Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's red box: 5 things about the boxy briefcase

SINGAPORE - Education Minister Heng Swee Keat called it a symbol of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's unwavering dedication to Singapore.

The nation's founding Prime Minister used it to hold his papers, speech drafts, letters, readings, and a whole range of questions, reflections and observations. The 14-cm wide, dark red briefcase was used by Mr Lee every day until February 4, 2015, a day before he was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital where he died on March 23 at the age of 91.

The red box used by Mr Lee will be added to the National Collection at the National Museum of Singapore and will be displayed, along with several other items belonging to Mr Lee, in the museum's revamped galleries.

On the decision to put the box on display, Mr Heng, who was Mr Lee's Principal Private Secretary from 1997 till 2000, said: "We should let fellow Singaporeans have a view of this box and how much it is a part of Mr Lee's life, and how much it is a part of Singapore's history as well."

The red box did not originate in Singapore although the country's early ministers had used it. It was a tradition picked up from the British, whose ministers have been using red boxes to transport official documents since the 1860s.

Here are 5 things about the ministerial case.


1. Made in London

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The red boxes used by British ministers are made by London-based leather goods company Barrow and Gale. According to the company, they were first introduced in the 19th Century by Prince Albert.

2. Hand-crafted

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The design of the boxes have changed little since the 1860s. They are hand-made with pine and covered with red-stained rams' leather. Each box takes about three days to finish and weighs between two and three kilogrammes.

There is a lock at the bottom of all the cases. Each box also features the title of office to which the box is attached as well as the British royal monogram on its front.

Mr Lee's box features the words "Government Of Singapore" and replaces the British monogram with the national coat of arms of Singapore.

3. Red in colour

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It is thought that the signature colour is related to Prince Albert. His family's coat of arms was dominantly red. Different shades of red have been seen on various boxes carried by ministers.

4. The budget box

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Probably the most famous red box in Britain, the budget box is held up for a photoshoot outside 11, Downing Street every year when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the minister responsible for all economic and financial matters, announces his annual budget plans.

The first budget box belonged to William Ewart Gladstone and had been used by almost every Chancellor since the 1860s till it was retired in 2010 in frail condition. Different boxes were used in 1965 by Lord Callaghan as well as in 1997 by Gordon Brown.

In 2010, experts at Britain's National Archives decided that the Gladstone box was too fragile for use and should be put on display at the Cabinet War Rooms in London. Current Chancellor George Osborne was the last minister to use the Gladstone box and has been using a new box since 2010.

5. India's Budget Day

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Similarly influenced by its colonial rule, India also continues the tradition of posing with a briefcase for the media prior to formally presenting the federal budget.

Although they do not pass down a specific case, nor are their cases necessarily red, the Indian Finance Minister still carries a leather briefcase and holds it up to his chest for the photographers on the steps of Parliament.

Sources: BBC, The New York Times, The Telegraph

melheng@sph.com.sg