I made my way to Padang after night class at 10 pm even though I was feeling slightly under the weather. I met up with my cousins and started queuing at approximately 11 pm. As we were walking to join the queue, we could hear kind volunteers shouting (nicely) at the top of their voices, urging the public not to join the queue as the wait was expected to be 8 hours. They even suggested “Please go for supper first and join the queue later.” I could not help but smile. What a typical Singaporean suggestion. However, what was atypical was the response. Silently or verbally, the response given by all was “No, thank you.” Everybody pressed on in their journey decidedly, determined to pay their final respect to the man who gave his life to build Singapore, come what may.
The walk to Padang itself took us approximately 45 minutes. We were then ushered as a cluster to wait in tents put up during the day to shield people from the sun. From where we were, we say plenty of NS-men setting up more barricades, in anticipating of more crowds coming to bid their farewell to Mr Lee. The journey to Padang was somewhat pleasant was most people were orderly and came expecting to wait and for things to be slow. Unfortunately, there will always be the minority who pushed and shoved, or jumped queue. We witnessed two young ladies hopping over a divider to jump the queue and I could not help but wonder, if you bothered to come knowing the wait would be long, why bother with jumping queue? I grumbled a bit to my cousins and left it as such. I wanted to be on my best behaviour to meet Mr Lee, silly that may sound.
Waiting at the tent was one of the most difficult parts of the queue. Firstly, there was no idea how long we had to stay there. Secondly the tents though valuable in the day to shield us from the sun, blocked the breeze and fresh air at night. That said, the NS-men on duty did their best. They walked up and down the tents, beseeching those in line to spread out, to sit down and rest, giving out water, tearing out cardboard for those who did not want to sit on the grass patch. They did all they could, to make our wait more comfortable and more pleasant. Never mind they had to repeat the instructions like 10 times before anyone moved, they remained calm, polite and patient. They did themselves, their parents and their nation proud.
Realising that the tents could be a problem and causing discomfort, these NS-men began to remove the tents for better air flow without disrupting the queues. This brought on cheers from those trapped under the tents as they began to enjoy the night breeze and fresh air. As these NS-men were removing the tents, people stayed where they were. Nobody tried to jump queue or be disorderly. It was amazing how much patience Singaporeans had for something else beyond Hello Kitty.
By the time we left Padang and began walking to the Parliament House, more than 2 hours had passed. However, no one was complaining. We had people of all ages, different races and nationalities, pressing on with one purpose. As we began to make our detour to the Parliament House, the organisers’ way of managing the crowd, I saw a nurse who came in uniform, probably straight after work, holding a white rose. As she walked, she was trying to draw Mr Lee’s portrait on the rose. Some might call this superfluous, but I was moved, by her desire to pay tribute in her own way.
For most part of the walk, my cousins and I kept near to the barricade, striving to get as much fresh air as possible. Along the way, more NS-men thanked us for our patience, encouraged us to remain orderly and gave rough indications of how much more we had to go. When we asked how long have they been here, we were told they were at Padang since 12 noon. It was past 2 am in the morning when we spoke to them. And they understood, knew what we needed. When their offers of water were rejected, as we had picked up water earlier, these young men started tearing off cardboards from the boxes holding the water, offering us makeshift fans, for those who did not have the foresight to bring their own. They didn’t have to do that, but they did, and that was really nice.
A segment of the walk included an underpass and again thoughtfulness was shown. They made us go in batches so that at no time was anyone trapped in an underpass. Mind you, the underpass was well-lit, but no, no one was ever left to ‘suffocate’ in the underpass. As we left the underpass, we hurried on to close up with the queue in front. Volunteers would repeatedly beseech us to walk slowly and be careful. They also gave clear instructions which side of the road we should keep to. All these were much appreciated by many of us who had no idea of the route that we were taking.
At close to 3 am, we were finally outside Parliament House, after going through security checks. We were just in time to catch snippets of the rehearsal, which was sombre and somewhat sad. When it was our turn to pay our respects, standing in front of Mr Lee lying in state, my cousins and I suddenly felt rather lost, not quite sure what to do. We bowed our heads and I said a quick prayer for him before leaving, turning back a couple of times to catch more glimpses of the coffin that held the man who united as much as he divided Singapore.
It was surreal and I wished the queue weren’t so long and I could go back and do this properly. At 3:30 pm, after 4.5 hours, I finally paid my respect to the founding father of Singapore. I did not think I did anything for the man who did all he could for Singapore, but I was glad to have participated in this historic moment in Singapore. I remain afraid of what lies ahead, what would be in store for a Singapore without Mr Lee. We would find out soon and I remain hopeful in the sensibilities of the silent majority, who haven’t been so silent this entire week.
We the ordinary folks of Singapore are no eloquent advocates. We go about our lives quietly, doing our best to live up, in our own ways, to the ideals espoused by Mr Lee, not because we are afraid, but because we believe. We know that words while sharp, do not win hearts, and it is in what we do that we show the world, what Singaporeans are truly made of.
I was glad I joined the queue to pay my respects at the Parliament House. The less than 1-minute bow in front of Mr Lee lying in state was not life changing. The 4.5-hour queue where I received kindness, understanding and patience, where for a brief moment I was united with the rest in the queue by a single purpose, experiencing a kind of a solidarity and national identity never before, left an indelible mark. The experience made me realise that Singapore has indeed come of age, with the passing of Mr Lee. It took a tragedy – the death of Mr Lee – to bring the family (Singapore) together. May we never forget this moment and our part in history, today and tomorrow.
Farewell, Mr Lee. Goodbye, thank you and rest in peace.
Artwork by Colin Goh