Young MFA officer who staffed MM Lee Kuan Yew during trip to M'sia shares what she learnt

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | March 23, 2020, 03:20 PM

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2017 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 52 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.

"35" is an essay contributed by Genevieve Ding, a Lean In Singapore co-founder, core-leader of the Beautiful People mentoring programme for girls from abuse shelters, and grassroots leader in Tampines West.

Ding's essay is reproduced in full here:

By Genevieve Ding

I was a young Foreign Service Officer, just about a year into my stint on the Malaysia and Brunei Desk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when I was assigned to staff then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on a trip to Malaysia.

It was June 2009, and Mr Lee’s first trip to our closest neighbour in over 10 years.

It would also, as it turned out, be his last. Coming quick on the heels of Barisan Nasional’s and UMNO’s unprecedented General Election losses, the historic eight-day trip spanned Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Penang, Kelantan, and Pahang.

Mr Lee brought along some younger ministers with him on the trip, including then-Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and then-Education Minister Ng Eng Hen, and met with Prime Minister Najib, royalty, ministers and businessmen.

More than its public positioning as a trip down memory lane, it seemed to me that Mr Lee embarked on this punishing multi-state trip to leverage what goodwill or influence he had, and lay the path for the next generation of leadership.

I can only imagine what his emotions and reflections were, on a trip back to a country he had fought so hard to unite with, and which had thrown us out in a moment of public anguish.

MM Lee Kuan Yew: "You think I wasn't afraid? I was afraid. I was 35."

While dining with the small Singaporean delegation one evening, he spoke about Singapore’s early days. How, even after we became independent, Malaysian ground troops continued to operate in Singapore: a foreign army on sovereign soil.

Knowing that Malaysia would be watching closely, he made the decision to roll out our 18 newly acquired AMX-13 light tanks at our National Day Parade in 1969, in what became our first Mobile Column drive-past. More than simply to instill pride and confidence among our people, the move was an outward display to Malaysia that we were playing the long game—even if internally we weren’t quite sure yet whether we would succeed.

They subsequently withdrew their troops, just as he had hoped they would. “You think I wasn’t afraid?” He paused. “I was so afraid. I was 35.”

Hearing Mr Lee relate this and other stories about Singapore’s independence journey was deeply affecting: I had never so starkly understood how easily our fate could have turned, and how tenuous our continued existence was even today.

Leading despite fears, not without

That night, I was shaken to my core.

Having grown up in modern Singapore, where Mr Lee has been a larger-than-life figure for all of my adulthood, it was easy to forget that he became Singapore’s Prime Minister at just 35—an age I am rapidly approaching.

Like any other young person would be in the face of such events, he was afraid, but he also knew that there were hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depended on whether Singapore would survive. And so he pressed on.

Previously, I had always taken as a given that leaders like Mr Lee were of a different breed, that they did not fear what the rest of us so humanly did.

That night, I realised that he was a different sort of man not because he did not fear, but because despite his fears he led our nation to independence—at an age when so many of us today have vastly different dreams.

Malaysia and Singapore were seen as inseparable

Meeting with PAS leaders later on the trip, including some hardliners who had virulently lambasted him in public, Mr Lee said to them, in Malay, “In my mind, I still cannot separate Singapore from Malaysia.”

44 years after our independence, he was still not certain that Singapore’s longer-run sustainability could be assured without merger, and yet he did his best within the circumstances to ensure that Singapore survived.

We travelled on to Penang, a state with a Chinese majority led by the political party DAP, which was formed by members of the de-registered People’s Action Party of Malaysia.

Mr Lee looked intently out the window throughout the drive from the airport to our meeting with Penang’s Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

He observed Penang’s airport, its roads, its buildings. Commenting on the state of its infrastructure, starved of federal funding, he said softly to himself that this could well have been Singapore had we stayed in Malaysia.

The streets leading up to the meeting place were lined with cheering Penangites who had come out in droves to catch a glimpse of him.

Singapore will face different challenges as time passes

Today, Singapore at 52 faces a whole new set of challenges: an ageing population, disruptive technologies, regional competitors snapping at our heels, narrowing geopolitical space, security threats, a changing employment landscape and evolving citizen aspirations.

All this on top of the perennial issues of jobs and the cost of living.

Over the past few months, I have asked Singaporeans about their belief in the longer- term future of Singapore. Few were optimistic. Some are hedging their bets and preparing to move abroad.

Singapore is an aberration, they say; city-states were never meant to last.

Each generation has its own sets of challenges, and none can nor should be easily compared. But I cannot help but remember that trip to Malaysia almost a decade ago, and the fear I glimpsed in a young Mr Lee, at the helm of a nascent nation with a very uncertain future.

It took a special group of lions and the lionhearted to have acted in spite of their fears, and to have pushed ahead not knowing where our country would head. The foundations we are fortunate enough to build on today were laid by dint of the courage, grit and resolve of Mr Lee and our founding generation.

What would have happened to what we call Singapore today should they not have dared? It is anyone’s guess.

So have faith yet, in little Singapore. Never forget that a better future is worth fighting for, even if at times the battle ahead seems daunting and uncertain; even if at times, we fear.

Top photo via AFP, Jonathan Lin via Flickr

If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, “The Birthday Workbook”, that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can view the Workbook issue for this essay here, and sign up for The Birthday Workbook newsletter at