THE LEE KUAN YEW THEY KNEW

The night Mr Lee put food on all our plates

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Nomination Day 1976 after he filed his nomination papers at the Singapore Polytechnic.
Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Nomination Day 1976 after he filed his nomination papers at the Singapore Polytechnic.PHOTO: ST FILE

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.

 

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.

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.

FIRST DINNER WITH THE PM

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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'The night Mr Lee put food on all our plates'. Print Edition | Subscribe