From the archives: Private side of DPM Lee

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on Oct 19, 2003.

To understand Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's private side, look no further than his desk at work.

It's strewn with files and paper. Unlike his father, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who is pristinely tidy, the son is more forgiving of clutter. Several photos of his family sit in a corner by the telephone, testimony to the importance that family holds for him. Prominent among them is one of his first wife, Wang Ming Yang.

She died in 1982, aged 31, leaving behind their 19-month-old daughter Xiuqi and three-week-old son Yi Peng.

But recalling her even now, his eyes grow red and brim with unshed tears.

What were the darkest moments in his life?

"My first wife Ming Yang died, it was...you know, my whole world fell apart. But life went on. I coped with help from parents and also my mother-in-law who stayed with me and helped to bring up the children."

Does he still think about her, talk to his children about her?

"Yes, from time to time."

What does he tell them?

"It's a long time ago," says Mr Lee. His voice softens. He pauses and blinks back tears.

His mind no doubt went back to their 4 1/2 years of marriage and the times they shared.

His eulogy at her funeral 21 years ago: "She was my wife, lover, companion and confidante. She loved me, cherished me, honoured me, comforted me...I tried to do the same for her. Now death has parted us. We shall all have to learn to live without her."

It's a brief moment in the 90-minute interview when DPM Lee was moved to tears, but it gives a glimpse of the private man behind the public figure.

Here is a man of deep emotion and strong attachments, who's not afraid to show his feelings. He's as game talking candidly about past tragedies and failures in his life as taking on sensitive questions about the Lee family's involvement in politics.

So from losing his first wife, he talks about his fight with cancer in 1992, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. "It was quite frightening but a less dark moment. The family helped to carry me through again. These things happen to everybody."

Cancer has given him a sense of equanimity.

He says: "You accept your limits better. You accept that there are some things you can't predict or control that may happen to you. You accept it as it comes and carry on from there. And also you accept other people as they are."

It also reminded him to maintain a sustainable pace of work.

His day begins at about 7am, when he checks e-mail and reads The Straits Times and other papers online. Then he limbers up and stretches, breakfasts, and works out for about 45 minutes at home, before having a shower and heading off to work.

If he has no morning functions, he is in the office at the Finance Ministry at around 11am.

At work, his swift response to e-mail is legendary in the civil service. He's known for being an early adopter of technology. For example, he tried wireless networking in his home but gave it up, and was one of the ministers who tested the Blackberry wireless e-mail system earlier this year.

He's home for dinner around 7pm if there are no evening engagements. Then it's 'homework' time: more e-mail, or reading up on papers for the following day, or drafting or editing papers or speeches. He works on major speeches in the evening, away from the bustle of day-to day decision-making.

He says: "Physically I try not to go over the limits so I usually try and have a short break in the afternoon and rest and calm down for an hour, if I can."

It has been 11 years since the cancer, and he's put it behind him. But is his physical stamina up to being Prime Minister, as he is expected to become some time next year?

"The cancer hasn't affected my physical stamina. As you grow older, of course you notice that you don't bounce back quite as quickly as you used to but I am sure I will manage."

He usually does - manage, that is. Those who have known him over the years say he is technically brilliant: as an army officer, a policymaker or a student.

Mr Choo Thiam Siew, president of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, was his classmate at Catholic High School for several years. He remembers that the young Hsien Loong was fluent in English, Chinese and Malay, excelled in Mathematics and Physics, and mastered the clarinet in two years to perform the Mozart clarinet concerto while fellow band members struggled with simple brass band tunes.

One public success was in 1983, when Mr Lee directed the rescue of 13 people trapped in cable cars after seven people fell to their deaths when a cable snapped. Mr Boey Tak Hap, who served with him in the army, notes that DPM Lee was then 31, with just eight years' experience in the armed forces.

So has he ever failed at anything he did?

DPM Lee recalls a band competition in school, when he was drum major. "We had worked out the drill and the routine and so on. We went there and the whole thing fell to bits. Somebody was in the wrong place and the whole formation ended up in a shambles all over the basketball court." The team did not win and as drum major, he felt responsible.

