Mortal, Myth, Monolith

On the Mortal: A Conversation with Too Many Asides

Why do you still hate him?

I would have loved to say that the unthinking asking of the accusatory question was its own answer, but it would both be offensive and incomprehensible. (Though one might suppose that the uncomprehended cannot possibly offend, it pays to remember that this is Singapore.)

My most patient answer to the understated accusation of callousness: It’s an ethical imperative.

Why not? Shrink yourself, come in under the shadow where I am, and let me show you.

He’s dead. Live and let live.

One more clichéd accusation and I will –

Dead? Well, I have never hated the mortal, greying flesh presumably capable of feeling pain and even affection, though I have never liked him either. Who is the mortal? You may think that his love for his wife amongst other well-publicized biographical nuggets, was admirable, but neither of us knew the mortal. But I know too well I did not know.

The Lee Kuan Yew I hate is the one I have been living and continue to live – he is scattered, invisible, overpowering.

The God of Crazy Things

Almost immediately after the death of the mortal, the corpse started to be milked for its use in the inscription of Singapore’s own creation myth into malleable collective memory, grotesque hands tugging at eroded strings of gratitude, regenerating them through the overdrive of the state machinery. The media, flooding with content about Lee the Great, galvanized everyone to renew their vows of awe and indebtedness. Schools teachers, unsurpassed if sometimes helpless agents of state-endorsed morality and conduct, were mobilized to be priests of praise rituals for kids, barely cognizant of death, to express their grief.

The mass bewailing is celebratory – the celebration of one man’s supposed achievement could hardly be distinguished from a celebration of his death. Explosion after explosion of exaltation clothed with standardized signs of grief haunted the city. It was almost as if years of preparation and anticipation had finally found an outlet for expression with the mortal’s mortality now evident. Even schoolchildren, not looking at all saddened, would call him a “hero” when interviewed by a TV station, as though Marvel had recently bought the rights to this fascinating character. Who would have the heart to hate the mortal with its corpse now perversely pilloried from the hospital to the Istana to the Parliament House by unreserved, undeserved praise distorting the freshly lost life ?

No indication of reservations in praising Lee the Great was taken kindly. Opposition politician Low Thia Khiang’s tribute to the mortal was attacked immediately, in uncanny resemblance to the reactions following the death of Lee, was akin to a delayed reflex action finally allowed to take place after prolonged suppression and eager anticipation. None of the devotees would accept that his willingness to pay tribute to a person despite his basic beliefs is a higher show of respect that their worship rituals. As those politicizing Low’s tribute began to accuse him of politicizing his tribute, a bemused observer could have concluded that, deployed properly, death is both a potent pre-election-campaign booster and a childishly brutal pre-emptive strike against political opponents.

If the devotees were a cult, the remains of its designated supreme deity, or perhaps its one and only god, might well be cringing in its grave altar. One could almost picture the corpse getting up one last time just to scoff at the ludicrous actions of the devotees he never asked for. But the corpse, once a man who made no apologies about crushing the opposition, can now only content itself with resting beneath the mass of prickly polyester laurels heaped upon his inert body. Perhaps he did die peacefully, but it would be a miracle if he could be dead peacefully as well.

If the corpse were allowed to remain a few more days, I would not be surprised if selfies with the corpse would be allowed due to popular demand (perhaps for an affordable fee, complete with subsidies for people now known as the pioneer generation), together with celebrity endorsements of Lee Kuan Yew as if it were the latest product of the designer label, PAP, and perhaps a pyramid would even be erected in the Padang for the purpose of housing the Lee mummy for posterity to enjoy. This is, after all, the sort of respect that some were unknowingly demanding – desecration via consecration, violation amidst the insistence on inviolability.

Certainly, high praise for the slippery signifier, Lee Kuan Yew, does not come as a surprise. Everyone know the massive affair the mortal’s death would be. What few would have expected was praise that would morph into a culture of manic mourning that defined non-participants as disrespectful ingrates. It was no praise, no remembrance. On March 23 2015, a deity called Lee Kuan Yew was born and the mortal Lee was soon obliterated by the memory of a manmade deity. A casualty of the very system he had played such a big part in shaping. There was barely any space for the genuinely saddened to mourn when the face of the mortal is turned into a ribboned head to be tattooed and replicated in various forms, a map imprint, a fantasy currency design, a stout logo, totally collapsing the distinction between ostensible tribute and parody. Once iconic, Lee is now a mess of icons in a new temple of rubble.

The mourning, frenzied but ultimately hollow, left me incredulous. But this, too, is not the Lee Kuan Yew I hate. Why hate a fictional character?

