indonesian commandos bombed the MacDonald House in Dhoby Ghaut, and fought skirmishes with Singapore (then part of Malaysia). Without a credible SAF that is the best in the region, will other countries, most of them much bigger in size and people, respect Singapore, or even acknowledge the existence of our country? We must not forget that we are a little red dot surrounded by giants, who can and will eat us up, if we give them a chance to. For us, myself included, it is a big sacrifice indeed, for every Singaporean male to spend 2 years of our lives, to defend our country. We could have started university education or work at the same time as our female peers. But, we could not. At the end of the day, we all realise that as we wear green, we wear it for a greater cause. Without the SAF, Singapore will never have made it.

“If you, who are growing up, do not understand that you have got to defend this, then I say in the end, we will lose. Other people will come, smack you down, take it over.” – Lee Kuan Yew

Thirdly, as a student of History, I feel compelled to make clear that racial harmony is not a common sight in the world, and definitely not in Southeast Asia. History also suggests that culture splits people. In all Southeast Asian states, every single one of them except Singapore, pursued strongly assimilationist policies that forced the minorities to abandon their roots and take on those of the majority. In 1966, the Indonesian government mandated that all Chinese had to take on Indonesian-sounding surnames. For example, some of the Lees (李) called themselves Riady or Lianto, while the Lims (林) called themselves Salim. In 1961, Malaysia, the government passed the Education Act of 1961. It stated that secondary schools could no longer teach in Mandarin, to receive full government subsidy as national-type schools, Chinese schools had to convert to teaching in English. However, the usage of Bahasa Melayu continued in many educational aspects. The Cambridge School certificate and Higher School Certificate examinations that determined university placing were conducted both in English and in Bahasa Melayu, but not the other languages. In 1938, Phibun Songkhram, an army veteran took power in Thailand (then called Siam). One of the first things the government did was to change the name of the country from ‘Siam’ to ‘Thailand’, sending a clear signal to everyone that Thailand, is the home of the Thai people. Certain professions deemed profitable became exclusive to the Thais. In the Phillipines, many policies crafted by the (primarily Catholic) government situated in the main island of Luzon were advantageous to the Christians/Catholics, but not the Muslims that were the majority in the island of Mindanao. Christian and Catholic farmers were encouraged by the government to move to and settle in the Mindanao region, which was seen by the local Muslims as a form of internal colonisation. Today, the region still sees sporadic violence as the Moro National Liberation Front continues to fight for an independent Mindanao.

Fourthly, the issue of education and meritocracy is one that deserves special mention. As we continue to complain about the differing quality of schools in Singapore. We should recognise that a good universal education is far from common as well. Here in Singapore, we are recognised worldwide for our high standards in education, for producing high-calibre students who go on to top world rankings in mathematics, in science. Those who do not recognise how impressive this is, should remember that we are a small state, with 5 million people, yet the quality of people we churn out are higher than many countries with much more than us. In terms of education in Singapore, yes, some schools are better than others. But the fact remains that every school is a good school.

Lastly, neither is meritocracy a given. We should first see that humans are born selfish. We are biologically engineered to survive in a Darwinian society. In Richard Dawkins’ theory of the ‘selfish gene’, whenever we can, we will want the best to be accorded to those similar to us. Therefore, there is always a tendency for nepotism and cronyism to set in. All these negative traits plague the entire world and Southeast Asia is no different. We take a look at our closest neighbour, Malaysia. The Business-Anti-Corruption-Portal has this to say of Malaysia “policies of awarding huge infrastructure projects to selected Bumiputra companies without open tender and of giving special licences to the same group has encouraged corruption between public officials and domestic and foreign companies.” Sorry, not in our country. The internationally recognised Corruption Perception Index ranked Singapore 7th in the world for being least corrupt. The next best-scoring Southeast Asian country is Malaysia in the 50th position, followed by the Philippines and Thailand in joint 85th. In Singapore, meritocracy in enshrined as a core principle of how society should function. Personally, I am a direct beneficiary of meritocracy in Singapore. My dad did not complete his secondary school education. I am an average student who studied averagely, went on to EM2, then to Bedok South Secondary School, an average neighborhood school. But with hardwork, I was able to do well for my A-Levels in Nanyang Junior College, to be offered scholarships from both NTU and SMU. Without meritocracy and the availability of a good universal education, I would never be who I am today. Today, I can have dreams and aspirations that I can achieve.

I am always flabbergasted by how many of us, myself included (sometimes) take the many luxuries we have for granted. Potable water, a safe and secure environment, a red passport that allows us to go virtually almost everywhere in the world without a visa, good education, good healthcare and a place to call home… It is precisely that we have these, that these seem to be so omnipresent, that they seem to have always been there from the start. But no, that is not the case. We have got to fight for, protect and cherish this.

“We exist only by dint of human endeavour, not by any God-given right. What was created by human endeavour must be maintained by human endeavour.” – Bilahari Kausikan

Indeed, nothing in Singapore is natural. For us, the important lesson is succinctly summed up by Mr Bilahari Kausikan,

“You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade. But let us also recognise that he is a champion grumbler.” – Lee Kuan Yew

So, let us have faith. While there are many alternative voices that wish to be heard. Many of them will appear to be radical, some nonsensical, let us remember that sometimes, we grumble, but deep down at heart, we recognise that unpopular decisions are sometimes the best and only way out for us. The 1.3 million people who had taken time off just to pay their last respects for Mr Lee proves this. The logo of Youth Corps Singapore depicts the Singapore flag wrapping around the globe. Let us continue to serve and do good.

Mr Lee, thank you for everything you have done. The tenacity of your character and strength of your values will continue to inspire us all. This legacy of yours that is Singapore, we will now protect and cherish.

Some countries are born independent. Some countries fought for independence. But we had independence thrust upon us. Some men are born great. Some men fight and struggle to become greater. Some men have greatness thrust upon them.

Thank you Sir, for rising up to the challenge of building Singapore. You are a great man, indubitably, the greatest of men, to have ever led Singapore and beyond. I am proud to be inspired by you, Sir.

28th March 2015,

Li Xiaolong

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