Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

SIA pilots gather to salute Mr Lee Kuan Yew

About 200 pilots stood in the pelting rain yesterday and saluted Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in a touching send-off for the man who once had a fractious relationship with their union.

Dressed in dark blue jackets with peak caps, the pilots of Singapore Airlines (SIA), Silkair and SIA Cargo were led by Captain Tan Peng Koon, honorary secretary of the Airline Pilots Association Singapore, or Alpa-S.

Alpa-S had clashed with Mr Lee in the past as they drew his ire over wage disputes with SIA.

But yesterday, pilots on their day off opted to pay homage to Mr Lee. They and their family members lined the road near One Marina Boulevard and OUE Bayfront buildings in Collyer Quay.

Holding umbrellas, instead of seeking shelter in nearby buildings, they waited for the state funeral procession of Singapore's founding Prime Minister. When the cortege approached, they put away their umbrellas and saluted in the pouring rain as a mark of respect.

Mr Lee had in 1980 taken the pilots' union to task for staging an unofficial work-to-rule protest in November, to demand a 30 per cent basic pay rise, among other things. After 10 days, Mr Lee, who was then Prime Minister, stepped in on Dec 1.

He summoned the union officials to the Istana and told them bluntly he would ground SIA, sack all the pilots and build a new national carrier unless all flight operations returned to normal and the airline's image, restored.

In 2003, Mr Lee spoke at a public forum and warned SIA management and pilots that there would be "broken heads" if tensions over wages continued to escalate.

Yesterday, Captain Tan said: "Mr Lee did what he had to do, the pilots then did what they felt was right. It was the past. Let bygones be bygones."

Added the 51-year-old Boeing 777 pilot as he removed his spectacles to wipe away tears: "Today, we are here to pay our respects to Mr Lee. Without him, there would be no SIA and no Singapore."

TOH YONG CHUAN