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It’s Not My Moral Duty To Feel Sad At LKY’s Death

// Photo from The Straits Times

I find Singaporeans really superficial at times, and the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew just furthers my observation and opinion.

Maybe it’s the way we had been brought up, or maybe that’s how society has been like for awhile, but it seems as though there is this obligation to be self-righteous and follow the popular opinion on this small little island. It’s as if we’re born with a knee-jerk reaction of hatred when one expresses his stand on a certain matter, a stand that is unpopular, or one that isn’t deemed politically correct.

There are many people who have expressed glee, joy and a myriad of other emotions that lies on a different trajectory from sadness. Emotions that reflect, on a contextual level, negativity. Negativity on his methods, negativity on his reign, negativity on his thinking. And while a few of these are constructive, fellow Singaporeans have come in waves and swarmed these critics with “how dare you”s aplenty. Yes, how does one dare to speak ill of the dead. Yes, how does one dare to even point a finger at his supposed benevolent leadership. And yes, how does one be so cruel, be so inhumane, be so… unappreciative?

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a remarkable man, one who is astute, forward-thinking, and at times, snobbish and obnoxious. He propelled Singapore into first world glory (or second world, given our current long list of social issues), made it into one of the greatest miracles in the modern day, and even made the Central Intelligence Agency pissed their pants. Articles and social media postings on his contributions, together with testimonials on his character, have been so fervent that it has become mildly irritating to chance upon them now. Yes, we get it. He’s a great man, and his efforts to build this slum from the ground up should be recognised and immortalised in the history books. He’s a visionary, he’s a genius, and for that, I respect him. I truly do.

But does that mean I have a moral imperative to feel sad at his passing?

When it comes to the people who considerably impacted on the world, their actions and resulting consequences seem to be peripheral when judging their characters. I’ve had no prior interactions with him, but what about those people whose lives Mr Lee Kuan Yew had destroyed due to ideological differences? Those people who got arrested, who got bankrupted, who got exiled because they stood up for their beliefs, no matter how unpopular they were? Should they be grateful? Should they bask in his achievements and be thankful? Should they appreciate his actions that even the almighty Amnesty International have criticised?

It’s incomprehensible to me how Singaporeans aren’t ready to accept a diverse range of opinions that may not necessarily stroke their self-centred ego and thinking. A period set aside for mourning has instead turned into a social event of sorts, where people try to one up each other to see who thought up the most heartfelt dedication. The instant gratification they receive from their friends prove to be unsatisfactory though, as the vile chastisement of those who dare confront Mr Lee’s questionable ethics soon begins. Their passion and hunger could be put to better use on simple corroboration though, as one would find that he didn’t really transform Singapore from a fishing village into a financial global hub that it is today. It was already a bustling port for quite sometime before Singapore gained independence, but who exactly is this Sir Stamford Raffles anyway?

Lee Kuan Yew set the foundation which allowed Singapore to flourish as a nation, but he was undoubtedly a controversial chap. Indeed he was. It is no secret the levels he stooped to in his pursuit of political domination and deep, personal vendettas. A huge amount of people who chose to forgo the benefit of hindsight lambasted his policies and questioned his actions that were deemed unnecessary by the majority (how ironic). And he wasn’t sorry. He said so himself, that he had no regrets. So why aren’t his victims, or people who don’t agree with him, allowed to exercise their basic human instincts and feel anger? Or relief? Or even happiness?

I myself find it hard to feel sad for Mr Lee. Like I mentioned earlier, I respect him. But on what grounds am I supposed to feel sad for his passing? The previous generations have plenty to be thankful for, that’s understandable, but I was born into his legacy, into something he helped created. So why should I feel sad that I’m a privileged person living in a modern-day miracle he created? Sadness doesn’t determine if someone is indeed appreciative. Respect automatically does; appreciation forms the core of its definition. And more often than not, respect is enough. Anything beyond that is overtly pretentious.

To sum it up, there’s no denying the man was a remarkable person who made this country what it is today. For those who benefitted from his wit and sagacity, good for you. But there’s also no denying he made a handful of controversial decisions that affected his people, some positively, some negatively. We are all humans and as such, making mistakes become inevitable. While you grief and honor the brilliance of our first Prime Minister, show an equal amount of sensitivity to those who didn’t find it in themselves to forgive his vicious actions.

Deep down, you can disagree with their opinions, but allow them to be human, just like the man you admire so much, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

May you rest in peace, Sir.

For those who want to find out more about Mr Lee Kuan Yew, do visit http://leekuanyew.straitstimes.com, where you can find a beautifully designed yet comprehensive and in-depth timeline of his life and contributions to Singapore.

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  1. Ting Yi says

    Beautifully written article, I think you articulated this very well.

