By Mary Lee
I’m famous. Again. Sort of. Thanks to a Sharan Kaurner post on Facebook on September 1, 2013. Sharan went to the National Library to look up a column I’d written on November 3, 1974 — yes, 39 years ago — in the long-defunct Sunday Nation on the Great Paper Chase — training ground for the adult rat race.
What led Sharan and friend Visa to the National Library archives to look for the column? A short mention about me in OB Markers, Cheong Yip Seng’s book on his 45 years in The Straits Times as its editor-in-chief. Until Cheong mentioned in his book how that particular column had black-marked me in LKY’s eyes, I’d thought, all these years, that it was some committee of hypersensitive censors in City Hall (as we called the Prime Minister’s Office then) who disliked my views. Wrong.
The man himself thought I was trouble. As Cheong said in his book, LKY wanted me sacked for stating in print that the pursuit of certificates and degrees was a total waste of time. I was undermining the education system, apparently.
And the great paper chase is still a topic of debate today. Some things never change.
Was LKY aware of the impact of his demands on my life? I doubt it. People in power are like that. Let me hasten to add that Cheong and his boss then — Peter Lim — told LKY that they had approved that and my other columns which the authorities had deemed morally subversive. I didn’t lose my job, but was made to edit copy. I wasn’t happy but neither was I living in fear then.
A phone call from an old classmate whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in seven years changed all that. Out of the blue, he called. I was a reporter, so I wasn’t surprised he had my number. He said he wanted to have a drink with me, so he
came to where I lived then, in Farrer Road, in his car.
Where are we going? I asked. “I’ll just drive around,” he said. What he told me over the next few minutes in his car scared me like I’d never been scared before.
(The only other time I’ve been scared in my life was when I was caught in my car, surrounded by an angry Chinese soccer crowd in the Workers Stadium in Beijing in 1984; it was a World Cup qualifying match between China and Hong
Kong. China lost. They kicked my little Mazda and belted it with rocks and bricks, right down Changan Avenue.)
But back to my de-briefing in my ex-classmate’s car. Here’s what he told me: Don’t invite anyone you’re not familiar with to your flat and don’t hold any parties in your flat. Throw out all the publications you brought back from the US. You might be raided.
(Out went the copies of Playboy and Playgirl I had acquired during my nine months in the US on a journalism fellowship.)
He told me to be careful, dropped me off at my flat. I didn’t even get the chance to ask him what sort of work he did. It didn’t matter. He had instilled fear and paranoia in me, two emotions I had not felt before.
It wasn’t pleasant. Suddenly, I’m no longer able to trust anyone around me, except for my mother. I cried for days because I knew what I had to do: I had to leave Singapore. All I told her was that I had to go to London because my life was going to be difficult.
I chose London because I had friends there.
I was poor in London, so after a few months of living off my friends, I signed up in November as a Christmas sales assistant at Harrods. Even as temporary staff, we had two weeks of training. But I lived well, paying token rent to share a flat owned by a former colleague at the Singapore Herald, Bryan Rimmer.
So what LKY did for me was good — he got me to look at other horizons outside of Singapore. I went from selling ribbons and lace at Harrods haberdashery to working as a sub-editor on the South-east London Mercury, a weekly in South London, not far from where I lived. On Saturday, I worked on the foreign desk of The Sunday Times, in close proximity to Harold Evans, the editor. Then I was hired as a foreign page sub-editor on The Guardian newspaper, where one evening, I ran into Francis Khoo and his wife, Ang Swee Chye. Francis was seeking asylum in Britain. He and Swee Chai were as surprised to see me as I them. They had just arrived in London and had nowhere to live, so they squatted with me for about two weeks.
Francis’ situation was worse than mine. He couldn’t return to Singapore to bury his mother.
Francis was eventually allowed to return in an urn, and Swee Chai allowed to stay for a few more days, returning to London with his ashes (she’s not allowed to return to Singapore but must apply for permission each time).
What had Francis done that so irritated the government of the day, enough fo him to flee and live in exile for 35 years? Why was the Internal Security Department after him? There was mention of Euro-Communists but nothing was proven.
But back to LKY and me. London was nice except for winter — two cold and grey winters and I needed to go back East.
Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong
The Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong was looking for a correspondent, so I applied, and got the job.
I didn’t miss Singapore, only my mother. I loved Hong Kong, and got involved with a pressure group, the Hong Kong Observers (HKO). We wrote articles pressing for rights from the British administration, and worried about the future of Hong Kong (1997, when the colony was due to be handed back to China, wasn’t very far away).
I’m still in touch with my HKO friends, some of whom continue to have a role in civic society. It was intellectually stimulating, getting involved in colonial politics. It was a good feeling, losing the paranoia that LKY had instilled in me.
I was able to return home to visit family and friends once a year, usually over Chinese New Year.
Then came an occasion in 1981, when I dropped in to see some friends who were working at The Straits Times. They had a briefing by Goh Chok Tong. As I was leaving for Hong Kong the next day, they invited me to go along. At that briefing, GCT outlined to the local press (the only ones in attendance) how their papers were to use the articles in the 25th anniversary issue of Petir.
