A man with a disciplined, capacious mind, always updating his mental map of the world to assess just how Singapore can benefit from a fast-changing world. This is how Education Minister Heng Swee Keat describes his former boss at a conference called "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew" at the Shangri-La Hotel yesterday, on Mr Lee's 90th birthday.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew talking to residents of Tampines GRC on April 29, 2011. With him are the PAP’s candidates for Tampines GRC (from left) Mah Bow Tan, Heng Swee Keat and Irene Ng. – ST PHOTO
The first time I met Mr Lee Kuan Yew in person was in March 1997 when he interviewed me for the job of Principal Private Secretary, or PPS. His questions were fast and sharp. Every reply drew even more probing questions. At the end of it, he said: "Brush up on your Mandarin and report in three months. We have an important project with China."
I realised later that, among others, it was perhaps when I replied "I don't know" to one or two questions that I might have made an impression. With Mr Lee, it is all right if you do not know something. But you do not pretend and lie if you do not know. Integrity is everything.
Mr Lee's favourite question is "So?". If you update him on something, he will invariably reply with "So?". You reply and think you have answered him, but again he asks, "So?". This "so?" question forces you to get to the core of the issue and draw out the implications of each fact. His instinct is to cut through the clutter, drill to the core of the issue, and identify the vital points. And he does this with an economy of effort.
I learnt this the hard way. Once, in response to a question, I wrote him three paragraphs. I thought I was comprehensive. Instead, he said: "I only need a one-sentence answer, why did you give me three paragraphs?" I worked very hard on that and so I reflected long and hard on this, and I realised that that was how he cut through the clutter. When he was the prime minister, there were so many issues that he had to grapple with, so it was critical to distinguish between the strategic and the peripheral issues.
On my first overseas trip with Mr Lee, just a few weeks after I started work, Mrs Lee, ever so kind, must have sensed my nervousness. She said to me: "My husband has strong views, but don't let that intimidate you!" Indeed, Mr Lee has strong views because these are rigorously derived, but he is also very open to robust exchange. Mr Lee makes it a point to hear from those who can contribute to it, those with expertise and experience. He is persuasive, but he can be persuaded.
A few months into my job, Mr Lee decided on a particular course of action on the Suzhou Industrial Park after deep discussion with our senior officials. That evening, I realised that amid the flurry of information, we had not discussed a point which was relevant to our approach. I gingerly wrote him a note, proposing some changes. To my surprise, he agreed.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat says Mr Lee Kuan Yew does not express his deep sense of care for Singaporeans, especially the disadvantaged, in soft, sentimental terms, but is content to let his policies speak for themselves. He is also very close to his family, especially to his late wife. – ST PHOTO
MR LEE’S rich insights on issues come from a capacious and disciplined mind. He listens and reads widely, but he does so like a detective, looking for and linking vital clues while discarding the irrelevant.
He has a mental map of the world where he knows its contours well. Like a radar, he is constantly scanning for changes and matching these against the map. What might appear as random and disparate facts to many of us are placed within this map, and hence, his mental map is constantly being refreshed.
A senior US leader described this well: Mr Lee is like a one-man intelligence agency.
The most remarkable feature of the map in Mr Lee’s head is the fact that the focal point is always Singapore. I mentioned his favourite word, “So?”. Invariably, the “so?” question ends with, “So, what does this mean for Singapore?”.
What are the implications? What should we be doing differently? Nothing is too big or too small. I accompanied Mr Lee on many overseas trips. The 1998 trip to the US is particularly memorable. Each day brought new ideas, and throughout the trip, I sent back many observations for our departments to study. It might be the type of industry that we might develop or the type of trees that might add colour to our garden city. This remains very much his style today.
His every waking moment is devoted to Singapore, and Mr Lee wants Singapore to be successful, beyond his term as prime minister.
Remarkably, from the early 60s, he already spoke about finding his successor. During my term with him, as Senior Minister, he devoted much of his effort to helping then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong succeed. He refrained from visiting Indonesia or Malaysia as he wanted PM Goh to establish himself as our leader. Instead, he fanned out to China, the United States and Europe to convince leaders and investors that PM Goh’s leadership would take Singapore on to new levels of success.
As Senior Minister, he worked out with PM Goh the areas that he could contribute, and I will share three key projects which illustrate his contribution, but more importantly, how he develops insights and achieves results.
Insights are valuable, but how does Mr Lee turn insights into results? I believe it is through a single-minded focus on achieving whatever he sets out to do.
If things go wrong, do not sweep them aside. Confront the problems, get to the root of the difficulties, and wrestle with these resolutely. Go for long-term success, and do not be deterred by criticisms.
Expanding external space
MR LEE expanded our external space, by being a principled advocate of collaboration, based on long-term interests.
In all his years as the face of Singapore, Mr Lee has made fast friendships with senior world leaders who appreciate his view of things, and respect Singapore’s principled stance on international issues. In PM Goh’s time and today, Mr Lee remains a steady, respected voice in the international arena. This was driven home to me at two meetings that left a deep impression on me.
In 1999, relations between the US and China were very tense. China’s negotiations with the US on its entry to the WTO had failed, there were tensions between the US and China over US bombs that had hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and President Lee Teng-hui in Taiwan had pronounced his “two states” concept.
In July 1999, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan were in Singapore for the Asean Regional Forum. It was quite tense, and many of our officials believed that there could be a flare-up at the ARF.
Both figures met Mr Lee separately. Mr Lee gave each side his reading of their long-term strategic interests. His advice to the US was that it was not in their interest to be adversarial towards China or regard her as a potential enemy. To China, he suggested that she should tap into the market, technology and capital of the US to develop her economy. They should look forward, and search for areas of cooperation, such as China’s entry into the WTO.
Sitting in these meetings, I was struck by how Mr Lee approached this delicate situation. He did not say one thing to one and sing a different tune to the other. If they had compared notes later, they would have found his underlying position consistent. What made him persuasive was how he addressed the concerns and interests of each side. I could see from the way both reacted that his arguments struck a chord, and one of the guests asked a note-taker to write the notes verbatim for deeper study later on. In 2000, when I was at MTI a few months after this meeting, I was very pleased to witness China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation at the Doha meeting.
