berthahenson

Archive for March, 2015|Monthly archive page

We made Amos Famous

In News Reports on March 31, 2015 at 10:07 am

What is wrong with Amos Yee?
Did he think we’ll go tee-hee
When he mocked Christianity?

And those jibes on LKY
Did he think that they would fly?
Did he think “I’ll just try, try?’’

Some say Amos is just a boy
Who thinks YouTube is just a toy
Even if some people he did annoy

Some say he’s a special kid
Who made an extra special vid
No foolish thing YOU ever did?

We want blood, some bayed
He should be flogged and flayed
That’s the price to be paid!

Now Amos’ got his day in court
Wonder if that’s what he sought
Then we’ve been suckered by his plot

He came out with a big wide grin
His poor parents, the reporters pinned
Dad said sorry for son’s sin

Chill, people, coz can’t you see
This kid is just a wannabe?
Commiserations to his family…

Plain and simple living…is so hard to do

In News Reports on March 30, 2015 at 8:48 am

And now the suggestions will start rolling in… on how to honour Lee Kuan Yew. So far, there seems to be a “re-name Changi Airport’’ lobby, a proposal for a sort of museum or for his Oxley Road home to be retained as kind of monument. What about his face on dollar notes? Or a postage stamp? Or just posters for mass distribution? Thankfully, no one has suggested a statue a la Stamford Raffles – methinks Mr Lee would have turned in his urn if that came to pass.

Of course, there is no need to do anything at all. Singapore, is after all, his monument. His imprint is everywhere, whether in infrastructure or policies or even governing philosophy. Some say it is enough that we honour him by sharing his values and passing them on, like the values enshrined in the National Pledge. The ultimate method, others say, is to honour him by ensuring that Singapore continues on its upward trajectory.

I would pick one value above all that we should imbue in ourselves and in future generations: frugality. Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam pointed this out, as did a myriad different people, including Mr Lee’s own family members. A waste not, want not approach to living. Maybe not the sort of austere lifestyle that he led in Spartan conditions, but a lifestyle that knows the value of being alive rather than the price of things.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything “designer’’ on him – or even really “new’’. He wore the same jacket and had the same red box for years. He wouldn’t change the cloth of armchairs in the Istana. He ate home cooked food, didn’t take expensive holidays and clearly disliked lavishness. He advised politicians like Mr Sidek Saniff to borrow, rather than to buy.  I looked at photographs of his living room and it reminded me of my family home – more than 30 years ago. In fact, it seems to me the only thing he wanted people to buy was a place to live, because home owners would have a stake in this country and its future.

How many of us can live as frugally, given the temptations that surround us? Yet, too many get into debt and are in too much of a hurry to enjoy the finer things in life. I don’t think he ever compared himself with the many millionaires and billionaires he must have met in their well-cut suits. But what about us? We look at some people’s clothes, bags and shoes – and drool. We want to upgrade all the time – not ourselves, but our homes. I sometimes think it is good that Mr Lee didn’t get around too much, to see the conspicuous consumption of this disposable people.

I know the usual arguments: that people must spend in order to power the economy ecetera and that it was Mr Lee who wanted all these bad things, like casinos, into the country. And how we should enjoy the fruits of our labour. I think there must be a distinction between growing fat on the fruits and having them pickled for a rainy day. If we want to build on his legacy, this is one trait we must keep.

It must permeate the political circles, the governing elite and down to the masses. It is right that politicians eschew ornamentation and civil servants understand the needed for understatement. As a people, while there are legitimate worries for the down and out, I think this need to be with the “in’’ crowd and our penchant for comparison must simply be reined in. As a people, we waste so much, including food and water. We use so much electricity and complain about the bill. We don’t need air-conditioning or even hot water – yet how did they become necessary instead of nice to have?

I am guilty too of waste, having forgotten the days of Bobo the elephant and water rationing and, yes, scooping water out of a big jar to bathe. Of buying new clothes only when Christmas and Chinese New Year rolls round.

(We forget the basics even as we talk about climate change, eco-conservation and eating organic food, you know, the trendy stuff.  I cannot forget how Mr Lee responded to a young woman a long time ago who asked him about Singapore’s role in guarding against climate change and other environmental concerns. He said that Singapore had been protecting the environment for years, by planting trees and its Stop Littering campaign. I think the young woman was hoping for something more esoteric and uplifting…)

Such small gestures. Pick up litter. Don’t waste water. Don’t spend money unnecessarily. Such basic traits that we might just be beginning to lose as a people.

