Grief, gratitude and how a nation grew closer together

Grief, gratitude and how a nation grew closer together
Singaporeans bidding Mr Lee Kuan Yew a final farewell as the cortege filed past City Hall in Stamford Road. In all, an estimated 100,000 lined the streets as the cortege made its way along the 15.4km-long route from Parliament House to the University Cultural Centre in Kent Ridge on Sunday for the state funeral.

The outpouring of grief and depth of emotion shown by Singaporeans following the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the early hours of March 23 was unprecedented. Insight looks back on the week in which Singaporeans mourned their founding prime minister.

IT WAS a scene replicated across many parts of Singapore the morning after news broke that the country's first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had died at 3.18am on Monday, March 23, at the age of 91.

In homes, offices, MRT platforms and bus terminals - almost any place where a television set, radio, smartphone or computer terminal was turned on to a news channel or website - people were gripped by what they heard.

Some bowed their heads in sorrow. Others buried their face in their hands in anguish or disbelief, or offered a silent prayer.

Yet others sat still for several moments, stunned, making sense of the moment they knew was inevitable, yet somehow hoped would not happen.

Concern over Mr Lee's health had become a major talking point in recent months. He had not been seen at a public event since the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People's Action Party in November.

Confirmation of his condition came only in late February, just after Chinese New Year: He had been warded in the intensive care unit of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) with severe pneumonia since Feb 5.

Regular updates on his condition from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) gave rise to hope, worry, then dread.

On March 17, the PMO said Mr Lee's condition had worsened due to an infection, 40 days after he was admitted to the hospital. Brief daily statements followed for the next five days, each time saying he had weakened further.

Singaporeans from across the island began turning up at SGH to offer prayers and good wishes, to stand vigil, to will him on.

The hospital eventually designated a special area for them. So large were the number of people, get-well cards and flowers for the man that few knew in person, but who all said had made a significant difference to their lives - from the homes and opportunities they had, to the stability, economic security and brighter future their children now have.

A tent was eventually put up outside to shelter the gifts, cards and flowers, and the area it covered was expanded a day later.

In their messages of support, well-wishers shared a common sentiment: gratitude, whether for help given personally or in shaping the country they live in.

Mr Patrick Ang, 41, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair, and sells Singapore Sweep tickets, left a card.

He wrote to Mr Lee for help after he was robbed in his Bukit Merah rental flat three years ago. Mr Lee helped him move to a new rental flat in Clementi.

Deliveryman Zuraimi Abdul Karim, 55, dropped by with his sister to offer a silent prayer: "A whole generation knows the hardship he faced building Singapore. He's a great man to us."

Tanjong Pagar Community Club, at the heart of the constituency that Mr Lee represented for almost 60 years since he was first elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1955, also set aside space for cards and flowers.

Even though Mr Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990, he was still an influential member of Cabinet as senior minister, and then as minister mentor, until 2011. After that he remained an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC.

The crowds at SGH and Tanjong Pagar grew over the weekend of March 21 and 22, when hundreds flocked to the community club, many unable to hold back tears.

They remembered growing up when the area was filthy and dilapidated, and recalled how Mr Lee had more than delivered on his promises to improve their conditions.

Then came the dreaded news in the small hours of the morning of March 23. As the nation awoke to find that Mr Lee had died, many tuned in to television and radio broadcasts and live streaming online as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, visibly tired, told them: "The first of our founding fathers is no more."

Flags would be at half-mast, there would be a seven-day mourning period, a state funeral service. The details came thick and fast, planned with an efficiency that Mr Lee had made into a Singapore hallmark.

By the time Mr Lee's body returned to the Istana grounds shortly after noon on Monday, hundreds had gathered outside its main gates to bid farewell.

The casket was laid to rest in Sri Temasek, the official residence of the prime minister, for a private wake for family members and close friends.

Six, then 10 community tribute centres were opened across the island for the public to pen messages and pay their respects, and 18 in all were open a day later.

Over the week that followed, some 1.2 million visited these centres to leave notes of thanks in Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English. They brought artwork and craftwork, soft toys, pictures.

Some highlighted their gratitude for the policies that brought the country from Third to First World status; improved their housing; provided education and jobs. Minorities especially singled out Mr Lee's commitment to multiracialism and meritocracy. Many others said Mr Lee and the progress he brought to the country made them proud to be Singaporean.

"It is a bond that goes beyond policies," Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah said in Tanjong Pagar of the affection for Mr Lee.

"He gave this nation pride."

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