Why did ex-Senior Minister S. Jayakumar pick up inline skating in his 60s? Excerpts from his memoir

SINGAPORE - Former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar's memoir, launched on Wednesday, contains insights from his 31 years in politics and anecdotes from his personal life.

Professor Jayakumar is donating his royalties from the book, Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu: A Singapore Memoir, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' adopted charity The Rainbow Centre, which helps children with special needs.

The 224-page volume is available at leading bookstores at $27.82 (GST inclusive). It can also be ordered from the Straits Times Press Online Bookstore at www.stpressbooks.com.sg.

Here are a few interesting excerpts from the memoir:

1. A short stint as a reporter in 1959

"My stint as a journalist was quite exciting. One felt a sense of importance in knowing the latest news before it went into the public domain. I have three distinct memories of those six months as a journalist...

"The third memory concerns a gangland-style murder in Chinatown. Secret societies were rampant in Singapore then. I arrived at the scene with a cameraman. The bloodstained body was still on the five-foot way.

"The police had questioned the victim's wife and family. I tried to extract as much information as I could from the police officer. He shook his head in frustration, saying that the wife and relatives all knew who had done it. Other witnesses could also identify the assailant but no one was prepared to give a statement. They feared reprisals if they had to testify in court.

That episode had a profound impact on me and later shaped my views on the need for the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act which provides for preventive detention."

2. Marriage and family

"My parents were very conservative Indians. They seemed very concerned that in my late twenties I was showing no interest in marriage and spent many late nights out.

"Sometime in 1968, I planned a trip to Penang by car with S Rajendran, a good friend from law school days... When my parents got wind of this, they asked me to stop over in KL to meet a Dr Rajahram and his daughter Lalitha, who was also a doctor... I quietly fobbed off my parents' attempt by telling them that our travel plan to Penang did not include a stop in KL.

"When I mentioned this to Rajendran, his response was, why not? What is the harm in meeting the girl? So that was how I turned up in KL, visited the family of Dr Rajahram, and met Lalitha... The rest is history, and after a few months, we got married in January 1969."

3. Working with three Prime Ministers

On Mr Lee Kuan Yew:

"My first observation is that Mr Lee was a perfect gentleman. He made it a point to have regular lunches with the younger Ministers of State, like Yeo Ning Hong and myself. It was his systematic way of getting to know us better... When the Istana waiter brought the food, he always insisted that we be served first. These may seem small things, but to me it spoke much of the man who was the leader of a country."

On Mr Goh Chok Tong:

"Chok Tong had a very easy and approachable way of dealing with foreign leaders and this enabled him to establish a good rapport with them. Whether it was with President Bill Clinton, Indian Prime Minister PV Narashima Rao, Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto or Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, I noticed that they hit it off after their first meeting."

On Mr Lee Hsien Loong:

"He was a very intense person, a profound thinker and a leader who was hands-on with any important issue. Whatever the subject matter, he would know as much, or even more about the subject, than the minister. This applied to even legal matters. He was not legally trained, but when we had difficult legal issues, including constitutional issues, he could hold his own.

4. Perils of official travels: Panic on flight to Cuba

"On 9 May 2007, after an official trip to Panama, I took an evening flight on Copa Airline from Panama for an official visit to Cuba. Lalitha was with me and we had an accompanying delegation of officials... Unexpectedly, just 20 minutes into the flight, the aircraft suddenly fell several thousand metres.

"Pandemonium broke out. It was a scene of utter chaos, with passengers panicking when some of the oxygen masks malfunctioned and did not inflate. Some passengers actually began grabbing the masks of others when theirs did not work."

5. Retiring from political life

Learning inline skating after 60:

"My friends thought I was crazy when in my late 60s I took up inline skating. I was having coffee with my daughter at an outdoor cafe in New York City when a couple whizzed by on rollerblades. I told her that it looked very interesting and she encouraged me to take it up. I did.

"As she did not play golf, this was one way of bonding with her. We used to skate in East Coast Park very early in the morning before going to work. Lalitha and my sons joined us on weekends. Lalitha and I were the oldest couple on the block."

Taking up painting:

"In recent years, I decided to take up painting. My brother Govindasamy was very good in drawing. I guess it rubbed off on me. As kids we would draw our own comics and share these with friends.

"Later I painted murals of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and other Disney characters on the bedroom walls for my children when they were young. These were very amateurish efforts."

"You're the tour agent, right?"

"Retirement can have its funny moments. About eight months after retiring, I took my three-year-old granddaughter Ellora for an outing at the Singapore Cable Car... After a ride in a cable car, which she enjoyed tremendously, we came down to the ground floor where there were various kiosks selling souvenirs.

"She was attracted to some pencils with plastic animal figurines on top of the pencil heads. She grabbed a fistful of five or six pencils. I asked the sales lady at the kiosk for the price and was taken aback when she said each pencil cost $8.

"Ellora was engrossed in admiring the pencils and I noticed that the lady was all this time staring intently at me. Then she said, with a Singlish twang, 'You, ahh... I know you...' I told myself, OK here is the part when she says you are the minister.

"But that is not what she said.

"She continued: 'Ahh, I know you... you are the tour agent right? You bring the tourists here right?'"

chuimin@sph.com.sg