Pride and Prejudice in Modern Singapore

Growing up in the shadow of Lee Kuan Yew.


Ask any Singaporean who grew up in that Southeast Asian city-state in the 1980s what they remember of our public schooling, and you might be surprised at one of the answers: the songs.

From the age of 6, we were taught to memorize them — catchy ditties imbued with life tenets tackling anything from courtesy (“Courtesy is for free / Courtesy is for you and me”) to the importance of being a good civil servant (“There’s a part for everyone, in this land where we belong”).

To this day, I sometimes find myself, to some surprise, humming the tune to Singapore’s “Productivity” song while plugging away at a chore. “Good, better, best — never let it rest / ’Til the good is better, and the better best!”

This may seem innocuous, but it’s something I still bristle at slightly. At the heart of these upbeat messages, the long hand of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and the indelible imprint of his policies and principles on generations of my people are quite evident.

While my country collectively mourns the early Monday, March 23, death of Lee, the father of modern Singapore, I have been watching from afar in New York City, experiencing a bundle of complex emotions.

The effusive tributes from world leaders have been unsurprising. U.S. President Barack Obama called Lee “a true giant of history,” while Britain’s David Cameron noted that, “Lady Thatcher once said that there was no prime minister she admired more than Mr. Lee for ‘the strength of his convictions, the clarity of his views, the directness of his speech and his vision of the way ahead.’”

Within my own family, my mother, who visited Singapore General Hospital last week to say a prayer outside Lee’s ward, has taken to wearing black for seven days, while my father has been reminiscing about listening to Lee’s fiery radio speeches in the 1960s, rallying Singaporeans to band together and fight for survival in our early post-colonial days. “He gave us today and a chance for a better tomorrow,” my father solemnly told me this week.

My parents’ generation’s unwavering adoration for Lee is not as evident among the younger set of Singaporeans, those born after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, who have grown up in an affluent country that provides them with inexpensive health care and comfortable public housing. Yes, we respect him and appreciate the rice on our tables, so to speak, but we also have looked with some envy to the West and have clamored, increasingly, for free speech and a country that has a viable political opposition. During Singapore’s last parliamentary election, in 2011, Lee’s People’s Action Party, which has been dominant in Singapore since he took office in 1959, won 81 out of 87 seats, but it took just over 60 percent of the popular vote, down almost 7 percentage points from 2006.

There’s no denying that without Lee, Singapore might still be a minuscule backwater trading post with no natural resources, dwarfed by its far larger neighbors. And for this I remain immensely grateful. My little country that’s about one-fifth the size of Rhode Island is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It boasts a per capita GDP of more than $55,000, a figure far more than that of countries many times larger, including the United States.

“He made us all think big when we were small,” my father said this week. “We are a small island with, frankly, no reason to succeed as a country, but he made us think big. We watched him go to the United States and deliver fantastic speeches in the house of Congress, go to England and make speeches — we watched him lift Singapore up to the world. And he made us all feel very proud that we could stand on equal terms as any other foreigner. When we were colonials, we were made to feel like nothing. But because of him, we could stand up.”

In the 22 years that I’ve lived in the United States, Lee and his policies have been frequently on my mind — how could they not? All I’ve had to do is mention Singapore to anyone, and I’m asked whether it’s true I can’t chew gum there or how often people get caned. On the one hand, my decision to make a career and life in America was a rebellion against this man — if I was to be a writer and journalist, I wanted to work in a country where freedom of speech is a well-defended right. But at the same time, I’ve spent so many years now in the West explaining the strict laws I grew up with that I’ve occasionally found myself at cocktail parties stopping just short of snapping, “Father knows best!”

My feelings about my native country — where most of my family still resides — are and have always been closely tied to Lee and his regime. It is due to his vision and his laws, after all, that the country is pristine, green, and hyperefficient. So much so that it has sometimes been joked that Singapore is “the world’s best-run company.” (The other side of that coin is writer William Gibson’s once famously calling it a microcosm of conformity, a “Disneyland with the death penalty.”)

I take enormous pride in bragging about our tiger economy, world-class airline, clean streets, and how in many neighborhoods the trees are perfectly spaced, not to mention eternally and impeccably pruned. As a child, even before I knew what a container port was, I was taught to understand that Singapore had one of the best in the world — right behind Rotterdam. And whenever any American parent brings up the importance of Singapore math in a conversation now, I can’t help but smile.

But at the same time, here I sit in New York, far from the country I love, because my lack of ambition in medicine, finance, law, or any other obviously useful career had always led (and still does lead) me to feel like a pariah at home, pushing me ever further away. Although Lee was revered in my childhood house, one in which my father often reminded us of how good we now had it in Singapore because of the man, my parents never pressured me to stick to the national handbook when it came to my career. And so in a family filled with civil servants, medical professionals, and myriad executives for multinational corporations, I am the sole writer. In Singapore at large, I often feel I’m zigging instead of zagging; occasionally, it will still be suggested that I consider taking on a stable job in public relations.

In the late 1960s, in a speech Lee was delivering to Singaporean university students, he famously said, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” And this is a thorn in the sides of many Singaporeans who have dared to poke a toe beyond the well-trod paths laid out for us.

“In Singapore, I felt angrier,” award-winning Singaporean filmmaker, cartoonist, and writer Colin Goh, who is now based in New York City, told me this week. Goh, who created the graphic novel Dim Sum Warriors with his wife, Yen Yen Woo, noted that one possibly unfortunate side effect of the rigidity that our generation of creatives grew up around is that “somewhat to the detriment of our artists, in some ways, all Singaporean art became about [Lee] in some way or another. That doesn’t really help Singapore art.” (Last year, for example, 56 Singaporean poets collaborated on an anthology of poetry inspired by Lee’s quote, titled A Luxury We Cannot Afford.)

I think back, though, to my father’s admiration for Lee and of how in many ways, how much of a parent — a very good parent — Lee has been to Singaporeans.

Without Lee, we simply wouldn’t be where we are. Artists like Goh and I wouldn’t have had the solid education and relative comforts in place that have allowed us to pursue the less usual, for me to have the confidence to travel halfway across the world to be a journalist and write books.

And although we may have felt like we had to push back in order to strike out on these new paths, at the end of the day, perhaps that is yet another gift Lee gave us — the need to rebel against the rules in place, this raging fire in our bellies.


 Twitter: @cheryltan88

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