    I feel that sometimes people just want to feel like they are in the “in” club. The need for feelings of inclusion and solidarity spurs their readiness to conformity. Though at times, we want to be the lone ranger but we are after all social creatures who crave interaction and sense of belonging.

    • Koji says

      Hi Ting Yi,

      Just as you feel you needed to express your thoughts on how others feel a need to express their feelings, they needed to express their grief, right?

    • Hi Ting Yi! Thanks for your kind words. You yourself put it nicely and succinctly as well, how our craving for approval betray our own beliefs.

  2. Dawn says

    I don’t think anyone else could have put it more articulately – I am glad you wrote about it because for a while, there was an internal struggle within me, I wasn’t sad and looking at everyone around me, I started to wonder if I was a monster!

    Not to mention, when I started to ask people about what they thought about the families of those people who had been “victims” (for lack of a better word of course), or people who have been negatively affected by his policies, I get looks of “OMG how could you, are you ungrateful or what?”. So much so that I have decided to maintain a respectful silence instead.

    I am going to share this on my Facebook post, because you have penned down exactly what I, honestly, feel. Deep respect is very different from outwardly showing grief for the sake of doing so.

    Here’s a thought- at the end of the day, who are we appeasing and who are we doing it for, these extensively public and somewhat excessive show of sadness? Definitely not Mr Lee. Funerals are indeed for the living, not the dead.

    Please, continue writing such honest, insightful commentaries!

    • Koji says

      Hi Dawn,

      Interesting. Why do other’s actions or over-action bother you? I go to church and see folks doing exactly what appears as written in the bible on how Pharisees pray out loud for all to see and hear. However, we leave them be and just be ourselves and pray silently.

      Over time, we need to learn to “live and let live”.

      My guess is that you are very young and in your 20’s. If i guessed it right, i have been there but have since learnt to see things in a different light so that i can live longer.

  3. I can relate to this article

    I was so baffled for the whole of that week watching people cry over him, mere strangers who do not even know the man personally enough to even pass as acquaintance.

    *I originally wanted to do a post similar to this but I couldn’t do it so :| *

    The concept that people have that because that A is a great person, contribute so much to society and now A is dead, so I am supposed to feel sad because without A, I wouldn’t enjoy life today – it just confuses me.

    I guess, gratitude is the better word to describe the scenario. However doesn’t mean because of gratitude then I am oblige to feel sad. I am sorry if I don’t make much sense but sadness is not the way to go.

    Yes a great man just died. Yes without that man, I wouldn’t be here with the comforts. But instead of feeling sad because of the passing of that man, wouldn’t then respect be the better way to go? What do I mean by that: respect in the form of action actions like doing your part as a citizen by not littering (because that man was the gardener of Singapore, he placed importance in keeping the environment healthy etc. annual tree planting day).

    I guess doing such thing is my way of expressing my gratitude but you know what I am already regretting writing such post.


  4. Logen Lanka says

    Agree with your thoughts.

    Now, was I sad at LKY’s passing? Yes, partially. I had mixed emotions about it because I was aware of both his contributions and the less than positive history of how political opponents were (are) treated.

    Like you, I couldn’t understand why the majority of people could not accept opinions (those that were put out respectfully) going against the conventional sentiment without going into a ridiculous tirade of personal attacks.

  5. Huiyilee. says

    Reblogged this on e-journal and commented:
    Thankful I’m not the only one feeling this way. Because of the mass, my speaking of this sadly diminishes significantly.

  6. owen hee says

    “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? …
    It is prideful to judge others’ expressions of sadness as pretentious – and self righteous to judge others the way you have. You have your views about Mr Lee Kuan Yew, others have theirs – it’s presumptuous to judge that others’ expressions of sadness is overdone and amounts to pretentiousness – where is your tolerance of other’s views then – it’s the pot calling the kettle black it would seem.

    • Hi Owen! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! This article was meant for those who a) had made their unfound displeasure known towards the people who had criticised LKY, and b) bandwagon jumping folks. Hope this clarifies.

  7. Hi Biljana,
    Sorry to hear of your experience with totalitarianism – that is tough.

    Hi Lhu,
    Feel free to correct me if i am wrong. Moral duty is based on the values which are imparted by your parents. Your parent are duty bound to guide you first as it should also be your moral duty then to care for your parents when the time comes.

    Well, i will try to give you a few grounds :

    1. Wen Kai is the name of a great Chinese general so based on Chinese values, without a home we will not have a country.
    2. LKY build a home and partook actively in the building of a country. So did the many pioneer generation SIngaporeans (your parents and grandparents included) before us.
    3. Logically, if home is where the heart is, the same then applies to country.
    4. The family in the home next to yours is a fellow Singaporean and we extend kindness and generosity to them and fellow countrymen. We too extend our condolences and show compassion to our fellow neighbours and relatives when they lose a loved one.
    5. We appreciate a neighbour or countrymen who has done good for the neighbourhood or country do we not?
    6. Life is short and unpredictable. Each one of us will lose a loved one in time to come. Such is the nature of human life that we will appreciate genuine gestures of compassion and comfort when our time of need comes to us.

