Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: An open man who embodied the word 'statesman'

Sidek Saniff was a PAP MP from 1976 to 2001, and a Minister of State and Senior Minister of State from 1991 to 2001.

"There is another side to Lee Kuan Yew. I had the opportunity of having lunch with him several times, sometimes one on one. You had to be on your toes constantly.

We would not only discuss my portfolio at the time, whether it was the Ministry of Social Affairs, Communication, Trade and Industry. We would also talk about important things, sensitive matters about the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians.

He was an open man and the embodiment of the word "statesman". I appreciated it very much because the discussions were no-holds-barred and you were free to raise sensitive matters like the Singapore Armed Forces, mosques and the azan (the Islamic call to prayer five times a day). I was told that we had to lower the volume of the azan.

Mr Lee suggested broadcasting it over the radio. Up to now, you can hear the azan on the radio five times a day.

Another discussion I learned from was about the donations to the Mosque Building Fund. At the time the donation was 50 cents. Then, Mr Lee agreed to increase the donation to $1. But after we got $1, we thought, let's make it $2, $3. But Mr Lee said: "Sidek, when you collect money from your citizens, make it the barest minimum. Those who want to give more, can give."

I gave Mr Lee a copy of my book, Paradigma Melayu Singapura, The Paradigm of Singapore Malays, which outlined my thoughts on the development of our Malay community over the years, in 2011.

He wrote back to say thank you and signed it himself. He found time to say thank you. That was a classic example of what leadership and statesmanship is about. So when people say he was very garang and fierce, yeah, he was. But you must know that against the background of communism, he had to deal with it and do what was necessary. But he had a soft side.

He inducted new blood, like-minded Singaporeans that put the well-being of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart, especially the second generation leadership headed by Mr Goh Chok Tong.

I remember one occasion when my family and I were on vacation in Malaysia. I got a note: "Sidek, please do not extend your vacation, PM would like to see you." So a few days later, I met Mr Lee and he told me: "I want you to follow Hon Sui Sen to China." We then sat down for a chat. He told me three things I can never forget.

Number one: "Can you tahan (tolerate)? The weather will be minus 18 deg C." I just told myself that if Hon Sui Sen who was above 60 at the time could do it, so could I - I was only 40 then. So I nodded.

Second question: "You have an overcoat?" I think he knew that people may not use overcoats frequently. I said: "I'll buy one."

He said: "No need, Don't waste money." He paused for a while and said: "Ahmad Mattar has a good overcoat. Borrow from him."

Third question: "Do you have the boots to cover your shoes?" This time, I tried to convince him that I could buy the boots myself because they would cost me at most $100.

But he said: "Oh, don't waste money, don't waste money."

He was very thrifty. That was how he handled our money, our kitty. That thrift must start from you. That was his clear message.

So in the end, I went to China with borrowed overcoat and borrowed shoes."