"Ye Ye - we will try to make you proud": Lee Kuan Yew through the eyes of a grandson
What was it like growing up as a grandchild of the late Lee Kuan Yew? Find out from his very own grandson's perspective...
Li Shengwu is the eldest son of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s younger son, Lee Hsien Yang.
In a beautifully articulated eulogy to his beloved Ye Ye, he shares a casual, fun side to his late grandfather that perhaps many Singaporeans do not know about.
Li Shengwu takes a walk down memory lane, telling us about life and times with his grandfather.
Sunday lunch in a house that never changed
When Lee Kuan Yew’s grandchildren were just tiny tots, they would be taken on walks by their Ye Ye to feed the fish at the Istana. Li Shengwu explains, “we would perch on the edge of the pond, the ripples of our breadcrumbs breaking the mirrored surface of the water.”
Like all kids, Lee Kuan Yew’s grandchildren loved spending time with their grandparents. Sundays were exceptionally special and memorable. Li Shengwu reminisces on Sunday lunches with Ye Ye:
Sunday lunch with Ye Ye was an institution for our family. His voice and his hearty laugh would carry to the childrens’ table, talking about matters of state, recounting meetings with foreign leaders whose names we neither recognized nor remembered.
For Li Shengwu, his grandparents’ house was a constant in a city of continual renewal. He remembers the white walls, the same wooden furniture and high windows that let in sunlight.
The taste and aroma of food form some of our most vivid and deep-seated childhood memories… this was certainly the case for Li Shengwu.
The meals served at his grandparents’ house were Singapore cooking at its best and in Li Shengwu’s words, “the kind that would not be out of place at a good stall in a hawker center.”
Some of Li Shengwu’s most cherished childhood memories are described on the next page.
A doting grandfather
When we become adults, time spent with grandparents forms some of our most cherished and beautiful memories.
Li Shengwu vividly remembers going on outings with his Ye Ye and Nai Nai — to the zoo, to the science centre, to National Day. For young Li Shengwu, the best thing about his grandfather’s position on National Day was that, “it came with a marvellous view of the fireworks.”
Lee Kuan Yew was a loving grandfather. In this words of his grandson, “It delighted him, at each Chinese New Year, when the grandchildren would line up to greet him and receive hongbaos.”
Even after Mr. Lee’s wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo had her second stroke in 2008, he continued the tradition of preparing the hongbaos for his grandchildren by himself.
Serious talks with Ye Ye
As Li Shengwu grew up, his discussions with his Ye Ye became more serious and mature, and they would sometimes discuss politics and the state.
Li Shengwu, talking about his grandfather when having these political discussions, says, “always he spoke with the courage of his convictions; with a certainty born of long consideration.”
Grandson and grandfather didn’t always agree however. But even though Lee Kuan Yew would have clearly had the upper hand when it came to political debate, he never argued opportunistically, explains Li Shengwu:
He never took a position he didn’t believe for a tactical advantage. The facts were the facts – our beliefs should accord with the evidence, and not the other way around. To grow up in Singapore is to grow up in his shadow; to see in our skyscrapers, our schools, our highways, and our homes the force of his singular vision.
Li Shengwu goes on to talk about his Ye Ye’s vision for the people of Singapore.
In comparison to some noteworthy plans in political history such as Plato’s Republic and The Communist Manifesto — the essence of which were “the total transformation of society” — Lee Kuan Yew’s own plans for his people were “compassionate.”
Li Shengwu explains, “his (Lee Kuan Yew’s) objective was that his fellow citizens, you and I, would know peace and plenty. He believed that education, open markets, and clean government would make the people of Singapore a great people.”
We all have first-hand experience of the success of Lee Kuan Yew’s plan. As beautifully articulated by Li Shengwu, “it succeeded so rapidly, so thoroughly, that to my generation of Singaporeans, the poverty and instability of Singapore’s beginning feels almost unreal – like a fever dream chased away by the morning light.”
Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy as described by his grandson… on the next page.
Leaving a legacy as unforgettable as the sky
Lee Kuan Yew was, without a doubt, a visionary leader and from the day he took office in 1959, fought hard to escalate Singapore to the future. Li Shengwu compares our nation to America in the following manner:
In 1959, the average Singaporean was as poor as the average American in the year 1860. Today Singapore is one of the most developed countries in the world. The Singapore economy has advanced more in fifty years than the American economy has advanced in one hundred and fifty years.
