The Intolerance of Grief

“If you have nothing good to say about Mr. Lee, then diam lah. The man is dead, better give him some respect.”

That seems to sum up what a sizable majority of Singaporeans feel about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. It is an unspoken sentiment that criticizing some of Mr. Lee’s more ill-advised policies, or his uncompromising authoritarian bent, ends up politicizing the death of a great statesman. It is, for the lack of a better word, a very Singaporean tendency that smacks of self-censorship and the constriction of discourse into a narrow band of acceptable opinions.

Personally, I hold Mr. Lee in very high esteem. I’ve already discussed in my previous blog post how Mr. Lee, though far from perfect, managed to overcome his personal failings to build a safe and prosperous nation. But to argue (or assume) that the death of a statesman can be anything but political is a painfully naive belief. Mr. Lee wasn’t just the founder of modern Singapore – he was also the founder of the political party that currently governs Singapore. If you were to ignore Mr. Lee’s mistakes, his proclivity toward crushing his political opponents, and his disregard for liberal democratic values, then you too are guilty of using his death as a vehicle to advance political interests. There will forever be an unbreakable connection between Mr. Lee and the PAP. To laud Mr. Lee uncritically is also to strengthen the claim to performance legitimacy that the PAP so craves. To say only the good things about Mr. Lee is also to dismiss the bad things carried out under the banner of his PAP government.

This is why the public’s reaction toward Mr. Low Thia Khiang’s parliamentary tribute speech does not sit well with me. Indifferent at best, intolerant at worst. That worries me, because Mr. Low struck a largely conciliatory tone, saying that Mr. Lee was “an extraordinary political leader” who possessed “outstanding wisdom and courage.” Yes, Mr. Low did point out that Mr. Lee was an extremely controversial figure. Yes, Mr. Low argued that Mr. Lee sacrificed the interests of some Singaporeans to achieve success. But isn’t this an honest and accurate reflection of history? Far more balanced, I would add, than the Straits Times’ special report on Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, which barely touched on Operation Cold Store, completely failed to mention Operation Spectrum, or talk about how Stop At Two led to run-on demographic harms. Sure, the Straits Times is wary of rocking the boat because its profits and newspaper license are on the line. That’s understandable. But surely Mr. Low, the de facto leader of opposition in Singapore, then has a duty to point out the limitations of the government narrative? To belittle or insult him, as I have seen from some Facebook comments, is immensely childish.

This brings me to a conversation I had with my girlfriend yesterday. When a figure as controversial and as pivotal to Singapore’s history as Mr. Lee dies, our emotional selves come into fundamental tension with our intellectual selves. Emotionally, we feel for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his family. We read about how he would sit at his wife’s bedside every night to read her a story while she lay immobile from numerous strokes. We see the man who wept on national television, too overwhelmed by the weight of a nation on his shoulders to continue. And we hear from our grandparents about how Mr. Lee personally visited the survivors of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, and promised them new flats in less than a year. He was true to his word. Emotion makes us vulnerable to empty platitudes and superficial words of thanks, because we are grieving for a good man who has passed on.

Intellectually though, we know that Mr. Lee’s death should not be treated like the death of a loved one. No one would ever dream of mentioning Uncle Bob’s alcoholism, or Aunt Mary’s criminal record at their funerals. Because these things cease to be important once they die – we want to remember an idealized version of them. But Mr. Lee is different. His death is the death of a man, but is also the death of a public icon. It gives the chance for Singaporeans to reflect on an era whose final chapter has come to an end. His mistakes and his foibles, therefore, are not irrelevant when he dies. Conversely, they become even more important, because they help us genuinely evaluate his impact on Singapore as a nation and as a society. And that, I think, is what Mr. Lee would have wanted.

That’s why, even though I don’t agree with the message behind it, I think Aflian Sa’at’s scathing remarks regarding Lee Kuan Yew are a necessary contribution to discourse. It mocks the familiar refrains used by the PAP to burnish Mr. Lee’s legacy  – that of “being able to walk the steers safely at night” or “going from swamp to city”. Alfian Sa’at may have adopted a needlessly strident and irreverent tone in this time of national mourning, but then again, is there ever a right time to be critical of Mr. Lee? When he was still in his prime, no one dared oppose him too strongly lest they have their livelihoods destroyed. When Mr. Lee stepped down from the Cabinet, people remained silent because they wanted to let Mr. Lee live out his days in peace – judging him after he passed on. Now that Mr. Lee has died, critics are still being condemned for being “too early” and “too disrespectful”. I bet that twenty years from now, Singaporeans who speak up against Mr. Lee will be told that “this is old history. Why bring up past wounds?” It will never end. Counter-narratives from people like Alfian Sa’at are what is needed in order to jolt Singaporans out of their discursive inertia.

Grieve if you want, but remember not to let that grief harden into intolerance. Now is as good a time as any to have an honest discussion about Mr. Lee’s legacy, without having to resort to ad hominem attacks or gutter-sniping. That’s how we truly come together as a nation.

54 Replies to “The Intolerance of Grief”

  1. Well, I think there are two issues:
    1) Different segments of the society differ as to what is appropriate at this moment.
    2) Some of the so-call balancing criticisms are actually questionable and deserve deeper examinations. (What if controlling the population at that time was crucial to economic success? What if birth rates are going decline anyway just like many developed nations? I think these are valid questions…)

    Why risk starting a dispute now? There’s no deadline to historical criticism. So why not show some generosity and empathy for fragile hearts now?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment! Would like to give my two cents’ worth:

      1) It’s precisely because differing segments of society hold different views as to what is appropriate that we should accommodate as many of these views as possible. If I felt that Mr. Low’s comments were inappropriate, then I can drop a comment online, or ignore his speech. But why should we pander to the most politically conservative segments of society who believe that we can only praise Mr. Lee Kuan Yew at this moment of time? By your own yardstick, only the pro-Mr. Lee, pro-PAP segment stands to gain.