Kuan Yew

The Kuan Yew I hate is perhaps more successful than the mortal himself realized and the devotees would ever understand.

This Kuan Yew is too massive to describe, but one could start with the creators of the aforementioned deity — not everyone who appeared saddened by the mortal’s death, but those who appeared saddened as they created a totem for their own pleasure and tried shoving it down every Singaporean throat. (Perhaps this is the pleasure afforded to some by exceedingly successful authoritarianism.)

This Kuan Yew is the unquestioning attitude so many Singaporeans have towards the grand narrative of how the PAP brought about Singapore’s progress (progress has only one definition, apparently), the mass of unthinking people who indulge in their own failure to think as a predisposition to being balanced and moderate, the gratitude imperative that plagues the country and defines dissatisfaction as a failure to appreciate how oppression has benefited Singaporeans (but of course it’s never known as oppression!), the city of sedition-defamation-contempt-sensitivity-allergy-atrophy, the ridiculous degree of state influence that people generally accept as normal even when it involves the most banal activities ranging from top-down orders for SG50 “celebrations” everywhere and anywhere to mandatory mass mourning, the failure to understand that Singapore is perfect for those able to thrive in such a culture and a hell for those who are simply born without the constitution to survive painlessly in Singapore.

How do I hate thee? I can’t even count the ways.

Am I not guilty of deifying Kuan Yew too, in attributing him so much influence? I certainly hope not. The Kuan Yew I hate is neither mortal nor deity. The Kuan Yew I hate was a human leader who had too much power; he is also the lasting effects of this power that can be felt as I write this, as you read this. The Kuan Yew I hate is a mix of the mortal depersonified and the country personified. The Kuan Yew I hate, I wish I could not hate.

Enough of this verbose sacrilege! Enough of this waste of words to justify your loathing! Oppies are always so ungrateful. Haters will always hate! Let’s agree to disagree. Without Lee Kuan Yew, we won’t be here today! (I don’t want to be here.) He’s already dead! (NO!) If you hate it, just leave. You don’t know how lucky you are … I understand your position, but … Given Singapore’s situation, it is necessary … This is not the right time to criticize him. I don’t know why I’m wasting my time commenting … No place is perfect,

See, that is the Kuan Yew I hate. But, perhaps, if you would just be literate –

Forgive me for I’m not blessed to love or fortunate enough to be indifferent.

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22 Responses

  1. How dare you commit blasphemy against Father Lee, whose legendary kindness, hard working determination, selflessness and other god-like virtues are unmatched by any, living or dead. Go and say 1000 Hail Lees now and contemplate on your sins .. self flogging is optional .. and when you are done, remember to vote PAP .. ok?

    • Why vote PAP when Father Lee, responsible for all goodness, is dead?

      • Cargo cult syndrome. by association with a “successful” man, you hope that the party will be equally successful? And if people want more of such “goodness” then they deserve as much of it as they can get …

        • They implicate those who do not want.

          • Yeah, unfortunately, that’s the unpleasant side effect of a democracy, even one that’s a grotesque caricature of it …

            • I don’t think it’s an inevitable side effect of democracy or even that it’s related to democracy here at all. Democracy does not need to result in the tyranny of the majority. And here, it seems more like a result of a love for tyranny.

              • Let’s just call it a system that legitimizes tyranny, whether it be solo or mass 🙂

                • Tyranny is never legitimate. The only difference is that people sometimes embrace it.

                  • Well, they claim legitimacy because the masses voted for them .. and by voting for them, the masses legitimize the tyranny that is imposed on them ..

                    • They can claim whatever they want. lol

                    • That is true. Hence the current media coverage on Father Lee … and with the type of “trusting” citizens, won’t be long before it all becomes gospel truth ..

