From the archives: Being Lee Hsien Loong

Who is Lee Hsien Loong? What kind of PM will he be? Senior Correspondent Chua Mui Hoong fathoms the man

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on Aug 12, 2004.

In school, schoolmates from afar saw a tall, gangly boy with his trademark water bottle slung around his body. During recess, he brought a tuck-box to the canteen. Sometimes, he sat alone. Everyone knew he was then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's son. Many kept their distance. It didn't help that he was also brilliant academically, and other boys felt intimidated.

So when you ask Catholic High boys who went to school around 1964 to 1969 what they remember of Lee Hsien Loong, some recall a tall, remote, occasionally lonely figure. Someone distant.

But talk to those who hung out with him, and a very different picture emerges: a disciplined but fun-loving boy who worked hard but also had time for play.

"Oh, he was one of the boys," said Dr Steven Choo, now the senior vice-president of research and corporate development at CapitaLand. "He got bullied now and then, like everyone else."

Once, some of them sneaked up and stole some cake from his tuck-box. Another time, they asked him to stand beside a short staff member on stage, hoping thus to juxtapose the tall Hsien Loong's height with the shortness of the former. He gamely did, and the boys chortled.

Mr Lee hung out with friends from the school band, or the editorial team in charge of the yearbook.

They went to each other's homes. Dr Choo recalls the young Hsien Loong visiting his two-bedroom Singapore Improvement Trust flat in Tiong Bahru. The boys wanted to play unencumbered, so they made the security officer stand outside the flat and refused to let him in.

Another day, the boys visited the Lees' home in Oxley Road when the parents were out. As all children will, some peeked into the parents' bedroom and found it simply furnished, but spick and span.

THE MAN: His father's son ... ... but his own man 

As far as was possible for a boy with such a famous father, his growing up years were normal. They were certainly active: He was drum major in the band, editor of the school magazine, and a keen debater. After school, classmates recall, he often had to go off in a chauffeur-driven car to lessons in Malay, Russian, extra coaching in clarinet and others.

All his life, he would encounter that same schism in others' perception: Those who saw him from afar thought him brilliant but distant and aloof, while those who saw him up close and knew him well thought him open, warm and spontaneous.

There's always been something of a mystique surrounding the man. What manner of man is he? What makes him tick?

And as he takes over as Prime Minister today, the questions swarm: What kind of Prime Minister will he be? And can the son of Lee Kuan Yew, who grew up as the PM's son, ever connect with and understand the ordinary man? 

IN HIS FATHER'S SHADOW

To understand Lee Hsien Loong, it is first necessary to appreciate what it was like growing up as the son of Lee Kuan Yew, who was not only prime minister, but a brilliant and controversial man.

The son lived always in the public spotlight. Every time he won a prize - and he won many - he was in the papers. Top student and good conduct prize in primary school, then top student and best all-rounder in secondary school. He even won a Commonwealth essay competition.

Any parent would have been proud of a son who did so well in school and in other pursuits. Presumably, the Lees were too. But so used was the family to excellence - and so matter-of-fact their expectations that their first-born too would excel - that when asked how his parents responded when he won Singapore's most prestigious academic award, the President's Scholarship in June 1970, he said: "Nothing very special to them. But I'm happy and honoured myself."

No matter what he did, or did not do, he drew attention from others. He learnt to ignore the spotlight, and just get on with his life.

When he met the press as a People's Action Party election candidate in September 1984, he said: "I feel quite ordinary, like everybody else. There are, of course, certain restraints which have to be observed. You do grow up normal."

He learnt not to let his pedigree cramp his style. His style was, from all accounts, a relaxed one.

Former chief of defence force Winston Choo recalls travelling with a young Mr Lee on a military trip. On their way back, the young officer stretched himself out across empty seats on the plane and slept. "He didn't feel that he shouldn't lie down in case someone recognised him. I would say he's comfortable about who he is, and not overly conscious of himself," said Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo.

