Former bodyguard's memories of Mr Lee

Former bodyguard's memories of Mr Lee

On a sunny Friday in the mid-1970s, travelling along Orchard Road near the Mandarin Hotel, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saw a puddle of water along the side of the road. It looked like an ordinary water leak but he pointed to the spot and wanted to know what caused the puddle, recalled Mr Karuppiah Kandasamy, who was then his bodyguard.

"I immediately got in touch with the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and I was told there was a damaged water pipe which PUB rectified immediately.

Later that evening, as I jogged with him, Mr Lee asked me about the puddle of water and I had to explain to him," said Mr Kanda, as he's affectionately called.

Another incident, in the early 1980s, involved a tree branch that had dried leaves. Mr Lee was on his way to visit the refurbished northern town of Nee Soon, and a tree, on Thomson Road, caught his attention. The whole tree was green except that particular branch, and Mr Lee wanted to know why.

"I checked and found that the branch had come in contact with a naked electrical wire and caused the damage. National Parks Board (NParks) was informed and action was taken immediately.

When returning from Nee Soon, he was informed about this matter and the quick action taken."

These two incidents, said Mr Kanda, stand out in his mind and remind him of how observant Mr Lee was even when he was on the move.

"He was such a caring, concerned, 'made for the people leader', very attentive to the smallest detail, which were relevant to the layman. His heart was with Singaporeans and when he was travelling from home to his office or to any function, he never sat back and relaxed. He was always looking around to ensure everything was in order," said

Mr Kanda, who served as Mr Lee's bodyguard from 1970 to 1990.

Mr Lee, he said, took great pride in the Keep Singapore Clean campaign.

"Mr Lee took pride that greening was the most cost-effective project he ever launched. He firmly believed that improved environmental conditions would not only enhance the quality of life for Singaporeans and cultivate national pride, but also attract foreign investors and tourists to Singapore."

Mr Kanda, who grew up in the shoddy Lorong Retna kampung, off Jurong, joined the Singapore Police Force in 1960 when he was 20. "It was my first job at a reckless time when I was on the verge of being recruited as a triad member in my neighbourhood of Indian and Chinese gangsters," he said. "But I believed serving the country was more challenging than being a hoodlum."

He excelled as a police trainee and was selected to be an instructor at the Police Training School at Thomson Road in the mid-1960s. He specifically excelled in shooting, martial arts and physical fitness.

In 1970, he was called up to join the elite Police Security Branch and on Nov 16, 1970, assigned to Mr Lee's family.

"It was a very scary experience to be Mr Lee's personal bodyguard as the personal and professional standards were very high," he said. "I did not dare to look at his face when he spoke or gave instructions.

But within a few months, I gained confidence and courage before talking to him. It was the same with Mrs Lee and the three children.

"Slowly, the Lees trusted me as I was with them almost every day. Mr Lee was firm and did not tolerate any shortcomings. But he was also a very fair gentleman. When you make a mistake, he will advise you not to repeat the mistake.

"As a security officer, one had to be very alert and on one's toes. He spoke only to his personal security officer and passed on instructions.

You had to be extra alert and listen carefully to his instructions. When he spoke, I never looked into his face, but kept my ears wide open. Sometimes he'd ask me to repeat what he has said," said Mr Kanda.

"What struck me was his keen interest to listen first to express confidence in others. I would sum him up as a God-sent leader, who paid attention in order to gain insight to the concerns, requirements and problems in order to decide what course of action to take."

In terms of devotion to work, Mr Kanda described Mr Lee as more than a workaholic. "He was such a disciplined gentleman, he worked day and night. He did his work at home and in the office.

Almost every day, he went to bed past midnight. Many people thought that, as prime minister, he could go to his office as he liked or go to bed as he wished. When I was on duty, almost every night, I saw him working in his room till past midnight."

The fitness fanatic in Mr Lee was extraordinary, noted Mr Kanda, as he stayed mentally and physically on high personal alert. "He never missed a day of exercise unless there was severe lightning and thunder and he was very serious about his fitness regime. He cycled and jogged around the Istana grounds daily.

