Lee Kuan Yew: Grief, gratitude and how a nation grew closer together

The outpouring of grief and depth of emotion shown by Singaporeans following the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the early hours of March 23 was unprecedented. Insight looks back on the week in which Singaporeans mourned their founding prime minister.

It was a scene replicated across many parts of Singapore the morning after news broke that the country's first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had died at 3.18am on Monday, March 23, at the age of 91.

In homes, offices, MRT platforms and bus terminals - almost any place where a television set, radio, smartphone or computer terminal was turned on to a news channel or website - people were gripped by what they heard.

Some bowed their heads in sorrow. Others buried their face in their hands in anguish or disbelief, or offered a silent prayer.

Yet others sat still for several moments, stunned, making sense of the moment they knew was inevitable, yet somehow hoped would not happen.

Concern over Mr Lee's health had become a major talking point in recent months. He had not been seen at a public event since the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People's Action Party in November.

Confirmation of his condition came only in late February, just after Chinese New Year: He had been warded in the intensive care unit of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) with severe pneumonia since Feb 5.

Regular updates on his condition from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) gave rise to hope, worry, then dread.

On March 17, the PMO said Mr Lee's condition had worsened due to an infection, 40 days after he was admitted to the hospital. Brief daily statements followed for the next five days, each time saying he had weakened further.

Singaporeans from across the island began turning up at SGH to offer prayers and good wishes, to stand vigil, to will him on.

The hospital eventually designated a special area for them. So large were the number of people, get-well cards and flowers for the man that few knew in person, but who all said had made a significant difference to their lives - from the homes and opportunities they had, to the stability, economic security and brighter future their children now have.

A tent was eventually put up outside to shelter the gifts, cards and flowers, and the area it covered was expanded a day later.

In their messages of support, well-wishers shared a common sentiment: gratitude, whether for help given personally or in shaping the country they live in.

Mr Patrick Ang, 41, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair, and sells Singapore Sweep tickets, left a card.

He wrote to Mr Lee for help after he was robbed in his Bukit Merah rental flat three years ago. Mr Lee helped him move to a new rental flat in Clementi.

Deliveryman Zuraimi Abdul Karim, 55, dropped by with his sister to offer a silent prayer: "A whole generation knows the hardship he faced building Singapore. He's a great man to us."

Tanjong Pagar Community Club, at the heart of the constituency that Mr Lee represented for almost 60 years since he was first elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1955, also set aside space for cards and flowers.

Even though Mr Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990, he was still an influential member of Cabinet as senior minister, and then as minister mentor, until 2011. After that he remained an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC.

The crowds at SGH and Tanjong Pagar grew over the weekend of March 21 and 22, when hundreds flocked to the community club, many unable to hold back tears.

They remembered growing up when the area was filthy and dilapidated, and recalled how Mr Lee had more than delivered on his promises to improve their conditions.

Then came the dreaded news in the small hours of the morning of March 23. As the nation awoke to find that Mr Lee had died, many tuned in to television and radio broadcasts and live streaming online as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, visibly tired, told them: "The first of our founding fathers is no more."

Flags would be at half-mast, there would be a seven-day mourning period, a state funeral service. The details came thick and fast, planned with an efficiency that Mr Lee had made into a Singapore hallmark.

By the time Mr Lee's body returned to the Istana grounds shortly after noon on Monday, hundreds had gathered outside its main gates to bid farewell.

The casket was laid to rest in Sri Temasek, the official residence of the prime minister, for a private wake for family members and close friends.

Six, then 10 community tribute centres were opened across the island for the public to pen messages and pay their respects, and 18 in all were open a day later.

Over the week that followed, some 1.2 million visited these centres to leave notes of thanks in Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English. They brought artwork and craftwork, soft toys, pictures.

Some highlighted their gratitude for the policies that brought the country from Third to First World status; improved their housing; provided education and jobs. Minorities especially singled out Mr Lee's commitment to multiracialism and meritocracy. Many others said Mr Lee and the progress he brought to the country made them proud to be Singaporean.

"It is a bond that goes beyond policies," Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah said in Tanjong Pagar of the affection for Mr Lee.

"He gave this nation pride."

Lining up in the sun

THE strength of that bond was evident in the crowds that lined the streets to see Mr Lee's casket make its way on March 25 from the Istana to Parliament House, where he would lie in state.

The route was packed, some having arrived at sunrise that day. Amid the throng, a man held a plastic miniature Singapore flag aloft, and that, too, was at half-mast.

Inside Sri Temasek, officers draped the State flag over the casket, the crescent and stars lying over the head and close to the heart of Mr Lee, before carrying and laying it on a gun carriage.

