The Final Journey



At 3.18am on Monday, March 23, 2015, while the rest of Singapore slept, Mr Lee Kuan Yew died at the age of 91.

His death was not unexpected for he had been at the Singapore General Hospital since Feb 5, when he was admitted for severe pneumonia. In the week before he died, the Prime Minister's Office had said twice that his condition had worsened.

Still, the announcement of his death came as a shock to Singaporeans when they woke up that morning.

For 60 years, "LKY", as most knew him, was there - to lead, guide, cajole, persuade, exhort, scold. There was no-one as synonymous with Singapore as he. And now he was gone.

The news was made public at about 4am. By the time dawn broke, people were flocking to SGH where an area near Block 7 was already filled with flowers, gifts and cards wishing him a good recovery. This time, they came to offer prayers of condolences.

Others headed for the gates of the Istana when it was known that a private wake would be held at Sri Temasek for the first two days, before the lying in state at Parliament House.

In the seven days of national mourning that followed, Singapore saw an unprecedented outpouring of grief.

In all, more than 1.2 million people visited tribute sites around the country to pen messages to Mr Lee. A total of 450,000 queued - some up to 11 hours, most four to five - to pay their last respects to him in Parliament House, and 100,000 braved pouring rain to line the street for his funeral procession.

The numbers are just one part of how Singaporeans came together to mourn the death of the country's first prime minister.

Beyond the numbers, every mourner had his own story of what Mr Lee meant to them and how the values and ideas Mr Lee believed in and fought for - excellence, incorruptibility, meritocracy, multi-racialism - had made a difference in his life.

Businessman Guay Boon Bing, 49, said he was from a Chinese school and used to feel very disadvantaged after Mr Lee introduced the bilingual policy. “But now, as a businessman, knowing English has helped me to expand my semiconductor business overseas, in countries like the United States. Bilingualism has changed my life,” said Mr Guay at the Padang.

Ms Clara Miles, 60, a former hotel guest relations officer, valued how Singapore was safe. Children can wander around after school - "it was all his doing, making Singapore into a safe place".

Former Singapore Airlines stewardess Sharon Chong, in her 50s, spoke for many when she said it was partly guilt that drove her to express her thanks. “It was important for me to go out into the streets to say goodbye to Mr Lee,” she said at Commonwealth Avenue where she waited in the rain for the cortege. “I want him to know I’m grateful to him. We’re the silent, sleeping ones who have kept quiet all these years. We are awakened now that he has passed on. We feel ashamed that we have not done much for the nation and never bothered with his contributions until now.”

When Mr Lee was Prime Minister, he would stay up till 3.30am, working. Even as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor, he was often awake till the wee hours thinking, planning, scheming how to improve the lives of Singaporeans.

“Deep into the night, while the rest of Singapore slept, it was common for Mr Lee to be in full work mode,” revealed Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was once Mr Lee's principal private secretary.

That Monday morning when he passed away at 3.18am, he left behind a people who showed gratitude, grace and unity in their sorrow.

Lee Kuan Yew: The Final Journey looks back at the events of that week. It contains photographs and stories that appeared in The Straits Times print version and some that weren’t used, as well as audio and videos that you can find in our site at

The Passing
By Warren Fernandez

Singapore entered the post-Lee Kuan Yew era on March 23, 2015, with the passing of founding father Lee Kuan Yew, 91.

It was a day that had been widely anticipated, not least since Mr Lee himself had often spoken of the need for leadership succession and had pushed for it relentlessly, giving up his own job as Prime Minister in 1990 after 31 years, and while still robust at 67.

Yet, when the time finally came - he died at 3.18am at the Singapore General Hospital where he had been hospitalised since Feb 5 with severe pneumonia - there was a palpable sense of loss in the country, from the halls of the Istana to the streets of Tanjong Pagar.

As soon as the Prime Minister's Office announced the news an hour later, an unprecedented outpouring of tributes and messages of condolence began appearing online, and continued all day.

