My Life Under Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

I will be frank. Due to the environment that I grew up in during the late 90s and early 2000s, I wasn’t exactly enamoured with Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), Singapore’s first Prime Minister. My father was pretty anti-PAP and I also went to a secondary school that regarded Mr Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected President, as one of our own. In those years, even though Mr Lee had already stepped down as Prime Minister, the public perception was that he still yielded the most power in the Cabinet in his role as Senior Minister.

But my perspective started changing as the years went by. In fact, in university, I picked up the controversial “Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going”. It was the first LKY book that I read from cover to cover and because of the way it was written, it was as though the reader, me, was having a conversation with him.

When I finished the book, I was quite wowed and had to admit that I had to agree with most, if not all of his insights. I was impressed by the man, and started researching more about him and listening to some of his amazing rally speeches available on YouTube. It was then when I truly appreciated him for his contributions to our budding nation.

And below is my first tribute to him, about my life in this Singaporean society that has been built according to his ideals and foresight.

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Meritocracy

I was born to parents who did not even complete their secondary school education. However, my mother, like most Singaporean parents, bought into the idea of meritocracy and believed that if I did well in my studies, I would thrive in this society. Especially at a time when Singapore was well and truly on its way to first world status and good opportunities were abound for talents.

With my mother’s push, I performed well in my PSLE and managed to enter a top secondary school. Even though my family could ill-afford to pay for the exorbitant school fees, I wasn’t penalised. Financial assistance was available and I qualified for it.

Like me, all of my other peers entered the school on merit.

Luckily, I turned out to be rather academically-inclined and I continued to excel in my studies. In fact, I even landed a scholarship that sponsored my undergraduate studies. Besides not having to worry about study loans, my subsistence needs were also taken care of as a sizable annual allowance was provided. Moreover, without the sponsorship, I doubt I would have gone on my overseas exchange.

When I graduated, I was also delighted at the opportunity of a policy role in the civil service. I got to interact with senior civil servants and even DPM himself on numerous occasions, gleaning many nuggets of wisdom from them.

I have lived a quite fortunate life thus far and I sincerely doubt all of the above would have materialized if I had not been born in this meritocratic society, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. For this, I am truly grateful.

Bilingualism

Both my parents were chinese-educated and I grew up conversing in Mandarin with them. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that doing well in English was a problem when I was young. In fact, it was the only subject that I didn’t get an A* in for my PSLE. But I persevered and with more exposure to the language, I gradually improved.

Right now, even though I still can’t say that I have mastered English, I can write decently (hopefully as seen from this blog). Most importantly, it meant that I could enjoy fiction written by the likes of Enid Blyton, Franklin W. Dixon, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell and J.K Rowling in their original language. And of course, Buffett’s annual shareholder letters and many other personal finance and investing books that originate from U.K. or U.S.

And since English is the international language of business and technology, it has opened up overseas job opportunities for young Singaporeans like me and allowed us to embrace computer technology faster than any of our neighbours. This is a priceless advantage in a globalised world.

MOE also forced my generation not to give up on our mother tongue. And in my secondary school, Higher Chinese was compulsory. As a result, my wife and I can easily blend in among Taiwanese when we visit Taiwan, one of our favourite overseas destinations.

There’s also little doubt that my childhood and teenage years wouldn’t be the same if I had not read 葫芦娃, 三国演义 or 金庸’s many sword-fighting novels in their original forms. Not to mention watching local serials like 早安老师 or 双天至尊 and discussing the plots over recess. 

Learning two languages wasn’t easy and it was taxing on our generation. But there’s little doubt that I am reaping the fruits now. Thank you Mr Lee for your wonderful foresight.

Multi-racialism

I will be the first to admit that my network in Singapore isn’t exactly multi-racial. Nonetheless, I am proud to say that one of my closest friends is an Indian, a Gujarati to be precise. Our strong friendship began in my National Service, when both of us happened to be in the same company.

I think most Chinese Singaporeans find it hard to distinguish between a Bangladesh, a Pakistani, a North Indian, Sinhalese or a Tamil. However, knowing him has definitely piqued my interest in the Indian Subcontinent, so much so that I actually took a module to learn about South Asian history in university.