So how can we keep them intact?

I have one suggestion (and it’s not another campaign) – and that is for us to pick up some traits from the West, yes, the West. You know how we always sniff at their “welfare system’’ and “unemployment benefits’’ and how they sap the value of hard work. Here, we don’t have the same scale of government welfarism, simply because we have our parents.

It bothers me that young working adults want to be treated like adults, when they are really children living under their parents’ roof. That is why they can afford the finer things in life early in their careers and why they suddenly find that forming a household not so easy. How can it be easy when young people have had free board and lodging until the day they get married and move into their own place (sometimes bought by their parents)? On the other hand, young people are “expected’’ to leave the nest when they start work or pay for their living at their parents’ home. It looks like a weird arrangement to us and seems to work against the idea of a traditional, Asian home. I think, however, that it is time to start thinking this way if we want ever stronger Singaporeans who will fight to live the good life on their own steam instead of relying on Mommy and Daddy.

We need, to use an awful phrase, a mindset change so that we can grow more resilient generations.

Why this talk about giving parents an “allowance’’ when their children start work? The children should be paying for food and board, not living for free, just as they would if they were living on their own. Single people in their late 20s and 30s, living with – or rather off – their parents should be ashamed of themselves. Toothpaste, toilet paper and utilities all add up you know.

We must stop thinking that our duty of care to our parents only start when they can’t look after themselves. And then applaud ourselves for being filial. It must start from our being independent of our parents money-wise when they are still able AND caring for them when they are unable.

That’s when I think we will start realizing the value of being frugal. That money from work is not “spending’’ money, but “living’’ money.

I am ending here because I am beginning to nag. But I hope you get what I mean…

Normal

In News Reports on March 29, 2015 at 9:26 pm

Life goes back to “normal’’ today

We don’t have to think about when is the “best’’ time to join “the queue”.

We don’t need to worry about wearing the appropriate mourning clothes.

Should we hang the Singapore flag or not is a decision to be made in August only.

There is no black nor white. We’ll be talking about shades of grey.

Radio goes back to playing “normal’’ music we can easily identify

TV is back to its boring programmes

Traffic is as normal as the ERP is efficient

We’ll be reading about molesters, minor and major criminals in the news again

The Padang gets to grow its grass

We can go back to our whiny ways

The vocal minority will start vocalizing

The silent majority will keep quiet

Singapore carries on.

An era is over

In News Reports on March 29, 2015 at 10:55 am

It’s over. Seven days of mourning and shared sorrow. Who would have thought that half a million people would wait for hours, whether day or night, whatever the weather, to bid goodbye to someone? Who have thought we would queue along the roadside in the rain to watch his cortege go by, that we would yell LKY, LKY and strew petals on the road as he went on his last journey?

Singaporeans did it. Not because they were sheep or suffering from mass hysteria,  but because of a deep, abiding attachment to the man. They probably can’t even explain it, not by dissecting his policies in detail or by calculating the pros and cons of his leadership. To many, he was, in the words of his younger son, an “orang besar’’. Bigger than anyone they ever knew, who commanded every stage he was on, whether here or abroad.

This was LKY.

And so thousands carried umbrellas and wore ponchos just to watch the cortege whizz by. Others were glued to their television sets, picking out the dignitaries in the University Cultural Centre sitting silence for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s last entrance before an audience.

I was one of those in front of the TV watching the State funeral along with my mother. The pictures were grainy. The heavens had opened up after a week of humid weather, for Singapore’s chief gardener. The Lee family walked in the rain. The lines of uniformed citizens were drenched to the bone. I wondered about whether musical instruments used by the SAF band would be destroyed in the rain. I wondered if children would catch cold. I tried to identify the roads. Anything, anything. To stop myself from wallowing in the mood of the occasion. I didn’t succeed.

Who could? You watch fervently, hoping that the State flag wouldn’t slip off the casket, that the coffin bearers wouldn’t, gasp!, lose their grip and you wondered if Mr Chiam See Tong was all right in his wheelchair. You try to keep count of the gun salute and wish you could see the plane formation in the grey sky. You make out the lines on the Prime Minister’s face and saw his puffy eyes. All of us were trying to take in every moment of this time in history. We didn’t want to miss anything.

