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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

It always becomes more clear when you look back on the chain of events – a story too plain not to tell, too complex to really put into words.  It is both truth and fallacy; the mistakes of the past echo through the years with unerring clarity and purpose, and yet, we are wont to misinterpret history to suit our own narratives.  Case in point in sports: football1American, that is is a sport where the past only determines your position, not your future performance.  It is a game without memory, the only effect that the past has on the present is the location of the line of scrimmage.  And yet, in every game we watch, we ascribe a narrative to the entire game, using terms like “momentum” to describe a game that stops every 10 seconds.

History doesn’t stop, of course.  Every moment we live automatically enters the past as we move continuously along the course of events.  But the past, for each of us, only determines our present location, and its our own mindset that interprets the meaning of events and guides our decisions, for good for ill.

These are the thoughts I had leaving Singapore’s National Museum, looking at two exhibits – one on the inestimable Lee Kuan Yew, his early life and most importantly for the nation of Singapore, his career in politics and his influence on the world.  His story is impressive and his talents considerable, there is little doubt of that.  The exhibit we saw on Saturday was a proper, if hastily erected, memorial to the founding father of a country.  Though impressed with his deeds and a sample of the condolences and thanks that people left during his wake, both Beverly and I walked out of that exhibit wanting.  We reflected on our time in the various Presidential libraries/museums in the US, and how complete they were, especially that of JFK.  I remarked that perhaps they just hadn’t time, that Mr. Lee likely didn’t care to plan out a library as many Presidents do in their years after leaving the White House.

However, the next exhibit left us wanting for nothing – a guided tour of the “Singapura” exhibit, a history of the island dating back to the 14th century when Malaysian kings and sultans ruled the island.  Though there is a large gap in recorded history of the island between the end of the line of kings and the arrival of Stamford Raffles, the history of the British colonial times to the modern era added so much to the legend of Lee Kuan Yew.

For those unfamiliar with the island’s history – though the Malaysians formed a sultanate on the island in the 14th century, it fell into ruin as the line of kings degraded and raiders from Indonesia pillaged the island.  It was largely a swampy backwater for 500 years until Raffles showed up.  Showing a great deal of vision, he stretched the bounds of his commission with the East India Company and set up a port on the island, angering the Dutch who had a considerable influence in the area.  British and Dutch delegations worked out an agreement, and the British soon opened a fully functional port in “Singapura”.  Dutch levies were pretty high for non-Dutch traders, Singapore was founded as a free port for Arab and Chinese traders, who flocked to the city.

Growth and labor was supplied by Chinese immigrants initially, who came to the new land in search of wealth and opportunity.  Indian immigrants followed, and soon Singapore was a multi-racial city and more importantly, the maritime presence that Britain desired in the region.  Exhibits from this period showed the diversity of the island’s population, including a bell made by the Revere Copper Company, donated by Maria Revere, Paul’s daughter.  Her husband, Joseph Balestier, was the first American Consul to Singapore.

So, most everyone knows about the British Empire and “the sun never sets”.  The British controlled the island and trade through South-East Asia well into the 20th century when things started to fall apart for the Empire.  The effects of World War I are also well known, and there are all manners of words written about the fallout of the Great War so there’s little need for me to jump into them.  At any rate, in 1937, the Empire of Japan declared war on China, and two years later, Germany invaded Poland, the Axis treaty was signed, and Britain stood virtually alone for a few years against the aggression of the world until December 7, 1941.

Americans will always remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, but more importantly for our story, that’s also the day that Japan effectively declared war on England and The Netherlands as well, attacking their holdings in South East Asia, starting with Hong Kong and Malaysia and eventually conquering Singapore in February of 1942.

Japanese occupation of Singapore lasted until its surrender to the United States in August of 1945, wherein it turned control of the island back to England.  The damage had already been done though, and it was through this part of the exhibit that the toll of Japanese occupation was displayed, and how that affected what Singapore had to overcome to get to where it is today.  Japanese forces imposed indoctrination on the islanders, massacring any elements deemed a threat, which composed of mostly slaughtering Chinese men of fighting age.  This was called the “Sook Ching massacre.”  Chinese men were told to report for a “screening,” one of those called was a young Lee Kuan Yew.  Sensing something was wrong, he begged permission to go home and gather some clothes, and a Japanese guard agreed.

Imagine now the decision of an unnamed and unremembered guard who held the life of Mr. Lee in his hands.  Perhaps not all the soldiers knew of the plans that the command had for those about to be killed, but still – that decision, it changed history, didn’t it?

The Japanese were not missed on their departure.  They left a Singapore ravaged and weak, and in the care of an Empire that was crumbling.  Five years later, England would leave it’s largest colony, India, and the sentiment from all of their colonies was that the crown was no longer able to protect its holdings.  Fire ravaged the hastily constructed buildings, trade was meager and Singapore had no army to defend itself.  Singapore was a third-world country that looked to its larger neighbor to form a union with – a marriage that would last two years.  The cause for that split?  Racial tensions between the Chinese-primary Singapore and the Malaysian people.  Chinese that were immigrated to the island by British occupation.

So the man who became the founding father of this country worked to encourage racial harmony.  Land was sparse and housing unavailable, so he worked to build government-built housing.  Singapore was small, and weak, so the government instituted compulsory service and invited foreign countries to invest.  Trade came back to this natural port, and with it, money, and the best interests of the world’s players.  This city bloomed.

Looking at the pictures of 1950’s Singapore, the fires, the strife, the riots, all the works and deeds of Lee Kuan Yew became so much the clearer.  Of course it was the work of many people, but looking around at a world-class city that was, 50 years ago, a backwater with big dreams, I couldn’t help but think of that chain of events that led to this city, and how I am even here in the first place.

Comments (4)

  • A Singapore daughter . December 3, 2015 . Reply

    You’re both right to presume that our Founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew (not Kwan by the way) didn’t care to found any library after him, after retiring from Premiership though not from politics. He wrote his collection of books about his political life and good governance for the benefit of Singaporeans both present and future but took pains to avoid building a personality cult around him. Whenever he spoke of the early years of nation-building, he invariably mentioned his (and I add, Singapore’s) fortune at having garnered a band of men of similar courage, vision, self-sacrifice and intellectual vigour who, together with him, formed our First Cabinet. He always credited Singapore’s success to them as well.

    Look around you in Singapore today; you’ll never find a street or monument named after him. What you’ll find named in his honour are causes for the good not only of Singapore but of the world as well: the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize (one of his life-long concerns was water sustainability for our tiny island, and this tiny island has gone on to share her water expertise with similar causes elsewhere) and the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism and other educational causes.

    After his death, there have been calls to re-name some present Singapore iconic emblem such as Changi Airport after him. Or build a monument in his memory. But Mr Lee, in life, was adamant that as long as he lived, no such course should be embarked upon. I think that sums up the man that he was.

    • (Author) Joshua . December 4, 2015 . Reply

      I need to correct that typo/misspelling, I agree. Thanks for the added information, I think there’s a lot the world can learn from the “Tiny Red Dot”, and it’s been a joy to do so.

  • A Singapore daughter . December 4, 2015 . Reply

    And a lot more this Little Red Dot can learn from the world.

    You write exceedingly well. Refreshing, a pleasure to read. Thanks.

    • (Author) Joshua . December 14, 2015 . Reply

      Thank you, much appreciated!

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