The private person
WHAT is Mr Lee like as a person? The public persona of Mr Lee is a stern, strict, no-nonsense leader. But deep down, he is energised by a deep sense of care for Singaporeans, especially the disadvantaged.
He does not express this in soft, sentimental terms – his policies speak louder, and he is content to let them speak for themselves. He personally donated generously to the Education Fund to provide awards, especially to outstanding students from poor families. Today, many students still benefit from this. He is a firm advocate of a fair and just society. But he demands that everyone, including those who are helped, put in their fair share of effort.
Many regard Mr Lee as a pragmatist who does not hesitate to speak the hard truths. Actually, I think he is also an idealist, with a deep sense of purpose. He believes one has to see the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Fate deals us a certain hand of cards, but it is up to us to make a winning hand out of it. Man is not perfect, but we can be better – Mr Lee embraces Confucianism because of its belief in the perfectibility of man. No society is perfect either, but a society with a sense of togetherness can draw out the best of our human spirit and create a better future for our people. He is, to me, a pragmatic idealist.
Mr Lee and his family are closely knit, and he was particularly close to Mrs Lee. On overseas trips, I had the opportunity to have many private meals with Mr and Mrs Lee. It was heartwarming to see their bantering. Mr Lee has a sweet tooth, and Mrs Lee would, with good humour, keep score of the week’s “ration”. But when it came to official work, they drew very clear lines.
Mrs Lee stayed close by Mr Lee’s side and travelled with him whenever she could. Once, in Davos, Mrs Lee came into the tiny room where Mr Lee was giving a media interview. She found a stool at the corner and sat there, listening unobtrusively. Twice, I offered her my more comfortable seat near Mr Lee. She said to me: “You have work to do. I am just a busybody – don’t let me disturb you!”
Mrs Lee was supportive, without intruding – she was certainly not “just a busybody”, and anyone who had the chance to observe them together would know just how close a couple they were, and how much strength her presence gave to her husband.
We live today in a different world that demands of us new ideas and approaches. But there is one quality of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s that we can, and need to, aspire towards: Mr Lee’s unwavering and total dedication to Singapore, to keeping Singapore successful so that Singaporeans may determine our own destiny, and lead meaningful, fulfilling lives.
History gave him a most daunting challenge – building a nation out of a tiny city-state with no resources and composed of disparate migrants. He cast aside his doubts, mustered all his being and has given it his all. Mr Lee’s most significant achievement is to show the way forward in building a nation.
In the same way that he asks himself, we need to always be asking ourselves, “So?”. So what does this mean for Singapore? So what should we do about it?
And act on it. The task of creating a better life for all Singaporeans – through expanding opportunities and through building a fair and just society – never ends. Mr Lee is not just a man of ideas; he is a man of action. I hope that this conference not only enables us to discuss the big ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew; I hope it also stirs us to action; and to do so with the same unwavering dedication to Singapore and to our future
Lee Kuan Yew's worldviews on
He has experienced wars and foreign domination, has sung four different national anthems in his lifetime and has fought for Singapore’s independence. Naturally, Mr Lee’s lifelong preoccupation is how Singapore, a resource-poor city state, can survive in a world where powers big and small compete for supremacy. His view is that a small city state can best survive in a benign world environment, where there is a balance of powers, where no single state dominates, and where the rule of law prevails in international affairs. A small city-state has to stay open and connect with all nations and economic powerhouses. To prosper, Singapore has to be relevant to the world. We must be exceptional.
When The Sunday Times asked Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for an interview as part of a special section in honour of his 80th birthday, he expressed misgivings. He was not interested in 'hagiography', he said - he was opposed to anything too reverential. Political Editor ZURAIDAH IBRAHIM and Senior Correspondent LYDIA LIM took him at his word and asked him questions that were more likely to provoke than flatter.
As long as he is fit and able, SM Lee Kuan Yew intends to stand as a Member of Parliament so that he can have his say on important issues. – ST PHOTO
ST: Throughout your political life, you have always been combative. It has been said that in the process, you demolish not just the argument, but also the person. Why do you always feel the need to win and win so crushingly in any argument?
SM Lee: I suppose it is the way I am, and I have been conditioned by experiences in my formative years, my early encounters combating the leaders of the Communist United Front, who were tenacious, tough and deadly opponents.
ST: When you fight your political adversaries, it sometimes seems personal. Is it?
SM Lee: No, it isn't. I fought the communists with all the strength and wit I could muster. But I respected their leaders for their idealism, their convictions and their self-sacrifice to achieve their ambitions.
I had nothing personal against Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, or the Plen. We maintained correct and cordial personal relations throughout the fight. The clash was completely impersonal - one of beliefs and objectives, but all the more bitter because it was a clash of abiding convictions.
I had vigorous, even heated exchanges in Parliament and the media with Dr Lee Siew Choh, Barisan Sosialis leader.
He was a quick-tempered man - not wicked, just politically naive. He came back to Parliament in 1988 as a Non-Constituency MP.
For my last official visit to China in October 1990, I invited him to accompany me. He and his wife were part of my party for the two-week visit. There was no personal animosity between us.
I find Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang and Steve Chia friendly and agreeable.
There are several others, people who made malicious allegations that I was dishonest and corrupt, when they must have known there was no basis for them. I sued them. I did not regard them as serious political opponents.
ST: You've mentioned only several people - Mr Chiam, Mr Low and Mr Chia.
SM Lee: That's deliberate. No reason to give publicity to people whom I consider unprincipled and opportunistic.
ST: Even though you didn't mention them, one obvious question is that if you don't consider them serious political opponents, the way you have battled them would suggest that you did treat them very seriously.
SM Lee: I don't think so. If we had considered them serious political figures, we would not have kept them politically alive for so long.
