I saw Lee Kuan Yew cry
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By Paul Jansen
I saw Lee Kuan Yew cry. No, not when he announced the Separation of Singapore from Malaysia on August 9, 1965 and was broadcast sobbing.
That was his reaction to a political calculation, or some might say, miscalculation.
But this … this was personal.
It was in April 2003. It was 13 years since Mr. Lee had handed over the Prime Minister’s Office to Goh Chok Tong. But the country he was instrumental in creating was facing a threat of epic proportions and he wanted to talk about it.
SARS had reached our shores. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was striking fear. People were dying in Singapore. Business and pleasure travel were being curtailed. Even the daily Singapore-Kuala Lumpur train service was cancelled due to a significant drop in demand. The economy was being hit.
Worldwide, there were concerns that the epidemic could turn into a pandemic, transforming from a sporadic killer of hundreds into an efficient executioner of millions, as had happened with a few other viruses before.
For Singapore, an aviation and maritime hub, which had healthy tourism receipts and was a meeting place for bigwigs to do business deals, and without a hinterland to fall back on, the global sweep of SARS was troubling, as was the reaction to it. People were avoiding people.
The national media was invited to a press conference at the Istana by Senior Minister Lee. I went as editor of the Streats daily.
It was a small group. We assembled in a room and sat waiting in a row of chairs, line abreast. TV crews and photographers readied their equipment.
Across from us was a wall with windows opening to a corridor, which Mr. Lee would enter from. As we chatted about the purpose of the presscon, I saw a shadow fall across the curtain of the window furthest to the left. It progressed from window to window.
It was not Mr. Lee, I told myself. It seemed more like a shadow of a stooped person, looking, from where I sat, as though bent through disability or distraction. It could not be that of the tall, commanding and sometimes pugnacious Lee I had come to expect, having covered several events featuring him over the years as a journalist.
Then something remarkable happened. As I watched it pass the last windows, the shadow straightened. Mr. Lee came through the door, eyes gleaming, a slight smile on his lips, upright and striding.
He sat. Mics were checked. And we began.
He was concerned. He was angry. Mr. Lee, who had faced his share of potential disasters, described SARS as “more serious than other crises”.
A few days earlier, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had taken the extraordinary step of writing a letter to the public appealing to people to heed the advice of the authorities and not put others in danger through inconsiderate behavior.
There were a few instances of people who fell sick, but went about their business instead of seeing their doctor to determine if they had this highly contagious disease. Mr Goh’s letter mentioned the case of a family of eight whose relative worked in the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre (where two people contracted SARS and one died) coming down with fever. They saw a General Practitioner, but instead of waiting for the special ambulance, took off the masks he had given them and went to a nearby food centre.
I had taken the unusual decision to carry the entire letter on the front page of my tabloid newspaper.
Looking grim, Mr. Lee referred to the family. He warned that all the measures put in place to stem the spread of SARS would be negated by irresponsible behavior. (Later, the family would give their reasons why they did not stay put.)
Tracking and isolating individuals while trying to determine if they had SARS was already difficult, inconveniencing many and hurting livelihoods. But far worse was in store, including death, if people refused to listen to the health officials.
He was in full Lee lecture mode. Stern voice. Laser eyes. Expressive gestures.
The Singapore he had invested so much of himself in was threatened by a new and unexpected danger on a national level and he was doing what he had been doing his adult life, whether as Prime Minister or as Senior Minister: face it head on and rally the nation to overcome it.
Then he dropped a bombshell. He and his family very nearly became part of Singapore’s SARS statistics.
“You can be a completely innocent victim.”
He related how, on April 3, 2003, as the country wrestled with transmissions, his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, had gone to Singapore General Hospital for treatment for a frozen shoulder. She was brought to an ultrasound room for a scan of the affected area.
A few days later, he received a call from her doctor, who asked: “Is your wife with you? … The radiographer who helped her and took her temperature has gone down with SARS.”
The radiographer had been infected by a patient who had not notified the staff that she was having a fever. Mr. Lee said that patient had been in the same room as his wife, with only a curtain separating them. Madam Kwa had to be quarantined and her temperature checked regularly for a prescribed period before she could be considered out of the woods.
As he described this, the thought that she could so easily have been lost must have gripped him. He looked at us. Stopped talking. His eyes teared. He looked down at his hands.