      2) Certainly, just having “balance” doesn’t make your view 100% accurate. But the crucial thing to note is that everyone broadly agrees that Mr. Lee was a controversial political figure. So yes, even if I concede that his most draconian or seemingly ill-considered policies may have been justified, that should at least be up for debate. That’s the whole point of discourse! You may not be wholly right, but only by challenging the orthodoxy or mainstream narrative can we have a meaningful discussion.

      Why now, rather than later? Because I fear that the political narrative of Mr. Lee doing no wrong, and always succeeding in what he set out to do, will become accepted as the truth if we are not critical enough. Why should we allow the government to have their say, but then react so virulently and angrily when a opposition politician pays his respects to Mr. Lee?

      Thanks for dropping by.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You do realise the online diaspora, rather than the government and the PAP, are the ones who organically responded to any criticism of LKY yes?
        If we believe it’s a democracy, then let the flamers flame and get the social media backlash if they’re not in tune with the minority. I don’t really buy the whole argument that we NEED a whole discourse about the LKY era- if the majority decide it wants to remember only his good, and none of the wrongs he did, then so be it. Pontificating otherwise just seems like an exercise in futility.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Kelvin,

        I am curious, please enlighten me… When you said “if the majority decide it wants to remember only his good, and none of the wrongs he did, then so be it. Pontificating otherwise just seems like an exercise in futility.” does it mean you are saying we should adopt a dismissive attitude towards the minority?

        Would you feel that it sounds rather discriminating? If the majority can have their school of thoughts, why can’t the minority have their freedom of speech and school of thoughts? There is no enmity in differences, only different points of views worthy of same amount of respect given. Right?


    1. Hi there.

      Those are good points you raised. However, I would respond by saying that the views of the online diaspora didn’t just arise organically – again we return to the narratives surrounding nation-building and independence-era politics that the government is constantly forwarding. To a significant degree, many of their views are grounded in what we encountered during Social Studies lessons, or read in the Straits Times.

      As for the thing about democracy, definitely we should just let “the flamers flame and get the social media backlash”. But I’m not really standing up in support of the flamers and saying that we should all be like them. I’m standing up in favour of people who have forwarded the relatively moderate stance that Mr. Lee’s time in charge wasn’t as completely perfect as the mainstream media or the PAP would like to paint. The fact that Mr. Low Thia Khiang can be labelled a “traitor” and called “disrespectful” on social media seems to indicate that the range of acceptable democratic discourse within Singapore has been artificially restricted by culture and by governmental design.

      Thanks for dropping by(:


  2. Hi,

    Very much agree with what was discussed above, and I’d like to share my view.

    I have had discussions with friends and colleagues and most agree upon the necessity of Operation Coldstore, and that it is justifiable, during the rocky period of Singapore wrought with riots and political unrest. That they believe it is fine to punish others in order to get a chance at a better outcome worries me the most.

    We can, and most likely should, respect Mr Lee for building this nation and all other achievements, yet i believe we ought not to over-glorify, brush aside or worse, justify these “mistakes” or the controversial decisions he might’ve made. These would only hamper our learning from our history.

    Thanks for taking time to pen this piece.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Christopher Hitchens says it best.
    “When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intention-ed) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi,
    I totally agree with your view and it is a sad thing that majority unable to see that way. Ppl are too overcome my emotions or maybe they practice self censorship without knowing. I believe respect and having balance views are not mutually exclusive and there is nothing wrong with stating the facts and the mistakes he make. How is it disrespectful if we are stating facts? It is only disrespectful if we accuse him of things we have done. And 9 things did right does not make the 1 thing did wrong right. And giving ppl a few days to grief I feel is considerate enough. This is already the fifth day and to really grow as a nation, we must accept things with different view with an open mind. And I think lky will be proud if he see ppl able to debate and think critically and logically, afterall that what our education trying to achieve instead of letting the emotions go on for days.


  5. It’s the same everywhere Chin Wee. It wouldn’t surprise me if you received similar reactions in India, were you to criticise Gandhi, or in the US, if you were to point out MLK Jr’s hypocrisies. Just look at the French reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, with all the braying about upholding the ideals of the republic, and shouting down the view that perhaps what Charlie Hebdo represented to many people, not unjustifiably, was more complex than just freedom of expression. Would you argue that the range of acceptable democratic discourse has been artifically restricted by government design or culture, whatever that might mean, in India, France, and the US? Note that, thus far, noone has been arrested for airing negative views of LKY (falsely proclaiming his death was another matter).

    More importantly though, what’s so bad about mythologising LKY? I’m getting quite tired of this argument, championed by Alfian Sa’at and others, that making a myth of the man is somehow inherently unhealthy, when I think it’s really just a fundamental part of nation-building. All nations have myths at their heart, imagined truths binding imagined communities together. The Yanks have the myths surrounding their founding fathers, consitution, and wars of independence; the French those about the ideals of revolution and republic; the Chinese the numerous myths about Han ethnocentrism and patriotism. It’s about time Singaporeans have some national myths of our own.

