Lee Kuan Yew: A pastor’s 7 days of thanksgiving

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)
Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

MONDAY, 23RD MARCH 2015

I awoke to the 7am radio news that Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, had breathed his last at about 3am this morning. He had headed the government for a whopping 30 years and he served as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor for another 21 years. There would be 7 days of mourning from Monday till Sunday. There would be two days of private wake for Lee’s family; four days for the public to pay respects; and finally the funeral on Sunday.

I was not deeply sad. It had been anticipated for a few weeks. The Prime Minister’s office had been sending signals to prepare the public. He is a ripe 91 years old. I felt thankful, in fact, for this man. He reminded me of that great prophecy given by Isaiah in chapter 45 of Isaiah in the Bible. God was speaking through Isaiah about a man named Cyrus and what how God would raise him up for a purpose.  Isaiah prophesied that in the future God would raise a pagan leader by the name of Cyrus who would be His “anointed king”. He would conquer many nations, gather invincible force and power, and attain vast wealth. Then God gives the reason He is doing all this: “Cyrus, I am sending for you by name. I am doing it for the good of the family of Jacob. They are my servant. I am doing it for Israel. They are my chosen people. You do not know anything about me. But I am giving you a title of honour. I am the Lord. There is no other Lord. I am the one and only God. You do not know anything about me. But I will make you strong” (Isaiah 45:4,5 ESV). Lee Kuan Yew, like king Cyrus of ancient days, was raised and elevated for the sake of God’s people. He may not have known the Lord, but was an “instrument” in the hands of Almighty God to fulfil God’s purpose for Singapore and the church in Singapore.

Yuhua hawker centre
Yuhua hawker centre

So I went about with thanksgiving for the unique and significant contributions that Lee Kuan Yew made to our young and tiny island nation. His fingerprints are everywhere. He has made an indelible mark on Singapore’s  history and culture. I had a breakfast at a hawker centre. My wife and I shared vegetarian bee hoon and roti prata and a coffee in a relatively clean and hygienic environment. Tables and chairs are affixed to the floor in a neat and orderly arrangement to maximize space. The architecture is purely functional and pragmatic. These are all extended expressions of a strong dominant leader who stamped his personality on the reigning government for more than 30 years. I thank God for Lee Kuan Yew.

Off I went cycling to the Jurong Lake Park. This is my Monday exercise, solitude and silence. It was humid but the greenery of the foliage of rows of trees and the shimmering waters of the artificially man-made lake made it a pleasant ride. What I was cycling on was

The park is always being cleaned
The park is always being cleaned

formerly swamp land that had been drained and solidified for practical use. Large swathes of swampland in Jurong were converted to usable industrial land in the early years after independence when LKY’s fantastic power team of cabinet ministers worked together to attract foreign investors to build their factories with special tax breaks and other incentives, and use our cheap labour. In a matter of one or two decades, the children of these factory hands became the skilled and educated work force, which drives our civil service, armed forces, financial district, businesses, institutions and regional operational headquarters. I thank God for Lee Kuan Yew for laying down the foundations for Singapore’s high employment rate, reputable educational system, and continued prosperity.

I had a reminder last night from the National Library. The books I borrowed for my grand-daughter were due. For years I have used the library to borrow books for all my children – hundreds of books over many years. Lately, I have appreciated the Jurong East Regional Library for more than this. I go there sometimes to meditate, pray, and journal. It is air-conditioned and there are comfortable seats where you can look out through floor to ceiling windows that give you a grand view of Jurong Gateway’s development. Most of all, it’s a mere 12 minutes’ walk from my home. Recently my colleague, pastor Thomas showed me another fantastically designed library at Orchard Gateway that took my breath away. He spent considerable time reading, resting, writing and  praying in that place over several weeks during his sabbatical. I thank God for Lee Kuan Yew.

Today I decided that during the worship service we will stand up for one minute of silent thanksgiving for the way God used Lee Kuan Yew to build Singapore

It is of course going to be a week of great sadness and mourning for his family, and friends (if there are any who outlived him), and mentees. Millions of Singaporeans will feel a sense of loss.  But I would like to spend this week looking at all the things I can thank God for because of this man Lee Kuan Yew. At the end of each grey day, I hope to add in another record of what I see as LKY’s fingerprints on our society and culture.

