THE LEE KUAN YEW THEY KNEW

A glimpse of his human side

Then Minister Mentor Lee receiving loud cheers on arriving at the grandstand for the National Day Parade 2006 at the National Stadium.
Then Minister Mentor Lee receiving loud cheers on arriving at the grandstand for the National Day Parade 2006 at the National Stadium.PHOTO: ST FILE

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.

MR LEE AND HIS LEGACY

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'A glimpse of his human side'. Print Edition | Subscribe