Mr Lee's red box and his unwavering dedication to Singapore

Mr Lee's red box and his unwavering dedication to Singapore

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had a red box. When I worked as Mr Lee's principal private secretary, or PPS, a good part of my daily life revolved around the red box. Before Mr Lee came in to work each day, the locked red box would arrive first, at about 9am.

As far as the various officers who have worked with Mr Lee can remember, he had it for many, many years. It is a large, boxy briefcase, about 14cm wide. Red boxes came from the British government, whose ministers used them for transporting documents between government offices.

Our early ministers had red boxes, but Mr Lee is the only one I know who used his consistently through the years.

When I started working for Mr Lee in 1997, it was the first time I saw a red box in use. It is called the red box but is more a deep wine colour, like the seats in the chamber in Parliament House.

This red box held what Mr Lee was working on at any one time. Through the years, it held his papers, speech drafts, letters, readings, and a whole range of questions, reflections and observations.

For example, in the years that Mr Lee was working on his memoirs, the red box carried the multiple early drafts back and forth between his home and the office, scribbled over with his and Mrs Lee's notes.

For a long time, other regular items in Mr Lee's red box were the cassette tapes that held his dictated instructions and thoughts for later transcription. Some years back, he changed to using a digital recorder.

The red box carried a wide range of items. It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway.

Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him - when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow.

We could never anticipate what Mr Lee would raise - it could be anything that was happening in Singapore or the world. But we could be sure of this: It would always be about how events could affect Singapore and Singaporeans, and how we had to stay a step ahead.

Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.

We would get to work right away. Mr Lee's secretaries would transcribe his dictated notes, while I followed up on instructions that required coordination across multiple government agencies. Our aim was to do as much as we could by the time Mr Lee came into the office later.

While we did this, Mr Lee would be working from home. For example, during the time that I worked with him (1997-2000), the Asian financial crisis ravaged many economies in our region and unleashed political changes. It was a tense period as no one could tell how events would unfold. Often, I would get a call from him to check certain facts or arrange meetings with financial experts.

In the years that I worked for him, Mr Lee's daily breakfast was a bowl of dou hua (soft bean curd) with no syrup. It was picked up and brought home in a tiffin carrier every morning from a food centre near Mr Lee's home. He washed it down with room-temperature water. Mr Lee did not take coffee or tea at breakfast.

When Mr Lee came into the office, the work that had come earlier in the red box would be ready for his review, and he would have a further set of instructions for our action.

From that point on, the work day would run its normal course. Mr Lee read the documents and papers, cleared his e-mails, and received official calls by visitors. I was privileged to sit in for every meeting he conducted.

He would later ask me what I thought of the meetings - it made me very attentive to every word that was said, and I learnt much from Mr Lee.

Evening was Mr Lee's exercise time. Mr Lee has described his extensive and disciplined exercise regime elsewhere. It included the treadmill, rowing, swimming and walking - with his ears peeled to the evening news or his Mandarin practice tapes. He would sometimes take phone calls while exercising.

He was in his 70s then. In more recent years, being less stable on his feet, Mr Lee had a simpler exercise regime. But he continued to exercise.

Since retiring from the Minister Mentor position in 2011, Mr Lee was more relaxed during his exercises. Instead of listening intently to the news or taking phone calls, he shared his personal stories and joked with his staff.

While Mr Lee exercised, those of us in the office would use that time to focus once again on the red box, to get ready all the day's work for Mr Lee to take home with him in the evening.

Based on the day's events and instructions, I tried to get ready the materials that Mr Lee might need. It sometimes took longer than I expected, and occasionally, I had to ask the security officer to come back for the red box later.

While Mrs Lee was still alive, she used to drop by the Istana at the end of the day, in order to catch a few minutes together with Mr Lee, just to sit and look at the Istana trees that they both loved. They chatted about what many other old couples would talk about. They discussed what they should have for dinner, or how their grandchildren were doing.

Then back home went Mr Lee, Mrs Lee and the red box. After dinner, Mr and Mrs Lee liked to take a long stroll. In his days as Prime Minister, while Mrs Lee strolled, Mr Lee liked to ride a bicycle. It was, in the words of those who saw it, "one of those old man bicycles".

None of us who have worked at the Istana can remember him ever changing his bicycle. He did not use it in his later years, as he became frail, but I believe the "old man bicycle" is still around somewhere.

After his dinner and evening stroll, Mr Lee would get back to his work. That was when he opened the red box and worked his way through what we had put into it in the office.

Mr Lee's study is converted out of his son's old bedroom. His work table is a simple, old wooden table with a piece of clear glass placed over it. Slipped under the glass are family memorabilia, including a picture of our current PM from his national service days.

When Mrs Lee was around, she stayed up reading while Mr Lee worked. They liked to put on classical music while they stayed up.

In his days as PM, Mr Lee's average bedtime was 3.30 in the morning. As Senior Minister and Minister Mentor, he went to sleep after two in the morning. If he had to travel for an official visit the next day, he might go to bed at one or two in the morning.

Deep into the night, while the rest of Singapore slept, it was common for Mr Lee to be in full work mode.

Before he went to bed, Mr Lee would put everything he had completed back in the red box, with clear pointers on what he wished for us to do in the office. The last thing he did each day was to place the red box outside his study room.

The next morning, the duty security team picked up the red box, brought it to us waiting in the office, and a new day would begin.

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