REMEMBERING LEE KUAN YEW

The life may have ebbed away, but the light will continue to show the way

Mr Lee will endure not just in the landmarks bearing his mark, but in the minds and lives of his people

Shortly after midnight on Saturday, streaks of lightning lit up the night sky over central and eastern Singapore as the heavens blazed forth.

As dawn broke, a misty haze hung over the city after days of clear skies. Business in the coffee shops seemed thinner as Singaporeans, normally eager to stumble to the nearest convenient outlet for their Sunday breakfast, seemed to tarry.

It was as though they were reluctant to meet this day when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, lionised leader of the Lion City, would pass into history.

Along Orchard Road, the city's most famous boulevard, a gusting wind flung laburnum and other flowers on the road, as though the "city in a garden" felt compelled to pay its own unique tribute.

Then, the heavens emptied, pouring moisture upon the earth.

Perhaps Mr Lee would not have minded; one more opportunity to funnel every drop of water into one of the island's 17 reservoirs.

It had to happen some day, and so it has. This man who led Singaporeans to independence, not only from Britain, but from poverty, want, ignorance, diffidence - and water dependency - has made his final journey.

Yesterday, thousands braved rain and slush to travel the last mile with him, lining the road along which Mr Lee's cortege travelled to the state funeral service, wearing plastic ponchos and carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the elements. Others used floor mats they had brought for the wait against the rain. In places, the crowd was ten- and fifteen-deep.

Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands more stayed in the shelter of homes in residential estates like Toa Payoh and Paya Lebar, mostly unaware that their districts got their names from Hokkien and Malay words for "big swamp".

Such has been the Singapore journey to urbanisation and 90 per cent home ownership. Not to speak of the arboreal fantasy the island is today, with a green cover over fully half of it.

The route itself was a tribute to the man, cutting across the key sites that marked his life and career. The cortege passed Collyer Quay and Shenton Way, and between Queenstown and Commonwealth, British-era names Mr Lee felt no shame in retaining, having helped his people shed the colonial cringe long ago and, like him, look the world in the eye.

Overseas, thousands gathered in front of television sets or computers to watch the live streaming of the funeral service, wet-eyed and longing to connect with home. Others had taken a flight to be in Singapore yesterday. Just to be here.

Why would a taxi driver called Micky Tan, recovering from prostate cancer surgery, don a cap and show up in the rain to shout, "Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew"? Why would a Kala Pillay keep an all-night vigil in Calgary, Canada?

Because they wanted to.

As a proportion of their populations, the 454,700 who turned up to pay respects at Mr Lee's bier exceeded the throng at Nelson Mandela's passing. When Winston Churchill lay in state for three days, a total of 321,360 filed past the catafalque, according to the BBC's figures.

Churchill had been out of office for only ten years when he died. Singapore's founding father stepped down from national leadership a quarter century ago.

Mr Lee, who in his governing years preferred to be feared over being loved, may have been pleasantly startled by the public outpouring of grief at his passing.

And what of the potentates, the heads of state and government from two dozen nations who travelled to the island to pay him respect?

There was the young king of tiny Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who, in 2006, had sought him out for advice on developing his nation. There was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who leads the world's second largest nation, saying he had been inspired to believe he could work to transform India because of Mr Lee's record in developing Singapore within a generation.

There were Mr Bill Clinton, Mr Tony Abbott, Mr Hun Sen, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Mr Shinzo Abe and others listening to the funeral orations on Mr Lee's record - in incorruptibility, raising living standards, in providing security to their minorities and the vulnerable, in his ability to forgive historical slights in the national interest, and his devotion to family.

Thanks to the relentless media coverage of the past week, Mr Lee has come alive for Singaporeans in all his vigour. In the months and years that lie ahead, there surely will be times when the Gans and Tans of Singapore will turn their eyes towards him, longing to hear that strong voice and reassuring firmness.

In 1959, an 11-year-old Peter Gan had peeked down from his Neil Road home and spotted jubilant crowds carrying a newly elected Lee Kuan Yew on their shoulders. Yesterday, the Tanjong Pagar constituent watched him pass through the streets a final time. The next time Mr Gan looks for Mr Lee, he will not be there.

And yet, Singaporeans know he will endure.

Not just in the physical landmarks around the island that bear his mark, but in other ways as well.

He will be in their minds when they hear an incoherent in-flight announcement and wonder how Mr Lee would have reacted, when aspiring politicians hitch up their trousers and square their shoulders, LKY-style, as they approach a lectern; when parents go to bed without worrying about children having a late night out, in the confidence with which people step towards pedestrian crossings looking neither to right nor left; in the mini-United Nations that the country's work districts, shopping malls and restaurants have come to be.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, what was said of the British architect Christopher Wren could apply to Mr Lee - for Lee Kuan Yew's monument, just look around Singapore.

As he began his eulogy, PM Lee, alternating between pride for his father's life and grief over his death, said the "light that guided us all these years has been extinguished".

It was a faint echo from the poignant words Jawaharlal Nehru used for Mahatma Gandhi's death, as he broke the news to his then young nation about its first big tragedy.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew began his anti-colonial struggle admiring Nehru's words and vision.

If only for that reason, it is not inappropriate to borrow Nehru's words as Mr Lee himself departs the stage.

"The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong," Nehru said on Jan 30, 1948.

"For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts."

velloor@sph.com.sg