The portrait of a founding father

by Assistant Professor Terence Heng

When I heard that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had breathed his last, I wasn’t shocked – the Prime Minister’ s Office had almost prepared us over the last few days with almost daily updates. Society had just come down from the highly strung emotions of dealing with a hoax photo purporting the death of Mr Lee, and now it had finally happened. I wasn’t shocked, but I certainly felt numb. My heart broke for those who grieved for him, for in that grief, I saw the raw honesty of respect.

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credits: Jonathan Chan

When I arrived at SIT, preparations were already underway for the tribute to Mr Lee. A beautifully understated tribute room has been set up next to the auditorium, whose walls have been lined with newspaper articles. On display in the room were also tomes of his knowledge, his personality.

As Singapore’s fifth autonomous university, our duty was to impress upon our students the legacy of Mr Lee. As always, there are many ways to do this – lectures, roundtables, seminars, presentations. These are all good and, if delivered properly, highly appropriate.

But they all had one thing in common – the main aim of these methods is about the impression of information upon the audience. Hard data that, given the emotional circumstances, would mean little and absorbed even less.

But this was not the time for information or data; this was a time to remember, respect and reflect. So rather than to put up more posters enumerating Mr Lee’s achievements like a resume, I thought it would be more important to show his human side.

To this end, I proposed a series of posters of Mr Lee at his most honest. Short quotes from respected sources, and an even shorter quote from the man himself, something that everyone, especially the younger generation could relate to.

I enlisted the help of Jonathan Chan, a lecturer at SIT who is also an illustrator and artist. A high-resolution photograph felt overly polished. We wanted to express Mr Lee’s elegant frugality, and Chan willingly agreed to provide hand-drawn sketches, which he rushed overnight and delivered the next morning.

Heng and Chan putting the final touches to the tribute posters of the late Mr Lee Kwan Yew

Heng and Chan putting the final touches to the tribute portraits

Chan created two contrasting images of Mr Lee. The first is a tribute to his Fullerton rally speeches, which showed the former statesman’s determination and resolve. This was a side of Mr Lee that many of us below the age of 40 do not remember – we remember the Mr Lee of the 80s and 90s – and this was a way to illuminate his journey.

Chan explained to me his inspiration for the illustrations: “I thought about the younger man, all fire and steel. I mean the one who faced down the Barisan Sosialis party, and the one who, as a force of nature, was able to wield the entire nation of splintered and badly demoralised people together on August 9, 1965.”

Chan also told me that he wanted to draw up the other side of the late Mr Lee, “the side that people call affectionately ‘Grandfather’”, in his own words. This was how he came up with the second portrait: a jovial image, in a showcase of Mr Lee’s sense of humour. Indeed, in spite of his no-nonsense demeanour, our founding father was prone to humorous banter in his speeches, and that he often smiled, especially when next to his wife.

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credits: Jonathan Chan

I was particularly touched by DPM Tharman’s Facebook tribute, who said that Mr Lee’s legacy was about fairness and justice, one which was about making a place for others to inherit and improve. I also saw eloquence in the words of Lady Thatcher (that my wife had picked up on) and Henry Kissinger, so those went in as well.

We printed the posters at our Overseas University partner, The Glasgow School of Art (GSofA), where other colleagues chipped in to ensure they turned out right. The posters were finally pinned up in the tribute room at SIT@Dover on Wednesday, where they flank Mr Lee’s official portrait.

Change is constant, and we must remember that Mr Lee did not leave us with a nation that will never change – he never promised us Utopia. Instead, like Singapore’s very own Tiger parent, everything he did was to give us a firm foundation to get even better, to exceed even his dreams, and to create a place which the next generation knows is worth inheriting.

Assistant Professor Terence Heng is Deputy Programme Director, Communication Design, GSofA