Sunday 20 March 2016

Who’s your (founding) daddy? Raffles Versus LKY: Dawn Of Semantics

Somewhere out there, Sir Stamford Raffles must be feeling kind of miffed.

That is, if he is capable of feeling anything since, you know, he’s been dead for almost two centuries.

A year ago today, if someone were to ask me to who the founder of Singapore is, I would say the guy whom Raffles Place MRT station is named after.

A year ago today was March 20, 2015.

Three days later, Mr Lee Kuan Yew died.

In a message to Singaporeans, President Tony Tan Keng Yam said: “Yesterday, we lost the founding father of Singapore.”

And the President wasn’t referring to Raffles.

After that, it became almost de rigeur to call Mr Lee “the founding father of Singapore”.

And I would have to take a second to stop and swap out the image of a rather dandy-looking British gentleman in my brain for that of an older Chinese gentleman.

Yes, there is a distinction between “founder” and “founding father”, and no one has ever called Mr Lee the “founder” of Singapore.

Unfortunately, people have called Raffles the “founding father” of Singapore.

Hence, my slight confusion.

For many of us, ahem, more mature Singaporeans, we knew Mr Lee best as Prime Minister (or PM), which he was from 1959 to 1990.

Then he was Senior Minister (SM) for 14 years and Minister Mentor (MM) for seven.

After Mr Lee retired in 2011, we ran out of abbreviations to call him. We didn’t call him “former Minister Mentor” or “Emeritus Senior Minister”. (Hello, ESM Goh Chok Tong!)

While we did call Mr Lee “Singapore’s founding father” before he died, it was only after his death that it practically became his default title.

Before I go on, I want to emphasise that I’m not in any way questioning the contributions of Mr Lee to the founding of Singapore as a nation. So don’t come after me, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

I just want to explore - with respect and dignity - other perhaps more accurate descriptions of Mr Lee that won’t make me do a double-take.

This is where I’m going to get a little nitpicky with words.

Okay, if Raffles was the founder of Singapore, to avoid confusion, could Mr Lee be the founding father of “modern” Singapore then?

That depends on your definition of “modern”.

Because according to Singapore Tourism Board website
“Modern Singapore was founded in the 19th century, thanks to politics, trade and a man known as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.”
Yes, despite having lived and died before the invention of Instagram, Raffles was considered the founder of “modern” Singapore.

What’s left for Mr Lee? How about “the founding father of independent Singapore”?

Sure, if you don’t mind adding four more syllables to an already mouthful of words.

At this point, you may ask: “Why can’t there be more than one founding father of Singapore? You know what they say, success has many fathers.”

Sure, except that President Tan said “we lost the founding father of Singapore”, not “we lost a founding father of Singapore”.


When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation on the passing of his dad last year, he said: “The first of our founding fathers is no more.”

The poignancy of the double meaning of the word “father” aside, PM Lee acknowledged we had multiple founding fathers.

(I’m not sure about his use of the word “first”, though. Did he mean chronologically? Then what about Raffles, again?)

A month later in Parliament, PM Lee further advocated that we should “remember our founders, not just Mr Lee, but the core founding fathers of the country”.

The problem is no one is going to call Mr Lee “a” founding father of Singapore. Everyone uses “the”.

It also doesn’t help that for brevity’s sake, he is often described as “Singapore’s founding father”, not “one of Singapore’s founding fathers”.

What to do?

The apparent solution lies in a written statement from the Prime Minister’s Office a year ago. It said:
“The Prime Minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore.”
Before that statement, I had never heard of the term “founding Prime Minister”. Have you?

It seemed to have been manufactured for the occasion.

Why can’t we just say “first Prime Minister”? Why must we force the word “founding” into everything?

Should we start calling Mr Yusof Ishak Singapore’s “founding President” as well?

Has any other leader in world been called “founding Prime Minister”?

Actually, yes - David Ben-Gurion, who led the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

But despite my misgivings, “founding Prime Minister” appears to be slowly overtaking “founding father” as the go-to term to describe Mr Lee as we approach the first anniversary of his death this week.

At least Raffles should be relieved, wherever he is.

- Unpublished