    Perhaps the busy or stressful life in SG cause many to draw a line and forget to show compassion as we set about our busy schedule of duties.

    In the way it is penned, you may not be duty bound to feel sad but depending on your values, it is morally questionable to declare publicly that you do not feel an ounce of compassion for anybody else.

    My guess is that your blog is in reaction to the amazement of the immense outpouring of grief suddenly enveloping the country. However, that is explained by newton’s laws : every action has an equal and opposite reaction but that is physics. The human mind is able to do better than that.

    Whenever i walk past a funeral wake of someone i do not know, i bow my head as a sign of respect to the family members and accord them the calm and serenity they need. We refrain from passing any comments like “oh, there’s a dead person there, too bad for them”.

    On to values, i’d suggest sense and sensibility as you mentioned you respect the man. As such, out of respect, do what is morally right and there is really no need to publicize on social media whether you feel sad or not.

    One irony is that while you feel that some folks are trying to gain the one up on the other via dedications, will you not be seen as seeking to gather blogging mileage with your post?

    This is a period for us to learn more of the history of Singapore, the bad thing called colonialism and how the country navigated through rough waters and what seemed an uphill task. Understand that and reinforcing our value system will help us navigate the next 10 -20 years by which time you could very well be a key player for the country and do us proud.

    • Dawn says

      Hi Koji,

      I read your reply and I felt a need to say some things, though I really mean no offense here, so I apologise now, right from the beginning, if you have taken any.

      1) morality is not totally dependent on what one parents’ have taught one. There are many obvious implications to saying that. Our moral compasses and values are formed through, yes, lessons taught to us by our parents (if we are lucky to have them) but also through our interactions with others, our life experiences (which are unique to each and every one of us), what we have read and absorbed in our academic capacities. And many more factors too. Moral duty is a belief based on our values. Yes, it is most people’s moral duty to care for our parents, but I sincerely don’t get it, what is your point in bringing this up?

      2) I do not think it is right to presume that if one had a Chinese name, one must necessarily subscribe to Chinese values. What are Chinese values for that matter? Last I checked, it was communist and aetheist.

      3) I believe in kindness and compassion and will not hesitate to show my fellow countrymen or just about any human being that. However, not feeling sad at the passing of a great person (I do think Mr Lee was a great leader, and I admire him for his leadership qualities) has got nothing to do with compassion and kindness. I respect that he has lived an illustrious and meaningful life (longer than most) and has done great things for everyone- I will rather celebrate that rather than feel sad at his passing.

      4) I don’t think Wen Kai has judged anyone for feeling sad. He hasn’t publicly announced that he does not feel compassion for others either- so I would like to know where you read that. May I once again point out that the above two are entirely different things. I think all he has done is trying to explain why Singaporeans react this way and why he doesn’t share that sentiment. I don’t see what’s so bad about that regardless of your beliefs or inclinations. In the spirit of Voltaire, please, let us defend to death every individual’s right to state their opinions despite disagreements.

      However I do agree that this is a good time for everyone, not just the young, to explore and get to know our history. You have also stated that you feel there is also no need for anyone at all to declare on social media whether they feel sad or not- so I am assuming that you will take people, who do declare their sadness, to task too, the way you did to Wen Kai. Some consistency is good.

      I do have a lot more to say, but methinks I will end here. Once again, I do not mean any offense, there was just a voice within me that couldn’t be still after reading your reply.

      • Koji says

        Hi Dawn,

        No worries, no offense at all. My post was meant to elicit or provoke some thoughts and even further thoughts – it seems to have done that.

        On the part of taking folks to task for declaration of sadness, let’s be clear that this was a state funeral. Do we take anyone to task for displaying their sadness when they have lost a loved one or feel that they have? The rest of us who do not feel the same way for the deceased would just quietly go about our own lives hence there is really no need to publicly declare that we do not have to feel sad.

        Another reader put the point across most poignantly : Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

        There is no need for a point by point rebuttal, just think around the 2 key words that were used : moral and duty.

        On to values, it’s unfortunate that there is too much western liberal influences especially around “freedom of speech”. I’d like to provoke you to share what you think of someone posting on the net : “oh, Dawn’s loved one has passed away but i cannot understand why she is so sad. Hey everyone, i am not morally bound to feel sad at all and it’s no big deal yah”.

        Well, i’ll leave it at that for now.

  8. Biljana Stojanović says

    Thanks, Lhu, for your insight. I grew up in a country with a history of totalitarianism and idolatry and I can relate to what you are saying. And it is by no means your moral duty to be sad.

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