Of sniffles and snides


Tokyo, 23 Mar – I woke up this morning feeling tired and restless. Bereft of any desire to get to work, my feet trudged across the wooden flooring as I went about the morning routine. They somehow took a body that was slowly getting into gear to the train platform, when the arm, a perfectly programmed extension of the body, reached into the trouser pocket to retrieve my phone.

The commuter routine began. Masked, foggy glasses, jam-packed trains, intermittent stops. All part of the morning ride. My fingers worked the screen swiftly, scourging the Internet for news. My mind was racing through topics of interest that required updating and relayed them to fire the synapses into action. They were stopped by the Channel NewsAsia headline – Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had passed away at 91 earlier at 3.18 am.

As my train arrived, I felt insecure, shaken and struck by melancholy sadness that was tinged with a heavy dose of admiration and relief. Every sniffle around me, every listless eye peering out at the scenery whizzing by seemed captured by sympathy. It was over.

The past few days had been a Facebook timeline of tributes and prayers for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister. Famous words, unforgettable scenes, touching sequences. They all drew a picture of the person behind the face that all Singaporeans, and perhaps many Malaysians too, had grown so accustomed to seeing ever so often. The write-ups painted a demanding leader, visionary and inspirational, but also frugal and sentimental. The public domain was soon filled with messages and outpouring of sympathies for Mr. Lee from the world over. The world had soon overwhelmed this little red dot and its people. A week of national mourning in Singapore was declared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and going to work felt beyond me.

Yet by that time, my feet had already taken me past my transfer. I had scarcely anything to do besides meager tasks, but a subsequent inquiry revealed that the condolence books at overseas missions would not be open until the next day. They would remain so till the weekend to allow citizens and friends of Singapore to offer their condolences to Mr. Lee, the most influential Asian leader that I’ve lived under.

Just a few years back, he was still attending conferences and making trips across the world to cement Singapore’s position in the global arena. The tireless spirit has finally left its citizens with a huge void to fill and a legacy of a first class nation. The rise of this tiny island from a third world nation to the world’s third in per capita GDP is a story that will inspire generations to come.

As part of a largely non-English corporate propaganda churning unit, I was invariably tasked with drafting private letters to my fellow countrymen. Laughs turned to sniggers, sniffs sounded like snorts. Insensitivity is an understatement. A simple direct instruction was viewed as a blatant order to punish the eternally-contracted foreigner.

The public domain was already full of templates and expressions. A gathering of them would do the job perfectly, but the senses left my fingers as they clutched and clasped at my head, struggling to claw the right words out for someone else. The limbs worked, sometimes in a flurry, sometimes stationary. Three paragraphs settled, done, I left the office deflated and eager to find my own words.

I hope they will come to me in time, before my legs take me to the Embassy to stand before the condolence book ready to pen in my entry. My synapses and internal wiring would not be trusted to do a job that would end up entirely mechanical, devoid of emotion. I shall draw on my upbringing, education and childhood to express my gratitude, and then move on. Just like in Singapore, we stop, but only for a week to remember. Thank you Mr. Lee.

– updated 24 Mar

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