No one spoke. Pens stopped writing. We averted our eyes. Looked hard at our notebooks. He wiped his face and cleared his throat.
We continued. He moved back to the national picture. The interview was published. But no one mentioned Mr. Lee’s moment of anguish.
Nothing was the same for me again. Up to that point, my impression of him was of a hard man with a single-minded devotion to the survival and success of Singapore and a knuckle-duster approach to politics.
There had been nothing to endear him to me. But I had benefited from his achievements in unexpected ways.
For instance, as a young journalist on the ultimate road trip in the United States in 1982 as a World Press Fellow, I found myself time and time again receiving special treatment because of his reputation.
I was with nine journalists from France, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Venezuela, Columbia, Morocco, Ivory Coast and Tunisia, travelling slowly through the continent from north to south, east to west, in search of a deeper understanding of what made the nation tick.
When we stopped at the world headquarters of heavy equipment manufacturer John Deere in Illinois, chairman William Hewitt, who had taken sales from US$300 million in 1955 to US$5 Billion in 1982, greeted us at the hall of the acclaimed Eero Saarinen-designed building and asked: “Who is the Fellow from Singapore?”
He then arranged it so that I was seated next to him at the conference room and plied me with questions about Singapore and said how impressed he was by Mr. Lee.
This happened on other occasions during the trip, so that by the time we arrived at the United Nations headquarters in New York for tea with Secretary-General Perez de Cueller, I was not surprised when I found myself being seated next to the UN chief who then started the group meeting by asking me how Mr. Lee was doing.
My fellow roadies, particularly from the larger countries, were surprised by these exchanges. Initially, so was I. But surprise turned to pride. Pride in my country.
As the years passed and I met both detractors and lovers of Singapore, that pride grew. Yet, while I knew that Mr. Lee had played a large part in putting Singapore on the map, there was “a missing link”. I felt that he had received his just reward: power to mould his people, pay to match his efforts, fame to let him sleep well.
But on April 25, 2003, the equation in my head changed. His reaction to what could have happened to his “Choo”, spoke volumes to me, not about what he had gained, but what he had lost.
In building his country, he had given up full control of the most precious treasure each of us receives when we are born: a finite amount of time. He spent a large part of his store on fire-fighting politics, a smaller part on his own family, with Choo.
Now the pieces fit. My missing link was found.
Lee Kuan Yew had expended his life trying to make us, Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, into a united Family, and to make this little red dot on the map our Home. It must have seemed a monumental task in 1965. But for a man driven by logic, it must have seemed one worthy of great sacrifice. And it was a sacrifice that very few of us would ever know.
Just as he must have shrugged off any worries of a concerned spouse and transformed himself back into a confident chief in the few steps it took to reach the Istana room where we waited that April 2003, I am sure that he had always treated his public appearances as theatre, where Lee the Man must necessarily be replaced by Lee the Leader. But I saw him cry and in those few tears I glimpsed what he meant when he said: “At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”
On March 25, 2015, I shuffled in line for hours with people of all ilk. As my wife Marjorie Chong, our friend Sally Loh, and I, entered Parliament Hall, the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, assembled on the grand staircase. Looking on was Mr. Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Precisely as we reached Mr. Lee’s casket, the chorister sang:
This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home
The words rolled over Mr. Lee, his son, me and the scores of people there, ringing through the hall and resonating in our hearts.
This is Home, truly. Because you made it so, Mr. Lee. And the hundreds of thousands who lined up to see you in Parliament House, and the million who visited the tribute centres, and the men, women and children who remained unwavering in lines under a torrential downpour to wave farewell to you on your last trip through the heartlands, in a spontaneous outpouring of grief and gratitude, will forever be your Family.
Copyright: Paul Jansen 2015. All rights reserved.
Paul Jansen is a media professional with extensive experience in journalism with The Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings. He is the founding editor of The Straits Times Interactive, now straitstimes.com, conceptualised and led the multiple award-winning search and directory engine Rednano.sg, and played a role in the start-up of the telco M1 and other companies. He has left the editorial and marketing trenches and is currently advising firms on dealing with the press on a daily basis and especially in a crises. He is also co-founder and executive chairman of aSpecial Media Pte Ltd, an award-winning company which specialises in collecting and analysing behavioural data for public and private institutions, policy-makers and marketers. But mostly he flies.