Monday 18 May 2015

The security men and women who became like family

By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Security officers (SOs) were part of my life from the time I was four years old, after my father became prime minister in 1959.

Initially, two officers were assigned to him. Protection was extended to the rest of the family around the time of Singapore's break with Malaysia in 1965 when communal tensions escalated.

My father's personal detail increased to 10 officers daily. In addition, two SOs and a woman security officer (WSO) became a part of my mother's detail. My two brothers had an SO each, while I was assigned an SO as well as a WSO, on account perhaps of my gender. I assumed the WSO doubled as a chaperone.

The SOs were police officers, picked for their fitness and shooting skills, and trained additionally for bodyguard duties. Back then, I viewed them as adult friends willing to spend their spare time playing draughts or card games with us.

I did not feel constrained by their presence. They did not report to my parents if my younger brother Yang and I went catching guppies in the big drain outside the Nanyang Primary field, or ate ice kachang made in less than hygienic conditions from the hawker outside the school gate.

This security arrangement continued until my second year in medical school. So SOs were an integral part of my growing-up years. They were with me as passive observers when I delved into sports - cross country and long distance running, swimming and karate - and when I signed up for officer training in school as an army cadet.

We ended the arrangement of having an officer assigned to me at all times from my third year of medical school.

Third-year students had to form a clinical group and there had to be at least one among us who could drive a car so that we could make our rounds of the hospitals to learn bedside care.

As my car could fit in only my fellow students, I went about my pre-med training without an SO.

Up until this time, the officers called me Ling, just like my family. I regarded the SOs as friends and equals.

After graduation, and while practising as a young doctor, I found the hours long. If my SO had to start the day the time I did, his working day would stretch beyond 12 hours. So, we agreed to have him join me at the time and place I showered and headed to work.

About this time too, some officers started addressing me as Dr Lee and it did not occur to me to object. Soon, I was Dr Lee to all the SOs and WSOs. None was assigned to me during my postgraduate stints abroad.

When Papa stepped down as PM in 1990, I no longer needed an SO. It felt strange but I knew that if I was in a bind, I could still count on contacting an officer at home for help or advice.

When my mother suffered a bleed in the brain during a working trip with Papa in London, more officers were dispatched to keep her company there. A stroke specialist from the National Neuroscience Institute was also dispatched. The SOs helped the specialist in caring for Mama.

After a week, we decided to risk flying her home as we judged that she could be better cared for in Singapore. She made a fairly good recovery in Singapore, but was never her old self again. Her WSOs took good care of her, and she reciprocated warmly, helping them with English pronunciation and chatting with them about their families. The WSOs also became an intrinsic part of her exercise routines.

When my mother suffered a recurrent bleed in the brain, the WSOs kept her company in the hospital and tried to cheer her up.

She still was concerned about them. For instance, she advised one WSO to marry and start a family instead of being consumed by the paper chase.

Around this time, I discovered how fond the WSOs were of my mother. Those who had left her detail would seek permission to visit her. This happened not only when she was in Tan Tock Seng Hospital but also when we brought Mama home to nurse.

When age and the stress of my mother's condition affected my father, the WSOs took it upon themselves to watch over him. They would warn me if they felt something was wrong.

Mama's condition left Papa alone. As he kept owlish hours, it was difficult for me to synchronise my meal times with his, and he felt the need for company.

The solution was for the WSO to keep him company, to discuss routine issues in Mandarin. It improved his casual Mandarin and he felt his time was not wasted.

He got to know the WSOs well, so much so that even after Mama died, the officers would meet him for an annual gathering at our Oxley Road home, some bringing their families and children, and having snapshots taken.

After my mother's death, my father's health worsened drastically. Now, his SOs took it upon themselves to care for him.

For the next five years, my father's SOs were crucial in helping me care for him. They would alert me when something did not seem right.

Twice, they saved his life.

They may have been younger than me, yet they cared for my father in a mature, responsible way. They willingly went beyond the call of duty for my father. So, it was no surprise that they were distraught, some in tears, when my father died.

That was why I dedicated the major part of my eulogy at Papa's private funeral to the officers who cared for him. They had become an extended part of my family. A few weeks later, I hosted them to a farewell lunch.

Subsequently, I texted them this message: "Even if we never meet again, we are friends. If you need help and I can help, I will try." Many replied, saying if I needed help, all I had to do was text them.

Life goes on. My father's SOs now serve other Cabinet officers and I will have to learn to live without them.

I am grateful for their friendship and concern. I told them that they will always be my kandidi (foster younger brothers).

The WSOs were very good to Mama as she was to them. I am grateful to them. Without them, the time between Mama's first stroke in October 2003 and second stroke in May 2008 would have been an unhappy time as she would not have been able to accompany Papa on almost all the events he had to attend at home and overseas.

My father once told me that goodwill goes both ways, and that describes my relationship with the SOs who became a primary part of my life until his passing. I shall never forget, and will remain grateful for, their sense of duty and unstinting devotion.

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