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Massive crowds mourn Mr Lee Kuan Yew

SINGAPORE — The immense turnout on the first day of the public mourning phase for Mr Lee Kuan Yew prompted the State Funeral Organising Committee to change plans and extend visiting hours twice in the span of just over three hours yesterday (March 26).

A flower is thrown by mourners observing the funeral convoy of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew as it departs the Istana for Parliament House. Photo: Don Wong

A flower is thrown by mourners observing the funeral convoy of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew as it departs the Istana for Parliament House. Photo: Don Wong

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SINGAPORE — The immense turnout on the first day of the public mourning phase for Mr Lee Kuan Yew prompted the State Funeral Organising Committee to change plans and extend visiting hours twice in the span of just over three hours yesterday (March 25).

The visiting hours for Mr Lee’s lying-in-state which started at Parliament House yesterday, were initially set at 10am to 8pm daily until Saturday. So exceptional was the number who showed up, the authorities announced barely two hours after the public were allowed in to pay their respects that closing hours would be pushed to midnight only for yesterday.

When crowds continued to thicken, an announcement came at about 3.45pm that Parliament House would remain open for 24 hours until 8pm on Saturday. In tandem, public transport operators also extended their service hours to round the clock for yesterday. The Land Transport Authority said it will work with the operators to determine if they can also lengthen the hours for the subsequent nights.

As at 10pm yesterday, 37,022 people paid their respects at Parliament House, with 36,200 condolence cards issued, the Ministry of Communications and Information said. At around midnight, there was still a steady stream of visitors.

Singaporeans of all ages and races, and from all walks of life halted their daily activities as the nation entered the public mourning phase for Mr Lee, in a display of the extent to which the Republic’s founding Prime Minister had touched their lives.

From witnessing the procession carrying his casket to Parliament House in the morning, to attending the lying-in-state ceremony, they came in droves — schoolchildren, housewives, seniors to disabled people, and even foreigners.

In particular, the chance to pay their last respects to Mr Lee at close quarters drew droves of mourners and caused confusion over where queues started — snaking lines stretched to at least eight hours’ wait at times — even after many had thronged the numerous tribute sites set up since Mr Lee’s death early Monday.

Meanwhile, more world leaders and foreign dignitaries came to pay their last respects to the statesman who brought to bear a standing for the nation far exceeding its size, as well as condole his family, including his eldest son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The public outpouring of grief yesterday began with crowds streaming in from as early as 6am to witness the late Mr Lee’s last trip to Parliament House.

When extended and immediate family members of Mr Lee were gathered at Sri Temasek to bid their farewell at 8am, a sea of office workers, parents with young children in tow, retirees and youths had already bunched up at the Istana’s main gate, alongside a contingent of journalists, including some from international media outlets.

One of them, administrative officer Aminah Harun, 51, said she took time off from work in order to witness the historic moment. “He is the father of Singapore. No matter how, we must come,” she said, adding that she intends to bring her family to Parliament House on Saturday to pay their final respects to Mr Lee as well.

Along the funeral procession route that passed through Orchard Road, Bras Basah Road, and North Bridge Road, crowds also thickened as the minutes ticked towards the start of proceedings.

From staying updated by tuning in to news reports on the radio and live webcast, to fiddling with their cameras and smartphones, the crowd waited in hushed anticipation until the blares of Auld Lang Syne played with a bagpipe emanated from the Istana grounds.

Moments later, the gun carriage bearing Mr Lee’s casket emerged at 9.38am, trailed by his immediate and extended family — barring his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, who was unwell to join in.

Clapping and cheers such as “We will miss you, Mr Lee” and “Good job, Mr Lee” erupted from teary-eyed mourners, while others tossed flower bouquets in the direction of the gun carriage as it made its five-minute journey to Parliament House.

By the time Mr Lee’s casket was brought into Parliament House, many had been queueing for more than two hours to enter and pay their respects.

As it passed noon, the numbers forming up from along the river promenade by Parliament House swelled to the extent that the line snaked around Battery Road and Circular Road, with security officers warning that the wait could be between eight and 10 hours. As a result, the authorities had to improvise plans, diverting queues to several places, including Hong Lim Park, Fort Canning, Clarke Quay and New Bridge Road.

While the massive turnout led to confusion over where the entrances were and grouses about the multiple queues forming up, tempers largely remained cool. Nevertheless, the crowds were too much to bear for some: An ambulance was dispatched to convey a pregnant woman in her 40s to hospital.

Many were stirred into spontaneous acts of kindness to bring a measure of respite from the piercing mid-day sun or long wait. Individuals prodded the old and handicapped to skip to the front of the queues, while banks, restaurants and hotels sited in the vicinity of the lines distributed cartons of water and snacks free, for instance.

Others came up with gestures of appreciation for Mr Lee. Artisan des Fleurs, a florist at Raffles Xchange, gave out white roses to those heading to Parliament House, with the owner, who declined to be named, only saying that “Lee Kuan Yew is a great man and we’re doing this to show our respect”.

The choir from St John’s College, from Mr Lee’s alma mater Cambridge University, also attended the Lying-in-State ceremony to perform a moving rendition of the popular 1998 National Day Parade song, Home.

Although many had to wait for several hours for their chance to pay respects to Mr Lee, they were unperturbed.

Mdm Yu Soo Sing, 75, said: ““We shd be grateful for what he’s done for us, putting in place policies that give us this comfortable environment to live in. He’s not perfect, and he’s not alone in building up this nation, but we can’t deny his sacrifices and contributions.”

Commenting on the “absolutely overwhelming” response shown by Singaporeans, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told TODAY: “I think people are finally realising what a huge impact he had on our lives as individuals, as families, and as a country — we wouldn’t have a country and citizenship, and we wouldn’t have had all the opportunities we’ve had. He’s literally made this country and made us one united people.

“All around, you see people ... prepared to wait for eight hours or more. I think that just shows you the depth of feeling and appreciation Singaporeans have. This is once in a lifetime.”

As the Republic enters the mid-point of a seven-day period of mourning today, Parliament will convene a special sitting today at 4pm, with 11 MPs slated to make tribute speeches honouring Mr Lee.

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