Singapore gives Lee Kuan Yew a hero’s farewell

A 21-gun salute is normally reserved for sitting heads of state but an exception was made for Lee who is widely revered by Singaporeans for his economic and social legacy.

Honour guards carry the coffin bearing Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew during his funeral in Singapore on March 29, 2015. Adek Berry/AFP Photo
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SINGAPORE // More than 100,000 mourners braved torrential rain, howitzers fired a 21-gun salute and jet fighters screamed across the sky on Sunday as Singapore staged a grand funeral for its founding leader Lee Kuan Yew.

“The light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished,” his son, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, said during a state funeral attended by Asia-Pacific leaders.

Lee’s coffin, draped in the red-and-white national flag and protected by a glass case atop a two-wheeled gun carriage, was earlier taken in a procession from parliament as a rain-soaked crowd chanted his name.

Four F-16 fighters from the air force’s Black Knights aerobatic team performed a fly-past –– with one peeling off to symbolise a “missing man” –– as the cortege made its way through a square where Lee was first sworn in as prime minister in 1959.

He kept the position for 31 years, ruling with an iron fist to transform Singapore from a sleepy British colonial outpost into a gleaming metropolis that now enjoys one of the world’s highest standards of living.

Singapore became a republic in 1965 after a brief and stormy union with Malaysia.

Lee, 91, died less than five months before the island celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent nation.

A 21-gun salute is normally reserved for sitting heads of state but an exception was made for Lee.

“He is like a father to all Singaporeans, the past, present and future generations,” said Tan Yen Lee, 26, a staff nurse at the Singapore General Hospital where Lee died of severe pneumonia on Monday.

“We have seen over the last week amazing scenes, a massive outpouring of emotion for our national hero, and it culminates today.”

People wept openly, waved flags and threw flowers on the street as the motorcade drove through districts associated with the political career of the British-trained former lawyer.

Officials said more than 450,000 people –– in a nation with just 3.34 million citizens –– had paid their last respects to Lee by the time his public wake ended in parliament on Saturday night.

On Sunday strangers huddled together under umbrellas as they waited patiently along the 15-kilometre funeral procession route.

Families including babies and grandparents turned up early to secure choice spots.

“We are here today as a family to witness this historic moment. As Singaporeans we may have our differences, but when it comes to a crunch we stand together. That is what Singapore is about and that is Mr Lee’s legacy,” said teacher Joel Lim, 35.

Lee stepped down in 1990 in favour of his deputy Goh Chok Tong, who in turn was succeeded by Lee’s son.

Former US president Bill Clinton and Lee’s close friend former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean president Park Geun-hye, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen and Indonesian president Joko Widodo were among the dignitaries in attendance.

Lee is revered by Singaporeans for his economic and social legacy but criticised by rights groups for sidelining political opponents, muzzling the press and clamping down on civil liberties. A number of his opponents went bankrupt due to costly libel damages or went into self-exile.

Singapore now has one of the world’s highest GDP per capita incomes at $56,284 (Dh206,730) in 2014, up from a mere $516 when it gained independence.

Ninety per cent of Singaporeans own their homes, thanks to a public housing scheme launched by Lee, and the country enjoys one of the world’s lowest crime rates.

Its civil service is consistently ranked among the world’s most honest.

* Agence France-Presse