Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Singaporeans mourn Mr Lee Kuan Yew in uniquely Singaporean style

Thousands queue to pen tributes, many go online, while others buy 4D

MRS P. Pusparani had not slept well since Saturday. That was the day she rushed down to the Singapore General Hospital on hearing that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was critically ill.

This was why she was awake in the wee hours of the morning yesterday. Just after 4am, she learnt that Mr Lee had died shortly before, at 3.18 am. She was distraught. Tears gushed.

"The first placard I wrote for this morning was covered by so much tears I had to write another one," she said.

The 57-year-old housewife was at the gates of the Istana yesterday morning. She told The Straits Times: "I will grieve for the entire year. I can't imagine a Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore is Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore."

Singaporeans mourned Mr Lee in their own ways. In Aljunied, one housewife stayed glued to the television, following the news and commemorative programmes. In Holland, another woman asked family members to shut off the radio and television, unable to bear the sadness.

Thousands travelled down to the Istana, or to Tanjong Pagar Community Club (CC), or to Parliament House, to pen condolence messages and leave cards, flowers and soft toys.

But the display of grief was also orderly in a quintessentially Singaporean way, with people forming queues along Orchard Road, pinning their messages neatly onto condolence boards, using up 13,000 condolence cards handed out to mourners outside the Istana.

Many, including those who had never met him, shed tears, feeling both gratitude for what Mr Lee had done for Singapore, and a sense of loss at the death of the father of the nation and the passing of an era.

Over at Tanjong Pagar CC, Mr James Loo, 59, was dry-eyed but his heart was heavy. Fifty years ago, his parents operated a stall at the street market nearby, selling eggs and taugeh (bean sprouts). As a young boy, he met Mr Lee when the latter did his rounds of the market, talking to market vendors and solving their problems.

"The street market lay at the end of a slope. When it rained, the drains would overflow. Mr Lee took care of us. Look at the beautiful market and food centre now," he said, gesturing towards the building a stone's throw away.

The son of the egg-seller is today the chief information officer of Singtel Group Enterprise.

Across the nation, many Singaporeans from all walks of life reflected on the way their own lives had moved from Third World to First, in parallel with the development of the nation led by Mr Lee and his Old Guard colleagues.

Ms Adeline Sum's father was an odd-job labourer who eventually settled into a steady job as a bus driver for 30 years, raising three children with his seamstress wife. Growing up, Ms Sum depended on union bursaries for pocket money and to pay for school expenses. Scholarships helped her get a degree and then, a Master's. She joined the labour movement and is now, at 46, CEO of Singapore Labour Foundation.

The bus driver's daughter now sits on the board of bus and taxi company ComfortDelGro.

She said: "It was the meritocratic system set by Mr Lee and his colleagues that gave people like me opportunities in education and employment."

Opportunities in Singapore were what lured new citizens here - and many turned up, joining born-and-bred Singaporeans in their mourning.

Standing in line at Tanjong Pagar CC, Mr Stanley Lai, 46, who works in the marine industry, said in Mandarin that he emigrated from Hong Kong to Singapore in 1991 and became a citizen in 1995. Asked about his feelings when he first heard of Mr Lee's death, he paused, then said: "So many emotions. I really respect him, he laid the foundation for us and for the country. Without him, I would not be here."

Mr Sun Chen Hin, 64, left Malaysia as he did not see a future for himself there, and took a gamble on Singapore in 1969.

He went on to become a manager at a bicycle components manufacturer. Now retired, he said in Mandarin that Singapore finds its own way as a society. It is a highly developed economy that did not copy Western ideals of democracy, he said with pride, adding that he tries to make sure his daughter understands just how "unique" Singapore is.

He penned a tribute to Mr Lee in Chinese: "China has Sun Yat Sen, we have Lee Kuan Yew. Two great men in one generation. We will miss you."

Singaporeans also took to social media to pay tribute, penning messages on the rememberingleekuanyew.sg website and creating visual icons to share.

In another uniquely Singaporean habit, thousands rushed to 4D outlets to buy their pick of numbers relating to Mr Lee. The number 0318 (his time of death) was unavailable by 8am. By 1pm, numbers like 2303 (his death date) and 1609 (his birth date) were sold out, as too many had bought tickets with those numbers, and the house was no longer accepting bets with them.

But for hundreds of thousands other Singaporeans, it was another Monday at the office - although not quite work as usual. Lawyer Andrew Mak, 45, said the mood at his office was unusually quiet and sombre. "Everyone's continuing with work and getting things done. That would be what Mr Lee wanted - that Singapore continues to thrive."

muihoong@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Chong Zi Liang