|Image Source: Alex Yam, 2015|
There has been commentary expressing surprise at why many Singaporeans are grieving so visibly and in several instances, unselfishly, at the passing of our former Prime Minister, and founding father, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Is human identity ever a simple concept, let alone national identity? Singaporeans are a highly hybridized and still hybridizing people. We grieve the loss of the past, the pain of the present, the perplexity of the future, and more that we don't understand or can't even articulate.
Mr Lee connects me to my entire life, one that I negotiate every waking minute at the intersection of cultures. He reminds me of what my parents went through during the Japanese Occupation, starved, frightened children, their education disrupted and how they forged a life for our family despite their lack of resources; what life was like for me and my generation, including walking to schools in nearby kampong areas; not having many toys and art/dance/sports classes that wealthy families could provide for their children. We worked hard and learned to be adaptable, resourceful and not have a sense of entitlement. Many of my peers had the opportunities to excel and become who we are today (right, Mr Steven Cher? Meileng Koh Margaret Tay Lina Wee Eng Lin Koh ). In America, many Chinese people approach me and don't understand why I don't speak Mandarin first, but choose to speak English, and with ease. "汉人不讲普通话?" [FYI, who is Han Chinese? The term has no meaning to me.] "So you can speak English, AND Mandarin, AND Cantonese, AND...?" I thank Mr Lee for his foresight in crafting the bilingualism policy and the education system. It is competitive and far from perfect. But multi-lingualism has empowered me to access resources mono-lingual speakers are unable to access. Yes, there were a few years where we had to also learn Malay, and our national anthem is in Malay too. I look back on those days with fondness. It wasn't difficult to learn languages when we were younger.
Before I came to America, I had not paid attention to racial disharmony, and had not thought of race as a big issue, because I had friends of every race in Singapore. We spoke English as the bridge language and public signs were posted in 4 languages. (Did I live in a bubble? I don't think so.) Still, some who have heard of Singapore don't think of our racial harmony, instead of the "anti-chewing gum" nation. Like Joyce Hooi, I will say, "Enough. Go find out more before you pass judgment on us and our value system. Don't impose your standards for your country on ours, which is another place, another country, another circumstance. You don't live here."
After Lee Kuan Yew died, The Guardian newspaper devoted an entire article to his policy on chewing gum. Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin' chewing gum. This is like being complimented on your English. - Joyce Hooi, Business Time, Singapore.
Seven days is not enough to mourn a lifetime of dedication to Singapore. I am grateful for what you have done for us, Mr Lee. The Confucian ethics (儒家思想）you instilled in many of us remain through the years ( Lina Wee, remember how we would 起立，行礼，坐下 in every Chinese class?) My parents modeled them in their lives. A reward system based on merit and effort, and not on brown-nosing or the status of my relationship with my employer/supervisor/advisor/[insert name of anyone you report to]. Discipline, respect and uncomplaining at what we were asked to do. Simply, I will say to you, 我会饮水思源，不回忘记你这么辛苦艰难培养的新加坡。As you lay to rest tonight, Singapore time, March 29, I bid farewell to you. Go gently into the good night, Mr. Lee. We will not let anyone knock us down. 谢谢你，一路好走。Kami tidak akan biarkan orang mengetuk kita ke bawah. Majullah, Singapura!