In 2001, when he was already Deputy Prime Minister, he went to a housewarming party at the home of Joey Yeo, who served with him in the army and is now an architect. "I was sitting on the floor, managing a PowerPoint presentation. And Mr Lee just came and sat down beside me on the floor. He has absolutely no airs," says Mr Yeo.

But those who watched him from afar often had a presumption of what he must be like: Tough and uncompromising like his father. Ordinary folks' discomfort with distinction also resulted in many keeping their distance.

If he wanted any friends, he had to reach out. Today, the one description that dominates when grassroots leaders talk about him is how much he reaches out to people. He's not stand-offish and takes the initiative to talk to people and understand them.

Bonhomie of the Goh Chok Tong sort - affable, folksy, man-to-man - does not come easily. But unlike his father, he does engage in small talk, bantering with reporters, for example, on the type of tape recorders used. 

ON THE JOB

At work, he's described as a good problem-solver, able to see both the big picture and details.

In the army, he developed a calculator to improve battery-firing precision. In 1983, as Director of Joint Operations in the Defence Ministry, he directed a successful rescue operation of all 13 people trapped in cable cars for seven hours. As Finance Minister, he won the respect of international bankers when spearheading Singapore's financial liberalisation.

By all accounts, he was a tough boss when young. One officer recalls that Mr Lee had very high standards and could be "brutal" when assessing staff. But he also had a knack for harnessing the best work from staff, regardless of their education status. Some staff with few qualifications - including older army officers with little education - earned good reports if they did good work.

He masters a brief thoroughly, and those who work for him learn to be well-prepared. Meetings are candid and open, free-flowing with ideas - and lots of disagreement. He's forceful in arguing his case, but his views don't always prevail.

Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has disagreed with him many times. "I don't think he finds people useful if all they do is agree with him," he says.

He credits Mr Lee with having instituted a consultative style at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, where the latter was chairman until today, and the former once managing director.

When with intellectual equals, he is straightforward, even blunt, and has been known to tell people to their faces: "That's rubbish."

He's gentler and considerate with subordinates. One official recalled that Mr Lee used to stop work at 5.30pm in the army, so staff with children - including his personal assistant - did not have to work overtime.

He's exacting, but can be forgiving. There's a story of how a junior officer got into trouble for indiscretion and was going to be court-martialled. Major Lee, as the commanding officer, pleaded on his behalf for leniency, and the man got off lightly. When Mr Lee's first wife died in 1982, the grateful officer sent a wreath.

When vexed, he may pace the room - but controls his tongue. None of those interviewed recall him raising his voice in anger, although some remember seeing him cross.

Once, during a military exercise, some preparations were not done properly. Major Lee was not pleased. Said a former army officer: "We knew he was upset. How? That face - no need to say anything - you know!"

Those who have seen him up close know "that face" - a slight furrow in the brow, a pursing of the lips. It's a highly expressive face, transparent even, so a flash of displeasure sits there like a brief thundercloud.

It's one reason his public image is forbidding - because television cameras zoom in and magnify every sombre expression, no matter how fleeting, and transmit it into homes.

In repose, his face looks serious, as photographs of him at official events attest. When he smiles, it lights up the whole face. He uses that guffawing laugh to effect: Grassroots leaders and residents like it and say it helps break the ice. Those who know him better say he uses it sometimes to mask his discomfort, or to give himself time to ponder an answer.

Like many bright people, he does not suffer fools gladly, although he comes across as much less impatient than his father, and less ready to interrupt someone in mid-flow. 

OUT OF THE BOX

Whatever they think of his personality, few seriously doubt his competence to be Prime Minister. Talk to anyone who has worked with him, and the praise flows like water. A good leader who cares about people. Committed to Singapore. Able to understand complex issues. Excellent problem-solver. Expects good work. Comfortable with dissent.

And thinks out of the box.

Mr Joey Yeo recalls then-Major Lee briefing officers on a training exercise in 1981. The training scenario sounded unrealistic. Many officers would have just gone through the motions. Not this major.

