Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

The day Singaporeans set aside differences to say 'thank you' to Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Tributes speak of a nation ready to face the future united and proud

They came dressed in black, some clutching white roses, carnations and lilies.

There were mothers who had just picked up their sons and daughters from school, civil servants with their elderly parents and lone executives who had taken an hour off their busy work schedules.

As Singaporeans from all walks of life streamed to the four condolence sites to pay their respects to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, one question awaited them at the end of the queues they had patiently joined.

What do you say to the founder and architect of modern Singapore? What can you write, in that minute or two, that can adequately sum up the way you feel?

Many simply said "thank you", going by the hundreds of little notes penned on white cards at the Istana and Parliament House yesterday.

They thanked Mr Lee for making Singapore what it is today - a country with safe and secure streets, a clean and green environment, economic prosperity and a stable political system.

In achieving this, he was a great leader destined to be remembered, many added. "Your legacy needs no statues or museums, it is all around us today," read one card.

Some tributes were written in foreign languages like Japanese and others were signed off by foreign workers, expats and tourists. A few had so much to say that they ran out of space, their words growing desperately smaller as they reached the bottom right-hand corner of the card.

Others were more succinct, like one unsigned card I saw that bore just one elegantly conceived hashtag: "#NO YEW NO US."

Some of the notes were philosophical, with many simply wishing Mr Lee yi lu hao zou (a Chinese phrase for "safe journey") in the afterlife. A few said they were glad that he was reunited with his wife and love of his life, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, who died in 2010.

Not all the authors of the notes were older Singaporeans who had lived through the Lee Kuan Yew era. Many young students penned tributes, with photo collages depicting Singapore's success and child-like drawings of flowers and the sun.

Those who were too young to know him or his politics cited those who did.

"My late grandma adores you, sir. R.I.P." was the one line on a card at Parliament House signed off simply as "Jen".

Reading it, I could not help but smile. For whether one had known Lee Kuan Yew, or agreed with him, or even liked him seemed immaterial to Singaporeans in the immediate aftermath of the news of his death early yesterday.

I have a long list of Facebook friends who wear political stripes in every colour. I've come to know that many are unafraid to voice their views, and some are downright strident and combative.

But all put aside their differences to post online tributes to the man yesterday, turning my Facebook news feed into a virtual reunion of old friends that I haven't heard from in months, even years.

Many penned simple messages thanking him and wishing him peaceful rest. Those who did not have the words posted tribute videos or links to media obituaries extolling his achievements.

"Many today and before us remain divided about the steadfast decisions you have made," wrote one friend, summing up the view of many. "However, all can see or enjoy the legacy of your decisions. Thank you Mr Lee, I am proud to share your surname."

Another friend, whose father was a political dissident arrested and jailed by Mr Lee's government in the turbulent 1960s, said: "If there is one thing your life taught me, it is that one must sometimes be more unreasonable than the toughest thug in town to make a reasonable dream come true."

For me, it felt like a rare moment of national unity that I haven't seen in a long time in Singapore.

For better or for worse, so much of the conversation here in the last decade or so has centred on the deficiencies of this nation, how discontented we have become with the status quo and how hard it is to compromise on every difference of opinion.

It was refreshing to see people count their blessings for once and be openly thankful for being able to "walk down the streets safely with my earphones plugged in, blasting away". Or for the "education I received that I'm able to read official letters my English illiterate mother is unable to", without worrying about what this might say about them or their politics.

It was great to see people here declare they are proud to be Singaporean, yesterday or any other day, and that they "beam with pride when I produce my passport to immigration officers".

So my biggest takeaway from the day after Mr Lee Kuan Yew died was not that the nation collectively grieved the loss of a great leader, but rather that it appeared ready to face the future united and proud.

And the tribute card that ultimately made me cry was the one that said: "Thank you, Mr Lee. We will not let anyone knock the country you spent your whole life to build."

ignatius@sph.com.sg


PRICELESS GIFT

"When I was growing up, I would hear my parents describe Mr Lee Kuan Yew as the greatest man alive who gave his people, especially the minorities, the ability to live with dignity and in safety.

"I could not have in my wildest dreams imagined that one day, my parents' hero would give me the privilege of working for him. Words cannot adequately describe what has been the greatest, most unforgettable, experience of my life.

"It was not possible to leave a meeting with him without being spellbound. He was the consummate teacher, giving his time and attention to every detail, even if it was just to show me how to elegantly sharpen a barb.

"I do not know why the stars contrived to give Mr Lee Kuan Yew to Singapore or why they bestowed on me the priceless gift of working for him. But they did, and for that, my family and I shall always be grateful."

- Mr Davinder Singh, chief executive of law firm Drew & Napier, who represented Mr Lee in many successful court cases


CHAMPION OF JUSTICE

"Mr Lee was a lifelong champion of the rule of law and from the outset of his tenure as Prime Minister he set out to eradicate corruption in public institutions. To Mr Lee, the worth of a legal system was to be assessed not simply by the greatness or grandeur of its theoretical underpinnings but, more importantly, by whether it operated well at a practical level to ensure order and justice in dealings among citizens and also in the relationship between the citizenry and the State.

"These ideals remain relevant to the judiciary and to our society today, as we persevere in our quest to ensure that justice is fair and accessible to all."

- Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon


FRIEND AND LEADER

"I feel very sad, we have lost a friend, a leader.

"We are indebted to him, for having served so long and for having been a good friend to us, to my late husband and to our family. We will never forget his deeds.

"We pray and hope God rewards him and his family, and keeps Singapore safe and successful."

- Puan Noor Aishah, the widow of Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak


CONSTANT REMINDER

"Over the last few years, he has never once failed to remind us how fragile our achievements have been and that it is incumbent upon all of us, the younger generation and all Singaporeans, to make sure that we keep this dream of ours to be free and independent going."

- Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing


GREAT LEGACY

"To me, he is the most important person in my adult life. As far as Singaporeans are concerned, we owe him an eternal debt for our present well-being. (After the news of Mr Lee's death) I was surprised the stock market didn't plunge at all. People are confident in the continuity, the reliability of the present Government to continue to give us stability and prosperity. I think that is one of his greatest legacies."

- Mr Hwang Soo Jin, who was MP of Jalan Kayu from 1968 to 1984