Thursday 17 March 2016

Up Close with Lee Kuan Yew: Insights from Colleagues and Friends

Personal anecdotes give rare insights on Mr Lee Kuan Yew in new book
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2016

A young Mr Lee Kuan Yew once walked through snow in the bitter Cambridge winter to deliver a bucket of coal to fellow student Yong Pung How, who was recovering from a bad bout of flu.

There was no electrical heating and Mr Yong relied on a coal stove for hot water. He woke up in his room one day to find his stove lit.

"The bucket was full and Kuan Yew had come through the snow on foot because he couldn't very well carry it on a bicycle. It must have been more than half a mile from his lodgings," Mr Yong wrote.

"Perhaps few people would describe him as kind and humane. But he certainly was very kind to me."

This anecdote by Mr Yong, Singapore's former chief justice, is among the many personal stories that shed light on a lesser-known side of Mr Lee, who died last March, in a new book launched yesterday.

Titled Up Close With Lee Kuan Yew, it contains 37 essays by Mr Lee's friends and former colleagues, including Puan Noor Aishah, the widow of first President Yusof Ishak, his former principal private secretaries such as Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, and his press secretary of over two decades, Madam Yeong Yoon Ying.

In the book, Dr S. Vasoo, a People's Action Party MP from 1984 to 2001, wrote of how he and Mr Lee had discussed the issue of ethnic integration in HDB flats not long after he entered Parliament.

"I had brought up the issue of increasing concentrations of ethnic groups in the housing blocks, an observation that I knew caught his attention as I could see his eyes flash and his eyebrows lift," he wrote.

Mr Lee then said that he had been thinking about the matter for a while and wanted to tweak the housing policy to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming. In 1989, ethnic quotas were set for HDB estates to ensure a good racial mix. "People always think of (Mr Lee) as a very hard person, very goal-driven... But I don't think so. Because in all the things that he did, we should ask: Did he do it for the public good? Was it for the interest of Singapore? The answer is yes," he wrote.

Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, who was part of the committee behind the book project, said Mr Lee's kindness towards Mr Yong was "a real-life manifestation of the Chinese saying xue zhong song tan", someone providing timely help to another.

He said the book provides rare insights on Mr Lee "you would never get except when you talk to people who have known him for so long".

At the book launch at the National Gallery, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean shared how Mr Lee's attention to detail struck him when he was a young MP.

"He told me: 'Don't wave your hands so much when speaking', because he found it rather distracting," said Mr Teo, to much laughter from the invited guests.

In the book's foreword, Mr Heng shared how on the day of Mrs Lee's funeral in 2010, Mr Lee sent an e-mail to officials alerting them to some trash in the Singapore River, and even attached two photos - one of himself - to pinpoint the location.

Mr Teo said the story "is a poignant example of how Mr Lee never let the smallest detail go - even when he was going through such a difficult time emotionally".

The book is available at major bookstores for $29.96. The proceeds will go to 20 pre-schools run by voluntary welfare organisations. They will help fund language programmes for pre-schoolers.

Singapore was not just Lee Kuan Yew’s life’s work, it was his life: Teo Chee Hean
The Deputy Prime Minister also revealed Mr Lee's attention to detail and caring nature.
By Justin Ong, Channel News, 15 Mar 2016

Everything that the Republic’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew did was not for himself, but for Singapore and Singaporeans, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Tuesday (Mar 15).

Speaking as guest-of-honour at the book launch of “Up Close with Lee Kuan Yew” at the National Gallery Singapore’s City Hall Chamber - where Mr Lee was sworn in as the nation’s first Prime Minister in 1959 - Mr Teo noted that his biggest takeaway from the tome was “how Mr Lee lived and breathed Singapore”.

“Singapore was not just his life’s work. It was his life,” said the Coordinating Minister for National Security.

Mr Lee died on March 23 last year aged 91. The book contains 37 recollective essays by all of his former Principal Private Secretaries (PPS) as well as public service, private sector and community leaders. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who served as Mr Lee’s PPS from 1997 to 2000, wrote the foreword, while former President S R Nathan and ex-Chief Justice Yong Pung How also contributed to the book. Proceeds from its sale will be donated to help fund 20 pre-schools, in collaboration with non-profit organisation Temasek Cares.


Mr Teo also identified two other traits of Mr Lee which he said resonated strongly throughout the book.

“He paid close attention to fine details. Mr Heng’s story of how Mr Lee sent an email about trash in the Singapore River to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources on the day of Mrs Lee’s funeral is a poignant example of how Mr Lee never let the smallest detail go – even when he was going through such a difficult time emotionally,” said Mr Teo.

“He also cared very much about people. Mr Stephen Lee recalls how Mr Lee always thanked the musicians and performers after every performance at the Istana, and showed appreciation to SIA cabin crew members who served him on board. Many of Mr Lee’s personal staff also recounted his kindness to them in various ways.”

Added Mr Teo: “The personal anecdotes and recollections in this book bear testimony to Mr Lee’s lifetime dedication to building an exceptional country for all Singaporeans, with an honest, reliable and trustworthy system of governance. One that would outlast him or any individual leader.”