This paid some dividends as during one of my internships, I noticed that a fellow intern was probably not Tamil. I casually checked with her on this and she was impressed with my observation. She revealed that she was an ethnic Bangladeshi.

During my younger days, I was doing quite a bit of tuition and unfortunately, most of them were rather transactional in nature. I gradually stopped keeping in contact after my students had graduated from secondary schools or junior colleges and discontinued the lessons. Largely my fault as a bad habit of mine is putting in minimum effort to forge or maintain friendships.

However, I am really close to this Malay family. I started tutoring the eldest son when he was in Primary 5 (I was 20 then) and saw him through to his O levels. After that, I also tutored his younger brother and now the sister is in Primary 5 and the Mum has asked for my help again after a 4 year hiatus. I am only too happy to help.

Afterall, I learnt much from them over the years.

I still recall the elder brother fasting during one of my tuition lessons in the late afternoon. It was a humid day and the grandma prepared some kuehs and drinks for me. I took a sip  and a bite before realising how insensitive I was, consuming the food and drinks in front of this hungry and thirsty 11 year old boy.

Before I could bring the drink and the plate of kueh to the kitchen, he stopped me, reassuring me that it was alright for me to eat in front of him. Apparently, it helped to strengthen his resolve. I was impressed. The boy had strong faith and discipline from a young age and over time, I also got to learn from him when I asked him to tell me more about the religious classes he was attending at the mosque.

His family was also tremendously kind to me. They bought me gifts like a Casio G-Shock watch during one of my birthdays. I was extremely touched given the act that they weren’t that well-to-do.

When asked about the benefits of a multi-racial society, most Singaporeans would mention about our food paradise. However, I think that’s really over-hyped and perhaps even a little superficial.

For me, it is being exposed to a different way of life and different religions. When I build strong bonds with people from other races and religions, I understand a different culture much better and even learn to appreciate them. This enables me to have an open mind and seriously, there’s no need for me to practise tolerance.

Thanks Mr Lee for making us all live in peace and harmony. This has allowed me to view other races, cultures and religions with untainted glasses and build life-long friendships with those from a different community. 

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Farewell, Mr Lee. Singaporeans by and large are appreciative of your contributions. You have built a strong foundation and it’s now time for the rest of us to build on your legacy. 

I am pretty sure there are many others like me who have benefited from your principles, ideals and foresight. We are forever grateful.

The author is deeply honoured to be part of a team of teachers which led a group of 50 students to pay their last respects to Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Parliament House.  

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    6 thoughts on “My Life Under Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

    1. Richard

      MY 15 HWW : Well written and piece with soul in it. Yes, Mr Lee’s great and foresight vision brought us where we are now… let’s continue to work hard/smart to keep his legacy going…

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi Richard,

        Thanks for your kind comments.

        As long as we take pride in what we do, we shall always be working hard at it.

    2. An9elfire

      Your post reflects my heartfelt thoughts too. I am also a teacher and grew up in similar circumstances like you: low income Chinese family background, did well in PSLE and went to a good secondary school, did CL1 and read many Chinese novels which has influenced my values and thinking, did NS and befriended people with other races etc. Now I work at a decent job, have a high standard of living, and is the envy of many people from around the globe. I know that without LKY, I would have grew up in a different world, and based on what I experienced and saw in other countries in my many travels, I wouldn’t give much chance that I will be as prosperous as I am now. I went to pay my respects over the last week, seen him off on his last journey, cried with many other Singaporeans at our loss and yet, I still felt so inadequate comparatively. Mr LKY’s vision, values and life will long inspire me, and I am so proud to call myself Singaporean.

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi An9elfire,

        Glad that this post resonated with you!

        Many of us have not just harvested fruits from our own labour, but from his too!

    3. Hello tmr

      Im sure your post resonates with many people from a humble background, just like it did with me.

      Have you switched from another ministry(your policy making job you started off with) to MOE and is working as an EO in a school now?

      I’m glad the students 😉

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi Hello tmr,

        Glad that the post resonated with you.

        Yeah, I have switched and thanks for your kind words. Actually, I guess my students can be considered a tad unlucky to be assigned an inexperienced teacher. But I try to make it up with more effort and more consultations. =p