New book on Mr Lee Kuan Yew shows personal, intimate side of him

A new book on the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, comprising 37 essays written by former colleagues and friends, was launched on March 15, 2016.
A new book on the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, comprising 37 essays written by former colleagues and friends, was launched on March 15, 2016.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Even on the day of his wife's funeral, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had not stopped thinking of Singapore.

In a new book of essays about Singapore's founding Prime Minister, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat revealed that Mr Lee had sent an e-mail to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) on Oct 6, 2010, the day of Mrs Lee's funeral.

The late Mr Lee had been sleepless and in deep grief the night before, and was walking along the Singapore River when he spotted trash floating in the river.

He asked his security officers to take a photograph of the trash, then another photograph of himself marking the spot where he saw it, and sent these pictures to the ministry the next day for the trash to be removed.

Along with the photographs was a short note: "I asked for photos to be taken of the flotsam and of my position against the UOB (United Overseas Bank) backdrop so you know where it was."

These photographs are included in a foreward written for the book by Mr Heng, who was Mr Lee's principal private secretary from 1997 to 2000.

He writes: "Even in his deepest grief, Mr Lee never stopped caring for Singapore... That photo of Mr Lee is bittersweet. He was grief-stricken that he had lost his wife of over 60 years, but he sat upright and friendly, to put his trusted security officers, who remained by his side at his lower point, at ease."

Officers from MEWR had forwarded the e-mail to Mr Heng after they read an essay he published last March about the red box Mr Lee used until shortly before his death.

Mr Heng had published the essay about the briefcase, in which the late Mr Lee kept his working documents and instructions for his staff, after Mr Lee's death on March 23 last year.

Mr Heng's essay is one of 37 in the book titled Up Close With Lee Kuan Yew, launched on Tuesday night (March 15) at the National Gallery Singapore.

The essays are written by the late Mr Lee's former colleagues and friends. They include Hong Kong's Kerry Group chairman Robert Kuok, who was Mr Lee's schoolmate in Raffles College; Madam Yeong Yoon Ying, who had served as his press secretary from 1993 to 2015; and Mr Liew Mun Leong, chairman of Changi Airport Group, who had met Mr Lee for the first time when he was a mid-level engineer in 1975.

The idea for such a book came about in 2014, when Mr Liew was chatting with property tycoon Ong Beng Seng about Mr Lee while on a flight back to Singapore. It dawned on them that much had been said and written about Mr Lee's accomplishment, but there was no book that told the personal, more intimate side of him.

They then approached Mr Lee's friends and colleagues to put the book together.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, said at the launch that Mr Heng's anecdote showed that Mr Lee was a visionary leader who also paid attention to fine details.

"Minister Heng Swee Keat's story of how Mr Lee sent an e-mail about trash in the Singapore River to MEWR on the day of Mrs Lee's funeral is a poignant example of how Mr Lee never let the smallest detail go - even when he was going through such a difficult time emotionally," said Mr Teo to a crowd of more than 100 guests, including MPs, union leaders and grassroots volunteers.

He, too, shared a personal anecdote about Mr Lee.

Mr Teo said he once received a phone call from Mr Lee, who had wanted to give him some feedback.

"He told me: 'Don't wave your hands so much when speaking', because he found it rather distracting," said Mr Teo.

"So if you noticed that I have not moved my hands much during my speech, it is because he noticed this small detail about myself, which I had not even been conscious of."

The book is available at major bookstores from Wednesday (March 16). Proceeds from the book will go to 20 pre-schools run by voluntary welfare organisations. They will help fund language programmes for pre-schoolers.