A 50-year flashback: 'Together, we came not only to mourn'

PHOTO: The New Paper

An early morning announcement from the Prime Minister's office announced that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first and founding Prime Minister, had died.

He was 91.

Mr Lee had spent the 47 days prior in the intensive care unit.

At the very last, people from all walks of life gathered on the grounds of Singapore General Hospital. Many left cards and flowers, some came with soft toys.

Others simply stayed to pray and to keep vigil for the man who had such an impact on their lives.

Yet this would be just a glimpse of the emotions that would sweep a normally reticent nation at the news of his death.

Many headed to the gates of the Istana, where a private family wake was initially held at Sri Temasek, the Prime Minister's official residence. There, they left flowers and penned condolences.

Others turned up at community centres and clubs around the island to sign memorial books.

For the next week, life in Singapore hummed at a sombre pace. Events and meetings were cancelled, a travel fair was postponed and outdoor concerts at the Esplanade were dropped.

Thousands lined the streets in the early hours of Wednesday morning when Mr Lee's coffin was transferred from Sri Temasek to Parliament House.

But those thousands paled in the following hours when snaking lines formed through Boat Quay and Clark Quay as people turned up to pay their respects.

Within hours, the planning authorities announced that there would not be a scheduled daily closing for the Lying in State. The visiting hours would go on 24 hours instead, till Saturday, to accommodate people.

Yet, the crowds swelled further.

Stroke victim Koh Kok Seng, 66, travelled from his home in Jurong West alone in a wheelchair. He said: "Mr Lee was a special man. No matter what, I wanted to be here..."

Holding lines were put up at the Padang to contain the queues but the situation continued to reach breaking point with the sheer number of people turning up.

On Friday night, the queues had to be halted to clear the backlog leaving a mass of people waiting near City Hall MRT station.

But people waited patiently. There was no jostling. Instead, only a shared sense of loss.

Another shift in the zeitgeist: In the midst of shared grief, Singaporeans turned to help each other.

For example, Artisan de Fleurs at Raffles Quay offered free flowers to those paying their respects to Mr Lee.

Singapore Management University student Koh Kang Liang, 22, spontaneously bought some burgers for the people in line. His friends had missed lunch and dinner, queuing from 2pm to 8pm.

Concerned that others would be hungry, the young man forked out his own money to get 20 burgers for complete strangers.

Restaurants gave out drinks, and good Samaritans passed around bottles of water.

Temasek Holdings sent 30,000 umbrellas for people.

Mr Albert Leow, the director of a car workshop, Dynamics Mechanic, printed and gave away 4,000 car decals bearing the visage of Mr Lee.

The nation's mourning culminated in the official funeral on Sunday, March 29.

Among the foreign dignitaries at the occasion were the Malaysian King, Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, Brunei's ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former US president Bill Clinton.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 92, also made the trip for his old friend.

Through moving eulogies, Singaporeans heard of Mr Lee as nation-builder, fiery politician, friend, father and grandad.

In his eulogy, Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong said: "Together, we came not only to mourn.

"Together, we celebrate Mr Lee Kuan Yew's long and full life, and what he has achieved with us, his people. Let us continue building this exceptional country."

This article was first published on August 9, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.