29 March 2015, Mandai Crematorium, Singapore
Some years ago when I was preparing to go to university, Yeye gave me a camera. This was the first and only time he ever gave me a present. Over the next few years I got deeply into photography and took thousands of photos of my time in college. After I graduated I got a book printed with my favourite ones. I presented it to him as a thank you for his gift and hopefully to show him I had done something good with it.
Yeye was more than a grandfather to me. He was an inspiration. As a child, I looked up to him and wanted to grow up to be the kind of man he was. And even now, I still do.
We would have lunch with Yeye and Nainai every Sunday at their house. We always ate simple things: mee rebus, nasi lemak, popiah. He was never one concerned with luxury or lavishness. The idea that he would care about how fancy his food was or what brand his clothes were was ridiculous. His mind was always on more important things. He would have discussions with our parents while my cousins and I would sit by the side and listen. I would always feel a bit silly after listening. He made me realize how petty all my little concerns were and how there were so many bigger problems in the world. He made me want to do something more with my life.
He was not an especially charming man. Yet when he spoke you felt compelled to listen. Because when he spoke you knew he was being straight with you. He was not trying to cajole or flatter. He would be completely frank and honest. After speaking to him in person you knew that his speeches were not puffed up fluff. They were truly his opinions on the matters he cared most about. He would never echo empty slogans or narrow-minded ideologies; it was always thoroughly researched and well-considered perspectives. I had the privilege once of accompanying Yeye to a ceremony in Washington where he was receiving an award. Hearing him speak and watching the entire room listen made me feel so proud. His charisma came not from showmanship but from pure substance.
Yeye understood the limits of his knowledge. He made it a point to try and understand the flaws and risks of his own perspectives better than anyone else. This was especially true when it came to Singapore. He refused to let blind nationalism run this country into the ground. He cared deeply about this country and made sure that he was aware of any weaknesses that could cause us harm. And yet he was very proud of Singapore and confident that we could be better.
Yeye showed me that you could make a difference in this world. Not just that you could make a difference, but that you could do it with your head held high. You didn’t have to lie, cheat, or steal. You didn’t have to charm, flatter, or cajole. You didn’t have to care about frivolous things or play silly games. You could do something good with your life, and the best way to do so was to have good principles and conduct yourself honourably.
People admired Yeye for his brilliant mind. They admired him for his ability to lead and rally us together. They admired him for all of his staggering accomplishments. These are all true. But to me, what made him a great man was the person he chose to be. A man of character, clarity, and conviction. We should remember him less as a man who gave us great gifts, and more as a man who showed us the kind of people we could be.
When Yeye gave me that camera years ago, he wrote me a note. It was a simple note without any flowery language or cheap sentiment. He simply told me that he hoped I made good use of it. I hope I have.