You are ten years older than my father. I guess my generation was the most impacted by your national policies. When I was a child, you were a vibrant man in your prime. I was surrounded by you. What do I mean by that? Every few days, I would hear my father discuss with my mother about some new rule you had made. Sometimes, they called you “Lao Lee” (Old Lee), as if you were their, bossy, elder brother. Sometimes, they were derisive, poking fun freely at you in the safety and privacy of our home. But in public, they were always law abiding. They taught me to respect the laws of my land. I guess their attitude towards you was one of “grudging respect”.
With the maturity of hindsight, I can say you have impacted my life even more than my parents did. Although they shaped my daily values, it was you who determined the place of my abode, my education and my very survival.
My father, Loh Chai Hong (deceased 2012), told me that, when he first got married, “I never dreamed about owning my own home. I was too poor. I was prepared to rent till the day I die.”
Around 1969, he told my mother he was going to put all his meagre savings into a HDB three-room flat in Toa Payoh. “It means we will own our own home.”
My mother was sceptical. The idea was too novel for her. But she was obedient to my father, so she agreed. My father paid $7000 for this flat which became his home until his death fifty years later.
Before 1969, I did not stay with my parents. Their rental conditions did not permit it. After they bought the HDB flat, I finally moved in with my parents. I was reunited with my parents – living as a family – because your HDB policy of making homes affordable for every Singaporean made it possible.
Having our own home, no matter how small it was, was so very vital as a foundation for many things. First of all, it meant we had safety. In the evening, when our family members returned home from our various responsibilities and closed the front door behind us, it meant we could be safe. Your home defence policies – harsh rules for drug abusers, gangsters and racial rioters – meant that our front door was never violated.
Having our own home meant that we had privacy. Privacy to pursue important things. You made education a priority in Singapore. My parents registered me in Singapore Chinese Girls School. I never thought twice about the fees, I was too busy trying to keep up with schoolwork. But, as I grew and learned about the world, I realised how privileged I was! An Asian(!) female(!) studying in a private school(!) on a blue collar man’s wages(!). I was one of the privileged minority in the world. Your education policy made it possible.
Because of education, I was a ‘banana’ to the core. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. But your “Speak Mandarin” campaign! Groan! What a thorn in my side! I dragged my feet through 11 years of Chinese exams and finally gladly shook off the shackles after my AO level Chinese exams. But guess what, Mr Lee? You wouldn’t believe this. I still don’t. I am writing bilingual books now…
Many other incidents remind me vividly of you. Singapore used to flood badly in the past. And sometimes school and work had to come to a screeching halt because people could not travel through the water. When I looked at the flooded streets around the closely built HDB flats, I thought it was a problem we would have to live with for the rest of our lives. This was Mother Nature we were coming up against! And it was not like we could dig a longkang willy-nilly through the HDB estates to drain the monsoon water.
But, wonder of wonders, you achieved it. Floods are now a thing of the past (except in Orchard Road). The young people nowadays would not know what I mean – watching the canal along Bukit Timah rush up its banks and take over the roads. It was a scary sight.
The magnificent angsana tree outside my second-floor HDB flat. It really kept my childhood home cool during the hot months. I am so very glad it was never cut down. It was always trimmed just enough not to menace passers-by with falling branches, but it was allowed to grow and grow. Trees are very important to me. Thank you, Mr Lee, for your fantastic foresight to maintain trees and not mow them down in the name of economic progress.
Dragon boat competition on Singapore River with my National University of Singapore teammates – possible because of your Clean River policy.
Drinking from the tap – I saw younger people drinking freely from Singapore’s public taps and thought I should learn to do it without fear too. Now I drink from taps wherever I go in Singapore!
Bringing my children to tour Newater facility – I made the usual hackneyed jokes about Newater with my homemaker friends – “Singapore is going down the drain”, etc, but in front of my children, I extolled the engineering feat that made Newater possible. I was doing what my parents did 40 years ago! Poking fun at national policies but teaching my children to appreciate their country.
Changing Singapore dollars into Malaysian ringgit and crowing with triumph at the handsome exchange rate. “I’m going to buy lots of groceries in JB!” Thank you, Mr Lee, for the strong Singapore dollar.
Interviewing an anti-PAP heartlander for the first time – I was a young reporter then and intimidated by the man’s intense dislike of the PAP party. He was almost spitting with fury. I remember thinking, “If you disliked it so much, why didn’t you move?” and “You’re living in a HDB flat, drinking affordable coffee in a coffee-shop; you’re safe and unmolested thanks to the Home Team and you just complained about the polyclinic but you got subsidised medical attention, um… What is your issue?”
Ah well, there will be people like this. And I must respect their differing points of view.
On my part, I must be honest with you, Mr Lee, I worry for the future of Singapore. Now, with your passing, I worry even more. As I grow older, I saw how Singapore has really defeated the odds – the long odds! But it doesn’t mean that our success is cast in stone. We can lose it any day! Or it could gradually corrode! So many things to worry about!
As for me, I guess I will continue as my parents did – I will try my humble best to contribute to my nation with whatever skills I possess, to abide by the law, to appreciate my country and teach my children to appreciate their country. Sometimes, I may poke fun at the government with my husband, but it will always be in the privacy of my HDB flat, never on social media and never to destabilise the fragile peace, unity and prosperity that you have given your life to make possible in our island home.
Last of all, I prayed for your salvation too, Uncle Lee. I really really hope, after all the hard work and sacrifice that you had put in, that you will be able to enjoy heavenly life and the companionship of God for eternity.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.