As the Prime Minister took to the stage to deliver the first of 10 eulogies, my mother hoped out loud that he would hold it together. For a while, we thought he would succeed without a hitch. He was in “political speech mode’’, that is, until he turned personal. He had to pause after he said he had tried to spend a quiet moment meditating alongside his father’s casket before the ceremony. I don’t know about you, but I cried. Not for the man in the casket, but for his son, who was so determined to carry out his national role of Prime Minister, that he never once said “Papa’’. (By the way, this is not an indictment.)

Every day over the week, I learnt something new about our first Prime Minister as people started trotting out anecdotes about their interactions with him. Today was no different. Former MP Sidek Saniff told of how Mr Lee advised him to borrow an overcoat from Dr Ahmad Mattar and a pair of boots from Mr Goh Chok Tong when he had asked him if he was equipped for a trip to China. Mr Sidek was also the most emotional, bidding farewell three times as he turned to the casket.

Long-time grassroots leader Leong Chun Loong recalled how he got testy when the firing of firecrackers was mistimed during a Chinese New Year event. You can’t run a country if you couldn’t get such a little thing right…(How like the man, I thought. The perfectionist. But isn’t it true that most of us try to run before we have even learnt to walk? We want to do the “big stuff” when we can’t even do the small things…)

Both President Tony Tan and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong told of Mr Lee’s great respect for office. When he was no more Prime Minister, he would always defer to Mr Goh and Dr Tan, like making sure that it was he who visited the President and not the other way round. Never mind that it was Dr Tan who wanted to pay him a visit while he was ill.

Mr Goh also said something that will probably set some quarters buzzing: that Mr Lee “never muzzled’’ anyone. He was a man of great intellect who put forth his views forcefully, but he was open to being converted if the arguments convinced him. Former Cabinet minister S Dhanabalan said much the same. Mr Dhanabalan seemed unsettled by descriptions of Mr Lee as a “pragmatist’’. He was an idealist too – or he would have simply courted the Chinese majority instead of pursuing the ideal of a multi-racial society, he said.

I think all of us listened especially closely to the last speaker, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who delivered the eulogy on behalf of the family. We know now what it was like to have a famous father. How Papa was seldom around and how they always took their family holidays nearby, like in Cameron Highlands. And how he found out about his parents’ secret wedding at Stratford-upon-Avon in England only upon reading his father’s memoirs. There were little vignettes of family life – like how they left birthdays “unmarked’’ until recently and how Papa and Mama were delighted to have another grandchild while they were in their 70s. Frankly, he sounded like a son who missed his father even before he died.

In my mother’s living room, I recited the pledge, hand on heart, and sang the national anthem. The State funeral had ended, and I left for my own home.

I could see the streets come back to life, slowly. People started emerging from their homes to do whatever they usually do on Sundays. My mother’s neighbor left his flat at the same time as I did. We wondered if our younger and not-so-young leaders were of the same calibre as Mr Lee…How? It was a sombre ride in the lift.

As I walked back to my home, I realized that I had not bumped into any cyclist or handphone-staring pedestrian on the pavement – because there weren’t any.

I also noticed something in the air. The rain was over. The air was fresh. One era has ended. A new one has begun.

Majulah Singapura.

For the PM, the father’s son

In Society on March 28, 2015 at 12:27 am

Dear Prime Minister,

You look awful. I know you can’t help it; very few people who have lost a father can. Older folk will tell you that you need to rest, drink lots of water and take medicinal soups. Younger folk might well recommend cool cucumber slices to take away the puffiness that has built up around your eyes these past few days. Your own father will probably recommend meditation.

Yet I know you cannot rest. You have too many hands to shake, too many people –  including very important people from abroad – to greet and you are being snowed under by cards, flowers and well-wishes. Maybe you will retain some as keepsakes and give everything else to the National Archives? Then again, this is not the time to worry about post-funeral arrangements. You still have to get through tomorrow.

It must be tough to be the son of Lee Kuan Yew. Personally, I’ve often wondered if you’ve ever felt the need to measure up to the man. To be sure, some of us did not know what to think when you were inducted into politics; this Brigadier-General with big framed glasses. No one doubted your intellect, we just wondered what sort of a leader you would become. How much like your father would you be?

I think many Singaporeans have been/are still curious about the father-son relationship. It’s probably none of our business but I can safely say we devour every bit of news that involves the Lee family. Your sister helped with her articles, painting a more personal picture of Lee Kuan Yew and showing us glimpses of his devotion to his wife, your mother. Then there were, of course, your FaceBook posts. They made you more like us, although frankly, this citizen wishes that you would remain prime ministerial, mythical and mysterious. But that’s just me.

