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Tough boss and very good teacher

AT WORK: With Mr Lee are Mr S. Dhanabalan, the foreign and culture minister (far left), and Mr Fu, his press secretary. ST FILE PHOTO


    Mar 25, 2015

    Tough boss and very good teacher

    I FIRST met Mr Lee Kuan Yew around 1954 or 1955, at his office in Malacca Street. I was a reporter with Sin Pao then and I was trying to get some news. He had formed the People's Action Party (PAP) and was the legal adviser to some of the Chinese school students.

    He struck me as a serious politician with strong political convictions, but I was not sure if he was a determined politician.

    I made up my mind after observing him for some time, during which I was doing political reporting with Nanyang Siang Pau.

    I remember one occasion when he was campaigning during the 1963 General Election and he was pushed by opposition supporters into a drain. But he remained there and continued the argument with the opposition union leaders.

    That made me think that he was quite a determined person. He was quite prepared to fight with the very fierce communist cadres and he stood his ground. I began to believe that not only was he a serious politician, but he also had the determination and dedication to achieve his political goal.

    I was detained in Operation Cold Store for a few months later that year, as I was one of the founders of the Singapore National Union of Journalists and we were inclined to left-wing views.

    After my release from detention, I joined Radio and Television Singapore as a Chinese sub-editor. I was assigned to do reporting a few years later and gradually I was asked to report on Mr Lee.

    I found it difficult because my English was still not up to standard and it was not easy covering his speeches. In 1972, I was asked to become Mr Lee's press secretary. I was reluctant because my English was still quite poor.

    So I made a helluva effort to improve my English. For one or two years, I read English magazines and journals. I read all of Mr Lee's past speeches. I conversed in English whenever possible and studied quite hard.

    He was a very good instructor too. He corrected my English and adjusted my writing structure. That helped me to avoid repeating the same mistakes and improved my written English.

    His writing is quite super and his speeches were all written by him, you know. We only supplied whatever material he needed. He could take a few days to a week - or even more - on important speeches because he needed to consult others.

    As a boss, he did not accept any reasons for you not being able to achieve what he had in mind.

    He did not have a time limit - from six o'clock in the morning to midnight, there may be something from him.

    During the wedding of one of my daughters, he called and said he wanted me to discuss something with the press. I said, well, actually I'm at this function. He said, no, no, you can still do it.

    Fortunately, I had invited a few senior journalists from all the newspapers, so I discussed the matter with them then and there.

    That is the thing you were expected to do. You could not say: "I can't." He did not believe in that.

    He would think that everything could be done, you just had to think about how to do it. That was his attitude.

    It was not easy to work for Mr Lee. You had to have some tolerance and endurance and you had to work very, very hard.

    When I was his press secretary, I went to play golf in Jurong one May Day. Suddenly, a police car came to the course and I had to cancel my game.

    There were no mobile phones at the time, so they had contacted my house and were told: "James went to play golf." So they went to the golf course to get me. After that, I said, no more golf.

    Generally, his assignments were quite difficult.

    For example, the merger of the two Chinese newspapers in 1983. That was his idea as he thought their circulation was going down and they might not survive.

    That was a very difficult task for me as a former Chinese newspaper journalist, having to face the old directors of the Chinese newspapers. But that was his idea and I had to take time to implement it. I had to talk to the directors repeatedly and get their agreement. That was very difficult.

    But Mr Lee has been quite kind to me and helped me a lot. Even after I retired, when I had a kidney operation, he wrote to me to express his concern.


    The writer was Mr Lee's press secretary from 1972 to 1993.