leekuanyew

His body rests near the Istana lawns he loved

Visitors from ministers to nurses pay respects - some stoic, some in tears

It was a fitting resting place for the body of Singapore's founding Prime Minister.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's casket was laid out in a simple room on the ground floor of Sri Temasek, the official residence of the Prime Minister in the Istana grounds.

In life, he had spent many happy moments taking strolls on the Istana's green lawns with his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo.

Yesterday, at a private family wake, the casket rested on a bed of white orchids in the two-storey detached terrace house.

More than 1,200 people paid their respects to Mr Lee, who died yesterday at the age of 91.

The mood at Sri Temasek was sombre. Staff members were dressed in crisp white shirts and black trousers, and wore a black band around their left elbow that signified mourning.

Several visitors, including political leaders past and present, also had black ribbons pinned to their shirts.

They were received by Mr Lee's elder son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Like many of his family members, PM Lee wore a white polo shirt, dark-coloured trousers and formal black shoes.

He moved among the guests, accepting their condolences and asking after them in turn.

Most Cabinet ministers and MPs were accompanied by their spouses. Others, like Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean, also took their children along.

Mostly in silence, they filed past Mr Lee's immediate family members, who stood at the entrance to the hall.

What caught their eye was a black-and-white portrait of Mr Lee. Dressed in a dark suit with a mandarin collar, he gazed to the side, hands clasped contemplatively together.

As they approached the casket, some bowed their heads. Others said a simple prayer.

Several, like Dr Lily Neo, who was Mr Lee's fellow MP in Tanjong Pagar GRC, could not hold back their tears as they left the hall.

Mrs Lee Suet Fern, who is married to Mr Lee's son, Hsien Yang, comforted her.

Tables were laid out on the verandah outside the hall, where guests lingered for a while and spoke in hushed tones among themselves.

Many of Mr Lee's old comrades, who had fought alongside him in the politically tumultuous decades past, were there to catch a final glimpse of him. They included Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Othman Wok, Mr S. Dhanabalan, Mr Chan Chee Seng and Mr Hwang Soo Jin.

The widow of Singapore's first President, Mr Yusof Ishak, Puan Noor Aishah, was also there.

Calling Mr Lee a friend and a leader, she said: "We are indebted to him... for having been a good friend to us, to my late husband and to our family. Both Mr and Mrs Lee were very gracious to us."

Among the foreign guests in attendance yesterday was Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing, who was accompanied by his son, Richard.

Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah and his wife, Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajah Saleha, also arrived in the afternoon.

Just before 4pm, President Tony Tan Keng Yam visited the wake with his wife, Mary.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, President Tan paused for long stretches at a time to collect himself. His voice was strained.

Struggling to speak at points, he said: "(Mr Lee's) passing is an end of an era, and nobody can replace him.

"But we can honour his legacy by carrying on what he has started and that is to continue to make Singapore successful and a good home for Singaporeans for many years to come."

Other ministers were also visibly emotional. Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was Mr Lee's principal private secretary from 1997 to 2000, were red-eyed as they spoke to the media.

From about 5pm onwards, more grassroots groups and others representing businesses arrived to pay their respects.

There were also several nurses, dressed in their smart uniforms.

Some were from Singapore General Hospital and others were colleagues of Mr Lee's daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, who is a senior adviser at the National Neuroscience Institute.

As the sun set and the warm lights of Sri Temasek came on, more visitors headed home, leaving small pockets of family members at the tables to talk quietly among themselves and to their guests.

The private wake ends today.

charyong@sph.com.sg