Mr Teo then shared a personal anecdote which he said fully showcased the two aforementioned traits of Mr Lee. “One day, Mr Lee phoned me up to give me some personal feedback. He told me not to wave my hands about so much when speaking, because it was rather distracting,” said Mr Teo. “So if you noticed that I have not moved my hands much during my speech, it is because he noticed this small detail about myself, which I had not even been conscious of. And he cared enough to take the trouble to point it out to me, so that I could try to improve and do better.”

“The best and most appropriate way to honour his memory is for all of us to build on this strong foundation – united as one people – to do our part to make Singapore even better in the years to come,” he concluded. “Let us follow that rainbow, and ride it together, towards a better future.”

This day last year, I got a call around 4 in the morning, saying that Mr Lee had passed away. We had been getting...
Posted by Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Without Mrs Lee, Mr Lee would have been a different person
In an exclusive excerpt from the new book 'Up Close with Lee Kuan Yew', Mdm Yeong Yoon Ying, the long-time press secretary of the late Prime Minister, shares her behind-the-scenes observations of Mr Lee's wife, Kwa Geok Choo
By Yeong Yoon Ying, Published TODAY, 16 Mar 2016

On 2 October 2010, my family was celebrating my grandson’s full month at home when the phone rang. It was an urgent call from Mr Lee, asking me to help compile a video montage that chronicled some of Mrs Lee’s best moments. She had just passed on.

With a heavy heart burdened by sadness over her demise, I spent the whole night scouring through MediaCorp’s archives, as well as my personal collection, to look for the most appropriate clips which could be refined into a congruous storyboard. Mr Lee watched the video the next morning and I remember his eyes turning red.

Even though he had mentally prepared himself for her passing, his true feelings for Mrs Lee were revealed during the funeral service. What touched me the most was the title of his eulogy: “The last farewell to my wife.” The very poignant eulogy said, “Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life.”

To me, that sentence summed up their 63-year marriage. They indeed enjoyed a blissful marital life, one which was anchored by mutual trust and respect. Theirs was a bond that other couples should emulate.

Mrs Lee was a quiet and calm person. She hardly raised her voice. She knew Mr Lee’s temperament best and had her ways of soothing and calming him down whenever he was unsettled or anxious. All his staffers were very grateful for this.

I recall one of my first trips to China as Press Secretary, in 1993 or 1994. The programme was very tight. On one occasion, Mr Lee asked his private secretary to pass me some information for follow-up. Realising that I was just about to have my lunch after a long and hectic morning, Mrs Lee immediately said, “Harry, YY is having her meal. The work should wait.” Mr Lee then told me, “YY, no hurry, give it to me this evening.”

In a tribute to the founding Prime Minister, Madame Tussauds Singapore will be displaying the figures of the late Mr Lee...
Posted by TODAY on Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On another visit to China, Mr Lee was to make an important speech at the Confucius Conference. The hall was full and a dozen journalists had broken up our entourage. From afar, Mr Lee instructed me to extend a copy of his speech to a “John Wong”. Standing beside me was Mr Lee’s physician, Dr John Wong. Mrs Lee, sensing my confusion, quickly told me, “YY, not this Dr John Wong. Mr Lee meant Dr Aline Wong’s husband, Prof John Wong.” In the course of my career, I have been grateful countless times to Mrs Lee for saving me from embarrassment.

She was the one who took good care of Mr Lee. She was always by his side at both private and public engagements. If a prepared speech was required, Mrs Lee would be his first reader and final vetter. Her language was simple and elegant, just like her. We knew that all the speeches she vetted would have no grammatical errors, and we would always feel assured whenever she came on a trip with us.

She was the perfect example of “贤妻” (good wife). Because she took care of all his personal needs, Mr Lee could dedicate all his time and his whole life to managing the country. He knew that she was his rock, supporting him along the way and making sure that his daily needs were well taken care of.

Mrs Lee would always sit in during Mr Lee’s Chinese lessons which were held daily. At times, she would surprise us by using Chinese idioms brilliantly. I recall a trip to New Zealand in 2007. After all the official calls were over, Mrs Lee visited Lake Taupo, the largest lake by surface area in the country. She picked up some pumice stones to take home as souvenirs. She also picked up a goose feather, which prompted a puzzled Mr Lee to ask, “Choo, what for?”

Mrs Lee replied in Mandarin, “千里送鹅毛” (a gift of a goose feather from across a thousand miles). Everyone was silent. Those well versed in Chinese understood her. Mrs Lee was trying to explain that her act of giving someone a feather meant “物轻情意重” (it’s the thought that counts despite the lightness of the gift).

I was amazed and asked her where she learnt this 典故 (allusion or saying).1 She told me she had learnt it by sitting in on Mr Lee’s lessons. She showed time and again that she, like her husband, was a “lifelong learner”. In Chinese, this attitude can be expressed as “活到老, 学到老” (one is never too old to learn). Understandably, she supported Mr Lee’s belief that Singaporean Chinese should also know Chinese and that the learning of Chinese can open up a window to a rich culture.

