Bowing without kowtowing

Bowing without kowtowing

We still feel the emotional tug of that huge turnout at Parliament House and along Singapore's roads four weeks after our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died.

We still feel it as we talk in the streets and in Parliament about how best to honour him for the long term - should we rename Changi Airport after him, should we have his image on our currency notes and coins?

Years later, burnished by time and by the impassioned retelling of stories about that week of mourning, when the queue looped around Parliament House like a tribute ribbon of black and white, the passing of Mr Lee may take on a transcendental quality.

So perhaps it is good to take a breath, and to remember and respect Mr Lee as a remarkable human, not as an epic concept, a giant among men. This is difficult to do with many hailing him as such, saying that there will never be another like him in their tributes. It is difficult when I actually agree with some of them.

I do want to think that there will never be another one like him because it feels like that. But it is more empowering for our country to hope that from among us, there will be another one like him.

Perhaps holding on to down-to- earth details I heard during the week of national mourning or read of people's thoughts about honouring him will help to ground the emotions.

An online petition to rename Changi Airport to Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) International Airport was submitted to Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew earlier this month with about 12,500 signatures.

While many think it is a respectful and wonderful way to honour him, there are those who disagree. And the down-to-earth detail that I saw is how the latter talk about Mr Lee in a familiar way - saying no, no, name and fame are not his way. They talk about him almost like they know him personally.

In fact, the people who do know him personally say the same. His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said in Parliament last Monday on calls to honour the founding Prime Minister: "Mr Lee made it very clear throughout his life that he did not need and did not want any monument…

Mr Lee was very careful never to allow a personality cult to grow around him, much less to encourage one himself. He was exceptional in this respect among post-colonial leaders and founders of countries. They were larger- than-life figures, and often developed personality cults around themselves, especially if they lasted long in office."

Mr Lee's daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, says as much on this page.

There are those who have reason to hold powerful, negative feelings about Mr Lee, and are uneasy with and even angry with the displays of emotion at his passing. But for many of us, the appreciation of the man does not translate into the deification of him. Surely many of us are too grounded to do that, too independent to look at one person as the be-all and end-all of a nation?

The best leaders leave the team and country stronger than when they first come to them. Strong enough to debate politics and policies among ourselves, strong enough to think about protesting at a public forum.

Those who turned up to pay their last respects, those who are now talking about how to honour Mr Lee, are not one big undifferentiated congregation of devotees.

I remember the mundane moments that did not make headlines - like the people behind me in the queue at Parliament House talking earnestly about where to get a good bak chor mee breakfast after paying their respects. That strong, practical-sounding Singaporean accent can cut through the haze of sadness, like the zing of vinegar in a bowl of noodles.

It links me back to ordinary reality even as I remember an extraordinary reality of queueing at 2am with what felt like the rest of Singapore.

A young guy asked the strangers next to him in the queue what the end of an era meant for the Government and for younger Singaporeans. Animated discussion followed.

The talk led to the challenge of making a decent living here. A woman, wielding a spray of flowers, told the guy how he could earn a five-figure monthly pay as a vacuum-cleaner seller, only to be chided by her friend, who said that he should get a decent job instead. "You mean that's not a decent job, meh?" More animated discussion.

Politics, bread and butter, class status, bak chor mee. If you listened a little more closely to the people in the queue, you might have heard a lively Singapore thinking about the future in a down-to-earth way, not a backward-gazing crowd with a so-called herd mentality.

The mourning - and now, thoughts about the honouring - of Mr Lee are not necessarily signs of weak-mindedness; for me, they are about taking a personal moment to thank someone, then it is back to business afterwards.

It is possible to respect and honour Mr Lee from a position of relative strength.

It is possible to walk past the coffin bowing without kowtowing.

This article was first published on Apr 19, 2015.
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