    To put it bluntly, why should the majority of Singaporeans bother with a sophisticated, nuanced, and objective (insofar as there is such a thing) assessment of LKY’s politics? What is pertinent is what they think LKY meant to them, and how they wish to remember him. Jefferson owned slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer, Churchill was racist, and Gandhi apparently enjoyed sleeping with naked teenagers. These aren’t the aspects emphasised in the myths surrounding them. These flaws did not and should not stop the world from mythologising them. We should not be afraid to admit that giants walk the earth, nor should we refrain from making them seem a little taller in our tales to inspire ourselves as well as later generations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yo Yi-Xun.

      I’m willing to accept that the public reflexively lashes out against certain sentiments everywhere, not just in Singapore. But in every single one of those cases you pointed out, it would undoubtedly be better for discourse if people could freely make a reasoned case against Gandhi, or MLK Jr., or Charlie Hebdo’s conception of free speech. I’m just applying a Singaporean context to the fact that people tend to gravitate toward polar extremes and are unable to deal with cognitive dissonance when looking up at people that they admire (or despise).

      As for your point on mythologisation not necessarily being bad, I think the difference is in whether or not political parties across the board have equal access to a particular mythos or ideal. In the case of the Founding Fathers or French notions of freedom and liberty, these are heroes/concepts that were birthed centuries before they really took hold in the national consciousness. Both Democrats and Republicans can invoke the mythical influence of the Constitution, or the patriotic spirit surrounding the Founding Fathers to capture the imagination of the electorate. Ditto for France. Similarly, someone like Gandhi isn’t the sole preserve of the Congress Party – any politician regardless of political stripes can use him as a symbol of peace, independence, or dignity in the face of injustice. Or even Churchill. He no longer belongs to the Tories – Blair and Miliband have both referenced him in their speeches before.

      The crucial distinction, therefore, is that I feel that the government is engaging in nation-building at the expense of political diversity. Because for the next few decades, it is inconceivable that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew will be seen as anything but a PAP man. It is inconceivable that his indomitable spirit and unparalleled foresight can somehow be co-opted by an opposition party for their political benefit. It is a mythology structured so as to be politically exclusionary, supported by a media blitz that views history through a coloured lens. I would honestly be more comfortable if this lionization of LKY occurs when the opposition gets a stronger foothold in Parliament, rather than when the PAP is still clearly in a dominant position and is seeking to entrench its political advantage.


      1. Of course the PAP will co-opt the LKY myth. Would you expect any other behavior? At this moment, I think we have a marvelous moment of myth making that will help to bind us as a nation. It is important for a young nation to have moments of national unity like this. That is much more important than any of LKY’s flaws or mistakes, or even in the short term, damage to opposition party chances at the next GE.


  6. Hi you made very good points.. I would like to offer some observations.

    1. I agree that ‘Shut if you have nothing good to say’ is not a helpful response. But neither are commentaries and posts that adopt a smug, I-know-better-than-you kind of tone (not yours), or those that consist of nothing more than vitriol for LKY and/or insults for people who mourn him. I personally think it is this second category of pseudo-debate that’s got the shut-up camp all riled up.

    2. Admittedly, some are probably not speaking up due to fear of being censured, I guess due to the number ‘policing’ social media and naming and shaming Singaporeans who but breathed a single word that is not some form of praise. In these cases, it is as what you say: ‘self-censorship’ and ‘constriction of discourse into a narrow band of acceptable’ (I.e. Enforcing OB markers) respectively. But I feel that there are many who are simply arguing for greater sensitivity and understanding for the departed and the grieving. In this case, Singaporeans who recognize that the man also made some serious errors of judgement and acted on them to the clear detriment of a number of Singaporeans, but have chosen not to walk down this well-trodden path of calling out ‘Wait, he also did these bad things’ at this time, are doing so out of respect and a sense of empathy to many Singaporeans, who in a very real sense, have lost a man they feel has fundamentally transformed their lives for the better; in this second context, it is not ‘self-censorship’ (for fear of being censured) that’s at work but empathy/respect for your fellow men, and rather than ‘constriction of discourse’ it’s more an appeal for a temporary ceasefire based on that respect.

    3. You rightly pointed out that there is no ‘good’ time to debate LKY’s legacy; that is true. But I argue though, that there IS a ‘bad’ time, which is when thousands are visiting and (some) weeping over his body. While people who try to offer an objective critique of LKY’s legacy in the near future may still provoke some hurled accusations of ‘You ingrate’, at least the former would be speaking from a moral high ground.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. With due respect, and… I hope this counter narrative of yours and similarly others gets drowned out and be a fringe piece.

    Singapore needs this myth of LKY. Did it come across your mind that this is one rare nation buliding moment where Singaporeans can really be united for once? Let’s not deny Singapore its myth.

    Any party with good intentions can invoke this myth because LKY is more than PAP. He is Singapore.


