Personal anecdotes give rare insights on Mr Lee Kuan Yew in new book

(From far left) Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong presenting the book, Up Close With Lee Kuan Yew, to DPM Teo Chee Hean, along with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Maritime and Port Authority chief executive Andrew Tan and Temasek Holding
(From far left) Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong presenting the book, Up Close With Lee Kuan Yew, to DPM Teo Chee Hean, along with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Maritime and Port Authority chief executive Andrew Tan and Temasek Holdings director of strategic and public affairs Jeffrey Fang yesterday.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

A young Mr Lee Kuan Yew once walked through snow in the bitter Cambridge winter to deliver a bucket of coal to fellow student Yong Pung How, who was recovering from a bad bout of flu.

There was no electrical heating and Mr Yong relied on a coal stove for hot water. He woke up in his room one day to find his stove lit.

"The bucket was full and Kuan Yew had come through the snow on foot because he couldn't very well carry it on a bicycle. It must have been more than half a mile from his lodgings," Mr Yong wrote.

"Perhaps few people would describe him as kind and humane. But he certainly was very kind to me."

This anecdote by Mr Yong, Singapore's former chief justice, is among the many personal stories that shed light on a lesser-known side of Mr Lee, who died last March, in a new book launched yesterday.

Titled Up Close With Lee Kuan Yew, it contains 37 essays by Mr Lee's friends and former colleagues, including Puan Noor Aishah, the widow of first President Yusof Ishak, his former principal private secretaries such as Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, and his press secretary of over two decades, Madam Yeong Yoon Ying.

 

In the book, Dr S. Vasoo, a People's Action Party MP from 1984 to 2001, wrote of how he and Mr Lee had discussed the issue of ethnic integration in HDB flats not long after he entered Parliament.

"I had brought up the issue of increasing concentrations of ethnic groups in the housing blocks, an observation that I knew caught his attention as I could see his eyes flash and his eyebrows lift," he wrote.

Mr Lee then said that he had been thinking about the matter for a while and wanted to tweak the housing policy to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming. In 1989, ethnic quotas were set for HDB estates to ensure a good racial mix. "People always think of (Mr Lee) as a very hard person, very goal-driven... But I don't think so. Because in all the things that he did, we should ask: Did he do it for the public good? Was it for the interest of Singapore? The answer is yes," he wrote.

Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, who was part of the committee behind the book project, said Mr Lee's kindness towards Mr Yong was "a real-life manifestation of the Chinese saying xue zhong song tan", someone providing timely help to another.

He said the book provides rare insights on Mr Lee "you would never get except when you talk to people who have known him for so long".

At the book launch at the National Gallery, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean shared how Mr Lee's attention to detail struck him when he was a young MP.

"He told me: 'Don't wave your hands so much when speaking', because he found it rather distracting," said Mr Teo, to much laughter from the invited guests.

In the book's foreword, Mr Heng shared how on the day of Mrs Lee's funeral in 2010, Mr Lee sent an e-mail to officials alerting them to some trash in the Singapore River, and even attached two photos - one of himself - to pinpoint the location.

Mr Teo said the story "is a poignant example of how Mr Lee never let the smallest detail go - even when he was going through such a difficult time emotionally".

The book is available at major bookstores for $29.96. The proceeds will go to 20 pre-schools run by voluntary welfare organisations. They will help fund language programmes for pre-schoolers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Personal anecdotes give rare insights on Mr Lee in new book'. Print Edition | Subscribe