Former Senior Minister of State: 'If you won his trust, he wouldn't question you'

Former Senior Minister of State: 'If you won his trust, he wouldn't question you'
GOOD OLD DAYS: Mr Ch’ng Jit Koon has fond memories of working with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Ch’ng (second from Mr Lee’s left) at a surprise party that Spottiswoode Park residents gave Mr Lee for his 57th birthday.

To many, Mr Lee Kuan Yew seemed aloof, even formidable.

But the man Mr Ch'ng Jit Koon knew was a very different one.

Mr Ch'ng, 81, a former Senior Minister of State, told The New Paper at his office in Suntec City: "After my close contact with Mr Lee, I found that once you won his trust, he would not question any decisions you made."

Mr Ch'ng had been thrust into the world of diplomacy and politics after a chance meeting with the then-Prime Minister at the anniversary celebrations of the then-Association of Nantah Graduates.

Mr Lee was the guest of honour and Mr Ch'ng, the association's acting president.

From that meeting, Mr Lee decided that Mr Ch'ng was Ministry of Foreign Affairs material and surprised him with a three-month posting to the United Nations a few months later.


On his return from the stint, Mr Ch'ng was slotted as a candidate for Tiong Bahru and served as Member of Parliament from 1968 to 1991 and as MP for Bukit Merah from 1991 to 1996.

He was also second adviser to Tanjong Pagar grassroots from 1975 to 1996, which gave him more contact with Mr Lee.

Mr Ch'ng also conducted Meet-The-People sessions for Mr Lee.

It turned out there were occasions when Mr Lee would "bang table" at the sessions he held.

Mr Ch'ng laughed as he recounted: "Mrs Lee (Madam Kwa Geok Choo) told her husband, 'You are going to lose voters if you continue to do so.'

"For example, parents would come asking that Mr Lee help get their children, who had been arrested for gangsterism, out. But of course, Mr Lee could not and would not do that," he said.

"Then, they'd rebut, 'But you are the Prime Minister. If you say can, sure can.'

"How could he tolerate that kind of nonsense?"

Mrs Lee felt that it would be better for Mr Lee to avoid such confrontations and appoint someone else to conduct the sessions.

But Mr Lee would always make an effort to mingle with his grassroots leaders twice a year on Chinese New Year and National Day.

Key grassroots leaders - the ones who helped him in Tanjong Pagar - shared the same table with him at these dinners.

Mr Ch'ng encouraged them to be open and "feel free" to respond to Mr Lee's questions on all matters.

"Gradually, the grassroots leaders became closer to him.

"The atmosphere went from being quiet at first to cracking jokes with him."

In an interview with The Sunday Times in 1994, Mr Lee described Mr Ch'ng: "He's absolutely first-rate... He puts people at ease. They can tell him all their problems. They can tell him all their hopes. He is sympathetic, he listens to them.

"But he gives me hard-headed advice."

When asked what the one thing was that he admired about Mr Lee, Mr Ch'ng said: "He was a good mentor.

"He really wanted to groom (the younger politicians) and pass on his experience. But he also wanted them to learn the right way." He shared Mr Lee's mentoring method.

"At meetings, whether he was there as the PM or chairman, he'd start by asking everyone to carry on with the items on the agenda.

"Because he knew that the speakers would be intimidated if he stared or even looked at them, he would most often pretend to be reading something.

"This way, there was no pressure on the one making the presentation. But if he needed more information, he'd prod and wait for more details or explanation."

Mr Ch'ng said: "Mr Lee will definitely be missed."

This article was first published on March 25, 2015.
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