on 23 March 2015, public officers stood
together with Singaporeans to mourn the
loss of our founding Prime Minister. Their
efforts exemplified the values that Mr Lee
had shown throughout his life – commitment,
dedication and personal sacrifice. Nowhere
were these values more clearly demonstrated
than by the Vigil Guards.
Four officers, one at each corner of Mr Lee’s casket, standing with their backs turned and ceremonial swords inverted, while a senior officer faced inwards. Over four days, 80 officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police stood guard in this manner, their vigil representing the nation’s highest form of respect to Mr Lee. vocation.
Major (MAJ) Muhammad Helmi Bin Khaswan, 31, was one of those in uniform. An officer in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), his duty began at 8am and ended at “2359 hours” daily during the Lying-in-State for Mr Lee. “It was an honour; a privilege,” he recalls. “Not everyone has the chance to pay tribute this way. We were watching over Mr Lee, who’d given his whole life to Singapore. Standing there for 30 minutes at a time was no sacrifice.”
MAJ Helmi’s own commitment to service began at an early age. “I always had this desire, and I aspired to pursue a career in the Public Service because it resonated with my values, beliefs and personality,” he says. Accepting a scholarship with the SAF, he studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and later at the University of Cambridge. The experience sharpened his sense of Singapore’s unique place in the world. “We need to consciously be aware of our limitations as a city-state,” he says, “and to strive to maintain our hunger, in order to succeed.”
An Infantry Officer by vocation, MAJ Helmi completed field appointments with the 1st Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment and the Officer Cadet School before taking on the role of Head of the Training Plans Section at the Ministry of Defence. “These assignments taught me the importance of being firm and principled when making decisions,” he says. “As officers, we must have the moral courage to stand up for what we believe in, and to advocate change and improve the system.”
During their long watch at Parliament House, the Vigil Guards kept their heads bowed, making no eye contact with anyone. Those who had other work responsibilities during the day would come by at night to relieve their fellow officers. Though they experienced numb legs and sore backs standing vigil, these weren’t the hardest things they had to bear – it was maintaining their composure.
“Many who came to pay their final respects to Mr Lee wept quietly, while others were more distraught,” recalls MAJ Helmi. “We also heard many kind words and expressions of thanks to Mr Lee for his sacrifices. An elderly lady tried to get up from her wheelchair to pay her respects; it was hard for her, but she felt that it was the least she could do.”
Seeing his fellow Guards and countless other public officers giving their all during this profound moment in our history, MAJ Helmi reflected on what it means to be Singaporean. “The Vigil Guards are a symbol of our strength as a nation,” he says. “Our uniforms are Western; our commands are in Malay; and we are of many different races. We aren’t homogenous, but we came together and stood as one. That’s what makes us unique; that’s what makes us strong.”
MAJ Helmi is currently attending an intensive, year-long course at the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, in preparation for the next step in his Public Service journey. As Singapore celebrates its 50th year as a nation, he has this to share: “I hope that we take the time to recall our history and appreciate how far we’ve come as a nation, and as one people. What we enjoy now was built on the blood, sweat and tears of our predecessors, especially the Pioneer Generation. We must remain steadfast and resilient, and work together to build a Singapore that we can be proud of.”
As the Vigil Guards diligently kept watch, an orderly would march out at the 15-minute mark of each shift to check on them. At the 29th minute, she’d march out again to let the Guards know that their shift would soon end.
Superintendent of Police (SUPT) Connie Seek, 38, of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) was one of two orderlies on duty during each 12-hour shift. “It was heartening to witness the whole Public Service mobilised in such a short time and working together around the clock,” she says. “I was also moved to see Singaporeans from all walks of life and of all ages bidding farewell to Mr Lee throughout the night.”
As an Officer Commanding at the Technology Crime Forensic Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department, SUPT Seek oversees a forensic analysis team and manages SPF’s cyber crime training needs – roles that didn’t exist when her father, a retired police officer, walked the beat.“I admire the discipline, dedication and values of the SPF, so it was natural that I followed in his footsteps,” she says.
SUPT Seek was also drawn to a profession where she shared the same opportunities as any of her colleagues. She ascribes Singapore’s culture of meritocracy to Mr Lee. “We’re not judged by gender or ethnicity, but according to what we can do,” she says.
Like her fellow Vigil Guards, SUPT Seek bore the weight of the occasion with grace. “When Mr Lee became our first Prime Minister, I wasn’t even born yet,” she says. “This was one way I could contribute and bid a proper farewell to him. It’s the least I can do.”