  8. Hello, I came by your piece by way of a friend who commented via fb. Now, I don’t usually go online for the sole purpose of making a comment but tonight I made an exception.
    I think Steffen and kuants (above) made some very good observations about the psychological processes of this country in this specific time. I speak as someone who has grown up in an era dominated by Mr. Lee and many of his ideas (I graduated JC in 1998, so you do the math) but also a trained psychologist.
    What you are now witnessing – what you claim as the emotional mind taking over the intellectual mind- is a natural process of grieving. Now grief, which has been scientifically studied for decades, is necessary and unexplainable. Therefore, grief cannot be rushed nor interrupted. Therefore, it is not correct to claim (as one commenter did above) that 5 days is sufficient, implying that its time for Singaporeans to just hurry along and get on with it. I suspect that many will be grieving for more than the allocated 7 days. Also- and this is important to note- grief need not make sense for anyone except for the griever.
    You know this- we grieve in drastically different ways. The important thing is to have respect and empathy (as mentioned) for the griever, whether or not it makes sense to you. Therefore, I want to make this distinction: people are not grieving (whether in the queue, at tribute centres, at home watching reels on repeat, etc) because they WANT to, but because they NEED to. They feel compelled. It is not rational.
    (And the hasty defense of any perceived ‘attack’ or criticism of Mr. Lee’s character? That could be a form of grieving too; as you may know, many people, unable to maturely process sadness, turn to anger instead.)
    So, to interrupt, mock or to turn this whole process into satire (as Mr. Sa’at did), is perhaps the worse thing that one can do for Singapore and its people right now.
    It demonstrates insensitivity and disrespect (towards the people, not the man). And worse, it is actually committing the very thing it accuses the populace of doing. It cannot accept a contrary view. Might I gently suggest, it can be called the Intolerance of Grief.
    From a utilitarian perspective, what is this grief doing for the collective mind? Look around you- teenagers reading the papers, children asking questions about their country, acts of spontaneous generosity, thousands enduring discomfort- what do you see? I see a nation finally forming. I see pride (in their country) and I see faith (in themselves and their countrymen). What has Mr. Lee Kuan Yew done in death? He has played a role that perhaps only he can play- he has satisfied the non-rational and unconscious need of every Singaporean to belong to, or merge with, something larger and more powerful than the self. This process of collusive and collective projective identification is necessary, crucial for the sustainability of this nation-state. (See the work of Bion, Segalla on group dynamics and the psychoanalysis of organisations.)
    So, it is my opinion that we need to leave it be- respectfully. This is when the discipline of restraint is essential. In time, I believe that the myth of Lee Kuan Yew can be invoked by both the ruling and opposition parties, because the man himself said, that sustainability is the primary goal, “and whether the PAP carries on this task is irrelevant.”

    Liked by 4 people

  9. I’m really not going to dwell too much into all the finer discussions as everyone will have differing views. I agree with the need to state the truth, but its about when. If its out of fear last time not to speak, sure, keep quiet, but if its true and its not slandering, just say it when he’s alive, which a lot of people still do. However, to say it when the nation is still in mourning, when its before the funeral procession, is a mark of disrespect. Our generation has become one that lacks respect due to the belief of freedom of speech and caring only about self. By all means say more things, more hurting truth, whatsoever after the seven dates of mourning. Its not as if that will be too late. And its not as if there are no information online to argue about all his faults. No matter all his faults, all will agree he has done well. It arguable at what cost, but lets just learn to be patient and wait for a couple more days?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dr Mahatir was not a fan of LKY. Yet he exercised great restrain by saying “No matter how friendly or unfriendly we are, the passing away of a man you know well saddens you. I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise. ASEAN lost strong leadership after Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew”.
    If a long time critic like Mahathir can show respect in times of mourning, why can’t others like LTK do the same?


  11. It’s symptomatic of a particular kind of insanity when someone says that he/she hopes an alternative but fair point of view gets drowned out. Aren’t there enough indications that our government and our system is headed down the path of arrogance and blindness – where one party thinks they’ve got everything figured out? It’s all fine and dandy as long as they do, but who will warn them when they don’t have things figured out if there are no alternative voices? Frightening.


    1. But this is not about a schism caused by political tribalism. Many people arguing for greater sensitivity and restraint to be shown are not PAP supporters, and I personally know of many whom have been openly critical of the PAP in the past, and I know will continue to speak up against their policies if they feel a need in the future.


      1. You should scroll up to see the comments that contend it’s better for LKY to be mythologised and alternative views to die out.


  12. Hi,
    Lee Kuan Yew was definitely not the perfect statesman as the Singaporean media portrays him to be. Even so, I do not believe that now is as good a time as any to point out his political flaws. I have the deepest respect and admiration for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I’m sure many Singaporeans would share my respect towards Lee Kuan Yew and are currently grieved over the loss of a great statesman. It’s not hard to see why. Lee Kuan Yew dedicated his life to building the nation that we call Singapore. Yes, I am fully aware that he bankrupted his critics through libel suits, kept a tight grip on media and forced any dissidents that posed a threat to him into self-exile. Yet, as you noted in your previous post, he was a great leader in spite of his authoritarian tendencies. Lee Kuan Yew did what he did at that time because he thought it was in the best interests of Singapore. In retrospect, it is easy to point out that it was unnecessary to restrict the people’s freedoms. Could he have done it differently? Probably. The Singapore we know of today would be different, for better or worse. But the fact remains: Lee Kuan Yew only wanted the best for the citizens of this country. He didn’t consolidate his power so that he could abuse it for his personal benefit. What you wrote is right, 8 rights does not justify the 2 wrongs he made. But I think we can agree that despite his political flaws, his intentions were pure. He gave his best for our nation, so that we could live a better life. And shouldn’t that be what commemorating a person’s life be all about? Remembering what he stood for instead of critiquing what he did wrong? Public figure or not, now is the time to grieve the loss of a man who was always looking out for us. So forgive me if I get angry when people speak ill of Lee Kuan Yew in the wake of his death. Factually correct as they may be, it is just saddening to hear someone criticizing him at the moment when he is most dearly missed. There is no doubt that there ought to be an accurate representation of him and his political legacy, that can be left to after his funeral for several generations to analyse in depth. But as of now, it is not as good a time as any to discuss his political legacy.


