THIS AND THAT 1945 to 2015 IN SINGAPORE (Part 2)


Singapore Memory Project

The first time I saw Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), I was playing Chinese checkers with the workers outside Hock Lee Bus Dept and one of them looked up and said: “Lam Iam kor boon Lai”, our adviser had come. He said: “What are you doing here?” I told him I was also here to try to settle the strike for the same reasom why he was here and then I moved away. I recognised him as the brilliant lawyer with double first degree at Cambridge and I heard he joined Laycock & Ong which was a well-established law firm. He was also intending to set up his own law firm, anticipating a political career. He then appeared as the lawyer arguing the case for the workers at the Court of Inquiry set up by the government to settle the disputes and headed by Freddie Phua, the High Court judge. The court was one the side of the main block of government offices at the end of the Padang. I was sitting between Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan explaining to them in Hokkien what was being said by both sides and told the judge had ruled in favour on the right of the management to fix their own roster and times of working. Lim Chin Siong said: “Bo chap siow” and headed with the workers who were present in court down High Street towards Hock Lee Bus Depot. I was able to telephone the labour office to warn Lim Yew Hock, the Minister of Labour, of the impending troubles and was told her was at David Marshall’s office nearby the court and was discussing with LKY who was also visiting David Marshall after the case.

The day before Lim Yew Hock, who decided to visit the workers site with David Marshall, has been jeered by workers who asked him who was the crowd largely from the Chinese schools was involved in the riot that resulted in several deaths and the following morning the workers delegation marched down Havelock Road and expressed their hanks for efforts in trying to conciliate an agreement. 

Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan for about five years dominated the industrial scene. Fong Swee Suan concentrated on the public buses/other than the Singapore Traction Company (STC) who was under Devan Nair. But it was Lim Chin Siong that dominated the activities and he had been returned as one of the four PAP candidates in an early election. There was talk in the air of the Chinese Communists winning all South East Asia on the grounds of falling dominoes theory. I personally viewed the attacks on Singapore Harbour Board and the bus services as inducement to the British to give up their authority in the area due to the paralysis of their entrepot trade and the immovability of the population to move freely. The head of the Chinese commandant in the area was called Plen. Plen who lived in the Indonesian Riau Island, South of Singapore. I once asked Lim Chin Siong if he had met the Plen and he replied: “Sphinx-wise”. “If LKY visited the Plen why should not I”, he replied. Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan who may or may not have been members of the party but were in charge of various industrial activities in the same way as the Jammit Singh who was in charge of the Singapore Harbour Board activities. Fong Swee Suan was involved in the rural and city busy services other than the STC and Woodhall in the British Naval Base.

The relationships between these activists and LKY were a method of disagreements amongst outside people. About two or three years later, I got a telephone call from Lim chin Siong who said that he had been released with others from Changi Prison and wanted me to take him for lunch at the Raffles Hotel. I agreed to a joint lunch at my home. Later in the afternoon I decided to have a game of gold at the Singapore Island Country Club. I was queueing up for the first Tee and noticed LKY was also queueing at the tenth Tee. I was reminded of an incident with him years ago when playing gold on the eleven Tee and he said: “I had lunch with an old friend of yours.” He immediately came to the right conclusion as to who the friend was. I was amused then by his British sense of humour. That night the telephone rang and it was Alex Josei who was then on the LKY’s staff. Alex Josei asked me what Lim Chin Siong said during lunch as LKY was interested to know. I assured Alex that Lim was on his best behavior and talked about the British been amongst his best friends. He also indicated he would like to retire from politics with his family in the UK.

