'Harry, Harry, cool down!'

Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking to students at Nanyang Technological University in 2005. PHOTO: ST FILE

I witnessed Mr Lee's determination and discipline first-hand during the trying period of 1996 and 1997. First there was his 1996 lawsuit against Yazhou Zhoukan, a Chinese language newsweekly, which had published the comments by a lawyer, Tang Liang Hong, alleging impropriety in Mr Lee's purchase of two flats. While the publication quickly retracted the statement and paid a settlement fee, Tang, who would run as a Workers' Party candidate in the 1997 General Election, refused to apologise. In fact, six months later at an election rally, he repeated the allegations and stated that, if elected, he would raise the matter again.

All this coincided with the period when Mr Lee was having heart problems and had to have a second stent put in. He was bogged down with health problems and was asked to slow down.

But he kept on going. Despite his ill health, he gave a talk at the Nanyang Technological University on March 14, 1996. He was just recovering and his blood pressure readings were not good, but he felt it was very important that he addressed the students. He felt it was crucial that they heard the Government's point of view.

We had to make special arrangements for an ambulance; doctors were also on standby, although they sat discreetly in a corner. That day he spoke from 8.30pm to midnight, engaging in long exchanges with the students. A normal person would have stayed at home and rested, but not Mr Lee. It was clear that, to him, duty trumped almost everything. When a mission was key, he always rose to the occasion.


Mrs Lee was his constant companion and his sounding board. She also helped me often by reducing his sting and I was most grateful to her. When he was irritated by an issue or by his health, and I had to bring bad news to him, Mrs Lee would prepare him first. She would say to him, "Alan is coming in with some bad news but, remember, he is just the messenger."

Many times, I would be at his desk in the office and she would be sitting in a corner, reading or knitting. When he was unhappy or upset about something, she would say, "Harry! Harry! Cool down!" She had a very strong human touch.

As he got older, of course, he became more mellow. My predecessors told me I was quite lucky!


Sometimes, on Saturdays at about 11am, Mr Lee would send me an instruction to visit a certain precinct in the afternoon. He only wanted the town council manager and one ministry officer to be around - no MPs or anyone else. And certainly no media. By the time I called to inform the precinct, there was little time left for them to prepare for his visit. At the most, they could only ensure that the floors were swept. Certainly they could not repaint anything as he would be able to smell the fresh paint.

He also liked to make spontaneous private visits to the homes of families of different races. The town council manager would choose three families from different socio-economic backgrounds: from those who lived in one-room flats to those in five-room flats. Mr Lee would talk to them and get their views. In Chinese, we call it wei fu chu xun (to go on an inspection in plain clothes).

I remember two households in particular. One was a Malay family living in a five-room flat. Their bathroom was like a hotel's, with twin washbasins, hairdryer and all the amenities. It showed that they were able to live very well.

The other family also lived in a well-decorated flat. The son, a surgeon working in Hualien, Taiwan, was not admitted into the National University of Singapore (NUS) but he was so keen to be a doctor that he went to Kaohsiung University where he qualified as a surgeon. I can only speculate that instances such as this would have set Mr Lee thinking.

Subsequently, NUS increased the intake of students into its medical school and the Singapore Government recognised the qualifications of more foreign medical schools.

Even on Sundays, when the staff weren't working, Mr Lee would get his security officers to drive him around the housing estates. On Monday mornings, I would get a note detailing his observations.

He always felt the best way to get honest and direct feedback was to go down to the ground himself.

Whenever we travelled overseas, he would ask to go to the local market. He would look at the fruits and fish on sale and, immediately, he would get a feel of how prosperous or poor the place was.

I remember once we were in Dalian, China. At the market, he saw a pineapple and asked the vendor where the fruit came from. The vendor said it was from Taiwan. He said, "You mean there's trade between Taiwan and China?"

That was in 1994. It is a clear example of how the reality on the ground could be different from common perception. Unless you saw and experienced it for yourself, you would not get the real feel of things.

On these market visits, Mr Lee would also ask the price of an egg and what people's monthly wages were. Everywhere he went, he made it a point to get first-hand information.


Mr Lee ate a lot of fruits. Before leaving for a trip, he would first ask for a list of fruits available in the city he was visiting.

Once, before a trip to New Delhi, he asked why watermelon was not on the fruit list. I quickly sent a telex to our high commission who replied that they were afraid that the watermelon might be contaminated with the hepatitis C virus. He said to me, "Silly fellow, you only get hepatitis C from animal products."

I relayed this back to New Delhi and a week later, we received a formal letter from the physician to the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom.

The letter explained that in New Delhi, syringes are used to inject sugar water into the watermelons to sweeten them and these syringes may carry the hepatitis C virus.

Mr Lee liked to drink beer, usually one glass or at most two. He used to drink Swan Lite Lager because of its low alcohol content. When this beer went out of production, Mr Lee switched to regular beer. He also enjoyed red and white wine. While he liked Japanese food particularly, he also enjoyed Western food. When he was having his health problems, two physicians supervised his meals, which would consist mainly of steamed fish, blanched vegetables and plain chicken soup.

In the evenings, he would either run or swim. When it came to exercise, he was quite a taskmaster.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Harry, Harry, cool down!'. Subscribe