A Personal Tribute

Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died on Monday at the age of 91. He was a complex man and a controversial leader who dominated Singapore’s politics and development for most of its years of independence from the British. Singapore’s Straits Times rightly claims that he is “widely regarded as the man most instrumental in shaping Singapore, from the time he and his People’s Action Party colleagues pushed for self-government in the 1950s, to their quest for merger with Malaysia in the early 1960s, and their efforts to secure the country’s survival after independence was thrust on it on Aug 9,1965.”

The New York Times summarizes his legacy thus: “His “Singapore model,” sometimes criticized as soft authoritarianism, included centralized power, clean government and economic liberalism along with suppression of political opposition and strict limits on free speech and public assembly, which created a climate of caution and self-censorship. The model has been admired and studied by leaders in Asia, including in China, and beyond as well as being the subject of countless academic case studies.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the elder Lee’s son, has declared a seven-day period of national mourning. Singapore Poetry offers the following tribute-poem written by its curator.


by Jee Leong Koh

for LKY


Like you, I went to Raffles Institution. Like you,
I joined the scouts to be rugged and played chess.
Unlike you, I was not the top student of Malaya,
nowhere near, but like you I got out with the cash.

My university studies were, like yours, delayed,
not by the violations of war, but by NS,
and so I learned to kowtow to the world. Like you,
I was educated in England but in The Other Place.

Like you, grasping the powerful grip of unity,
I acquired a long-lasting taste for independence.
Unlike you, I did not found a political party,
found another party for hot and heavy action.

While you were building a society, I built a school.
Like you, I did not tolerate dissent, my boss said
in an evaluation that was Catherine Lim’s equal.
Like you, I have evolving views. Like you, I wept.

Like you, I am a writer. Unlike you, I write poems.
You wrote about your struggle learning Chinese;
I wrote about my struggle learning American;
foreigners riffing on unaffordable luxuries.

Like it or not, I’m more like you than I’m like Mao,
Mahatma Gandhi, Mahathir, Major or Madison.
Less like the Ghost than we are like the Holy Goh,
you are much more like me than God is like his Son.

Jogging in front of me in Central Park is a man,
a head all whitened, like a public man half naked.
What is the likelihood that he’s you? In my mind,
I am, like you, very likely a moving target.


The poem first appeared in A Luxury We Cannot Afford, edited by Christine Chia and Joshua Ip (Math Paper Press). The image of Lee Kuan Yew on the front of the web-post is taken from Lee Kuan Yew – Speeches Interviews Articles.

Read Joshua Chiang about coming to terms with the man, and rejecting the myth.



A Singapore poet living in New York, Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poetry, including Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, his latest collection The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press) has been translated into Japanese and published in an illustrated bilingual edition by Awai Books. A new book Steep Tea is forthcoming from Carcanet Press (UK) in July 2015. He curates the arts website Singapore Poetry and runs the Second Saturdays Reading Series in New York.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

One comment

  1. Let poetry reside not just within academic walls
    let it find its voice in the cafe, the garden, the slum, the market-place -anywhere
    though the poet is not the world’s legislator
    his words perish not—leaving marks upon hearts that listen and care.


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