The Colonial Office was getting disturbed by the strikes and general disorder of labour in Singapore. They sent an experience trade unionist from UK to examine and report. His name was Fred Dalley. He asked me arrange a meeting with Lim and Fong. I arranged for dinner at my house which I shared in Goodwood Hill complex. It was regrettably not a success. Lim and Fong arrived with the English-speaking activist who had made a study of works of Lenin and Mao Tse Tung and it was clear they were there to argue with Dalley leaving Lim and Fong out of the picture. I arranged a Western-style meal with soup as the first course. Fong proceeded to empty his glass with Spanish sherry and turned purple in his face. He said: “He would like to lie down” and I took him to my room and laid him on my bed. Lim took a chair to the side board and rang somebody and he then turned round and announced that he was talking to his Secretary-General, meaning LKY and the PAP. Puthercheray and Devan Nair eventually visited Singapore a second time and wrote a report that the Singapore Labour Front government and Lim Yew Hock refused to make public.

LKY paid particular attention to his own health. It was rumoured that he and his wife brushed their teeth in pure drinking water rather than tap water during their journey in 1948 to the UK in the semi-troop ship, Britannia. Many years later, I remembered flying to Bangkok for business meeting and found myself the only person in first class apart from the foreign secretary, Mr. Danabalan. Late departure if the plane was noted as some twelve members of the prime minister’s team arrived for sitting in the business class. I asked the cabin steward who they were and he showed me the flight manifest which included one of the names of the twelve passengers called Mr. Wong. A young porter then arrived on the plane carrying a suit case and this was followed by LKY. Dinner was served and I never had an air meal so delicious as this steak! LKY refused the steak but nibbled at an assortment of food. Two days later before leaving Bangkok there was a picture of LKY in the newspapers escorted by Thai policemen running around the race of the National Stadium.

About 1976 China was opening up and a recent visitor from Singapore was the editor of the Straits Times. LKY wanted what had happened on the visit as he was about to make an official visit the following week. I was asked to join by Devan Nair to make up a table of eight for dinner. LKY arrived for the dinner at the Shang Palace in the Shangri-la Hotel after taking the room temperature which had to be recorded at 22 degrees Celsius according to his wish. A large dish of pasta was at the centre of the table and he explained to me it was totally unseasoned. He would have this for dinner. This continued attention to his diet was essential for his performance as a leader for the nation. It applied equally to the safety of his person. The television supervisor who organized his speech of anguish in 1965 was a friend whom I later met at the opening of Sentosa Gold Course. He was then the representative of Sultan of Oman in Singapore. We chatted and suddenly were accosted by a diver complete with flippers. My friend smiled at me and I knew he was amused with. In 1970s Sentosa was approached by a ferry boat and LKY or the person responsible for his safety was taking no risks.

The PWD architect who was with me on the planning of the first national stadium told me that LKY who enjoyed an early morning round of golf on a small course at the Istana complained of the large ants under a rambutan tree which attacked his ankle. The architect was able to stop the tree blossoming with rambutan fruits and there were no more ants or fallen fruits. LKY then complained that he missed the birds singing in the morning and the architect suggested that he has to make a choice between birds and ants.

“Put hap-li, put chu iu, put bin chu, no freedom and democracy”, Lim Chin Siong opened his political speeches with this mantra and the crowd, except me, roared. LKY admired and took advantage of Lim’s crowd pulling speeches and once said: “He had other members of the PAP would have the same fire in the belly as Lim.” The Victoria Memorial Hall was the scene of governors exercising their oaths of office. A further ceremony was due to take place when I decided to join the audience. LKY was one of the four members recently elected and sat on the podium with Devan Nair and one Mr. Goh from the rural area and an empty seat. The municipal commissioners sat on the other side of the stage just as the ceremony was about to begin, a lone figure in an opened shirt and a badly fitting coat appeared at the entrance of the Victoria Memorial Hall and slowly walked up the aisle. It was Lim Chin Siong who occupied the forth seat. I looked towards LKY who had the look of someone deeply embarrassed.

