I was woken up by my husband who was on his way out for work and he whispered in my ear, ‘Lee Kuan Yew had passed away last night’. It was 23 March, 6.30 in the morning. I murmured a faint ‘oh’ and remained rather composed. I didn’t break down, not hysterically.
I had spent the past week, after receiving news from the Prime Minister Office that Mr Lee was critically ill, preparing for this.
For the past week, I had drifted through most days with a heavy heart. I found myself caught in a battle between my heart and my head. At 91 years old, he had lived a full life and it was only natural that this day would come. It was a stark reminder of mortality, that even the strongest man couldn’t defy death and that time would mercilessly tick on by the second, minute and hour. It won’t stop for anyone, not even for the passing of a great man.
I remember tearing up seeing how frail he looked during the last National Day. I felt compelled to write a letter to him but never got down to doing it. I ended up writing a reflection on National Day.
My short stint overseas had made me appreciate the kind of freedom I grew up with. The kind that involved order and security.
I remember coming home to our house only to find the whole area cordoned off by heavily armed police officers because a gunman had sneaked into our backyard, I remember how I was pick pocketed in the world’s most beautiful city and I remember how we worried about being carjacked in a major city because we got lost and was driving through downtown area past midnight. I wouldn’t have questioned so much on what it meant to be a Singaporean if not for the chance to live oversea.
Most people have written about Mr Lee’s achievements and their gratitude in building up the nation. But reading about how Mr and Mrs Lee brought up their children, it dawned upon me that rearing good kids, like building a nation does not happen by chance. It requires great clarity and conviction by the parents and leader. Mr Lee’s clarity of thought and wisdom cut across all facets of life and I think we could apply his wisdom to parenting.
1. Be fair.
Mr Lee in his fortitude decided to adopt a system of meritocracy that is blind to your skin colour and religion. He stamped out corruption, cronyism and nepotism. He recognised that not all are born equal, but all Singaporeans would be given the same access to healthcare, housing and education. He firmly believed that everyone should be given equal opportunities to succeed based on their talent and willingness to work. The same applied to parenting. Not all our children are born equal and we shouldn’t show favouritism. Instead we should help each of them find their strengths and weaknesses and provide them with equal opportunities to succeed.
2. The common interest is more important than the individual right.
Mr Lee has repeatedly rejected the western notions of the pre-dominance of individual liberties and rights over the rights of the community and society. What we have today in Singapore is a safe and secure society where you can send your children to school without worrying about guns and drugs. We don’t have to worry that the angry driver next to you will pull out a gun and put a bullet in your head neither do we need to worry about walking in the streets late at night. Similarly, in parenting, the interests of the family should come before the interests of any individual member of the family. As parents, we must prioritise making decisions that benefits the family as a whole.
3. Tolerance and mutual respect.
In Mr Lee’s conception, tolerance and mutual respect are ingredients to a harmonious society. In Singapore, the different ethnicities and religions work and play in a common space. Politics along racial and religious lines are prohibited. Like any society, underlying tensions exist. But here, they rarely escalate. Differences are largely recognised, tolerated and sometimes even celebrated. Tolerance and mutual respect are foundations of our society that have provided the environment for the nation to grow and develop without internal strife and conflict. Similarly, families need to be built on the same foundations. It is in an environment of a happy marriage and loving family, where there is mutual respect and tolerance, that children thrive and grow up into emotionally stable and successful adults.
4. A false sense of entitlement is detrimental.
Even in the 60s, Mr and Mrs Lee recognised that giving their children a false sense of entitlement would negatively impact their children. They chose to live at their Oxley Road home instead of Sri Temasek. They didn’t want their children to grow up in a place that is full of butlers and orderlies and get a false sense of life. ‘That, you play with the ball and it is okay, somebody will fetch it back.’ They taught their children that the world did not owe them a living and they must work hard for what they want in life.
This is becoming more challenging in today’s society where materialism and consumerism are prevalent. Children are overly praised and parents are overly indulgent. Children get what they want when they want it and they never learn to see the connection between making an effort and achieving success. They are led to believe that they are entitled to expensive toys, electronic gadgets, expensive holidays and fanciful birthday parties, just being who they are. We all know that the real world doesn’t work this way.
5. Teaching of values.
Even though Mr and Mrs Lee have no short of people who served them round the clock, the teaching of values to their children was never outsourced. Their children treated everyone with equal respect because they were taught not to behave like the Prime Minister’s children. They knew that it was okay if they didn’t top the classes as long as they put in their best. They were taught to turn off water taps completely. And when they left a room, they had to switch off lights and air-conditioners.
Mr Lee was meticulous and paid attention to details from an ailing rain tree to floating trash on the Singapore River. He lived simply and was never interested in material things. The children grew up in a humble house with simple furnishing and no shower. Their holidays were simple to nearby places such as Fraser’s Hill and Cameron Highlands.
As parents, it is important to emphasise on the teaching of the right values and even more important to walk the talk. I believe such consistent and disciplined upbringing will eventually shape our children’s characters and later on, influence their priorities in life.
Here’s what other mothers had written about Mr Lee
In memoriam by Lyn
A nation mourns by Angie
We will remember you by Pamela
Farewell, Mr Lee Kuan Yew by yAnn
Thank you note for Mr Lee Kuan Yew by Missus Tay
To Sir, with love by Dorothea
Goodbye and godspeed, Mr Lee by MummyBean
Thank you Mr Lee by Ai
A review of MM Lee’s Memoirs by Becky
Learning from the Lees by Adora
Your legacy will live on by Susan