In Li Shengwu’s words, Singapore’s progress is, “less like economic development, and more like time travel”, thanks to the leadership of his grandfather.
Talking more about his Ye Ye’s great vision for Singapore, Li Shengwu remembers when once it was suggested to his grandfather that a monument might be made for him. Lee Kuan Yew replied, “Remember Ozymandias”.
Li Shengwu explains that his grandfather was was referring to the famous poet P.B. Shelley’s sonnet about Ramses the Second, the greatest Pharaoh of the Egyptian empire.
In the poem, a lone traveller encounters a broken statue in the desert. On the statue was the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains.
Interpreting this, Li Shengwu says, “If Singapore does not persist, then a monument will be no help. And if Singapore does persist, then a monument will be unnecessary.”
It is true then that Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is a living nation rather than cold stone, and as unforgettable as the sky.
The fight for “Merdeka”
Singaporeans know that Lee Kuan Yew built many institutions for Singapore.
In the final part of his eulogy to his Ye Ye, Li Shengwu looks beyond just the immediate meaning of the word “institution” . He delves deeper into the true meaning of this word and how it relates to his grandfather’s legacy:
It is often said that my grandfather built great institutions for Singapore. But what is an institution? It is a way of doing things that outlives the one who builds it. A strong institution is robust, it is persistent. It does not depend precariously on individual personalities. It places the rule of law above the rule of man.
And that is the sacrifice of being a builder of institutions. To build institutions is to cede power – is to create a system that will not forever rely on you. That this occasion passes without disorder or uncertainty shows that he succeeded in this task. We are bereft at his passing, but we are not afraid. The pillars that he built stand strong, the foundations that he dug run deep.
Li Shengwu believes his grandfather always saw his generation of Singaporeans with a mixture of trepidation and hope:
We are children of peacetime, unacquainted with the long struggle to make Singapore a modern nation-state. We view stability, prosperity, and the rule of law as our birthrights, for good or ill.
Li Shengwu points out that yes, it is true that some of the hopes of the current generation may seem idealistic or far-fetched. However, his grandfather’s hopes and dreams of turning the backwater that was Singapore into a modern metropolis 50 years ago would have seemed similarly outlandish.
The lesson to be learned from this is that with courage and clear thinking, Singapore can rise above its circumstances and be a light to the world.
Here are a proud grandson’s words to his Ye Ye, as he concludes his eulogy:
Ye Ye, you started by fighting for Merdeka – for our right to rule ourselves. I found out this week that Merdeka has its roots in an old Dutch word, meaning a freed slave. When Singapore was cut adrift from Malaysia, you adopted an orphaned nation and made us all your children.
Ye Ye, you chose to forsake personal gain and the comforts of an ordinary life, so that the people of Singapore could have a better life for themselves, and for their children and for their grandchildren. That Singapore is safe, that Singapore is prosperous, that Singapore is – for this we owe a debt that we cannot repay.
Ye Ye – We will try to make you proud. Majulah Singapura.
Lessons for our own grandchildren from Lee Kuan Yew on the next page…
What are the lessons we can teach our own kids, and someday our grandchildren from the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew?
- Always strive to realise your dreams, as unattainable as they may seem to be at the time. Lee Kuan Yew was not someone to give up easily. When he had a vision he ensured it came to fruition. This determination to succeed is a valuable lesson to be taught to our children and passed on to their children some day.
- Childhood is innocent and pure — keep it that way. Despite his title and status, Lee Kuan Yew was only ever a beloved Ye Ye to his grandchildren and featured in their precious childhood memories in a big way. He ensured they enjoyed their childhood with him, irrespective of who he was. All children have the right to remember their grandparents like this, including yours some day.
- Spending quality time with elders. As both adults and children race to keep up with the demands of a modern world, it’s easy for grandparents to get left behind or forgotten. Don’t let this be the case with your kids and their Ye Yes and Nai Nais. Make the effort to spend time with them — even if it’s once a week — like Li Shengwu did with his. Grandparents are a wealth of knowledge and love, so let your kids benefit from this.
- Respect for elders. Traditional values like caring for and respecting our elders are often lost as a country develops. It is quite apparent how much Li Shengwu respects his Ye Ye… and these are values the late Lee Kuan Yew would want to see in his nation’s grandchildren too.
You can watch and listen to Li Shengwu’s eulogy in the video below:
Parents, how do you ensure that your children spend time with their grandparents? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so share them by leaving a comment below.