ST Asian of the Year - Lee Kuan Yew: In death, he drew the nation together in grief

A woman crying as the cortege of Mr Lee Kuan Yew passes by Bukit Merah on March 29, 2015.
A woman crying as the cortege of Mr Lee Kuan Yew passes by Bukit Merah on March 29, 2015.PHOTO: ST FILE

There is no life here he did not touch or shape in some fundamental way. In life, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was for many years a ubiquitous figure, tough-minded and stern in the popular imagination. In death, he drew the nation together in grief and prompted a renewed reflection of what it meant to be Singaporean.

For Madam Toh Bok Hua, it was both simple and profound - Mr Lee's appearance in public life in the late 1950s meant an opportunity to build a better future. "I used to sit on a milk crate - we were illegal hawkers, and the policemen would come and we would run." Sometimes, the kueh she sold was kicked into the drain. "They weren't very compassionate then," she said. "But then Mr Lee Kuan Yew came along and things changed, and we got a stall to sell kueh."

To honour the man who had taken Singapore from Third World penury to First World prosperity in a generation, Madam Toh, nearly 70, joined a hushed crowd watching as a gun carriage with Mr Lee's body emerged from the Istana gates on March 25.

More than a million people showed up to pay homage to Mr Lee in the week of national mourning until his state funeral on March 29. Nearly half a million queued for up to 10 hours to view his body as it lay in state at Parliament House. About 1.2 million went to 18 condolence centres around the island to pay their respects, and leave flowers, messages and gifts.

It was a silent emotional bond, all the more powerful because it had hardly been publicly displayed before. And it persisted long after the official mourning period had ended. The strong support for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in September's General Election has been attributed in part to Mr Lee's passing, reminding Singaporeans of what they had fought for and achieved under his charge. Mr Lee was a founding member of the PAP.

 
 
 

Tanglin Halt resident Sayuti Dahlan, 82, stood quietly among the crowd in Bukit Merah when Mr Lee's funeral procession wound through Singapore on March 29. Mr Sayuti remembered that, as a young man in his 20s, he would cycle from Pasir Panjang to Tanjong Pagar to attend rallies where Mr Lee would give powerful speeches.

Standing on a stationary, open- topped lorry, he would shout: "The British think we are stupid. But I will show them that the people of Singapore can and will have merdeka (freedom)."

Mr Dahlan underlined a defining characteristic of the founding Prime Minister's legacy: "Mr Lee never used the words Chinese or Malay or Indian to describe us. He always said Singaporeans."

Mr Lee formulated the need and basis for a multiracial, meritocratic Singaporean identity - based on justice and equality for all races and religions - very early on, and it was no coincidence his death also led to its fullest expression on the streets.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong celebrated that groundswell of emotion five months later in his Golden Jubilee Rally speech. "Our shared moment of sorrow bonded us," PM Lee said on Aug 23. "Now, we don't have to struggle to find words to define the Singapore spirit or what being a Singaporean means. Now, we know that we are Singaporean."

Retired oil field consultant Gunasingan Thambiraja, 69, said: "I wish more had recognised Mr Lee and all that he did when he was alive, instead of having to be reminded. They said he was too aggressive, too hot-tempered. Whatever they said about him, he had a plan for this country."

As Mr Lee's daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, 60, put it in an April 5 column for The Sunday Times: "As everyone knows, he was not cuddly. And yet when he died, Singaporeans cried as they would for a loved one. Never demonstrative himself, he elicited demonstrative crowds in the hundreds of thousands."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'In death, he drew the nation together in grief'. Print Edition | Subscribe