When the Last Leaf Falls: Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Michelle Zhu (15A01B)
Additional reporting by Valerie Chee (15S07B)
Gratitude also goes out to Mrs Cheryl Yap and Mr Siu Kang Fook from the Raffles Archives and Museum for their invaluable help
Cover photo from the Raffles Institution website

Flags flying at half mast at RI today
Flags flying at half mast at RI today

It is with considerable sadness that Raffles Press received the news of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death, as confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office yesterday morning. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who is considered one of the greatest statesman of our time and the founding father of modern Singapore, was a Raffles old boy, a school debater and a member of the 01 Scout troop.

The news of Mr Lee’s death has brought with it a tidal wave of obituaries, many lauding him as one of the greatest statesman of our time, while also mentioning his more authoritarian ways. However each of us chooses to view Mr Lee’s legacy, none can deny his contributions to making Singapore the country it is today. Yes, we were already a bustling port back in 1965, but we were also struck by a variety of social problems – unemployment was high, much of the population lived below the poverty line, and GDP per capita was just $500, a far cry from the $55,000 that exceeds even that of our former colonial masters today.

There have been numerous articles reminding us of Mr Lee’s achievements, but few of how he came to become the founding Prime Minister we venerate today. An initially reluctant statesman who devoted his adult life to building a nation, Mr Lee Kuan Yew first went to Telok Kurau Primary School and was later a student at the old RI at Stamford Road from 1936—1940, before going on to NUS (then Raffles College) and later LSE and Cambridge.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 01 Scouts, fourth from left. Image credits to Raffles Archives and Museum
Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 01 Scouts, fourth from right, bottom row. Image credits to Raffles Archives and Museum

We all know that Mr Lee eventually emerged top of his class in Malaya and the Straits Settlements, earning the prestigious Queen’s scholarship (of which only two were awarded annually), but he initially had less of a high profile in school than we might have originally thought. The Raffles Archives and Museum has kindly opened their archives to Raffles Press, but interestingly, the only mentions of Mr Lee we could find in our institution publication, The Rafflesian, were two relatively short mentions of him being involved in debate. In addition, the young Harry Lee was a scout in the 01 Raffles Scout Troop, and also played cricket, tennis and chess, but never became a prefect because of his “mischievous, playful streak”, as he later wrote in his memoirs.

An excerpt mentioning Mr Lee from The Rafflesian Issue 27 in 1936. Image credits to Raffles Archives and Museum
An excerpt mentioning Mr Lee from The Rafflesian Issue 27 in 1936. Image credits to Raffles Archives and Museum

RI was also where Mr Lee Kuan Yew met his wife and lifelong companion, the late Mdm Kwa Geok Choo. She was the only girl in RI, then an all-boys school, and they developed a friendship that later blossomed into something much more. The age-old adage that “behind every successful man is a woman” could not be truer in his case – his wife played the supporting role in his nation-building endeavours, and was even instrumental in drafting our constitution. In his school days, Mr Lee used to cycle for miles uphill to visit his wife’s house. They eventually got married in a modern day Romeo-and-Juliet-esque secret wedding in 1947 while studying together at Cambridge, fittingly, in Stratford-upon-Avon. Upon graduating from Cambridge, Mr Lee came back to Singapore with his wife and the rest, as they say, is history.

A selection of newspaper clippings over the years carefully kept and curated by the Raffles Museum and Archives
A selection of newspaper clippings over the years carefully kept and curated by the Raffles Museum and Archives

The younger generation is perhaps not able to appreciate Singapore’s transformation the way our parents and grandparents do – I think I speak for most of my generation when I say that we look at Mr Lee with a sort of detached reverence in conjunction with vague ideas of what Singapore was like pre-independence that came with Primary School social studies lessons and Secondary Two History. I will admit that my interest in Mr Lee was mostly piqued in the last few weeks, which saw me belatedly devouring books and articles about his life and legacy, and the same is true of many of my peers.