Over the past few days, your fellow citizens have watched you keep a leash on your emotions. ALL of us wanted to know if you are holding it together. We dissected and analysed your every look and word. People asked, example, why you didn’t mention “my father’’ when you addressed the nation on his death. Others said you were speaking as Prime Minister, not as the son of Lee Kuan Yew. It must be hard to divorce the two roles. Sir, you did it admirably.

Reams of information have now come out about your family life. I have to say that I still can’t get over the family taking their baths by using scooping out water from a jar, as your brother Mr Lee Hsien Yang disclosed. That frugality is something most of us admired of Mr Lee. It pains me every time I come across people who say that the Lee family have amassed a fortune somehow. When they say this, I think about how your father stood up in Parliament to clear the rumour that the two of you had bought some condominium units at a huge discount. Never mind that there were never any open accusations, just whispers. I think about what your father said in the past about leaders of Third World countries who fly in to rich countries in their private jets to ask for, ahem, aid. Your father even had to account for the Singapore Airlines flight that took your mother home from London when she fell ill. He paid for it, he said.

I see a lot of his frugal nature in you, and I thank God for that.

How must you feel now that hundreds of thousands of citizens are honouring your father?  More than touched, I’m sure. They queued for hours to have just a few seconds in front of your father’s casket. Yet, in that same action, we see the Singapore that has been built over 50 years, in the efficiency of the logistics and the patience and resilience of its people. We are not a cold people; and this is not a soulless country. I hope you wave away all the insane and inane remarks by unkind people and those who are in too much of a hurry to dissect his legacy. He was after all a public figure, even if he was your parent.

I know you are not religious by nature, but it will not stop me from praying for your father’s soul, and for God to give you strength.

He was a great man.

As you said, there will never be anyone like him ever again.

Yours sincerely,

A citizen of Singapore

A Catholic send-off

In Society on March 27, 2015 at 10:31 am

I suppose sitting for three hours in an air-conditioned church waiting for a service to start is a lot better than queueing for three hours under the sun. Never mind that you can’t snack, nobody passes any bottled water around and you can’t have a pee break because somebody will immediately slip into your seat at the pew. But at least, we could pray together – one rosary, one chaplet of Divine mercy and choir master Peter Low took us through all the hymns to be sung. That filled up a lot of time.

It was a requiem mass celebrated by the Archbishop himself, along with so many priests I couldn’t keep count as they walked into St Joseph’s Church at 1.15pm. The Papal Nuncio, the Pope’s representative, was there too, and His Grace entered the church under a canopy being held up by six lay people – the first time I’ve seen this happen.

I made up my mind to be at the mass ever since the Catholic Church first announced that it would do holding one. Both offline and online, there were some interesting discussions about why the Church was doing this for a professed agnostic who sometimes described himself as a nominal Buddhist. In fact, there was nothing “religious’’ during the wake. Only cultural, as when his grandsons carried his picture behind the casket as it made its way out of the Istana.

Through his life, Mr Lee Kuan Yew kept the State “secular’’ and drew a line between politics and religion. Of course, this made the religious unhappy sometimes. Like passing the Abortion Act, having lax bio-ethics rules (as compared to other countries) and which Catholic can ever forget the incarceration of some laypeople in the Marxist conspiracy of 1987? We probably didn’t forget, but it seems that we forgave, going by the turnout for the mass with people packed to the rafters and in the compound. But, maybe, we forgot that he greatly admired the Catholic institutions, with their welfare organisations and mission schools. After all, he sent his son to Catholic High.

The organisers only printed 1,000 leaflets for the order of the mass, a gross under-estimation. It was just like how the state’s funeral organisers under-estimated the unending lines of people who wanted to pay their last respects to the man in Parliament House. I didn’t see any children, mainly adults and plenty of retirees. All were garbed in subdued colours. It was, after all, Lent and Catholics have of plenty of practice on sticking to the appropriate dress code. The church was, as usual for Lent, somberly adorned with purple cloth at this time.

What was different: people put up their cellphones to record some bits of the proceedings, which wouldn’t have happened during any normal mass except weddings.

I had wondered what the Archbishop would say in his sermon. He was nowhere near as emotional as the MPs who paid tribute in Parliament yesterday and enough got a laugh when he told of how Catholics had called him and told him to go to SGH quickly to anoint Mr Lee when they heard he was worsening, that is, to give Mr Lee his last rites. I think Mr Lee would have chuckled too. Archbishop William Goh did his best to point out that whatever policies Mr Lee had promulgated that riled the religious, he did so with an eye on the greater good of Singapore. In other words, it was never a personal nor a religious attack.

