Tuesday 24 March 2015

Unfounded? I found the use of the word 'founding' floundering

In his message on the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, President Tony Tan said: "Yesterday, we lost the founding father of Singapore."

In Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's address to the nation, he said: "The first of our founding fathers is no more."

An earlier statement from the Prime Minister's Office said: "The Prime Minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore."

So far in three different official statements, LKY has been described three different ways:
  • The founding father of Singapore
  • The first of our founding fathers
  • The founding Prime Minister of Singapore

Although they sound similar, each has a different meaning. The one thing they have in common is the buzzword "founding".

Before I go further, I want to make clear that I'm not here to argue about the achievements of LKY (many are already doing that), but to discuss the possible misuse of the word "founding".

So is LKY really the "founding father" of Singapore?

Weren't we taught in school that Singapore was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles and that's why we have a hotel, an MRT station and an institution named after him?

Well, you may argue that LKY is actually the founding father of "modern" Singapore. People just leave out the word "modern" for brevity.

But then I found this passage in the Singapore Tourism Board website, YourSingapore.com:
Modern Singapore was founded in the 19th century, thanks to politics, trade and a man known as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

So Raffles was already the founder of "modern Singapore". Can there be more than one founder of "modern Singapore" from different eras?

If not, how about we call LKY the "founding Prime Minister of Singapore" then?

That just sounds weird. Can't we just call him the "first Prime Minister of Singapore", which is wholly accurate although it probably doesn't have enough gravitas for some people?

I understand the desire to express the vastness of LKY's contributions to the birth and development of the nation that to describe him as a mere office-holder (even if it's the Prime Minister's Office and he was the first one to hold that office) doesn't do him justice.

And so we come up with an awkward term like "founding Prime Minister" or rewrite history by calling LKY the "founding father of Singapore".

It's as if throwing in the word "founding" would make LKY sound more impressive. That's like bringing water to the Pacific Ocean.

Somewhere Raffles must be feeling indignant: "Hey, I thought I was the founding father of Singapore!"

EARLIER: Remembering LKY: Selected photos