Lee Kuan Yew: Not the Leader, but the Man

Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 -2015, photo from The Straits Times
Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 -2015, photo from The Straits Times

The mourning for Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed. This week, as we go back to our daily duties, I wonder if we will continue with the status quo.  Already, the naysayers are slowly coming out of the woodwork and populating social media, bringing up the negative aspects of LKY’s legacy to provide balance to the overwhelming positive tributes of the local media in the first seven days following his death. I suspect the literary juices of many will continue to flow: The Man, his policies, history, personal life, public life, the good and most definitely the bad – all these will continue to be dissected and covered in minutiae.

What really touched me, however, was how we Singaporeans reacted. Watching the emotional eulogies at Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral service that was broadcast live on TV, I was surprised at the depth of feeling that we displayed at his passing.

100,000 people came in the rain to bid LKY goodbye
100,000 people came in the rain to bid LKY goodbye

Last week, emotionless, sterile, robotic Singapore came together in a beautifully touching show of grief and solidarity that has never, ever happened in this young nation’s history. Our apathetic hearts thawed when we saw Lee Hsien Loong barely hold it together as he fought back the grief of a son, to deliver the message of his father’s passing, as Prime Minister.  Then over the days, we read the stories of LKY’s deep, abiding love for his wife, stories of his immense frugality, the random acts of kindness, and that unwavering sense of duty to his country.

We saw the tremendous queues at the Padang as State funeral for Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yewalmost half a million Singaporeans patiently waited up to 10 hours to pay their respects to LKY at Parliament House. We saw the millions of heartfelt notes, tributes, flowers and tears. We saw the 100,000 people lining the procession route as they came to bid the Man farewell.

I am a daughter of Singapore. I have known LKY all my life. Every Singaporean of my generation has. For the first 20 years of my life, LKY was Prime Minister and he was my other father. Just as strict, he was always telling us Singaporeans what to do, who we should marry if we were graduates or not, if we should stop at two children or have three, not to litter and definitely not chew gum. Some of his policies and laws bordered on the draconian, but if you tried to stand up to him, be ready to get smacked down. Many of his opponents, real or perceived, were swiftly removed and put away under the Internal Security Act.

Lee kuan yew pictures10_0_1“If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you… Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.” The Man and His Ideas, 1997

Even after giving up the reins as PM to Goh Chok Tong, we could feel the long arm of papa LKY. He was a punishing taskmaster and ruthless in his goal of building a first world Singapore. His exacting requirements and attention to detail were legendary. Friends in the diplomatic service and media pool would tell me of the feverish preparations they would make before meeting the Man, for anything short of perfection would be a mortal sin and they would have been roundly chastised.

It was said that Deng Xiao Peng used Singapore as a case study in modelling Chinas economic reforms
It was said that Deng Xiao Peng used Singapore as a case study in modelling Chinas economic reforms

Before his death, LKY, to me, was a superhuman. A man that I greatly respected from afar but with no deep emotional attachment. After all, he was a demi-God operating in another sphere, too far beyond the reach of mere mortals like me. Generations of leaders from the US and China sought his advice, for heaven’s sake. I suspect, like most Singaporeans, we were lulled into complacency that LKY would live forever.

Didn’t he famously say at a National Day Rally in 1998: “And even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

But the inevitable happened, the demi-God died.

lee-kuan-yew-funeralThe pathos and outpouring of grief that followed is perhaps a reflection of the foibles of human nature. we had come to realise last week that we had lost a living hero of our time. One that we had not truly appreciated enough. We cried because through the many beautiful stories and anecdotes that have been shared, we had now come to realise that this demi-God was actually one of us.

convent girlsLKY’s youngest son, Hsien Yang, nailed it in the final eulogy of the service. “And although he kept the two threads of his private and public life apart, and shielded Mama and the children from the glare of the media, in his passing, the two threads come together as we share the grief of loss.”

As a communications professional, I know of the power of stories, but reading the personal anecdotes of people who have interacted with LKY have really touched me, and I suspect many other Singaporeans. We saw facets of the Man that we were not privy to before. As a tribute, here’s a compilation of anecdotes, quotes and excerpts of LKY, not as the feisty leader, but as a father, husband and friend:

The Love Story

lky-bridge-2503eEven his children did not know that LKY had secretly married his sweetheart, Kwa Geok Choo, in Stratford-Upon-Avon when they were both reading Law at Cambridge. This was only revealed when he published his memoirs. Their love spanned 60 odd years.

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Eulogy: “They were a deeply loving couple. She was his loyal spouse and confidante – going with him everywhere, fussing over him, helping with his speeches, and keeping home and hearth warm. They were a perfect team, and wonderful parents. When my mother died, he was bereft. He felt the devastating loss of a life partner, who as he said had helped him to become what he was.”

File photo shows Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee and his wife Kwa attending a May Day rally in SingaporeLee Wei Ling, daughter of LKY: “… over the years, especially after my mother’s health deteriorated after she suffered a stroke, my father was the one who took care of her. She clearly indicated she preferred my father’s care to that of the doctors’, in itself a revelation of the quality of his care.

He remembers her complicated regime of medications. Because she cannot see on the left side of her visual field, he sits on her left during meals. He prompts her to eat the food on the left side of her plate and picks up whatever food her left hand drops on the table.

I have always admired my father for his dedication to Singapore, his determination to do what is right, his courage in standing up to foreigners who try to tell us how to run our country. But my father was also the eldest son in a typical Peranakan family. He cannot even crack a soft-boiled egg – such things not being expected of men, especially eldest sons, in Peranakan families.