TUESDAY, 24TH MARCH, 2015

It was humid and by the time I walked to the Jurong East MRT station my shirt, wet from perspiration, was stuck to my back. It was 9.05am, and as I stood in the fairly crowded MRT train, I mused that most commuters will have to accept that they will not get a seat most of the time when they ride the train. The sooner we commuters accept that as the normal, the more we will be able to appreciate the MRT system that has been painstakingly planned for in the 1960’s and implemented in the 1980’s, both under Lee Kuan Yew’s watch. As we remember LKY’s influence over Singapore life, nothing may be more evident than the extensive infrastructural development.

In future the MRT system will be pervasive and vital to movement of people
In future the MRT system will be pervasive and vital to movement of people

From the building of roads, bridges, public housing, tunnels, parks, reservoirs, industries, airport and seaports, electrical and telecommunications systems to the financial systems, health care and education systems, government and law enforcement, what we currently take for granted, were built from the meagre basics the British colonists left us. What we see today is vastly different from what the British left us after we were granted independence. Much was built up by the LKY power team of successive capable cabinet ministers, and Prime Ministers Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong continued refining the development of these interrelated systems. Without these we cannot sustain economic growth and activities nor have a good standard of living. So thank you Sir for eliminating or minimizing corruption, for your honest hard work and dedication without complaining about your low salary in the early decades, for your love of Singapore.

Today my heart was more tender when I thought about what he has done for Singapore.

WEDNESDAY, 25TH MARCH 2015

My office is at Lorong 27A Geylang. As I walk along the street to my office, I pass by three Buddhist Associations/Temples, and the Geylang Evangelical Free Church. If I walk to the end and turn left I will stand before a mosque. Walk another ten minutes and I will see a Hindu temple and a Taoist one. This is multi-religious Singapore. Perhaps there are other large cities like that. The beauty in Singapore is the peaceful co-existence of different religions. Each are allowed to practise what they believe as long as it is done respectfully and sensitively of others’ space. The LKY government intentionally legislated laws to maintain such peace. If a preacher denigrates

Mosque, Buddist temple, and church next to one another
Mosque, Buddist temple, and church next to one another

another religion, and a complaint is received, the preacher will receive a warning to desist from such further activity. This may sound draconian to some, but I am sure Christian brethren and Muslim minorities in India would love for such a law to be enacted in their countries. Lord, thank you for Lee Kuan Yew.

On my way home I held up an umbrella. It was too hot. Suddenly I noticed a lady in her late sixties, too close for my comfort, enjoying the shade from my umbrella. She had come back from paying respects to Lee Kuan Yew as he laid in state in the Parliament House. She said that due to her age they moved her forward and let her jump the queue. Some had braved five hours of waiting only to be rushed by his coffin to pay a glancing respect. She was one of them, though she probably had waited less.

In the MRT train, I noticed a whole row of passengers of different races sitting in opposite me and so I took a picture. This picture depicts the multi-racial ties in Singapore that have been peaceful and respectful by and large. We have had racial riots and violence in the early years prior to independence. Many believe they were incited by politicians. This has never happened since that time. Thank you, Lee Kuan Yew.

Honoring the space and defferences among the many races
Honoring the space and differences among the many races

THURSDAY, 26TH MARCH 2015

The heat was unbearable even though I carried an umbrella. Walking from the bus stop to the Trinity Theological Library was a good 500 metres, half of it uphill. Trinity used to be at Mount Sophia. Now its still on a mount with no name. The librarian had insisted I still have a book with me titled, The Prime of Life, but I was sure I had returned it. So I went up and found it. I was right. Anyway as I settled into a desk and set up my laptop, I was so pleased with the environment that I took two photos of the library from where I was. The air- conditioning was so pleasant. I remembered reading that the late Lee Kuan Yew, when asked what in his opinion was the greatest invention of the 20th Century, had replied, The air-conditioner.  I had thought that was not too smart an answer for a man

Trinity Theological Library - beats working in my office hole anytime.
Trinity Theological Library - beats working in my office hole anytime.

with his intellectual kungfu. Surely there are many more inventions more significant than this, like the computer, or some breakthrough medical equipment. I guess his frame of reference was Singapore. That was what framed everything he fought for, dreamed of and thought of. Certainly if Singapore could be air-conditioned and was just several degrees lower in temperature, like a daily 25 degree centigrade, this would be a cool place, in more than one sense. This was just him.

