For the Gin Nas (or For the Young Ones)
We waited. We waited for news on the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s condition. It was a week of obsessively checking the news for updates. We waited in line to attend the public wake. It was hours of standing in the hot sun or under the shade of the night. It was seconds of being in the hall where Mr Lee lay in state. We waited for the cortege to come, and go. Whether on the streets or through the live broadcast, we watched the funeral procession start, and end.
Last Monday, the nation woke to the news of Mr Lee’s pre-dawn passing. Following that morning, a surge of emotions poured forth from a people more commonly associated with apathy. Some called this unity, a national spirit. Feelings were vividly expressed in cards and condolence books. On social media, each ‘refresh’ brought a new status on gratitude, a new ‘shared’ reflection, or a new black and white profile picture. In addition to these expressions of condolence, Tembusu’s website donned the monochromatic colour scheme as a mark of respect. In the week of national mourning, we witnessed acts of kindness by people who offered refreshments to those waiting in the queue to attend the public wake, the commitment of public service officers and volunteers who helped in the funeral process, and the relentlessness of Singaporeans as they stood drenched in the rain to bid farewell to Mr Lee as he made his final journey.
What we saw then was a nation – in mourning. Whether Mr Lee’s passing birthed tears or contemplation, we were shaken. A consciousness had been awakened, or created, in almost every Singaporean. It is a consciousness of our history: an awareness of where we came from, and what we have become. And of Mr Lee.
For the generation to whom this history was a lived experience, this consciousness was awakened. They experienced the turbulent times, and knew the process through which Singapore had emerged and grown. They are thus able to appreciate our history and acknowledge that Singapore was not simply willed into existence. For the young generation, this history can only be a chapter in a textbook to be read. Nonetheless, as they recalled the narrative of our early years, this consciousness, too, was aroused. They had not experienced, but they knew. Maybe they were able to appreciate this history, or maybe all they felt was ambivalence. Then, there is the younger generation who neither experienced, nor were yet to learn about this history. At best, they vaguely knew. This consciousness was only just created, forged with every tribute made and every story told.
Hence, beneath this consciousness of history (whether awakened or created), are a knowing (of our history) and an experience (of this past). It is the collective of this consciousness, knowing, and experience that arouses a sense of appreciation. For an entire generation, Mr Lee was the axis around whom national identity and confidence was built, as he led the nation towards independence and transformed this island-state. This is the generation who grew up in kampungs and the first public flats, and whose mother tongues were dialects. Unfortunately, as each generation steps into a more modern and prosperous Singapore, we are also stepping away from this history. Lacking the experience, knowing, and even consciousness, it is feared that we, the young and younger generations, will never fully appreciate this history. We, the young and younger citizens of Singapore, are increasingly distanced from this history. Yet, as we step into the future, how do we negotiate the distance between a mere knowing or consciousness, and an evolving sense of appreciation for this history?
Perhaps we have taken our first step during the week of national mourning: from the condolences and gratitude, to the movement of people to pay their last respects, to the 21-gun salute and state funeral on Sunday. Some of us have begun to reflect on Mr Lee’s contributions, attempting to position the week in relation to our past and future. For those who have yet to question, maybe now is the time to ask: what will this week come to mean? Will it become another chapter in the textbook to be studied, or will it be another moment too easily forgotten? Yet, as we, the young and younger generations, give thought to these questions, we ought to match contemplation with conversation.
While much of the recent discourse has centred around Mr Lee and his life’s work, we should also be cognisant of the other perspectives of this history. Notably, between the touching personal accounts and images of bereaved individuals, were the outlying voices of those who were possibly neglected or felt compromised by policies implemented. Though these voices always existed, they seemed amplified in that week, as did the responses of those who fought critics of Mr Lee. Perhaps these reactions were due to the heightened sensitivity on both sides that arose from the death of a man who had had a significant impact on this country. However, once we recover clarity and composure, we should turn this two-way discourse into meaningful conversation. It is precisely the distance from our history that allows us a vantage point for an objective evaluation. We should not construct and believe in a perfect narration of history, because we cannot deny that not every move was perfect. We should neither pummel these voices, nor dismiss them as mere grumblings. What we need to do is to neither glorify nor decry this history, this man, and his legacy. Critical assessment and rational arguments should spur dialogue. Though, we must not converse without action.
It is only through conversation, and then action, that we will be able to move forward, even if only slightly. The loss of a leader may have thrust us into uncertainty, but this ambiguity is an opportunity for us to seize. Each generation may be further removed from the history of our becoming, but with the writing of the legacy of Mr Lee into history, we are now closer than ever to the principles and attitudes that made our becoming possible. Our actions during the week of mourning were an embodiment of these exact values. Hence, even if we lack the experience, knowledge, or consciousness, we find ourselves closer to the ideas and ideals that Mr Lee envisioned and fought for. An appreciation for our history constitutes moving forward, and we must move beyond the man and his legacy. We should move not only with the echo of a personality on our backs, but also with the values of hard work and resilience deep in our strides.
The wait may be over, but perhaps it is time to anticipate. Or, to reciprocate. Taking to bear our history, a critical mind, and the values we inherited, it is time for us to take the steps forward together. We have waited, we have thought, so now we must do.
‘Gin Nas’ is a Hokkien term used to refer affectionately to children or, the young ones.
Illustration by Pang Guet Ghee, header image by Vanessa Teo.
Co-authored by Jesslene Lee and Vanessa Teo
About the Authors
A part-time sleeper and a full-time dreamer, Jesslene writes best after midnight. On days she isn’t reading or writing, she’s probably wandering around some old streets, getting some photography going.
Vanessa is a writer, but more than that, mostly a wonderer. Occasionally disappears from her battle with English Literature, into the sun, sand and sea.