The Archdiocese formulated the following Prayers for the Faithful, adapted from the Rite of Christian funerals for the unbaptized. I reproduce them here for fellow Catholics.

  1. Lord listen to this family of faith, we commend to you Mr Lee Kuan Yew, that he may be held securely in God’s loving embrace now and for all eternity. Let us pray to the Lord. “Lord Hear our Prayer.”
  2. For Mr Lee’s family, especially the Prime Minister and his family, that they feel the consoling presence of Christ in the midst of their pain and grief. Let us pray to the Lord. “Lord Hear our Prayer.”

It was not a teary affair, at least not until the end. That was when choir master Mr Low led the congregation in the final song, Rest in Peace, Lionheart.

(sung to the hymn, You are mine)

Great guiding light with vision grand

You gave your all for this our land

With verve and might, you shaped and forged

You led the way, you made your stand

Your journey’s o’er, Great Lionheart

You gave your all, you did your part

Carved in your heart forever more

May we remain “My Singapore’’

You gave your best, you did your part

In peace now rest, Great Lionheart

Being Lee Kuan Yew

In Society on March 27, 2015 at 1:36 am

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew. Beyond obvious gender differences, I don’t have his searing intellect and that ability to cajole, persuade and bully. I don’t even own knuckle-dusters.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew, because I can’t see myself obsessing over the big picture every day, like how to make Singapore a better place to live in. I think I will go mad if I can’t make small talk.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who took studying a language so seriously he hired a tutor even in his old age. I am younger and I prefer to study a language in a less stressful way by watching television serials.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who can talk about the internationalization of the Singapore dollar and cleaning up the Singapore River. I don’t understand the former, and I take the latter for granted.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who made pragmatic decisions based on changing circumstances, like having casinos in Singapore as an economic piston. Although, like him, I am a non-gambler.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who was always so convinced of the rightness of his decision that he swept obstacles out of the way. I am too tentative and I worry about not being “nice’’.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who was so devoted to his wife that he would talk to her every night, although she couldn’t speak – no matter where he was. I am also not disciplined enough.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew who was so frugal in his habits and lifestyle that he bathed by ladling out water from a jar. I like my hot showers.

I cannot be like Lee Kuan Yew, although sometimes I wish I can.

Mourn now – fight later

In Society on March 25, 2015 at 7:55 am

Such a strange thing is happening in the ether. The normally silent majority seemed to be speaking up. They are thumping those who had hogged the online space with their cutting, unkind comments about anything to do with the Government. Or the People’s Action Party. Or Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

I was surprised at first at the outpouring of online emotion, so protective of Mr Lee and his legacy. I can’t help but think that those who have been sitting at the sidelines of the Internet space have decided to put their gloves on. Woe is you who dare to say anything rude about Singapore’s first prime minister! Whack! Bam! Slam!

As for those who think that the Internet is about letting anyone speak their mind, however inane and insane their words, they are finding out that this is not the case. The internet herd, typically anti-establishment and even rude, is turning the other way.

Yet I wish we could stop fighting, at least for the next few days. Can we stop arguing about the merits and demerits of the man who’s just died? About whether people are right to want to wear black this Sunday or whether some MP’s idea of a tribute being a workout is daft? About whether too much expression is symptomatic of the mentality of sheep or any kind of criticism of the man is out of line?

I gather that online friendships have been broken; a lot of “unfriending’’ going on these days.  Some people are vying to be more demonstrative of their admiration than others, at least that is how it is being construed in some quarters. Others who have always taken a hard anti-LKY line have softened, prompting charges of bending with the wind. Gosh. The death of Lee Kuan Yew is inspiring a lot of emotions. May we not let them pit ourselves against each other.

Last night, friends and I encountered an admittedly drunk young woman alone in a bar, telling us about how she had split up with her boyfriend after an argument about the kind of leader Mr Lee had been. It seemed to be fundamental point of difference for her. I guess at any other time, the couple wouldn’t have had such a big blow-up. The difference is the timing: Mr Lee has just died.

