Intrigued by Mr Lee's carefree student years

Intrigued by Mr Lee's carefree student years
HIS STORY: Visitors at the exhibition poring over the details of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's life - his ideals, fears and love.

I am an 18-year-old with limited knowledge of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and what he did for this place I call home.

Until recently, he was a distant figure to be admired or feared. My most vivid memory of him was back in Raffles Girls' School when I wrote a pretend speech for him for the 1959 election.

All that changed when I spent three hours on a Wednesday afternoon at the In Memoriam: Lee Kuan Yew exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore.

It features never-seen-before photos and artefacts, along with audio recordings of his speeches over the years.

What I learnt left a deep impression on me.

There was the fiery conviction that Mr Lee displayed as he campaigned for "Merdeka" (Malay for independence) in the 1960s, then the slower, more measured speaking voice we associate him with later in life.

To me, it shows how the years of public life had taken a toll on him, and how much he had given to his vision of a "successful Singapore".

But I was most intrigued by the section on his formative years.

The pictures were of his carefree schoolboy days reading by the river, standing with his classmates and with the woman who would become Mrs Lee.

These were photos any teenager could relate to. Shots that could well have been found on social media feeds if they were taken today.

Until then, my picture of Mr Lee had been that of a wise old man.

But he was young once too.

I learnt that he did not choose politics, but the Japanese Occupation made him realise that Singaporeans could not leave the governance of the nation to other forces.

"We, the people of Singapore, have decided to run the affairs of Singapore," he declared in one recording.

When it mattered, he made the choice.

He could have had a comfortable life as a Cambridge-educated lawyer, and left the duty of national-building to someone else. Yet, he had the courage to carry through his convictions.

In one part of the exhibition, there was a rosewood rostrum, standing poignantly empty. Mr Lee had used it for his National Day Rally speeches in the 1970s.

It was this sight that brought home again the feeling that he was a real person with his own set of trials and burdens. Listening to his speeches being played from beyond the rostrum, I felt his physical absence.

Walking out afterwards, I realised the challenges I face as a young person have become less daunting. As a student going to university later in the year, I worry about whether I will be able to do well in school and do my parents and teachers proud.

If anything, this was a chance to learn for myself the story of the man, instead of relying on my preconceived notions. And my will to face the difficulties with courage and conviction has multiplied.

Young people like me are not ordinarily fond of museums. But this was someone's life and the story of how he gave it up for his country and countrymen.


This article was first published on March 29, 2015.
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