A one-man intelligence agency

A one-man intelligence agency

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.

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