By Augustine Low
Today’s generation knows of Mr Lee as a paternal figure, venerated for his wisdom and remarkable contributions to Singapore. His latest book, One Man’s View Of The World, once again assures us of his undoubted and undiminished intellect.
Reading the book, however, gives me great discomfort. I have long craved for some inkling of his sentiments and frailties because he is, after all, just a man.
But the book, like the others preceding it in recent years, shows Mr Lee to be pragmatic to the core. His pragmatism is so unbending it is chilling. For example, espousing his belief that there is no afterlife, he says:
“I wish I can meet my wife in the hereafter, but I don’t think I will. I just cease to exist just as she has ceased to exist – otherwise the other world would be overpopulated. Is heaven such a large and limitless space that you can keep all the people of the world over the thousands of years past? I have a question mark on that . . . it goes against logic. Supposing we all have life after death, where is that place?”
Yes, logic is all or nothing to Mr Lee, even in the twilight of his years.
Here is a quote which could well serve as a summary of his entire perspective and philosophy:
“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.” – Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 1997, South China Morning Post
I think of Nelson Mandela who is universally beloved, never feared. His life is well documented, so his triumphs and his faults are there for all to see. He has become an everyday hero, a beacon of hope, forgiveness and conciliation.
Mandela is reassuringly human. We cherish and love him – even from afar – because he represents the notion of a greater good.
As a proud Singaporean, I would dearly love to love Mr Lee.
After all that he has done, why is it so difficult – almost impossible even – to connect “beloved” with Mr Lee?
My thoughts turn to a novel which I first read 15 years ago, The Remains Of The Day by the Japanese-born British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel’s narrator, Stevens, is the perfect English butler. Snobbish and humourless, Stevens has devoted his life to the concept of duty and responsibility, hoping to reach the pinnacle of his profession through totally selfless dedication and ruthless suppression of sentiment.
Having made a virtue of stoic dignity, he is proud of his impassive response to his father’s death and his unflinching attention to detail in the face of adversity. There is irony towards the end as the butler unwittingly reveals his pathetic self-deception. Stevens poignantly and belatedly realizes that he has wasted his life in blind service to a man discredited for seeking peace with the Nazis and that he has never discovered the “key to human warmth.”
Logic says that it is just a novel and Stevens is just a fictional character.
Whilst Mr Lee carved his own path and can equally be said to have devoted his life to the concept of duty and responsibility, and certainly reached the pinnacle of leadership, sentiment tells me that fiction mirrors truth and knowing the key to human warmth can mean absolutely everything.