We could have made them bankrupt earlier. We showed people that this type of opposition is not productive.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addressing a rally in 1988 at the Singapore Conference Hall to introduce 17 new People's Action Party (PAP) candidates to party members. Mr Lee also bid farewell to 14 veteran MPs stepping down to make way for the new blood for the coming General Election. Also at the rally were First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (left), who is also the party's assistant secretary-general, and Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong (right). – ST PHOTO
ST: Can I mention one name though? What about people like Mr Devan Nair, for example?
SM Lee: Devan Nair is a totally different case. He was never a political opponent. As I wrote in my memoirs, he made a great contribution to Singapore. There are two Devan Nairs. One, the person I knew, who was a staunch and courageous political colleague; and the other, a person who's been affected by excessive alcohol and is no longer the same person.
But that does not wipe out what he's done for Singapore.
ST: Do you feel any sense of regret, in his case?
SM Lee: Yes, of course. What happened in Kuching, Sarawak, was already the talk of the town. We could not cover it up. Better to admit that he was not his old self, that he was under the influence of alcohol.
ST: Do you see yourself ever being able to withdraw completely from government and politics? When will you retire?
SM Lee: Your question is wrongly phrased. It is not government or politics I am involved in.
I got into politics and government because I wanted to change society and bring about a better life for the people, and give their children a brighter future.
I undertook this responsibility after I won the first elections in 1959, took them into Malaysia in 1963, and took them out of Malaysia in 1965. I still feel a responsibility for them. I can leave office, but emotionally, I will always be concerned about the future of the people of Singapore.
I will retire from office when I am no longer able to contribute to the Government. But as long as I am fit and able, I will stand as an MP.
ST: What about as Senior Minister? How long do you see yourself playing that role?
SM Lee: As long as I'm useful. How long will I be useful? That depends on my DNA, my doctors, and the value of my data bank.
ST: Some people may say that nobody in Cabinet would dare to tell you when that time comes.
SM Lee: (Laughs) I don't think that's true. You don't have to tell me. I can feel it when I am no longer making a contribution.
ST: When Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong takes over, I can imagine one obvious headline in the world's media will be 'Lee Kuan Yew's son takes over'. How do you feel about that?
SM Lee: The point is he's not taking over as my son, and I am not the one choosing or appointing him. He's been DPM for 13 years, time enough for everyone to get the measure of him.
If he hasn't proved himself, then he should not be PM. My concern is not whether he's the PM, but whether he's the best man for the job. I could have arranged to pass the baton directly to him instead of Mr Goh Chok Tong.
But then I'd have done Singaporeans a disservice, I would do him harm, and blot my copy-book.
I held him back for a purpose, for him to prove himself and for people to judge his worth. He was only 38 years old in 1990 and had time on his side.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, accompanied by security personnel - all in jogging outfits - went on a morning jog during a visit in September 1985 to China. – ST PHOTO
ST: But you know the Western press...
SM Lee: I am used to the stereotype reflexes of the Western press; I'm sensitive to how Singaporeans respond to him. He can succeed as Prime Minister only if he establishes rapport with Singaporeans, if people have confidence in him and will follow him. The acid test is: Is he the best person to be PM?
ST: Why do you say, though, that you intend to be MP for as long as you can? Not as SM?
SM Lee: If I'm no longer able to contribute as a minister, but I am still fit, I will stand as an MP. I want to have my say on important issues.
ST: You don't need to be an MP to have your say.
SM Lee: Wrong, I need to have a seat in Parliament. Critical decisions are made in a Parliamentary caucus before the vote. I want to speak my mind when it counts.
If you are an MP, you have a right to be heard. That's why Churchill remained in Parliament long after he retired as PM. Ted Heath also remained as MP right to the end until he retired in the last GE.
ST: But one would assume that as former Prime Minister, Senior Minister, one phone call is all it takes.
SM Lee: No, not quite. One phone call is all it takes when it is to a critical person who's known you for a long time. But when you have 20-plus new MPs at every GE, they have to interact with you before they get the feel of your thinking.
ST: Have they ever dismissed anything you said?
SM Lee: No, they may have reservations, but over time they learn not to reject my views out of hand.
ST: Samuel Huntington and others have said that Singapore will not last long after Lee Kuan Yew. Doesn't your continued role in government suggest that you and the Prime Minister also lack confidence or faith in Singapore's ability to outlast you?
SM Lee: This question is a non-sequitur. Samuel Huntington said that Singapore has a clean, efficient and effective government only because of Lee Kuan Yew, therefore after I am gone that honest and resourceful Singapore will disappear.
We are proving him wrong. My colleagues and I have institutionalised honesty, integrity and meritocracy into the systems we have created. Each generation of leaders has the duty to recruit the people of integrity, ability and commitment as their successors. In 1990, I stepped down as Prime Minister. With every passing year, my involvement in immediate policy matters has decreased. I have concerned myself with the long-term consequence of policies, not the day-to-day running of government.
ON HIS INFLUENCE AND THE YOUNGER LEADERS
ST: You're still such a towering influence in the government, shaping so many of the relatively younger minds in there. How do you ensure your presence and your strongly-held views on so many important issues do not cramp their style and allow them to experiment with their own ideas?
SM Lee: The younger leaders have settled on their vision of the future. I suggested both the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of the PAP several years ago. I cannot do it because my feel and touch are for those of an older generation, as are my terms of reference.
The younger leaders have to and are doing it. They are setting the goals, driving the policies, and doing the persuading and selling.
They can best answer your question on whether my strongly-held views have cramped their style and prevented them from experimenting with their own ideas.
But if they did not find my inputs useful, this arrangement with me in Cabinet as Senior Minister could not have worked.
ST: But you're still such a dominant influence.
SM Lee: Best ask the young ministers. There are seven of them. I listen to them. I keep my views to myself until I've heard them. Then I'm able to assess whether or not they've got the makings of a good minister.
If I express my views early, they may trim their positions.
ST: You say that you suggested both the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of PAP several years ago. One question, as a lay person, why does it require the Senior Minister to suggest this? Why not the younger leaders? How come you are still the sole visionary?
SM Lee: Because I wanted to make clear that in my view, the old system, the old paradigm, is no longer valid under these new circumstances, and that we have to change.
