Crowds swell to bid farewell to Singapore's founder Lee ahead of funeral

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 28, 2015 2:06 AM

By Saeed Azhar

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered in Singapore on Saturday to bid farewell to former leader Lee Kuan Yew in an unprecedented wave of sympathy after authorities had to temporarily suspend queues overnight to manage surging crowds.

The waiting time to enter Singapore's Parliament House where Lee's body was laying in state was as long as 6 hours just before midday on Saturday, a rare sight in a city where public gatherings are tightly controlled.

Mourners walked by Lee's coffin, draped with a Singaporean flag and flanked by five uniformed military officers, in silence. Many bowed. Some saluted. Others sobbed.

"In our lifetime this is probably the only person who will garner this kind of respect from everyone, so I think it’s something that we should do," said Ho Shaw Ming as he waited in line.

Lee, Singapore's first prime minister, died on Monday at the age of 91.

He is credited with transforming the city-state from a British colonial outpost into one of the world's wealthiest nations, with a strong, pervasive role for the state and little patience for dissent.

Commercial activity in Singapore, known for its shopping and food, is expected to slow significantly on Sunday. Several shopping mall owners and big stores such as Tangs and Metro said they would close on the day of the funeral.

The casino at Genting Singapore's <GENS.SI> Resorts World Sentosa will be closed on Sunday from 2 pm to 6 pm as a mark of respect, it said on its website.

Lee's funeral procession will begin at about 12.30 pm (12.30 a.m. ET) on Sunday and cover 15.4 km to the National University of Singapore, where funeral services will be held.

Asia-Pacific leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will be among those attending the services.

The number of visitors to Parliament House has exceeded 300,000, or 5 percent of Singapore's population, since the public viewing opened on Wednesday morning.

More than half a million visitors have flocked to 18 designated community tributes, writing messages of condolence and leaving flowers.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his ministers visited the queues near the parliament house and community centres where people were lining up.

"I am deeply moved by the overwhelming response of people wanting to visit my father’s Lying in State at Parliament House," Lee said on his Facebook page.

With elections expected as early as later this year, it was unclear whether the wave of support for the country's founder would generate more votes for Lee's People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since independence.

Income inequality, resentment over immigration and expensive housing were among the issues which knocked the PAP's share of the vote down to 60 percent from 67 percent in elections four years ago.

"Don't expect sympathy votes for the PAP on account of the late Mr Lee," said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

"The PAP instead has the unenviable task of unequivocally showing that they are noble and worthy successors to the late Mr Lee and his founding generation of leaders."

(Additional reporting by Christophe Van Der Perre, Aradhana Aravindan and Rujun Shen; Editing by Kim Coghill)