He spoke to the training officer and suggested making changes to the scenario to make it more realistic. After some discussion, they agreed on changes.

This was one officer who dared question assumptions, and sought to change the rules of the game, if necessary, for a better outcome for his soldiers.

He's not a stickler for rules. Mr Robert Bong, who was with him in the army, says he's someone who goes back to "first principles".

Minister Lim Swee Say recalls discussing Newater with then-DPM Lee.

Mr Lim figured that Newater, which is reclaimed water, could be used for industrial purposes but need not be used for consumption since rainwater and seawater provided enough to quench Singapore's thirst. He was confident this would be the case in his lifetime.

Mr Lee probed him: "How about in 50, 100 years' time? What if weather conditions change and there's less rainwater?"

They discussed the matter and came to an agreement: Mix a small amount of Newater into the reservoirs and set up the filtering mechanism. This way, if Newater is needed for big-scale household use, it would have become a tried and tested source.

Mr Lim said: "He's a leader with a vision, who thinks deeply about issues."


So what manner of PM will he be?

First, he himself has pledged to continue with the open, consultative style of the Goh Chok Tong era. Those who have seen him in action during economic meetings believe he's deeply committed to consultation.

But those consulted were often professionals with expert views. Whether the new PM will place a priority on giving the ordinary man a say remains to be seen.

Second, it can be expected that he'll continue that habit of probing fundamentals, of challenging a priori assumptions. It's a welcome trait in a leader of a country that succeeded for 40 years on export-oriented manufacturing and is finding new ways to stay relevant.

Third: This new Prime Minister will challenge rules. It's no coincidence that the panels to reduce red tape and review enterprise rules gained momentum when he became Finance Minister.

He'll encourage a society that dares to think out of the box. Already, there's greater churn in Singapore society today: More young people striking out in business on their own, greater diversity in education, more acceptance of bohemian lifestyles. A "vibrant society" is what he called it in an interview last October.

But he's no iconoclast. In the army, he respected military hierarchy. As a minister, he's punctilious about protocol. Never once, in 14 years as DPM, did the hua xiao sheng (Chinese-educated student, known for self-discipline) ever betray any public sign of impatience to take over the top job.

So expect a vibrant society, but not an unruly one.

The challenges the new leadership faces are serious.

Singapore's fortunes depend more than ever on the external economy. Competition from China and India is unrelenting.

Social spending is likely to go up as the post-war baby-boomers move into the elderly bracket. At the same time, tax revenues are falling as tax rates are cut to remain competitive. Result: tight government coffers. Political question: Will there be more giveaways of the 1990s? If not, will the electorate punish the new PM?

Domestically, the political centre of gravity is shifting away from the hard-working, thrifty, and pliable blue-collar worker to the hard-driving, free-spending, ambitious white-collar worker out to get what he can from 'the system'.

The new Singaporean is harder to please, more mobile and less tractable.

Singapore in the 21st century requires governing with a light touch. Can the new PM, who as Finance Minister introduced regulation with a light touch in the Singapore financial system, translate that to politics?

Can he govern lightly enough to satisfy the New Singaporean, yet not loosen the People's Action Party's grip on power? If the PAP lost its political stronghold, he would likely lose PAP MPs' support to be their leader.

Or will he reckon that loosening the political reins would allow the development of that "vibrant society" he would like to see?

Unlike politics, the economic scene is more clear-cut. The Singapore Government has identified restructuring as a priority: Restructure the economy to to move to higher value-added activities, and reform the wage system to allow more flexibility so companies can ride out the difficult patches.

But here again, there are challenges.

Many think the new PM and his team will be able to come out with sound plans to take Singapore forward. But the bigger question is whether he has the political clout - and the emotional pull with people - to rally them to go along when restructuring causes so much pain.

In times of uncertainty, people want a leader who can not only lead them to fresh fodder, but also reassure and protect them on the way.

