As Singapore gears up to celebrate 50 years of independence in August, my country has never been more beautiful, modern or cohesive. Sadly, on the cusp of our golden jubilee, we also experienced the loss of our founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew on 23 March. Mr Lee’s death made a shocking impact on our national psyche, with nationwide mourning, snaking overnight queues at his public wake, and a tearful send-off as more than 100,000 people weathered a tropical thunderstorm during his state funeral on Sunday, 29 March.
After unprecedented national mourning however, the rain has stopped and the sky is clear. And instead of grief, we look back in gratitude at our late founding father, and pay tribute to three iconic landmarks that he has helped to shape.
I love travelling. But no matter how exotic or exhilarating my adventure, the moment of touchdown at Changi airport is always my favourite. The first thing I do is send a message to my family and friends, and it would invariably be the same one – “I am home”. Yes, those words succinctly encompass how I feel about Changi Airport.
It is difficult to explain why even as a global citizen, Changi Airport elicits that kind of response. It could be partly due to the modern architecture, the comfort of being amongst my people, or the tree-lined boulevards that lead the way home.
Mr Wong Yew Kwan, Singapore’s first Commissioner of Parks and Recreation shared that during a 1978 meeting regarding the development of Changi Airport, Mr Lee gave specific orders for the planting of these trees because “when the first plane lands, [he wanted] people to look at planted vegetation, not rank vegetation.” This has certainly contributed to our airport’s famed beauty. That was Mr Lee’s first gift to me.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
I’ve spoken about Mr Lee’s love for nature, and his care for our environment. And this was of course reflected in our City in a Garden. Our roads are lined with Angsana and rain trees, and our urban jungle is speckled with pockets of green – lush verdant parks, gardens and reservoirs.
Of these, my favourite garden has always been the Singapore Botanic Garden, not just for its heritage trees, and diverse fauna, but also because it was one of the favourite dating spots of my parents’ time. In a sense, it provided the seedlings for many of our families to bloom. This was Mr Lee’s second gift to us.
This week, a new orchid hybrid was created by NParks in honour of our ‘chief gardener’. Fondly named Aranda Lee Kuan Yew, it joins Vanda Kwa Geok Choo, the orchid hybrid created in honour of his wife. Both orchids are now an everlasting part of Singapore’s fauna and may be seen at the tribute site at Singapore Botanic Garden.
The Singapore River
My city never sleeps. So even on long pensive nights, it is rarely dark enough to behold the celestial universe. But we have our own stars – the thousand iridescent lights reflected in the Singapore River.
The Singapore River was not always this beautiful. Like many developing countries, it was a trash dump with a particularly pungent stench. How Mr Lee cared for it went beyond the development blueprint. And this is best revealed by an anecdote shared by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.
“In 2010, Mr Lee was hospitalised… for a chest infection. While he was in the hospital, Mrs Lee passed away. As soon as he could, he left the hospital to attend the wake at Sri Temasek. At the end of the night, he was under doctor’s orders to return to the hospital. But he asked his security team if they could take him to the Singapore River instead. It was late in the night, and Mr Lee was in mourning. His security team hastened to give a bereaved husband a quiet moment to himself.
As Mr Lee walked slowly along the banks of the Singapore River, the way he and Mrs Lee sometimes did when she was still alive, he paused. He beckoned a security officer over. Then he pointed out some trash floating on the river, and asked, “Can you take a photo of that? I’ll tell my PPS what to do about it tomorrow. I can guess that Mr Lee probably had some feedback on keeping the Singapore River clean.”
That was his third gift to us. And even while recovering from an illness, and losing his life partner, his care and dedication for Singapore was steadfast. He continued to ensure that none of the stars that shined in Singapore dimmed even for a fleeting, moment of grief.
May we do the same for him during this time of loss. So that on the eve of our golden jubilee, we may celebrate SG50 and Mr Lee’s contributions with gratitude, not grief. A beautiful new era is dawning in Singapore. In our founding father’s own words: “Look at the horizon, follow that rainbow, go ride it.”