PM on Mr Lee Kuan Yew: 'When you needed him, he was there'

PM on Mr Lee Kuan Yew: 'When you needed him, he was there'

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had a habit of tugging his shirt sleeves near his shoulders whenever he was engrossed in a conversation. So did Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

This was one of the matter-of-fact observations the elder Mr Lee made when he was asked if father and son had similar traits. Tugging his own sleeve, he said: "I did not know how much like me he was until I watched him on television one day."

In another interview, he cited the work of British psychologist Hans Eysenck, who said boys tend to follow their mothers, and daughters, their fathers.

"Loong is a different personality from me. He's more, how would I say, equable - less intense than my daughter who takes after me," he said.

As someone who believed deeply in the heritability of genes, it was a subject that intrigued him. However, others were probably more seized by the possibility that the father may have succeeded in transferring all of his political DNA to the son.

Do they share the same political values and instincts? Such questions have been aired in kopitiam circles as well as the conversations of the creme de la creme. At the heart of the fixation for some is the fear that the younger Lee would lack his father's political strength and skill to do whatever had to be done. Others have the opposite fear, that should the time come for change, PM Lee would be unable to break free of his father's legacy.

It is difficult to compare the two, given that they belong to very different periods. Although their years in Cabinet had an extraordinarily long overlap of 27 years, their premierships were separated by 14 years of the Goh Chok Tong administration.

The elder Mr Lee's Singapore was associated with the drama of nation-building and high growth from a lower base. PM Lee's is a more stable Singapore, but one that faces the challenges of a maturing economy and a more demanding electorate.

Despite the differences, such is the senior Mr Lee's hold on people's political imagination that the question continues to arise: How much has he passed on to his son?

While much has been written about PM Lee's growing-up years, from their family holidays at Changi or Cameron Highlands or in Cambodia, to constituency visits, he has rarely spoken about the influence his father had in shaping his political beliefs, even though he is leading a movement founded by his father and his contemporaries.

During an interview in June 2013 - as concern grew about his father's frail health nearing his 90th birthday that September - PM Lee reflected on the impact his father had on his life, the personal and the political.

Recalling his childhood, he remembered a father who, though not always physically present in the house, was well apprised of what was going on in their lives.

"He was a very strict, good father. He left a lot of the looking after of the family to my mother because he was always busy with politics and with his responsibilities," said PM Lee. "But you knew he was there, you knew what he thought, you knew what he expected. Very strict. And if he disapproved of something, he didn't have to say a lot, you knew it."

The eldest of three children, PM Lee was born in 1952, two years before the PAP was founded. His fondest childhood memories include the short holidays and relaxing activities they had as a family. He recalled that when he was five or six, he would go in the evenings to Tanglin Halt to look at the trains go by.

Holidays to Cameron Highlands were "a great thrill and outing for us". He remembered the quaintness of breaking the journey in Kuala Lumpur and staying at the railway station's hotel, which gave him a chance to look at the trains on the platform.

He also learnt to play golf with his father: "So, for quite a number of years, I would play with him, and he would take me around the course when we were on holiday or here at Sri Temasek and on the Istana course. And that was a chance to spend time with him and chat with him."

As with traditional Asian families, hierarchy was respected and formalities observed. "He's not very demonstrative. And our family generally is not very touchy-feely. But it's a very deep respect and regard. He took us seriously and we held him in high respect. I think if you compare it with parents today and their children, they would describe it as a much more formal relationship.

"Today, I think people are much looser in the way you treat your parents, what they say, what they think, how you would argue with them. With us, well, we were a different generation."

As children of the Prime Minister, they were expected to behave properly and not throw their weight around. They were not under pressure to excel in school, although all three did."I was not the top student in the class or in the school. But as long as you're doing your best and you're managing, well, they were okay," he said.

If the children had an interest in something, the parents would help them pursue it. He himself, for example, decided to learn music after picking up a recorder bought for one of his siblings. From learning to read music, he decided to play the clarinet in the band and, later, the tuba. But there was no pressure to go through the hoops of examinations to polish his skills.

"In that way, it was a relaxed family. But they expected us to behave well and speak properly, not sloppily, use correct language and no bad language. I think those are things that they are stricter about than many parents today," he said.

Both parents stuck to a policy of not interfering with their children's own families.

However, the father did pen words of advice to his two sons when they got married.

"It's advice on how to have a happy marriage, speaking from his own personal experience. He took a lot of trouble keeping in touch with us. When we were away, he would write to us. And my mother would write to us every week. And I would write back," recalled PM Lee.

His mother's letters were handwritten whereas his father's were typewritten. "His letter would be dictated, typed, and then it's typed double or triple space, and then he would go through and correct the typed version, and then add stuff and maybe have another paragraph or two at the end in writing, and then he would send it to me in that form. To think of the effort… substantial pieces, maybe five, six pages, maybe more. I still have them all stored away somewhere," said PM Lee.

"I replied, also quite long letters, every week."

Personal tragedy struck PM Lee twice. In 1982, his first wife, Dr Wong Ming Yang, died from a heart attack. In 1992, when he was deputy prime minister, he fell ill with lymphoma. Recalling those life-changing events, he said of his father: "You depend on him for support."

Asked about his bond with his father, he said: "When you needed him, he was there. In a crisis, he was the key person in the family."

As for his decision to enter politics, PM Lee was unabashed: "He's had a very big influence on me. It's hard to say but he probably made me who I am, not like him but I learnt a lot from him."

It was Mr Goh who urged him to consider joining politics, PM Lee said, but he does not deny that his parentage had an influence on his willingness to serve. "If he hadn't been my father, I don't know," he said. "I might still have found my way into politics. Many of the other ministers and MPs have found their way into politics without having had the PM for their father. Maybe if he hadn't been my father, I might have felt less of a sense of responsibility that I had to take this up and do it."

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