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."

I called the PMO. The gentleman on the line said: "I have been waiting for your call! Quick, come over!"

So I went to City Hall. The moment the Deputy Secretary saw me, he scolded me. "Why are you still here?"

I said: "If I'm not here, where should I be?"

"Don't you know?" he said. "The United Nations General Assembly has already started. You're supposed to be there. Why are you still here?"

I told him truthfully: "Nobody told me. What am I supposed to do there?"

At this point, he said, "Wait", and turned to somewhere behind his desk to pull out a stack of papers. He found the extracts of some Cabinet meeting notes. "See? Here. PM told Cabinet he himself wants to talk to you. He didn't tell you?"

He did not. The Deputy Secretary told me the Singapore delegation would be headed by Yong Nyuk Lin. But as a Cabinet minister, he would not be able to stay throughout from the opening until the end of the session. I was supposed to be with the guys who would stay for the whole General Assembly. He would leave everything to the remaining members of the delegation. And who were the other guys? If I recall, I believe they were S R Nathan from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Osman Omar, a senior police officer. And the third guy - that's me.

PM Lee had already gone off to the United States. President Lyndon Johnson had invited him. Singapore was just a newborn nation, a tiny little one. Yet we were invited by a superpower. It showed that the US regarded us as important. So of course PM had to go. He was accompanied by the Foreign Minister, S. Rajaratnam, and Rahim Ishak, the Minister of State for Education.

At the time, there were two great powers in the world: the United States and the Soviet Union. Rajaratnam had said before, we are friends with everyone. So we had to balance things. At the same time that PM went to the United States, Dr Toh Chin Chye, the Deputy Prime Minister, led another delegation to visit the USSR.

So, with both our PM and DPM away, another delegation was needed to represent Singapore at the UN General Assembly. At the time, one of the topics being discussed in the UN was the seat of China. It was then held by the Republic of China government in Taiwan, but the People's Republic of China government in Beijing was claiming that it should be the rightful owner of the seat in the UN. l thought maybe S R Nathan and Osman Omar would need someone to help read the Chinese reports in the UN papers, so I should go help. That was my ignorant thinking at the time. Later on, I learnt that everything we received was in English.

So I said to the Deputy Secretary, "How many days do I need to be there?"

"It's three months!"

I jumped. "I cannot go. Three months is too long. I'm not a civil servant, I am helping in my family's business. It is year end. I have to help to close the company accounts."

But the gentleman explained that because both the PM and DPM were out on official trips, he had nobody to give the approval to change the members of the delegation to the UN General Assembly. He said: "Please help me to solve this problem."

Since he told me his difficulties, I said I would go back and discuss it with my colleagues in the company. Luckily, they understood that this was an important task; it was for the nation. They advised me not to decline and said they could handle the company's accounts themselves. With their consent, I immediately informed PMO. They arranged for my air ticket and the necessary papers, and I was off to New York within three days. This was the first time I flew that far a distance.

As part of his US visit, PM Lee visited New York. All of us in the UN delegation gathered to greet him. When he saw me he said, "Eh! How come you are here?"

I was stunned and didn't know what to say. He had already forgotten! Singapore was not even three years old at that time, and he was already so busy running from place to place to make sure people knew us and took us seriously that he even forgot that he wanted me to go to the UN! He expected all the rest of us to do our work too, so much so that he even forgot to tell some of us to do the work. But actually, he knew very well what you did and when you did your work. He is one who is very grateful and really puts it in his mind that you were with him through the hard times, whatever your status. Whoever helped him during the crucial years, he will always remember you.

I became MP for Tiong Bahru in 1968, and started helping Mr Lee in his Tanjong Pagar ward in 1976. Mr Lee told me that Tanjong Pagar was no longer the same as when he first became an assemblyman. In the 1950s, the people who lived there were construction workers, sampan men, trishaw riders, Harbour Board workers, hawkers. They were very hard-working people and supported Mr Lee through the hard times. They started the Goodwill Committee after the racial riots in 1964. PM Lee never forgot what they did.

By 1976, the residents living around Duxton Road who were affected by the Government's resettlement plans in the area had been given priority to relocate, to places like Kampong Silat and Bukit Purmei. Some young families from other areas were moving into the newer housing blocks at Tanjong Pagar Plaza. PM Lee knew that the old ones would no longer be relevant to the new residents. He wanted me to find new residents to keep the grassroots organisations alive. He also told me: "Mind you, don't hurt the feelings of the older ones."


The next time I tried to say "no" to PM Lee, I did it in person. It was in 1981. I had been in Parliament for about 13 years, as a backbencher. Now and then, Mr Lee would ask me something, or tell me something he wanted me to do, or I would tell him something I think he should know about. That was all our interaction. I wasn't involved in any big policies or anything like that.

One Saturday in December 1981, near midday, he called me to see him in his office. I went there. He asked me to sit down, then chatted with me, sharing with me his worries. This was after we lost the Anson by-election in October.

He felt an urgent need to groom the younger generation of party leaders. He thought the young ones had good brains, but not the skills to reach out to the people and be accepted by them. He said he needed someone to help him.

Earlier, he had people like Lim Kim San. Lim Kim San had very rich experience in the Chinese business circles and had a wide network. Now that Mr Lim was already retired, PM needed someone to help him provide a bridge between the young ministers and the people. He wanted me to help him in the PMO as his Senior Parliamentary Secretary.

It was a Saturday. He wanted me to start the next Monday.

I told him I couldn't because I had responsibilities in the family's business. But he wouldn't take my "no" for an answer. It was December. I explained to him I would need to settle the company's year-end accounts, so I requested to start the following year.

"Okay. 2nd January," he pronounced. He was very decisive.

With that settled, he then asked me: "Now, what do you have in mind to do?"

My mind was racing. I was thinking to myself, you just called me into your office this morning, I didn't know what for, and now straightaway you want me to tell you how I intend to get it started!

But I managed to reply: "First, I agree with you. This group of young ministers, they have very good brains. But they are more technocrats. They don't have the experience of communicating with the masses. Once the people have the chance to see them face to face, to talk with them, they may accept them more."

I then reminded PM about the way he had conducted himself in the 1950s during the fight for self-government, and in the 1960s in the battle for merger, all the things he did to convince people to support him.

I myself was young at the time, and knew very little about politics. But I went to listen to him at the rallies. We were all eager to see how this man could help us get rid of British rule. This was the feeling of the people then. This man would go for talks in London, and then once he landed back in Singapore, he would go straight to the kampungs to see the people, staying until the middle of the night still talking to the villagers. That was deep in my mind.

"I was very impressed by you," I told him.

So I suggested: "Why don't we organise walkabouts? I think it can work for us."

"Do you think that will work?" he asked me.

"Let us try it out first," I said.

"You go ahead," he said.

In 1988, I tried to say "no" again, in a way. I knew Mr Lee wanted to recruit more young candidates, so I offered my seat to be replaced. I had been in politics 20 years by then. I got scolded. "Why?" he demanded. "I have served my time. I think it's time for me to give way to a younger candidate," I replied.

"What nonsense are you talking about? I'm 11 years your senior and I'm not thinking about stopping work."

What could I say to that?

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