A man with a disciplined, capacious mind, always updating his mental map of the world to assess just how Singapore can benefit from a fast-changing world. This is how Education Minister Heng Swee Keat describes his former boss at a conference called "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew" at the Shangri-La Hotel on Monday, on Mr Lee's 90th birthday.
THE first time I met Mr Lee Kuan Yew in person was in March 1997 when he interviewed me for the job of Principal Private Secretary, or PPS. His questions were fast and sharp. Every reply drew even more probing questions. At the end of it, he said: "Brush up on your Mandarin and report in three months. We have an important project with China."
I realised later that, among others, it was perhaps when I replied "I don't know" to one or two questions that I might have made an impression. With Mr Lee, it is all right if you do not know something. But you do not pretend and lie if you do not know. Integrity is everything.
Mr Lee's favourite question is "So?". If you update him on something, he will invariably reply with "So?". You reply and think you have answered him, but again he asks, "So?". This "so?" question forces you to get to the core of the issue and draw out the implications of each fact. His instinct is to cut through the clutter, drill to the core of the issue, and identify the vital points. And he does this with an economy of effort.
I learnt this the hard way. Once, in response to a question, I wrote him three paragraphs. I thought I was comprehensive. Instead, he said: "I only need a one-sentence answer, why did you give me three paragraphs?" I worked very hard on that and so I reflected long and hard on this, and I realised that that was how he cut through the clutter. When he was the prime minister, there were so many issues that he had to grapple with, so it was critical to distinguish between the strategic and the peripheral issues.
On my first overseas trip with Mr Lee, just a few weeks after I started work, Mrs Lee, ever so kind, must have sensed my nervousness. She said to me: "My husband has strong views, but don't let that intimidate you!" Indeed, Mr Lee has strong views because these are rigorously derived, but he is also very open to robust exchange. Mr Lee makes it a point to hear from those who can contribute to it, those with expertise and experience. He is persuasive, but he can be persuaded.
A few months into my job, Mr Lee decided on a particular course of action on the Suzhou Industrial Park after deep discussion with our senior officials. That evening, I realised that amid the flurry of information, we had not discussed a point which was relevant to our approach. I gingerly wrote him a note, proposing some changes. To my surprise, he agreed.
MR LEE'S rich insights on issues come from a capacious and disciplined mind. He listens and reads widely, but he does so like a detective, looking for and linking vital clues while discarding the irrelevant.
He has a mental map of the world where he knows its contours well. Like a radar, he is constantly scanning for changes and matching these against the map. What might appear as random and disparate facts to many of us are placed within this map, and hence, his mental map is constantly being refreshed.
A senior US leader described this well: Mr Lee is like a one-man intelligence agency.
The most remarkable feature of the map in Mr Lee's head is the fact that the focal point is always Singapore. I mentioned his favourite word, "So?". Invariably, the "so?" question ends with, "So, what does this mean for Singapore?".
What are the implications? What should we be doing differently? Nothing is too big or too small. I accompanied Mr Lee on many overseas trips. The 1998 trip to the US is particularly memorable. Each day brought new ideas, and throughout the trip, I sent back many observations for our departments to study. It might be the type of industry that we might develop or the type of trees that might add colour to our garden city. This remains very much his style today.
His every waking moment is devoted to Singapore, and Mr Lee wants Singapore to be successful, beyond his term as prime minister.
Remarkably, from the early 60s, he already spoke about finding his successor. During my term with him, as Senior Minister, he devoted much of his effort to helping then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong succeed. He refrained from visiting Indonesia or Malaysia as he wanted PM Goh to establish himself as our leader. Instead, he fanned out to China, the United States and Europe to convince leaders and investors that PM Goh's leadership would take Singapore on to new levels of success.
As Senior Minister, he worked out with PM Goh the areas that he could contribute, and I will share three key projects which illustrate his contribution, but more importantly, how he develops insights and achieves results.
Insights are valuable, but how does Mr Lee turn insights into results? I believe it is through a single-minded focus on achieving whatever he sets out to do.
If things go wrong, do not sweep them aside. Confront the problems, get to the root of the difficulties, and wrestle with these resolutely. Go for long-term success, and do not be deterred by criticisms.