Over time, both distant, disapproving figures turned into real beings I could relate to
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor
When I was growing up, God, my father and Lee Kuan Yew all merged into one.
I was the youngest child in a Teochew-speaking, working-class Chinese household. My parents were immigrants from China, who ran a hawker stall for much of my formative years.
My father was a stern patriarch who was not averse to using the cane. My mother was a traditional Chinese wife and self-sacrificing mother, with a twinkling sense of humour with those close to her. She tended to our household altar, placing platters of food there on religious or festive days. She prayed to the deity who I found out years later is supposed to be the Kitchen God, assigned by the Emperor of Heaven to report on a family's doings. The offerings were meant to placate the deity and sweeten his tongue when he delivered reports.
As for Lee Kuan Yew, he was just the man who founded the nation that I heard and read about. Like God, he was everywhere in the ether. Like God, he was all-powerful and all-knowing. Lee Kuan Yew didn't affect my family's life much in a direct way, although his policies formed the arc within which ordinary lives like ours were lived.
My parents were street hawkers who were fined repeatedly for peddling their wares. Unlike many hawkers grateful to be relocated, they resisted being put into a centre for years. When the frequency of fines grew too overwhelming, they gave up. By then, choice sites like Newton were taken up; they were sent to Timbuktu - a small hawker centre off Alexandra Road, where they struggled to make enough to raise three children.
Apart from the way big policies of the day intersected with our lives, mine was not a political family. The closest I came to Lee Kuan Yew was hearing my father tell the story of how he was standing close by and witnessed the (to him) historic moment when Mr Lee was pushed into a big monsoon drain at Towner Road, while touring Kallang constituency in 1963.
Lee Kuan Yew close up
I first watched Lee Kuan Yew close up in 1983, when I was 15. By then, my parents could afford a second-hand black-and-white TV set. Sitting in the living room, I watched his National Day Rally speech live.
I didn't know it then, but this was his famous speech on graduate mothers. It went on into the night, and I remember I was riveted, moving from the sofa to toilet reluctantly for pee breaks.
In junior college, we would discuss Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore politics incessantly. At 18, I won a Public Service Commission Overseas Merit Scholarship to study English literature at Cambridge University in England.
Like hundreds of exam-smart Singaporeans from poor families, who got government scholarships that opened doors to good careers, I am a beneficiary of the meritocratic scholarship system Mr Lee created.
In my case, though I was contracted to work in the civil service for eight years after my studies, I broke my bond. I approached Singapore Press Holdings, which agreed to hire me and buy out my bond. I remember walking to the Public Service Commission with the SPH cheque for $140,000 that bought my freedom from the civil service. I have remained grateful to SPH ever since. After 24 years, I still love my job as a journalist.
When I joined The Straits Times Political Desk in 1991, Lee Kuan Yew became less of a myth, and much more real.
Over the years, I would cover Mr Lee on many more occasions, including in Singapore, at Tanjong Pagar and in Parliament, and overseas, in China and Malaysia.
Videos of him in the 1970s show a gruff, thuggish figure with an aggressive chin thrust, given to raised arms, finger-pointing and trouser-hiking. By the time I met him, from the mid-1990s, he was already in his 70s and 80s, and had mellowed considerably.
But when required, his oratory was just as fiery as ever.
Two parliamentary speeches in the last 20 years stood out for me. One was in November 1994. After hours of debate on the proposal to peg ministers' pay to top private-sector professionals', including a suggestion to put the proposal to a referendum, Mr Lee rose and put an end to it, saying: "I am pitting my judgment after 40 years in politics, and I've been in this chamber since 1955, against all the arguments on the other side... against all the arguments the doubters can muster."
Enough said. Done deal.
In 1996, there were complaints about property purchases by Mr Lee and his son Hsien Loong, then the Deputy Prime Minister. Amid the unhappiness about ministers having an "inside track" to VIP priority bookings for condominiums, it took Mr Lee to call a spade a spade.
Businesses want to get the best customers to help sell and add value to their products, he said, adding: "Let us be realistic... I ask all of you to be honest, including Mr Chiam (See Tong). All ministers who carry weight, all MPs who are popular, you go to a hawker centre. If they gave the other customer one egg, they'll give you two. Count on it."
In words that entered the lexicon of Mr Lee's hard truths, he thundered in the House, telling MPs to be realistic that some people would be given better treatment by businesses than others: "Let's grow up!"
Over the years, I came to know of his reputation for imprisoning political opponents. I read critical biographies of him. I had even covered and written news articles on some of the defamation suits he brought against his critics.
But when I covered him at a press conference, or sat across a table from him in an interview, I would put aside those thoughts and focus on the issue at hand.
