When I first learned about Lee Kuan Yew’s death, I fell into a momentary frozen state of blankness. Slowly, memories of what we learned in school about him to my grandparents’ fond testimonies of Mr Lee’s national endeavours flooded to my core.
This was the man who famously broke down in tears on live television when he announced the separation of Singapore and Malaysia, who ensured our security and safety through compulsory national service and strict upholding of the law, who brought in a multitude of jobs to a nation without natural resources, who invested heavily into the education of its people, who made sure top notch healthcare, public housing, racial equality and religious freedom were available to all – this was the man who brought the once Third World nation into one of the world’s most prosperous and highly sought after places to live in.
As a youth, I never gave so much thought about Mr Lee, vaguely remembering him from those boring televised parliament talks since politics was not of interest to me then. I had never met Mr Lee in person either. Now, I regret not heeding the advice of my friend who urged me last year to join in as a spectator at the National Day Parade as it could be the last time we would see Lee Kuan Yew alive and in person. Boy, was she right.
On the first day that Mr Lee’s body laid in the House of Parliament, I never imagined how fortunate I was to have passed by the House of Parliament after I dropped my hubby off to work in the morning, and to have waited only for an hour in the queue before it was my turn to pay my last respects to this great man (even though it was not part of my agenda to do so that day). Never mind that the blazing sun was soaking my body in sweat and drying out my tongue, or the unavailability of any nearby portable toilets, I knew I needed to bid Mr Lee farewell in person for the first and last time.
As I inched closer with the crowd, we were separated in batches as one batch after another gave their bows to the coffin in front of them. Finally, it was our turn. Amidst the noise of shuffling feet and occasional sniffling, there laid peacefully the body of one of Singapore’s greatest leaders inside the coffin with the national flag neatly draped over, fronted by a flower-framed picture of his fatherly countenance, the Vigil soldiers guarding at its four corners with solemn faces bowed down, hands resting on the hilts of their swords. That sight, captured vividly for those few precious seconds, has never left my mind till now. This was the only time I ever got to stand a few feet away from this legendary figure. Yet, we were not allowed to linger and were hurried off to the exit after our bows. By the time I was out, the queue had stretched till Clarke Quay and the waiting time was updated to 4 hours, and even more in the next few days.
Driving back home, I listened as the radio station aired old broadcasts of some of Mr Lee’s milestone speeches. I am never the kind who would cry over a death of a politician, nor understood why anyone would. Now ironically, I could not hold back the tears streaming down my face as I heard Mr Lee’s voice and finally understood why. As I drove through the efficient roads dotted with well planted trees and unblocked pathways, it dawned on me finally after years of taking things for granted, the impact of Mr Lee’s successful policies and sacrificial contributions over the years that have truly made what Singapore is today. He did not know who I am, but he made sure me and many others were not left out in the society. Now, he is truly gone, and I never once thanked him when he was still alive.
Behind his mighty leader image, Mr Lee was very much a family man, loyal and loving to his wife, upholding her memory till the end. It was painful to watch his son, PM Lee Hsien Loong, fighting back his tears when he made the announcement of his late father’s death on TV, especially so when he choked briefly upon describing their father-son relationship while delivering his eulogy during his state funeral. Mr Lee’s death reminds us not to take life and those of our loved ones for granted, and that even great men like himself are but mere mortals vulnerable to pain and mixed emotions like the rest of us.
The reaction from the crowds was overwhelming at his state funeral despite the skies releasing its tears that day. The chanting of Lee Kuan Yew’s name while his cortège passed by rows of cheering and mourning crowds with waving flags was an exceptionally moving scene imprinted in our history forever, a well deserved final farewell to a man who groomed this nation in unity out of the ashes of yesteryears.
I am glad to have been born in this generation, to have witnessed this great man while he was yet alive and to continue his legacy for generations to come.
Rest in peace, Mr Lee, and thank you for giving me a Singapore that I can proudly call home.