As far as I can recall, Mrs Lee granted only a handful of media interviews throughout her life. The only TV interview was with Radio Television Hong Kong, whose crew filmed her and Mr Lee visiting their alma mater, Cambridge, for a documentary aired in 2002.

Mr Lee, with his distinguished international profile and standing, was one of the greatest politicians of his time. But deep down inside, he was a very private person and so was Mrs Lee. I recall his candid reply to the television interviewer’s question on whether he and Mrs Lee held hands when they were young.

Mr Lee said, “We had a lot of work to do. We did not hold hands. We were too busy then.”

The interviewer pursued this by asking, “But holding hands does not take up much time. Were people very conservative at that time?”

What I found priceless was Mrs Lee’s sharp response to this: “Not everybody, just us. We don’t do these things, not then.”

While drafting his speech for his 80th birthday, Mr Lee thanked everyone who had fought for Singapore with him. However, I noticed that there was no mention of Mrs Lee. I pointed this out to him and when the final text came, he had added a sentence:

“At the end of the day, what I cherish most are the human relationships. With the unfailing support of my wife and partner, I have lived my life to the fullest. It is the friendships I made and the close family ties I nurtured that have provided me with that sense of satisfaction at a life well lived, and have made me what I am.”

In October 2003, after Mrs Lee suffered her first stroke in London, Mr Lee flew back in time for Tanjong Pagar’s Tree Planting ceremony.

From his voice and expression, the audience could sense his anxiety and sadness. To me, this was the turning point in Mr and Mrs Lee’s roles. Mrs Lee once said, “Before my stroke, I took care of him. Now, I enjoy being pampered by him.”

Mr Lee would stay by her side at the hospital, not only to give her moral support, but also to accompany her during her physiotherapy sessions. Doctors noted Mrs Lee’s remarkable recovery which was partly attributed to his presence and support, especially in helping to ensure that she kept to her exercise regime.

Mr Lee was a champion of exercise and keeping fit. He always encouraged Mrs Lee to exercise because he wanted her to have a quality life in her old age.

I recall a trip to the United States in 2006 when Mrs Lee was tired and wanted to skip her afternoon swim. She gave the excuse that since that day was a public holiday in Singapore, she should be allowed to also take a break from swimming. Mr Lee advised her against it, saying that the swim would help her to have a good night’s sleep. He then added that he would join her for a swim later that evening. The smile on Mrs Lee’s face after hearing that is still etched in my mind. While I have never heard them say “I love you”, their actions revealed everything.

After her second and third strokes in 2008, Mrs Lee could no longer accompany Mr Lee on his overseas trips. In a media interview, Mr Lee shared that when he was not travelling, he would read to her before he went to bed every night. If he was overseas, he would talk to her over the phone and let her know who he had met and what had been discussed. The helper at home would turn on the speakerphone so that Mrs Lee could hear his voice. I took a picture of Mr Lee speaking over a mobile phone to Mrs Lee in 2010, after a lunch meeting with Japanese politicians. It was such a touching sight.

I have seen many loving couples during my public service days, but I would say that there were few as compatible as Mr and Mrs Lee. Not only did they excel in their professional lives, they were also successful in their personal lives. To me, they were the epitome of the ideal husband-and-wife team.

Mrs Lee once said, “I did things the way I wanted and I didn’t get involved in the things I didn’t want to get involved in. I think I had the best of both worlds.”

In my 21 years of working in the Prime Minister’s Office, I have observed and felt much. Therefore, I have chosen not to write about Mr Lee, but about Mrs Lee. I must sing for the unsung heroine behind the great man. Without Mrs Lee, Mr Lee would have been a different person, as he himself has acknowledged.

Let us salute the late Mrs Lee, who has helped one Prime Minister of Singapore and nurtured another. We, as Singaporeans, have benefitted much from her contributions.

The Lee Kuan Yew they knew
Stories excerpted from a new book on Singapore's founding Prime Minister, who died a year ago on March 23 at age 91.
The Sunday Times, 20 Mar 2016

How I became Chief Justice
Yong Pung How Chief Justice of Singapore, 1990-2006

After graduating, I went back to Kuala Lumpur where my father had a small law firm and was working for Tan Cheng Lock.

I travelled to Singapore a few times, hoping to get some lead work. I would meet up with Kuan Yew and he would take me out for lunch at a chicken rice stall in Middle Road. On my first visit, he asked where I was staying. I told him I was at the hotel next to the railway station. He said, "Oh, it's a terrible place! I have a spare room in the house." So I stayed with him a few times at Oxley Road. I think I slept in what would eventually become his daughter Wei Ling's room because she wasn't born then. He was very kind to me.

The first time I went to his home, his mother, who I had already heard was a very famous cook, insisted I stay for dinner. She cooked everything. I think I nearly burst myself that night.

When Kuan Yew won the elections in 1959 and became Prime Minister, I would meet him at his office at City Hall and we would go for lunch. Those were good times.

One of his favourite fruits was pomelo. Once, while enjoying some pomelo at his office, he told me it was from lpoh, specially brought in by Malayan Airways pilots. At the end of that visit, he called his secretary to ask how many of the fruit were left and asked her to put two in my car.

