Recalling the driven politician and the quiet family man

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat says Mr Lee Kuan Yew does not express his deep sense of care for Singaporeans in soft, sentimental terms, but is content to let his policies speak for themselves.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat says Mr Lee Kuan Yew does not express his deep sense of care for Singaporeans in soft, sentimental terms, but is content to let his policies speak for themselves.PHOTO: ST FILE

A man with a disciplined, capacious mind, always updating his mental map of the world to assess just how Singapore can benefit from a fast-changing world. This is how Education Minister Heng Swee Keat describes his former boss at a conference called "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew" at the Shangri-La Hotel yesterday, on Mr Lee's 90th birthday.

The first time I met Mr Lee Kuan Yew in person was in March 1997 when he interviewed me for the job of Principal Private Secretary, or PPS. His questions were fast and sharp. Every reply drew even more probing questions. At the end of it, he said: "Brush up on your Mandarin and report in three months. We have an important project with China."

I realised later that, among others, it was perhaps when I replied "I don't know" to one or two questions that I might have made an impression. With Mr Lee, it is all right if you do not know something. But you do not pretend and lie if you do not know. Integrity is everything.

Mr Lee's favourite question is "So?". If you update him on something, he will invariably reply with "So?". You reply and think you have answered him, but again he asks, "So?". This "so?" question forces you to get to the core of the issue and draw out the implications of each fact. His instinct is to cut through the clutter, drill to the core of the issue, and identify the vital points. And he does this with an economy of effort.

I learnt this the hard way. Once, in response to a question, I wrote him three paragraphs. I thought I was comprehensive. Instead, he said: "I only need a one-sentence answer, why did you give me three paragraphs?" I worked very hard on that and so I reflected long and hard on this, and I realised that that was how he cut through the clutter. When he was the prime minister, there were so many issues that he had to grapple with, so it was critical to distinguish between the strategic and the peripheral issues.

On my first overseas trip with Mr Lee, just a few weeks after I started work, Mrs Lee, ever so kind, must have sensed my nervousness. She said to me: "My husband has strong views, but don't let that intimidate you!" Indeed, Mr Lee has strong views because these are rigorously derived, but he is also very open to robust exchange. Mr Lee makes it a point to hear from those who can contribute to it, those with expertise and experience. He is persuasive, but he can be persuaded.

A few months into my job, Mr Lee decided on a particular course of action on the Suzhou Industrial Park after deep discussion with our senior officials. That evening, I realised that amid the flurry of information, we had not discussed a point which was relevant to our approach. I gingerly wrote him a note, proposing some changes. To my surprise, he agreed.

Mental map

Mr Lee’s rich insights on issues come from a capacious and disciplined mind. He listens and reads widely, but he does so like a detective, looking for and linking vital clues while discarding the irrelevant.

He has a mental map of the world where he knows its contours well. Like a radar, he is constantly scanning for changes and matching these against the map. What might appear as random and disparate facts to many of us are placed within this map, and hence, his mental map is constantly being refreshed.

A senior US leader described this well: Mr Lee is like a one-man intelligence agency.

The most remarkable feature of the map in Mr Lee’s head is the fact that the focal point is always Singapore. I mentioned his favourite word, “So?”. Invariably, the “so?” question ends with, “So, what does this mean for Singapore?”.

What are the implications? What should we be doing differently? Nothing is too big or too small. I accompanied Mr Lee on many overseas trips. The 1998 trip to the US is particularly memorable. Each day brought new ideas, and throughout the trip, I sent back many observations for our departments to study. It might be the type of industry that we might develop or the type of trees that might add colour to our garden city. This remains very much his style today.

His every waking moment is devoted to Singapore, and Mr Lee wants Singapore to be successful, beyond his term as prime minister.

Remarkably, from the early 60s, he already spoke about finding his successor. During my term with him, as Senior Minister, he devoted much of his effort to helping then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong succeed. He refrained from visiting Indonesia or Malaysia as he wanted PM Goh to establish himself as our leader. Instead, he fanned out to China, the United States and Europe to convince leaders and investors that PM Goh’s leadership would take Singapore on to new levels of success.

As Senior Minister, he worked out with PM Goh the areas that he could contribute, and I will share three key projects which illustrate his contribution, but more importantly, how he develops insights and achieves results.

Insights are valuable, but how does Mr Lee turn insights into results? I believe it is through a single-minded focus on achieving whatever he sets out to do.

If things go wrong, do not sweep them aside. Confront the problems, get to the root of the difficulties, and wrestle with these resolutely. Go for long-term success, and do not be deterred by criticisms.