As far as ability goes, Mr Lee has all the right credentials. He has helmed key ministries. Twenty years in politics has taught him to feel the pulse of people. He also has a good team - experienced veterans as well as fresh, energetic ministers. Plus two former PMs to advise him.

For the new PM Lee, the challenges ahead have less to do with technocratic ability or things of the mind, and more to do with matters of the heart.

The ordinary Singaporean wonders: Can someone from such a pedigreed background, and who is so brilliant in his own right, understand me, the common man? 

This is one question, Mr Lim Hock Lee, now 48, does not understand.

He was a staff sergeant who got to know Mr Lee in the army. He had Primary 6 education; Mr Lee, a double first from Cambridge University. They got on like a house on fire.

Or observe Mr Lee at his Meet-the-People session when he comes face to face with people in trouble. He is task-oriented but kind, brightening up visibly when he's able to help, and reassuring constituents he'll do so. He's firm in saying no, and not above dispensing advice on parenting. He shuts up and lets them rant when they're emotional. A box of tissue usually sits ready on the table, for wiping tears. After 20 years in politics, it would be a poor MP indeed who cannot relate to the common man.

But what people want to know is more visceral: Okay, he may relate to us as the MP or the PM, but is he one of us?

On this, there are no two ways about it.

He is who he is: son of Lee Kuan Yew who excelled in school, and rose through the military, then political, ranks like a meteor.

He may not be 'one of us', in the way that Mr Goh Chok Tong, a Hokkien-speaking boy from Pasir Panjang who grew up to become PM, can be said to be. Mr Lee, after all, grew up playing at the Istana, where he and his younger brother Hsien Yang are said to have once messed up the telephone exchange by unplugging the wires.

But he is 'one of us' in that he went through common experiences as a Singaporean. As he said in an interview 20 years ago: 'I have grown up here. My children are growing up here. I know the community. I belong. I am not living in another planet, you know.'

And for the record: Yes, he went to discos a few times when young, although he did not enjoy it. 

THE BONDING QUESTION

The issue of whether the new team - especially the new PM - can 'bond' with the people is probably the biggest political question for the next few years.

But to be fair, every new PM assumes leadership with that question in people's minds. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was perceived as aloof when he became PM. There was a special committee to change his image. Mr Goh Chok Tong became PM with the handicap of being seen as 'wooden' and a poor communicator. Both overcame the labels.

Mr Lee has an additional image burden: that his family is too powerful. His father remains in Cabinet as an adviser. His wife Ho Ching is executive director of state investment agency Temasek Holdings. Younger brother Hsien Yang heads one of Singapore's biggest companies, SingTel.

The image issue aside, the more substantive difficulty Mr Lee faces is that of steering Singapore into the future.

Restructuring is necessary - but change is painful.

As the leader, he has to avoid making changes too much, too fast. Several people cite a tendency for this man to charge ahead full-steam, leaving others to catch up.

As a young MP, he programmed block visits with military precision: X minutes per floor. He soon learnt that didn't work: either grassroots leaders couldn't catch up, or constituents just didn't fit neatly into such time-tables.

As a young major, some of his briefings, including the use of words like 'fudge factor', went over the head of troops.

He himself has said he learnt that things were not so black and white, that policy changes had to be phased in. He learnt to slow down, and pace changes.

He will have to remember those lessons all the more as PM. 

SON AND FATHER

As Mr Lee Hsien Loong assumes the mantle of Prime Minister today, world media will trumpet the fact that he is Mr Lee Kuan Yew's son. Some Singaporeans remain convinced he got to the top because of his father.

But if he's able to govern with a light touch, take Singapore to fresh pastures, and find favour with the people while doing so, he has the makings of a sterling prime minister.

So for now, Mr Lee Hsien Loong is known to the world outside Singapore as Mr Lee Kuan Yew's son. But could it be the other way round some day? It was his father himself who said in October 1985: 'I may well have the discomfort of later on being compared unfavourably to the offspring.'

Far-fetched? History will be the judge.