At lunch, I walked to the Railway Mall and after some fried rice, I went to Toastbox for a hot Barley drink. I sat next to four middle-aged men and could not help overhearing them talking about Lee Kuan Yew, and about the long queues of people waiting in orderly lines to pay their last respects. Obviously LKY has his detractors too. One of them asked another, So now that LKY has passed away, will your dad give up his Malaysian citizenship and become a Singaporean. The other man replied, I don’t know. LKY said something in the past and since that time my dad has been firmly against him. Evidently not everyone treasures or want to have  the red passport.

So it was communications work in the morning and now after lunch I honed the sermon that I had prepared for the Emotionally

From the highest level where I sat, the staircase looks shapely
From the highest level where I sat, the staircase looks shapely

Healthy Spirituality that we have been running in our worship services and cell groups. Then it was back into the open sky baking oven until I get into the air-conditioned bus. LKY has a point. At the feeling level, the air-conditioner is indeed the greatest invention of the 20th Century, and all peoples living in the equatorial belt will agree with his statement.

Dinner was at Hotel Jen, formerly Traders’ Hotel, with Sunny and Annie and Abe and Hwee Inn. We were all over 50 years old, and so we had that SG50 offer. International buffet at $50 for two persons over 50. Great company and good food. And what did we talk about? Well family, work and also, Lee Kuan Yew. After dinner, Sunny and Annie, my wife and I went to the Jurong East community tent that was set up nicely for people to pay their last respects  in front of a large picture of LKY and long rows of tables full of flower bouquets given by grateful and grieving Singaporeans. An MP shook our hands as we went to sit to write our condolences. I wrote something about being thankful for the way he laid down his life for Singapore, and how we will always remember him. By the time we left it was about over 10 o’clock. This was a good day and it seemed like a holiday, a different kind of day.

FRIDAY, 27TH MARCH 2015

Today I am reminded of the fact that over 80% of Singapore’s resident population stay in public housing. Of these 90% ownership has been achieved. This was a remarkable building feat. Our grandparents and parents used to crowd into wooden kampongs without proper sanitation and clean running water. I remember waiting for about 5 years before the 4 room flat I booked in Bukit Batok East was ready for occupation. Several of those years were spent in a rented room in Mark Tay’s home – my wife’s neighbour and my prayer partner friend. During that time I was still studying in Trinity Theological College in the 1980’s.

Public housing: view from my bedroom window
Public housing: view from my bedroom window

After living for over 12  years in that Bukit Batok flat, I sought to “upgrade” to an executive flat. After waiting many years, we were offered an executive condominium at Jurong East, the first of its kind. That itself was a miracle for we were far down the queue but so many must have rejected the condominiums, or went for other options, that it landed in our lap. Rather than having to live in faraway Yew Tee or Jurong West in larger executive flats there, we prayerfully opted for the better location, though higher priced executive condominium. It was a financial stretch, even though we sold our Bukit Batok flat at 3 times the price we paid for it and ploughed whatever we made back into the new home.

Many Singaporeans have personal stories of having upgraded their standard of housing or living through the appreciation of the value of their HDB public

The view at night from another window
The view at night from another window

housing apartment and the availability of new ones that they can purchase. All this was the vision of Lee Kuan Yew and his power team. They saw that the immigrant population needed rootedness and one major way of facilitating this rootedness and loyalty to nation was home ownership. So from mudflats and swamps and jungles we have large swathes of land developed into nice apartments (owned even by those who earn $1000 a month) with good amenities like shops, hawker centres and markets, utilities, schools, polyclinics, transport systems and playgrounds. Thank you Lord for giving us the man Lee Kuan Yew as our first Prime Minister.

