Finally, he rests

Finally, he rests

That's life, Mr Lee Kuan Yew would say, when faced with intractable fate, stoic in the finality of logic.

That's life. Move on.

But oh, how unwilling we were to do so, to let him go.

Even the heavens seemed uncertain. At a time when Singapore is supposed to be experiencing a dry spell, the skies drenched the streets, threatening to delay the State Funeral Procession, which was seen by 100,000 people lining the streets.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his eulogy at the State Funeral Service in the University Cultural Centre (UCC) yesterday, chose to see it another way.

"Perhaps it is appropriate today, for a state funeral, (that) the heavens opened and cried for him," he said with a wavering voice.

The heavens had many Singaporeans for company.

At the UCC, on the streets and in living rooms, there was a reluctance to accept that an era had ended.

If, as the 17th century poet and cleric John Donne said, "Any man's death diminishes me," what can you say of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the indispensable, exceptional man?

If we do not feel deeply and personally the loss of a man who gave us the wherewithal to stand tall, our souls would be empty, unworthy and small.

Current and former world leaders saw fit to mourn in person, among them former US president Bill Clinton, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They were among the 2,200 guests at the UCC.

Yesterday's funeral was a solemn end to a week that was perhaps the most significant seven days in Singapore's emotional psyche.

It was a week of rekindling.

The mainstream media's unprecedented coverage led most to learn more about Mr Lee in a week than they did over a lifetime.

For seven days, we were again in thrall, basking in tribute after published tribute. We drew closer to a hitherto distant icon with every intimate tidbit, every touching anecdote.

Was he really like that? Did he really do that? Was his bathroom really so spartan?

But rediscovering Mr Lee made it more difficult to let go.

Why is it that only on the verge of cremation do we become emotionally overwhelmed by the worth of a man's creation?


Singaporeans, often perceived as inscrutable, finally allowed their hearts to be embroidered on their shirt sleeves. With uncharacteristic patience, they queued to pay their respects, more than 1.65 million strong.

PM Lee, in his eulogy yesterday, called it a dark week for Singapore.

Yes, but amid the despair, he also saw the scope for hope.

You wept, swept up by sorrow, completely and openly disconsolate. Collectively, your response must surely count as one of the country's finest, most defining moments in time.

In life, Mr Lee moved us to prosperity. In death, he moved a country to mourn as family.

Amid the reams of reports looking back on his life was an edifying peek into Mr Lee's relentless work ethic, as revealed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

His stamina and capacity for hard work are legendary. But how he toiled each day, along with his reliance on a little red box to grow a little red dot, was less well known.

Mr Lee did not work for personal survival or mere materialism. He worked with fierce resolve for the dignity of a nation's children and grandchildren.

His was the exception to Maslow's hierarchy of needs - there were no demands of the ego, no need for respect, no desire for self-actualisation.

And because the gruelling work ethic persisted well into his 80s, it became a supremely powerful life force, one that lulled us into an illusion of invincibility.

No doubt his was driven by a soulful purpose.

"Without work," as the philosopher Albert Camus put it, "all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies."

To the poet Kahlil Gibran, such soulful work is "love made visible".

Move on? For seven days, it was the one piece of advice that our people, often caricatured as subservient, as sheep accustomed to instruction, was fiercely unwilling to accept.

Move on? Cannot. Will not. Don't want to.

Stay, Mr Lee, we pleaded in deed and prayer all along the 15.4km procession route yesterday. Stay a little longer. AT least till Aug 9.

That yearning was palpable: The choking of emotion, the salinity of tears on taste buds, the passion to stay despite the rain.

A friend, responding to a eulogy in The New Paper last week, said the headline should have simply read: We are Lee Kuan Yew.

Yesterday, in mourning, we became Lee Kuan Yew in the way he said goodbye to the love of his life, his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo.

In the most touching moment of her funeral, Mr Lee, eyes swollen, body quivering, looked forlornly at Madam Kwa. He leaned deep and close to her. He put a finger to his lips and then to her forehead.

But, just as he was about to turn to go, he hesitated. He put finger again to his lips and placed it tenderly on her lips.

His was a powerful longing. He didn't want to let go.

Yesterday, our grief was as his in his time of grief.

We wanted to linger, we willed for time to stand still, to cling to his being.

"Life is an endless series of adjustments," PM Lee recounted in his private eulogy about what his father had told his ailing mother.

"As you grow older, you adjust.

"Think how lucky we are and how much worse off we could be. Always look on the bright side of things."

Logically, pragmatically, we know we must move on and adjust to a life without Lee Kuan Yew.

With rueful reluctance, we let him go, his marathon won, his work done.

Finally, yesterday, we let him rest.

This article was first published on March 30, 2015.
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