  2. […] The God of Crazy Things Almost immediately after the death of the mortal, the corpse started to be milked for its use in the inscription of Singapore’s own creation myth into malleable collective memory, grotesque hands tugging at eroded strings of gratitude, regenerating them through the overdrive of the state machinery. The media, flooding with content about Lee the Great, galvanized everyone to renew their vows of awe and indebtedness. Schools teachers, unsurpassed if sometimes helpless agents of state-endorsed morality and conduct, were mobilized to be priests of praise rituals for kids, barely cognizant of death, to express their grief. The mass bewailing is celebratory – the celebration of one man’s supposed achievement could hardly be distinguished from a celebration of his death. Explosion after explosion of exaltation clothed with standardized signs of grief haunted the city. It was almost as if years of preparation and anticipation had finally found an outlet for expression with the mortal’s mortality now evident. Even schoolchildren, not looking at all saddened, would call him a “hero” when interviewed by a TV station, as though Marvel had recently bought the rights to this fascinating character. Who would have the heart to hate the mortal with its corpse now perversely pilloried from the hospital to the Istana to the Parliament House by unreserved, undeserved praise distorting the freshly lost life? No indication of reservations in praising Lee the Great was taken kindly. Opposition politician Low Thia Khiang’s tribute to the mortal was attacked immediately, in uncanny resemblance to the reactions following the death of Lee, was akin to a delayed reflex action finally allowed to take place after prolonged suppression and eager anticipation. None of the devotees would accept that his willingness to pay tribute to a person despite his basic beliefs is a higher show of respect that their worship rituals. As those politicizing Low’s tribute began to accuse him of politicizing his tribute, a bemused observer could have concluded that, deployed properly, death is both a potent pre-election-campaign booster and a childishly brutal pre-emptive strike against political opponents. One could almost picture the corpse getting up one last time just to scoff at the ludicrous actions of the devotees he never asked for… Perhaps he did die peacefully, but it would be a miracle if he could be dead peacefully as well. …perhaps a pyramid would even be erected in the Padang for the purpose of housing the Lee mummy… This is, after all, the sort of respect that some were unknowingly demanding – desecration via consecration, violation amidst the insistence on inviolability. Certainly, high praise for the slippery signifier, Lee Kuan Yew, does not come as a surprise. Everyone know the massive affair the mortal’s death would be. What few would have expected was praise that would morph into a culture of manic mourning that defined non-participants as disrespectful ingrates. It was no praise, no remembrance. On March 23 2015, a deity called Lee Kuan Yew was born and the mortal Lee was soon obliterated by the memory of a manmade deity.  […]

  3. Dear Molly Meek, thanks for your writing. I have same sentiment.

    I can’t pay any tribute to him when I remember what he did in operation cold store. When I think of the current cabinet and policies that he helped to set up (tc, grc,etc). All to ensure the continuity of his party. Yes, he did love Singapore, he did good to Singapore. But, personally, I feel that he loved himself and his party far more than all.

    As for Singaporeans, did he love as digits or people, that I am not sure.

    • I don’t object to people paying tribute if they so happen to believe in the things he definitely has done, but the over-the-top tributes and the reactions against those who do not pay tributes are another matter.

  4. I enjoyed this. You’re not alone on this you know. There are many who feel the same way.

  5. I am awfully sorry. I just came out from the jungle. Could anyone please tell me what day of the month it is?

    Many thanks

    Darkness 2015

  6. Thanks for writing this, MM. I wish I could mute my feed on FB. I would have deleted the account if not for the few friends that I have who steered clear of joining the herd. In some ways, I’m disgusted by how so many of them were either blatantly dismissing the unpopular aspects of the old man’s political reign or took in the seven days’ worth of non-stop propaganda hook, line and sinker without much critical thought.

    There are reasons why the memoirs were written. This is on top of the pre-scripted, recorded and produced content that would run on the radio, TV and press. Teachers were instructed to conduct special lessons to students about him. The old man is aware of all of this and so is his son. The biggest fear he has is losing or having his legacy tainted after his death.

    For all of his rhetoric about Asian values and a purported believer in Confucianism, he fell way short of a leader whom the ancient philosopher would approve.

    “Virtue is more to man than either water or fire. I have seen men die from treading on water and fire, but I have never seen a man die from treading the course of virtue.” – Confucius

    LKY was far from a virtuous leader. He might be a great family man to his wife and kids, but to outsiders and people whom he does not agree with, virtue is the last thing one can describe him.

    • I am with you fully, IrCTP.

      I am just amazed that 1 wk of propaganda can influence the Singaporean masses so much.

      Some even consider switching their votes to the PAP. Not aware that the PAP of old is different from of now. Do the current PAP has the fire , conviction in their bellies ? I am afraid not.

      Anyway, there is only 1 LKY, milk all they can. There is a limit to it.

      All the Best to us, Singaporeans !

      Thanks for all the comments, they are enlightening.

  7. “Will those who reported Yee to the police be appeased or ashamed if they are told that they have managed to scar a person’s life, potentially destroying his future prospects? Will they feel a sense of achievement if they see their fellow Singaporeans, upon witnessing Yee’s predicament, become too intimidated to speak up when their views are not pro-establishment? Again, I can only ask — until asking becomes distressing and alarming too.”

    Perhaps this is exactly what these people hope to achieved?

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