The PM had already proposed the Economic Restructuring Committee.
I pushed it further, in the social and political realms.
ST: Do you think your presence in Cabinet has slowed the pace of change?
SM Lee: You have to ask the Prime Minister and the other ministers whether they felt my foot was on the brake.
ST: But do you sometimes worry or wonder whether in Cabinet or in government that you are still the sole visionary, that you are the ideas man?
SM Lee: That's not true.
ST: But people have that impression.
SM Lee: Well, I cannot help that, but it's just wrong.
How can anybody believe that at 80 I am a visionary for the 21st century? I have seen the changes that have taken place in the last century. I know that the speed of change has accelerated and will continue to do so. But the younger leaders have to decide where Singapore's place will be in this future scheme of things.
ST: Just to go back to your point about how you may set certain things in motion, but it's up to the younger leaders to feel their way forward...
SM Lee: On the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of the party, I wanted to emphasise that we cannot stay put.
The old model is no longer valid. I've seen what happened to Japan, and to Germany. They did brilliantly for over four decades until the 1990s. World conditions and technology then changed dramatically, and they've not fully adjusted to these changes. So they are paying a price.
ST: Mr Rajaratnam once said that one tragedy is that you are confined to a small stage that is Singapore. Have you ever wished you could apply your wisdom and skills onto a larger stage?
SM Lee: I have to play with the cards that have been dealt to me. I once said - only half in jest - in a dinner speech in November 1978 in honour of Deng Xiaoping, that if I were born in China, I would not be among the leaders. But had he been born in Singapore, he would certainly emerge at the top.
It is whimsy to imagine what I would do or be if I were born in a larger country. I am just grateful that I have been able to help make something of Singapore.
ARE YOU TOO STRONG, SM?
ST: Singaporeans are efficient, hardworking and honest. Yet they are also fearful of taking risks and are said to be soft and lacking in initiative after being nannied by an all-embracing state. As a creator of the Singapore system, what is your response?
SM Lee: We can be criticised for many things and the ways we have done them. However, at the end of the day, we have got where we are because of what we did.
The question now is how do we improve on what we have achieved. So I proposed the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of the PAP.
My colleagues and I forged the policies and the methods that got Singapore to where it now is.
It suited the circumstances of the time and helped us to succeed. The global situation has changed. My generation of Singaporeans has moved on.
The younger generation is better educated, and, alas, less Confucianist and more Westernised in their values. Singapore leaders in their 40s and 50s must shape policies that will galvanise those in their 20s and 30s. It is their duty to take Singapore forward.
ST: How do you feel when critics repeatedly describe Singapore as a nanny state? Doesn't it annoy you?
SM Lee: No. If I had allowed these emotive words to annoy me and got thrown off my policies, Singapore would never have succeeded.
Have we failed or succeeded? Look at the British: When I was in England as a student, they were the most courteous and civilised of peoples. Drivers waved to each other at road junctions and people were polite on buses and the Tube. But today they are the football hooligans of Europe.
Civilised living is never permanent. It can change, even within a single generation.
So we've got to make the effort, and we have benefited from making the effort.
Suppose we had not mounted the no-spitting campaign in the 1960s and 70s, during the Sars epidemic we would have been most worried. Taxi-drivers used to lower their windows to spit out. We stopped that 20 years ago.
ST: There's a view that you stamped your imprimatur on Singapore too strongly, and that Singapore is too regulated and clinical because of you. What do you say to that?
SM Lee: I have tried to build into the system certain basic principles which are of permanent value: Integrity in those entrusted with power, a strong sense of duty in the exercise of that power, no abuse of power in the interest of self or family; and the best person for the job, that is, meritocracy.
If the younger leaders think this is too regulated and clinical, they can change these precepts, but it may be costly. It is their judgment call to make.
I believe if we lose integrity, bend rules on meritocracy and have no constancy of purpose, or govern by taking straw polls, Singapore will not thrive.
On other less fundamental issues, Singapore is visibly loosening up. But it has to be at a pace which Singaporeans can accept, and it must not lead to us losing cohesion and social discipline.
ST: You mentioned that on less fundamental issues, Singapore is visibly loosening up. What are these areas, in your view?
SM Lee: Whether it's bar-top dancing or new censorship rules, I am of a different generation. I don't think these changes necessarily add to civilised living. But if this adds to tourism and makes for buzz, well, so be it.
ST: What about the press? Do you see the press loosening up, being able to loosen up?
SM Lee: The press in Singapore always has to remember that we are not a Western society. You start a slanging match, systematically denigrating the leaders, the leaders will take you on. I do not believe the attitudes of people in the HDB heartlands have gone Western. If, day after day, they read of their leaders being denigrated, and these leaders put up with it, then they will lose respect for them.
Look at Zaobao, they have completely different attitudes. They are Chinese in their courteous approach: they criticise policies, not the persons of ministers.
You look at the way the British press went for Cherie Blair, they poked fun at her. In their culture, they scored a point against their PM. She was pilloried for no rhyme or reason other than being the Prime Minister's wife. She harmed nobody, she did nothing wrong, except that she befriended someone who had a friend with a criminal record in Australia.
ST: You appear obsessed with academic results. Why do you have such faith in academic grades?
SM Lee: In our society, parents push their children to do their best. Academic results are the simplest indicators of ability and application.
You may have ability, but if you do not put in the effort or have the stamina to stick to a task, you will not have good academic results.
Academic results by themselves are not a sufficient indicator of future success. Character and motivation are crucial in deciding the outcome. Unfortunately, there is no single test that can analyse character, or personality, or motivation, or commitment.
Over the years, the PSC, at my urging, has administered on applicants for scholarships SATS (Scholastic Assessment Tests), PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) and six personality and character tests, and for males, PSC considers also their appraisal ratings in Officer Cadet School by their officers and their peers.
Even so, these tests are not infallible. Only after working with them for 2-3 years, watching how they tackle problems, especially unexpected ones, can we be certain we have the measure of the person.
At each election we have recruited 4-8 outstanding candidates who have high academic scores and success in their professional life. We put them through all the psychological tests.
