Bertha Henson: An Era Is Over

It’s over. Seven days of mourning and shared sorrow. Who would have thought that half a million people would wait for hours, whether day or night, whatever the weather, to bid goodbye to someone? Who have thought we would queue along the roadside in the rain to watch his cortege go by, that we would yell LKY, LKY and strew petals on the road as he went on his last journey?

Singaporeans did it. Not because they were sheep or suffering from mass hysteria,  but because of a deep, abiding attachment to the man. They probably can’t even explain it, not by dissecting his policies in detail or by calculating the pros and cons of his leadership. To many, he was, in the words of his younger son, an “orang besar’’. Bigger than anyone they ever knew, who commanded every stage he was on, whether here or abroad.

This was LKY.

And so thousands carried umbrellas and wore ponchos just to watch the cortege whizz by. Others were glued to their television sets, picking out the dignitaries in the University Cultural Centre sitting silence for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s last entrance before an audience.

I was one of those in front of the TV watching the State funeral along with my mother. The pictures were grainy. The heavens had opened up after a week of humid weather, for Singapore’s chief gardener. The Lee family walked in the rain. The lines of uniformed citizens were drenched to the bone. I wondered about whether musical instruments used by the SAF band would be destroyed in the rain. I wondered if children would catch cold. I tried to identify the roads. Anything, anything. To stop myself from wallowing in the mood of the occasion. I didn’t succeed.

Who could? You watch fervently, hoping that the State flag wouldn’t slip off the casket, that the coffin bearers wouldn’t, gasp!, lose their grip and you wondered if Mr Chiam See Tong was all right in his wheelchair. You try to keep count of the gun salute and wish you could see the plane formation in the grey sky. You make out the lines on the Prime Minister’s face and saw his puffy eyes. All of us were trying to take in every moment of this time in history. We didn’t want to miss anything.

As the Prime Minister took to the stage to deliver the first of 10 eulogies, my mother hoped out loud that he would hold it together. For a while, we thought he would succeed without a hitch. He was in “political speech mode’’, that is, until he turned personal. He had to pause after he said he had tried to spend a quiet moment meditating alongside his father’s casket before the ceremony. I don’t know about you, but I cried. Not for the man in the casket, but for his son, who was so determined to carry out his national role of Prime Minister, that he never once said “Papa’’. (By the way, this is not an indictment.)

Every day over the week, I learnt something new about our first Prime Minister as people started trotting out anecdotes about their interactions with him. Today was no different. Former MP Sidek Saniff told of how Mr Lee advised him to borrow an overcoat from Dr Ahmad Mattar and a pair of boots from Mr Goh Chok Tong when he had asked him if he was equipped for a trip to China. Mr Sidek was also the most emotional, bidding farewell three times as he turned to the casket.

Long-time grassroots leader Leong Chun Loong recalled how he got testy when the firing of firecrackers was mistimed during a Chinese New Year event. You can’t run a country if you couldn’t get such a little thing right…(How like the man, I thought. The perfectionist. But isn’t it true that most of us try to run before we have even learnt to walk? We want to do the “big stuff” when we can’t even do the small things…)

Both President Tony Tan and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong told of Mr Lee’s great respect for office. When he was no more Prime Minister, he would always defer to Mr Goh and Dr Tan, like making sure that it was he who visited the President and not the other way round. Never mind that it was Dr Tan who wanted to pay him a visit while he was ill.

Mr Goh also said something that will probably set some quarters buzzing: that Mr Lee “never muzzled’’ anyone. He was a man of great intellect who put forth his views forcefully, but he was open to being converted if the arguments convinced him. Former Cabinet minister S Dhanabalan said much the same. Mr Dhanabalan seemed unsettled by descriptions of Mr Lee as a “pragmatist’’. He was an idealist too – or he would have simply courted the Chinese majority instead of pursuing the ideal of a multi-racial society, he said.

I think all of us listened especially closely to the last speaker, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who delivered the eulogy on behalf of the family. We know now what it was like to have a famous father. How Papa was seldom around and how they always took their family holidays nearby, like in Cameron Highlands. And how he found out about his parents’ secret wedding at Stratford-upon-Avon in England only upon reading his father’s memoirs. There were little vignettes of family life – like how they left birthdays “unmarked’’ until recently and how Papa and Mama were delighted to have another grandchild while they were in their 70s. Frankly, he sounded like a son who missed his father even before he died.

In my mother’s living room, I recited the pledge, hand on heart, and sang the national anthem. The State funeral had ended, and I left for my own home.

I could see the streets come back to life, slowly. People started emerging from their homes to do whatever they usually do on Sundays. My mother’s neighbor left his flat at the same time as I did. We wondered if our younger and not-so-young leaders were of the same calibre as Mr Lee…How? It was a sombre ride in the lift.

As I walked back to my home, I realized that I had not bumped into any cyclist or handphone-staring pedestrian on the pavement – because there weren’t any.

I also noticed something in the air. The rain was over. The air was fresh. One era has ended. A new one has begun.

Majulah Singapura.



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