As many from our grandparents’ generation shed tears at his passing and commemorate him with ever more ambitious projects (I was honoured and surprised to meet Mr Anderson Teo at the Raffles Archives and Museum who is currently building a model of Mr Lee’s Oxley house without a blueprint, and is manually taking measurements for the project), our generation mostly mourns with posts on social media that are sincere but nevertheless reveal our lack of depth in appreciating and understanding the man. How can a generation that has grown up in relative air-conditioned comfort (literally: air-conditioning is the single biggest factor in our energy use) understand just how far Mr Lee and his team have brought us?

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It hit me today while scrolling through photos of the public paying tribute to Mr Lee that there is a generation growing up today with no first-hand knowledge of the giant at all. The photo of a two-year old boy clutching flowers and his mother’s hand reminds us that we teenagers have at least experienced Mr Lee’s charisma and determination first-hand despite not being fully able to appreciate the challenges that he had to overcome. Richard Nixon famously said of Mr Lee Kuan Yew that had he lived in another time and place, he may have attained the world status of a “Churchill, Disraeli, or Gladstone”. Perhaps, perhaps not. What is evident even on the day of his passing is that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore’s George Washington – a founding father figure likely to be deified further as time goes on and generations spring up who have never personally known or experienced the gravity this man speaks with. I watch as my seven year old sister clamours for my father’s attention as we sit in front of the TV watching tribute after tribute to the great man, even as I, only ten years older and hardly more seasoned, follow the news with a heavy heart.  Her idea of Mr Lee, and those of the children today, will come from the grainy black and white photos and the stories their grandparents tell — these stories too, may eventually fade away.

While some of his policies and his authoritarianism may have been controversial — he chillingly said that “Everyone knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one” — he will be remembered for generations after, and it falls to us to commemorate Singapore’s great man for who he is, not just the larger than life statesman with a self-declared ruthless streak but also the tender man who read his wife poems at her bedside nightly in her last days. As Singapore moves toward a less authoritarian direction with his passing, his creation of a “nanny state” may one day be seen as exactly what we needed in the first post-independence days, or strike future Singaporeans as overly harsh. Whatever it is, his policies and impact on the society will be remembered. His achievements and astuteness will be extolled long beyond his passing, but what of the man, who proclaimed in 1969 that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”, the man known for his unwavering pragmatism, but toward the end asked that his ashes be mixed with that of his wife for “reasons for sentimentality”?

Even in his lifetime, we already saw Mr Lee as being larger than life. This trend is likely to continue and intensify as we pass down the stories of his successes but not those of his personable side — which, to me at least, is a shame. We will doubtlessly remember the great statesman, but we should also try to remember, as Mr Lee’s daughter Lee Wei Ling put it, the man who is “mortal… just psychologically stronger than most people”.

One thing that struck me today on the way to school right after hearing the news of his passing was how the roads were still as busy as ever. Even as a great man leaves us, the nation he has built does not stop in its tracks. He wouldn’t have wanted it to.


The title of the piece is a variation of Mr Lee’s quote from an interview with the New York Times in 2010, where on being questioned about his mortality, he asked “So, when is the last leaf falling?”

Read more about Mr Lee’s days in RI here. The Raffles Archives and Museum will also be putting up an exhibition about Mr Lee that will be up by Thursday.

In addition, the Straits Times has published a special edition which can be read free online here, and a collection of essays written about him is here. For foreign obituaries, click here.

If you would like to pay your respects to Mr Lee, you can head down to the Istana or the Parliament House until Saturday from 10 am – 8 pm. Various sites will also be set up around Singapore for the public to leave messages; the full list of locations can be found here. Alternatively, you could leave a tribute online at www.tributetolky.org.

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2 thoughts on “When the Last Leaf Falls: Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew”

  1. Reblogged this on rabbitgoeswoof and commented:
    Thank you Mr Lee. Without you, Singapore would not be what it is today—a first world country with a prospering economy, high standards of living and quality of life. I am truly grateful for your contributions to Singapore. May you rest in peace, Mr Lee. You will always be in our hearts.

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