An emotional Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong fought back tears when he appeared live on television from the Istana at 8am to deliver the news that the first Prime Minister, his father, had died. He said he was "grieved beyond words".

"The first of our founding fathers is no more. He inspired us, gave us courage, kept us together, and brought us here. He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won't see another man like him," he said.

The first of our founding fathers is no more...We won't see another man like him.

A guard outside the Istana. — PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

To many here and abroad, he said, "Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore. Singapore was his abiding passion. He gave of himself, in full measure, to Singapore. As he himself put it towards the end of his life and I quote, 'I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There's nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life'."

PM Lee called on Singaporeans to honour Mr Lee's spirit, even as they mourned his loss, and work together to "build on his foundations, strive for his ideals, and keep Singapore exceptional and successful for many years to come".

On hearing news of Mr Lee's passing, people immediately began making their way to the Istana, his constituency Tanjong Pagar and Parliament House, their numbers growing through the day. Many, both men and women, were wet-eyed.

At the Istana's Orchard Road gates, the crowd waited patiently to pen heartfelt condolence messages and catch a glimpse of Mr Lee returning to the grounds for the last time. When the silver hearse bearing his casket arrived at about 1pm, applause and cheers broke out, as well as cries of "Thank you, Mr Lee!"

Over at Tanjong Pagar, which Mr Lee had represented for 60 years since 1955, thousands more turned out to pay tribute to the man some called the "father of the nation", bowing respectfully before a large portrait of him. Retired calligrapher Seow Cheong Choon, 80, wept as he recounted how he had once railed against Mr Lee, doubting he would deliver on his promises to house Singapore's slum dwellers and squatters.

"He said he would give us all a house. Not just one or two people, but the thousands living in attap houses," he said in Mandarin. "I was angry with his promises of false hope. Who could believe him? Singapore was chaotic, muddy, full of gangsters."

It was a day that had been widely anticipated, but news of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's passing sparked a deep sense of loss among Singaporeans of all ages and races.

He was referring to the time Mr Lee had declared at a 1965 grassroots event: "This country belongs to all of us. We made this country from nothing, from mudflats... Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!"

People headed to Singapore General Hospital and Istana gate (above) after news broke that Mr Lee had died. — PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Mr Lawrence Hee (above) was one of those who paid their last respects to Mr Lee soon after news broke of his death. This photo was taken at the SGH tribute area at about 6am, March 23. — PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Mr Toh Hoo Kee buried his face in grief at news that Singapore’s founding father had died. He was spotted at the SGH tribute area near Block 7 on March 23, 2015. — PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The hearse carrying Mr Lee’s body entered the Istana at about 1pm on March 23 for a private wake at Sri Temasek. Some in the crowd outside called out his name. — PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

People lined up outside the Istana on March 23 to pay their last respects. Some left flowers, others penned tributes. — PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

On Tuesday, March 24, PM Lee Hsien Loong, his wife Ho Ching (standing, left) and their son Hongyi (standing, centre) visited the crowds outside the Istana. — PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

That vision was to become a reality, and one of those who lived through the city's transformation was Mr Seow, who moved into a new three-room flat in Kim Tian Road in the late 1960s.

Mr Lee led a pioneer generation of Singaporeans to overcome similarly daunting challenges, including rebuilding the economy after the sudden pullout of British forces and the oil shocks of the 1970s, and a major economic recession in the mid-1980s.

Little wonder then that he came to be regarded as the man most instrumental in shaping this country, from the time he and his People's Action Party colleagues pushed for self-government in the 1950s to their quest for merger with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form the new nation Malaysia in the early 1960s, and their efforts to secure the Republic's survival after independence was thrust on it on Aug 9, 1965.

Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!

He famously wept on TV announcing the "moment of anguish", when Singapore was "severed" from Malaysia. Not only had he believed deeply in a unified Malaysia as a multiracial society, but he must also have sensed the enormity of the task for the new city-state to make a living in an inhospitable world.

