The stories of Singapore's Old Guard ministers get fresh re-telling at ST Book Club

(From left) The Straits Times' head of training and development Lydia Lim with the editors of Lee's Lieutenants, Dr Lam Peng Er and Dr Kevin Tan, at the sophomore session of the ST Book Club on April 25, 2018
(From left) The Straits Times' head of training and development Lydia Lim with the editors of Lee's Lieutenants, Dr Lam Peng Er and Dr Kevin Tan, at the sophomore session of the ST Book Club on April 25, 2018ST PHOTO: ABDUL AZIZ HUSSIN

SINGAPORE - Singapore's early political history generated lively discussion at the sophomore session of the Straits Times (ST) Book Club on Wednesday night (April 25).

The book at the centre of the debate was Lee's Lieutenants, a re-issued title on founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his Old Guard of first-generation leaders.

Its editors, law academic Kevin Tan and Dr Lam Peng Er, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute at National University of Singapore (NUS), expounded upon it in conversation with ST head of training and development Lydia Lim.

Close to 150 people attended the session at the National Library Board's headquarters to hear Dr Tan and Dr Lam dish on little-known details of how the Old Guard functioned, such as tensions between members and their relationships with Mr Lee.

The book was first brought out in 1999 by Australian publisher Allen & Unwin, when current Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was prime minister. It was reissued earlier this year by Straits Times Press, arriving amid concern over Singapore's impending leadership renewal and who will be named the next prime minister.

The 14 lieutenants profiled in the book include Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr Lim Kim San, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Eddie Barker, Mr S. Rajaratnam and Mr Ahmad Ibrahim.

The revised edition has a new preface and epilogue, which takes in events since 1999.

Dr Lam, 58, recalled how irate Dr Toh had been when he saw the book's title. "He said, 'Lieutenants is an American term, and Singapore is a British parliamentary system where the prime minister is only the first among equals.

"These were men of strong personalities, but they would live and let live because they were in the same boat and had to pull in the same direction. If they had not had that sense of common purpose, Singapore might not have made it."

The nature of the late Mr Lee's cabinet was very different from the one his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong leads today, observed the duo.

"Today's is a very manufactured cabinet," said Dr Tan, 56, an adjunct professor at the NUS Faculty of Law. "It is not a cabinet that grew out of that combustible situation where you have Independence on the horizon."

They recounted anecdotes about the members of the Old Guard, from the renowned sportsmanship of Mr Barker - both on the field and in politics - to the "cantankerous" nature of Dr Toh, who once slammed the telephone down on Dr Lam but later made up with him and Dr Tan after they wrote a letter appealing to him as a "scholar and a gentleman".

In response to an audience member who noted the profusion of military men and civil servants in today's cabinet and questioned how the government might attract more candidates from the private sector, Dr Tan said: "If the politics of Singapore were different, you might have more people joining politics. But if I'm going to be put through a cookie-cutter system where I know that at some point, somebody else will call the shots and what I say doesn't count, why would I want to do that?

"If you feel your voice matters, that would make more of a difference than any number of zeros on your paycheck."

Audience members said they appreciated the candid quality of the discussion, as well as the details that the book brought to light about the personalities of the Old Guard.

"I liked all these little nuggets of history that are not commonly known, such as the relationships between the different 'lieutenants'," said healthcare worker Henrietta Goh, 27.

The rebranded book club takes over the newspaper's non-fiction book club The Big Read Meet and runs every last Wednesday of the month.

The next session on May 30 will focus on Stephanie Suga Chen's debut Travails Of A Trailing Spouse, a light-hearted novel about the lives of expatriate wives in Singapore. Readers can register at str.sg/oGUj