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Teary Mourners in Singapore Remember Lee Kuan Yew // Rappelez-vous De Larmes Pleureuses à Singapour Lee Kuan Yew


The mourners who filed past the gates of the government building where the body of Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday, was being kept spoke about him with a zeal and adoration usually reserved for candidates for sainthood.

“We are deeply in debt to him,” said Irene Yeo, a saleswoman who brought a bouquet of flowers, listing the reasons for her gratitude to the man who founded modern Singapore: “My life, my housing, my family, the good environment, the good transportation and medical care.”

Vasuki Thirupathi, an engineer from India who worked in Singapore two decades ago and was back on a visit, said he sobbed uncontrollably for two minutes when he heard the news.

“He is my idol, and not a day passes without my saying it,” Mr. Thirupathi said. “Security, law and order, truth, honesty — all of this requires vision and boils down to leadership.”Mr. Lee led Singapore from 1959 until 1990, an era in which it rose “From Third World to First,” as he titled his 2000 book on the former British colony’s modern history.

People waited to pay their respects to Mr. Lee outside the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on Monday. CreditEdgar Su/Reuters

For older Singaporeans, the roots of the respect for Mr. Lee were intertwined with their rise from poverty.

Zhuang Yaying, a 79-year-old who paid her respects on Monday, spoke of living in a thatched-roof house when she was young. “Singapore is like heaven now,” she said, citing “proper” sidewalks and the ubiquitous apartment complexes.

Under Mr. Lee’s leadership, Singapore became a highly manicured metropolis, a magnet for the wealth of elites in neighboring countries and a financial hub in Southeast Asia. (To impress the parade of Western executives who came to meet him, Mr. Lee personally made sure that the roads from the airport to downtown hotels were neat and verdant.)

Yeo Siew Siang, 65, a former Singaporean Army colonel who said he remembered pigs roaming in a neighborhood now filled with cafes, addressed the criticism of the stifling of political dissent, saying, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

The grieving was by no means restricted to older Singaporeans.

Curren Seow, 30, who works at Facebook, said that his parents had a picture of Mr. Lee hanging in their home and that he was “part of the family.”

Foo Ceyu, 35, a marketing manager, said he had been crying the whole day. “In Chinese, there’s an idiom saying we need to remember the source of our water, i.e., we have to be grateful,” he said.

In a testament to the orderly city-state that Mr. Lee built, mourners in Singapore were shepherded through a meticulously organized grieving line. Ushers with black armbands screened flowers using metal-detecting wands and guided mourners to tables where pens and index cards were neatly laid out so they could write their condolences. White tents shielded them from the sun.


A memorial outside of Singapore General Hospital on Monday after the death there of Mr. Lee. CreditSuhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Yet amid the grief there was also a sense that Singapore was moving on, even as plans were being made for the funeral on Sunday. There were far more people browsing their smartphones at cafes and meeting friends in a nearby shopping mall than mourners in the grieving line.

Singapore’s current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, one of Lee Kuan Yew’s sons, said during a televised address Monday morning that his father “gave of himself, in full measure, to Singapore.”

He continued: “As he himself put it towards the end of his life: ‘I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There is 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.’ ”

Praise for Mr. Lee, who was 91, poured in from around the globe. In a statement, President Obama called Mr. Lee “a true giant of history” and “a visionary who led his country from Singapore’s independence in 1965 to build one of the most prosperous countries in the world today.”

China, which has at times looked to Singapore as a model of Asian prosperity with little corruption and constrained politics, spoke of Mr. Lee as “an old friend of the Chinese people,” according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, a country with off-and-on prickly relations with Singapore, also praised Mr. Lee. “I pay tribute to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s determination in developing Singapore from a new nation to the modern and dynamic city we see today,” he said.

Dissenting voices came from human rights groups, which criticized his strong-handed tactics in politics.

“Lee Kuan Yew’s tremendous role in Singapore’s economic development is beyond doubt, but it also came at a significant cost for human rights,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director ofHuman Rights Watch. “And today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multiparty democracy is also a part of his legacy that Singapore now needs to overcome.”

Asked about the tapering of political freedoms under Mr. Lee, Mr. Thirupathi, the engineer from India who stood in the grieving line wearing an I Love Singapore T-shirt, said Mr. Lee’s priorities had been right.

“As long as you are economically well off, with housing and food, who cares about the politics?” he said. “I would much rather live in a country like this than a place where you have every freedom in the world but you are hungry.”

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