As the procession made the 2km journey along Orchard Road, Bras Basah and North Bridge Road, queues were quiet, respectful. And as it reached Parliament House, there were some who cheered, applauded, and called out: "Lee Kuan Yew! Lee Kuan Yew! Lee Kuan Yew! Lee Kuan Yew!"

By noon on Wednesday, the line of people converging at Parliament's gates had grown impossibly long: stretching along the banks of the Singapore River that he vowed to - and did - clean up, and the queues snaked to Hong Lim Green, Battery Road and Coleman Street.

Thousands braved the sweltering heat, waiting patiently in line for over eight hours to file past Mr Lee's casket, even if it was just for a few seconds.

Among them was housewife Jenn Lee, 54, who grew up in Tanjong Pagar and remembers Mr Lee as her MP: "He transformed this from a shipping port into a big city, and I wanted to show my gratitude and express how blessed we are to have had him lead us."

The queues were a scene never before seen in Singapore. So overwhelming was the public's response that the State Funeral Organising Committee chose to extend visiting hours not once, but twice - from the originally scheduled 10am to 8pm, first to midnight, and then round the clock until Saturday evening.

"When we planned this one week of national mourning, we of course expected a tremendous outpouring of emotions," National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on March 26.

"But the reality exceeded our expectations."

Organisers had, by then, implemented a more organised queue system, with the Padang as the starting point - including a separate line for those who were older or had special needs. Like many public-spirited businesses and individuals had done previously, bottles of water and umbrellas were made available to those in line.

Inside Parliament House, ushers encouraged visitors to move along quickly - though individuals still made the effort to bow; some knelt, waved, saluted.

And many wept.

Try as the organisers did to discourage the public from joining the queues when waiting times were at their longest - eight, nine, 10 hours - and to head for community tribute centres instead, the crowds kept on coming.

Transport officials chipped in, working with SMRT and SBS Transit to extend train and feeder bus services past normal hours to operate round the clock.

PM Lee and several ministers visited those waiting in line to thank them for coming and for being patient. Those waiting, in turn, urged them, PM Lee in particular, to take care of themselves.

"Singaporeans aren't given to outward displays of emotion. We have a reputation for being diligent, task-oriented and focused on our work," Mr Walter Lim, who runs marketing agency Cooler Insights, wrote.

But, somehow, this reserve crumbled over the week, he added of the overwhelming outpouring of sentiment.

The queues grew longer on Thursday, when a special session of Parliament was held. There were few dry eyes in the Chamber. The most poignant reminder of Mr Lee's absence was a spray of white flowers placed on his empty seat in the House.

Outside Parliament, tributes came from community and religious groups, which held memorials and special services to honour Mr Lee and his contributions.

Political scientist Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore, who joined the queue at the Padang on Thursday night with his wife and waited seven hours, tells Insight: "You felt there was a nation out there."

Recalling how volunteers handed out apples and drinks, and strangers shared snacks and stories, he added: "We were all united. And we were all crying, we were in tears, especially when we saw the hearse."

Even the military guards who stood ramrod straight as they kept vigil by the casket struggled to fight back tears, which others dabbed away for them.

By Friday, the volume of people swelled even further. With the work-week behind them and a weekend ahead, many felt it would be all right to tough it out. Besides, with the cut-off for the queue scheduled for Saturday night, many took the plunge to stand in line.

But with an eye on the increasing numbers, and safety, organisers closed entry to the queue late on Friday night till the congestion cleared. The lines reopened early on Saturday morning. Yet when the 8pm queue cut-off time came around on Saturday, many were left disappointed.

By the time the last visitor left Parliament House at around midnight, some 455,000 people had paid their last respects in person.

Whichever way you look at it, the numbers are astonishing, said political scientist Lam Peng Er of the East Asian Institute.

The figure of 1.7 million visitors who were at the lying in state and community tribute sites translates into one in two Singaporeans turning up to pay their respects.

Dr Lam's explanation for the turnout: "For most Singaporeans, their lives were intertwined with his." Many, in person or through their parents, knew what life was like when Mr Lee took office in 1959 and the tremendous change Singapore has since witnessed.

Standing in the rain

AND Singaporeans were prepared to do it all again on Sunday - in driving rain as the skies opened up as Mr Lee's casket left Parliament House shortly after noon for the procession to the funeral service at the University Cultural Centre in Kent Ridge.

For a handful of those waiting for the funeral procession outside City Hall and across the Padang, the torrential rain brought back memories of the 1968 National Day Parade, also at the Padang, when a downpour drenched all those who were taking part.

