Looking back – media and public reaction to Lee Kuan Yew’s passing

LKY community tribute PRP 09By Cassandra Chia

I had wanted to write this post for quite a while, but I chose to wait for the right time, because I was well aware that many were grieving during the mourning period of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death, and I did not want to be disrespectful or insensitive to the distressed feelings many Singaporeans were facing.

Our current PM Lee, Mr Lee’s son, had then declared a seven-day period of national mourning to mark Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death. Mr Lee’s body was laid in state at the Parliament House for four days, from 25 to 28 March 2015, which allowed the public to pay their last respects to him.

According to mainstream news, 454,687 people turned up to see Mr Lee lying in state at Parliament House. Adding on to the visitor’s numbers at the 18 community tribute sites, more than 1.5 million had paid their respects. I think some people may have gone to the community tribute sites more than once, or went to both the Parliament House and community tribute sites. As such, the total number of people who paid their respects may be lesser than the estimated 1.5 million.

Local television channels under Mediacorp were running documentaries about the late Mr Lee, and many pages of The Straits Times and TODAY were set aside to publish articles related to and as a tribute to Mr Lee. The last few times that this occurred was for the passing of his spouse, Ms Kwa Geok Choo, and Michael Jackson’s sudden death.

LKY Parliament 230305 11The 29 March state funeral service was coincidentally made even more gloomy by the dark clouds and rain. The coffin bearer party comprising eight officers from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Police Force had to walked under the rain for a while, too.

On our television screens, we could see lines of people waiting in the rain near the roadsides as they wanted to catch a last glimpse of Mr Lee. There was a voice over narrator, which I personally felt had at times overplayed the dramatic narration of the crowds.

On National Day, a recording of Mr Lee’s Proclamation of Independence was played at grassroots-led events across the country and on all local TV and radio channels at 9am.

It has since been five months since Mr Lee’s passing and I recently visited The “Memories in Print: Lee Kuan Yew and Us” exhibition organised by SPH. This exhibition will move around different locations between 1 August to 7 September 2015, which so happens to be just before the election period. I had gained knowledge of it through an online posting. Before heading down, I did not read up on the exhibition but had presumed the main focus would be on his past achievements or what he has done for Singapore for the past 50 years.

However to my surprise, much focus was placed on photographs taken by SPH and freelance photographers during the period of the state funeral. Many pictures were of the crowds, long queues, tears, tissues, citizens bowing down, kneeling, hand clasped together, close up shots of crying faces, and Singaporeans queuing under the hot afternoon sun and even at night.

Ms Lee Huay Leng, Editor of Lianhe Wanbao, had said of the exhibition: “The period of mourning was special to us and it has gone down in our history as a significant milestone. The number of people who turned up to pay their last respect and the scale of the state funeral were unprecedented. We have put together an exhibition of photographs which captured the emotions of the people during this period. This is not just an exhibition on the late Mr Lee, it is an exhibition about Singaporeans and it documented an important milestone in Singapore’s history. This is why we are bringing the exhibition to various parts of Singapore.”

Singaporeans of all diverse types were shown – the different races, pre-school children huddled together, students in their school uniforms crying in the rain, the elderly, the wheel-chaired bound, families with their young children, the military, etc. The most memorable picture for me was the close-up shot of a Chinese woman wearing spectacles crying under the rain.

LKY Parliament 230305 05One observation I found perplexing when the news of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death made headlines was the sudden spike of numerous eulogies made by youngsters through their social media postings. Why? Before his critical period and death, I have never heard my friends, peers or even people I talk to in general share about how great Mr Lee is, or how appreciative they felt towards his accomplishments. But there was this rapid boom of eulogies on social media.

It felt as though the youngsters, and even Singaporeans in general suddenly knew about Mr Lee’s effort, and were only grateful to him when he was critically ill, which was an irony as little was mentioned about him before that.

Also, the way they wrote their postings suggests that they were very well-aware on his many great accomplishments for Singapore, although I honestly do not remember learning in-depth about him in our primary and secondary school textbooks. I’m a youth myself who is still going through the education system.

Many youngsters expressed their heartache and anguish at his passing in their online postings. Students even cried for him. It made me wonder if we could really understand the dedication and effort by Mr Lee in building up Singapore, alongside other equally important figures for the past 50 years who may not be as prominently publicised in our media or be as recognised as Mr Lee.

For one, we did not go through the many developments of the past 50 years. As the youths were some grieving and writing up these eulogies, were they just blindly following the trend? And subconsciously being influenced by the grieve and many eulogies of their peers to feel and write likewise? Do the younger generation and Singaporeans know that Singapore’s today is not solely Mr Lee’s effort, but also that of many politicians and pioneers we tend to forget or not even be aware of?

To do a similar comparison – when same-sex marriage was made legal in the US only a few months back, many young people, regardless of sexual orientation, had changed to a rainbow Facebook profile picture. It made me questioned whether we are really empathetic to the cause. Do we actually understand the struggles and battles the LGBT community faced during their fight for equality? Or are some of us merely following a trend and celebrating the US LGBT equality law in Singapore on a superficial level?

I just hope that we as youths, or even Singaporeans in general, do not blindly follow a trend, but are consciously aware of the significance of any perception or action we have or undertake.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published on Offbeat Perspectives.