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    Mar 27, 2015

    Singapore spirit shines through

    I WAS at the Istana gate and at the Sembawang tribute centre to pay my respects to Lee Kuan Yew. For the past two days, what I did not see made me as proud as what I did see.

    At the Sembawang tribute centre, I saw volunteers handing out hundreds of bottles of water to visitors - but no empty bottles were strewn on the floor. As boxes became empty, I helped the volunteers fold and recycle them.

    Queueing to enter Parliament House, I was in a huge crowd - but no litter. At 5pm, under the hot sun, I saw many opportunities for queue-cutting - but no one did.

    At the tribute event for Mr Lee at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital on Tuesday, Liak Teng Lit gave a spirited speech on the former prime minister. Mr Liak, who is currently group chief executive of Alexandra Health System, has a near obsession for public cleanliness and deserves his appointment as the next chairman of the National Environment Agency.

    Mr Lee had started the Keep Singapore Clean Campaign in 1968. "Every word he said then continues to be relevant today," Mr Liak told the audience.

    I looked up the speech in the National Archives that evening - a short, punchy speech. Mr Lee said: "Everyone can see the point of a neat home, clean kitchen, clean food and healthy children. But responsibility stops too often at the doorstep…Not only our young in schools, but also our adults, must learn new habits…Everyone can learn and acquire the habit of treating common user areas as one's own home, to be kept clean and maintained."

    Recently, there were some unflattering comments that Singapore is a "cleaned city", a "garbage city". But over the past days, I have seen Singapore at its best.

    We have seen an outpouring of grief for the loss of Mr Lee, and a generous outpouring of grace and kindness. Of hotel and restaurant staff serving free drinks to the visitors in the queue; volunteers taking leave to man the memorial sites; visitors stoic and patient under the hot sun, unfazed by the eight-hour queue.

    I read in the newspapers someone saying the sun is good - it could be worse if it rained. Another said she would camp a week to pay her respects to Mr Lee, after all he has done.

    I received some inquiries from organisations asking if they could be given a specific time slot for a group visit at Parliament House. I called to ask a former colleague if this was possible. She said no, the organisers have decided not to allow group visits. Everyone queues.

    Only visitors such as the aged, the disabled and pregnant have a shorter queue. So whether we are a worker, teacher, student, CEO or Stefanie Sun, we are all the same, coming to pay our last respects to Mr Lee and we will all queue.

    The mourning for the loss of our founding prime minister has brought out a rare creature, the sort of Singaporean hiding inside each of us - I like to think this is the real Singaporean. Hardy and impervious to physical discomforts, generous and kind in spirit, filled with solidarity, magnanimity, scrupulously fair and completely at home in queues.

    What triggered it? Four possible reasons.

    First, we are at this moment both united and bereft at the loss of Mr Lee. Standing in queue, I look at the person next to me, and (even though he may be looking at his phone) I know that he shares my emotions. I will help him if he needs it. The last thing I want is to cause him inconvenience through anti-social behaviour.

    Second, the great majority of Singaporeans feel a deep sense of gratitude that we have a safe and secure home. Speaking personally, I have been reminding myself over the past few days: "Yes, I love this land. This did not come easy and we must cherish this." Littering and anti-social behaviour goes against this thinking.

    Third, so many people are working so very hard during this important moment for Singapore - the marches, the ceremonies, musicians, volunteers at the tribute centres, uniformed personnel maintaining safety at crowded locations, media crews that made the documentaries and videos. It is not just the effort, but the clear sense that they are doing it for Singapore and for everyone making their way to pay respects. Every announcement was to give useful information to the public. Every step and action to bring dignity to the occasion and country. We witnessed a back-to-basics approach, and the heart of public service.

    Fourth, with such a strong collective display of cooperation, consideration for one another and public spiritedness, the small irresponsible minority is silenced or ignored. Bad things happen when good people keep quiet. Likewise, I believe anti-social behaviour like littering and creating a public nuisance become rampant only when responsible people keep quiet. There has to be social pressure for good behaviour. Try littering in Japan and you will know what I mean.

    This is Mr Lee's parting gift. He famously said at the 1988 National Day Rally: "Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up!"

    Mr Lee cannot physically get up again. But his sense of public service, the public spiritedness and social responsibility he wished in all Singaporeans, can get up in all of us. The next level of development for Singapore is not to raise ever-taller buildings or burrow deeper tunnels, but to bring out our best selves for a gracious society that looks out for one another.

    The writer is chairman of the NTUC Employment and Employability Institute.