Expanding external space

Mr Lee expanded our external space, by being a principled advocate of collaboration, based on long-term interests.

In all his years as the face of Singapore, Mr Lee has made fast friendships with senior world leaders who appreciate his view of things, and respect Singapore’s principled stance on international issues. In PM Goh’s time and today, Mr Lee remains a steady, respected voice in the international arena. This was driven home to me at two meetings that left a deep impression on me.

In 1999, relations between the US and China were very tense. China’s negotiations with the US on its entry to the WTO had failed, there were tensions between the US and China over US bombs that had hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and President Lee Teng-hui in Taiwan had pronounced his “two states” concept.

In July 1999, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan were in Singapore for the Asean Regional Forum. It was quite tense, and many of our officials believed that there could be a flare-up at the ARF.

Both figures met Mr Lee separately. Mr Lee gave each side his reading of their long-term strategic interests. His advice to the US was that it was not in their interest to be adversarial towards China or regard her as a potential enemy. To China, he suggested that she should tap into the market, technology and capital of the US to develop her economy. They should look forward, and search for areas of cooperation, such as China’s entry into the WTO.

Sitting in these meetings, I was struck by how Mr Lee approached this delicate situation. He did not say one thing to one and sing a different tune to the other. If they had compared notes later, they would have found his underlying position consistent. What made him persuasive was how he addressed the concerns and interests of each side. I could see from the way both reacted that his arguments struck a chord, and one of the guests asked a note-taker to write the notes verbatim for deeper study later on. In 2000, when I was at MTI a few months after this meeting, I was very pleased to witness China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation at the Doha meeting.

The private person

What is Mr Lee like as a person? The public persona of Mr Lee is a stern, strict, no-nonsense leader. But deep down, he is energised by a deep sense of care for Singaporeans, especially the disadvantaged.

He does not express this in soft, sentimental terms – his policies speak louder, and he is content to let them speak for themselves. He personally donated generously to the Education Fund to provide awards, especially to outstanding students from poor families. Today, many students still benefit from this. He is a firm advocate of a fair and just society. But he demands that everyone, including those who are helped, put in their fair share of effort.

Many regard Mr Lee as a pragmatist who does not hesitate to speak the hard truths. Actually, I think he is also an idealist, with a deep sense of purpose. He believes one has to see the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Fate deals us a certain hand of cards, but it is up to us to make a winning hand out of it. Man is not perfect, but we can be better – Mr Lee embraces Confucianism because of its belief in the perfectibility of man. No society is perfect either, but a society with a sense of togetherness can draw out the best of our human spirit and create a better future for our people. He is, to me, a pragmatic idealist.

Mr Lee and his family are closely knit, and he was particularly close to Mrs Lee. On overseas trips, I had the opportunity to have many private meals with Mr and Mrs Lee. It was heartwarming to see their bantering. Mr Lee has a sweet tooth, and Mrs Lee would, with good humour, keep score of the week’s “ration”. But when it came to official work, they drew very clear lines.

Mrs Lee stayed close by Mr Lee’s side and travelled with him whenever she could. Once, in Davos, Mrs Lee came into the tiny room where Mr Lee was giving a media interview. She found a stool at the corner and sat there, listening unobtrusively. Twice, I offered her my more comfortable seat near Mr Lee. She said to me: “You have work to do. I am just a busybody – don’t let me disturb you!”

Mrs Lee was supportive, without intruding – she was certainly not “just a busybody”, and anyone who had the chance to observe them together would know just how close a couple they were, and how much strength her presence gave to her husband.

We live today in a different world that demands of us new ideas and approaches. But there is one quality of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s that we can, and need to, aspire towards: Mr Lee’s unwavering and total dedication to Singapore, to keeping Singapore successful so that Singaporeans may determine our own destiny, and lead meaningful, fulfilling lives.

History gave him a most daunting challenge – building a nation out of a tiny city-state with no resources and composed of disparate migrants. He cast aside his doubts, mustered all his being and has given it his all. Mr Lee’s most significant achievement is to show the way forward in building a nation.

In the same way that he asks himself, we need to always be asking ourselves, “So?”. So what does this mean for Singapore? So what should we do about it?

And act on it. The task of creating a better life for all Singaporeans – through expanding opportunities and through building a fair and just society – never ends. Mr Lee is not just a man of ideas; he is a man of action. I hope that this conference not only enables us to discuss the big ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew; I hope it also stirs us to action; and to do so with the same unwavering dedication to Singapore and to our future.

The writer is Singapore’s Minister for Education. This is an excerpt of his speech.