If Mr Lee Kuan Yew was alive, he would turn 92 today. His passing earlier this year moved many Singaporeans, including me. I stood by the streets on the day of the state funeral, waited and watched his cortege pass by. I wrote this after I got home that day:
“Nature sometimes mingles her effects and her spectacles with our actions with somber and intelligent appropriateness, as though she desired to make us reflect.” That was a line in Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in 1862. But it could just as well be describing the events of today.
Today, we bade our final farewell to our founding prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
As I left home, dark pregnant clouds blanketed the skies ominously. It seemed that someone forgot to plant the chilli padis! As I drove, the rain started coming down. It was a light drizzle at first. But by the time I reached the Esplanade Bridge, it was quite a respectable downpour. I had thought that the rain would discourage people from gathering.
Good! I thought, selfishly, more space for me! Sure can find a good spot! I was sorely disappointed. There was a sizeable crowd gathered along the bridge. But with thick enough skin, we were able to squeeze right to the front, right by the road (but we were on the wrong side… grr…).
The rain let up a little and more people came. And just when I thought, oh good, maybe the rain will stop by the time the whole procession starts. Again. I was proven wrong. Just as well as I never aspired to have a career in meteorology.
The downpour became a righteous thunderstorm. Peals of thunder rumbled in the distance. Rain beat down upon us furiously. Many people, despite their umbrellas, were drenched.
An old couple beside me saw that one family behind us had a little toddler. The uncle insisted that the family took the extra umbrella he and his wife had so that the toddler can be better sheltered. Who says Singaporeans are selfish?
Would people leave? I thought. Apparently not. People stood their ground. More came to join us. The man whose cortege is about to pass our way gave his life to build our nation. What’s this little bit of rain? We were defiant. We stood shoulder to shoulder, side by side, determined to mourn the passing of a great man, celebrate his amazing life and give thanks to his immeasurable contributions to our Singapore, our home.
Throughout the week, there has been a camp of people who said that we give too much credit to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, that we are all caught up in a glamour spell of the governmental propaganda machinery, that we have all lost our intellect to this crazy mob sentimentality. A proper discourse, they say, will tell us that Mr Lee Kuan Yew doesn’t deserve this outpouring of emotions.
It is true that Singapore wasn’t a fishing village when he took over. But it was in shambles. The war had taken its toll. Communal and ideological tensions threatened to tear the society asunder.
It is true that we inherited the British civil service. Well. So did Malaysia and India. Where are they now? Even the best of their cities are far far behind us.
Yes yes. We did have the counsel of Albert Winsemius to guide our economic development. It is only with hindsight that we can say that we were right to follow his advice, because not all ang-moh experts gave right advice – if we had followed all the advice that foreign experts gave us, we would not have built the MRT (for all of its breakdowns, we would have been much worse off without it) nor our much vaunted Changi Airport.
And having the expert advice of a great consultant is one thing. Being able to translate it into reality… well… that’s where you need a great leader like Mr Lee Kuan Yew. And that is just building the economy. What about all the other aspects of building a nation?
Of course. Mr Lee did not do it alone. He had a team. But a team of great people without a leader is like a pack of dragons without a head, nothing but a plate of dispersed sand – completely useless.
But, while intellectual discourse is important, which disparate groups of people are gelled together by intellectual discourse alone? No. It is by some difficult to explain FEELING of unity and SENSE of common vision that brings people together into a nation.
Now, almost 50 years after independence, there are still doubts about how united a nation Singapore really is. But. Over the last week, with people braving the elements, queuing orderly for hours just for those few seconds to pay our final respects to our first prime minister, with people helping others in the queue, giving water, snacks, directions, or even just friendly smiles, perhaps we have shown that we are that bit more united as a nation than even we ourselves would have thought.
And then there is today. Even when the heavens seemed determined to break our resolve of sending our first prime minister on his final journey, we firmly stood our ground defiantly. As one united people.
When his cortege finally passed where I stood. I waved the flag that someone had passed me. People were shouting his name, thanking him. Tears and rainwater mingled together on the countenance of some people. It was a brief moment. I would have thought 25km/h would be much slower. But the cortege seemed to just zip past us. Almost too quickly, the moment passed. But many, if not all of us, were visibly moved.
After that, I went home, changed into dry clothes and went out again for “lunch” (it was already almost 3pm). The mall I had lunch in had one of those large screens on one of its facades. And there was a nice field where people could gather to watch the telecast of the state funeral on the large screen. And gather people did.
I finished my lunch just as Mr Lee Hsien Yang was halfway through his speech and made it to the field to watch Mr Lee Hsien Yang towards the end of his speech. I choked up when Mr Lee Hsien Yang bowed to the audience and they reciprocated with a standing ovation.
Then, as the wreaths were laid, more people streamed into the field. Ready. Expectant.
The lone bugler sounded “The Last Post”. The sirens sounded. Heads bowed, we offered our minute of silence. I choked up again. My lips started to quiver with emotions bubbling up from some depths of my heart I did not know existed.
The bugler signaled the end of the minute of silence. We recited our pledge. And sang our national anthem. I think many people have said, and even a skeptic like me would believe that they are telling the truth, that it was the most emotional pledge taking and anthem singing they have experienced. It certainly was for me.
With that, the week of national mourning came to an end. We have sent off the last, and greatest, of our founding fathers. Uncannily enough, the weather cleared up and the rain clouds lifted as the state funeral drew to a close.
Nature seemed to echo what Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in 1996. “Thirty years ago,”Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, voice pregnant with emotions as if he were fighting back tears, pausing for longer than you would expect before continuing, “my colleagues, younger and more dreamy eyed, settled the words of our pledge. We did not focus our minds on our navels or we would have missed the rainbow in the sky. We pursued that rainbow and that was how we came to build today’s Singapore. For the young, let me tell you the sky has turned brighter. There’s a glorious rainbow that beckons those with the spirit of adventure. And there are rich findings at the end of the rainbow. To the young and to the not-so-old, I say, look at that horizon, follow that rainbow, go ride it.”
Mr Lee Kuan Yew dedicated the greater part of his life to Singapore, pursuing that rainbow that he knew, in his heart of hearts, must certainly come after the storms that were lashing down upon our young nation.
I think Mr Lee Kuan Yew is one of the very few people who has truly given his life to the service of his nation and whose life manifested in reality the spirit of the following words by Sir Cecil Spring Rice:
“I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question,
The love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters,
The love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.”
Now his task is done, his time here is over. Mr Lee Kuan Yew can finally rest in peace, joining his other great love of his life, his wife, once again.
And now, the task is upon us. May it be that when the time comes for us to make the final sacrifice, we can be as resolute and undaunted in laying our dearest and our best upon the altar of progress for our nation and fellow countrymen.