REMEMBERING LEE KUAN YEW

A grateful nation says: 'Thank you, Mr Lee!'

In pouring rain along the streets or glued to the TV, at home and abroad, Singaporeans bid a final farewell

In the end, it all boiled down to four simple words: "Thank you, Mr Lee."

After nearly 2-1/2 hours of heartfelt eulogies at a moving state funeral service at the University Cultural Centre (UCC), those four words summed up the thoughts of the 10 speakers, at times personal, poetic or profound.

The more than 100,000 people who stood drenched in pouring rain all along the 15.4km route for Mr Lee Kuan Yew's hour-long final journey through Singapore, from Parliament House to Kent Ridge, called out his name perhaps because it seemed the best way to say: "Thank you, Mr Lee."

Indeed, that sentiment was evident over the past week of national mourning. In scenes never seen before or likely to be repeated, nearly 454,700 people had queued for up to 10 hours through the day and night to attend his lying in state at Parliament House. Another 1.2 million went to 18 condolence centres around the island to pay their respects, leave flowers, messages and gifts.

Mr Lee, who died aged 91 last Monday, had been a father figure to the country he helped found and forge over the decades, constantly worrying about the future of his charges, pushing them to work harder, behave better, think longer term, and even have more babies because the nation needed it.

Despite - or perhaps because of - his tough love and tough-minded policies, he won the people's trust when he delivered on his promises of a better life, building a metropolis where once there were mudflats.

Little wonder then that many had hoped he would recover from his illness and attend the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the nation he played so critical a role in shaping. But, alas, that was not to be.

Yet in death, as he so often did over his long years in office, he managed to rally his people in what might well be the ultimate SG50 commemoration event.

Yesterday, the crowds made clear that they knew, or had not forgotten, what Mr Lee had done over those five decades.

Mr David Hong, 58, who had watched the 1968 National Day Parade at the Padang in the rain, braved a downpour again to send off Mr Lee.

"It's a test of our spirit and determination," he said. "Why should we be afraid of rain when Mr Lee Kuan Yew has gone through a lot more storms?"

Facility officer Sim Lye Hock, 58, who waited along Clementi Road from 10.30am, said: "It's my last chance to say goodbye... I could go to school because he pushed for it. If not for him, I don't know where I'd be now."

For over an hour, the gun carriage carrying Mr Lee's flag- draped coffin wove its way through Singapore, passing several defining landmarks.

These included the NTUC Centre and Trade Union House in Shenton Way, which reflect his beginnings as a lawyer defending workers, the Port of Singapore and his Tanjong Pagar constituency, as well as Bukit Merah, Queenstown and Commonwealth housing estates, before heading for the UCC.

There, top representatives of more than 20 countries including India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Malaysia's King Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and former United States president Bill Clinton joined more than 2,000 guests for the state funeral.

The solemn day was also marked by Singaporeans glued to their television sets or computers at home and abroad, as well as others in India and New Zealand, where state flags flew at half-mast.

In an hour-long tribute to his father, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "the light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished".

"We have lost our founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who lived and breathed Singapore all his life. He and his team led our pioneer generation to create this island nation, Singapore," he added, before going on to sketch the battles that Singapore's founding Prime Minister and his exceptional team of ministers had fought to overcome the odds and build a modern, multiracial society, providing jobs, housing, education and security.

Noting that, above all else, Mr Lee was "a fighter", PM Lee added: "In crises, when all seemed hopeless, he was ferocious, endlessly resourceful, firm in his resolve, and steadfast in advancing his cause. Because he never wavered, we didn't falter. Because he fought, we took courage and fought with him, and prevailed. Thus Mr Lee took Singapore from Third World to First."

He went on to recall Mr Lee's tireless quest to help Singapore attain self-sufficiency in its water needs, from cleaning up rivers, building reservoirs, desalination plants and the Marina Barrage, fighting back tears as he said: "So perhaps it's appropriate that today for his state funeral the heavens opened and cried for him."

He also remembered Mr Lee as a father, who although not demonstrative or "touchy-feely", cared deeply about him and his siblings.

He recounted how his father had urged him to take up meditation when his first wife Ming Yang died, and after he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He pressed the issue again in 2011, after the last General Election, noted PM Lee.

"So this morning, before the ceremonies began at Parliament House, we had a few minutes. I sat by him and meditated," he said, choking up.

Mr Lee's biggest worry, he noted, was that younger Singaporeans would "lose the instinct for what made Singapore tick", which was why he was relentless in writing books right to his last days, to share his experiences with them.

PM Lee concluded with a rallying call, urging Singaporeans to build on what Mr Lee and the pioneer generation had achieved.

"We have all lost a father. We are all in grief. But in our grief, we have come together to display the best of Mr Lee's Singapore," he said, pointing to how people had gone out of their way to help and care for each other as they waited in line to pay their last respects.

"The grief we shared brought us all closer together, and made us stronger and more resolved. Together, we came not only to mourn. Together, we celebrate Mr Lee Kuan Yew's long and full life, and what he has achieved with us, his people.

"Let us continue building this exceptional country. Let us shape this island nation into one of the great cities in the world reflecting the ideals he stood for, realising the dreams he inspired and worthy of the people who have made Singapore our home and nation."

Nine other speakers delivered eulogies, including President Tony Tan, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, former ministers as well as grassroots and union leaders.

Mr Lee's younger son, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, extended his family's deep appreciation to Singaporeans for the "outpouring of grief and affection" for his father. He gave a deep bow to the audience, joined by PM and Mrs Lee, to applause.

A young Singaporean, former Straits Times journalist and now civil servant Cassandra Chew, who had worked with Mr Lee on a book, said she was thankful to have been born in Singapore.

"We don't have everything, but we have more than most, because of your lifelong labour," she said. "On behalf of young Singaporeans everywhere, I'd like to say: thank you."

A bugler sounded the plaintive last post, followed by a solemn minute's silence in honour of Mr Lee, marked by those in the hall as well as many around the island.

After the national pledge was recited and the national anthem was sung, the funeral procession made its way to Mandai for a private cremation service. This was attended by family, close friends and Mr Lee's long-serving staff and medical assistants.

There, family members shared personal memories of the father and grandfather they knew and loved.

Mr Lee had once been asked by Straits Times editors how he would like to be remembered. Not often lost for words, he struggled for an answer, saying it was not something he thought about, nor did it matter much.

Then, he added: "This was the job I undertook, I did my best. And I could not do more."

Given the circumstances, there was no more he could do, he said, adding that he would have to leave it to people to make what they will of his efforts.

"It is of no great consequence. What is of consequence is I did my best. Full stop."

Indeed, as many recounted in tributes over the past week, Mr Lee worked relentlessly to secure Singapore's future. He did so doggedly, with discipline and determination to ensure that Singapore succeeded. His supporters knew it, his enemies and opponents knew it, and ultimately, the people whose lives he transformed knew it.

Which is why tens of thousands braved the downpour yesterday, holding up posters of him, bowing in respect, throwing flowers or waving national flags, calling out his name, and giving voice to their innermost thoughts: "Thank you, Mr Lee."

warren@sph.com.sg