The late Lee Kuan Yew knew how to talk to and persuade people, recalled Frankie Leung, a Hong Kong lawyer, when he met Singapore’s first Prime Minister during the 1970s.
“I spoke to Lee once in London. I met him many times. He could judge from my accent that I was from Hong Kong. Lee was a sharp man. He arrived at the main issue point-blank. He was austere and incorrupt himself. That is a very unique and rare trait among politicians in Asia or any part of the world. He sounded very puritan,” Leung told the Independent SG by email.
Leung, a former lecturer in law at Stanford University, now resides in the US. Prior to that, he was a barrister in Hong Kong and as a young man, studied law at Keble College, Oxford.
At the age of 19, Leung met Lee for the first time in Singapore during the summer of 1970, when he was a member of a Hong Kong delegation touring South-east Asian universities.
“Lee shook hands with me. He gave a speech to all the delegates from Asia. He was in a white shirt, short sleeves and plain cotton pants. Very unpretentious. Almost looked like a lower rank civil service clerk. He told us that Singapore is a young nation just separated from Malaysia. He told us what Singapore aspire to do in the next 10 years. He told us the hardship Singapore had undergone. He asked us to take an interest in his country when we went home,” Leung said.
“He was very British in a yellow face. To a certain extent I could identify with him,” he added.
“Lee Kuan Yew had a sharp tongue. He said, ‘Western journalists always volunteered to teach me how to govern my country. Every time they offered me advice I declined’,” Leung said.
Leung also has memories of Singaporean students when he was reading law at Keble College, Oxford.
There was a Singaporean student studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Keble College, Leung recalled. “He had long hair and a beard. Two weeks before he graduated, he shaved and cut his hair short. He told me he was going home to join the Administrative Officer rank. I smiled and wished him luck.”
During the 1970s, Lee’s government banned long hair among males in Singapore, possibly to prevent the rebellious hippie counter-culture in the US at that time from spreading to Singaporean youths.
At a Chinese New Year dinner in a Chinese restaurant in the UK with mostly Chinese people from different countries, a Singapore High Commission official was at Leung’s table, Leung said. “He was talking to the Singaporean students telling them how lucky they are from Singapore. The government pay for them to attend such a fine university. They should work hard. Very paternalistic and like my grandmother.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Singapore government encouraged professionals from other countries and Hong Kong to work in Singapore and students from these places to study in the Lion City on the government’s scholarship. Leung almost emigrated to Singapore, but decided not to, he disclosed. “I have been visiting Singapore more than 10 times. I have many friends there, teaching or lawyering or judging.”
During his tour to Singapore in 1970, Leung stayed for 10 days at Raffles Hall, where he shared a room with two students of Singapore University, the precursor of the National University of Singapore.
“My university roommates took me to trips over the island so that I learned about the city. Some mornings I could see trucks of British and Australian soldiers in fatigues and machine guns going into Malaysia to fight the communists,” Leung said.
“Outside Raffles Hall there were dirt roads. The tallest building was the Bank of China building. The largest department store was Robinsons. It was a poor cousin version of Lane Crawford in Hong Kong,” he recalled of Singapore in 1970.
On the passing of Lee in 2015, Leung said: “The death of Lee Kuan Yew marked the end of paternalistic benevolent government. I recommend that Singapore think-tanks should have a through discussion and candid analysis of the future of the Republic and what kind of leadership would be the most appropriate for the future.”
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.