Week 41: Thursday – The Lion Within

A Lion for a Nation-Builder

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What would you do when your perfect plan suddenly fails?

What would you do when everything you hoped and worked for begins to fall apart?

What would you do when you discover that you have a family or community, let alone a few million people’s lives to account for?

Those were the questions that Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew had to answer when the greatest hope of his life which was the merger of his home state Singapore and Malaysia inevitably fell apart. He believed that Singapore, a tiny territory without natural resources, would not survive if it so decides to be an independent state. He looked at the Malaysian Federation as an unbreakable chain that Singapore could be an integral part of. After all, the people of Malaysia and Singapore shared more than just geographical and political ties, they shared ties of kinship. Singapore seemed destined for the dream merger.

The plan for Singapore to be a part of Malaysia along with Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah finally pushed through. For Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s young and passionate leader who moved heaven and earth not only for the merger to materialize but for it to continue for perpetuity, the fulfilment of the merger would serve the best interests of Singapore.  It was a realization of a dream; a hopeful future seemed within closer reach. He could not have been more wrong.

It was only after two years after the merger that the irreconcilable differences between Singapore and Malaysia reached tipping point. As part of Malaysia, Singapore’s economic and social development came to a screeching halt as the Malaysian parliament blocked bills that would have ensured economic progress and prosperity in Singapore. The mistrust between the Malaysia and Singapore was palpable. But more than the mistrust, a fundamental difference in philosophy and ethos was a wedge that divided Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore believed in a meritocratic society where all races ought to be treated equally, without any form of preference of one group over another. This came in direct opposition to the core of Malaysia’s political, economic and social philosophy which held the Bumiputera or the local Malays and indigenous populations in Malaysia on a higher plane.

Neither side did not budge. Race riots and civil unrest ensued. The dream of a peaceful and prosperous merger rapidly came crashing down like a house of cards. Singapore was kicked out of the Malaysian Federation and Lee Kuan Yew found himself in the worst of times yet. Seeing your nation fragmented and your city-state be forced to declare independence not by choice but by circumstance was the painful truth that Lee Kuan Yew had to immediately deal with. As the leader of Singapore, the buck stops with him.

It was a daunting task but it was not an impossible one. Lee Kuan Yew understood that leading his people is not like some political game. It was about the future of a nation that rested on his shoulders. The situation that Singapore found herself in could have spelled the end of a dream or could become the city-state’s finest moment. The choice was up to him. Lee Kuan Yew, after the failed merger once declared to his country and to the world, “I’m not here to play somebody else’s game. I have a few million people’s lives to account for. Singapore will survive.” He embraced his call with the courage of a lion and offered his life for the realization of a dream of a desperate people. For Lee Kuan Yew, his compassion for his fellow Singaporeans fuelled his courage to fulfil the dreams of millions for beloved Singapore to succeed.

The words of Lao Tzu remind us of the importance of courage that is rooted in compassion.

Now, it’s because I’m compassionate that I therefore can be courageous;

And it’s because I’m frugal that I therefore can be magnanimous;

And it’s because I don’t presume to be at the forefront in the world that I therefore can be the head of those with complete talent.

Now, if you abandon this compassion and yet try to be courageous,

And if you abandon this frugality and yet try to be magnanimous,

And if you abandon this staying behind and yet go to the fore, Then you will die.

If with compassion you attack, then you’ll win;

If you defend, then you’ll stand firm.

When Heaven’s about to establish him,

It’s as though he surrounds him with the protective wall of compassion.

In the story of Esther, an epic story of courage that is rooted in compassion for the people of God is displayed. In a time when a plot to slaughter all the Jews by the ambitious official Haman was unintentionally approved by the king, the fate of the entire Jewish people suddenly depended on Queen Esther. For such a crucial time in history, a Jewish queen was taken as a wife and specially favored by King Xerxes himself. In Esther 4:16, Queen Esther responded to the situation before her by telling Mordecai, “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” It was a moment when a woman surrounded by the worst of circumstances decided to look heavenward and take a journey of courage and faith even if it meant that she had to place her life on the line for the survival of her people.

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody’s going to knock it down.” – Lee Kuan Yew

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