Put it in writing

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 10, 2001

Musician, painter, journalist, politician, ambassador, business consultant... Mr Lee Khoon Choy has been all these and more. But it is the role of writer that keeps his adrenaline running and compels him to put his experiences on paper - for posterity. Our correspondent LEONG WENG KAM catches up with the former Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office

If Mr Lee Khoon Choy, 77, is not striking million-dollar deals as a business consultant, he is furiously writing on his laptop or PC at home late into the night.

The former journalist, politician and diplomat who writes in English and Chinese is now working on his eighth book - his fifth since retiring from politics in 1984.

Former journalist, politician and diplomat Lee Khoon Choy. PHOTO: ST FILE

His latest tome in English, to be called Understanding the Inscrutable Chinese, is on the history of the Chinese, focusing on past and present Chinese leaders - from first Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang to Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Just last month he spent a few days in Japan researching on the lives of two historical Chinese figures, Zheng Chenggong and Zhu Shunshui.

Zheng, a man of mixed Chinese-Japanese parentage, and a supporter of the defeated Ming emperors in 17th-century China, was better known as the founder of Taiwan where he fought unsuccessfully against the new Qing rulers.

Zhu, a true-blue Confucianist, helped Zheng to fight the Manchus. But after their defeat, Zhu moved to Japan where he later became an adviser to the famous shogun, Tokugawa Mitsukuni.

Mr Lee, former Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office and MP for Braddell Heights, is one of the most prolific writers among the Old Guard politicians. His first book written in Chinese, Zheng Zhi Yi Sheng Huo or Politics And Life, was published in 1966 while his most recent was A Fragile Nation - The Indonesian Crisis released two years ago.

Mr Lee is still chairman of Eng Lee Investment Consultants, which he set up a decade ago, and director of several companies.

"I am even busier than when I was a politician or diplomat," remarks Mr Lee, who returned last week from Penang where he sold a piece of land in Pulau Langkawi.

He flies off again today to Vietnam to help a Singapore construction firm seal a deal for the construction of a road there. Later this month he will be in Shanghai to advise a client on yet another property deal there.

Speaking to Sunday Review in his 21st-storey office at Shenton House, he says he usually begins writing after returning to his Third Avenue home from work every day.

"I take my break later in the night when I will catch a video on the history of China to gain further inspiration," he adds.

But why write at this age when he can take things easy?

"I think it is in my blood that I like to inform people about what I have learnt, seen and observed," he replies.

But more importantly, he hopes that his writings will be useful for future generations.

"Some years ago, I was reading this book on the Adventures Of Admiral Cheng Ho by Ma Huan, a Chinese Muslim, and thought that if it had not been for Ma, we would never know so much about the admiral's visit to this part of the world."

If ink flows in his veins, it explains why he chose to be a journalist in the early 1940s, soon after leaving school in Penang where he was born.

The year 1949 was a turning point in his life when, as a 25-year-old journalist working in Singapore, he was awarded a scholarship by the Colonial Welfare Fund to study journalism at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London.

There he became involved with the Malayan Forum, a gathering of students interested in gaining independence for Singapore and Malaya, led by the late Tun Abdul Razak who later became Malaysian Prime Minister.

Among the students there were Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Toh Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee who founded the People's Action Party in 1954.

"I was very impressed by their views which helped to create a new political consciousness and identity in me," he says.

After his return to Singapore, he kept in touch with the Singapore students who persuaded him to join the PAP. He stood as a candidate in the 1959 General Election which the party won by a landslide.

As a journalist, he covered several important historical events in the region in the 1950s. One was the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, where 29 African and Asian countries met to discuss their future and their relationship with the Western powers.

He recalls getting a scoop for his paper, the Nanyang Siang Pau, when he interviewed Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.

"Zhou was a very cool and sharp politician who showed a lot of interest in the politics of Singapore and Malaya," he says.

Another event was the Baling Talks in the same year when the then newly-elected Malayan Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman met the Malayan Communist Party chief Chin Peng in an attempt to persuade him to give up his party's armed struggle.

Then there were the Merdeka talks in London in 1956, during which he came to know the Tunku better while taking long walks with him between meetings in the evening.

In a lighter vein, he remembers covering Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall's first meet-the-people session in Parliament House in the 1950s.

"When striptease dancer Rose Chan turned up, the Chief Minister sprang a surprise when he gave her the wolf whistle and wanted to know if he could help her.

" 'Certainly,' Rose said. Then Mr Marshall asked: 'Is it something public or private?' 'Private,' she answered.

'Then see me in private later'," he said.

Mr Lee's report in the Nanyang Siang Pau the next day created a big stir.

"I expected to be reprimanded but instead I received an offer to be the chief minister's press officer for a salary of $1,200 a month, which nearly doubled my journalist's pay of only $700."

But he declined the offer.


MR LEE says he enjoyed working as a journalist so much that he was very reluctant to go into politics, believing that he would be more useful supporting the PAP in the press.

