Grateful Singapore gives Lee Kuan Yew a hero's funeral

Grateful Singapore gives Lee Kuan Yew a hero's funeral

SINGAPORE - Tens of thousands of mourners braved torrential rain, howitzers fired a 21-gun salute and jet fighters screamed across the sky as a grand funeral began Sunday for Singapore's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew.

Singaporeans chanted Lee's name as the former prime minister's coffin, draped in the red-and-white national flag and protected by a glass case atop a two-wheeled gun carriage, emerged from parliament pulled by a ceremonial Land Rover.

Four F-16 fighters from the air force's Black Knights aerobatic team staged a fly-past - with one peeling off to symbolise a "missing man" -- as the cortege made its way through the adjacent civic square where Lee was first sworn in as prime minister in 1959.

He kept the position for 31 years, ruling with an iron fist to transform Singapore from a sleepy British colonial outpost into a gleaming metropolis that now enjoys one of the world's highest standards of living.

Singapore became a republic in 1965 after a brief and stormy union with Malaysia. Lee died less than five months before the island celebrates its 50th anniversary as a nation.

A 21-gun salute is normally reserved for sitting heads of state but an exception was made for Lee, whom many regarded as the de facto national hero of Singapore even when he was alive.

People wept openly, waved flags and threw flowers on the street as the motorcade drove through districts associated with the political career of the British-trained former trade union lawyer.

Officials said more than 450,000 people had paid their last respects to Lee, who died Monday in hospital aged 91, by the time his public wake ended in parliament on Saturday night.

"It has been a deeply moving experience," his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said on Facebook in a thank-you message to the people before the funeral ceremonies got under way.

Strangers huddled together under umbrellas as they waited patiently along the procession route which ended at the National University of Singapore, where a state funeral started at 2:00 pm (0600 GMT) with world dignitaries in attendance.

Families including babies and grandparents turned up early to secure choice spots along the 15-kilometre (10-mile) procession route.

"We are here today as a family to witness this historic moment. As Singaporeans we may have our differences, but when it comes to a crunch we stand together. That is what Singapore is about and that is Mr Lee's legacy," said teacher Joel Lim, 35.

Lee stepped down in 1990 in favour of his deputy Goh Chok Tong, who in turn was succeeded by Lee's son.

During the state funeral, sirens will sound for the nation to observe a minute of silence for Lee, who will be later cremated in a private ceremony.

Former US president Bill Clinton will lead the American delegation that also includes former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, a close friend of Lee.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysian King Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah and Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah are among the leaders listed to attended the funeral.

Singapore's former colonial ruler Britain will be represented by Leader of the House of Commons William Hague, who earlier served as foreign secretary.

Lee is revered by Singaporeans for his economic and social legacy but criticised by rights groups for sidelining political opponents, muzzling the press and clamping down on civil liberties.

Singapore has one of the highest GDP per capita incomes in the world at US$56,284 in 2014, up from a mere US$516 when it gained independence.

Ninety per cent of Singaporeans own their homes, thanks to a public housing scheme launched by Lee, and the country enjoys one of the world's lowest crime rates.

Its highly paid civil service is consistently ranked among the world's most honest.

But development has created fresh problems, topped by a rapidly ageing population, making Singapore dependent on foreigners who now constitute nearly 40 per cent of the 5.5 million population.

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