Once, at midnight, he returned from an overseas trip, and went straight to the gym to exercise, according to his strict work-play daily routine. Even on Chinese New Year or Christmas, he would do his 5.45 to 7.15pm workouts of aerobics, gym work, indoor rowing, cycling, jogging and swimming," added Mr Kanda.

Mr Kanda recalled that Mr Lee had decided in 1959, when he took office as prime minister, not to live at Sri Temasek, the official residence of the prime minister, in the Istana. He wanted his family to live in humble surroundings without the colonial-style grandeur of butlers and orderlies to fuss over their needs.

38 Oxley Road has been home to the Lees since the 1940s. Built over 100 years ago by a Jewish merchant, Mr Lee once described the property as "a big, rambling house with five bedrooms, and three others at the back originally used as servants' quarters".

Said Mr Kanda: "I could see clearly that the Lees raised their three children in a simple and humble way, to be well-behaved, polite, considerate and never to throw their weight around as the prime minister's children."

Compared to the high-tech Secret Service-style electronic equipment of the Istana security officers today, Mr Kanda smiled cheekily as he recalled in the 1970s, the walkie-talkie (more formally known as a handheld transceiver, or HT) was "very bulky, about 4kg in weight, looked like a portable radio and we didn't have any earpiece". He first started armed with an old-line Webly revolver and later switched in the 1980s to a dexterous Smith & Wesson handgun.

Tears welled up in Mr Kanda's eyes as he spoke of Aug 15, 1990 - the eve of his 50th birthday - which was his last day at work.

He recollected: "I spoke to Mrs Lee when she was going to her office and told her that it was my last day. She said that I must tell the prime minister. At about 11am, Mr Lee was in the lift on the way to his office and I told him about my retirement. He stepped out of the lift, placed his bag on the floor and asked me why I was retiring.

"I told him that I had exceeded my retirement age by five years and had to go. He asked me: 'How old are you?'. I replied: '50 years, Sir.' He said: 'What? You are 50 years? You don't look like it.' He then asked me if I had another job. I told him there were two jobs waiting. He then told me: 'Well, if you have to go, you have to go.'"

From that rare quick conversation, Mr Kanda realised that Mr Lee handled even those closest to him in a professional way. "You are not indispensable. If you go, someone else can look after him. It's the truth, a fact of life, and I agreed wholeheartedly," said Mr Kanda.

"The next day was my birthday and I was called up by my Police Security Branch boss and presented with the best birthday present of my life, a personally-signed testimonial by Mr Lee."

The handwritten testimonial read: "He was my personal security officer since 1970. He was keen, alert and quick. He anticipated my movements and was unobtrusive in the manner he covered me. He is also helpful, resourceful and courteous. I commend him to anyone looking for a reliable and trustworthy personal security officer."

Teary-eyed, Mr Kanda, a father of two boys, Suresh and Ramesh, said: "Getting this great testimonial from a great man is more than a dream come true. After I retired, I had two different jobs but never used this testimonial as a job reference. I framed it and it hangs proudly in my living room as proof that I worked for one of the greatest men in the 20th century."

Another unforgettable moment was in 2013, when Mr Lee was invited to a function at the Senior Police Officers' Mess on Mount Pleasant Road. Four other former Istana security officers were also invited.

"Mr Lee saw me and said: 'Kanda, how are you? Are you still working? You look the same.' He told the senior officers: 'He used to look after me and jogged with me at the Istana almost every day.'

"Hearing these words was one of the proudest moments in my life as I served the longest-serving Prime Minister in Singapore's history."

If he could turn back the clock, Mr Kanda, now 74 and working in the private security industry, wished he could have told Mr Lee that he symbolised a "mega-God to millions of Singaporeans" who dedicated his life for the happiness of those millions of Singaporeans.

Suresh Nair is a journalist with more than 35 years' experience.

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