The last time I saw Kuan Yew was in late December 2014, at a dinner, together with a group of his friends. They always included me in these dinners, which were held every two months; they considered me to be his oldest friend, I guess, at least in age. Someone would organise a dinner for him. They would give the excuse that the poor chap was lonely, but actually all they wanted were his views. He knew everything!


There were a couple of occasions after graduation when Kuan Yew and I worked together on some legal cases. In one case, the richest man in Penang had insulted Dr Lim Chong Yew, a prominent politician and medical doctor. We worked on the case together for a short while until it was settled. We also did a few other small cases together. At that time, he was famous as a lawyer.

Clearly, he was brilliant. He was the most brilliant man I have ever met. If he was on a legal case, he would work through every detail and angle. When he set up the People's Action Party, he was absolutely thorough, in the same way he responded to questions at university or analysed cases. When we studied our cases, he always made sure he covered everything.

The very first time he came to Kuala Lumpur was in the early 1950s. We went for dinner at a restaurant in an amusement park in Bukit Bintang. We walked into a room that was empty but this newspaper chap, who was part of a wedding reception in the next room, noticed him and recognised him as Lee Kuan Yew from Singapore. He came up to Kuan Yew and asked him some questions, and soon, half of the wedding guests trooped over. I think Kuan Yew never ever liked any of this attention.

In 1982, when I was vice-chairman of OCBC Bank, I was seconded to the government to help restructure the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Eventually, I was appointed to head the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. But I had to leave after a while.

What happened was that there had been a question asked in Parliament which was filed but not published. The issue was about Singapore money being transferred to a Malaysian. Dr Goh Keng Swee asked me, "Are you a Malaysian?" Indeed I was. So I was sent to see Lim Siong Guan, who was then principal private secretary to Kuan Yew, who then said I should become a Singapore citizen.

He would put up a paper with three names - Lee Kuan Yew, Hon Sui Sen and Goh Keng Swee - and also get them to sign it. I remember going to Empress Place to get this done. There was a nice lady there who gave me a book. I held it, took an oath, and so I became a citizen.

I then worked for Lim Kim San. I was in a room next to Dr Goh, who was at the Ministry of Education at the time; Kim San's office was across from Dr Goh's. I was actually on loan to Kim San because he was short of staff. He wanted someone to write letters for him - he said lawyers always wrote good letters - but he looked at me and said to Dr Goh: "I just don't like this bloody chap." Dr Goh dismissed it and told me Kim San was just in a bad mood that day.

The next time I saw Kim San, he was in a good mood and had forgotten we had ever met. I wrote simple letters for him; they were for his constituents or people requesting help from him, promising them that things would be done but that it would take time and we would do our best in the meantime. Kim San was very nice to me after that.

I had learnt to write very short letters, and the minutes I wrote while at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation were also short. When I first gave the minutes to Kuan Yew, its new chairman, he said: "I don't like this. It's rubbish. I want to know exactly what each person said." He wanted more details.

In 1989, Kuan Yew was looking for a new Chief Justice and he said my name had been put up by several judges. He said, "Think about it," and told me to make a decision quickly.

I replied: "Can I think about it?"

He said: "That was what I said. But I hope your answer will be yes because you have done nothing for Singapore!"

He practically scolded me, bringing up the fact that I had declined his offer to be a Supreme Court judge in 1972.

He said there was no time to waste. I asked him what I was supposed to do. He said: "Become Chief Justice! Just clean up the whole thing, you know what to do."

I said: "Fair enough. But if the job is too much for me, will you release me?"

There was no answer.

The next thing I knew, he was telling people he had found a person and my name was published in the papers. So that was how I became Singapore's second Chief Justice.

'Harry, Harry, cool down!'
Alan Chan Principal Private Secretary, 1994-1997

I witnessed Mr Lee's determination and discipline first-hand during the trying period of 1996 and 1997. First there was his 1996 lawsuit against Yazhou Zhoukan, a Chinese language newsweekly, which had published the comments by a lawyer, Tang Liang Hong, alleging impropriety in Mr Lee's purchase of two flats. While the publication quickly retracted the statement and paid a settlement fee, Tang, who would run as a Workers' Party candidate in the 1997 General Election, refused to apologise. In fact, six months later at an election rally, he repeated the allegations and stated that, if elected, he would raise the matter again.

All this coincided with the period when Mr Lee was having heart problems and had to have a second stent put in. He was bogged down with health problems and was asked to slow down.

But he kept on going. Despite his ill health, he gave a talk at the Nanyang Technological University on March 14, 1996. He was just recovering and his blood pressure readings were not good, but he felt it was very important that he addressed the students. He felt it was crucial that they heard the Government's point of view.

We had to make special arrangements for an ambulance; doctors were also on standby, although they sat discreetly in a corner. That day he spoke from 8.30pm to midnight, engaging in long exchanges with the students. A normal person would have stayed at home and rested, but not Mr Lee. It was clear that, to him, duty trumped almost everything. When a mission was key, he always rose to the occasion.


Mrs Lee was his constant companion and his sounding board. She also helped me often by reducing his sting and I was most grateful to her. When he was irritated by an issue or by his health, and I had to bring bad news to him, Mrs Lee would prepare him first. She would say to him, "Alan is coming in with some bad news but, remember, he is just the messenger."

