Monday 23 March I woke up feeling tired and out of sorts because Adam had coughed the entire night and none of us slept well. I reached for my phone to tell the school that I was taking childcare leave that day, and after sending my message, I starting looking through my Facebook feed. Within seconds, I saw a post announcing Mr Lee’s passing and I quickly checked a few reliable sources to ensure that it wasn’t another one of those horrible hoaxes that had been circulating the week before.
I turned on the TV and waited for PM Lee to address the nation at 8am. He looked so tired and so sad. He struggled to hold back his emotions. My tears started to flow and this would happen many more times in the next few days. By that afternoon, there were several special editions of newspapers featuring Mr Lee’s life. The copies sold out quickly. I tried to read as much as I could about this man. I knew, in theory, all that he had done for Singapore, but what moved me beyond words was the description of his love for his wife. I went to Popular to find a book I could use to tell the kids about Lee Kuan Yew. When I told my friends about the book, they asked me to help them buy a copy for their kids as well. The book store hadn’t had time to react; the books about Lee Kuan Yew were still in the local interest section. By the next day, there would be a special section with his books and the books about him laid out prominently. I wanted to read about Lee Kuan Yew on my Kindle as well and found this book by Tom Plate. It’s an interesting read and I learnt a lot more about the man, his methods, his beliefs, and how he is perceived by the West.
When Plate asked LKY to offer some self-criticism, Mr Lee referred him to Catherine Lim and her words here explain the extreme reactions that would be seen during the mourning period – ‘Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy will be so mixed that at one end of the spectrum of response, there will be pure adulation, and at the other, undisguised opprobrium and distaste. But whatever the controversies that surround him, everyone will agree that for a man of his stature and impact, neither the past nor the present holds an equal.’ Tuesday 24 March Back at work the next day, I had a lump in my throat when the state and school flags were raised to the top and then released to the half-mast position. The mood in school was somber and almost all my colleagues were dressed in black or white. The students were encouraged to leave a tribute for Mr Lee and one drew a rather accurate portrait of him. In the school library, there was a Lee Kuan Yew thematic display of books. On the electronic display screens around the school, there was a photograph montage of Mr Lee at school events. Sadly, I had not been in this school long enough to have had the chance to meet him at one of these events. Wednesday 25 March A ceremonial gun carriage carrying Mr Lee’s casket made its way from Sri Temasek at the Istana (where the private family wake had been taking place) to the Parliament House. Before the casket left the Istana, a lone bagpiper played Auld Lang Syne and all around Singapore, tears flowed freely.
At 10am, a queue of people, some of whom had started queuing the night before, steadily made their way into Parliament House to pay their respects. Although the initial plan was for the public to pay their respects between 10am and 8pm, the overwhelming response meant that Parliament House would be open for 24 hours every day until the queue at the Padang closed at 8pm on Saturday, 28 March. 18 community sites were set up around Singapore for members of the public to pay tribute to Mr Lee. We took the kids to the one in Clementi. By the time the casket left Parliament House for University Cultural Centre, more than 1.2 million people would have paid their respects to Mr Lee at Parliament House and the various tribute sites. Thursday 26 March We attempted to pay our respects to Mr Lee at the Parliament House and started queuing at the Padang at about 6.30pm. There were so many people at the MRT station and all around the Padang. The queue moved slowly and steadily and volunteers provided us with drinks and snacks. We were in the priority queue but there were lots of other people in the queue with us. It was stuffy and quite overwhelming so the kids played alongside the queue while I stayed in the queue to hold our place. It got later and darker and the kids got more tired. They were entertaining themselves by running up and down and playing with other kids and with balloons that had been given out. The queue moved very slowly. Eventually, we turned into the area that was the final stretch before the security checkpoints. The crowd spread out into a suffocating mass and we were fenced in by bushes on one side and railings on the other.
The queue barely moved in the time we were there so we decided to leave the queue. I didn’t feel comfortable being trapped in one small area with so many people. We called the hotline to share our experience and by the next morning, the queuing system had improved greatly. Friday 27 March I took my students to the tribute site at Botanic Gardens and we paid our respects there. While this younger generation may not be able to fully comprehend all that Mr Lee Kuan Yew has done in his lifetime for Singapore, they were still eager to show their gratitude and appreciation. At the Botanic Gardens tribute site, I finally managed to put my thoughts down on paper to thank Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I know this man was not perfect and some of his beliefs, methods and actions may not have been readily accepted by every one. But there is certainly no denying that we owe a lot to him and the team that he led. From various updates on Facebook, I realised that the priority queue was greatly improved, so after I was done at Botanic Gardens, I rushed to a friend’s place to get Anya and we made our way to Padang to try again after our failed attempt the previous night.
The priority queue had been restructured so that there would not be too many people in one section at any time. We were immensely touched by the selflessness of the volunteers controlling the crowds and giving out drinks, fans, sweets and snacks under the blazing hot sun. We reached the security checkpoints in about half an hour and then made our way slowly to Parliament House, paid our respects and were out in another half an hour. I updated my friends on the queue situation and they started making their way down as well.
You can glimpse Anya and (a very tearful) me in this video of Rani Singam and Jeremy Monteiro presenting a musical tribute of One People, One Nation, One Singapore inside the Parliament House. Saturday 28 March I was on a department retreat on the southern islands and we saw the RSAF’s Black Knights rehearsing their Missing Man formation, where one aircraft will leave the four-aircraft flying formation as an aerial salute to honour Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Sunday 29 March We gathered at my friend’s place because her flat overlooked Commonwealth Ave. As we made our way there, we saw so many waiting for him even though there were still 2 hours to go before his cortege would pass them. Our hearts ached as the heavy rain beat down relentlessly on those lining the roads below. We watched as the cortege made its way from Parliament House to University Cultural Centre. The tears of the people lining the streets mingled with the rain. Soon, the cortege was at Queenstown, making its way towards Commonwealth Ave where we were. Those waiting along the streets closed their umbrellas and waved their Singapore flags with pride. We could hear the fervent chants of ‘Lee Kuan Yew!’ from the people before we could see the cortege. And, just like that, we said our final farewell to Mr Lee. 一路好走, Mr Lee. Thank you and goodbye, Sir.