In his eldest son’s words, the heavens opened and cried for him. But the heavy downpour did not deter tens of thousands of Singaporeans from lining the streets yesterday (March 29), spending hours under the rain, to send off their founding Prime Minister on his final journey.
From all walks of life and regardless of age, race or creed, they were there to witness Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s cortege making its way from Parliament House, where his body had been lying in state for the last four days, to the National University of Singapore’s University Cultural Centre (UCC) for a funeral service attended by 2,200 guests. Among them were Old Guard members who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr Lee in the Republic’s tumultous early years and foreign dignitaries such as former United States President Bill Clinton, former US Secretary of State and Mr Lee’s close friend Henry Kissinger, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and other regional leaders.
Across the island, people – many of whom had earlier lined the roads – gathered to watch the service, which lasted more than two hours, at coffeeshops, shopping malls and community centres, among other places.
The service, which was telecast live on television and the Internet, was also watched by Singaporeans living overseas and people around the world, with screenings organised in several countries including China, Hong Kong, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand. As a mark of respect, countries such as New Zealand, India and Bhutan flew their flags at half mast. At the solemn service, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the first of 10 speakers who delivered eulogies. The others included President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Mr Ong Pang Boon, one of the few surviving members of the Old Guard, former Cabinet Minister S Dhanabalan and unionist G Muthukumarasamy.
In painting a broad sweep of Mr Lee’s impact on Singapore, the Prime Minister touched on Mr Lee’s role in turning Singapore’s vulnerability in water security into a strength, He recalled how Mr Lee personally managed all aspects of the Republic’s water talks with Malaysia. “He launched water-saving campaigns, built reservoirs and turned most of the island into water catchment to collect the rain to process to use. He cleaned up the Singapore River and Kallang Basin,” he said. “He dreamed of the Marina Barrage long before it became feasible and persevered for decades… And he lived to see it become a reality.”
PM Lee noted that today, Singapore has moved towards self-sufficiency in water, and become a leader in water technologies.
“So perhaps, it is appropriate that today, for his State Funeral, the heavens opened and cried for him,” he said, choking back his tears.
Mr Lee’s second son, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, gave the final eulogy at the UCC. Two wreaths were then laid by PM Lee and President Tan, in that order, and a lone bugler from the Singapore Armed Forces military band sounded the “Last Post”. As the service drew towards a close, sirens from Singapore Civil Defence Force’s Public Warning System rang out across the country at 4.35pm – the cue for a minute of silence to be observed as a mark of respect to Mr Lee. The nation fell silent and came to a standstill.
At MRT stations, trains pulled to a stop and commuters stood still and bowed their heads. Similar scenes were played out at various places such as Changi Airport, cruise and ferry terminals, and shopping malls. Flight landings and take-offs were suspended for a short period, and the despatch of buses from interchanges was halted. Checks at the Tuas and Woodlands checkpoints were also stopped.
The service ended with those gathered at the UCC, as well as tens of thousands around the island, reciting the Pledge with hand on heart and singing a rousing rendition of the National Anthem.
Yesterday’s events capped a remarkable week of national mourning that began early on Monday morning, after the death of Mr Lee at 3.18 am. Over a million people filed to offer tributes, prayers and flowers, either at the Lying In State ceremony at Parliament House or centres dotted across the island, including in the former Prime Minister’s ward of Tanjong Pagar. Despite the torrential rain yesterday, the state funeral organising committee estimated that more than 100,000 people lined the streets along the funeral procession route. It added that almost 2,000 police officers were deployed to ensure the cortege and the accompanying convoy had a smooth passage.
The 15.4-km funeral procession saw Mr Lee’s cortege making its way past significant landmarks such as Old Parliament House, City Hall and the Padang, where Mr Lee oversaw the country’s first National Day Parade 50 years ago, and from where a battery of ceremonial guns boomed out a 21-gun salute that reverberated across the downtown area. The procession also passed the NTUC Centre and Trade Union House, as well as the housing estates of Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Merah and Queenstown.
The entire route was lined by crowds, and while some organisations such as the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and the labour movement gathered their members to pay tribute, most who turned up were driven by a spontaneous desire to bid a final farewell to a founding father. Cries of “Lee Kuan Yew”, and “Thank you, Mr Lee” erupted, and people broke down in tears as Mr Lee’s cortege drove past.
By the time the funeral service at the UCC ended, hundreds of Singaporeans had also made their way to the roads leading to the Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium, where a private ceremony was held by PM Lee and his family, old friends of the elder Mr Lee, and those who served with him. including security officers and medical staff. Following this ceremony, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was cremated.
Sembawang resident Yeo Bee Kheng was among those who wanted to be there at Mr Lee’s “final destination”, as Mr Yeo put it. The 51-year-old retiree said he cycled 10 kilometres from his home to Mandai Road, cutting through forest paths.
He, like Mr Lawerence De Silva, 42, and his wife, who made their way there from Yishun, echoed what a nation united in grief had offered as an explanation for an unprecedented outpouring of tributes over the last week.
“It was the least we could do.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY XUE JIANYUE