Lee Kuan Yew: My Founding Father’s Love

[Editor’s note: This article was first published in USA’s Huffington Post (The World Post section) and subsequently picked up by Singapore’s The Straits Times as part of their final commemorative feature after Lee Kuan Yew was laid to rest.]

Modern Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23 2015. He was 91.

Like many Asian fathers, Mr Lee’s was a stern love.

He valued high performers. He didn’t hesitate to take delinquents to task. And his methods were seen by many Westerners as undemocratic.

But I need you to understand that he did love us.

And his passing helped us realize how much we loved him too. Nearly 1.5 million residents, or more than a quarter of the total population, turned up to pay our respects. For a country that prides itself in being stoic, this outpouring of grief caught us all off guard.

Mr Lee left his office of Prime Minister 25 years ago. He lingered on to mentor younger ministers, but his influence was no longer front and center. Why did we feel such sorrow?

In the week of national mourning before his funeral on March 29 2015, I dug deep for answers. I’ve since transmuted my quiet despair into a shared destiny with Mr Lee.

Childlike obedience

As a child in the 1970s, I hung on Mr Lee’s every word. His National Day speeches were breathtaking feats of analysis and oratory. They charted our course for the year ahead, detailing everything from trade union policies to family planning.

What seemed too paternalistic to the West was a soothing North Star to us. We were still reeling from three decades of chaos and self-doubt, thanks to a WWII invasion by the Japanese, bloody race riots, being caught in the global cross hairs between democracy and communism, being separated from a regional federation of countries and hampered when our British colonial masters withdrew their military bases. For a small and vulnerable nation with no natural resources, we were relieved that Mr Lee and his competent team were at the helm.

We didn’t know, much less care, that they weren’t espousing a true Western democracy. Most of us were poor, uneducated and living in slums. They had begun to solve our housing crisis, create jobs and provide universal education. We were grappling with the basic rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and they were delivering big time.

Adolescent rebellion
By 2009, I’d been working for almost 15 years. The education policies Mr Lee installed in the ’70s and ’80s had molded me into an effectively bilingual university graduate. I had an enviable job at a multinational company that had made Singapore its regional headquarters, thanks to Mr Lee’s tax-friendly and open market policies. I traveled for work to Beijing, New York and San Francisco, putting my bilingual skills to good use.

But like any archetypal teenager, I began to challenge my love for my founding father, and for the mindsets that had emerged around me. I felt trapped and physically weakened by the relentless working hours of an economy growing at breakneck speed. Maslow’s next rung, of love and belonging, hadn’t materialized for me. I found little in common with my fellow Singaporeans. I have a gift for questioning, strategizing and reinventing. They were more comfortable accepting, implementing and maintaining the status quo. I ached for more humanity and creativity. They seemed to only be charmed by efficiency and predictability. I loved my country, but it was getting harder to love living and working in it.

Things came to a head after a life-threatening burnout. I decided to soothe my soul and seek my fortunes elsewhere. Mr Lee himself acknowledged that he wanted Singapore to be more like America in its inventiveness and creativeness. And his farsighted foreign policy would facilitate my professional move to America. So I did.

Adult acceptance and grace

Mr Lee’s death sent me into a temporary inner tailspin.

His master plan for Singapore had fed me, clothed me, and equipped me with the skills and gumption to manage multinational teams. What right did I have to expect more from my life than what he’d helped me achieve on home soil? Could I justify the urge to express my creativity and entrepreneurship so far from home? Was I any less of a patriotic and dutiful daughter for leaving Singapore in an existential huff?

And after being exposed firsthand to America’s democratic process, how should I reconcile it with Singapore’s different approach?

I consumed the tributes, condolence letters and archival videos of Mr Lee that emerged during the week of mourning. And I began to see the soothing light.

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” — H.W. Longfellow

Mr Lee had a desire for every Singaporean to find their rainbow and ride it. He was a born entrepreneur, and had used that ingenuity to build a nation instead of a company.

The arts did not occur naturally to Mr Lee. When eulogizing his strategist extraordinaire Goh Keng Swee, he revealed it was Dr Goh who convinced him to invest in artistic and creative pursuits for the Singaporean soul.

And because he’d continually had his back to the wall en route to power, it was natural to want to fight every subsequent political threat with what felt like severe measures to many of us.

Mr Lee was brilliant enough to grasp democratic ideals. He was also practical enough to see why it couldn’t be applied in toto at the start, not when we were a nation divided, not when he had such grand plans for us. Before his passing, I hope he became meditative enough to make peace with decisions he may have regretted while pursuing our collective safety & prosperity.

Our week of national mourning helped me walk a mile in Mr Lee’s shoes. My adolescent angst about his exactness morphed into an adult acceptance of who he was, how his battles had shaped him and why he couldn’t give me some of the things I yearned for on my own rainbow ride.

And I see now that I’m very much my founding father’s daughter. I share his entrepreneurship, boldness, love for strategy and global citizenship, devotion to family and country, and passion for excellence. He’s the role model I didn’t know I’d emulated, the pillar of strength that I didn’t think I’d mourn.

Thank you, dear father. May your rest be peaceful, and may your abiding love for us shine on in our deeds.


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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a peaceful leadership advocate, spiritual biographer and soul guide, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 inspired self-reinventions. She is a global leadership veteran, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

1 comment

Excellent, insightful piece, Maya! Having just spent 10 days in Singapore this summer, I found your perspective especially keen. I learned a lot about SG’s founding father, and the parallels with your life are quite remarkable. Thanks for helping me understand not only the Lee Kuan Yew, but also the nation of Singapore, better.

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