by Zafar Anjum
On the 29th of March, the day Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was to be cremated after lying in state for a few days at Singapore’s Parliament House, I was on a flight crossing the Pacific. The flight attendant had given me a fat issue of The Straits Times (ST), Singapore’s newspaper of record, that presented memories of many Singaporeans whose lives had changed—immensely for the better—due to what Lee Kuan Yew had done for them. One of the writers of those memories was Patrick Daniel, the editor-in-chief of ST.
In his tribute, Patrick said that he had been a beneficiary of the Singapore system of meritocracy and multiculturalism. In one generation, Singapore had covered the long distance from poor mudflats to a first world nation status—a transition that many countries take centuries to achieve, and a mere pipe dream for a majority of nations. Patrick had, for example, moved from a humble wooden house to owning a piece of landed property in a coveted area in Singapore, worth several million dollars, in his own lifetime. He had risen through the ranks and had become a top editor in a short span of time in the world of Singaporean journalism.
There were many more examples of Singaporeans, who, like Patrick, had come from humble backgrounds—the sons and daughters of hawkers or low wage earners, earning scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge Universities and inserting themselves into the elite ranks of a newly formed nation.
The night before I had left—the last night of paying respects to the founding father of Singapore—I had seen tears streaming down my wife’s cheeks while we paid our respects to the great man in a community centre near our home in Toa Payoh. We have been living in Singapore for over a decade now, and we had our daughter born in this country. Soon after our arrival, we became permanent residents of Singapore, a country that we began to love as our own motherland. Lee Kuan Yew was a big reason for that, because we could see and experience with our own eyes how this country functioned, setting examples for countries in the region that were nothing more than functioning anarchies.
Soon after we arrived in Singapore, we saw how the country took care of its citizens—there were no slums, every citizen had a roof over his or her head, employments rates were high, education was almost free, healthcare facilities were world-class, and crime was low. There were no race riots or communal conflicts, the worst kind of violence that I detested in the societies that I came from. Above all, what impressed us about Singapore was its solid founding principles in action—the rule of law, zero corruption, multiculturalism and equal opportunities for all its people, irrespective of their race and religion, and meritocracy.
To me, Singapore has achieved a perfect balance between peaceful development and individual freedom. There are some valid criticisms of this model but for decades now, this model has worked and delivered. That was why there was an unprecedented outpouring of national grief when Lee passed away, people queuing up for hours and hours, even overnight, to pay their respect to the great leader. I have not seen the funerals of Gandhi or Nehru or Jinnah but I could get a glimpse of what they might have looked like. I have not seen so much love expressed for a nation’s founding father in my lifetime.
India too mourned when Lee died, and signaled its sorrow by flying its tricolour at half-mast. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Singapore to attend the funeral of Lee. That was a noble gesture by Modi. I hope when Modi returned to India, he carried with him some of the principles and practices of Singapore as lessons from a tiny but proud city state: how to take care of your citizens, how to integrate your minorities without denying them their rights, without denying them safety of their lives, with opportunities to flourish, with the rule of law and multiculturalism in place. If Modi can show that he has imbibed these principles and he can put them into practice, that will be the true test of his homage. He would also truly win Lee’s respect if he did that.
As for Singapore, the country must continue to re-invent itself with a decisive leadership at the top, without compromising on its core principles. If left unguarded, harsh winds of change will cause this beautiful flower to disintegrate and wither, like many in the past.
Zafar Anjum is the editor-in-chief of Kitaab. He is the author of many books, the most recently of Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Random House), and Startup Capitals: Discovering the Hotspots of Global Innovation (Random House).