Concern for Mr Lee Kuan Yew's condition mounts amid outrage at rumours

SINGAPORE - As former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew remains critically ill at the Singapore General Hospital, Singaporeans have become increasingly anxious for news about his condition.

On Thursday though, there was a strong sense of outrage among many, over the flurry of rumours and hoaxes that flew via smartphones and social media on Wednesday night announcing that he had died.

Some seasoned grassroots leaders were among those taken in by a fake announcement purportedly from the website of the Prime Minister's Office, and some foreign media went ahead to report the misinformation, only to set it right after the PMO made clear that it was a hoax.

Tanjong Pagar GRC grassroots leader Roy Yeo told The Straits Times: "Some of us got duped seeing the image passed around, trusting that once you see a certain website it is genuine."

Reader Tan Suan Jin wrote to The Straits Times Forum Page, saying: "It is appalling and in bad taste that as former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's condition deteriorates further, and when the majority of Singaporeans and many around the world are wishing him well, there are those who have the temerity and ingratitude to falsify a death notice."

Reader Patrick Tan Siong Kuan wrote in too, to say he hoped the authorities would find the culprits and take "firm action".

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Hoaxes aside, it was plain that concern over Mr Lee's health went up considerably after the PMO revealed on Tuesday that his condition had worsened.

Mr Lee, 91, has been seriously ill in hospital with severe pneumonia since Feb 5 and Singaporeans have been sending him get well wishes for several weeks, but this week it began to sink in that the end might be near for the nation's key founding father.

Tuesday's PMO statement said his health had taken a turn for the worse because of an infection. More updates have followed since, with no sign that he was improving.

On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong changed his profile photo on his Facebook page, which many read as a hint of the mood among family members and a sign that they were preparing for the worst.

 

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He replaced his cheerful photo with one of him looking atypically sombre. His wife, Madam Ho Ching, replaced her picture with one of a lotus.

 

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At the SGH, a crowd of around 100 gathered in the evening - including many ordinary people. Many wore grim expressions, hoping to be the first to hear some fresh news or catch a glimpse of family members visiting. PM Lee visited his father with his wife.

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Pictures of the crowd at the SGH circulated via smartphones and social media through Wednesday night, as news spread that servicemen in certain units had been told to be on standby.

The SGH crowd dispersed after visiting hours were over at 8.30 pm and hospital staff and police told people to go home.

On Thursday, though, there were far fewer people. PM Lee and his wife visited again.

The rumours and hoaxes on Wednesday night began circulating after someone - or some group - doctored a 2010 release from the PMO homepage announcing Mrs Lee Kuan Yew's passing, to report falsely that Mr Lee had died.

That image was circulated widely, and led to the PMO clarifying that it was not true. The PMO also made a police report.

Prominent blogger mrbrown weighed in on Twitter, saying: "Please stop posting the fake PMO screen. It says MRS Lee in the URL."

However, a number of foreign media outlets, including American news network CNN and China's CCTV, Sina and Phoenix Chinese News went ahead to report Mr Lee's passing on Twitter and in TV news reports.

The Chinese outlets later apologised and retracted the information, but CNN sparked anger among some netizens here when it posted on its breaking news Twitter account: "Reports emerge questioning purported government message about Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew's health."

Reflecting a view of many who wondered why CNN did not correct the earlier misinformation right away, Ms Joy Lee said on the CNN Breaking News Twitter site: "You didn't realise it was a hoax? That's seriously hopeless and irresponsible."

CNN later deleted its original tweet and ran a story citing a Government spokesman dismissing the doctored image as a hoax.

Mr Lee's deteriorating health has also drawn media interest from around the world, with newspapers from Indonesia to the United States devoting prime space to reports on his health.

British newspaper The Guardian ran a piece titled "Singapore prepares for life after founding father Lee Kuan Yew", noting that he had "receded from public life in recent times, but he remains a revered figure in the country he led for 31 years."

In an article titled "Singapore tries to imagine a future without its founder, Lee Kuan Yew", the Washington Post said Mr Lee's departure could have implications for the United States. "Although Singapore is not a treaty ally, Washington has for decades relied on Lee to interpret events in Asia for it," the paper said.

Indonesian newspaper Kompas reported on its website that Mr Lee was a close friend of former president Suharto, and remains one of the longest-serving MPs in the world, having represented Tanjong Pagar since April 2, 1955.

As Singaporeans and the rest of the world wait for news about Mr Lee's health, many here have begun reflecting on what he means to them and to the nation.

Ms Lily Tan went to the PM's Facebook page and said: "PM Lee, whatever the significance of changing your profile picture at this time, perhaps it is to reflect your mood at the moment, please be assured that we feel the same way as you do now - because your Father is also Father to all Singaporeans."

Many penned tributes on their own Facebook pages. A Facebook community called Thank You Mr Lee Kuan Yew that was set up late last month has attracted some 63,000 "likes".

Inevitably, there have been some making nasty comments online, only to be quickly set right by others such as Mr Jackson Yap, who wrote: "For goodness sake, be gracious and have a sense of gratitude for the good that he has done for all of us in Singapore."

And there was Mr Ganesh Sundram, who wrote in a Facebook note: "Let's show a little bit of gratefulness. Whether he did right or wrong, the man who gave us this quality of life has reached the end of the tunnel. Let him go in peace and respect."

Yesterday evening, PM Lee updated his Facebook page with a photo of the sun setting over the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bishan.

 

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He had taken the picture himself while on a walk in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park last June. He wrote: "A beautiful and serene sunset closing a long and full day."

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