When I was young, I respected him as I would to any adult, especially one who so crucially shaped Singapore the way it is today. Back then, he was still the Prime Minister of Singapore and I remembered fondly the crowds that stood up and cheered loudly for him whenever he arrived on national day parade every year. I must be one of the last batches of people who had him as the Prime Minister of Singapore before he handed it to the next.
Like a teenager, I went through a period of rebelliousness. That is the phase where I learnt and read a lot more things about the kind of ‘fixing’ he did to his political opponents and how he bulldozed his way and imposed his strong obstinate views on things that matters to him, and to us. Hate might be too strong a word to use, but if all the adjectives in the world can be split up into ‘nice’ and ‘not-so-nice’, I would certainly put my relationship with him then under the same category as the latter.
That phase lasted quite a while, until I started working in the society for a few years. You look at the things you rebelled against in the past, and you shrugged. You go to another country and then you look at your own country. You noticed things that are bad in your own, but there are things that did go right too. In the end, are there more rights than wrongs? At the time when it matters, would anybody who is made of lesser stuff be able to achieve what we had for the past 50 years? Nobody can answer that, but I believe he did what he could at that point in time to ensure that we survive. Philosophy can wait till the war is over. Until then, a strong leadership using more sticks than carrots will have to do.
I started to forgive him. He did his best and nobody could have asked for more. When rumors of his many ‘deaths’ circulated around in social media in recent years, I thought to myself that they should just leave him alone. When his wife left, I didn’t see a politician out to dictate his views on everyone. What I saw was a father, a grandfather and a lonely husband, something everyone can certainly relate to.
In life, he is feared. Oh, how greatly he is feared! It's his intense stare, or maybe it's his no nonsense way of cutting to the heart of any problems that sends the shivers up anybody who dares to face him. He cares not for any public opinion and will gladly be the lone voice of truth, even if it’s his own version of truth.
And in death, he is loved. Oh, how deeply he is loved! It’s his soft touch on anything pertaining to Singapore, even if it’s a trash that floats down the river. It’s his Red Box that is filled with all the necessary documents and observations he had made, marking the start and the end of each day with his country in his thoughts.
Why couldn’t all these human side of him be shown earlier? That would soften his harsh image tremendously. But perhaps this is not what he wants after all. With his boxing gloves ever ready, he would gladly step onto the ring to take on whoever dares to fight Singapore. Maybe, that is how he wants to be remembered as – a fighter who fights for his beliefs.
Like I’ve said, it’s not always a smooth relationship. Like a kid, you love your parents, and then rebel against them and hate them, before growing up to forgive them because you know that they tried their best in their own circumstances that you might never understand. And finally, you came to love your parents and you remember them for all the good things that they had done for you.
All the juicy bits of a roasted chicken that they insisted you eat because they prefer to eat the bonier parts. All the last piece of each year’s log cake that they insisted you take because they were too full. All the understanding and forgiving they had shown you, even when you broke their favorite vase and forgot their birthdays.
All the things we took for granted.
Sleep well, Ah Gong, and thank you for taking care of us when we’re too young to understand what’s at stake.