Shortly afterwards, my minister who had recently relieved David Marshal as Chief Minister asked me to take him down to visit the factories and shop workers union on top of the coffee shop in Middle Road. It was the headquarters of Lim Hew Hock and Fong Swee Swee Suan’s activities. We drove down in my car. We climbed the stairs and were amazed at the activities in the room with dozens of young members of the various unions scribbling on blackboard and otherwise indicating where their activities were that day. Fong was standing by the table and I had to kick him and wake him up. He rose with an apologetic smile on his face. Both the minister and myself had seen enough and the minister reminded me that he wished to move to the gasometer in Kallang Basin as he had received advice about their complaints of the workers mostly from Hainan and their salaries. During our visit the telephone rang with a message from the Minister of Education. Lim came from the telephone conversation and took me by the arm and he said: “Let’s go back to the office immediately.” On the way he grabbed me by the shoulder and said: “Desmond, I am about to give orders that will save Singapore but will destroy my political life.”

It soon became apparent after an announcement from the then Radio Singapore that the Chinese High School students were on strike and the police were interested to restore peace and order. A phone call from a woman friend in Bentong, Pahang, Malaysia, urged my driver to go to the school to rescue her daughter. This was duly done by my driver who managed to break through all resistance and grabbed my friend’s daughter. Later that night I decided to visit the Chinese High School site in Bukit Timah Road. There were several people walking around including S.R.Nathan, the future President of Singapore, and Anthony Schooling of Radio Singapore who once shared a bungalow with me. 
Anthony later married Nalini, the sister of Devan Nair. I presumed he is the grandfather of Joseph Schooling, the Singapore Champion Swimmer in regional sports. In later years I often met President S.R. Nathan during morning walks along East Coast promenade. We became close friends as we often discussed the old times together. He struck me as the ideal person to represent multi-racial and multi-cultural society, like Singapore, for which of course we must thank LKY.

During the trip on the ship in the month of April to May 2015 from Singapore to Southampton, my carer and myself Meg an interesting couple. He was formerly an economist on the Economist Magazine and has now become a known author of financial matters. He was married to a charming Japanese lady from the Croamer, UK. I expect to hear she was from Osaka, a beautiful Japanese city but she was definitely fully assimilated as a citizen of Croamer. In conversation, we established they knew another Japanese woman friend, Harouke Fukuda, a broker with James Cable, who keeps in touch with the former director of James Cable, Peter Tapsell, and later became my close friend I ever had. After leaving Merton College, Oxford, he became a Tory Member of Parliament (MP) in the 1950s and private secretary to Sir Anthony Eton. I always met him in his visits to Singapore where he advised top businessmen and PAP government on financial matters. In his capacity as director of James Cable, he greatly admired both LKY and his deputy, Goh Keng Swee. On one occasion when he was driving along McKenzie Road where he noticed a giant advertisement for a film, a Hollywood actress with gorgeous exposure of her cleavage and he said to Goh Keng Wee that was an unusual poster. Goh Keng Swee replied: “It won’t do.” The next day Peter was driving along McKenzie Road there was no advertisement of that actress anymore. I remembered he later told me if anything won’t do in Singapore it would immediately put right under LKY and Goh Keng Swee. The economist we met on the ship said he was employed by the British Government to work out the financial loss of Singapore on the withdrawal of troops prior to Singapore’s independence. LKY flew with grasp in hands to meet Harold Wilson, the former British Prime Minister, asking for his help in persuading at least give it six major British companies but one was certainly Glaxo which eventually produced the major part of Singapore’s pharmaceutical business. LKY produced the five of six recommendations of Harold Wilson to give of his trusted advisers from abroad, including Peter Tapsell. Peter endorsed them all except for one, Slater Walker. Unfortunately, LKY did not heed the advice of Peter and every time LKT saw Peter afterwards he would say: “You are the man whose advice I should have taken in the early days of Singapore’s re-development.”

