Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

13,000 messages left for Mr Lee Kuan Yew by mourners at Istana

It was 5am, and security supervisor S. N. Pillai, 50, was two hours from the end of his shift when his sister called him, distressed.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew has died, she said, crying. Mr Pillai turned on the radio and received confirmation that the former Prime Minister had passed away at 3.18am. After finishing work just after dawn, Mr Pillai rushed down by bus from his workplace at the Thai Embassy, to the gates of the Istana, where he was one of the very first to arrive by 7.30am.

He was among a handful who stood in silence until an area was set up to receive condolence messages. And by 11pm yesterday, Singaporeans had penned 13,000 messages on postcard-sized cards outside the Istana, and 2,000 outside Parliament House.

Mr Pillai said: "As a Singaporean, I have to show my respect to Mr Lee. If I don't, it's like not respecting my parents, because Mr Lee is like a father to me."

Throughout the day, people came to write tributes or leave cards and flowers. The arrival of the lunchtime crowd saw the queue snake about 100m to the front of Plaza Singapura. Boards displaying written tributes were filled and bouquets of flowers stacked in piles.

As mourners streamed in, many told The Straits Times that Mr Lee was a paternal figure in their lives.

Housewife Siti Aishah, who learnt of Mr Lee's death in the wee hours when she turned on the television, said: "He was a father of communication. He made English the language here so we can talk among races and also to the world. You're Chinese and I'm Malay but we can speak to one another."

The 50-year-old also hailed Mr Lee's stewardship. "I've seen the improvement over the years. I lived in a Paya Lebar kampung until I moved to a flat in Bedok in Primary 6," she said.

"Even (United States President) Barack Obama came to Mr Lee for advice. A big man from a big country came to listen to a small country."

Like Madam Siti Aishah, management consultant Carolyn Chin praised the high standard of governance that Mr Lee instilled. The 40-year-old lived overseas for 18 years before returning home three years ago. "It takes living overseas to make one realise how good our Government is," she said.

"He made education compulsory, looked after the welfare of so many people. It's because of him that we feel safe to be in our own country.

"I've never felt prouder to be Singaporean," she added, wiping away tears.

Many also reflected on the passing of an era. "Singapore will never be the same again. I wish he had stayed with us until the SG50 celebrations - he was there at the beginning of independence, after all," said hotel front office assistant Revathi Mohan, 31.

Retiree Robert Ngiow, 63, said: "It's a loss of a great man. I have tremendous respect for him. He is modern Singapore."

At about noon, people began lining both sides of the Istana's main entrance ahead of the arrival of the hearse transporting Mr Lee's body to Sri Temasek.

When it swung into view, spontaneous applause broke out. A few people called out Mr Lee's name. "Thank you, Lee Kuan Yew!" they shouted, as he made his final entrance into the premises.

ziliang@sph.com.sg