I MISS THE PHYSICAL ENERGY
ST: How do you feel about turning 80? Have you been in a reflective mood these last few days as you approach your 80th birthday?
SM Lee: I have never been a great one for birthdays. (Laughs)
ST: There are many parties being planned for you.
SM Lee: Yes. It reminds me that time has passed and I take more time to do my daily chores. I get up, I take breakfast. I take smaller and smaller breakfasts because I can't burn it up.
Then I go through my daily exercises to make sure that my joints are working and so on. That takes an hour. Then I go to the computer to respond to emails. I do this and that, and before I know it, the day has passed.
What I miss most is the high levels of physical energy I had up to 10 years ago. I used to dash around, meet people, talk, dictate, get things done. I used to have working lunches with you journalists, with MPs, businessmen and trade unionists, right?
But now I wake up late, and no more working lunches.
ST: What time do you wake up?
SM Lee: About 11. I sleep at about 2, 3 am. I have a different biorhythm. I still meet people, but less of them.
Fortunately, I still can travel, but less often because I suffer from jet lag.
ST: When you see your contemporaries dying, becoming frail, either mentally or physically or both, how do you feel? Do you ever think of dying and fear it? Do you believe in God? Have you become more spiritual with age?
SM Lee: Growing old, becoming weaker and eventually dying are part of life. I have watched my contemporaries fade away. I am not afraid to die.
What I fear is a series of increasing disabilities before I die. The worst is a crippling diminution of my mental capacity from a series of strokes.
I have some dear friends. The heart is ticking, but the mind is blank. I have stopped visiting them. It means nothing to them, and it is very sad to see them in this state.
I am an agnostic. I believe in Darwinism, that evolution is how humans came about.
But who created this universe? There may be a God. We will never know. However, I do not accept that any written book, whether the Bible, Old or New Testament, or the Quran or the Buddhist scriptures has the last words on it.
I do not know whether I have become more spiritual with age. More philosophical, yes. I seek perfection, knowing it is something to strive for, but never to attain.
They started out as school rivals. To Mr Lee Kuan Yew's horror, he came in second behind Miss Kwa Geok Choo in English and Economics at Raffles College in 1940. Seven years later, they were married in a secret ceremony in England. An intensely private woman, Mrs Lee Kuan Yew speaks about her marriage of 56 years in an e-mail interview with Senior Correspondent M. NIRMALA
Life was ordinary at first for the young couple, here in their home on 38 Oxley Road in 1950.
ST: How would you describe your years of marriage and the family life you have led with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew?
Mrs Lee: They have been happy and at times exciting years.
ST: How did you know, when you first met Mr Lee, that he had the qualities you wanted in a man to spend your life with? What were these qualities? And what are the qualities you admire most in SM?
Mrs Lee: When I first met Kuan Yew in Raffles Institution in 1939, I did not know that one day I would marry him.
Between then and 1947, I did not spend any time listing the qualities I wanted in a husband, and ticking them off one by one each time I met him to see if he had any, or all of them.
The qualities I admire most in him are his powers of persuasion:
(a) He persuaded me to marry him, but I would have to wait for him for three years while he studied in England to qualify as a lawyer.
(b) He persuaded a British army officer to give him a priority passage on the troopship Britannic to get him to England.
(c) When he got to London, he persuaded Professor Hughes Parry, head of the Law Faculty of London School of Economics, to take him in two weeks after term had started, although he had turned others away.
(d) After a few miserable weeks in London, he persuaded W. S. Thatcher, the Censor of FitzWilliam House, Cambridge, to take him in one term late.
(e) When I was awarded the Queens Scholarship in July 1947, he persuaded W. S. Thatcher to write to the Mistress of Girton College about taking in his girlfriend, me.
(f) He met the Mistress and persuaded her that I was exceptional and worth taking in for that academic year.
(g) The Education Department in Singapore doubted that I had been offered a place in Girton College; they had not been able to get Eddie Barker a place in Cambridge even though he had won the Queens Scholarship the previous year (1946). Eddie did not get in till the following year. Kuan Yew persuaded Girton College to send a telegram to the Singapore authorities to confirm they would take me in 1947, and so they sent me to England in September that year.
So I did not have to wait three years before he married me.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Madam Kwa Geok Choo's wedding reception at Raffles Hotel in 1950.
I also admire his steadiness, resourcefulness, and courage in times of great stress.
ST: What is it like being married to SM Lee? What is a day like in the Lee household; and how has this changed over the years (when SM Lee first went into politics; when Mr Lee stepped down as PM and now that he is going to turn 80)?
Mrs Lee: In the early years, our family life was not so unlike that in ordinary households with three young children, and husband and wife both working.
Till 1955, we were both employed in the same law firm; then we set up our own firm as partners with his brother. As a conscientious legislative assemblyman and a lawyer in active practice, he was kept busy.
When he became Prime Minister in 1959, our children were very young. We wanted them to have as normal a childhood as possible and decided not to move into Sri Temasek, which was the Prime Minister's official residence.
We did bring them there in the evenings to run around the Istana grounds while Kuan Yew played golf or practised on the practice tee and the putting green.
And I remember taking them along to PAP picnics, and to Pulau Ubin to visit the Outward Bound School.
Sometimes, when Kuan Yew visited Devan Nair and Samad Ismail and their fellow detainees on St John's Island, Hsien Loong and I would tag along for a ride on the Police Boat that took him there; we would play on the beach till he had finished his work.
When he became MP, then PM, he had to travel to constitutional conferences and I stayed home to mind the children.
When they were bigger I was able to accompany Kuan Yew on some overseas trips.
But when we were not travelling, I would always be home for lunch and he would be home for dinner.
For holidays, we took the children to Cameron Highlands or Frasers Hill at least once or twice a year, or just to Changi Cottage for weekends.
After 1990, life seemed just as busy. I do not expect much change after he turns 80, except that we will inevitably have to slow down.
ST: As a couple, do you have disagreements or fight? What do you quarrel over? Who has the last say in household decisions and family matters?