Many times, I would be at his desk in the office and she would be sitting in a corner, reading or knitting. When he was unhappy or upset about something, she would say, "Harry! Harry! Cool down!" She had a very strong human touch.

As he got older, of course, he became more mellow. My predecessors told me I was quite lucky!


Sometimes, on Saturdays at about 11am, Mr Lee would send me an instruction to visit a certain precinct in the afternoon. He only wanted the town council manager and one ministry officer to be around - no MPs or anyone else. And certainly no media. By the time I called to inform the precinct, there was little time left for them to prepare for his visit. At the most, they could only ensure that the floors were swept. Certainly they could not repaint anything as he would be able to smell the fresh paint.

He also liked to make spontaneous private visits to the homes of families of different races. The town council manager would choose three families from different socio-economic backgrounds: from those who lived in one-room flats to those in five-room flats. Mr Lee would talk to them and get their views. In Chinese, we call it wei fu chu xun (to go on an inspection in plain clothes).

I remember two households in particular. One was a Malay family living in a five-room flat. Their bathroom was like a hotel's, with twin washbasins, hairdryer and all the amenities. It showed that they were able to live very well.

The other family also lived in a well-decorated flat. The son, a surgeon working in Hualien, Taiwan, was not admitted into the National University of Singapore (NUS) but he was so keen to be a doctor that he went to Kaohsiung University where he qualified as a surgeon. I can only speculate that instances such as this would have set Mr Lee thinking.

Subsequently, NUS increased the intake of students into its medical school and the Singapore Government recognised the qualifications of more foreign medical schools.

Even on Sundays, when the staff weren't working, Mr Lee would get his security officers to drive him around the housing estates. On Monday mornings, I would get a note detailing his observations.

He always felt the best way to get honest and direct feedback was to go down to the ground himself.

Whenever we travelled overseas, he would ask to go to the local market. He would look at the fruits and fish on sale and, immediately, he would get a feel of how prosperous or poor the place was.

I remember once we were in Dalian, China. At the market, he saw a pineapple and asked the vendor where the fruit came from. The vendor said it was from Taiwan. He said, "You mean there's trade between Taiwan and China?"

That was in 1994. It is a clear example of how the reality on the ground could be different from common perception. Unless you saw and experienced it for yourself, you would not get the real feel of things.

On these market visits, Mr Lee would also ask the price of an egg and what people's monthly wages were. Everywhere he went, he made it a point to get first-hand information.


Mr Lee ate a lot of fruits. Before leaving for a trip, he would first ask for a list of fruits available in the city he was visiting.

Once, before a trip to New Delhi, he asked why watermelon was not on the fruit list. I quickly sent a telex to our high commission who replied that they were afraid that the watermelon might be contaminated with the hepatitis C virus. He said to me, "Silly fellow, you only get hepatitis C from animal products."

I relayed this back to New Delhi and a week later, we received a formal letter from the physician to the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom.

The letter explained that in New Delhi, syringes are used to inject sugar water into the watermelons to sweeten them and these syringes may carry the hepatitis C virus.

Mr Lee liked to drink beer, usually one glass or at most two. He used to drink Swan Lite Lager because of its low alcohol content. When this beer went out of production, Mr Lee switched to regular beer. He also enjoyed red and white wine. While he liked Japanese food particularly, he also enjoyed Western food. When he was having his health problems, two physicians supervised his meals, which would consist mainly of steamed fish, blanched vegetables and plain chicken soup.

In the evenings, he would either run or swim. When it came to exercise, he was quite a taskmaster.

A glimpse of his human side
Robert Kuok Chairman, Kerry Group Hong Kong

After I moved to Hong Kong, I sort of became Kuan Yew's second port of call. Run Run Shaw was No. 1, my wife Pauline and I, No. 2.

He liked Pauline and found her simple and earthy ways agreeable.

He and Geok Choo would often come over for dinner.

I would get a caterer and offer good food. I would get instructions, of course, that he could not eat this or that.

The conversation would be light with interesting anecdotes, and I would like to believe they had pleasant evenings dining at our home.

Kuan Yew and I seldom engaged in super-warm or super-friendly talk. But some time in 2007 or 2008, he said a very funny thing that touched my heart.

We were walking down from his hotel to the car to go to dinner.

Pauline was with Geok Choo in front. He turned to me and said: "Come to think of it, finally, it's only friendship that matters."

In other words, everything is gone but the only thing left is friendship. I thought, "My God! I am seeing the human side of him!"

On their last few visits to Hong Kong, Kuan Yew became increasingly warm towards me.

He and Geok Choo would stay in our hotel. She was already unwell and, because of her vision problem, we pasted coloured paper on the walls of their room so that she wouldn't bump into them.

A few years later, I found myself walking with Kuan Yew to make sure he wouldn't bump into the corridor walls.

Kuan Yew visited me a few times after Geok Choo passed away in October 2010. One thing about him I would say is that he stayed true to one woman his whole life, and that is quite remarkable for a man of those times.

