Thank You Mr Lee Kuan Yew: How Singaporeans Say Goodbye

This post was initially written as a Facebook status after a night of queuing at the Padang. It has since been updated to include reflections on my experience at the State Funeral Procession. 

For the uninitiated, they would probably think that Singaporeans are an impractical lot. Thousands of people, at all times of the day, some choosing to endure the blazing sun (my full respect to you), others willingly sacrificing sleep, with their picnic mats and ponchos, portable chairs and chargers, trusty iPhones and iPads loaded with games and movies. Many simply had multi-functional pieces of cardboard. Legs tired? Sit on it. Too hot? Use to fan. Amidst warning after warning that the duration of the queue would be long enough to take us to Perth and back, many insisted and persisted simply for a 10 second encounter. A shuffle past and three bows.

It doesn’t make “practical sense”. And I suspect he would not have approved.

For the uninitiated, they would probably think that Singaporeans are not a very enterprising lot. The extent of goods that were offered was staggering – umbrellas, muffins, pasta, sweets, apples, burgers, freshly brewed coffee. In some other countries, this would probably have been an opportunity to profit.  But last night I witnessed how we rich we are in love and kinship. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw familiar faces in the form of my students who were offering H20 cans with a bright smile on their faces. They were there, even though we had never told them to be. Similarly, there were volunteers shouting themselves hoarse along the entire route and I felt bad for them at some point because we were too zombified to reply them, but knowing that they chose to be awake at that time of the night to encourage us gave us strength to carry on.

For the uninitiated, they would probably think that Singaporeans are obedient to a fault. There were many points along the route where shaving your queue time by half was as simple as slipping under a worn police tape. Yet amazingly, people kept to the queue (with the exception of one old man). The truth is most people would have been too tired to even object. The “snake queue” at the Floating Platform was the worst. Grown men were falling asleep just leaning on the barricades. Children were sleep-walking, half dragged along by their bleary-eyed parents. Yet there was nary a grumble, and the people just soldiered on, quietly but in full solidarity.

For the uninitiated, they would probably think that Singaporeans are utterly crazy. 100,000 people standing under a torrential downpour, waiting for a nano-second of a glimpse of the cortege to shout “Thank You”. Once again, it didn’t make much sense. But perhaps the heavens sensed our sorrow, for they too wept bitterly, their cries complementing the mournful tune that played on loop in the background. I prayed hard there wouldn’t be some lightening alert that would cause people to scramble, but I needn’t have worried.  Everyone stood shivering, but unwavering, even as the rain pounded upon us. As the cortege approached, our umbrellas fell, and the cries of “Majulah – Singapura!” that intermingled with that of “Mr Lee Kuan Yew” swelled and swirled with our emotions. After a minute’s silence, someone began singing the National Anthem beautifully, and those of us who could find our voices again joined in.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd, and it wasn’t because of the rain.

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There was a time when people said that Singapore couldn’t make it. There was a time when people said that Singaporeans were ungracious, emotionless, sterile, kiasu, ungrateful. I saw none of that on Friday or Sunday. Instead, it was the sight of Singaporeans who had been waiting for hours on end, blocked from the Padang, cheering “Thank you, Lee Kuan Yew”. It was the older sister playing Pepsi Cola to distract her younger brother while they were waiting in line for an hour to use the toilet. It was the elderly who could have joined the priority queue but persisted because they wanted to go through the snake queue and see the floating platform. It was the people who experienced what it felt to be “homeless” for one night as they slept along the Marina Bay and outside the MRT station and the parents who got their little kids to give out food and drinks throughout the night. It’s a Singapore I’ve never seen before, but unlike those who say we might never see anything like this again, I do hope that we are now convinced that this Singapore does exist, and that we will continue to see different manifestations of it again and again. Like an eloquent friend has put it, I don’t think I could settle for any less.

Many ask: was it worth it? I’d like to think that at some point in time someone would have asked Mr Lee the same question about the sacrifices he made for Singapore, and his answer would have been the same as mine.

Thank you Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and may you rest in peace. Never fear, Singapore will do more than survive.

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