Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's lying in state: 10 things to know about Parliament House

SINGAPORE - Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first Prime Minister, is lying in state at Parliament House until Saturday, March 28.

The hall that holds his bier is a new building erected in 2000. The Chamber of the old Parliament House, now called The Arts House, where Mr Lee gave many fiery speeches, has become a venue for arts events.

A special Parliament sitting was held on March 26 to pay tribute to Mr Lee.

Here are 10 things about Singapore's two Parliament Houses, new and old:

1. One used to be a court house and a storehouse

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The old Parliament House was re-purposed many times. It was designed to be the home of English merchant John Argyle Maxwell in 1827, but he never moved into it and leased it to the Government instead.

It became Singapore's first court house, then Supreme Court. From 1939 to 1953, the semi-derelict structure became a government storehouse.

In 1953, it was renovated at the cost of $1 million to house the new Legislative Assembly, and it was named Assembly House.

In 1965, when Singapore separated from Malaysia, it was re-named Parliament House. Numerous issues of the day were debated in its Chamber, which was built for 48 Members of Parliament.

When the number of MPs swelled to 90, the new Parliament House was planned, and completed in 1999.

2. The longest-serving parliamentarian

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From 1955 to 2015, the late Mr Lee served 60 years as a parliamentarian.

In 1955 Legislative Assembly elections, he won a seat in Tanjong Pagar. Back then, the elected representatives had to share power with the colonial authorities. The newly formed People's Action Party won three seats, and was the main opposition in Parliament. The Labour Front's chairman David Marshall became Singapore's Chief Minister.

3. Electrifying speeches captured in ink

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The verbal duels between Mr Marshall and Mr Lee in those early years were legendary. They are captured in charcoal and Indian ink sketches by Australian artist Don Badior, then an employee of The Straits Times.

The drawings that portray the defiant postures of the young Mr Lee and the animated gestures of the former Chief Minister are now hanging in the Singapore Parliamentary Society Room.

4. In the 1950s and 1960s, Parliamentary sittings stretched through the night

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The Speaker of the House now hurries members along if they speak too long, but fireworks flew between the Barisan Sosialis and the People's Action Party then.

Then caretaker Ah Koon remembers that he could leave the building only at 6am or 7am the next day.

Former Barisan Sosialis leader Lee Siew Choh holds the record for making the longest speech within one sitting of Parliament. On April 9, 1963, he spoke from 11.19pm to 5.48am the next day. Total time, excluding short breaks: 6 hours 5 minutes.

5. Mr Lee's secret to giving a great speech

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For Mr Lee, he had to be keyed up about what he was to speak on. He did not rely on a script, nor did he rehearse his speeches.

"I have found that if you are not keyed up before, you will not make a good speech," he said in a book about the Singapore Parliament published in 2000.

"I make a better impact on my audience just by being myself and taking the audience through my thought processes," he added.

6. The Mace

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The Mace is the symbol of authority of Parliament. Before each Parliamentary sitting, the Serjeant-at-Arms marches into the Chamber with the Mace on his right shoulder, and the Speaker follows.

During the sitting, the Mace is placed on the "Table of the House", a long table that divides the Chamber down the middle. This signifies that Parliament is in session.

7. The current Parliament House

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The Parliament House now in use is five times the size of the old House. Its stately facade mimics the Colonial buildings in the Civic district, but it is fitted with technological updates like an electronic voting system, integrated audio, video and interpretation systems, and robotic cameras for TV broadcasts. There is even a gymnasium for members of the house to work out before or after a debate.

8. It's what is inside that matters

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When MPs walked over from the old to the new building on Sept 6, 1999, Mr Lee said: "The importance of this Chamber did not and does not depend on its size or grandeur but upon the quality of the men and women who occupy it as representatives of the people. The premises we are moving to is within our sense of proportion. It's better furnished, more spacious but not one of the magnificent and awe-inspiring edifices that many new nations put up."

9. For many years, a one-party Parliament

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Singapore's Parliament is unique in democratic regimes for having been dominated by one party since the PAP won power in 1959. The party won 43 out of 51 seats in that election.

From 1968 till 1981, the PAP won all seats in Parliament in consecutive general elections.

The PAP's monopoly cracked in 1981, Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam won the Anson seat in a by-election and became the first politician to win a seat in Parliament in decades.

Then in the 1984 General Election, opposition politician Chiam See Tong was elected in Potong Pasir, and Mr Jeyaretnam held on to his Anson seat.

10. Mr Lee celebrated his 90th birthday in Parliament

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Against his doctors' advice, Mr Lee attended Parliament on his 90th birthday, which fell on Sept 16, 2013. He was had been hospitalised and put on a drip, but he insisted on turning up.

In the Members' Room, all the MPs - PAP, Opposition and Nominated - sang Happy Birthday to Mr Lee.

chuimin@sph.com.sg