SATURDAY, 28 MARCH 2015

After cycling with my brother in law, Cheng Toh, and having breakfast in Jurong West, I brought him to pay respects to the late Lee Kuan Yew at the Jurong East site. It’s next to JCube and the Jurong East Library. This was my second time and his first. The people were streaming in but the queue was very fast moving. It was about 10.30am. We paid our respects, signed the condolence book and went off. The mood was quiet, somber, reflective. The way it should be. Very respectful and somber. There were seats and large screens showing clips of Lee Kuan Yew in his younger days, spitting fire, inspiring the people. He was a persuasive and great orator. Few like his kind today. Passion like his was forged in life and death struggles, and in the furnace of low pay, and conditions of poverty and hopelessness.

Very orderly queues LKY would have been proud of.
Very orderly queues LKY would have been proud of.
Writing the condolences book.
Writing the condolences book.

SUNDAY, 29TH MARCH 2015

In the worship service this morning we stood up for a minute of silence to honor the passing of Lee Kuan Yew and to give thanks to God before I led the church in prayer for the bereaved family, our leaders and grieving nation. Before we prayed, I shared with them the faith perspective. I shared how the eyes of faith would see God’s sovereign hand in putting LKY in a position of power and empower and favoured him so that Singapore could be blessed, and God’s people here grow as shining light in the midst of darkness. The news media showed us his accomplishments and leadership, but only the church is able to give a faith perspective to fill out the unseen. Isaiah 45:1-7 does this very well, in my opinion. I preached a tighter version of what I preached on Saturday, and the service ended at 11.30am, and the members who wanted to pay their respects along the streets where the cortege would pass, hurried off. Others rushed off to watch the live telecast of the funeral procession and service.

Two excellent books
Two excellent books

I had a wedding to go. More weddings are being done during lunch. I noticed some were glued to their phones and viewed the live streaming of the funeral proceedings. By the time I reached home, it was 4pm and I hit the bed. Never was one for watching weddings and funerals on TV.

Someone showed me Lee Hsien Loong’s eulogy and he said, Poor thing. He had to call his late father Mr Lee Kuan Yew instead of Dad in his eulogy, because he is also the Prime Minister and maybe represents Singapore too. Maybe some protocol because of the presence of dignitaries and foreign delegates. Later in the evening, my son said that Lee Hsien Yang’s eulogy was good. So I may want to go and watch it sometime this week. I took out two books I have about Lee Kuan Yew. “Men in White” was given to me by one of the authors, Leong Weng Kam. I enjoyed this book. It helped me understand the historical and political cauldron that shaped Lee Kuan Yew’s passion, fighting spirit and tactics. The other book I managed to get at a special price from my brother because he used to work for the Business Times. Its “Lee Kuan Yew: a life in pictures”. Pictures speak volumes and I love some of the interesting pictures of personal and family life. I took some snaps of those pics and reproduce them here for you to enjoy.

LKY and his wife: a loving couple
LKY and his wife: a loving couple
Grandchildren and children
Grandchildren and children
My favourite shot: LKY the family man
My favourite shot: LKY the family man

Where I prepare my sermon

Beautiful floor to ceiling windows: let there be light
Beautiful floor to ceiling windows: let there be light

The Trinity Theological College Library is probably the most beautiful library in a theological college. I love its design. The large glass windows that bring in natural light. The courtyard in between the library and the students rooms. It gives me a sense of the vastness of God and of knowledge yet unknown to us who are creatures redeemed by God. The smell of books is stimulating. There are corners here and there where one can find some privacy and a catnap if necessary. There are three floors of books and spaces for study. The wireless there makes it possible for us to research via the internet too, or even respond to an urgent email.

My favorite quiet corner
My favorite quiet corner

More and more I find myself drawn to this space. Used to prepare the sermon in the church office but the constant interruptions and distractions would leave me frustrated at times. Furthermore there are no windows and I feel less creative in that place. The home was for many years a better place for sermon preparation. However in this recent year and a half  I have found Trinity Theological library a haven for a soul pregnant with a sermon to deliver. I thank God I live in the west. I thank God I am alumni. I thank God for the library. It’s my favorite place in the whole college. It’s a sacred workshop where many a sermon was crafted and honed, and many prayers prayed.