His decades in office were not uncontroversial. Having survived life-and-death battles with the communists and communalists in Singapore's troubled early years, he made plain that he was not averse to donning "knuckledusters" to take on and "demolish" his political adversaries. He refused to be swayed by popular sentiment or opinion polls, believing that voters would come round when they eventually saw the benefits of policies he had pushed through.

He was both a visionary and a radical thinker, and was instrumental in a host of major policies that have shaped almost every aspect of Singaporeans' lives, from promoting public housing, home ownership and racial integration in public estates and, later, estate upgrading, to adopting English as a common language for the disparate races in Singapore.

A day in pictures and videos on how the nation and its people reacted to news of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's passing.

He made multiracialism and meritocracy as well as economically sound and corruption-free government hallmarks of the Singapore way. He carried over his own frugal ways to the business of government and was relentless in his fight against the "cancer of corruption", making plain no one was beyond being investigated and ejected from office if they strayed.

When Mr Lee fell ill, an area at SGH was set aside for people to place their cards and flowers. After he died, they continued to flock there, this time to pay their last respects. — PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

He pushed for ministers and senior civil servants to be paid salaries pegged to private sector rates, despite that being controversial, believing it was necessary if Singapore was to continue to enjoy good, clean government. And if this city gained a reputation worldwide for also being one of the cleanest and greenest, it was because the Prime Minister himself took a personal interest in enhancing the island's greenery, parks and waterways, long before such environmental consciousness became fashionable.

World leaders acknowledged this track record and were lavish with their accolades yesterday. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak noted that Mr Lee's "achievements were great, and his legacy is assured", while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed him as a "far-sighted statesman and a lion among leaders".

United States President Barack Obama said in a statement: "He was a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one of the great strategists of Asian affairs."

At home, even opposition politicians who bore the brunt of Mr Lee's no-holds-barred broadsides put aside their partisan differences, with leaders such as those from the Workers' Party and Singapore Democratic Party extending their condolences to PM Lee and his family.

March 23 was the first of a two-day private family wake at Sri Temasek in the Istana, when family members, past and present Cabinet ministers and MPs, as well as old friends of Mr Lee and his family paid their last respects. Among them were Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, former Chief Justice Yong Pung How and Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing.

Flowers were laid, tributes written and tears flowed outside the Istana as members of the public paid their last respects to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

On March 25, his body will be taken to Parliament House to lie in state until Saturday, March 28, and members of the public will be able to pay their last respects. A State Funeral will be held on Sunday at 2pm at the University Cultural Centre in Kent Ridge, followed by a private cremation at Mandai Crematorium.

Mr Lee leaves his two sons, PM Lee, 63, and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, 57, daughter Lee Wei Ling, 60, daughters-in-law Ho Ching, 61, and Lee Suet-Fern, 56, seven grandchildren and two siblings. His wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, died in 2010 at the age of 89.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his beloved wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo in a photo taken at Sentosa on Valentine’s Day in 2008. — PHOTO: KWA KIM LI

He had soldiered on with his public duties after retirement, and even after the loss of his wife of 63 years, whom he mourned deeply, but mostly in private. They had married secretly as undergraduates in Cambridge in 1947, and Mr Lee is said to have instructed, in a note to his children, that when the time came, their ashes should be mixed so they might be "joined after life as they had been in life".

Summing up his life's work in his two-part memoirs, The Singapore Story, Mr Lee once revealed how he and his colleagues believed that Malaysian leaders anticipated the day when an independent Singapore would fail and be forced to appeal for readmission to the Federation, on Malaysia's terms. "No, not if I could help it," he once declared.

"People in Singapore were in no mood to crawl back after what they had been through. The people shared our feelings and were prepared to do whatever was needed to make an independent Singapore work. I did not know I was to spend the rest of my life getting Singapore not just to work, but to prosper and flourish."

CHAPTER 2 The Private Funeral
CHAPTER 2 The Private Funeral
CHAPTER 2 The Private Funeral