E.W. Barker: Family man? Yes Yes-man? No

Mrs Gloria Barker and her daughter Carla with the newly released book on the late E.W. Barker, Singapore’s pioneering law minister, whose portrait hangs behind them. Mr Barker was best known for drafting and finalising, in just 10 days, the separat
Mrs Gloria Barker and her daughter Carla with the newly released book on the late E.W. Barker, Singapore’s pioneering law minister, whose portrait hangs behind them. Mr Barker was best known for drafting and finalising, in just 10 days, the separation agreement that led to Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, and had a pivotal role in building the nation. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Mr Barker with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and other ministers and MPs during a National Day rehearsal at Parliament House in 1987.
Mr Barker with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and other ministers and MPs during a National Day rehearsal at Parliament House in 1987. ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Barker with family members (from left) Carla, Deborah, Brandon, Gloria and Gillian. Mrs Barker says her husband was “always playing the guitar but he never knew the words of any song”.
Mr Barker with family members (from left) Carla, Deborah, Brandon, Gloria and Gillian. Mrs Barker says her husband was “always playing the guitar but he never knew the words of any song”. PHOTO: THE BARKER FAMILY
E.W. Barker: The People's Minister
E.W. Barker: The People's Minister

Wife and daughter remember late minister as a devoted husband and dad; he was well-known for disagreeing with LKY in Cabinet meetings

Mrs Gloria Barker sniffs airily when asked if her heart went boom when her late husband - Singapore's pioneering law minister E.W. Barker - chatted her up for the first time.

"Maybe for him but not for me," she says before breaking out into a throaty laugh. "He didn't make an impression."

The exchange, she recalls, was at one of the ubiquitous victory balls and dances held after World War II.

Together with her eldest daughter Carla, Mrs Barker is comfortably ensconced on a sofa in the family home in the Sunset Way area. They are giving a rare interview to The Sunday Times to talk about EW Barker: The People's Minister, a book chronicling the life and achievements of the late politician. Published by Straits Times Press and released last month, the book is authored by Susan Sim, a strategic intelligence consultant and former journalist.

Mrs Barker was barely 17 years old when they met, but her opinion must have changed quickly because two years later, in 1948, they married in a civil ceremony, just hours before he left for Cambridge University to study law on a Queen's Scholarship.

"I was in a daze. I don't know what happened, I really don't know what happened," says the feisty and youthful 87-year-old.

In the book, she explains: "He was afraid of losing me. I agreed so that he could study in peace. I had to get my mother's permission. I was a Roman Catholic and he was a Protestant. We had to be married at the registry. Then the Church wanted to annul my marriage and he wrote from England that if the priest dared to do that, he would sue the priest."

For the next three years, the couple kept in touch through weekly letters. "We didn't even have a telephone then. We kept in touch just by writing," she says.

At his suggestion, she marked every letter so they would know if any went missing.

Now kept in a biscuit tin, the letters, she has instructed her four children, must be burnt when she is gone. "No one is to read them. Those are my private letters," says Mrs Barker, who finally walked down the aisle with the love of her life on July 24, 1951, right after he stepped off The SS Canton from England.

Candidly, Mrs Barker says she initially did not like the idea of a book on her husband, who died in 2001.

"He had been mentioned so many times in books on Lee Kuan Yew, I didn't think it was necessary to have one on him," she says, adding that he was never one for singing his own praises.

But the late president SR Nathan felt that Mr Barker's many contributions in law, national development, urban planning and the environment over 25 years as a Cabinet minister should be chronicled in a volume.

Carla, a partner at law firm Withers KhattarWong, says her father seldom discussed politics except with a small circle of family and close friends. "He was more likely to talk about sports or music but maybe at the end of the day, he would have been happy for somebody outside to assess what he had done. He wouldn't like to be the one to say 'I did this, I did that'. But if somebody were to look at his record and assess it fairly, I think he would not have been against that."

Her father was on track to becoming a top lawyer when he was asked by his good friend and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to enter politics in 1963 to help him at "a perilous moment for Singapore".

Mr Barker was best known for drafting and finalising, in just 10 days, the separation agreement that led to Singapore's independence from Malaysia.

He helmed the Law Ministry for 25 years, but also played a pivotal role in building Singapore by taking on four other ministerial portfolios, including National Development and Environment.

Among other things, he helped to shape public housing, set in motion the reclamation of the Marina Bay area, put in place the Preservation of Monuments Act and was instrumental in the building of the now- defunct National Stadium in Kallang. He also introduced a constitutional amendment that created the Presidential Council On Minority Rights, providing protection for the minority races and their interests.

As noted by Ms Sim in her book, Mr Barker was a colourful character described variously as Sportsman, Scholar and Statesman, A Just Man and The Gentleman Politician.

He had no airs; he shared cigarettes with fishmongers and played pool with lawyers at the Singapore Recreation Club.

