Ex-Minister of State Bernard Chen was generous, sincere and forthright

Ex-Minister of State Bernard Chen was generous, sincere and forthright

Growing up, Ms Beatrice Chen and her brother Francis had a remarkable childhood.

Their father, former MP and Minister of State for Defence Bernard Chen, would take them along on his visits to various constituencies, and even brought them to the old Fraser and Neave (F&N) factory in River Valley to show them how drinks were bottled. Mr Chen was the general manager and managing director of F&N for a period of time.

"He believed in experiential learning and so he wanted to expose us to as many different things as possible," said Ms Chen, 44.

Mr Chen died yesterday at 1.38am at the Assisi Hospice in the presence of his family. He was 72.

Speaking to The New Paper last night, Ms Chen said her father discovered a tumour in his left kidney late last year.

Despite an operation to remove the tumour and chemotherapy, the cancer had spread and towards the end of February, he opted for palliative care.

"My father was very calm and open about death, so after he made the decision (for palliative care), he said it was like a huge burden had been lifted off his shoulders," Ms Chen said.

His funeral plans showed just how organised he was, she said.

"He decided that his funeral was going to be at St Joseph's Church, where he served as a communion minister, and even chose the hymns that we were going to sing," said Ms Chen, adding that he wanted one of her two sons to sing.

Towards the end of his life, Mr Chen was bedridden and moved home. There, he continued to receive old friends and colleagues, including President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and former cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan.

He would light up when his old friends visited, chatting with them and reminiscing about the past.

Being gravely ill did not stop him from writing a condolence letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he heard of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's death.

Said Ms Chen: "He was very upset and decided that he wanted to write a letter. So he dictated it to my mother, who wrote it down, and I typed it out before sending it out. My father was very touched when PM replied."

Born in a field hospital in China in 1942, Mr Chen's family escaped to India when World War II escalated, moving to Hong Kong later before coming to Singapore.


A Colombo Plan scholar, he had the opportunity to attend the University of Alberta in Canada where he earned a degree in chemical engineering. He also studied at Harvard University, where he earned a Masters in Public Administration.

He joined the civil service before entering politics. He later entered the private sector.

Former colleagues describe Mr Chen as an intelligent man who was generous, sincere and forthright.

Mr Lee Chiong Giam, who was then the Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, first met Mr Chen in 1975 who was his opposite at the Ministry of Finance (Development), now known as the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

"He was very competent and meticulous, and we worked very closely together because both our ministries would be involved in trade talks and other discussions," Mr Lee said.

In 1977, when Mr Chen won the Radin Mas constituency seat in a contest against the late Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party, he asked Mr Lee to chair the Citizens' Consultative Committee. Mr Lee readily agreed.

Said Mr Lee: "Bernard is not just a colleague. He is my friend."

Fellow parliamentarian Mr Teo Chong Tee recalled Mr Chen being extremely concerned about his residents' welfare.

"In those days, the problems were different from what the MPs face now. Those were bread and butter issues that had immediate impact and when we met in Parliament, Bernard and I would talk about how we handled these problems," he said.

As head of F&N in the late 1980s, Mr Chen worked closely with Mr Koh Poh Tiong, who was then head of Malayan Brewery, the F&N subsidiary that produced Tiger Beer. It has since been renamed Asia Pacific Brewery.

The pair met for lunch every week, and would go to coffee shops all over Singapore where they could meet merchants, coffee shop owners and regular people who bought their products.

"Being very good natured, he always wanted to find out what the customers felt about our products. He is a wonderful colleague and friend..." said Mr Koh.

When I was elected... (he) gave me useful advice on the workings of the Cabinet and Parliament, and readily shared his experience in constituency work. He was a good friend and we continued to keep in touch after he retired from politics.

- President Tony Tan Keng Yam in his letter of condolence


This article was first published on April 9, 2015.
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