Mrs Lee: Would you believe me if I say we never disagree or quarrel?
Fortunately, these are over little matters. Kuan Yew leaves household decisions to me. Family matters have not been a problem.
Giving a glimpse of the couple in their early years together, this photo was taken on Sept 5, 1946.
ST: What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about SM Lee?
Mrs Lee: I read somewhere that "few elder statesmen can command as much respect and condemnation simultaneously as Lee". I will leave it to these writers to argue which one has most misunderstood Kuan Yew.
ST: What makes SM Lee most happy?
Mrs Lee: Kuan Yew is the best person to answer this question.
ST: What were some of the most difficult moments that you and SM have faced as a couple? Why, and what got you through them?
Mrs Lee: When Hsien Loong phoned us to say he had been diagnosed with cancer, lymphoma, we were then travelling in South Africa. We were somewhat relieved when doctors told us that the form of lymphoma he had would respond to chemotherapy. But the worry did not go away that easily.
ST: How would you describe SM Lee as a father and a husband? Is he a romantic? He seemed to be a very fashionable young man from the pictures and from the poses we've seen, you seemed a very modern couple in that time. Would you agree?
Mrs Lee: If romantic means sentimental, then the answer is "no". He is practical. Neither of us would care for candle-lit dinners.
I have never thought of him as "a very fashionable young man".
The pictures and poses you've seen are exactly that, posed.
And I'm surprised to be described as "a very modern couple". Had we been so modern we would not have bothered to get married in December 1947.
ST: When it came to bringing up your three children, were the decisions clear-cut on the type of schools they would go to or the careers they would choose? How did Mr Lee make decisions when it came to his children?
Mrs Lee: We were in complete agreement about sending our three children to Chinese medium schools; Nanyang Kindergarten, Nanyang Primary and Nanyang Girls' High School for Wei Ling, and Nanyang Primary then Catholic High School for our boys. We let them choose the junior college they preferred.
Both Kuan Yew and I come from Peranakan families, speaking no Chinese, not even dialect. We were determined that our children would not be handicapped in this way.
As for careers, we were fortunate they knew quite clearly what career they wanted to have, and they had the ability and the opportunity to fulfil their hopes.
ST: You have been married for 56 years. What would you tell young Singaporeans on what it takes to keep a marriage going that long?
Mrs Lee: My advice is don't marry someone if you hope to change him after marriage. You have to be prepared to take him as he is and to make compromises over any differences, and if you are lucky, you will find someone who has the same attitude.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew on Aug 14, 2009. – ST PHOTO
Mr Lee Kuan Yew's sister Monica on how their mother influenced him to take up law.
I woke at 4am the other day, and as is my usual habit, checked my BlackBerry.
A friend had e-mailed to tell me that it was duanwu jie (or Dragon Boat Festival) that day, and as he was flying back from Taipei, he would bring me some rice dumplings.
When I went back to sleep, I dreamt of the duanwu jie of my childhood. My paternal grandmother, or Mak as we called her, was in my dreams.
Days before the actual festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, she would start buying the ingredients and make bakchang (rice dumpling).
Since I was supposed to learn how to cook from her, I would write down the recipe. But Mak knew I would never make a good cook, so much of the cooking lesson consisted of just her demonstrating how things were done, followed by a feast.
I did try to wrap the dumplings on occasion, thinking that I could not do much damage to what had already been properly prepared by Mak. Perhaps she thought I would learn that what seemed so simple in her hands in fact took a great deal of skill.
The zong zi (as such dumplings are called) is made in the shape of a pyramid - or at least the Peranakan zong zi is.
Wrapping the leaves around the four corners of the pyramid is not easy. The consequence of an unskilfully wrapped zong zi is that when you boil it, water would seep through the corners. After a few attempts, I decided to leave the making of zong zi entirely in Mak's hands. I helped only in their consumption.
Mak died on 1980. The next few Chinese New Year eves and duanwu jies were melancholy for I would invariably think of Mak on these occasions. But the years have taken away the pain and sadness of losing my favourite grandparent. I now remember her with sentimental fondness.
I can best describe her temperament as one of aggressive kindness. She would try her best to help if she thought help was justified - and she could be very pushy in delivering her help.
I think my father Lee Kuan Yew resembles her in this respect. Of course, he occupies a totally different position in society compared to his mother. But it can be said that he did nationally what she did domestically.
Just as she tried to improve the welfare of her children and friends, he tried to improve the welfare of Singaporeans. And just as she was pushy in offering her help, he could at times almost force Singaporeans to do what is right though it may have caused them temporary pain. I would describe that as being "aggressively kind" too.
Mak has been dead for 33 years now, and as I said, time has taken away the pain of her loss. But my own mother has been gone for less than three years now, and the pain of her loss still remains.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew's youngest brother Suan Yew on the close relationship the eldest son had with their mother.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and daughter Wei Ling on board a boat travelling along the Three Gorges of Changjiang River. Mr Lee was in China in November 1980 for a two-week visit during which he held talks with Chinese leaders. – ST PHOTO
My father and I have stayed on in the same house we had shared with her, and my father has moved back into the bedroom that he had shared with Mama for their entire married life until the devastating stroke she suffered in May 2008. From then until Mama's death, he had slept in his study so as not to disturb her. Sometimes, when I see or read something that I know would interest Mama, I would automatically head into my parents' room to tell Mama about it or pick up the phone to call her - only to recall, with renewed shock, that she is no longer with us.
There are many things that are not within our control. The wisest way to handle distress is to accept the inevitable and carry on as best as one can. That is the rational thing to do. But reason and logic are sometimes helpless in the face of emotions.
My father is an exceedingly rational person. But even his capacity for rational thought is helpless in the face of his deepest emotions. Since Mama died, his health has taken a turn for the worse.
It may have done so in any case for he is nearing 90. But I am certain that the grief of losing his lifelong love, friend and partner played an important part in causing his health to deteriorate.
