March 30, 2015

Seven days after Mr Lee Kuan Yew's passing

I have been wearing black all week. This post was drafted on the third day since Mr Lee Kuan Yew's passing on the early morning hours of the 23rd of March, Monday. 

Truth be told, when news of his passing broke, a little bit of me was disappointed. As a product of his governance, I always thought he would live forever - realistically, of course, he was only human, like the rest of us, and he was unwell for a long time. It would have been unfair to him to suffer any longer for us to hold up the illusion that he was immortal.

I was enrolled into the government-owned PAP kindergarten as my first school, and we said the pledge and sang the national anthem every single day before classes started. We all wore blue and white uniforms to class, we had bilingual classes, and in every class, whether we were Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian or Caucasian - we ate together, napped together, played together and learned together. This was also - since we then owned a tiny television - when I first saw his face, and heard his name - Mr Lee Kuan Yew. 

He was dressed in white, arms clasped behind him as he smiled into the crowd. I was instinctively afraid of him, he reminded me of my grandfather - unrelentingly strict, observant eyes, dissecting your every choice, making you feel small without even speaking.

I was only a child then, but I knew he was a powerful man. His voice was unwavering as he railed into the microphone - Singapore would not succumb, Singapore was not just an island, we would show them - all these bullies from across our borders and the seas. He snarked at the Opposition, he scoffed at silly journalists, he issued stern warnings to countries who thought they could blackmail us with their resources, he even threw out officials. Obey our rules, he warned, Obey our rules because the penalty of breaking the Singapore law will not be easy or be lifted for anyone. Law-breakers local and foreign alike were punished, he ignored calls from their countries to spare them.

His son soon stepped up - a smiling, bemused man, so unlike his father in temperament. He was gentler, less fearsome, but applied the same rules. Mr Lee and Mr Lee, the news whispered.

Years later, after finishing school in two private missionary schools (both of which made my life absolute hell with their religion and rules), I would move to Australia for university. I was then angry at him and his son - I had firmly believed that his education system had left me behind. I later learned, this was not a problem with the education system - it was me. I learned this the hard way. I never made this mistake again and studied hard, earning my university degree.

I also learned, when I was away, how important my nationality was to me. I'm a Singaporean, my mind whispered to me, when racists called me a chink as they drove by me. I'm a Singaporean, my mind screamed, as someone remarks that my English is pretty good for a Chinese person.

"I'm a Singaporean", I finally said, voice as unwavering as the one I heard years ago - and I answered their questions. Yes, we are bilingual, or more, since childhood. I study hard because my education system has showed me what will become of me if I slack off. And YES, yes i follow the rules and give you the illusion of obedience - I know what happens if I don't. No, that doesn't mean I don't know how to defend myself. "I'm a Singaporean, you don't even know where that is, scumbag!" I would yell at blubbering racists who failed their Geography.

I heard his name again when I returned to Singapore for my university break. He had lost his wife, and the nation wept with him. I saw him again - albeit on a bigger television screen - he was thin, his white shirt now hung loose on his frame, eyes sunken and a wisp of white hair atop his head. He was still an imposing figure, but I smiled when I saw him smile - I chuckled when I saw his photo with an enthusiastic member of Parliament, I laughed when I saw him dismiss an irrelevant question from a student who tried to pry into his private life.

Elections came and went, the PAP resumed their triumphs. People became more unhappy, more disrespectful. The Opposition party didn't win, they gained seats but they still didn't win. People rallied, they spat out theories and rumours of foul play. 

Remember where you came from, my mind stated to me as I swiped my passport through customs en route to Perth once again. Don't forget your home

More than once, I had considered leaving permanently. I could make Australia my home - I could make anywhere my home. All I needed to go was save up enough and give up my Singaporean status. I would be able to be free, not have to worry about not the rules, not care about not being able to own a car or a house.

I could not bring myself to. Year after year, my mind whispers, We need to go home. Home isn't here.

At the end of 2013, I returned to Singapore. Mr Lee was unwell, again, the news reported, he isn't going to last, some people murmured. People became bolder, they spoke out more, they railed against the Lee family, against the government, against every policy and every foreigner. Singapore is overcrowded, seethed the Singaporeans, Singapore was too expensive, too small, too big, we don't have enough, they don't have enough. Mr Lee Kuan Yew garnered a lot more flack, he was criticised, cursed and laughed at. It's his fault, they stated, it's his fault we can't do this or have that, that I don't have enough, that I can't have enough.

They made fun of him when he couldn't stand without assistance, and even laughed when he was hospitalised. They declared him a liability, that he was getting what he deserved for ruining Singapore.

He was hospitalised for the last time, in February of this year, 2015. 

He did not get to spend Chinese New Year with his family. His son, too, was also hospitalised for surgery. People became vicious - they wished for their deaths. I became angry, but not at them, but for them. I never agreed wholeheartedly to either side of the argument, but I became so mad when it came to wishing them an earlier or more painful death, when people stated their deaths would bring that freedom they finally wanted, even a public holiday.

Pneumonia - that was what took him. 

He was 91 - an impressive age for anyone. Even in death, he would show the world what Singapore was about. Internationally, politicians and companies mourned for him. Walt Disney, American presidents, even North Korea expressed their condolences towards us. People queued for over eight hours to pay their last respects to his closed coffin. Companies made distasteful products, rectified this with donations and giving out supplies at the never ending line. Umbrellas, personal donations, supplies of food, water, shade, all poured into the queue which started and ended in tears.The amount of pain Singapore felt was staggering - even I did not expect it.

Many discussions, overseas and local, were had regarding the onslaught of sympathy and grief, but herd mentality or not, sincere or not, we sent a clear message to the world: Don't fuck with us.

It's too late to think about what could have been. Instead, all I have left, is a few of his books, and my amazing passport, my pink Identification Card, my weird half-and-half accent - declaring me a citizen of this island. This place is my home, and it took his entire life to bring it to this point.

We don't have him anymore. The rest is now up to us.

I don't need to know what the critics will say. He's a ruler, not a leader. People suffered under him - thrown in jail for no reason or trial because they offended him, we couldn't chew gum, there is no freedom of press, rules rules rules, the death sentence is too harsh, caning is not humane, he is ruling Singapore with an iron fist.

Fuck you, my mind supplied. You want all that gone? What are you willing to give up? Your safety when you're walking home at 4am in the morning from Zouk? How about giving up your right to one of the top healthcare services in the world? Or how about taking public transport and not knowing when you'll get blown to fucking pieces? How about living in a society where you don't know if your neighbour is dealing crack or murdering prostitutes? Or maybe you would prefer to live in a society where there are so many political differences that a coup can happen anytime and you will get taken from your home, or your children will be killed on their way to school, if they even have access to education? How about that one? You tell me what you are willing to trade in for the security and quality of life we get in this nation. Boo fucking hoo, death sentences are inhumane and our society is based on strict laws and fines, and everything is expensive.

We are a civilised society, not perfect but we are a goddamned first-world country. Did you do that while you were busy talking shit out of your ass about every indignity and every injustice you think you suffered under their 'regime'? They got criticised every step of the way and they still got shit done, look at yourself whining and expecting the world to stop turning for you.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew is already gone. At least spare his resting soul the pain of your stupidity. 

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