On policies, he reckons that some could have been done differently with the benefit of hindsight. For example, banking reforms could have been introduced earlier. Perhaps the use of Central Provident Fund savings for property was over-liberalised. 'But as I was when I was at that point, I did what I thought was the right thing to do.'

With a keen eye for details, he is known for refining policy proposals down to the nitty-gritty.

Mr Goh Yeow Tin, secretary of the People's Action Party branch in Teck Ghee, recalls showing Mr Lee a quote for a computer system for the branch that amounted to $18,000. Several weeks later, the branch officials submitted the final invoice for $16,000, as they had whittled down the sum. DPM Lee noticed the difference right away. Mr Goh said: "We didn't want to bother him with small details but he remembers!"

His grassroots leaders say he is approachable and they are clueless about why some people perceive him as tough and uncompromising. "He mixes freely with us, no airs," says Mr Loh Bak Song, a grassroots leader.

"A good listener," adds Mr T. Krishnan, another veteran grassroots leader. He says that DPM Lee invites grassroots volunteers to his home in the Tanglin area every Chinese New Year for a tea reception.

Friends say he has a warm, caring side.

Architect Joey Yeo, 48, who served in the same battalion as DPM Lee in 1981, recalls: "When my son was born in 1988, the Year of the Dragon, I remember sharing the good news with him.

"He was in his constituency office, which has a calligraphy of the Chinese word 'Dragon', which is what the name Loong means, as he's also born in the Year of the Dragon. He congratulated me and wanted to take down the scroll and give it to me! I didn't accept, I was too embarrassed. But it just shows what a warm, spontaneous person he is."

Mr Boey, who used to be Singapore Power CEO and Chief of Army, says: "Some time around 1985, he called me one day and asked if I wanted to join him at a crabbing party" in Sentosa.

"On the day, we assembled at Sentosa ferry terminal. I thought a launch would have been arranged to bring us across. But no. He queued at the ticket counter like everybody else, and bought tickets for all of us. There were three or four families. And there he was with Ho Ching.

"We all spent the day at the beach and then had a seafood dinner. We never did catch crabs, although I think we did have it for dinner.

"That was the first time we realised he and Ho Ching were courting! And that was his way of introducing her to us."

DPM Lee married Madam Ho Ching, an engineer who is now executive director of Temasek Holdings, in 1985. They have two boys, Hongyi, 16, and Haoyi, 14.

All those interviewed highlight one thing about him: he always makes time for those who need him.

Mr Yeo tells this story: Last year, his daughter was accepted by several universities. He e-mailed DPM Lee for advice as to which one she should go to, as DPM Lee had been to Cambridge and Harvard and his wife went to Stanford. He expected an e-mail reply or perhaps a phone call.

Instead, DPM Lee and his wife asked Mr and Mrs Yeo out to lunch at Halia restaurant in the Botanic Gardens and discussed the pros and cons of the universities over two hours. Mr Yeo's daughter is now in Harvard.

In his down time, DPM Lee likes listening to music - including composers Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and Mozart. He enjoyed a recent concert at the Esplanade which featured pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and local violinist Lee Huei Min.

He catches up with reading books when on vacation, as keeping up with newspapers and periodicals takes up most of his reading time during work weeks.

Unlike his father, who is impatient with what-ifs, the younger DPM Lee has a philosophical bent. Some days, he wonders how his life would have turned out if he had chosen to be a mathematician, as his tutors in Cambridge University had suggested.

"Once in a while, I go and browse all these maths websites on the Internet. You can't keep abreast of the subject, but you can be sort of a voyeur, reading about what's happening."

He adds: "I think I'll have had quite an enjoyable time and an interesting career...But where does that lead? What difference would I have made?"

His idea of a life well-lived is this: "You have done what you wanted to do and you have made a difference to other people's lives. You can do a lot of things on your own and be satisfied but if you just do it for yourself, well, then it's not quite complete."