The late Mr Lee’s reply to an ex-MP’s suggestion to name a monument or public structure after him was simply: “Remember Ozymandias.”
In articulating her unease about the need for a commemoration – ground-up efforts or otherwise – so soon after the death of her father, the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the only daughter of the late leader, Dr Lee Wei Ling was clearly expressing her hurt at the loss of her dearest late father. She was in grief. In her own way, she probably spoke for many of us, in fact everyone of us who have lost a loved one: that we can never step out from the grief arising from the loss of our parents, spouse or children. Grief is insidious. It eats into your being, reminding you of the pain and that unspoken loss suffered. This was clear from Dr Lee’s Facebook post on 25 March 2016.
“Life seemed to return to normal for Singapore over the past year. Personally, it was a different story for me. That I don’t express my emotion in public does not mean I am not hurting inside. The wound has only recently healed, and not even completely. So I declined to comment for publications marking the first anniversary of my father’s death.”
For a start, I must say that I disagree with framing the recent incident(s) between the Prime Minister and her sister as a family feud. It was the tensions we see between personal grief and performative grief. In fact, Dr Lee was clearly unable to summon up the public, almost performative grief others seem to access so readily across Singapore. Death and the accompanying grief to her was personal. She was rejecting the mawkish sentiments and peacocking displays of authentic feelings that was rife on social media and in commemorative events by various stakeholders across the island.
On the other hand, through the various commemorative events in the lead up the first anniversary of the late Mr Lee’s death, we witness once again the construction of a story of Lee Kuan Yew within their lives, a story capable of enduring through time. It was the narrative of a living Lee Kuan Yew. This durable biography enables the living to integrate the memory of the dead into their ongoing lives. This was clearly evident in the [live] speech that the Prime Minister delivered at the start of a cabinet meeting on 23 March 2016, the death anniversary of the late Mr Lee.
“We are marking this day by celebrating Mr Lee’s life and looking forward. Many groups all over Singapore are holding events to commemorate his values and his life work. We are all rededicating ourselves to Mr Lee’s lifelong passion – Singapore.”
In short, Mr Lee Hsien Loong and the state apparatus that he has ready access to waded into performative grief. He was expressing his grief and the grief of the people he represents through a lasting and timeless eulogy that was articulated in public and internalised by the participants themselves, the Prime Minister himself included, when he delivered that speech to pay tribute to this father, which was broadcasted as a live video on his Facebook page.
Real time events, in this instance commemorative events marking the death anniversary of the late Mr Lee and the presence of social media have given Singaporeans who are not related by blood or kinship easy access to share in the public [and personal] life of the late Mr Lee. The commemoration of the late Mr Lee provided sites for community obituaries, where each of the contributor brings a different narrative to the collective memories of the deceased. The memories of the late Mr Lee have been democratised with vernacular and interactive participation.
Seen in this light, Dr Lee’s resistance to a public collective grieving serves as an educational purpose to Singaporeans that death unites as well as divides a local community, a society and a nation. It was her attempt to push back against the enfranchisement of her late father’s death. She prefers to keep it personal, and rejects attempts by the state to personalise and tailor-made it to their stated nation building objectives. She was frowning upon collective mourning as a form of self-indulgence, as a statement against a seemingly scripted performance of sorrow. To Dr Lee, it was important to speak out as it helps her to overcome the various stages of the grieving process – from shock to emotional and cognitive acknowledgment to reconstruction –and begin to restructure her life and relearn how the world functions without her beloved late father, the person whom she had assiduously taken care of in his last days.
At the same time, in death we idealise [and idolise]. After all, we all need a hero in our lives, an avenue to express our desire to rise above the banal. But more importantly, this recent incident is also a stark reminder that rituals in death, in this case the spontaneous online and offline memorials is a subset of the process of the living attempting to ascribe meaning to the life of the deceased as they pause and confront their own mortality. And this is where I am convinced that the death of the late Mr Lee and the consequent outpouring of emotions and goodwill during his (i) death anniversary, (ii) national day celebrations and (iii) his birthday should thus form the first act in a continuous and collective conversation about the reality of death and its mysterious alteration on our lives.
That itself could be the beginning of the biggest contribution (yet) of the late Mr. Lee’s illustrious legacy: a first world communal education on end-of-life and death issues. We speak and remember extensively about his death. Now let’s talk about death.
As Ms Lee puts in a Straits Times article dated 19 April 2015, “We are all born into this life and we shall all eventually die. Our existence between these points in time would be more meaningful and fulfilling if we can help other fellow human beings.” Death education is a mirror, providing us with an opportunity to better understand ourselves and the society we live in.
Remember Ozymandias. Let’s engage Thanatos.
P.S: You can access the original article here