Lee Kuan Yew

My five hours in the Padang queue which is Mr Lee's SG50 heart map

On Sunday night, I found some old YouTube videos of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and listened to them while I was in the office putting together the next day's paper. I found it strangely soothing and I realised, for the first time, that his voice had the ability to stir something in me - not awe, not fear, but comfort. His voice actually reminded me of home.

Then the next morning, the bad news came. There was no time to be sad - I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. For the next four days, I sieved through hundreds of photos, articles and videos every day. Whenever something moved me, I bit my lip and reminded myself: "I must not cry at work. I must be professional."

I knew I needed a proper time to grieve, so I made up my mind to go down to Parliament House on my day off today despite the daunting queues. Before I left home at 4.45am, I checked the Remembering Lee Kuan Yew website and the estimated waiting time was eight hours. So what? I had all day.

I took a cab and alighted at the junction of Beach Road and Bras Basah Road when I spotted the snaking queues at the Civilian War Memorial.

"Good luck! Maybe a kind soul will let you take his spot," the cabby said cheerily to me as I got off. My eyes followed the ant-like line of people and I realised the start of the queue must be somewhere at Swissotel The Stamford. After about 10 minutes of wandering about, I finally found it and joined the crowd.

The place was bursting at the seams - it was as if no one was sleeping in Singapore. There were no ushers and no barricades but the crowd somehow knew to snake around to maximise the standing space.

I spotted a group of MediaCorp stars in front of me, including Zoe Tay, Xiang Yun, Chen Hanwei, Zheng Geping and Hong Huifang. They were all dressed in black or white and kept quietly to themselves.

As we neared the City Hall MRT exit, another line appeared from nowhere and merged with my line. I don't think they were cutting into my queue - these people probably formed a queue near the exit and were also confused about where to go.

By the time we crossed over to the memorial park and circled it once, the sky had begun to light up. The morning air was cool and the pace had picked up considerably.

Someone quipped: "It's really pleasant to brisk walk at this time, isn't it?"

But we had queued for about an hour and we had not yet reached the Padang. Barricades were up at the edge of the park; ushers and police officers also started appearing.

We then crossed an underpass, emerged at the Esplanade and then walked up to the Esplanade Bridge. As the space was much wider in these parts, many people started overtaking the slower ones, with some running as if their lives depended on it. I thought to myself: "Mr Lee was an exercise buff. He must be chuffed that he can make so many people work out early in the morning even when he is gone."

The MediaCorp stars got left behind as they were probably too shy to fight with their fellow kiasu Singaporeans. Me? I walked as fast as my legs could take me (okay, I did sprint a little).

Readers should watch out for the plants on the right side of the bridge. A few people got bitten by the fiery red ants on the leaves. There is also a very narrow flight of stairs leading down to a park next to the Padang. The Shanghai stampede flashed across my mind and I reminded those around me to be extra careful.

From there, it was another brisk walk to the official entrance of the holding area at the Padang. It is also where the priority queue for the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and parents with children below the age of six starts. Although it was only 7.20am, the priority queue was fast filling up.

Things got a lot more organised at the Padang: stuff like umbrellas, water and biscuits were distributed at many points, and barricades directed us clearly to a large holding area. The very helpful boys from the SAF made sure we had enough to drink and eat, and even provided cardboard for us to sit on. "Relax guys! Please sit down, spread out, you don't have to squeeze so tightly together. You won't be moving for another four hours," one of the boys said.

Although I was mentally prepared, I was still a bit taken aback. Four hours?!?!

"You can choose to leave now if you want," he continued matter-of-factly. No one moved. Most of us sat down and started eating our breakfast ration. "Any KFC?" someone asked. We all laughed.

One of the ushers then explained that we were the ninth group in the queue. Once it was our turn, we would move on to Connaught Drive and walk another 1.3km to Parliament House, where the queue gets slowed down because of the security screening.

It was a lovely morning with fluffy clouds and blue skies. I took some photos and uploaded them to Facebook.

"The Great Singapore Workout - queueing from night to dawn", I wrote jokingly. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that Zoe Tay had also sat down and was engrossed in a Chinese book. I couldn't make out the title. I spotted someone reading My Paper and was tickled by the fact that she was at the Padang looking at some photos of people at the Padang taken the day before.

Even though I did not sleep a wink the night before, my mind was exceptionally clear. I started thinking of what I'd read the past week about Mr Lee and my own mixed feelings about the man. I have never been a big fan - but you do not need to be a fan to respect what he has done for the country. There are some things he has said and done that I do not agree with, and I know many of my friends feel the same way. But that has not stopped us from giving credit where credit is due and we do feel a deep sense of gratitude towards him. And I thought - not for the first time this week - this is the best SG50 heart map we have created so far. No other crowd will ever be this spontaneous, heartfelt and beautiful. It was Mr Lee's very own SG50 heart map.

Suddenly, the crowd in front of us started getting up - it was our turn. I glanced at the time - it was only 9.15am. We had waited at the Padang for just two hours, and not four hours as predicted.

The scenic 1.3km walk from Connaught Drive to Parliament House took about an hour as we had to stop often. As we trekked past the Merlion Park, a woman exclaimed: "The tourists must be more interested in us than in the Merlion. They must be wondering what these Singaporeans are up to."

Along the way, I saw a lot of empty water bottles left lying around. It made me a little sad; I thought the mourners would honour Mr Lee in a more disciplined manner.

Near the Singapore River, we were given condolence cards and pens. It was also at this stretch that TV screens started playing Mr Lee's videos and showed us the real-time footage of the scene inside the lying-in-state. Once I heard his all-too-familiar voice again, tears welled up. I wrote down my words for him while still walking, and so did everyone else, and we placed them into boxes towards the end of the line. Everything was well-timed and clinically smooth, perhaps a tad too clinical and efficient. A woman was so nervous she almost threw hers into a dustbin.

We then cleared the security screening and suddenly, Parliament House was before us. Some people were more keen on taking photos and selfies - I had only one purpose in mind. Inside, we met the priority queue again. A young mother asked me: "May I know what time you started queueing?" 5.15am, I told her. She looked a little awed.

I had seen enough photos to know he was just ahead. I took a deep breath and walked in. It felt surreal, seeing it in person. This was not TV, this was not a photo in the papers - he was really lying there, he was really gone. A man started bawling. I bowed, said a silent "Thank you, Mr Lee, rest in peace" and walked on. Before reaching the door, I turned and bowed again.

And then I was outside, the morning sun beating down gently on me again. I checked the time: It was 10.05am. I know of friends who queued for six or seven hours on Thursday night (one started after 10pm and one around midnight), so five hours was no big deal (the official estimated waiting time was eight hours, remember?).

The crowd which was with me since before dawn quickly dissipated. Staring at the black mass of shirts, I suddenly thought of a Chinese phrase - wu zhu gu hun, or lonely spirits without owners. A sense of loss swept over me. I was full of grief when I came. And now I just felt empty.

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