This photo was taken on Valentine's Day in 2008. My parents had gone to Sentosa with my cousin Kwa Kim Li. The roses, including the twin-hearts arrangement, had been set for romantic couples to take photographs. In the old days, my parents would have thought it kitsch. But my mum was in a playful mood. She said to Dad: 'Harry, let's take a photo by the roses.' Dad humoured her. Kim Li took the photo. I think this is among the best photos of my parents. Both look happy and relaxed. – PHOTO: COURTESY OF KWA KIM LI
An advertisement for the "Sassy Miss 2010 Workshop Series" in The Straits Times caught my eye recently. The headline was: "The Power of First Impressions."
The text claimed: "It takes just 30 seconds for your first date or prospective employer to form an everlasting impression of you. So flash your X-factor, from the way you look to the style in which you carry yourself. Come uncover all the trade secrets of image-making at this power workshop!"
I was amused. If I want to make an impression, it would be to show my competence, sincerity, pragmatism and willingness to fight for what is right. My appearance and how I carry myself are highly unlikely to make an impression in a 30-minute encounter, let alone a 30-second "flash".
As for assessing someone on the first encounter, it would take me at least five to 10 minutes to appraise a person. I do not base my judgment on whether the person is good-looking or how he carries himself. Instead I would focus on his facial expression and body language.
If these contradict what he says, I would be wary of him. Body language and facial expressions are rarely under voluntary control and hence are better indicators of the true intent of a person than speech.
I am fairly good at sizing up people. There have been quite a few instances when I have accurately assessed someone at the first brief encounter. But even then, I seldom depend solely on first impressions. I will reassess the person on subsequent occasions. Only if I observe certain traits repeatedly would I be confident in my assessment.
Some people do indeed judge others on the basis of first impressions. Their judgment may well be strongly influenced by the person's appearance, how well he carries himself and how eloquently he speaks. I think such people are shallow. In life, we have to interact with people; and the more accurately we judge people, the fewer mistakes we are likely to make about them.
Research on interpersonal relationships between strangers shows that physical appearance does influence first impressions. But this does not explain why people stick together in long-term relationships. Commitment is a key variable in sustaining such relationships.
The one remarkable relationship I have personally observed is the one between my father and mother. Theirs was certainly not love at first sight. Nor were looks the main factor in their mutual attraction. Rather, it was personality and intellectual compatibility.
They are not only lovers, they are also best friends. There has never been any calculation about how much each had invested in the relationship. Theirs is an unconditional love.
Before my mother suffered her first stroke in 2003, she lived her life around my father, taking care of his every need. The stroke and the resultant disability made my mother quite frail.
From that point on, my father lived his life around her. He was still in the Cabinet, first as Senior Minister and then as Minister Mentor, but he tried his best to arrange his working schedule around my mother's needs.
He also took care of her health, strongly urging her to swim daily for exercise, and supervised her complicated regime of medication. He would also measure her blood pressure several times a day, till I got in touch with Dr Ting Choon Ming who had invented a blood pressure measuring equipment that is worn like a watch. Next day, when Dr Ting came to take the watch back to analyse the recorded blood pressure, my mother said to him: "I prefer to have my husband measure my blood pressure."
After my mother's second stroke in 2008, she became bed-bound and could no longer accompany my father on his travels overseas or to social functions here. Every night after returning home from work, my father now spends about two hours telling my mother about his day and reading aloud her favourite poems to her.
The poetry books are rather thick and heavy, so he uses a heavy-duty music stand to place the books. One night, he was so sleepy, he fell asleep while reading to my mother, slumped forward and hit his face against the music stand. Since the music stand was made of metal, he suffered abrasions on his face. He cursed himself for his carelessness but still carries on reading aloud to my mother every night.
I have always known my father was fearless, willing to fight to the bitter end for Singapore. When Vietnam fell in 1975, it looked for a while as though the domino hypothesis - which held that other South-east Asian states would also fall to the communists like dominoes - might turn out to be true. My father knew how ruthless the communists were, but he was determined to stay on in Singapore, and my mother was just as determined to stay on by his side.
I began this article because I was reading an article in a psychological journal on "love at first sight versus love for a lifetime, for better or for worse".
Love at first sight is rare and often does not endure. The affection my parents have for each other is also rare. They are each other's soul mates; their happy marriage has lasted beyond their diamond anniversary.
But they have never made a show of being a loving couple in public. Even in private, they have rarely demonstrated their love for each other with hugs or kisses. It was only after my mother's second stroke that I saw my father kiss my mother on her forehead to comfort her. They don't seem to feel the need for a dramatic physical show of love.
I have great admiration for what my father has done for Singapore - and at age 87, he is still promoting Singapore's interests. But he being the first-born son in a Peranakan family, I would not have suspected him to have been capable of such devotion as he has shown for my mother, taking care of her so painstakingly. My admiration for him has increased manifold because I have watched him look after my mother so devotedly over the last two painful years.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, at their home at Oxley Road with their three children, (from left) sons Hsien Loong and Hsien Yang and daughter Wei Ling, the writer. The children were taught to be frugal from young.
– PHOTO: LEE FAMILY
I grew up in a middle-class family. Though they were well-off, my parents trained my brothers and me to be frugal from young.
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.
One day in 2003, the elastic band on my father's old running shorts gave way. My mother had mended that pair of shorts many times before, so my father asked her to change the band.
But my mother had just had a stroke and her vision was impaired. So she told my father: "If you want me to prove my love for you, I will try."
I quickly intervened to say: "My secretary's mother can sew very well. I will ask her to do it."
My parents and I prefer things we are used to. For instance, the house we have lived in all my life is more than 100 years old. When we first employed a contractor-cum-housekeeper, Mr Teow Seong Hwa, more than 10 years ago, he asked me: "Your father has worked so hard for so many years. Why doesn't he enjoy some luxuries?"
I explained we were perfectly comfortable with our old house and our old furniture. Luxury is not a priority.
Mr Teow has since become a family friend, so he now understands we are happy with our simple lifestyle.
For instance, my room has a window model air-conditioner. Most houses now have more sophisticated air-conditioning systems. So Mr Teow shopped for a window unit in Malaysia, so I would have a spare unit if my current one broke down.