He led an exemplary life, a disciplined life. He never womanised or drank to excess. He smoked for a short time, but that was it.


In 2010, he wrote me a letter asking for my candid views.

He wanted to know why he always found Hong Kong full of business activity and people with strong enterprising spirit.

Whenever he visited Hong Kong, he always asked to be taken to some government unit or a home industry, where something new was always being invented, and he would be totally amazed by what he saw.

He asked me to write to him and tell him my views frankly.

So I called up my niece Kay and asked if I should talk so straight that I hit him in the solar plexus.

She said it sounded like that was what he wanted.

So I wrote back to him and told him that he had straitjacketed too many of his people in his zeal and impatience to build up Singapore quickly.

There was genius in them, but they could not move.

I told him to take a pair of scissors and cut them loose.

Kuan Yew had a super gung-ho style. He was like such a powerful elephant that when he stomped on the ground, all the plants were crushed. But in so doing, he created the miracle called Singapore.

Also, because of his great zeal and dedication, Singapore was his obsession, and his attitude and behaviour flowed from that: You harm Singapore, I smash you.

My assessment of Singapore as an outsider is that no one could have achieved what Lee Kuan Yew had achieved for Singapore and for the people of Singapore.

Singapore, compared with China, is like a drop of water to a bucket of water.

But that does not mean the drop of water is not important.

The times I tried to say 'no' to Mr Lee
Chng Jit Koon Senior Minister of State for Community Development, 1991-1996

Don't ask me how many times I tried to say "no" to Lee Kuan Yew. And don't ask me how many times he accepted it. The number is zero.

Mr Lee is one who, once he sets his mind he wants you, doesn't expect you to decline. He will use his way to convince you. You cannot say "no". Because, you know, whatever he asks you to do, it is for the nation.

The first time I tried to say "no" to Mr Lee, he wasn't even in the room. In September 1967, I received a letter from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), signed by the Deputy Secretary. It got to me late because it was not sent to the right address. It had been sent to Nanyang University, and they took some time to redirect it to me. The letter said: "This is urgent. When you receive this, contact the undersigned immediately."

I called the PMO. The gentleman on the line said: "I have been waiting for your call! Quick, come over!"

So I went to City Hall. The moment the Deputy Secretary saw me, he scolded me. "Why are you still here?"

I said: "If I'm not here, where should I be?"

"Don't you know?" he said. "The United Nations General Assembly has already started. You're supposed to be there. Why are you still here?"

I told him truthfully: "Nobody told me. What am I supposed to do there?"

At this point, he said, "Wait", and turned to somewhere behind his desk to pull out a stack of papers. He found the extracts of some Cabinet meeting notes. "See? Here. PM told Cabinet he himself wants to talk to you. He didn't tell you?"

He did not. The Deputy Secretary told me the Singapore delegation would be headed by Yong Nyuk Lin. But as a Cabinet minister, he would not be able to stay throughout from the opening until the end of the session. I was supposed to be with the guys who would stay for the whole General Assembly. He would leave everything to the remaining members of the delegation. And who were the other guys? If I recall, I believe they were S R Nathan from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Osman Omar, a senior police officer. And the third guy - that's me.

PM Lee had already gone off to the United States. President Lyndon Johnson had invited him. Singapore was just a newborn nation, a tiny little one. Yet we were invited by a superpower. It showed that the US regarded us as important. So of course PM had to go. He was accompanied by the Foreign Minister, S. Rajaratnam, and Rahim Ishak, the Minister of State for Education.

At the time, there were two great powers in the world: the United States and the Soviet Union. Rajaratnam had said before, we are friends with everyone. So we had to balance things. At the same time that PM went to the United States, Dr Toh Chin Chye, the Deputy Prime Minister, led another delegation to visit the USSR.

So, with both our PM and DPM away, another delegation was needed to represent Singapore at the UN General Assembly. At the time, one of the topics being discussed in the UN was the seat of China. It was then held by the Republic of China government in Taiwan, but the People's Republic of China government in Beijing was claiming that it should be the rightful owner of the seat in the UN. l thought maybe S R Nathan and Osman Omar would need someone to help read the Chinese reports in the UN papers, so I should go help. That was my ignorant thinking at the time. Later on, I learnt that everything we received was in English.

So I said to the Deputy Secretary, "How many days do I need to be there?"

"It's three months!"

I jumped. "I cannot go. Three months is too long. I'm not a civil servant, I am helping in my family's business. It is year end. I have to help to close the company accounts."

But the gentleman explained that because both the PM and DPM were out on official trips, he had nobody to give the approval to change the members of the delegation to the UN General Assembly. He said: "Please help me to solve this problem."

Since he told me his difficulties, I said I would go back and discuss it with my colleagues in the company. Luckily, they understood that this was an important task; it was for the nation. They advised me not to decline and said they could handle the company's accounts themselves. With their consent, I immediately informed PMO. They arranged for my air ticket and the necessary papers, and I was off to New York within three days. This was the first time I flew that far a distance.

As part of his US visit, PM Lee visited New York. All of us in the UN delegation gathered to greet him. When he saw me he said, "Eh! How come you are here?"