Yes, he has died, which is why I don’t think we can have much meaningful or rational discussion – at least online – at the moment. Think of those times when you lost a loved one, you would sit quietly and cry, recall last moments or reminisce about good times. Friends at the wake will be respectful, even if they did not know the deceased.  Mr Lee has a large family, and I don’t mean his immediate one. That’s why people jump at any sign of impropriety. Even family members will quarrel about funeral arrangements, like whether wearing black is the right protocol. I, for one, had wondered if it was “good form’’ to clap while his funeral cortege passed along the road earlier today and decided to close the FB discussion because I was worried that it would get out of hand.

Therefore, we are now commenting on the eulogies. Should eulogies be positive or are they actually propagandistic? Should they have some critical comments or would this be considered nasty? Or should they be balanced? And “balanced’’ according to who? It is inevitable that when a public figure has passed on, people feel the need to pass judgment.  On him. And on others who have passed judgment on him Methinks Mr Heng Swee Keat wrote the best eulogy and that is because he did “reporting’’ – he told us what we didn’t know about Mr Lee’s working style. His use of the “red box’’ (plus picture) to hold all the parts together is brilliant.

Frankly, I am beginning to have my fill of foreigners weighing in on the man’s legacy, after not being able to get enough of it earlier on. The key players have weighed in, and now the fringe actors are doing so. I can’t even recognize the Mr Lee whom some of them have described. He was either saint or Satan. Then there are those who put a sting in the tail, to conform to their own ideals of what a leader should be like. I think Mr Lee would have waved away all these speeches and eulogies. He had said before that it was for Phd students to mull over. In other words, history will decide.

I agree. I think we should mourn now – and fight later.

A reporter’s notes on Mr Lee

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 24, 2015 at 2:55 am

If there was one man I was really terrified of, it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I thought it was because I was so much younger than the man, until I realized that people far older than I and who had met him far more often, felt the same. I guess it was the way he stared at you and that interrogative tone he used while talking to you. It seemed to me that he was always sucking in his breath when he had to answer any question from me as though he’s thinking “what am I supposed to do with this stupid young thing?!’’

But no, he never lost his cool with me. I think he saw me as a young journalist who could be “taught’’ or set on the right path, so to speak. He was not a man for small talk and that was part of the terror. Your brain got no rest, even when you were having (very healthy/fruity) lunches with him. Even questions on the type of refrigerators on sale seemed to be mere data to him, like some kind of proxy on Singaporeans’ values or indicator of economic wealth. You feel like he was collecting answers on everyday life because he was using them to plug some gaps in a big picture he was drawing in his head.

My ex-colleagues and I who had been invited for those lunches would come up with a list of issues that we will broach with him. Yes, we were interested in them, but it was also so that he could launch forth – and we could eat. So long as we listened, we didn’t have to sound stupid answering his questions.

I remember my first overseas trip with the man. He was then still Prime Minister and was making a trip to Malaysia. He was going to see Tunku Abdul Rahman in Penang and then hop over to Kedah and Langkawi island. He practically jumped  out of the car before it had come to stand still because he saw the Tunku waiting for him at the porch. He did not want to keep the former Malaysian premier waiting. He spoke loudly to the bent old man, because the Tunku had become hard of hearing. His solicitousness towards the Tunku touched me. The way he held his arm and sat with him… Clearly, Mr Lee knew how to treat his elders, never mind their sad/bad history.

It was quite a different treatment he meted out to a foreign journalist who had barged in on a press conference during the trip. The Caucasian man, who told Mr Lee he was actually attending another event in the same building and had taken the opportunity to gatecrash, had asked some human rights question. (I can’t remember what) Mr Lee returned with a stinger on whether he was asking him if he beat his wife.  And that the journalist should have done some homework before asking questions. And come visit Singapore.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Mr Lee angry…it was not a pretty sight. The journalist sat subdued and silent throughout. I felt like going over to pat him on his shoulder but thought again: Stupid bugger! Think you can just swing by and take on Lee Kuan Yew without doing any homework?

I’ve covered him on several occasions, feeling very much like an inadequate young journalist. Because he was THE man, he had to be reported fully. It was so stressful…

I recall how in Penang I left the press delegation en route to an official dinner at a hotel and took a trishaw to a telecom building in Georgetown to file my story. I returned in time for dinner rather smug that I had finished my work before any of my colleagues – and that I could finally eat in peace. Except that Mr Lee decided to get up to make a speech…The media crew thought this was it then, we’ll never be in time to get to our hotel in Batu Ferringgi to file.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I approached a nearby table of towkays in my most ingratiating manner and asked if anyone had a car phone that can reach Singapore. One of them did. Phew! By the way, in case you’re thinking, there were no cellphones in those days. No internet also.

