Singaporeans mourn death of founding father Lee Kuan Yew

World Today

A Singaporean cries as she reads condolence messages at the entrance to the Istana presidential palace following the death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore on March 23, 2015.  (AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN)

Singapore mourned longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew with raw emotion and a blanket of relentlessly positive coverage on Monday. 

The government announced that Lee, 91, “passed away peacefully” several hours before dawn at Singapore General Hospital. The increasingly frail elder statesman was hospitalized in early February with severe pneumonia.

His death at 3:18 a.m. on Monday Singapore time triggered an outpouring of grief from its citizens, thousands of whom paid tribute to the country’s founding father after learning of the news. This year also marks the country’s 50th anniversary of independence. Lee let a multiracial Singapore for more than three decades until 1990, and is credited with transforming the resource-poor island into a wealthy finance and trade port city with low crime and little corruption.

At around five o’clock in the morning, some local citizens went to the Quad, outside of Block 7 at Singapore General Hospital, to pay tribute to Lee.

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A taxi driver told Xinhua News that he headed straight for the hospital once he heard the news on the radio. “I was devastated about hearing of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing,” he said.

Lee’s son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, struggled to hold back tears in a televised address on Monday. Speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English, the prime minister said Lee built a nation and gave Singaporeans a proud identity.

“We won’t see another man like him. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore,” he said.

He was “grief-stricken beyond words” at the passing of his father and called on Singaporeans to honor his father’s spirit and dedicate themselves to “building on his foundations, strive for his ideals, and keep Singapore exceptional and successful for many years to come.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared a period of national mourning for his father from Monday-Sunday, with the state flags on all government buildings lowered to half-mast during the same period.

China’s President Xi Jinping said Lee was a “strategist and politician widely respected by international society.” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also expressed their condolences on Monday.

Lee and an older generation of Chinese leaders jointly opened the door for China-Singapore friendly cooperation, and his contribution to China-Singapore relations and China’s reform and opening-up will definitely go down in history, Li said.

In a separate message of condolences sent to Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Monday, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli called Lee Kuan Yew a founder of China-Singapore relations and an old friend of the Chinese people, who made outstanding contribution to promoting China-Singapore cooperation.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Lee a “visionary,” saying in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” to learn of his death. Obama, who met Lee during a visit to Singapore in 2009, said his “remarkable” leadership helped build one of the most prosperous countries. Lee also was “hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific,” Obama said.

Neighboring Malaysia, with which Singapore has had occasionally testy relations, said Lee’s achievements were great and his legacy assured. “Malaysia is committed to the future of our relationship with Singapore,” Prime Minister Najib Razak said.

Singaporean Jarprakash came to Istana holding a small notebook in his hand, bearing Lee’s signature, one of the 66-year-old’s most cherished possessions.

Locals mourn

A tearful Singaporean Lua Su Yean, 55, left a card for Lee, saying that she had just returned from overseas when she heard the shocking news. She had planned to pray for his speedy recovery when she was writing this card in the morning. However, she didn’t expect to find that the founding father of Singapore had passed away just as she was getting out of her car.

“My heart broke on the spot and I was so upset I was lost for words,” she said. “Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been my hero since I was in primary school. He offered us public units to live, and did a lot for us. My family and I respect him so much,” she said.

Lua also reminisced on how, as a middle-school-aged pupil she remembered watching the former Prime Minister in tears on television during the historic separation from the Malaysian Federation. She recalled how as a child she had been deeply moved by this and Li’s efforts to build Singapore.

“I have seen how much Singapore has progressed thanks to the determination and effort of our founding father. Lee had devoted his whole life to building Singapore, including through the tough times of its separation from Malaysia,” Lua said.

“As a small country with no resources, this was a huge effort on the part of the former prime minister,” she added. Radio stations in Singapore stopped their original programming to break the news of Lee’s death and as a mark of respect played solemn music thereafter.

One driver told Xinhua the music moved him to tears as he quietly reflected on everything the former prime minister had done for Singapore and its people.

A special zone to pay tribute to Lee has been set up outside Istana, the official residence and office of the President of Singapore, since 8:00 a.m. Monday. Thousands of mourners have flocked to this site to pay their respects.

“We can’t live without him as I was told about all he had achieved when I was a child. He loved the country and its people and devoted all his life to the building of our nation. We are really grateful for everything he has done,” said a Singaporean with the surname Ong who went to Instana with her husband.

The couple said that it was a pity that they didn’t have a chance to shake hands with Lee.

“The world recognized how rapidly Singapore had changed in just a few years, and this was all due to Mr. Lee’s love and effort,” Ong’s husband said.

“When I was about 15 years old, I went to a PAP (People’s Action Party) rally at Bukit Panjang primary school, and I gave the notebook to him, saying,’ Sir, would you please sign this for me?’ He signed it and told me to be a good boy,” Jarprakash said.

“He is a great man. Today you’re talking to me, and I’m standing here, it’s all because of him. All the other nations are looking at us very highly. I have a great family, I have nothing to complain about, I am so sad that he left.”

A private wake for the Lee family will take place Monday and Tuesday at Sri Temasek, the prime minister’s official residence in the lush tropical grounds of the Istana compound.

After that, Lee will lie in state at parliament Wednesday-Saturday for the public to pay their respects. A state funeral is set for Sunday at 2 p.m. at the University Cultural Center, at the National University of Singapore.

The government set up condolence boards at Parliament House and Istana and a website called Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, where people can leave messages.

Story compiled with information from Xinhua and AP reports.