The man who saved Durai from bankruptcy

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 31, 2013

HE WAS a seasoned businessman who was hard to persuade of a cause, let alone help a man facing a $4.05 million bankruptcy.

Yet Mr Lionel Edgar Charles Letts, who died of pneumonia on Sunday at age 95, did just that when he gave former National Kidney Foundation (NKF) chief T. T. Durai $1 million in 2007.

That gift, offered over lunch, was a lifeline to a friend. But Mr Letts knew something about being on the brink.

As a soldier and prisoner of war during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, he escaped a beheading by the guards as the war ended before it could be carried out.

Mr Letts liked to joke later that his success and fortune in life were due to luck and his ability to keep his head on his shoulders.

He continued to work from the office of his own company in Raffles Place till about a fortnight ago. Though having to use a wheelchair for several years and ailing in health, he was lucid till the very end, said his family.

Mr Letts is survived by his wife Cecilia, daughter Billie, son-in-law Rohaizat and several relatives here and abroad.

His family members described him as a strong-willed and determined fighter who worked through everything no matter how tough it got.

"Nothing really got him down, he always saw an upside," said a relative who requested not to be identified. "Even when he was not well, he never saw that as a hindrance or a hurdle."

He enjoyed working and the "little things" in life like walking in the woods.

Mr Letts was a main board director of conglomerate Jardine Matheson & Co for 15 years before he set up his own business, Ilco. He also served as director or adviser on companies in a wide range of industries, including REA Holdings, the China Investment Fund and Multi Mechsindo Industries in Indonesia.

His company looked after his various interests abroad, including palm oil in Indonesia and gold mining in Australia, Brazil and Argentina.

Among those who turned up to pay their respects was Mr Durai, 65, now a globe-trotting consultant who returned from Istanbul upon hearing of Mr Letts' death.

In his first interview since his turbulent exit from the charity scene eight years ago, Mr Durai paid tribute to the friend who once sat on the board of NKF but was always a tough sell.

"I am today where I am because he saved me from imminent bankruptcy," he said.

As recently as a year ago, Mr Letts said he had given the money because Mr Durai was a friend. "I think he led the NKF brilliantly," Mr Letts told The Sunday Times.

Mr Durai settled his debt in four years. In July, he wrote to Mr Letts, saying: "There is so much to say... It is not just the unsolicited gift and loans, but the undying affection, respect, love and faith that you gave me which is immeasurable and surpasses all the monetary help you extended to me."

Mr Durai, who last saw Mr Letts on Oct 5, said: "It is a tremendous loss. He was disciplined, punctual, witty and full of life."

Mr Letts' funeral will be held on Saturday.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 31, 2013

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