The Lee Kuan Yew they knew

Stories excerpted from a new book on Singapore's founding Prime Minister, who died a year ago on March 23 at age 91.

Then Minister Mentor Lee receiving loud cheers on arriving at the grandstand for the National Day Parade 2006 at the National Stadium. PHOTO: ST FILE
The book, Up close with Lee Kuan Yew: Insights from colleagues and friends, is published by Marshall Cavendish Editions and available at major bookstores in Singapore for $29.90.

How I became Chief Justice

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Yong Pung How at a talk at the Ritz Carlton in 2000. PHOTO: ST FILE

After graduating, I went back to Kuala Lumpur where my father had a small law firm and was working for Tan Cheng Lock.

I travelled to Singapore a few times, hoping to get some lead work. I would meet up with Kuan Yew and he would take me out for lunch at a chicken rice stall in Middle Road. On my first visit, he asked where I was staying. I told him I was at the hotel next to the railway station. He said, "Oh, it's a terrible place! I have a spare room in the house." So I stayed with him a few times at Oxley Road. I think I slept in what would eventually become his daughter Wei Ling's room because she wasn't born then. He was very kind to me.

The first time I went to his home, his mother, who I had already heard was a very famous cook, insisted I stay for dinner. She cooked everything. I think I nearly burst myself that night.


'Harry, Harry, cool down!'

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

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.


A glimpse of his human side

Mr Lee Kuan Yew laughing at the thrill of being carried in a sedan chair to the top of Huangshan, a mountain range in China. PHOTO: ST FILE

After I moved to Hong Kong, I sort of became Kuan Yew's second port of call. Run Run Shaw was No. 1, my wife Pauline and I, No. 2.

He liked Pauline and found her simple and earthy ways agreeable.

He and Geok Choo would often come over for dinner.


The times I tried to say 'no' to Mr Lee

In 1980, Spottiswoode Park residents gave Mr Lee a cake for his 57th birthday. With him were (from right) Tiong Bahru MP Chng Jit Koon and Spottiswoode RC chairman Low Sze Hong. PHOTO: ST FILE

Don't ask me how many times I tried to say "no" to Lee Kuan Yew. And don't ask me how many times he accepted it. The number is zero.

Mr Lee is one who, once he sets his mind he wants you, doesn't expect you to decline. He will use his way to convince you. You cannot say "no". Because, you know, whatever he asks you to do, it is for the nation.

The first time I tried to say "no" to Mr Lee, he wasn't even in the room. In September 1967, I received a letter from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), signed by the Deputy Secretary. It got to me late because it was not sent to the right address. It had been sent to Nanyang University, and they took some time to redirect it to me. The letter said: "This is urgent. When you receive this, contact the undersigned immediately."


The night Mr Lee put food on all our plates

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Nomination Day 1976 after he filed his nomination papers at the Singapore Polytechnic. PHOTO: ST FILE

I grew up in Changi Village. My father worked as a civilian for the British at the nearby airbase. Our quarters were at the edge of the nine-hole golf course in Changi. The golf course is still there. We used to peer over the fence at Mr Lee playing golf with world leaders. I saw him there with Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

When Mr Lee came to play golf, he and Mrs Lee would stay at the Changi Cottage. When they were "in town", everybody in the village knew. In those days, there was not much security around them. They were free and easy and walked around the village. Their particular interest was this Hainanese bakery called A1. When A1 baked bread, the aroma would pervade the whole village. All the RAF service wives would come out with their perambulators and babies, and queue up for the French loaves. Mr Lee once made a speech about that bakery and its impact on the whole village.


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