Cut the umbilical cord. Leave and never return. Never look back. This was my advice to myself upon leaving Singapore years ago. I hoped my life was a nightmare I could wake up from, a bad dream I could forget. However, trauma doesn’t work that way. It sticks with you – and there is no escaping it. There is only moving through it, working through it, understanding it.
Beyond trauma, though, there is so much about Singapore’s many cultures that I love, and that I believe should better characterize us Singaporeans than the violent legacy that Lee has left us. For one, our communitarian ability to live and work together and to value community over capital. Additionally, our ability to form unique new cultures from the clashes between colonial and local cultures for hundreds of years is something I myself use to survive to this day. So I cannot let go, because for me, letting go is not a choice. I am a Singaporean. In a sense, I always will be.
I did not believe that I would be affected by Lee Kuan Yew’s death. I thought myself too intelligent for that. Too Americanized, radicalized, disconnected. Yet, for a month there I found myself obsessively Googling multiple times every single day to check up on his condition. I even felt some degree of compassion for him – after all he was only a man at the end of the day. He made himself a demigod during his lifetime, but now he is gone. And he can do no more harm to human beings: this brings me a huge sense of relief. A deep peace I find hard to articulate. For even those that act as gods, and gain incredible power over others are destined to die.
Lee lived to 91. He held some position of power in government for 50 years (his party the People’s Action Party or PAP holding power the entire time since independence in 1965, making Singapore a de facto one-party state). The Western media has always hailed him as a ‘benevolent dictator’ and praised what he has done for Singapore – brought us from third world to first in a few short decades.
However, few have been able to critique Lee or his policies publicly, especially those in Singapore. Harsh penalties await the likes of Amos Yee and the brilliant street artist, SKL0. This absence of critique has all been part of Lee’s paternalistic cult of personality: don’t worry, be happy, follow the rules and Papa Lee will take care of everything else. In truth, Lee has single-mindedly destroyed Singapore’s political opposition, especially its strongest leaders, people like Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan. Everyone who comes to Singapore comments on how clean it is, but they do not question where the dirt has been hidden.
I spent much of my life in Singapore completely unable to access the medical care I so badly needed to survive as a transgender person and a victim of sexual violence. I also spent it watching half of my entire non-Chinese mixed-race family leave the country because it had become intolerable for them, and impossible to live in without being in poverty – much of this was related to race. According to Wikipedia, “ethnic Chinese Singaporeans predominate with about 74.1% of the resident population, followed by significant minorities of Malays (13.4%), Indians (9.2%), and Eurasians. There are four official languages—English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil—and the country promotes multiculturalism through a range of official policies.”
Despite this, I was constantly surrounded by many other people of minority ethnicities who came from similar (and dissimilar) backgrounds to me – young, queer, poor, living in serious domestic violence situations, drug users or children of drug users. And one cannot talk about race in Singapore. Because it threatens the state ideology of ‘racial harmony’ – something that apparently magically came into being after independence.
As a transgender artist and intellectual, I barely survived Singapore. I barely survived Lee and his iron fist policies. I survived a barely-functional mental health system almost entirely populated by Chinese Christians. And I know that many of my peers did not survive. I remember those that committed suicide during or shortly after compulsory military service. I remember the sexual assault and domestic violence survivors to whom mainstream society turned a completely blind eye, and chose to victim-blame and punish instead – the idea here being that those who bear the wounds of trauma need harsher punishment to instill discipline in them.
Lee’s vision of Singapore – which he was able to enforce with such great power and totality – incorporated his personal view of humanity, which I find incredibly draconian. He believed that people were essentially ‘bad’, and that a government was required to basically whip them into shape. In his later years, he never came across as having any real care for Singaporeans. Or just for human beings in general. Singapore’s rate of execution remains high (and secret), and homosexuality is still criminalized despite numerous efforts to repeal the archaic S377A law from the days of British colonialism.
However, I no longer want to dwell on Lee. After all he is gone. He will never return, and I personally believe that Singapore does not need to see anyone like that again. What I hope to focus on instead is the future of Singapore. Lee got to where he did by destroying everyone who opposed him. The PAP have succeeded at erasing so much of local Singaporean culture (not forgetting to commodify its most lucrative and marketable aspects), but communitarian values of gotong-royong – Malay for ‘working together’ – still remain on some level.
What is the place of Singapore and Singaporeans in a world still dominated by warlords and imperialists? I wonder. A few days after Lee’s passing, a team of Singaporeans successfully sent rats into space. I found this poignant – scientists from my home country venturing into space travel? How inspiring! Perhaps this is a first glimpse of what Singaporean minds are capable of achieving, unfettered by the kind of narrow-mindedness that dictatorships tend to create.
To speak only of Lee and his regime is to ignore the efforts of an entire generation of Singaporeans who worked to make what many consider to be an economic miracle happen for themselves. Though he was quick to take credit for it, what happened with Singapore happened because millions complied. Not solely because of Lee’s cult of personality. Perhaps it is time now to re-evaluate what it means to be Singaporean. And to look at everyday lives instead of only those heralded by Western imperialist interests or the PAP’s elitism. It is to look at the people who have survived Lee. Wounded, no doubt, there are many of us. But we can heal.
And perhaps we do not need to be silent or afraid anymore.
GRAY is a disabled QTPOC migrant figuring out how to survive oppressive societies and who believes in the possibility of rebuilding life, a little bit at a time.