  13. Thanks for a very well written piece! I agree that in this period of mourning we should be sensitive to mourners and respect those who are grieving. However, this should not mean that fair and reasoned criticism of Mr Lee is insensitive or disrespectful in this period – such criticism might unfortunately be hurtful to mourners, but equally requests for critics to stay silent are also hurtful to those who have been negatively affected by some of Mr Lee’s actions. So I think respect for Mr Lee and for his mourners should be graciously and reciprocally extended also to those who have different (but equally visceral and sincere) emotional reactions to his passing. In this period I feel it is important for everyone to acknowledge that our lives have been affected by Mr Lee in different ways and to different extents, and hence it is not for anyone to dictate what an appropriate emotional response should be (which is why equally it is probably unkind to make personal attacks against mourners).


  14. To add on – as a society I think we need to avoid conflating disagreement with disrespect. We can differ in terms of our emotional responses but respect the different responses because we are able to empathise with each other’s feelings. So I think Jolene is right to say that it is wrong to mock and insult others for grieving (although as Chin Wee says people like Alfian Sa’at have a role to play in this process), but then again I can see why some might feel a similar sort of psychological need to have a different emotional response (perhaps if they feel deeply and personally aggrieved by some of Mr Lee’s policies?) I don’t think it is fair to acknowledge one kind of need and deny another, so long as each respects other views. As for the argument that critics should be patient and wait their turn, I think that would have the effect of further rejecting the experiences of those who have been forced to make sacrifices in the name of progress for the nation. Being amongst the (much larger) group of people in society who have benefited greatly from Mr Lee’s achievements, I think it is not right for us to demand that those who (quite legitimately) feel differently should make yet another sacrifice (this time of their need for emotional expression) for the sake of a mourning majority.


    1. Hi Glendon, just to clarify- I didn’t mean it is ‘wrong’ per se in the moral sense to mock or laugh at the grieving process (although many would). My point really is that it is not psychologically or politically astute to do so at this time. Sure, go ahead and criticize the man and his policies, but please do not expect it be be received favourably. Read into the prevailing sentiment of the majority. I am frankly surprised that critics and opposition parties do not have a better feel of the ground, and what the ground wants. To speak in harsh tones re. the man and his supporters right now is akin to a political deathwish; you will gain no votes; worse, you turn away moderates that might very well be ambivalent about the ruling party.
      The mythologizing of the man is inevitable; all societies need myths. And yes, Moses (I wanted to reply directly to your comment but somehow couldn’t) it is possible to have this man mythologized as well as space for alternative views. It is not so black and white. Let’s not underestimate the maturity of the electorate.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Consider that intolerance of grief also applies to those who find the need to become a “voice of reason” against others who are legitimately grieving. Would you talk your friend out of grieving a parent who had passed away? Or would you do the most basic and humane thing by giving him/her space to grieve? Let’s have some faith in our intelligence to believe that history will not be written in a week. We have several lifetimes to debate on him and his policies so why choose now? It’s a little too opportunistic if you ask me.


  16. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for your varied opinions and comments. I dare say some of them (especially Jolene and Steffan) made more nuanced and intelligent points than what I wrote! Just wanted to deal with a couple.

    First, on the notion of “respect”, and recognizing that it is inappropriate to criticize Mr. Lee during this period of national mourning. We would all concur that saying something like “LKY was a dog!! Terrible leader!!” is terribly inappropriate and deserves to be called out as insensitive. But I think something like Mr. Low’s speech – where he acknowledged that Mr. Lee was an incomparable leader who had to be ruthless when needed – is perfectly respectful of Mr. Lee’s legacy. Because, as I took pains to stress in my article, paying respect to a political leader is different from paying respect to a family member.

    At no point do I believe that some bloggers and online commentators see themselves as the “rationality police”. These people aren’t trying to dictate thought. Many people striving to present a more balanced picture of Mr. Lee’s legacy are simply trying to vocalize the very complex emotions they feel toward his passing. This ain’t any different from what the pro-PAP or pro-LKY netizens are doing when they grieve. People simply have divergent opinions of Mr. Lee, because he did make some tough decisions that ended up alienating or hurting a minority of people. In the same way I believe we should give space to people to grieve, I believe similar space should be given to people trying to synthesize Mr. Lee the illiberal leader with Mr. Lee the economic visionary. It’s all about reciprocity.

    Even for Alfian Sa’at. As we know from past Facebook posts, Alfian feels marginized and indirectly persecuted by PAP rule. Lots of people came out of the LKY era as winners. They are now the homeowners, the middle class, the social climbers. But some people came out of the LKY era as losers. Perhaps they may be former communists, they may be former political opponents, whatever. Just as the ‘winners’ feel genuine grief at LKY’s passing, the ‘losers’ might feel genuine anger at LKY’s legacy. So why then is one kind of emotion permissible but another taboo? Is it just because of a government dictat to have a mourning period? Expressing one’s displeasure in a reasonable and non-vulgar manner might be cathartic for someone, in the same way expressing grief does for another. So Jolene’s points on the psychological necessity of grief can work both ways.

    Finally, on nation-building. I would say that I’m ambivalent about this point. Yes, it is indeed great for the formation of national identity. But I’m cautious because this requires us to accept a version of national unity built on the oppression or whitewashing of some minorities. Be it the trade unionists, the Barisan politicians, the political opposition, or even the economic losers. It reminds me of the philosophical thought experiment – if we could create a perfect society in every way, but this comes at the cost of trapping a tortured child in a dank basement prison for the rest of his life, would we be justified in doing it? I honestly don’t know what to think.


    1. What is the point you are beating about exactly? No one is saying the LKY is a saint. Nevertheless being negative on him now is stupid even if you do use big words. I can only surmise those doing so now are doing this because they fear the next election (LTK) or have too big a ego to let it go (Alfian) or…. are really stupid.

      There’s plenty of time in the long run to engage in alternative narrative.


