leekuanyew

An exacting boss who drove his people to do their very best

After Mr Lee retired as Prime Minister, he would invite officers to the Istana for lunch.

Those lunches were brain-picking sessions. During one session, he asked me: "How is architecture? How is urban development?"

So I said: "Everything is fine, except we have an archaic ruling that requires all HDB bathrooms and kitchens to have windows on external walls for natural light and ventilation."

But our flats were so small that the important external walls that should belong to living rooms were being taken up by kitchen bathrooms.

In hotels and other countries without this rule, artificial lighting worked very well.

He said: "I'll have a word with (then Minister for National Development S.) Dhanabalan."

I said: "Mr Lee, Dhanabalan is doing an excellent job, I don't want him to feel I am squealing on him behind him." Mr Lee smiled. He didn't reply.

But within a week of that day, a circular went out by Building Control Division (of the former Public Works Department) that the rule had changed. We can now have bathrooms with artificial lighting.

That was the kind of man he was. He listened to you, noted your view and acted immediately.

He drove into those of us who worked under him the spirit of perfection, to do the best we can.

Before you meet him, you go sleepless, because of what you hear of his exacting standards for civil servants.

Many of us would try to read up on everything to anticipate what he was likely to ask. And quite often, we missed it!

I used to write him reports that were three to four pages long. His personal assistant was very kind and one day told me: "PM seldom reads more than 1.5 pages of a report. Try and keep it within that."

Because of that, I would rewrite and rewrite my reports until I found the concise way to interpret a longer sentence and still keep the exact meaning. I stopped trying to beat about the bush.

I'm now better at writing reports than before I had the chance to work with Mr Lee.

- The Housing Board's first architect-planner, founder of the Urban Redevelopment Authority and former Sentosa Development Corporation chairman, Mr Alan Choe, 84, recounting what it was like working for Mr Lee Kuan Yew