Mr Lee was responsible for giving me the biggest journalist scoop of my career. After one of those healthy/fruity lunches, I asked if he was willing to be interviewed about his son’s cancer. That was in 1993. The then DPM Lee Hsien Loong had been diagnosed with lymphoma, at the same time as DPM Ong Teng Cheong. Besides the “human interest’’ potential that such an interview would have, there was also the big question mark over political succession should the worst happen to the younger Lee. (Insensitive question for a father to answer, but come on, surely, anyone would want to know what he thought?)

Mr Lee thought for a while and said that it might be a “good idea’’ to have the interview. Terrified, I told my bosses he said yes. I had a more than two-hour interview one-on-one with the man at the Istana, with an information officer who was recording everything. (There was an awkward moment when she had to interrupt the interview to switch cassette tapes.)

Mr Lee was forthright enough; he knew what he wanted to say. He also knew what he did NOT want to say. How, in heaven’s name, was I going to ask him what the illness would mean in “big picture’’ terms? I had to ask him three times, in three different ways, at three different points of the interview before I thought I got a full answer. Once, he laughed off the question by saying that anything can happen, like anyone could get hit by a car, for instance.

One reply:  “Singapore needs the best it can get. If Singapore can get a man who has never had cancer and will never get a relapse and who is better than Loong, then that man is the answer. But if it can’t, then you take the best that’s available. Right?”

But what would happen to the political succession plans if the worst were to happen to BG Lee, I asked, hoping that this was specific yet polite enough to get an answer.

His reply: “Well, unfortunately, it’s a fact of life. We may be lucky and it may not come back. So the problem may not arise. If the problem arises, the answer may have to be found in two or three persons to do the things he has been doing. That is life.”

I tell you now that I felt very, very sorry for Mr Lee then. And I felt very, very bad. I was a cad trying to pry open a private space for public consumption. I could see and feel the depth of his emotions then.

What followed later though was near-comical.  Mr Lee wanted to see the article before publication. I said I had to ask my boss first because we normally wouldn’t allow it. (Very brave right?) Well my boss said yes and the print-out was duly faxed over to the Istana. Note that these were the days when printers were of the dot-matrix kind and you can’t adjust the size of type. I got the fright of my life the next day when I got a phone call at home from the newsroom that Mr Lee wanted to see me in the Istana that afternoon. Oh dear! Was it so badly written? Did I get anything wrong?

He started by complaining about the quality of the print – too faint, too small, difficult to read. I told him I would tell my boss to buy new printers (such good scapegoats bosses are!) Then he asked if I thought the article was too long. I said I had run it past colleagues who thought the length was fine. He damn near shouted at me: But they are your colleagues!!! What about ordinary people?? Oh dear, this young person did not want to tell him it was not a done thing to show drafts to outsiders but I ended up telling him that if it was about Mr Lee and his son, everybody sure read everything. (Okay, I put it more elegantly than that)

It transpired that he wanted to give me more information because he thought there was something “missing’’ in the piece. Then he told me of his son’s meditation. I scribbled away, thinking what a fantastic newsmaker he was for volunteering more interesting information without being asked to.

The story was published in The Sunday Times and picked up the world over.

I had covered him as a journalist a few times since but I will never forget the interview(s) because it was the most intimate moment I have ever had with the man. I saw him then as a politician, a statesman and a father. Whatever his bullying tactics, his terrifying demeanour and fierce outbursts in the public eye, I had managed to catch glimpses of the private man. I think some of my ex-colleagues had a lot more experience with him especially in the course of writing his books. I can only offer you a few paltry insights.

Once, I sent him a note saying that I was unable to turn up for lunch because I was ill. He returned the note with a message that he hoped I would be all right soon. It is to my great regret that I have lost the note. But I still have that full transcript of those interviews with some of his comments written in red.

I will cherish them.

PS. I found that cancer story online http://ourstory.asia1.com.sg/dream/lifeline/lee1.html

No man like him

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm

And now the grieving starts. I had a look again at the television broadcast of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of his father’s death. I saw it at 8am online – but you know how live streaming sucks. Now I see clearly how tough it must be to remain prime ministerial when it’s your father who has just died. Nobody would fault Mr Lee if he broke down in tears instead trying so bravely to hold them back. But he did. The son remained prime ministerial.