But two incidents, one at Nanyang Siang Pau and the other at The Straits Times where he also worked in the 1950s, changed his mind.

The Nanyang incident involved his call to the newspaper management to reinstate a colleague, Mr Sia Yong, who was arrested for alleged pro-communist activities and released later.

"The boss, Mr George Lee, who was already unhappy with my close links to the PAP, sacked me too when I went to see him as I was a journalists' union leader then," he says.

The second, at The Straits Times, involved the acting chief reporter then, a Pat Morgan, whom he said humiliated him by sending him to cover a lallang fire - a job usually assigned to rookies.

As a senior journalist, he refused to comply with her orders and although he was supported by the then editor-in-chief Leslie Hoffman, Mrs Morgan made life difficult for him at work.

"I realised that I had no future in the newspaper dominated by the whites and realised that if I really wanted to change things, I must go into politics."

He was elected as legislative assemblyman for Bukit Panjang at the 1959 elections.

Life in politics in the early days of the PAP government was tumultuous, especially its battle with the pro-communist faction in the party which later formed the opposition party, Barisan Socialis.

He received a death threat in a letter with a bullet asking him to resign from Parliament if he did not want the bullet in his head.

Another incident was the Chinese secondary school students' sit-ins and demonstrations in 1961 when they protested against changes to the school curriculum.

"I was the Parliamentary Secretary at the Education Ministry and one day I found students blocking my way at the ministry as I was leaving for Parliament."

The students threw rotten apples at him and shouted, "Lee Khoon Choy, jing guan cai, meaning get into the coffin, as his name, Khoon Choy, sounds like coffin in Cantonese.

To rescue him from the pickets, the acting Speaker of the House then, Mr S. Rajaratnam, had to table a motion stating that whoever obstructed him on his way to Parliament would be dealt with by the law.


What were his most enjoyable political years? Mr Lee refers to when he was Minister of State in the former Culture Ministry in the 1960s.

"Maybe that was because I am an artist myself, who plays the Chinese guzheng, the violin as well as the piano, and I also paint and had staged several exhibitions, both here and overseas."

He initiated the first South-east Asian Cultural Festival in 1963, and mooted the idea for an arts academy to promote greater appreciation for the arts among Singaporeans.

He raised over $1.5 million to start the academy, which was to be at the former Tao Nan School on Armenian Street.

But the project was aborted in 1968, when he was asked to be ambassador to Egypt by the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

"Giving up the academy project remains my biggest regret," he says.

He stepped down from politics in 1984 and was ambassador to Japan until 1988. On his return, he looked for something to do on his retirement.

"After only a day without anything to do, I realised I was degenerating and looked up my friends immediately," he says.

He became chairman of a travel agency, Sino-American (UIC) Tours, in 1988. He set up his business consultancy in 1990. But he says writing remains his passion.

Even before he finishes his current book, he is already plotting the next one - an in-depth look at his life, a fuller version of his 1988 autobiography, On The Beat To The Hustings.

So what keeps him on the go? "Well, look out for my book on the secrets of good health and a long life which I plan to write soon, " he says.


Born in Penang in 1924, Mr Lee married Eng Ah Siam in 1962. They have five daughters, aged between 26 and 38. Mr Lee also has two sons, cardiologist Lee Chung Neng and engineer Lee Chung Fei, both in their 40s, from his earlier marriage to schoolteacher Florence Lee who died of cancer in 1959.

1941: Graduated from Chung Ling High School in Penang

1946: Joined Sin Pin Jit Poh in Penang as a reporter

1947: Transferred to sister paper, Sin Chew Jit Poh, in Singapore

1949: Won a year-long scholarship to study journalism at Regent Street Polytechnic in London

1953: Resigned from Sin Chew and the Singapore Standard, where he also worked, to join Nanyang Siang Pau

1957: Joined The Straits Times as reporter

1959: Joined PAP and elected MP for Bukit Panjang. Appointed Parliamentary Secretary (Culture)

1963: Lost Bukit Panjang to Barisan Socialis in the legislative assembly elections; appointed political secretary to the Prime Minister

1965: Won the Hong Lim by-election; promoted to Minister of State for Culture

1966: Published first book in Chinese, Politics And Life

1968: Transferred to the Prime Minister's Office as Minister of State and later became Singapore's Ambassador to Egypt

1974: Promoted to Senior Minister of State (Foreign Affairs) and became Singapore's Ambassador to Indonesia

1978: Returned to Singapore as Senior Minister of State (Prime Minister's Office) and appointed deputy chairman of People's Association

1984: Stepped down as Senior Minister of State and MP for Braddell Heights 1988: Appointed executive chairman, Sino-American (UIC) Tours

1990: Founded Eng Lee Investment Consultants Private Limited

1990: Awarded the Distinguished Service Order by the Singapore Government

1997: Made an honorary member to the Chinese National Academy of Social Sciences in China

1999: Published his seventh book, A Fragile Nation - The Indonesian Crisis