      1. Thanks for the reply. My point is that even though no one is explicitly saying Mr. Lee is a saint, the overwhelming focus on only the positives and only the successes of his time in power has the effect of deifying Mr. Lee. And if people want to do this, by all means, please do so.

        But I really don’t like the idea that “being negative on him now is stupid”, because there are different ways to “be negative”. Do you seriously believe that the only proper way to mourn the passing of a leader is to focus on the good things? When Margaret Thatcher, ex-Prime Minister of the UK died, many were quick to give thanks for her economic policies. But at the same time, people also pointed out that her policies devastated the livelihoods of Northern miners and coal workers. For me, paying respect to a great leader means taking the good along with the bad, because that’s the way to do justice to his or her legacy. I’m NOT saying that this is what I want everyone to think. All I’m saying is that different people have different ways of paying respect to Mr. Lee, and you can’t just say “keep quiet about all the negative things for now.” Because many people who talk about the negatives also acknowledge the overwhelming positives of Mr. Lee’s reign.

        As for what you said about Mr. Low, well, we shouldn’t always accuse opposition politicians of “politicising” Mr. Lee’s death. As I mentioned in my post, the death of a public figure, someone as revered as Mr. Lee, will ALWAYS be a political issue whether you like it or not. Even if the PAP doesn’t intend for it to be political, I guarantee that the current media blitz will mean that it will enjoy greater political support in the upcoming elections.

        Maybe your argument was this: the PAP doesn’t intend for Mr. Lee’s death to be political, it’s beyond their control that people see it to be political. Whereas Mr. Low intended his speech in Parliament to be political, and hence he lacks respect. My response would be: Neither you or I know if Mr. Low intended use his speech for political ends. Let’s try to be fair and not speculate. I’m neither cynical of the PAP, nor of Mr. Low. One can disagree with the broader governmental narrative surrounding Mr. Lee, yet be respectful. Most of Mr. Low’s speech was spent praising Mr. Lee!

        On Alfian, maybe he really does have a big ego, and can’t let things go. But that’s only human, isn’t it? If we can excuse pro-PAP netizens for being emotional and lashing out at any criticism of Mr. Lee, then we can similarly extend our understanding to Alfian. My point is that there shouldn’t be a double standard. People are going to be emotional and irrational whether they supported Mr. Lee or not. It would be so much better if we called a ceasefire and let people express their emotions, be it grief or anger.

        Of course, if this spills over into vulgarities and outright cursing of Mr. Lee, then I will not stand for it. It contributes nothing to discourse, and is universally considered to be inappropriate. At the end of the day, all I’m asking for is greater tolerance. I respect that people who focus solely on Mr. Lee’s positives are genuinely grieving, and would never go up to them and force them to confront the less savory aspects of the past. But at the same time, it would be good if we were more tolerant toward individuals who do admire Mr. Lee and give him just credit, but also acknowledge the mistakes he made.


      2. I proffer the following observation. Negative posts about LKY weren’t the only ones to attract approbation. Even tributes to LKY that were seen as disrespectful were slammed. Such as Teo Ser Luck’s ridiculous LKY91 exercise, and BreadTalks’s buns.

        Jolene put it well. Grief isn’t rational. Like it or not, Singaporeans are treating this like the loss of a family member. To do something seen as disrespectful is just stupid.

        I think you and others are apparently discomforted because you can’t get your say during this period. I view this as partly a ego thing. So be patient, “this too shall pass”.


      3. I understand that grief isn’t rational and also appreciate that some Singaporeans are treating this like the loss of a family member. But we shouldn’t take the sentiments of one group of Singaporeans and impose it on society as a whole. Let’s say 70% (a number just for the sake of argument) of Singaporeans feel this way, while 30% of Singaporeans lean toward respecting Mr. Lee as a public figure and a revered politician. Why should we say that only the 70% of people should be allowed to speak up and focus solely on the positives, while the 30% who want to pay tribute to Mr. Lee in a more holistic way must wait till later? National mourning doesn’t mean majority mourning – we all have different ways to mourn a leader, and there should be space to allow for this.

        Now let’s tweak the numbers a little. Let’s say 50% of Singaporeans are treating the death of Mr. Lee as if a family member passed on. And 50% of Singaporeans want to respect Mr. Lee as a public figure and revered politician. Both sides feel equally strongly about “their way” of mourning Mr. Lee, and both sides are also keenly aware that they need to moderate whatever they say. Wouldn’t you agree that it seems wrong that half the nation is allowed to express their grief by saying only the good things about Mr. Lee, while the other half is asked to shut up and wait? In forwarding a more balanced picture of Mr. Lee’s legacy, people aren’t stopping their fellow Singaporeans from grieving. But in grieving by attacking posts that incorporate any negative aspects of Mr. Lee’s legacy, people are stopping their fellow Singaporeans from paying their respects to Mr. Lee. If this 50-50 scenario seems unjustified to you, then I would like to suggest that the same logic applies to a 60-40 or 70-30 scenario.