I was stunned and didn't know what to say. He had already forgotten! Singapore was not even three years old at that time, and he was already so busy running from place to place to make sure people knew us and took us seriously that he even forgot that he wanted me to go to the UN! He expected all the rest of us to do our work too, so much so that he even forgot to tell some of us to do the work. But actually, he knew very well what you did and when you did your work. He is one who is very grateful and really puts it in his mind that you were with him through the hard times, whatever your status. Whoever helped him during the crucial years, he will always remember you.

I became MP for Tiong Bahru in 1968, and started helping Mr Lee in his Tanjong Pagar ward in 1976. Mr Lee told me that Tanjong Pagar was no longer the same as when he first became an assemblyman. In the 1950s, the people who lived there were construction workers, sampan men, trishaw riders, Harbour Board workers, hawkers. They were very hard-working people and supported Mr Lee through the hard times. They started the Goodwill Committee after the racial riots in 1964. PM Lee never forgot what they did.

By 1976, the residents living around Duxton Road who were affected by the Government's resettlement plans in the area had been given priority to relocate, to places like Kampong Silat and Bukit Purmei. Some young families from other areas were moving into the newer housing blocks at Tanjong Pagar Plaza. PM Lee knew that the old ones would no longer be relevant to the new residents. He wanted me to find new residents to keep the grassroots organisations alive. He also told me: "Mind you, don't hurt the feelings of the older ones."


The next time I tried to say "no" to PM Lee, I did it in person. It was in 1981. I had been in Parliament for about 13 years, as a backbencher. Now and then, Mr Lee would ask me something, or tell me something he wanted me to do, or I would tell him something I think he should know about. That was all our interaction. I wasn't involved in any big policies or anything like that.

One Saturday in December 1981, near midday, he called me to see him in his office. I went there. He asked me to sit down, then chatted with me, sharing with me his worries. This was after we lost the Anson by-election in October.

He felt an urgent need to groom the younger generation of party leaders. He thought the young ones had good brains, but not the skills to reach out to the people and be accepted by them. He said he needed someone to help him.

Earlier, he had people like Lim Kim San. Lim Kim San had very rich experience in the Chinese business circles and had a wide network. Now that Mr Lim was already retired, PM needed someone to help him provide a bridge between the young ministers and the people. He wanted me to help him in the PMO as his Senior Parliamentary Secretary.

It was a Saturday. He wanted me to start the next Monday.

I told him I couldn't because I had responsibilities in the family's business. But he wouldn't take my "no" for an answer. It was December. I explained to him I would need to settle the company's year-end accounts, so I requested to start the following year.

"Okay. 2nd January," he pronounced. He was very decisive.

With that settled, he then asked me: "Now, what do you have in mind to do?"

My mind was racing. I was thinking to myself, you just called me into your office this morning, I didn't know what for, and now straightaway you want me to tell you how I intend to get it started!

But I managed to reply: "First, I agree with you. This group of young ministers, they have very good brains. But they are more technocrats. They don't have the experience of communicating with the masses. Once the people have the chance to see them face to face, to talk with them, they may accept them more."

I then reminded PM about the way he had conducted himself in the 1950s during the fight for self-government, and in the 1960s in the battle for merger, all the things he did to convince people to support him.

I myself was young at the time, and knew very little about politics. But I went to listen to him at the rallies. We were all eager to see how this man could help us get rid of British rule. This was the feeling of the people then. This man would go for talks in London, and then once he landed back in Singapore, he would go straight to the kampungs to see the people, staying until the middle of the night still talking to the villagers. That was deep in my mind.

"I was very impressed by you," I told him.

So I suggested: "Why don't we organise walkabouts? I think it can work for us."

"Do you think that will work?" he asked me.

"Let us try it out first," I said.

"You go ahead," he said.

In 1988, I tried to say "no" again, in a way. I knew Mr Lee wanted to recruit more young candidates, so I offered my seat to be replaced. I had been in politics 20 years by then. I got scolded. "Why?" he demanded. "I have served my time. I think it's time for me to give way to a younger candidate," I replied.

"What nonsense are you talking about? I'm 11 years your senior and I'm not thinking about stopping work."

What could I say to that?

The night Mr Lee put food on all our plates
Jagjeet Singh Grassroots leader, Tanjong Pagar

I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that I would one day work closely with this great man.

I grew up in Changi Village. My father worked as a civilian for the British at the nearby airbase. Our quarters were at the edge of the nine-hole golf course in Changi. The golf course is still there. We used to peer over the fence at Mr Lee playing golf with world leaders. I saw him there with Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

When Mr Lee came to play golf, he and Mrs Lee would stay at the Changi Cottage. When they were "in town", everybody in the village knew. In those days, there was not much security around them. They were free and easy and walked around the village. Their particular interest was this Hainanese bakery called A1. When A1 baked bread, the aroma would pervade the whole village. All the RAF service wives would come out with their perambulators and babies, and queue up for the French loaves. Mr Lee once made a speech about that bakery and its impact on the whole village.