So many things have happened since the announcement of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s  death in the early hours of the morning. Flags are down half-mast, people are streaming in to pen their condolences in books that will be kept for posterity, the great and good the world over have sent messages. They praised him as a visionary leader whose counsel on geo-politics was sought and who cut through the chase. There was no bullshit about him.

I was taken aback when I read that Dr Henry Kissinger, now 91, recalled how Mr Lee’s first words on their first meeting was “You make me sick’’. It had to do with the US involvement in the Vietnam War and how some top American academics had wanted the country out. Mr Lee wanted the Americans to stay. “That took courage,’’ said Dr Kissinger as ST reported today.

Singaporeans can take pride in how world leaders regarded their first prime minister. Messages via official channels and even social media have come from world leaders, including Malaysia’s Najib Razak. The Brunei Sultan has already called at Sri Temasek where Mr Lee’s cortege has been placed for a private wake. Indonesia’s Jokowi is coming to the funeral on Sunday.

In fact, my worry is that with him gone, would the international glow on Singapore fade too? Mr Lee’s international stature had much to do with how much regard big countries had for this little red dot, as his successor Mr Goh Chok Tong himself testified. New leaders would stop by Singapore to take his counsel and I am still a little pissed that US President Barack Obama didn’t do the same. It is too late now for him to meet the man he described in his White House message as a “true giant of history’’. Harrrummph.

Major media have spewed forth obituaries, some positive, some negative. Even as they lauded his achievements as a pragmatic politician who took Singapore from Third World to First, they also highlighted the more draconian aspects of his “reign’’. References were made to detention without trial, political prosecutions/persecutions and the chewing gum ban. From the Western media was this tone: “Singapore is successful BUT’’, rather than “Singapore is successful DESPITE’’. A Foreign Policy commentator even called him the world’s “most successful dictator of the 20th century’’. I can’t decide if it was derogatory term or a backhanded compliment. Go read for yourself. The Economist called him the “wise man of Asia’’ while recalling descriptions of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty’’ and “Pyongyang with broadband’’. I want to harrrummph again…

Of course, there were obituaries and tributes that were “over the top’’, with nary a negative word. I guess we should expect this. Sometimes what’s said reflects a depth of feeling, sometimes, a sheer lack of words.  After all, we are not used to expressing emotion, according to some survey. Also, it is not “nice’’ to say bad things about a man who is dead, however glad you are that he is. (Shut up, will you?)

Yes, I have been reading obituary after obituary. I can’t get enough of them. It is so interesting to have the man viewed through different lenses. Some facets have come out. I was so surprised to read Mr Lee Hsien Yang saying that the family bathed by ladling out water from those big dragon-motif salted egg jars, and that his parents did so for almost six decades until a shower was finally installed in the bathroom in 2003 after his mother had a stroke.

My goodness!

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Mr Lee was well-known for being frugal and for his distaste for ostentation. I remember once walking behind him with my eyes glued to a hole in the singlet he had on under his CYC shirt. This was no ordinary man who knew about ordinary things or cared about the material stuff. He once told me of how his refrigerator had been in family since forever and asked me what sort of fridges were on sale now. I don’t know Sir, I’ve never bought one, I told him. I felt like sinking into the floor…

Then there was former Speaker of the House Abdullah Tarmugi who said that Mr Lee was the only MP who always sent him a note explaining his absence from Parliament. Again, I went “my goodness!’’. You mean the rest of the MPs…?

Anyway, this was a man who stuck by the rules. It showed discipline and an inclination for order. Would that others follow his example.

Now we will be treated to (or is flooded with?) more black-and-white footage, some of which we’ve never seen before. We will be facing reams of text and old photographs. The older generation will have a fine time pointing out to the young ones who’s who  seated/standing near the young Harry Lee. Old names will surface again, the likes of Ong Pang Boon, Jek Yuen Thong, Toh Chin Chye and other members of the Old Guard, both living and dead. Already, I hear the “silent’’ majority speaking up, talking of water rationing days and other hardships they faced while bringing up a brood of children. Now, as my mother would say, “people are born into air-conditioning’’ and still think life sucks because they can’t afford a new car or house.

I hope our young people are taking it all in. His many books on his ideas and thoughts can be heavy going but, surely, plonking yourself in front of the television to watch some local history isn’t too strenuous an exercise?

I hope they get to know the man. PM Lee said “we won’t see another man like him’’. I agree. Not here, not in the future, not anywhere.

I’m glad that we can boast that we had a man like him.

NOTE: President Obama did meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I apologise for my error and am swallowing my Harummph.