        I would strongly disagree that its “partly an ego thing” that I wrote this post and joined the conversation. As you can tell from all my previous blog posts, I have a strong personal commitment toward fostering political discourse in Singapore, and encouraging everyone to share their opinions freely but responsibly. When Mr. Lee died, I didn’t say to myself “now this is an opportunity to grow my blog!!!!” I too, was sad that such an excellent leader passed on. In fact, Mr. Lee was one of my inspirations as a young child. Today, I aspire to enter politics when I grow up. But I processed my sadness in a different way. I reflected on Mr. Lee’s legacy as a leader, and came to the conclusion that the only way to genuinely pay respect to such a polarizing and controversial leader was to bring the good and the bad of his reign together. To ignore the bad would also partly detract from the near-insurmountable historical challenges that Mr. Lee faced. To focus only on the good would make it seem like Mr. Lee’s brilliance made every aspect of governing Singapore easy. Now, I will never claim that this is what everyone should feel. But in the same way that you might sincerely and honestly feel that the only way to pay tribute to Mr. Lee is to emphasize the positive aspects of his rule, I sincerely and honestly feel that the only way to pay tribute to Mr. Lee is to accentuate the positives with the negatives. And the way in which some netizens are going round and attacking any posts with some semblance of criticism does not sit well with me. Not everyone views Mr. Lee in exactly the same light, and we cannot assume that all Singaporeans are the same.


  17. Really liked this piece. The point that needs to be made right now is not whether or not Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was deserving of the lavish glorification that so many Singaporeans are according him now; the crux of this issue is whether or not we as a society are mature enough to acknowledge the presence of other views – different sides of the story that do not buy in to the wave of emotion that surrounds Lee Kuan Yew’s demise. We need to stop adopting the binary “You’re either with us or against us” attitude towards those who do not share the views of the majority; people who have reasons for their opinions and are willing to put their credibility on the line to rationalise their stand.

    This is the first step, and the most fundamental starting point for Singaporeans to build a platform for discussions about the successes and failures of Lee Kuan Yew. To virtually lynch those who posit unpopular opinions without even the slightest consideration of the logic and evidence of their arguments is to turn ourselves into the draconian, repressed and docile citizens that Western media stereotypes us as. All of which, I might add, coming as a result not of our government but ourselves.

    Yes, we are facing a sensitive issue. But, we should take into consideration that Lee Kuan’s story does not belong to him, and neither does it belong to any one faction, however large and powerful it is. The Singapore narrative, of which Lee Kuan Yew is inextricably woven into, belongs to every one of us. Just as we have the right to glorify, romanticise, and grieve him, we also have the right not to follow the mood. The sooner society understands this simple fact, the sooner we can move past the starting line towards a balanced, respectful, and most importantly, meaningful conversation about Singapore. Nobody can help in this but ourselves. After all, we are the stakeholders of this land, this complex narrative. We are the Singaporeans.


  18. Hi,
    In your reply to Jin Meng’s comment, you seem to be missing the point that he is trying to make. The title of this piece is “The Intolerance of Grief”, and -correct me if I’m wrong- you seem to be implying that people who are grieving over the death of Lee Kuan Yew should not be intolerant of alternative views expressed about him in this period of time. You wrote, and I quote “even though I don’t agree with the message behind it, I think Aflian Sa’at’s scathing remarks regarding Lee Kuan Yew are a necessary contribution to discourse”. The thing is, nobody is stopping him from posting what he genuinely feels about Mr Lee. He is free to post anything he wants. So when you say that the minority should be allowed to post their opinions now, they can. And judging from the events that unfolded over the past few days, they have. I believe what you’re trying to say is that people should not curse and swear at the minority for posting their views about Lee Kuan Yew. But as many have pointed out, many are grieving at the loss of a man who had had a huge impact on their lives. To say anything bad about Mr Lee right now would be incredibly stupid because you’ll make yourself public enemy No.1, which is what people should acknowledge. In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Pope Fracis said: “If Dr. Gasbarri, a great friend, says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him”. In other words, people have the right to freedom of expression, but you should not expect a favorable response if you say something that the majority does not accept. Just as the 30% of Singaporeans are entitled to criticize Mr Lee because he impacted them in different ways, the other 70% are entitled to think he is “an ingrate” for not recognizing his contributions to Singapore because they are legitimately grieving. You may not agree with this sort of derogatory response, but they are indeed opinions and hence should be respected. Supporting people to criticize Mr Lee during this period of national mourning is not the right way to express your disagreement with the derogatory responses from the public. Let us not, in our quest to become critical thinkers, forget that emotional intelligence is just as important. As a blogger, you too have a responsibility to encourage people to do the right things at the right time, so that they will not engage in foolish acts such as posting hate videos on social media at this point in time.


    1. Hi Bob, thanks for your contribution!

      On your first point, that “nobody is stopping (Alfian) from posting what he genuinely feels about Mr. Lee”, you are absolutely correct. People are legally entitled to post whatever they think, so long as it isn’t defamatory or vulgar. However, when you respond intolerantly to any and all posts that contain some sort of criticism toward Mr. Lee, it makes it less likely that individuals will dare to speak up. Bloggers like Jeraldine Phneah took pains to compose posts that were both complimentary and critical of Mr. Lee. But even when they trod the middle ground and justified their stances logically and with evidence, they were being torn down by netizens who cannot stand a single bad word being said about Mr. Lee at this juncture. So even though I might have the right to post something, the potential majority backlash against my views will lead me to self-censor. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Singaporeans end up staying silent for fear of being labelled as “ingrates”. That’s what I meant when I talked about giving “space” for people to dissent.

      You also mentioned “To say anything bad about Mr Lee right now would be incredibly stupid because you’ll make yourself public enemy No.1, which is what people should acknowledge.” I feel that this is an “is-ought fallacy”. In other words, just because it is the case that saying anything bad about Mr. Lee will get you crucified in public, what I’m saying is that this ought not to be the case. To draw an analogy, if someone were to speak up about the controversial issue of gay rights 40 years ago in Singapore, they would make themselves public enemy No. 1. But this still wouldn’t justify the public rubbishing and shaming the gay rights activist. Hence, I do concede that Alfian should have been more cautious in gauging the public mood. However, what I’ve been trying to prove all this time is that the public mood itself should be one which embraces greater tolerance.

