Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Father to the Nation, Father to His Children

Growing up as a ’90s kid, I have considered myself more fortunate than most. I have a roof over my head, food on the table, as well as knowledge that should I ever need help, there is always someone whom I can go to.

Some have called us the “strawberry generation”, because our generation, unlike the ones before us, knew no hardship, or deprivation and most importantly, no war. None of this would be possible, if not for a man called Lee Kuan Yew.

This morning, at 3.18 am, Mr Lee passed away after a seven week battle with pneumonia. Even though he has lived a long and meaningful life (all 91 years of it), we have come to associate Mr Lee with Singapore, and a future (and an SG50) without him in it seems bleak and unimaginable. Tributes from all over the world flooded in for the founding father of Singapore. Celebrities, royalties and the man in the street alike mourned the loss of the man, who touched so many and dedicated his life to Singapore.

Besides being like a father figure to a nation of 3.8 million Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) in Singapore, Mr Lee is also the father of three at home, namely eldest and current Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, neuroscientist Lee Wei Ling and chairman of Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) Lee Hsien Yang.

While we all know that he ruled Singapore with an iron fist and an uncompromising attitude, little is known about his private life. In an interview with The Straits Times in 2010, Lee spoke about how his wife, Mrs Lee, was a private person, which is why not much has been revealed about his private life. Not many know about his role as a patriarch, how he brought up his children and the values he taught them.

Photo Credit: Lee Hsien Loong (Facebook)
Photo Credit: Lee Hsien Loong (Facebook)

Love, empathy and kindness

In a 2010 eulogy by Wei Ling for the death of her mother, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, she described how her parents had taught her the importance of treating everyone with empathy and kindness. Said Ms Lee, “Mama’s (and Papa’s) most significant influence on me was to teach me to treat people from all walks of life with the same empathy and kindness. Neither parent taught me in words but by action.”

She gave an example of how Mrs Lee would treat friends of their black and white maids with courtesy and as equals when they came over to visit their home. Even as a child, Wei Ling showed how her parents’ philosophies had influenced her in that she thought nothing of playing with the butler’s children as equals. This is especially important as it shows that Mr Lee truly believed in a multiracial and multicultural society, and he exhibited that not only in the country’s policies, but also in his home.

Self-reliance and non-complacency

I’ve said how many have called my generation, a generation brought up in an age of growth, peace and prosperity, the “strawberry generation”. Our parents had suffered much during their time growing up, and not wanting their children to go through the same ordeal, strove to attend to their children’s every need. This, Mr Lee, said was a huge mistake, as it caused many of us to have a distorted sense of entitlement, and a “world-owes-me-a-living” attitude, a dangerous path to go down, as we start to take things for granted.

He described in a National University of Singapore Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum in 2009 how he had watched his grandchildren grow up much comfortably than my children. He said, “My wife and I made sure that they became self-reliant, and not (think that) somebody would pick up their balls for them. As Prime Minister, I was given a house on Sri Temasek. I took them there one day to play and as Sri Temasek was on the high ground, they were playing with the ball and the ball rolled down.

The butler ran about 15, 16 yards to pick up the ball and bring it back. My wife and I watched and said ‘No’.  If we stayed here, for five years, my children would grow up believing that life is like that. That somebody would always pick up balls for you. We stayed at home, and I think that has been good for them. “

Spare the rod and spoil the child

Mr Lee had strong ideas about the use of corporal punishment, and this showed up in his upbringing and his policies. In his autobiography, Mr Lee spoke of how in the 1930s, he was once caned by the headmaster of Raffles Institution for chronic lateness.

He described his ordeal, talking about how he had “bent over a chair and was given three of the best with my trousers on.” He then goes on to wonder why Western educationists were against corporal punishment, and said that “it did my fellow students and me no harm.”

Interestingly, as a parent, Mr Lee himself never used a cane (in fact, he did not even own one), and left the disciplining to his wife. When he was young, Mr Lee was dragged outside and held by his ears over a well for breaking an expensive jar of brilliantine belonging to his father. Since then, he has turned away from the use of physical force, and prefers instead to use stern rebukes.

Over time, much more will be said about Mr Lee’s contributions to Singapore. Historians and scholars alike will debate upon his many actions, and the man himself will go down into the annals of history as someone who transformed Singapore from the backwaters it was to the vibrant First World country it is now.

However, one thing we must all keep in mind is that although Mr Lee may have reached the end of his long and illustrious chapter in the story of Singapore, another has begun, and in it, we all play a part in ensuring not just the success of SG50, but of many more to come.



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