REMEMBERING LEE KUAN YEW

Sprinting to the Padang for a last farewell

Some could not make the queue as it had to be closed as scheduled for the Padang to be prepped for the state funeral's 21-gun salute

It has been a four-day marathon that closed with a sprint.

With the queue to bid a final farewell to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set to close at 8pm last night, hundreds of people literally ran the distance between City Hall MRT and the Padang in the minutes leading up to the cut-off.

Some slid past the start point in the nick of time, while others found themselves pleading with marshals to let them join family members in line who were just a few steps quicker.

"I was overseas till today," said 42-year-old sales manager Susan Lee. "But I got here just two or three minutes late and it was closed. I wanted to be there in front of the man."

But given the substantial preparations needed for today's procession and state funeral, organisers could not afford to close the line any later than scheduled.

At the hour of closing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong walked around the Padang, thanking people for braving the waits that stretched up to 10 hours at times.

After four days, 442,297 people had filed past Mr Lee's casket as of 10pm last night, in scenes PM Lee called "extraordinary and deeply moving".

Mr Lee, who was Singapore's Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, died on Monday, aged 91.

Speaking to reporters at the Padang last night, PM Lee said the past week of public mourning for Mr Lee has been "a tremendous, unique experience for Singaporeans".

But he said that the line had to end because the Padang needed to be prepped for a 21-gun salute today to honour Mr Lee.

"I hope that we will focus ourselves on the (funeral) ceremony, which is a very important one, and I hope that we will share the moment together," he said.

Earlier in the day, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that all the 18 community tribute sites across the island will be open 24 hours to accommodate those who missed their chance to join the queue.

More than a million have visited the tribute sites in the past week.

"This is a number which we never really expected to be so large, just the huge outpouring of emotion from Singapore people for Mr Lee," DPM Teo said at the Padang. "We want to thank everyone who came for their patience and understanding, and their spirit was really a Singapore spirit."

The scene throughout yesterday was calm compared to the night before when organisers had to abruptly suspend the queue at 10pm as crowds swelled beyond safety limits.

Ms Zhou Xin Jie, a marketing executive, arrived at 2am with boyfriend Yap Wei Jie, both 32, while the queue was still suspended. They waited until 6.15am when the suspension was lifted and reached Parliament House at 9am.

"We wanted to do it regardless of how long it would take," she said.

Those who came subsequently reported eased queue times of three to five hours through the day. But as the cut-off approached, the crowd swelled and by 6pm, the estimated queueing time had risen to eight hours.

"Throughout the last four days, neither heat, rain, crowd nor confusion did anything to dispel a collective sense of unity and historical purpose among the hundreds of thousands who came.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime event, so there was no stopping me," said 62-year-old retiree Sam Yan.

rchang@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh and Yeo Sam Jo