But when my mother’s health deteriorated, he readily adjusted his lifestyle to accommodate her, took care of her medications and lived his life around her. I knew how much effort it took him to do all this, and I was surprised that he was able to make the effort.

lkyvalentineLKY at his wife’s funeral: “Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life… I should find solace in her 89 years of a life well lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.”

lky wife funeral

LKY’s wishes addressed to his children: For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

Total Commitment to the End:  LKY’s Red Box

This was publ20150324_redbox_mciished in The New Paper: Mr Lee Kuan Yew always had a little red box with him at work. The box would arrive at work before the man and he would bring it home with him after work. The red box, a large boxy briefcase about 14cm wide, was a hand-down from the British days, when ministers would use them to transport documents between offices. Singapore’s early ministers all had red boxes as well, but Mr Lee was the only one who continued using his 50 years on, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat recounted in a Facebook post. Mr Heng worked for Mr Lee as his Principal Private Secretary from 1997 to 2000.

Mr Lee’s box contained a wide range of items, including his draft speeches, letters, readings, and a whole range of observations, reflections and questions that he had scribbled down. Mr Heng wrote: “It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway.”Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him – when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow.”

He added: “Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.”

Even when Mr Lee was in hospital in 1996 to for balloon angioplasty to insert a stent, he asked his security officers for his red box – soon after regaining consciousness and sitting up in the hospital bed.

Mr Heng said that the red box symbolised much of his former boss’ “unwavering dedication to Singapore”.

“The diverse contents it held tell us much about the breadth of Mr Lee’s concerns – from the very big to the very small; the daily routine of the red box tells us how Mr Lee’s life revolved around making Singapore better, in ways big and small.”

Mr Lee was admitted to hospital on Feb 5. He continued to use the red box until Feb 4.

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat: “As his PPS (Principal Private Secretary), I saw the punishing pace of work that Mr Lee set himself. I had a boss whose every thought and every action was for Singapore. In fact, I think the best description comes from the security officer who was with Mr Lee both of those times. He was on Mr Lee’s team for almost 30 years. He said of Mr Lee: “Mr Lee is always country, country, country. And country.””  

Frugal LKY

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has said that one key lesson he learnt from Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew was on frugality, something that he exercised both personally and in Government.

shortsHe said: “His exercise shorts for example – for 17 years he wore the same shorts. And when it tore, he patched it up, or his wife patched it up for him. That is the man. And he was very careful with Government money in the same way because it is your money.”

Lee Wei Ling on LKY’s frugality: We had to turn off water taps completely. If my parents found a dripping tap, we would get a ticking off. And when we left a room, we had to switch off lights and air-conditioners.

My father’s frugality extends beyond lights and air-conditioners. When he travelled abroad, he would wash his own underwear, or my mother did so when she was alive. He would complain that the cost of laundry at five-star hotels was so high he could buy new underwear for the price of the laundry service. 

LKY, The Friend 

The Tale of Four Powerful friends

ST-Lee Kuan Yew & Henry Kissinger
LKY with Henry Kissinger

Once they were powerful. Dreaded. Admired by many, hated by some. Their lives are coming to an end. Yet, there is still one story to tell, the story of a friendship. It is about four men who cannot be more unemotional. Helmut Schmidt, Lee Kuan Yew, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz: cool, if not cold, power-hungry politicians. Yet, for more than forty years their friendship has been close, almost intimate. Now they are slowly saying their farewells to each other.

ST-Lee Kuan Yew & Helmut Schmidt
LKY and Helmut Schmidt – their last meeting

Singapore, at the beginning of May, conference room “White Magnolia” at Shangri-La Hotel. Helmut Schmidt wanted to meet with Lee Kuan Yew, the founding premier of the Asian metropolis, for the last time. He has not looked forward to a trip for a long time as much as this one to see “Harry”, how Lee Kuan Yew has been called among his friends since he was a student at Cambridge in England. From Singapore he will be travelling to China for five days, also a long-cherished wish.

Schmidt is 93 years old. Who would still go on a 15-hour trip from chilly Hamburg to hot and humid Singapore at that age? In March, his doctors gave green light: the thrombosis he is suffering from does not prevent him from flying.

Lee, 89 years old, wrote to him to say how happy he was about the visit. Also, that his friend would need some rest after arrival, at least one night, to overcome the jetlag. The next evening he would invite him to dinner.

Afterwards, they want to sit down together on three afternoons, to talk with each other. About China, America, Europe – the big picture, in the way they always used to do. A book shall be produced, a collection of their conversations on the world’s situation. Neither would accept anything less.

And then the conversation begins very softly. “My wife passed away and left me at the age of 91”, says Helmut Schmidt. “Loki died at 91?” – “Yes, it was a big loss. Must be the same for you.” – “Yes, it creates a deep hole in our life, nothing can fill it.”

Excerpt from article by Matthias Nass, Article in Zeit Magazin (5 July 2012)


4 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew: Not the Leader, but the Man

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  1. Thank you for this. LKY’s passing felt for me pretty much exactly what I felt when my Dad passed away in 2007. Dad was two years older than LKT and of the same vintage. Dad had a huge respect for LKY and perhaps shown in a conversation I had with Dad when I was about 9. After dinner, we were chatting and I told Dad that I am very upset with my classmates who were making fun of me by calling me “hairy” (a play on my first name). And I asked Dad why he named me Harish. He in turn said, “Did you know that Lee Kuan Yew is Harry and so is a former president of the United States, Harry Truman? So you are in good company. Harry is just fine.” I did feel good to be associated with LKY that way.

    And then there was another Dad and son chat where I was complaining to him about the rain that was threatening which would have meant I could not go do and play with my friends. I asked Dad why can’t we build a huge dome over Singapore since LKY can do anything! LKY, the Man, had that aura even then.

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