Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's purpose? To secure the future of Singapore

This is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the Singapore Press Holdings memorial for Mr Lee Kuan Yew yesterday

It is somewhat ironic that when I was serving the Government as a civil servant, I hardly saw him but, outside of it, as a journalist, I had the privilege to do so on many occasions.

In fact I met him in my first year in The Straits Times in 1989. This was at a lunch at the Istana Annexe in a small dining room... There would usually be two or three journalists invited for these lunches.

I have often wondered why he took the trouble to meet young journalists. Obviously he wanted to influence us, to make us understand his point of view, and he was willing to invest the time to do this. But I also think he wanted to understand our business, the media business, and he did so through these interactions.

Of all the ministers, he invested the most time on journalists, even though you might think that, of all the ministers, he would have many more important issues to deal with. It shows how he operated. If a thing was important to him, it was worth the time to invest in it, to understand it well so he could deal with it.

Even though he did most of the talking, these lunches were occasions for us to ask him any question, on the big geopolitical issues of the day or on the latest policy announcement in Singapore.

For a young journalist like me, it was like winning one of those million-dollar auctions to have lunch with (investment guru) Warren Buffett.

Later on, my interaction with him was mainly over several books we did together. It started with Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas in 1995 - the first book in which he was involved.

To do this book, I had to read all of his speeches spanning, at that time, almost 50 years. Those were the days before the Internet became what it is today and, at the click of a mouse, you can pretty much find almost all his speeches. At that time, I read them in hard copy form - more than 2,000 speeches - over many days. The book sold very well, close to 100,000 copies, which was unheard of then for a local book.

But the book also did one other thing that might not be so well known. Before the book, he told me he did not believe in writing memoirs. He said only Western leaders did memoirs, to embellish their reputation and legacy - Chinese leaders, for example, never wrote memoirs.

I think the success of The Man And His Ideas changed his mind, and a year later, he decided to write his two-volume memoirs. After that, we could not stop him.

There was the bilingual book, My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey; there were also Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going; and One Man's View Of The World.

And there possibly would have been some more if his health had not taken a turn for the worse.

In fact, soon after the launch of One Man's View Of The World in 2013, he asked for a further edition of the book to be done. We agreed to add two chapters to it.

Several additional interviews were done last year and the drafts are now with his special assistant.

What is my lasting impression of him from doing these books? There are several. First, we all know how meticulous he was and how much attention to detail he gave to those issues he considered important. In the case of his books, it meant writing and rewriting the drafts many, many times.

His secretary had to number each draft to keep track of the changes and it was not unusual to see draft number 20 of the same page being circulated. He would send these drafts to many people for comments and suggestions.

And he was very open to making changes. We often think of Mr Lee as that strong-willed person impervious to other views. Of course on many issues, he was. But in the writing of his books, he was very open to suggestions.

My second impression is over how intense he was as a person, and how in his every waking moment, he was consumed with the lifelong project which is Singapore.

He had no time for any other business. This was most evident when we were doing the book Hard Truths, where we interviewed him for more than 30 hours. Several of these sessions were to discuss some of his most controversial positions on politics, democracy, race and religion and the vulnerability of Singapore. Not unexpectedly he was combative, and we found ourselves at the receiving end of many of his robust rebuttals.

Now, four years later when I look back at these sessions, it is not his combativeness or the actual arguments I remember. It is the intensity of the man, the complete focus on wanting to secure Singapore's future as much as he could possibly do.

Even at an age when many others would be happy to go quietly into the sunset and enjoy their retirement, he was still at it, trying to persuade younger Singaporeans to his point of view. He was 86 when we interviewed him for the book Hard Truths in 2010. He was 88 when we worked with him for the next book, One Man's View Of The World.

By that time, he was already quite frail and weakening by the day. On some days, he hiccuped non-stop during the interview. He was having gastric problems. Halfway through several interviews, he had to stop to take his medicine. On other days, his voice was weak, his stamina waning. Yet he persisted.

Why was he still so concerned about Singapore to want to spend so many hours with journalists probing and questioning him?

Let me quote one answer he gave: "My purpose is to secure Singapore's future, and anything that consolidates or increases the stability and security for Singapore, I am in favour of. I've finished my job. I don't need any more achievements. I mean it's as simple as that. What is it I can do? Consolidate from my experience what I think would help it continue in a safe condition. Can it be forever? No, I cannot say that. I mean you look at all the city-states..."

That was an 86-year-old man still egging Singapore on to do better.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew has finally retired. He does not need to worry about Singapore any more. He has done all he possibly could to put Singapore in a position to better secure its future.

Now, it is our turn to worry whether his worry will come true.

hanfk@sph.com.sg