All the bathrooms in our house have mosaic tiles. It is more practical than marble which can be slippery if wet. But it is now difficult to buy mosaic in Singapore. So again, Mr Teow bought mosaic tiles from Malaysia to keep in reserve in case some of our current tiles broke or were chipped.
I have three Casio watches, but use only one. Recently, when I woke up in the middle of the night and could not find the Casio I usually wore, I looked around for the other two. I found them in a drawer, together with two Tag Heuer watches that my brother Hsien Yang had given me recently, as well as a Seiko that my father had given me decades ago but which is still working fine.
My instinct had first led me to look frantically around for the original Casio. After 30 minutes, I knew that I was not going to find it that night. So I strapped on another of my Casios, comforting myself that I would not have got round to wearing my other watches if I had not misplaced my usual one.
I am frugal about my clothing too. I had only two batik wrap-around skirts that I bought in Indonesia more than 20 years ago. My girlfriends and my sister-in-law Ho Ching noticed that I wore the same two skirts almost all the time, and probably thought I looked scruffy. So they bought me more than 20 new skirts.
I have begun using three of the 20, and plan to wear them out before using the rest. And I have not discarded my two original wrap-arounds.
I have stuffed one into my backpack so I can whip it out as and when the occasion demands and I have to appear somewhat more respectable than in my usual shorts and T-shirt.
Frugality is a virtue that my parents inculcated in me. In addition to their influence, I try to lead a simple life partly because I have adopted some Buddhist practices and partly because I want to be able to live simply if for some reason I lose all that I have one day.
It is easy to become accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle. Some people believe that they will not miss their luxuries if for some reason they were to lose them, I think they are mistaken. I think they will miss them and be unable to reconcile themselves to a simpler lifestyle.
So I have trained myself to be satisfied with necessities and forgo luxuries.
When all is said and done, my father has led a rich, meaningful and purposeful life
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo, with their son Lee Hsien Yang and daughter Lee Wei Ling, putting Bonnie, their black labrador retriever, through her paces. – PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LEE FAMILY
About 20 years ago, when I was still of marriageable age, my father Lee Kuan Yew had a serious conversation with me one day. He told me that he and my mother would benefit if I remained single and took care of them in their old age. But I would be lonely if I remained unmarried.
I replied: "Better lonely than be trapped in a loveless marriage."
I have never regretted my decision.
Twenty years later, I am still single. I still live with my father in my family home. But my priorities in life have changed somewhat.
Instead of frequent trips overseas by myself, to attend medical conferences or to go on hikes, I only travel with my father nowadays.
Like my mother did when she was alive, I accompany him so that I can keep an eye on him and also keep him company. After my mother became too ill to travel, he missed having a family member with whom he could speak frankly after a long tiring day of meetings.
At the age of 88, and recently widowed, he is less vigorous now than he was before May 2008 when my mother suffered a stroke. Since then I have watched him getting more frail as he watched my mother suffer. After my mother passed away, his health deteriorated further before recovering about three months ago.
He is aware that he can no longer function at the pace he could just four years ago. But he still insists on travelling to all corners of the Earth if he thinks his trips might benefit Singapore.
We are at present on a 16-day trip around the world. The first stop was Istanbul for the JPMorgan International Advisory Council meeting. We then spent two days in the countryside near Paris to relax. Then it was on to Washington DC, where, in addition to meetings at the White House, he received the Ford's Theatre Lincoln Medal.
As I am writing this on Thursday, we are in New York City where he has a dinner and a dialogue session with the Capital Group tonight, and Government of Singapore Investment Corporation meetings tomorrow. After that, we will spend the weekend at former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger's country home in Connecticut. Influential Americans will be driving or flying in to meet my father over dinner on Saturday and lunch on Sunday.
Even for a healthy and fit man of 88, the above would be a formidable programme. For a recently widowed man who is still adjusting to the loss of his wife, and whose level of energy has been lowered, it is even more challenging.
But my father believes that we must carry on with life despite whatever personal setbacks we might suffer. If he can do something that might benefit Singapore, he will do so no matter what his age or the state of his health. For my part, I keep him company when he is not preoccupied with work, and I make sure he has enough rest.
Though I encourage him to exercise, I also dissuade him from over exerting himself. I remind him how he felt in May last year when, after returning from Tokyo, he delivered the eulogy at Dr Goh Keng Swee's funeral the next day.
He had exercised too much in the two days preceding the funeral, against my advice. So naturally, he felt tired, and certainly looked tired on stage, as he delivered his tribute to an old and treasured comrade-in-arms. A few of my friends were worried by how he looked and messaged me to ask if my father was OK. Now when I advise him not to push himself too hard, he listens.
The irony is I did not take my own advice at one time and it was he who stopped me from over-exercising. Once, in 2001, while I was recovering from a fracture of my femur, he limited my swimming. He went as far as to ask a security officer to time how long I swam. If I exceeded the time my physician had prescribed, even if it was just by a minute, he would give me a ticking off that evening.
Now the situation is reversed. But rather than finding it humorous, I feel sad about it.
Whether or not I am in the pink of health is of no consequence. I have no dependants, and Singapore will not suffer if I am gone. Perhaps my patients may miss me, but my fellow doctors at the National Neuroscience Institute can take over their care. But no one can fill my father's role for Singapore.
We have an extremely competent Cabinet headed by an exceptionally intelligent and able prime minister who also happens to be my brother. But the life experience that my father has accumulated enables him to analyse and offer solutions to Singapore's problems that no one else can.
But I am getting maudlin. Both my father and I have had our fair share of luck, and fate has not been unfair to us. My father found a lifelong partner who was his best friend and his wife. Together with a small group of like-minded comrades, he created a Singapore that by any standards would be considered a miracle. He has led a rich, meaningful and purposeful life.
Growing old and dying occurs to all mortals, even those who once seemed like titanium. When all is said and done, my father - and I too, despite my bouts of ill health - have lived lives that we can look back on with no regrets. As he faces whatever remains of his life, my father's attitude can be summed up by these lines in Robert Frost's poem Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.