When reports emerged of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing last Monday, 23 March 2015, many in the international student community here echoed one particular sentiment: that if it weren’t for Mr. Lee, Singapore’s founding father and first prime minister, none of us would be here in Singapore today.
Mr. Lee’s government, for starters, had been nothing but supportive towards international students, and the Singapore government continues to be so today. Two education policies immediately come to mind: the Tuition Grant Scheme — which subsidises tuition fees for international students, in exchange for a three-year work bond post-graduation — and the ASEAN Scholarship, extended to exceptional students in neighbouring ASEAN countries.
Even more, the world class quality of Singapore’s universities is no secret. In 2014, the National University of Singapore was ranked No. 1 in Asia and No. 22 worldwide by the QS University World Rankings. Among the storied names it beat? The crown jewels of the University of California system: Berkeley (#27) and Los Angeles (#37).
But the reasons why we all left our home countries — in ASEAN, China, India — are so much more than just scholarships or subsidies.
We choose Singapore because you can walk home at 2 in the morning without getting mugged. We choose Singapore because, from fibre optic Internet to Changi Airport, Singapore is the future. We choose Singapore because many of us come from the developing world, and while chewing gum or freedom of press would be nice, Singapore is everything we want our home countries to be.
But most importantly, we choose Singapore because no matter who we are, where we come from, what god we pray to, we all have equal chances to succeed. All we have to do is work hard.
Most, if not all of these things, we can attribute back to Mr. Lee.
Whether we eventually settle in Singapore, leave for another country, or return back home, I like to think we have all been changed, for the better, during our time here. I’m not saying that Singapore is all sunshine and roses — at times it can feel like we are mere cogs in a machine, and the competitiveness can feel suffocating — but then again, is anything?
At the end of the day, we’re grateful for the opportunities — the opportunities to learn, to broaden our horizons, to better ourselves. But most of all, we’re grateful for Mr. Lee’s belief in our potential, when all we had to show for were our report cards.
As he witnessed firsthand, small things needn’t be small forever.
Correction: This post has been edited to correct a mistake on the date of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. It is 23 March 2015, not April.