A frugal man who brought discipline into government

Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam yesterday paid tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew in a memorial event held at the hard court beside Yishun MRT station. This is an excerpt of his speech.

Mr Lee was a very frugal man, and I explain that because that's the way he ran the country.

Once, I was on a trip with him to the United States. I was at his table for dinner. At the end of dinner, we were given dessert. I asked for ice cream, and we were given ice cream.

This was the United States - they gave me three large scoops. I hadn't expected it. I don't eat much dessert, so I took one scoop and I left the rest behind.

He saw that. He told me off. He said, you are wasting food.

I told him, this is what they served. I didn't ask for this. He said: You should have found out how much they would serve and should have ordered only what you could have eaten.

He said that - even though we were being hosted by the United States, and it didn't matter to him that it was the Americans who were paying for it.

It was not a question of money. He believed as a principle that there should not be waste.

It's a simple illustration. But this was central to the way he thought. Both in his personal life and in government.

His exercise shorts, for example. For 17 years, he wore the same shorts. And when it broke or tore - he patched it up, or his wife patched it up for him.

And he was very careful with government money in the same way. Because it is your money.

Every week, we have a Cabinet meeting. Every week. Even this week, Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) called for a Cabinet meeting.

We meet first for lunch. Sometimes not, but almost always, we meet for lunch. And this is not a social lunch, we discuss government business. Cabinet meeting is after the lunch.

Mr Lee does not attend the lunch. But his rules are, because you have to eat lunch anyway, he says you have to pay for the lunch even though you are coming to Cabinet to discuss Cabinet (matters). You have lunch, you pay for the lunch. The Government doesn't pay for the lunch.

We must be the only Cabinet in the world that does that, when we meet to discuss government (business).

But it is good, because in every way, we are reminded every day that public money should be carefully spent.

Many of you know he was strict about his exercise. Again, I say this not because I want to tell you about his exercise routine, but because of his iron discipline.

My friend, who was 30 years younger than Mr Lee, was in a foreign country on a trip with

Mr Lee. At about 6am in the morning, on the day they got in, my friend was jet lagged and very tired.

If my friend was jet lagged, 30 years younger than Mr Lee, it would have been far worse for Mr Lee. But at 6am, he heard some sounds in the courtyard below. So he went to the window to look, and Mr Lee was in his exercise gear running around, with his security officers next to him.

That was the discipline he brought in politics, in government, in everything that he did.

He gave me advice, and he was a mentor to many. Let me share two pieces of advice he gave me about becoming a minister.

He asked me, when I was in my 30s, what career I was thinking about. I told him I saw myself as a lawyer. I told him I didn't see myself as a full-time politician. I saw myself going the usual route that lawyers take.

He told me this very seriously. "I know you," he said. "You are a good lawyer. You are successful, and you will be even more successful. But you should serve Singapore."

He told me: "Don't spend all your time staying purely in the law. You can help your clients, you can make more money. But you can do much more for your country. If everyone stays outside, who is going to work in the public service?You should serve the people in a broader way."

And he told me: "You can do it. As a minister, you can make a bigger difference to the lives of the people." I remembered it.

When I was in my early 40s, the question of becoming a minister came up again more seriously.

He asked me if I was concerned about taking a big pay cut in becoming a minister. He was very direct, he didn't beat about the bush. I told him I did think about the pay cut. But I was prepared to take a pay cut.

But I think he sensed that while I had decided to agree to a pay cut, it was not easy for me when I was 41, 42. He said: "You are still young. You should stay in law practice a bit longer. You can come later into Government."

That was how he was: practical, direct, honest - he understood people.

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