Founders' Memorial should represent the story of the Singapore family

I remember what that morning in 2015 felt like.

Watching Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong break the news on television about his father's death, I was reminded of what it had felt like to learn that my own father had breathed his last a few months before.

I thought back to how it had felt to be awoken at a similar early hour of the morning, to look into the face of the messenger and to understand, before any word was spoken, the reality of loss.

So, that morning, I did share in the sorrow of the moment with other Singaporeans.

But, it wasn't because I connected with the unfolding story only as a citizen. It was because I found my relationship to it through the lens of family.

My father took a casual interest in national issues. As a child, I had a vague impression of the significance behind names like Lee Kuan Yew, Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee from the grown-up coffee shop conversations I got to overhear.

Later, textbooks and newspapers exposed me not just to the names, but the deeds that had founded this country. But, because I had yet to make my own sense of the humanity behind those names and deeds, I felt disconnected with our founding story.

All that changed as I grew older.

The more I heard others share their personal experiences of these individuals from those nation-building years, and the more I ventured into community-building work of my own, the more I discovered my personal stake in Singapore.

In our last 15 years of work at The Thought Collective, we've been exploring how to build stronger, kinder communities from the ground up.

One significant insight we found came from psychologists Marshall and Sara Duke.

The Dukes study resilience in families. They developed a measure called the "Do You Know?" scale, and recorded children's answers to questions like: Do you know something terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

They discovered that the more that children knew about their family history, the stronger their personal agency, self-confidence and capacity to face challenges.

It also turned out that the pattern of the story told by each family mattered.

Some families told their children an ascending narrative with a constant upbeat trend. Some told a descending narrative with a constant depressing trend. But, it was the families that told an oscillating narrative instead - a roller-coaster trajectory of a tale with ups and downs - that consistently produced the most resilient children.

Children brought up with an oscillating narrative accepted highs and lows as part of life and chose to face problems together rather than in silos. Their family stories had also helped them develop a strong "inter-generational self" - an awareness of being part of something larger than themselves.

I have come to believe that nations are really just families writ large. And, nations that wish to endure must pay heed to the stories they choose to tell themselves.

Since 2015, I've been on the Founders' Memorial Committee. We were put together to figure out what kind of memorial would best honour the legacy of our founding Prime Minister as well as the pioneering team that built the nation alongside him.

We were tasked to talk to a broad range of Singaporeans to find out what values embodied by the founders resonated most with them. From there, we had to propose a basic narrative for the memorial that reasonably represented those opinions.

Our focus groups and workshops were to gather perspectives. But, there, we also saw how some people changed their views on the spot after hearing the various sides of things.

This was my own experience too.

I had come on board with my own strong beliefs about the best way to approach this memorial. But, after going through this lengthy process of talking and listening, I've seen some of my views shift.

When we were reviewing Fort Canning Park and Bay East Garden (the two possible site options recommended by the Urban Redevelopment Authority), I supported Fort Canning Park because of its rich historical context. To me, Bay East Garden was a tabula rasa - clean, but meaningless.

It was a site visit to Bay East Garden with two elder committee members, former senior minister of state Sidek Saniff and Ambassador-at-large Gopinath Pillai that changed my mind.

They shared that they really wanted young visitors to the memorial to feel hope. They believed that only a spirit of hope would take Singapore forever forward. And, as they stood in the garden, looking out at the city that they had played their own part in building, they felt hopeful.

Their words were simple, but had gravity. I could now understand the place differently. What I saw as a blank slate, I could also choose to see as they did: a white page for a new generation to find inspiration from the past to write their own next chapter of Singapore's story.

As it turned out, most Singaporeans who came to our focus groups were leaning towards Bay East Garden rather than Fort Canning Park too.

For some, it was about practical reasons like accessibility. For most, it came down to a desire that the memorial would be forward-looking. They hoped for the Memorial to be ever relevant to a new generation: a place that didn't just help us recall personalities of the past but remember the powerful principles that could help us navigate both the present and the future as well.

The engagement process is far from over. Singaporeans can still come and share their opinions on site options and more. We welcome all, because diversity of views matters.

This long process has sometimes felt a bit like trying to get together a huge, extended family to talk. Some of us have never really met. We have differing opinions and contrasting characters. But, when we show up anyway, open to share respectfully and listen equally, it can be an encouraging eye-opener for all.

What is that common oscillating narrative that we must pass down from generation to generation? What are the common values we still hold dear?

We can never be sure in silos. But the answers get clearer the more we get together.

My hope for the Founders' Memorial is that whenever and wherever it does get built, it stands for unity across divides.

Many people referred repeatedly to the National Pledge penned by our founders as still the best representation of the story they wanted Singapore to live out.

In a world of growing divisiveness, this founding story we've been telling ourselves - that we could live "as one united people" - has become more fragile, and yet, more meaningful than ever.

May we find the oscillating journey of our unity to be a story always worthy of our defence.

The writer, a nominated MP, is co-founder of social enterprise The Thought Collective, and a member of the Founders' Memorial Committee. (

This article was first published on Feb 15, 2017.
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