Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Family, friends and old colleagues gather at the Istana to share memories of Mr Lee Kuan Yew

As they gathered to pay their respects to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, retired politicians reminisced about what it had been like to work with Singapore's founding father.

Several who were MPs when Mr Lee was Prime Minister said that though he looked stern, he was a good listener and unafraid to change his mind after hearing a convincing, rational argument.

They were among the 4,000 visitors who paid their respects yesterday at a private family wake for Mr Lee, who died on Monday at the age of 91. Yesterday was the last day of the private wake at the Istana's Sri Temasek, official residence of the Prime Minister.

Mr Chng Hee Kok, an MP from 1984 to 2001, recalled a time he disagreed with Mr Lee over the pace of telecommunications development in developing countries like Vietnam. "He listened to me and then he just kept a bit quiet. I think he was running through his head what I was saying. He accepted it," said Mr Chng.

Mr Lee never let things rest, he added. "When you raise an issue (over lunch with Mr Lee) about the civil service, about the Government, don't be surprised if, a few weeks later, you get a letter from the civil service trying to defend its position and elaborating on what you raised.

"That's what I admired most about him: He listened," he said.

Mr Yatiman Yusof, an MP from 1984 to 2006 and a former senior parliamentary secretary, said Mr Lee was an incisive Prime Minister who asked robust questions.

"He appreciated honesty and frankness no matter how painful, how hard the facts were," he said.

Recalling a time he, Mr Lee, Mrs Lee and staff shared a lodge in New Zealand and went fishing, Mr Yatiman said they talked of issues Singapore faced. "He listened to you very closely and asked questions until he was satisfied... We were able to give our feedback and our viewpoints."

Former Housing Board chief executive Liu Thai Ker said Mr Lee was a "worrier" who could anticipate problems. He recalled Mr Lee noting certain types of walls would allow heat from sunlight to build up in homes, worrying too much energy would be consumed to cool homes. This, at a time when global warming was not a prominent issue, he noted.

He was good with both the little details and the big picture, said Mr Liu, adding that he was a big thinker and great strategist.

But above all, the MPs said, Mr Lee's mind was always on Singapore.

The wake was attended by more than 5,200 people over two days. Many of yesterday's visitors were delegations from local organisations, including statutory boards such as HDB and the People's Association. Also represented were sovereign wealth fund GIC and Temasek Holdings.

Other past MPs at the wake included former Finance Minister Richard Hu and parliamentary secretary Tang Guan Seng.

Last night was the final night Mr Lee's casket would rest in Sri Temasek. Today, his body will be taken to Parliament House, where it will lie in state until Saturday.

But before the journey, the ceremonial gun carriage bearing the hearse will be driven around the Istana grounds, giving Mr Lee a final tour of the place that had been such a big part of his life.

charyong@sph.com.sg