Final send-off: Coffin bearers ready to receive Lee Kuan Yew

Rehearsals for Lee Kuan Yew's State Funeral at the National University of Singapore University Cultural Centre. — TODAY pic
Rehearsals for Lee Kuan Yew's State Funeral at the National University of Singapore University Cultural Centre. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, March 29 — With a singular focus on giving founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew a solemn and dignified send-off, the 18 members of his Coffin Bearer Party have been practising since Monday for the final two ceremonies they will perform today.

After a seven-day period of national mourning — during which hundreds of thousands have flocked to pay their respects — Singapore will bid its farewell to Lee today.

The two teams of the Coffin Bearer Party will first move Lee’s coffin to University Cultural Centre (UCC) for the Funeral Service, before moving him to a private service at Mandai Crematorium.

 At any one time, the coffin will be shouldered by eight bearers; all senior officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police Force.

One team will do the sending-off, and the other will perform the receiving ceremony.

At a rehearsal at UCC earlier yesterday, Brigadier General Ong Tze-Ch’in, who is one of the two team commanders, told the media of the honour they feel from being selected and how they have been preparing.

For one, they are among the rare few who have had the privilege of paying their respects to Lee up close.

“It is a great honour and privilege to be given this duty,” said BG Ong.

“We really haven’t had time to be very emotional, we just prepare ourselves individually and reconcile ourselves with the enormity of the event.”

Since Monday, the teams have been going through three to four rehearsals a day to perfect their drill —sandbags are placed inside a replica coffin for them to get used to the weight.

They have also had to adapt to slopes, steps, and different ground surfaces.

On the first two days after Lee’s death, the coffin bearers’ rehearsal schedules also had to be adjusted around the private wake at the Istana.

For example, the bearers had to arrive at 5am in the morning, and leave only at 11pm at night.

The biggest challenge they face, however, is making sure the whole party gets the “coordination, the chemistry, just right ... so that the whole proceeding is done in a very graceful, dignified and solemn manner”, said BG Ong.

Asked how the coffin bearers were chosen, he explained that ranks were taken into account, given Lee’s stature.

The two teams of the Coffin Bearer Party are made up of officers holding the rank of Colonel, or the equivalent, and commanded by BGs.

One of the coffin bearers, Colonel Gerald Heng said they have been pushing themselves hard.

“Everyone is looking out for one another, pointing out our mistakes and where we can improve,” he said.

“Typically, we train one round, take a break, have a drink, go another round.

Meanwhile, queues today to Parliament House — where Lee’s body lies in state — were orderly when the suspension on joining the queue was lifted at 6.15am.

The suspension was imposed last night past 11pm for safety reasons, when waiting times exceeded 10 hours.

At 10.30am, for instance, waiting times of the standard queue stood at four to five hours, while those who were in the priority queue had to wait for two and a half hours.

A third queue for visitors with strollers and the wheelchair-bound had a waiting time of one hour.

Despite the intermittent showers in the afternoon, more continued heading to Parliament House, leading to waits stretching to eight hours at one point.

Crowds have since thinned dramatically, however, as the clocked ticked towards the 8pm cut-off time. — TODAY