Huge crowds to bid Mr Lee farewell

Huge crowds to bid Mr Lee farewell

Thousands braved the sun and waited patiently in line for over eight hours in queues that snaked 3km along various streets around Parliament in order to file past the nation's founding Prime Minister as he lies in state.

It was a scene never before seen in Singapore, and the overwhelming response prompted government officials to extend visiting times not once, but twice, just hours after the casket bearing Mr Lee Kuan Yew's body arrived at Parliament House.

Instead of getting to pay their respects for 10 hours a day, till Saturday evening, visitors will now be allowed to do so round the clock till Saturday evening. Also, starting 7am today, the queue to enter Parliament will start at the Padang.

Mr Lee, who was Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, died on Monday, aged 91.

By the time the first ordinary visitors were allowed into Parliament shortly after 10am, several thousand people had formed queues behind them, across and along the Singapore River and outside the Supreme Court.

They waited for hours in the sweltering sun, and as their numbers grew, the state funeral organising committee extended visiting hours till midnight.

Inside Parliament House, ushers asked visitors to file past the casket rather than form up groups before bowing, to try to speed up the flow.

Members of the public were also advised not to join the queue then. But the notice made little difference as the lines kept growing, and soon after, visiting times were again extended, this time to round the clock, until 8pm on Saturday.

One line extended for some 3km along the banks of the Singapore River and nearby streets by mid-afternoon, with an estimated waiting time of eight hours.

Few left the queue, and operators of coffee shops and cafes along the line pitched in voluntarily to distribute bottled water to those in line.

Last night, the queues to enter Parliament remained long, but the waiting time had gone down to three hours at midnight.

Over 37,000 visitors had paid their last respects by 10pm.

Public transport operators SMRT and SBS Transit extended train services and 41 feeder bus services past normal hours to operate round the clock last night, with many more expected to pay their respects overnight.

The Land Transport Authority will also work with them to monitor demand and see whether to extend operating hours for the next two nights.

Once inside Parliament House, many visitors teared up readily as they paid their last respects to a man they had hardly or never met, but who they said they were forever grateful to for the standard of living and opportunities they enjoy today.

Among those who arrived early was business owner Lorraine Low Diaz, 37, who came with her mother and six-year-old son at 8.30am and waited four hours to pay her respects to Mr Lee.

"I really appreciated the bilingual education I got here only when I travelled overseas," she said. "Four hours of waiting in the queue is nothing in exchange for Mr Lee's years of toil on our behalf. I'd camp here for a week if that's what it took to pay my last respects to him."

Mr Mohammed Fareed, 38, director of training company PowerEdge, came with six of his staff members with a banner that read: "Without your leadership and policies, SMEs like us would not have existed and we are reminded that the harmony and prosperity that we have, had been engineered by your passion to build a better Singapore."

Many also began queueing up after lunch, among them former healthcare support officer Nalaayini Thambiah, 65, who was asked to join a shorter queue for the elderly.

She said of Mr Lee: "He made sure everyone had a home and that we were multiracial. As a minority, I never felt disadvantaged. I watch the news about conflicts overseas and I am relieved I was born here."

Bosses gave employees the day off or organised trips to pay tribute, shop owners closed their shutters for the day so they could visit, and a number of Malaysians even drove down from Kuala Lumpur to file past a man many said they did not know personally, but who they admired and respected for leading Singapore "from Third World to First".

The first to pay their respects had begun waiting outside Parliament House in the wee hours of the morning. Mr Edward Ho, 39, area manager of a healthcare company, in fact came by at 11pm with his cousin, but officials were still setting up barricades, so they walked around and returned at 3am to start queueing.

He had a 1pm flight to Cambodia for a business trip, and wanted to pay his last respects, he said.

By the time the sun rose, several thousand workers, students and others had also lined Orchard Road, Bras Basah Road and North Bridge Road to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession bearing Mr Lee's casket from the Istana to Parliament House.

Shortly after 9am, a ceremonial gun carriage carried the casket in a brief foot procession from Sri Temasek, the official residence of the prime minister, led by PM Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching, and family members.

The procession then drove past the Istana building where President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong paid their respects and a bagpiper from the Singapore Gurkha Contingent played Auld Lang Syne.

The gun carriage then travelled past the streets to Parliament, where many shouted "Lee Kuan Yew" and "thank you" as it entered the Parliament driveway.

There, the Chief of Defence, Commissioner of Police, and Speaker of Parliament, as well as PM Lee and family members, received the casket.

Key dignitaries who paid their respects yesterday included ASEAN secretary-general Le Luong Minh, who said Mr Lee's vision made Singapore a modern, vibrant country and saw him play an important role in the formation of the regional grouping in 1967.

Sultan Ibrahim of Johor and Sultan Muhammad of Kelantan also paid their respects.

In the afternoon, PM Lee also visited several of those waiting in line, to thank people for coming and waiting patiently. "The mood was sorrowful but not downcast. We are in good spirits!" PM Lee said on Facebook.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing also visited well-wishers, and said in a Facebook post he was touched to see the entire nation united in this moment, and coming together to help others in line.

"Mr Lee would have been proud to see how Singaporeans come together to care for each other," he said.

Today, Parliament will hold a special sitting at 4pm where MPs will pay tribute to Mr Lee's contributions to Singapore.

Visitors can continue to pay respects during the sitting, which is open only to invited guests.

zakirh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on March 26, 2015.
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