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From a trickle of visitors into snaking lines at Istana

SINGAPORE — As the hearse bearing the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s body pulled up to the Istana’s Main Gate at around 1pm today (March 23), a hush fell, broken only by frenzied triggering of camera shutters as the vehicle drove through, before a chorus of cries — some calling out Mr Lee’s name — pierced the air.

SINGAPORE — As the hearse bearing the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s body pulled up to the Istana’s Main Gate at around 1pm today (March 23), a hush fell, broken only by frenzied triggering of camera shutters as the vehicle drove through, before a chorus of cries — some calling out Mr Lee’s name — pierced the air.

A private family wake is being held at Sri Temasek, the official residence of the Prime Minister, for Mr Lee until tomorrow, and the Main Gate of the Istana was the chosen gathering point for many members of the public seeking to pen condolence notes and express their appreciation for Mr Lee and his lifetime of public service.

By evening, the trickle of visitors spotted at daybreak had transformed into sombre, snaking lines. Many in the queue were older Singaporeans who had met Mr Lee in the past, during his visits to their neighbourhoods, or other such community activities.

Teary-eyed, they clutched bouquets of orchids, white lilies, white roses — one visitor brought blooms in the colours of the national flag — and came dressed to mourn in muted shades of clothing.

The scene at the Istana was replicated in other areas that had been set up to allow Singaporeans to pay tribute to the nation’s founding prime minister, and the mood elsewhere across the island was one of quiet, sometimes tearful, grief. From sunrise, when state flags at government buildings, schools, community centres and elsewhere were unfurled and raised to half-mast, to late in the evening, as workers made detours from their commutes home to pay respects, it was near impossible to venture into any corner of the island where Mr Lee Kuan Yew did not loom large in thought or conversation.

Outside the Istana, elderly folk came hand in hand with their grandchildren and told them stories of Mr Lee’s contributions to Singapore. At this morning’s assembly in schools, Majulah Singapura rang out loud and proud. In Bishan, coffeeshop patrons ignored the beverages at hand and sat glued to television screens recounting the news of the day, and the life and times of Mr Lee.

Later in the afternoon, the Istana turned into a hive of activity as guests attending the private wake, including Deputy Prime Ministers Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean, tycoon Li Ka Shing and foreign dignitaries, began arriving.

At Tanjong Pagar Community Club, meanwhile, the mood was solemn among visiting residents and grassroots volunteers. Visitors, several of whom struggled to keep their emotions in check, were guided and assisted by grassroots volunteers who wore white shirts, black pants and tags with black lanyards. A few who held their composure until then broke down after depositing flowers and other keepsakes before moving on to view photos of Mr Lee’s public appearances from the 1950s to his final years, which were on display. A documentary of Mr Lee’s contributions to Singapore was also played on repeat. In the early afternoon, students in school uniform began arriving after lessons ended. Some took pictures of the photo display, and parents also spent some time talking to their young children about Mr Lee.

Teck Ghee Community Club began to draw visitors in the morning, and by afternoon, residents were also making their way to Ang Mo Kio Central Stage as soon as it had been set up. As a video of Mr Lee played on stage, wreaths and bouquets began arriving.

Over at Parliament House, a mix of curious tourists and working professionals on their lunch breaks dropped by, and despite the sunny weather, the mood was sombre. Many came and went quietly, but by 4.15pm, officials stationed there said almost 1,000 notes had been left there.

The Singapore General Hospital, where well-wishers first began gathering last Friday, was another spot of choice for those who wanted to pay tribute to Mr Lee. At the Quad outside Block 7, young and old alike arrived steadily throughout the day, and placed flowers, cards and letters beneath a large black sign with the words: “We Remember with Gratitude”.

Wherever they went, and whether they left flowers, balloons, cards or offered a silent prayer, the grief was palpable, and the sentiment was the same.

Mrs Choi Heng, 68, a retiree, summed up the thoughts of many, saying in Mandarin: “I don’t think there’s going to be another (leader) like Mr Lee Kuan Yew … I always tell my grandson to respect him because he must be respected for doing all those things that he had done for Singapore... It was so difficult in the past but he made things better.”

Reporting by: Ng Jing Yng, Amanda Lee, Xue Jianyue, Siau Ming En, Valerie Koh, Jean Khoo, Angela Teng, Matthias Tay, Jordon Simpson, Zhang Weifang 

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