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An Extraordinary Life: Lee Kuan Yew

Let's celebrate not just Mr Lee's life but the achievements of that amazing generation of Singaporean pioneers.

Mothership | September 15, 2013 @ 03:59 pm

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Written By Devadas Krishnadas

Mr Lee Kuan Yew is 90 today. His is a storied life. Having come into office as Prime Minister at the young age of 35, he has enjoyed nearly 60 years of national prominence. He has out lasted his contemporaries, his rivals, his enemies and even most of his friends and loved ones. Yet, he continues on – his body decaying but not his mind, flogged on by a spirit unrelenting. It is not an overstatement to say that Mr Lee is a fully-fledged member of The Great Man Club or GMC.

 

The Great Man Club
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All Singaporeans acknowledge Mr Lee’s strengths – his intelligence, his boldness, his drive, his unclouded view of reality and his certainty in action.

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The members of the GMC are chorused with hagiographic hymns, bathed in the light of rose-tinted foot lights and caressed by the soft pillow of their own voice of history. Often this happens because people are ignorant of history, and thus careless of the major acts, now compressed by the press of time into mere indents on the unreeling fabric of history. Sometimes, this happens because it is self-serving to do so – to seek borrowed greatness through association and the paying of grand tributes such as posting pictures of oneself in proximity to Mr Lee Kuan Yew accompanied by generous ladling of praise. And sometimes this is done out of kindness – those who know better but choose to let an old man – any future plans increasingly crowded out by present limits and past accomplishments – live his days nourished by the bottomless bowl of self-regard.

 

Yet, none of these motives does sufficient justice to Mr Lee. This is a man who had and has wields on himself the hard bristles of self-criticism held in place by a stiff rod of self-belief. It is only such a man who would continue to push himself each day. Only such a man would keep a keen enough eye to history to measure the pace of his actions against the long march of past into future.

 

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Some will in future years, criticise Mr Lee for his perceived excesses – a unchecked emphasis on meritocracy, a visceral hostility to any who contest him or seemed to him to threaten his life’s project, an acidic contempt for those he perceived weak, an unsettling belief in genetic, cultural and racial determinism.

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All Singaporeans acknowledge Mr Lee’s strengths – his intelligence, his boldness, his drive, his unclouded view of reality and his certainty in action. Some, and perhaps more will in future years, criticise Mr Lee for his perceived excesses – a unchecked emphasis on meritocracy, a visceral hostility to any who contest him or seemed to him to threaten his life’s project, an acidic contempt for those he perceived weak, an unsettling belief in genetic, cultural and racial determinism.

 

Understanding Is the Best Gift

 

Need praise and criticism be self-cancelling? Or are both valid? When it comes to members of GMC, their lives, their passions, their loves and their hates are writ so large that most of us could expend our entire magazine of emotion into just aspects or dimensions of their personalities and leave large areas of the target untouched. And this is unfortunate for to appreciate their place in history we need to avoid placing them on lonely pedestals and instead locate them in a hall of mirrors so we, and they, can see all their sides.

 

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Mr Lee has always acted on his convictions. He worked tirelessly for his nation. He has loved with a quiet passion his wife and family. He was a team player And he acted always with a mind that put nation before self.

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Mr Lee is deserving of both praise and criticism and not one at the expense of the other. When we consider the man for his strengths and his limitations, his constraints and his excesses we do more than justice to the man, we also do justice to our national history. A history that is not, as convention would have it, a unrelenting march of progress, but a narrative about trade-offs and of the sacrifices of many people. Our road of progress was paved by the discipline and industry of a generation. The tarmac bears the outline of ghostly shadows of the forced extinction of entire ways of life which we now romanticise – the idea of a union with Malaya, kampongs, fishing communities, trading hamlets, farming families, the cultural world of dialects and the destruction of physical heritage – the loss of countless buildings from our past, playing fields paved over and the sad exchange of meaningful icons such as the National Library for practical but utterly meaningless road space. These coarse strands are tightly interwoven with the smoother threads of great gain – the uplifting of an entire people, the gifts of education, security and daily succour to every child, the satisfaction in making great strides quickly and a quite pride we all feel when the name of our little country is known everywhere in the wider world.

 

As we wish Mr Lee a happy 90th birthday the most meaningful gift we can give him is not praise but understanding. To know that he has always acted on his convictions – even where some may take issue with them; to appreciate that he worked tirelessly for his nation – even we do not like all that that effort has yielded; that he has loved with a quiet passion his wife and family – even if some choose to be cynical; to recognise that he was at his best when he was a team player – even if they are too often neglected; and to not forget that he acted always with a mind that put nation before self.

 

A National Weave

 

If we do this then we should accept that as with him, our nation is a tableau of better and worse, a tumble of certainties and contradictions, of memories forgotten and new ones created. As the national tapestry continues to be added to, let us not forget that while each of us adds a stitch we will always need, but perhaps not always have the benefit, of great needle workers.

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His birthday is a reason to celebrate not just his life but the achievements of that amazing generation of Singaporean pioneers, of which he had the privilege and distinction of being their leader. By doing so, we celebrate the extraordinary life of not just one man but of a generation.

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Mr Lee’s needles were sharp, long and thick and they hurt but if not for their deliberate and ruthless strokes we would be making do with the cold of less instead of being hot and bothered with the heat of more. It is up to us now how to adjust the thermostat of priorities to find a balance in our current and future trade-offs. That we can is a luxury of choice for which Mr Lee, his team of leaders and our pioneer citizens paid for upfront with their energy, faith and sacrifice. It seems appropriate to see his birthday as a reason to celebrate not just his life but the achievements of that amazing generation of Singaporeans – the pioneers – of which he had the privilege and distinction of being leader. By doing so, we celebrate the extraordinary life of not just one man but of a generation.

 

Devadas Krishnadas is the Managing Director of Future-Moves, a risk consultancy. He is also Editor-at-Large for Mothership.sg.

Top photo from here.

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