Behind the scenes at the state funeral

Behind the scenes at the state funeral
Members of the Singapore military rehearse with a ceremonial gun carriage with a glass receptacle a day after the death of late former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Planning for major events such as the state funeral for Mr Lee Kuan Yew and National Day Parades is months, sometimes years, in the making.

This ensures that when the time comes, everything moves like clockwork.

The task of organising Singapore's biggest-ever state funeral was in the hands of the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Ng Chee Meng, 47.

Within three hours of Mr Lee's death at 3.18am at the Singapore General Hospital on March 23, members of the State Funeral Organising Committee which Lt-Gen Ng headed were at the Istana to set the plans in motion.

But there was one thing they had not taken into account.

Lt-Gen Ng tells Insight: "The overwhelming response from Singaporeans was not something we estimated."

Over the four days that Mr Lee's casket was in Parliament House for public mourning, nearly half a million people lined up to pay their last respects.

As the crowds swelled, organisers had to swiftly redraw plans and make quick decisions.

They made the decision twice to extend visiting hours - first to midnight, and then round the clock. The queue system was revamped and centralised at the Padang to accommodate the unprecedented number of mourners.

Lt-Gen Ng is the first to admit that even the best of plans can go awry.

And in the same way in which the event was put together, the new challenge also brought out "the best in government, the best in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the Singapore Police Force (SPF) - to first of all admit that 'OK, I think we got it wrong', and re- look our plans."

Deputy Commissioner of Police (operations) Lau Peet Meng, a member of the organising committee, recalls: "No two days were the same, and no plans, however well made, survived the reality test without significant changes."

When civilian contractors could not be hired to transform the Padang into a public queuing area, army troops pulled all-nighters to put up - and, eventually, dismantle - the 360 tents, as well as move 2,000 barricades, to guide the crowds.

Citizen soldiers also responded. When the call went out for more manpower, NSman Ong Chee Wee, 48, immediately took three days off work.

The Guardsman, a project manager at an offshore oil and gas firm, was activated for only a day. But he says: "I'm glad I was able to contribute. I'm not only doing my duty as a soldier but also my duty as a citizen."

Even a 24-hour public hotline providing information on the state funeral threw up twists.

Defence executive officer Tan Chun Yin and 110 others who manned the phones did not just listen to questions, but also the heartfelt outpourings of many Singaporeans.One caller spent an hour sharing her grief.

"We didn't expect so much emotion," says the 35-year-old Ms Tan, who heads the service quality department in the Defence Ministry and was among 15,000 public officers involved in the funeral.

The State Funeral Organising Committee is a committee that meets at least twice a year.

But its get-togethers became more frequent from February, when the condition of Singapore's first prime minister deteriorated.

Lt-Gen Ng notes proudly that not a single officer from the SAF and SPF missed rehearsals in Clementi Camp, Parliament House and the University Cultural Centre to perfect their footdrills for the funeral procession.

They turned up in full force at 2am to rehearse for the funeral, to give Mr Lee a fitting send-off. Lt-Gen Ng, who took over as defence chief in 2013, says: "(There was) not a word of complaint, no sleep (even) when they were tired.

"They were doing what they thought was the right thing to do.

"It was very gratifying to see that."

Also, a strong bond between Singaporeans and the SAF emerged that he had never seen before.

A woman offered him an ice cream when he was going around Boat Quay to check the queues.

He recalls: "I said, I can't take it, but she said 'No, I insist, you need something for yourself'.

"It's not about the ice cream, it's about the encouragement (from) another ordinary Singaporean who, like me, wants to do her best."


This article was first published on May 16, 2015.
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