An hour before the cortege is scheduled to leave the Istana and the crowd is bored, bemused. The road has yet to close and traffic slides by our noses as we exchange stares with the passengers on the 190. A woman leans on the yellow barrier and sucks on the straw of her Starbucks. A former newspaper colleague strides past, a photographer with a giant camera, probably tasked with getting ‘colour’ photos of the crowd. The crowd has its multitude of iPhones and is taking panoramic photos of itself. I pass the time reading The Book Thief and eavesdropping on the uniformed police as they brief a plainsclothes superior.
Who are we? Probably the kind of people that are attracted to a crowd, any crowd that promises a spectacle: fireworks, street dancing, opposition rallies. I live 10 minutes from the Istana, but what are other people’s excuses? The two secretaries behind me work in the area, they are going to be late; I admire how they manage to incorporate English, Mandarin and Hokkien into a single sentence.
The sun is rising, but it’s cool in the shade of the rain trees.
9am. From beyond the Istana gates, deep within that cool green compound, comes a commanding shout. The procession has started, but it’s all still contained within the private heart of the official residence. Someone near me is streaming Channel NewsAsia on his phone and we look over his shoulder enviously, seeing the red-bereted soldiers, the flag-draped coffin in its glass carriage, the solemn faces, all these details in obliging close-up. In the age of mass media, why do we still insist on sweating it out in person? Well, at least we can take our own photos. The road is empty. The roadsides are packed. There’s no sound but birdsong.
From across the road, from a vantage point with a clear view of the gates, a swath of the crowd suddenly raises its arms in a salute — no, holding up iPhones. Then, someone starts to clap. We wonder if this is disrespectful? This is not a parade after all.
Yet, as the gun carriage emerges from the gates and onto the road, the applause strengthens. A man shouts, Thank you Mr Lee! Now, everyone is applauding unabashedly. Flowers are thrown, single stalks of roses. The gun carriage. The van with the family members. The trucks with the white-clad occifers. The procession proceeds, is proceeding, has proceeded.
For a while we remain, staring at the empty road, the rose-dotted tarmac. Then, in twos and threes, in chunks and streams, we disperse, return to our air-conditioned buildings, our Lee-shaped lives.