In any case, I usually had my colleagues around me. I wasn't a political opponent. I was a journalist, and I knew Mr Lee respected the role of journalists. Much as he might berate us or our editors when he disagreed with something we wrote, he knew our job was to ask honest, if difficult, and to him annoying, questions. And while the Singapore Government can be authoritarian, it respects the rule of law.
I once asked if he was satisfied with the level of political contest, or if he should have done more to create the conditions for an alternative in Singapore.
His answer: "We'll be quite happy if we get a small group of equal calibre contesting against us. I mean you look at the NMPs, they talk more sense, right? Would they fight an election? No. So? But they've got the brain power, they've got the knowledge, but they're not prepared to jump into the sea."
My counter: "That's because many people are intimidated by the PAP, the climate of fear, crackdown on dissent and so on."
Mr Lee: "No, no. Are you intimidated?"
Me: "Well, asking you this question, obviously I'm not. I just feel that there's a perception."
Mr Lee went on to add that if a person joined an opposition party, "he takes us on, we'll take him on. But you can't join the Workers' Party and we just let him lambast us away. We'll demolish him as hard as he tries to demolish us. That's part of the game, right? I mean you say that's intimidation?"
I don't remember when exactly I started to get fond of him. It was certainly after my conversion to Christianity, when my concept of God changed from a punitive deity chalking up wrongdoings, to one who loved and sacrificed for humanity.
It was also after my own stern father became an unlikely doting grandfather who chased after his crawling grandson, trying to feed him durian. God and my father were no longer distant, disapproving figures. They had become real beings I could relate to.
And so had Lee Kuan Yew.
A few incidents come to mind.
In March 2003, I wrote a long, personal account of my battle with breast cancer. I wanted to destigmatise it, and to encourage people going through terminal illness, and their caregivers, to talk about it, and not to impose on those with serious illness the additional burden of secrecy.
Mr Lee wrote to me a few days later, wishing me good luck and good health, and saying he looked forward to reading my articles.
He also shared about the time his son went through chemotherapy, 11 years earlier, and how one lived with the uncertainty, even in remission, of whether the cancer would return. "The searing experience tempered his character and made him more philosophical about his life. I think it has similarly tempered you."
I was touched by his good wishes for my health.
He also sent me a note in June 2010 to say he enjoyed reading my book Pioneers Once More, a history of the Singapore public service. He offered some vignettes of senior civil servants that he said I could include in future editions. Again, I was touched by his generous words, and that he bothered.
I began to see a lot more of Mr Lee from December 2008 to October 2009, when my colleagues and I conducted 16 interviews with him for Hard Truths. He was vigorous, engaging, sometimes a little testy, but never rude or nasty.
I heard him speak of his wife and his daily ritual of reading to her when she lay bedridden after a stroke. Devoid of her company, he would converse with the nurses during lunch. I heard the stoic loneliness in his voice after she died. I saw the indulgent grandfather reluctant to forbid his grandchildren to touch his things when they sniffled, but who would discreetly wipe down his computer with disinfecting wipes after they left so as not to catch their bug. Although he was reputed for having no small talk, he sometimes told us about his ailments or his day.
I covered Mrs Lee's funeral in October 2010 at Mandai Crematorium. He walked up to her coffin with a single red rose. His hand touched his lips, then her forehead, planting a kiss there once, and then, as though he could not bear to part, again.
Somewhere along the line amid those incidents, I grew fond of the old man.
In 2012, I was involved in another round of interviews for the book One Man's View Of The World. Last year, we interviewed him a few more times to update the book.
He grew visibly more frail over the years. From open-buttoned jackets, he moved on to buttoned up ones, sometimes with a scarf round the neck. From walking in his trainers, he had to be supported.
We once had to wait 30 minutes for him to rest and he apologised, saying he had not been able to keep his food down. He had an injury once, and conducted the interview with a heat pad around his thigh. He was on meal supplement Ensure and various medications his security officers would give him. His speech got slurred towards the end. From over two hours, the interviews went down to 45 minutes or less.
It pained me to sit across the table over several years and watch Mr Lee weaken. He was the founding father of Singapore. I liked to remember him as the vigorous Prime Minister in television footage, or at least as the still active Minister Mentor in 2009, who told us no question was off limits, and hurried us to complete our book, chiding us not to let the grass grow under our feet.
But somewhere along the line, I came to see him less as Lee Kuan Yew the mythic figure, the great statesman, the fearsome political leader. I came to see him as a man, a flawed but still great mortal, a man who did his best for his country, for his time, the best he knew how.
Luckily for all of us, his best was enough.