SINGAPORE (AP) — Singaporeans bid farewell to longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew with an elaborate procession Sunday and a three-hour state funeral where his son, the current prime minister, eulogized the statesman and declared that the wealthy Southeast Asian city state he helped build is his monument.
Tens of thousands of people undeterred by heavy rains lined a 15 kilometer (9 mile) route through the city to catch a glimpse of the funeral cortege. Lee’s coffin, draped in Singapore’s red and white flag and protected from the downpour by a glass casing, lay atop a ceremonial gun carriage that was solemnly led past city landmarks from parliament to a cultural center where the state funeral was underway.
Walking slowly in the coffin’s wake as it exited parliament were Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, other Lee family members and government officials.
Along the way, crowds of people chanted “Lee Kuan Yew,” snapped photos with smartphones and waved Singapore’s flag. Four howitzers fired a 21-gun salute, air force fighter jets streaked over the island, with one peeling off in a “missing man” formation, and navy patrol ships blasted horns.
“To those who seek Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: Look around you,” Lee Hsien Loong said at a funeral service attended by more than 2,000 people including schoolchildren, Singapore’s elite, world leaders and royalty.
During a week of national mourning that began Monday after Lee’s death at age 91, some 450,000 people queued for hours for a glimpse of the statesman’s coffin at Parliament House. A million people visited tribute sites at community centers around the city.
The expansive show of emotion is a rare event for Singapore and its 5.5 million people. The island nation about four times the size of Washington D.C. is known around the world as a wealthy trade and finance center with a strict social order including a ban on chewing gum and caning for some crimes.
Lee was Singapore’s prime minister for more than three decades, ruling with an iron grip until 1990. He is regarded by Singaporeans as the architect of their nation’s prosperity and harmonious relations among ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian populations. But his authoritarian rule and crushing of dissent has also left a legacy of restrictions on free speech, a tame media and a stunted democracy.
“He did everything for us Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion,” said Jennie Yeo, a teacher who arrived at 7 a.m. to stake out front row positions with two friends. “Education, housing, everything you can think of, he’s taken care of for us,” she said.
Leaders and dignitaries from more than two dozen countries are attending the funeral. The U.S. delegation is led by former President Bill Clinton. Others included the prime ministers of India, Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Australia’s Tony Abbott.
Earlier this week, lawmakers paid a teary tribute to Lee in a special sitting of parliament. Low Thia Khiang, the leader of Singapore’s tiny political opposition, acknowledged Lee’s role in nation-building in a brief speech but said he did not believe one-party rule was the key to the country’s economic development.
“Many Singaporeans were sacrificed during the process of nation-building and policymaking and our society has paid a price for it,” he said. “This is why Mr. Lee is also a controversial figure in some people’s eyes.”
Abroad, India has declared a national day of mourning and in New Zealand, the government is flying flags at half-staff.
During the funeral service, civil defense sirens will blare across the island to begin a minute’s silence.
Follow Stephen Wright at http://www.twitter.com/stephenwrightAP