Bertha Henson: Rest In Peace Lee Kuan Yew

And so it’s happened…he’s gone.

That’s the news Singapore will wake up to this morning. Mr Lee Kuan Yew died at 3.18am. He was 91.

I’m looking at the PMO website done up in black. At other times, I might have appreciated the artistic effort. Instead, I just feel terrible. It was my mother who rang me at 5am to give me the news – when I was in the middle of brushing my teeth. She was already awake and had turned on the television. She sounded terrible too.

I’ve been wondering what I would feel when the “wait’’ was finally over. Now I know. It’s like a kind of choked-up release of emotions.

We’ve all been keeping some kind of death watch haven’t we, although there were those who thought a recovery was possible. I had been wondering how his family felt having to talk to well-wishers and the well-meaning as they made their way into the hospital ward these past few days. If it were me, I would like to be left alone and not have to pose for wefies…

But this was not just any old man, but Singapore’s grand old man. People read every word of every PMO statement about Mr Lee’s condition. They wished for more info, and wondered if he was conscious or not. And whether being on a mechanical ventilator is the same as being on life-support. People asked why his family didn’t just pull the plug on him and stop any pain he might be feeling. People prayed for a miracle recovery; they brought flowers, cards. To think that we were once labelled the world’s most unemotional people.

And, of course, some unkind people made stupid jokes.

There was a certain tightness in the air, of a collective breath being held, especially on Wednesday when the country was told his condition had “taken a turn for the worse’’. Then, it was him remaining “critically ill’’ before he “worsened’’ on Saturday and “weakened further’’ on Sunday. Then the final bulletin came while Singapore was sleeping.

I don’t want to think of Mr Lee as lying on a hospital hooked up to some machines. I want to think of him as the man who held the stage, who strode rather than walked and had eyes that bore through you. The media had tried to protect him, declining to publish or broadcast signs of his frailty, such as him seated in a wheelchair. But nobody was fooled. The grand old man was withering away in front of our eyes.

What now?

Life for the rest of us will, of course, go on. We’ll be hearing a lot of “death is inevitable’’ comments by those puzzled or embarrassed by displays of sentiment. Callous young ones will say “but he’s already so old what…’’

I think the older folk will feel a sense of loss. He was the man who would “come out’’ to set things right. Like it or not, they listened and followed. He was a bulldozer, true, but it was so that he could build a house, the Singapore house. They can forgive a lot of things he did, because they too believed in building the Singapore house. After that, we started furnishing the house with better and better things, and started quarreling about what to buy. Now? We want to upgrade but can’t decide what sort of house to move into…

People like my mother are worried. He might not have been on the national stage for years, but we all knew he was around. And if he was around, we’ll be all right, which is how people like my mother think. To think that when he became Senior Minister, Minister Mentor and later, former Prime Minister, she wondered why he just didn’t get out of the way so that his successor and later, his son, can work independently. You know the analogy, the banyan tree under which nothing grows. We forget that it also gives shade.

Some people think that the outpouring of emotion is overdone, and that there were plenty of other people/individuals involved in the establishment of Singapore as a successful city-state. Of course. They are members of the pioneer generation.  And the grand old man was their leader. There is no shame in grieving for a man who gave his life to this country. Yes, he was powerful. Yes, he was autocratic. But he was often more right than wrong. In fact, the qualities that people dislike about him might just be the qualities that brought us to today.

The State, I’m sure, will honour him fully. Obituaries will appear. The media will be full of tributes.  International figures will have some words for him. The citizens? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can summon up a smile today. The best thing we can do now is to wish his family well in their time of grief. And to thank them for sharing him with us while he lived.



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