Every year in Changi Village, we had a sea carnival where traditional Malay miniature boats with big white sails were released to catch the wind. You just let them go, and see which one reaches Changi Point first. Changi Point was a Malay village near the present Mindef ferry terminal. This carnival was one of our traditions, and we always looked forward to it.

I was close to the village headman and helped with the carnival. So there is this picture of Mr Lee firing a shotgun to start the race. And there I was next to him in my Rover Scout's uniform doing crowd control; I was 16 or 17, just out of school at that time. In those days, the Ministry of Culture used to print huge information posters of the latest happenings and put them on the notice boards of bus shelters all over the country, especially in the rural areas. That was our Internet. That picture of me next to Mr Lee holding the shotgun found its place on bus shelters everywhere around the island. Mr Lee looked very strong and vigorous. He had a warm aura around him; you could tell that this man is a special human being. I thought that was the closest I would get to him. That was in 1961, I think.

Some time in 1976 or 1977, I moved to Spottiswoode Park near the Tanjong Pagar train station. My wife worked for the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), and since PSA had two blocks of staff housing at Spottiswoode, we decided to live there. Later, another seven blocks were added to the estate. Not long after moving in, I got a call from Mr Chng Jit Koon. He was the MP looking after the constituency then. He asked me to form the Residents' Committee (RC) for Spottiswoode. We were only the third RC in Singapore. The first one was in Marine Parade, the second in Tanjong Pagar Plaza. Our first chairman was Dr Low Cze Hong, a prominent eye surgeon who was living in Spottiswoode then.

Mr Lee was the MP for Tanjong Pagar and he was there at the first RC meeting. He had everybody's files with him, including our photos. We all sat like schoolchildren in rows in front of him. He opened the files, called our names, we stood up, and he asked us questions. Some people, he grilled. To me, he said, "Jagjeet Singh. School teacher. Moved into Spottiswoode Park. You don't mind serving in the RC?"

I just said, "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Then he moved on to someone else. Dare you say no when the PM asks you to serve? I was going to be the secretary of the RC.

I was also the first assistant secretary (we had several assistant secretaries then) of Tanjong Pagar's Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC). There were many Chinese clans in the constituency, which made the estate more like a Chinese town. But just like back in Changi, I had no problems in Tanjong Pagar and mixed around quite well with the residents.

Every year, in the Hungry Ghost month, I would be invited to represent the CCC at the Ghost Month functions, two or three in a row. I understood the things that have meaning for Chinese people, one of them being the Chinese zodiac in which each year is represented by an animal sign. And so every year we made Risis gold-plated animal figurines that corresponded to the zodiac animal for that year, and auctioned them off at these events. From this we were able to raise money for bursaries. Education was one thing we knew we could always get support for.

No one treated me differently. I remember one Chinese New Year when I was the organising secretary for the Chinese New Year celebrations. In those days, we used to hold media briefings before the Chinese New Year dinner. A Chinese reporter asked Mr Chng, "How can a non-Chinese help organise the Chinese New Year dinner?" To which Mr Chng replied sharply, "Why not? Next Deepavali, you can be the organising secretary."

You may not believe this. My job on the CCC was to do the minutes. But back then, the meetings were all held in dialects and Chinese. There were times when I did not catch anything even though I had studied Chinese in primary school. The next day, I would go to the district office, and together with the district secretary, we would sort out the minutes.

It must have worked because no one said anything. One day, during a meeting, the CCC chairman realised I must have been having some difficulty. He asked, "How did you do the minutes all this time?" I said that I managed them somehow! After that, they got a gentleman who could speak English to sit next to me in the meetings, and he would translate for me. Gradually as more people in the committee could speak English, the meetings were held in English. Soon I became a vice-chairman, and then a patron.

My wife once told our children, "This is the meaning of patience and tolerance. Your father sits through these meetings, he doesn't know dialects. Yet at the end of the day, he is able to produce the minutes." My children used to laugh about this. I used to laugh about it too. But I got it done.

I told my children, I was asked to serve, so I come to serve, I don't come to ask for things for myself or the family. Even today, my children are grown up and they follow this principle. My daughter also volunteers at the Meet-the-People Sessions in Sembawang. Sometimes she tells me, "I am there to serve, like you, not to ask for things." We believe in this.

Well, anyway, this is what it takes to be a grassroots leader. Mr Lee, and Mrs Lee, cared about what was happening with us grassroots leaders. Seven out of 10 times that Mr Lee came to Tanjong Pagar, Mrs Lee would be with him. She would ask me about my children, even after they had finished university. Mrs Lee was like that. She was also very strong like Mr Lee, but she also had this caring way.


I remember the first time I sat down at the same dinner table with Mr Lee. It was after the National Day Rally held at the National Theatre, near where the Van Kleef Aquarium used to be. It was my first National Day celebration. The dinner was held outdoors in huge tents. There were large round tables and you were required to sit together with your MPs. We sat down; nobody dared to touch anything. Mr Lee then picked up his chopsticks and one by one, he put the food on each of our plates.

It was the first course, a cold dish with an assortment of appetisers on a big platter. One by one, around the table, with his own chopsticks, with his own hand, until every one of our plates had food on it. We just sat without moving. We didn't know what to do.

Then our PM told us: "Come, eat."


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