leekuanyew

20 hours of visiting, and I didn't get to see Mr Lee

I was at Parliament House and the Istana for more than 20 hours last week and did not get to see Mr Lee Kuan Yew lying in state.

Then again, that is because I did not try.

I was at the tribute areas of both places, but never found the need to join the long queues to Parliament House.

Instead, I designed a poster with a photo of Mr Lee smiling broadly and added the words:

A nation stands humbled by such a lifetime of courage and dedication.

The people of Singapore owe a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid, only honoured.

Last Monday night, I placed a black-and-white one outside the Istana gate and a colour version at the tribute area at Parliament House.

Over the next few days, I returned to both places to check on the posters, spending about five hours each time for a total of more than 20 hours throughout the week. I replaced the posters when they got torn and helped to straighten the bouquets or cards that had tipped over.

In between, I also spoke to the ushers and the people who came by to place tributes, sometimes acting as a guide of sorts to those who asked for directions.

I quietly observed as people craned to look at hand-written cards placed on the tribute walls and knelt down to read the fine handwriting on the bouquets as the heady scent of roses and lilies drifted in and out with the night breeze.

When they chanced on my poster tributes, some would linger a little longer while others would clasp their hands in prayer or bow.

Then there were the staff who went through the floral arrangements to cart away the wilted ones, but not before carefully placing cards and soft toys attached to the bouquets into brown paper cartons for safekeeping.

There were also tourists who wanted to join the queue, but were crestfallen to learn it would be an eight-hour wait.

On Thursday night, a pair of schoolgirls said they had a plastic windmill, but asked if it was appropriate to leave it there since it was brightly coloured in pink and yellow.

I assured them it was perfectly all right.

Unofficial tribute corners have also popped up. At High Street Centre just opposite the main entrance of Parliament House, flowers and cards were left below a giant black-and-white image of Mr Lee, which the building management had installed over a display window.

If you had wanted to go to Parliament House to have a last look at Mr Lee but could not, take heart that many others did not either. And not because they did not care, they simply could not.

Among them would be the hardworking men and women at the various tribute centres - many of which have been open round the clock all over Singapore. But they soldiered on just so that those who wanted to pay their last respects could.

My sister went to the tribute centre next to the Jurong Regional Library. When she teared up, she was thoughtfully and immediately offered a piece of tissue paper by an usher.

For me, I came close to Mr Lee only briefly six years ago in the most unexpected fashion.

My family had just finished dinner at Boat Quay and decided to walk along the Singapore River to enjoy the cool breeze and night lights.

As we neared the Fullerton Hotel, just outside the Bank of China building, there was a narrow, temporary low bridge placed over unfinished road works.

We were about to cross it when we spied a small group at the other end. Because the bridge was so narrow, we stayed back to allow the other party to cross first.

It was quite dark and they were already halfway across the bridge when my sister exclaimed in surprise and excitement: "Oh, Mr Lee!"

And there in the dim glow of street lamps he was, dressed in a white shirt and dark pants.

He was surrounded by a few members of his security detail.

One of them said as the group approached: "No handshakes, please."

Mr Lee was soon almost within touching distance. He was looking hard at the ground - the bridge was uneven and shrouded in semi-darkness - seemingly deep in thought. His group passed us in silence.

That was in 2009, just a year before Mrs Lee died on Oct 2, 2010, after being bedridden for a few years.

A colleague remarked that if Mr Lee were alive and saw the long lines going to Parliament House, he would probably say: "No need for all this sentimentality, please get back to work and build a better Singapore."

I tend to agree.

tongmc@sph.com.sg