      When you said, “Let us not, in our quest to become critical thinkers, forget that emotional intelligence is just as important,” I found myself nodding in agreement. But we must not assume that critical thinking and emotional intelligence are mutually exclusive. I spent three paragraphs in my blog post talking about how a sizable minority of Singaporeans feel that the best way of paying respect to Mr. Lee would be to discuss both the positive and negative aspects of his rule. In having this frank discussion, we feel that we best honour the great man’s legacy. Yet, many of these ‘balanced’ posts still come under severe criticism, because some individuals feel that any mention of the negatives is inappropriate. Perhaps they, too, should heed this piece of advice. Emotional intelligence is also about realizing that you should not lash out at someone who is simply trying to present a fair appraisal of historical events that actually happened.

      Finally, you said “(I) may not agree with this sort of derogatory response, but they are indeed opinions and hence should be respected.” Doesn’t this seem like a double standard? If people who are moderately critical of Mr. Lee don’t deserve to have their views respected because they ‘should have judged the public mood better’, then why is it that people who engage in derogatory responses to these critics deserve ‘respect’? This is also another instance where more emotional intelligence would be appreciated. We would both agree that there’s a difference between Phneah’s article, Alfian’s satire, and Amos Lee’s immature YouTube rant. Some are obviously more acceptable and reasonable than others. In the same way, there’s a difference between someone saying “With all due respect, I feel you have over-emphasized the negative aspects of Mr. Lee’s time in power”, and someone saying “You traitorous ingrate! Better respect the man who has done so much for us.” I would infinitely prefer the former, because it encourages discourse and honest discussion. The latter adds nothing to our social maturity, just as Amos Lee’s YouTube video added nothing to our appreciation of Mr. Lee’s legacy.

      Thanks for your first comment on the blog.


      1. Hi,
        I get where you’re coming from, you think that Singaporeans should not lash out at those who are simply providing opposing views because it will lead those who have opposing views to exercise self-censorship. You wrote in your reply that what (you)’ve been trying to prove all this time is that the public mood itself should be one which embraces greater tolerance. However, wouldn’t you agree that your idea of how society works is a bit too utopian in nature? Views in the minority are always going to face a bigger backlash, simply because they are in the minority. Note that I said “bigger” backlash, because even mainstream views can get flak from opposition supporters. I have seen many comments such as “PAP lap dog” and “brainwashed by the PAP” on opposition websites as well. To wish for greater tolerance between both sides is really wishful thinking, unless you can convince the other side that your view is better. So although this ought to be the case, unfortunately it is not.

        Bringing this back into the context of the topic at hand, I do believe that people who are ‘moderately critical’ of Mr Lee should have judged the mood better, simply because they should know that it is not the right thing to do at this time. For any ‘balanced’ view to really gain a foothold in the public consciousness, it has to be through logic and persuasion. And by posting these ‘balanced’ views at a time when most Singaporeans are grieved at the loss of our Founding Father, what can they actually accomplish other than angering the majority? For instance, people arguing for gun rights will not present their ‘balanced’ case in the immediate aftermath of the Colorado school shootings. At a time when emotions are high, their ideas about the importance of the Constitution will not be taken into consideration. Rather, he/she will anger a good amount of people. Asking these people to accept his views is not the way any society should progress. Rather, there is a time and place for anything, Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy can be discussed at a different time and place when the public has come to terms with his passing.

        You said that a sizable minority of Singaporeans prefer to pay respect to Lee Kuan Yew by discussing both his positive and negative aspects. They can, but don’t expect not to have backlash from the public is all I’m saying. And to be honest, there can never be a perfectly balanced view. The author takes a stand in the article and expresses it, although he/she may provide some counter-arguments along the way. Jeraldine Phneah sought to downplay Lee Kuan Yew’s contributions and adopted a condescending tone throughout, although she did include things like “No doubt LKY has did his best and contributed greatly to our country” so that she could say “Oh, at least I have a balanced view”. I don’t contend her arguments in it, what I am disappointed at is that this piece is encouraging people like her to make insensitive comments at the wrong time, by pointing the finger at the supposedly all-powerful majority that is intolerant of ‘balanced views’ when it is impossible to do otherwise.


  19. Very insightful piece. I fully agree that grief isn’t rational. After reading through your replies, I’m not sure whether you appreciate that though.
    It seems that you support a rational, critical discourse regardless of it.
    As for the minority or the majority giving expression to their grief differently, there’s no need to ask either side to be more tolerant, they are both irrational at the moment. We just have to be patient during this grieving period. Of course if it infringes the law, the offender will need to account for his own actions.


  20. The thing is that it’s also partly a herding mentality and have adopted LKY as their “Uncle Harry” .. which like you say .. no one expects expects any mentions of the more controversial bits of his history. And the worse part is behind the keyboard people often do things to the extreme.

    I agree to this article up till a certain point. That genuine honest critic should not be slammed. However, there’s a need to distiguish what is a honest unbiased critic like LTK comment, vs a malicious senseless irresponsible abuse like that of Amos Yee. And, btw .. most people (as usual) are so quick to slam someone based on the headlines they read rather ascertaining the facts. The truth is that his speech quite badly interepreted by the bloody interpreter.

    I must say I would agree more with Bertha Henson’s “Mourn Now, Fight Later”


  21. Your words reflect exactly how I’ve felt about this situation, including the part about Alfian Sa’at, but was too lazy to type. Thank you for writing this.


  22. More than being disrespectful to Mr Lee, I held my tongue as I thought it would be immensely disrespectful towards my friends who are experiencing legitimate grief.


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