Singapore — One of the country’s pioneer-generation civil servants, Mr V K Rajan, has written a memoir that shows the strict nature of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Published in November last year, Serving Singapore: My Journey is not only Mr Rajan’s story but Singapore’s as well, tracing the country’s development from 1959, when Singapore became a self-governing state and the year Mr Rajan began his career in the Civil Service.
He writes at the beginning of his book: “Singaporeans know the year 1959 as a momentous year — the year Singapore attained self-government, following first general election, under universal suffrage on 31st May. The People’s Action Party (PAP), led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, assumed office on 3rd June. A journalist by the name of Vernon Bartlett wrote in The Straits Times in June of that year that Lee Kuan Yew then was the youngest prime minister in the Commonwealth and, probably, in the world, as well. The scale of the victory stunned many observers and even the British were probably surprised at the massive landslide.”
An excerpt from the book was featured on mothership.sg on Sunday (Jan 12), showing how Lee could be exacting and formidable as the country’s chief executive.
He certainly cared about the details, as one of Mr Rajan’s recollections from 1969 shows. For the Commonwealth Seminar that year, Mr Rajan had been in charge of organising the gathering of 34 senior officials from Commonwealth countries. There were, however, limited facilities and resources, including not having enough chairs for the delegates.
Mr Rajan wrote that the most important delegates were assigned swivel and tilting chairs made of rattan and wood, and designed for Asians, and not the bigger delegates from Africa, the West Indies and Pacific Island nations.
Just before the seminar started, Lee inspected everything, including the chairs, expressing a concern that they might not be strong enough for Arnold Smith, a Canadian and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. Smith was a big man.
Lee said: “You want Arnold Smith to fall down and cause an international incident?”
Mr Rajan told the Prime Minister that there were no replacements, whereupon Lee replied along the lines of “Let us hope there is no incident”.
This caused Mr Rajan to barely sleep that night, as well as to worry all throughout the seminar about whether or not the chair would hold Smith’s weight, although he did ask the man if he wanted the chair replaced with something “simpler and sturdier”.
Mr Rajan wrote: “I kept my fingers crossed throughout the seminar. There was nothing more that I could have done. I became more anxious when Arnold Smith really started to enjoy the chair, especially its tilt, and swivelled frequently, stretching it to the limit.”
Lee’s manner made his subordinates, even senior officers, nervous, and end up making mistakes or doing strange things when addressed.
Mr Rajan wrote: “An Administrative Officer serving the PM also jumped to his feet whenever the telephone rang. He picked up the handset and placed the mouthpiece to his ear, uttered his name but pronounced it in reverse order, and as he jumped up his left foot went into the rattan waste paper basket! My colleague who witnessed this behaviour was a junior officer in the same office.”
Mr Rajan found himself in hot water with Lee during the visit of China’s Premier Li Peng. After a question was asked by Minister Ong Teng Cheong, the Minister in Attendance to Premier Li, concerning the administration’s position on a certain matter, Mr Rajan had to ask Lee about it.
“In doing so, I volunteered a suggestion (in the spirit of finding a solution) which turned out to be both unwise and inappropriate — a big mistake on my part. PM Lee scolded me in a loud voice saying, ‘Are you daft?’
“There was a stunned silence from guests who had already arrived, but I could not afford to get distracted. I had to act very quickly as time was closing in fast.
“With help from Wong Chooi Sen, we solved the issue and I sent a message to Ong Teng Cheong. The rest of the programme was executed with precision.
“On reflection, I felt it was a very serious mistake on my part and I deserved the rebuke.
“The next day I received calls from a few guests including members of parliament who were present at the function to console me.
“I did not hear further from PM Lee concerning the incident and neither did I sense any change afterwards in the way he used to deal with me. That was a close shave for me, and I learnt a good lesson from that incident.”
Mr Rajan, who retired in 2001 but is now an adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Bahrain, was in Singapore’s Executive Service, the Administrative Service and the Foreign Service during his long career. -/TISG