Tall and debonair with a wry sense of humour, he was competitive on the hockey pitch, was a mean badminton player and also loved playing the guitar.

Mrs Barker says: "He was always playing the guitar but he never knew the words of any song. I used to have to stop him when he was teaching our children nursery rhymes because they were all mixed up."

He was also a doting father to his four children. Carla and Deborah are lawyers, Brandon, also a law graduate, has his own creative and event planning business while Gillian was one of Singapore's top models. Carla's daughter Megan - a singer, video producer and director - is his only grandchild.

Mrs Barker says: "Oh he loved his children, good grief, he loved his children!" She remembers the time when the four children had chicken pox at the same time. "He would come home and paint every single dot with that purple thing," she says, probably referring to the dilute potassium permanganate solution that is sometimes used to help alleviate itching.

Carla says she and her siblings were always in awe of their father, but not out of fear. "It was clear to us that he was a superior person. He was very fair, he never expressed prejudicial, unfair opinions, he never talked about people's ways, he was always very egalitarian.

"He never said anything that would make you look at him and think 'What's the matter with him, where is that coming from?' He always wanted us to make right decisions and think for ourselves."

The only time they had a big argument, she recalls, was over National Service. "We dared to say that the government was bullying our friends, and he was very annoyed about that. But he took the view that we were not thinking, not seeing the bigger picture of circumstances forcing a decision on the nation that had to be made for everybody's benefit."

Collective responsibility was a mantra her father lived by, she says.

Never one to keep his opinions to himself, Mr Barker was well-known for disagreeing with Mr Lee in Cabinet meetings. "My father had his own opinions and he spoke them. He said what he wanted to say. But when he had said his piece, he would not go behind anybody's back, or try to compromise the position decided on by the government.

"He was very loyal to collective responsibility. That's why Lee Kuan Yew trusted him, because he knew that whatever my father said within the four walls of the Cabinet would never be said outside to damage anybody. That was not my father."

In fact, Mr Barker himself said as much in an interview with legal historian Kevin Tan in 1998.

"I'm not scared of him. I'm his contemporary. I never wanted the job. He asked me to come in and I came in. I gave him the benefit of my advice. Whether he took it or not, that's another matter.

"In fact, a few months after I was appointed minister in 1964, he called me to his office and asked me, 'Why are you always taking me on in Cabinet?' I said, 'Well, if I think you are wrong, I must tell you.' He said, 'But why so many times?' I said, 'Well, if you want me to be a yes- man, then starting tomorrow, I'll say yes to everything you say.' He said, 'Well OK, you just carry on.'

"About one month before I left the Cabinet, he pointed to me and said, 'He's always disagreeing with me. Why don't you all do it a bit more often?' There was no response. He went on, 'Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's wrong but at least I had the benefit of his advice.'"

Although her father was Singapore's longest-serving law minister, Carla says it was his work as National Development minister that he was probably most proud of.

"He took us to Kent Ridge and Jurong and other places and told us, 'You know, this is what we are doing in this part of Singapore.'

"I was about 13 when he took Deborah, Brandon, Gillian and me to see Chartered Industries and the Mint; he would show us places and things that were great achievements for Singapore."

Asked if there were issues her father felt strongly about, Carla offers, after a pregnant pause: "I'll tell you one thing. The one time I remember him being sad was when they arrested Francis Seow..."

Seow, a former solicitor-general who became an opposition politician and then a fugitive from justice, died in Boston last year. In 1988, he was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for 72 days in connection with a case involving US diplomat Hank Hendrickson who was accused of interference in Singapore politics.

Seow had been Mr Barker's good friend. "They'd known each other as fellow lawyers and when Seow was solicitor-general. He was a very good lawyer, and probably had worked with my father too... But, like I said, my father stood by it because it was a collective Cabinet decision," Carla points out.

Asked how he would have felt about the presence of more opposition members in Parliament today, Carla says: "Oh he would have been happy. He was very fair to Barisan Sosialis when he was Speaker (of Parliament) from 1963 to 1964."

(Barisan Sosialis won 13 out of 51 seats in the 1963 elections but boycotted the first post-independence Parliament in 1965, and the general election in 1968.)

"He kept order, that was something that he was very proud of: to have been Speaker of Parliament during that time when there was a real opposition."

Although he was a patron of the Eurasian community which regarded him as an icon, Mr Barker saw himself, first and foremost, as a Singaporean. Carla says: "My father always saw beyond the Eurasian community...The one great event of his life was the creation of Singapore, a multiracial one Singapore.

"If you want to know what he was proud of, that was it, that they created this Singapore of so many races into one people."


Correction note: The original version of this article spelled the name of one of Mr E.W. Barker's children as Debra. The correct spelling is Deborah. We are sorry for the error.  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'E.W. Barker: Family man? Yes Yes-man? No'. Print Edition | Subscribe