My last decade at Fraser & Neave (F&N) and the government was as the leading representative of employers on the working of the National Wages Council (NWC). We met LKY on several occasions at the Istana if there was an impasse of agreements. Initially, KY expressed a resentment that the employers were not there in the names of Siemens and Glaxo but soften after a while. We were lucky in having Lim Chong Yah as our chairman of NWC Committee and brilliant economists from the government, such as Ngiam Tong Dow. On one occasion LKY suggested we all retired to a room to reach agreement and he would let us out until we had done so. An exercise in extremism which fortunately found the right conclusion in a short while.

Tripartism the combination of government, employers and employees was the hallmark of LKY’s economic policies. In 1970 all parties were summoned to the Istana and he let us know if his intention of scrubbing the existing colonial laws relating to trade disputes with a new version. I sat with a member of our lawyers, Allen & Gledhill, and Devan Nair as we drafted our version of what was required. Later LKY appeared with his documents with one who had certificate of honours (top student) at the Inns of Court of Law in London. About this time I was invited to the Conrad Hotel for the launch of LKY’s book on the founding of modern Singapore. I had a seat at the table near the podium. During his talk Reuters shouted out, “Anwar had been detained in Kuala Lumpur.” LKY was well aware on the rights of using the Internal Security Act (ISA). Under the ISA adopted by British gif Malaysian and Singapore, this former law was confined to the head of the police of various states in Malaysia and the Governor of Singapore. It would have been impossible for Churchill’s full power awarded to the Templer with his wide circle of territories. Fortunately, Anwar’s arrest was made under the head of police power in the country but not by Mahatir’s as it was strictly not s political move but a criminal offense. During the course of LKY’s speech, he referred to Denise Bloodworth of the Observer newspapers in London. When I rose to leave the event I was approached by Reuters and several other reporters who asked me: “Can I have a word with you, Mt Bloodworth,” and I felt honoured by their misjudgment.

Although my little title had been General Manager and Director of F&N, I was automatically the chief administration officer of Malayan Brewery (Tiger Beer and etc..). The association and partnership with Heineken dated in 1930 and after War had ended Mr. Heineken directed Younger (Lord) Feith to seek further expansion in Far East. He bought 35% share in the brewery in the Port Moresby and a brewery in Hasting, New Zealand. Both were areas that I spend a lot of time developing.

I would like to end with a quotation from a book of Papua New Guinea (PNG) presented by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, on my retirement. There were four lots of signature, each belonging to the prime minister of the time since independence of PNG until I left in 1994.

I once arranged for our advertising people to take a video of some workers hiking away on some rocks near the brewery in Port Moresby. The video that we shot from a small plane which would close in on the workers with the prospect of Anchor Beer for the billboard to remind them of LKY’s favourite tipple.

Mr. R. Middleton Smith – He was the Deputy President of the Municipal Council. He was a Tamil speaking cadet as I (J.D.H.Neill) was a Hokkien speaking cadet. Middleton resigned and pensioned off to become bursar of Cheltenham College. He came from the same college, Cheltenham College, as Neill.

Mr. Wee Kok Wan – He was the President of the Labour Union Federation. He was a tall healthy Chinese from Hainan Island whose father eventually became a minister in Lee Kuan Yew’s cabinet.

Mr. J.D.H.Neill – He was the Deputy Commissioner of Labour, Labour Department, Havelock Road, Colonial Government of Singapore

Mr. James T. Rea – He was a Cantonese speaking cadet from the Malayan Civil Service and later transferred to Kuala Lumpur headquarters of the labour department. He was a native of Ulster like Neill. He was related to Mr. Steven Rea, Northern Ireland, who played the part of the difficult soldier in the IRA. It was a reasonably successful film.

Mr. Lee Kok Chiang – He came from China in 1916 as a teacher in Chinese school and showed entrepreneurial skill and started OCBC (Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation). He was much older than Neill was and over time they developed a father and son relationship.

Mr. A.P. Rajah – He remained a friend of Neill throughout his life engaging politicians and he was also highly thought of by Lee Kuan Yew and was later made Singapore High Commissioner in London, UK. He was a friend of Mabel Wong and we often enjoyed Mabel’s food together.