“Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up,” Lee Kuan Yew stated in a famous speech from 1988. Many of us here at SAS were not even born when he firmly promised those words, but his dedication and resilience still resonates within the foundations of the Singapore we live in today. Although most of us are foreigners living in this country, we have made Singapore our home, and without Lee Kuan Yew’s indomitable will to create this nation, none of us would be here today.
It was 3:18 a.m. on March 23 when Singapore’s Prime Minister for 33 years passed away at the Singapore General Hospital. Fifty years after the formation of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew said his final goodbye to his magnificent creation. Although he is gone, his legacy continues to strengthen our society and proves that his promise from 1988 was not broken.
After Singapore was severed off from Malaysia in 1965, it was a first in that this nation did not want to become independent. Lee Kuan Yew made history that day when he was caught on film shedding tears, believing that he had failed the lives of two million Singaporeans. The country had no water supply, no infrastructure, and no economic strength.
He wiped those tears away and began to chisel the foundations of our home. From ensuring a steady supply of water to handpicking specific trees to plant in his ‘garden state,’ Mr. Lee did not waste a single moment when building this visionary nation, especially when it came to the highly sensitive issues concerning racial tension in Singapore.
From the racial riots in the ‘60s to the cohesive multicultural society we live in today, it is evident that Mr. Lee’s commitment to equality was not forgotten along the way. Only Lee Kuan Yew himself could unite a nation in his life as powerful as in death, as seen when hundreds of thousands of mourning Singaporeans lined up to observe his wake. For four days last week, citizens, permanent residents, and foreigners linedup for miles along various routes leading up into the Parliament House to pay their last respects.
One citizen in line said, “He cried for us, and now we cry for him.” He gave his life for his people and in return, an estimated 415,000 citizens visited him, while a vast number of citizens paid tribute at the various memorial sites situated across the country. Along the route, the heat from the tropical sun did not weaken the spirits of the citizens, some who waited for 10 hours to reach the end of the line. But Singaporeans knew that complaining from a little heat was nothing compared to the trials that Mr. Lee faced for his people.
Although Lee Kuan Yew was a hero domestically, he was also an inspiration in the international scene. Dignitaries from the US, Japan, India, Australia, Israel, Indonesia and many more came to bid their last farewell to this great man. India’s PM Narendra Modi even declared a national day of mourning in his country for Mr. Lee.
From being the savior of Singapore and a beacon of motivation for other nations, this great man almost seemed as if he was a world apart from us here at SAS. However, during our 50th anniversary in 2006, Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor at that time, was invited to the campus and gave a speech noting his grandson’s attendance at SAS. “He joined the American school and your school had the teachers to cope with his dyslexia and the process restored his self-esteem and his self-confidence, and he’s done well.” Mr. Lee’s versatility was proven again when he allowed his grandson to study at SAS.
I was only a 3rd grader when Mr. Lee visited SAS and I had very little recollection of such a momentous event for SAS, but it was only within these past few days I felt a true connection with the great man himself as I observed his procession and remembered his great virtues. As rain started to pour from the darkened skies, the nation was covered in sadness, but soon after, the clouds lifted and sun shined bright through the sky. At this moment I realized that even though I never met this man, he genuinely cherished every one of us here in Singapore. As he once said, “At the end of the day, what I cherish most are the human relationships.” This simple compassion is what turned a great man into an unforgettable legend.