By Zhen Jie Im

For many Western observers who increasingly distrust politicians, the current outpouring of grief by many Singaporeans over the death of Lee Kuan Yew might seem like an orchestrated event. Yet the truth is that those sentiments of loss are genuinely shared by many Singaporeans – at home and abroad.

For many Singaporeans, Lee is perhaps synonymous with Singapore. To us, the success of Singapore would probably not have occurred without him. We are continuously reminded of the precarious nature on which Singapore’s success is built and that the success of this small city-state ought to be considered an anomaly rather than a fact of history. For most, he is credited with the vision, courage and determination to push through necessary, at times unpopular, policies to develop Singapore from Third World to First. And it is also this that most eulogies have chosen to focus on.

Yet this somewhat misses the point. We perhaps ought to remember that the success of Singapore – as much as it lay with the leadership of Lee and other politicians of the time including S. Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee – was also dependent on a group of individuals who were committed to the idea and the act of building a nation out of nothing. Singapore was after all artificial and hollow prior to independence – a mere geographical locale rather than a nation. To forget the contributions of our own forefathers – our grandparents and our parents – would be a huge mistake. As much as Lee willed our forefathers towards the path of development, Singapore’s success was also dependent on the belief, resoluteness and the sacrifices of our fathers.

From this perspective, the achievement of Singapore is essentially giving sense to the notion of being a Singaporean. It is the construction of an initially hollow concept into something substantive and real that Singaporeans – home and abroad – can hold dear to. Lee, together with our forefathers, took us from Third World to First.

Periods of mourning are also generally times of deep reflections. Perhaps as we mourn his death, we should also remember and celebrate the contributions and successes made by Lee and the ordinary people who reside in this nation. As much as there might not have been a modern Singapore without Lee, it is also probably true that there would be not have been a Singapore without Singaporeans. Nation-building requires the synergy of both, not just one.

Perhaps as we mourn the passing of Lee Kuan Yew who was no doubt of huge importance to the success of the nation, we also owe it to ourselves to build on the existing foundations, deliberate, and take full responsibility for the future of Singapore.

Featured Image Credit: William Cho, Flickr CC. License available here.