A eulogy has strange powers. It brings the dead back to life as we listen, enthralled by captivating stories about what he did, who he was, and what he aspired towards. For as long as we listened, Mr Lee Kuan Yew lived; time was suspended and we re-lived his life as the founder of a nation, as a statesman, and as a father and husband. But just as surely as all eulogies must end, so must our moment of fantasy.
At the end of each eulogy, there is a farewell and an expression of hope for the future. We say our last goodbyes, for the last time, and dedicate ourselves to honouring the memory of the deceased. And with a finality we cannot express, we acknowledge that it is indeed the end. It is the end.
Mr Lee passed away on Monday, at 3.18am. But yesterday was the day we put him to rest. This time it is final. This time, he really is no more. The rain ceases and the rainbow shines.
Mr Lee is truly gone now, but his legacy lives on, and oh what a legacy it is. For seven days, we were serenaded with stories of his determination, his integrity, his kindness, his steadfastness. We heard the Singapore Story retold, again and again—the story of how one man took a tiny, vulnerable, island-state from the precipice of economic ruin to the heights of prosperity; how he quelled the unruly unions with a firm hand, bringing peace and stability; how he turned ethnic strife into racial harmony; how he gave everyone the opportunity to achieve their ambitions; and how he established an incorruptible government and imbued it with his personal values of frugality and integrity.
Mr Lee was a remarkable visionary, an extraordinary leader, a charming statesman, a wise mentor, a loving husband, and a strict father. And he was also a gardener, a great boss and a fun person to interview. But he was not an icon of modern Singapore and he did not belong in the history books. However, as we close this chapter, a new one is opened. Mr Lee becomes Singapore; now he is a legend.
And so, as with all legends, and like the stuff of history books, Mr Lee’s life will be subjected to scrutiny. The academics will poke and prod, ask who he really was, what he really believed in, and whether he really was who he said he was; and undoubtedly, the ivory-tower priests will carry with them their own intellectual prejudices. The hagiographers will retell his story, replete with the best anecdotes, and without the inconvenient details; and undoubtedly, many a reader will welcome the fascinating story. The revisionists will tinkle with the narratives, question established wisdoms, and keep us all on our toes.
And the politicians will not be left behind. They will fight to reclaim Mr Lee’s story as their own and make him the champion of what they stand for.
The PAP will have a field day using Mr Lee’s story to merge the three narratives: of the nation, of the man and of the party he left behind. The nation will be Mr Lee, and Mr Lee will be the PAP. Just as no nation votes against itself, no nation will vote against the PAP. Thus, the PAP will extol the virtues of Mr Lee’s ideals and point to his accomplishments as evidence; then they will emphasise how much they too stand for those virtues; and then they will make every vote for the PAP, a vote for Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Now, Mr Lee will not be bound to Tanjong Pagar, he will stand for election on the national stage, and he will win a victory for his son.
The opposition will struggle as they contest the truth of Mr Lee’s story. They will have to battle the relentless mainstream media juggernaut as they question the dominant narrative that focuses on Mr Lee’s success and ignores the sacrifices. Ask whether the Barisan Socialis was really going to turn Singapore upside down in 1963, and the headlines will splash back with cries of dirty, sneaky, historical revisionism. Ask whether the PAP should hold fast to Mr Lee’s myth of meritocracy and face charges of foolish, idealistic socialism.
But the opposition will contest the story nonetheless, and they will pit Mr Lee’s own virtues against the new PAP’s leadership. They will say: Mr Lee was a man of the people, but his son has lost touch with the ground. Mr Lee was a true socialist, but his son has left us at the mercy of the rich. Mr Lee picked capable successors on the basis of merit, but his son has filled his Cabinet with his army buddies.
As a result of all this, the pessimist will throw his hands up in the air and call everyone a liar and a revisionist. There is only one Mr Lee, he says. He is either the benevolent founding father or he is the ruthless tyrant; there is no two ways about it. But what if Mr Lee was both? What if it was his ruthlessness and his authoritarian tactics that allowed him to make Singapore what it is today? What if it was precisely because he wanted the best for Singapore that he mistakenly repressed those he saw as enemies of Singapore’s good?
I submit that we cannot fully understand Mr Lee if we do not acknowledge that he was a benevolent dictator, whose benevolence made him a dictator, and who used authoritarian policies to benefit Singapore.
Inherent in this legend, then, is a story of compromise and of sacrifice—sacrifices which Mr Lee himself acknowledged, and said were necessary. And more than that, this is also a story of an imperfect man—a man who was not above making mistakes. Mr Lee said much the same of himself; we would be foolish to deny it.
So we may now start to ask the questions that we have withheld for the past week: Did Mr Lee, in his benevolence make a mistake by being unnecessarily authoritarian? And did Mr Lee, in his authoritarianism make a mistake by not being truly benevolent? Was the benevolent dictator at times merely a dictator? And was he at times capable of being benevolent without being a dictator?
The rain has ceased and we may now look at the rainbow—the man of many colours.