Life hasn’t changed much in the 30 years since — the government is still telling The Straits Times what to do, albeit more subtly these days.
My friends who asked me to attend that briefing got into hot water; James Fu, LKY’s press secretary, was clearly unhappy that I turned up, uninvited: he told Susumu Awanohara so. (I still tease Susumu that he was the only Review
correspondent the Singapore government liked.)
The next 13 years were full of adventure (including a year at Stanford University as a journalism fellow, followed by a 20-month stint in Beijing as correspondent for the Review and The Times, (to get around the problem that the Chinese authorities regarded the Review as a Hong Kong publication).
Lee to Lee: An open letter
There was an occasion when a confluence of events occurred. This exploded as a column which appeared in The Fifth Column in January 1985 which was headlined: Lee-to-Lee: An open letter. I had written that column after my colleague, VG Kulkarni, in his last report on Singapore, where he had been stationed for two years, wrote a column about the Indian minority in Singapore. S Rajaratnam was furious and responded that as VG came from a country where the people didn’t have enough eggs, he shouldn’t teach us how to suck eggs.
I called on the Singapore Commissioner to express my shock at Rajaratnam’s response. “Non-Singaporeans shouldn’t comment on Singapore matters,” the commissioner said. I raised this at the next editorial conference and was assigned to write a “think” piece on Singapore. I did, and then left for Beijing, where I was the new Review correspondent.
The article was intended to appear in a Singapore supplement in the Review but it didn’t.
About three months later, when I was on a break in Hong Kong, I asked the Review’s chief sub-editor what happened to the piece. He dug through his in-tray and found it, and said he’d be using it in the next issue. He did.
It was was a commentary on the mutterings of middle-class professionals about the PAP. It didn’t go down very well. I was living in Beijing then and the negative reaction did get round to me.
Singapore seemed very far away I was only aware of another kind of impact of the open letter when, chatting with a total stranger on a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, the man asked me what I did. I told him I was a foreign correspondent based in Beijing, and he expressed surprise, asked if I was Mary Lee and grabbed my hand and shook it hard: Loved your Lee-to-Lee letter, he said.
I didn’t want to be drawn on my views on the PAP because I don’t like bad-mouthing people. But I’m a good listener, so I let him speak his mind. He clearly needed to sound off.
I also spent two weeks in the High Court as the Review defended itself in a libel suit brought by LKY, based on two paragraphs in a report about the ISD arresting 16 Catholics for a Marxist conspiracy against the government. It was a controversy which involved the Catholic Archbishop Gregory Yong and four Catholic priests. The Review lost. LKY was awareded $230,000 in damages.
Apart from Derek Davies, the defendant, and our British Queen’s Counsel Geoffrey Robertson, no one else was granted a professional visit pass. I had my Singapore passport so I could be there.
I left Hong Kong and returned to Singapore in November 1989 for personal reasons.
The Review couldn’t get me accreditation as its Singapore correspondent but I remained on its payroll for a year and a half, going to its office at International Plaza and keeping myself busy.
LKY found an effective way of knee-capping the Review: first, he restricted its circulation to 500 copies (the Singapore market, with 9,000 subscribers was the region’s largest). Then it passed a law making it legal to photocopy the contents of the Review without advertisements and selling it to people who wanted to continue buying it for its editorial content. It dried up circulation and advertising revenue.
This was the third time LKY had cost me my job: the first was when he closed the Singapore Herald in May 1971 (it was my first job). Then came my departure from the Sunday Nation. and finally, I couldn’t continue in a non-job at the Singapore office of the Review, but for medical and personal reasons, I had to remain in Singapore, so I resigned from the Review.
The New Paper
I eventually got another job at Singapore Press Holdings, this time I was hired as a sub-editor on The New Paper in 1995. But I got into trouble again, as a result of a comment I made to the BBC World Service in 1997 over the salary cuts the govenment announced it would make to ministerial salaries because of the recession.
The BBC called (the World Service people had my phone number since my Review days) and asked for my comments. I told them I had nothing to say but the reporter persisted. She asked me how I felt about the high salaries the PAP paid itself. I commented that, unfortunately, we had to take their word that they were worth what they were paid. They weren’t exactly top basketball players like Michael Jordan (I was a big fan then) whose skills were self-evident and deserved every dollar of his multi-million salary.
I was demoted because there was a clause in my contract (which I’d forgotten) which stated that I could not speak to other media without permission from my bosses.
I worked a total of eight years with TNP and finally resigned in 2003.
I used my language skills and trained as a speech and drama teacher with Julia Gabriel, a new line which gave me tremendous job satisfaction. I most enjoyed being a debate coach, training teenagers to debate. Two of my teams won the Secondary Schools Debating Championships: teaching bright young minds to analyse and critique policies was very fulfilling.
There’s no bitterness in me towards LKY or his government. It’s a personal choice to live in Singapore, which is home to my family, and enjoy the benefits of modern city life.
I enjoyed Cheong Yip Seng’s OB Markers. Not only because it had a couple of paragraphs on me, and gave me a few seconds of fame, but also because it recalled the blow an all-powerful politician and his knuckle-duster bureaucrats struck on my life.