But the parade carried on, and as Mr Lee said at a National Day dinner at the Tanjong Pagar community centre a few days after that parade: "All those who watched Friday's Parade could take heart from the display of discipline and determination in the face of heavy rain and high winds."

He added: "This is what makes Singapore take shape: the growing confidence of the younger generation that has got the gumption, the guts and the gusto to carve a future for themselves in Southeast Asia."

Waiting to wave Mr Lee off at Queensway on Sunday was Ms Wan Fatt Ngai, 64, who was a student cadet at the Padang in 1968.

"We were all wet, rooted to the ground, but nobody moved. It was so cold," she recalled, adding that she remembered Mr Lee being fiery and inspiring.

"It didn't mean anything to me then. It was only later as I looked around at the changes to the country - the houses, the clean river - that I realised the impact this man had on our country.

"It seems fitting that we are sending him off in the rain," she added.

Many who braved the downpour on Sunday, 47 years on, were students just like Ms Wan was. Others also lined the streets along virtually every stretch of the 15.4km-long route to Kent Ridge.

In all, an estimated 100,000 lined the streets. Many gathered from early morning, and others joined in from nearby churches, mosques and temples, or their homes along the route.

Wherever they stood in line, many said they were grateful for the opportunities that Mr Lee and his team opened up for them and their children. And so they designed placards, gave out flowers and cheered his name as the cortege made its way down rain-slicked roads.

After the procession passed, many headed home or to community and tribute centres to watch the funeral service. The 10 eulogies celebrated Mr Lee's dedication to his family and work, his devotion to the country, and his determination to make life better for his fellow Singaporeans.

And when the civil defence sirens sounded at around 4.30pm, many nationwide rose to join in a minute of silence, a final honour for Mr Lee.

Trains stopped at stations with their doors open, as did buses, and staff and passengers at Changi Airport.

The moment of silence over, in unison Singaporeans recited the pledge and sang the National Anthem - with sadness, but also with a realisation that it was now up to them all to take the nation that Mr Lee bequeathed to them higher, further along.

A new Singapore spirit?

THE sense of loss and grief over the week-long period of national mourning reignited what many Singaporeans feel they have lost in recent years: a sense of national cohesion and what held them together as one people.

And on this one occasion, political and ideological differences were set aside. Those who were previously content to sit back and allow critics and angry voices to dominate social media and the online space, came out to express their views.

As Mr Walter Lim noted, whether people loved or loathed Mr Lee, his death appears to have sparked something.

"For the first time in like, forever, the silent majority have made their feelings felt everywhere - online and off-line. We are not emotionless and passionless. We care and we show it when the occasion calls for it," he wrote.

"This peaceful revolt is exhibited in how many new voices have emerged. For the longest time, Singapore's online community was known to be anti-government, antagonistic and attention-seeking. With the passing of Mr Lee, a new movement amongst the moderates has emerged."

But Mr Lim feels Mr Lee's death also reunified Singaporeans, who might ordinarily be preoccupied with other concerns.

Singapore High Commissioner to Australia Burhan Gafoor said at a memorial to Mr Lee in Perth on April 1: "What began as a week of national mourning became a week of national bonding. On the streets of Singapore, there was a palpable sense of unity, a sense of community and a distinct feeling of pride in being Singaporean."

And as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted in a Facebook post, Mr Lee's death had "galvanised Singaporeans here and all over into a stronger nation ... So many world leaders I met after the funeral service said that Mr Lee's passing was sorrowful; the way Singaporeans behaved in mourning him was admirable; and that Mr Lee would be proud of this."

Dr Lam tells Insight that the events of the past week spoke much to citizens and to outsiders about the resilience of Singaporeans as a people.

"They showed that ordinary people could stand in line when they are motivated and driven by conviction. If you are an investor, you might think you've picked the right place, where people may grumble, but when it comes to the crunch, they can rough it out," he said.

"It also sent a signal to our neighbours and friends: our country is small but it is special. It is more than just high-rise buildings or a financial centre. People are quite tough and can pull together. In a way, it was a cathartic coming of age - you could say it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew's last great service to the country."

When Singapore marks its 50th anniversary of independence in August, there will be more than a tinge of sadness that Mr Lee is not there to celebrate with the nation.

But if the scenes from the seven days from March 23 to 29 are anything to go by, then there is hope for a real and renewed commitment to cherish that sense of togetherness and to collectively keep it going into the future.

It is the least that the people and the country can do to repay and honour the man who gave his all to rally and hold Singaporeans together in the first place.


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